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Footprints on the Sands of Time 5

sands_of_time_hourglass_sunset_abstract_hd-wallpaper-1718051None of us are immune from the intensifying pressures of a world that has little or no care for God. The idolatry, immorality and ignorance of God’s purpose that defile the world are the core dangers which Revelation warns against. Today, that which defiles souls is closer than ever. In our internet age, it’s often just a click away. In one of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an to be revealed, it says: O you enveloped in your mantle, arise and warnmagnify your Lord, purify your garment, and shun [all] defilement. [74:1-5] These “Footprints” are about how we as Muslims may best magnify God; to keep His holiness in our hearts and mould our lives around this holiness. It’s about how we, in this age of aggressive liberalism, can best be conscientious believers and responsible citizens while courageously, yet wisely, avoiding defilement. (Earlier “Footprints” may be read here, herehere and here).

On loyalty to la ilaha illa’Llah: In today’s world, behaviour inconsistent with the moral teachings of Islam, by those who claim to follow Islam, is a significant cause for Islam to be devalued and mocked.

On staying focused: The believer lives in this world; he doesn’t live for this world: And the Hereafter is better for those who are mindful of God. Have you no sense? [Qur’an 6:32]

On trying to nurture 20/20 vision: Religion is about learning to see. It’s about human vision – the heart’s vision – as it learns to see past surface appearances to witness the Real. For as the Qur’an puts it: It isn’t the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind. [22:46]

Addictions wreak marriages: Along with the obvious types of prospective husbands to avoid – those that are irreligious, immoral, arrogant, ill-tempered, miserly, immature, impatient, and lack compassion and understanding – one must also beware of those who are in the grip of serious addictions. Alcohol, drugs and pornography are obvious ones. But two subtler addictions should also be steered clear of: The first is a man’s addiction to his mother. In other words, a “mummy’s boy”. This must not be confused with our love, honour, duty, or kindness to our mothers. For there’s a huge difference between that and between sheepish subservience to them. A husband who allows his mother to rule the roost, permitting her to marginalise the role and rights of his wife, is failing to offer his wife the protective care she has a right to. The other addiction is to video games. An increasing number of marriages are now failing because of it. In short, addictions wreck marriages.

On science, religion and meaning:  It is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work; while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

On Ramadan’s reality: The whole purpose of fasting in Ramadan is to foster a state of detachment from the world, and from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our souls for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [2:183]

On bowing to the monoculture: One of the signs of the End Days, and whose onward trajectory has been underway for a century or so, is: the uncritical imitation of non-Muslim lifestyles and values. One hadith says: ‘The Hour will not be established until my ummah takes to what previous nations took to.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7319] In another: ‘You shall soon follow the ways of those who came before you, inch by inch, handspan by handspan, so much so that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you’d do likewise.’ They asked: O Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians? He replied: ‘Who else?’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7320; Muslim, no.2669]

Thus, as long as we keep deferring to the dominant monoculture and its ideals, things shall not bode well for this ummah of great mercies. Inculturation – i.e. one group or culture gradually acquiring the traits, values and norms of another culture – must be guided by the rulings and objectives of our fiqh teachings, as well as kept wise by the profound insights of our tasawwuf/tazkiyah tradition.

On lovers at love’s ocean: The conceited intellectual is always showing-off. The lover, through the shari’ah, is always getting lost. The self-absorbed intellectual is afraid of diving. The whole business of love is in the drowning.

On seeking to be present: Presence of heart with God (hudur al-qalb) isn’t only due in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One of the greatest paths to nurturing such presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God abundantly.”

On remembering our destination: Only fools wander, only the wise travel, and only a ship that knows where it’s heading benefits from favourable winds.

Please take some blame for the religious anarchy: The scourge of takfir is now a global epidemic. Indiscriminate violence, destruction of lives and property, decimation of public security and sectarian violence are its fruits. The image of Islam has never been so tarnished or been made to look so vile. Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary, religiously unqualified Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in matters of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined they could keep the door closed when it came to the more fragile, volatile matter of politics and public affairs – well that logic seems not to have faired so well. Those ‘ulema who opened the door now see droves of zealous and unqualified people rushing through it, giving wild and fallacious fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart what remains of Muslim unity – and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of such a collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.

On our God-given intelligence: What’s the point of the shari‘ah aiming to protect the intellet (‘aql) – the ability to reason, reflect, discern benefit from harm, and to reign in the soul from wrongdoing – if we aren’t going to adequately utilise it?

On obsession with conspiracy theories: Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true? Maybe. Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and subdue the masses? Possibly. Is God in full control of history and of human destiny? Absolutely! Yet many Muslims forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows.

On lowering the ceiling of learning: Those Muslims who think that they have enough religious learning and wish not to learn more, are not just unwise; they could even be outright fools.

On the modern Muslim challenge: Monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. It insists we heal and we dissent too. A paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles. Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, believers can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’

On the devil inspiring religiousness: A large number of Muslims involved in terrorism tend to lack even basic religious literacy. All too often their lack of religious learning is woefully infantile. Religion, it seems, plays a role less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage:

A bro who once lived with his mummy;
Wanted street cred more than some money.
“Shall I be a mufti,
Or takfiri jihadi?”
So he went and brought ‘Islam for a Dummy’.

On political order and disorder: Left to our egos or selfish impulses, man’s corrupted nature (fitrah) would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Hence, according to classical Muslim scholarship, we have the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy, and guarding public security – wary of any actors who seek to erode or to undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and the prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be specific, Islamic governance is committed to protect man’s five essential interests (al-dururiyyat al-khamsah); namely: faith, life, intellect, lineage and property. This, at least, is the theory.

On sifting the wheat from the chaff: ‘Ijazah (“authorisation” to teach) doesn’t always equate to having gained mastery in the particular subject of sacred learning. But it does represent an adab of learning and of heading in the right direction. It also helps to sift out DIY Islam from the real deal; the wheat from the chaff.

On the dumbing down of society: Here in the West, over the past four of five decades, much has been said and debated about the dumbing down of society. Dumbing down refers to the oversimplification of critical thought as well as the diminishment of the intellectual content in education, art, culture and politics. Even though we have more information at our disposal, we are seen to be far less capable of critical thinking than the generations of people before us. The argument is that media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and capitulating to turbo consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been socially engineered, so that “the powers that be” may keep the masses in check  – less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan engineering!

On a state worse than sin: Committing sin is undeniably wrong. But it’s when sins no longer strike a discordant note in the soul that one really needs to worry.

On the art of living beautifully: Adab is the art of being trained in decency. Such must be the hallmark of each believer.

Look! And Ye Shall See: On Science & Meaning

quantum_corral_niseOne may often hear Muslims say how it is understandable for someone to not believe in Islam, but not how one can disbelieve in God. For we have, the Qur’an states, all the evidence for God’s existence we need in our immediate experience, and that it is only a deliberate refusal to look that’s responsible for atheism of any shade or colour: We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, proclaims God in the Holy Qur’an [41:53].

Science prides itself at “looking”. For science is the attempt to understand our world through observation and reason. In other words, the scientific method works through the rational examination of evidences (which involves: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis or initial explanation from that data; performing experiments to test the hypothesis; working out a theory to account for the experimental results; then making predictions based on that theory; and finally testing out the theory by devising further experiments).

Science (Galileo) looked at Jupiter through a telescope and noticed moons orbiting it, thus revolutionising our understanding of the solar system.

Not long after, science (Newton) looked at how objects fell to the ground, giving us the theory of gravity.

Science (Faraday) looked at a magnetic field around a conductor carrying an electric current, offering electromagnetic induction.

Then science (Einstein) looked at the nature of light, gravity, space and time and gave us the time-bending theory of relativity.

At about the same time, science (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli, Dirac) looked at the wave-particle duality of light and shimmering truth of the sub-atomic world, bestowing upon us the mind-boggling, mystifying theory of quantum physics. The more science looked, the more we marvelled at its brilliance and authority.

Contrary to popular notions, modern science, rather than laying to rest belief in God once and for all, has actually invigorated it. The cheerful atheism which characterised much of the twentieth century (at least, as far as Western Europe was concerned), has given way to an aggressive atheism. For it was assumed that with the progress of science and the technological revolution it birthed, faith in cold reason, and in man being the measure of all things, would outgrow faith in God.

For a time, these augries of atheism seemed to be correct. Religion retreated; progress continued. The 19th century English Poet, Mathew Arnold, penned what’s possibly its most memorable imagery when he describes in his Dover Beach the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the retreating ‘Sea of Faith’. Yet as offensive as it was to atheists, by the end few decades of the last century, it was clear the Sea of Faith had returned: the religious tide was roaring back in (many contend that the tide hadn’t really ever gone out).

Although the factors for the persistence of religion are multi-faceted,1 as far as its link to science is concerned it may be whittled down to two reasons. The first is related to what modern science has revealed to us about the quantum or sub-atomic realm. The other has to do with the things science is silent about concerning the Big Questions.

The first. By the 1930s, science had established a new branch of knowledge: quantum physics. This was unlike anything that had preceded it – not even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. For the first time, scientists had encountered an area of the universe which our brains just aren’t wired to understand. Or as Brian Greene stated about quantum physics, ‘it undeniably shows that the universe is founded on principles that, from the standpoint of our day-to-day experience, are bizarre.’2

Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics, once remarked that anyone who is not stupified or boggled by quantum physics, hasn’t understood it.

So let’s have a stab at trying to be stupified:

In the quantum world, electrons in atoms jump orbit without travelling the space in between; light particle will pass through two slits simultaneously without actually splitting-up; photons, electrons and other elementary particles “know” when they are being observed or not, and then adjust their behaviour accordingly; pairs of particles fired in opposite directions at near light speed instantly know what the other is doing, even when separated by significant distances; and some elementary particles need to turn, not 360 degrees, but 720 degrees, so as to come “full circle.”

In the quantum world we learn that photons, electrons and other subatomic particles are not actually particles; yet neither are they waves. Instead, they behave as waves, or as particles, depending upon the circumstances. This wave-particle duality allows us to talk about wavelengths of light and light particles: yet they are neither and they are both. (In fact, experiments have been carried out which show that a single photon can behave as a wave and as a particle at the same time.)

In the quantum world, uncertainty (or indeterminacy) rules the roost. Here we may know the path an electron takes through space, or may know where it is at any given instance; but we cannot know both. To be clear, this is not a matter of needing better measuring instruments, it is a built-in feature of the quantum universe. In practice, this means that you can never pin-point where an electron is at any given moment in time. You can only point to the probability of its being there. Put slightly differently, until it is observed, an electron can be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere!3

In what way does this help the religious discourse? Well, Gai Eaton once quipped after listing some of these counter-intuitive, weird quantum oddities: ‘After this, no one has any excuse for obscurities or improbabilities in the higher reaches of theology and metaphysics.’4

In other words, the paradoxes we encounter in Islam’s monotheistic theology – God is transcendent beyond the confines of creation, yet immanent in it; God is omniscient, omnipotent and all good, yet there exists the presence of evil in the world; that human destinies have been pre-decreed, yet we still have free-will and can still choose what to do or not to do; or that being God’s servants demands passive acceptance, while being His vicegerents (khalifahs) requires actively working for social justice and also battling tyranny – should not be that surprising. For if the quantum world defies being pinned down by human language and rationalising, but instead leaves gaps unfilled, mysteries unexplained, and minds perplexed, then moreso the paradoxes related to God and the nature of divinity.

This is not to say Muslim theologians have shyed away from seeking to resolve these paradoxes or to explain them through reasoned arguments. They have been relentless in this task.5 And yet, as fruitful and exacting as the labour has been, our theologians acknowledge that, at bottom line, these are only glimpses into the true nature of God. La tablughuhu’l-awham wa la tudrikuhu’l-afham – ‘Imaginations cannot conceive Him, nor can comprehensions understand Him’ – is what Muslim orthodoxy holds.6 As for the role of reason in religion, I hope to discuss it in a future posting, God-willing.

If science is bugged by quantum quirkiness, it faces other nagging concerns too – in particular, about the bigger picture; the deeper questions. Human consciousness, for example, and what gives rise to it? Why there exists what some term, “the moral law:” an intuitive knowledge about the basic rules of right and wrong shared by all people (our voice of conscience, so to speak)? And then there is the grandest conundrum of them all. Life on Earth aside, how did the universe come into existence, and so finely-tuned in a form hospitable to life?

The fact that these issues cannot, by definition, be tackled by science (for it basis itself on emperical observation, and does not speculate about realities beyond the physical, observable, measurable cosmos), is a significant cause for more and more people, who once erringly put their faith in science to answer the big issues, to recognise its limits. Instead, people are increasingly turning to religion to engage with questions which lie beyond the scope of the scientific method – such as God’s existence, the meaning of life, and why the universe is here; why is there something rather than nothing? For it is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work, while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

1. For an exploration into the reasons behind Religion’s resiliance to secularisation, cf. Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005); Wooldridge & Micklethwait, God is Back (London: Penguin, 2010); McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011).

2. The Elegant Universe (Great Britain: Vintage, 2000), 108.

3. A delightful, lively, non-specialist account of the birth, development and weirdness of quantum physics is given in J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Great Britain: Corgi Books, 1988).

4. King of the Castle (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 147.

5. One can see the Muslim theological project at work, with all its attendant theatre, in Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Muslim Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

6. See: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.8.

The Qur’an & Science: Match Made in Heaven?

blue-binary-code-jigsaw-puzzleMuslims are quick to point out that the Qur’an is remarkably free of the scientific inaccuracies found in other religious texts. Many go one step further and point out how astonishingly in tune the Qur’an actually is with modern science. And while it is true that some believers have thrown caution to the wind in their zeal to wed Muslim scripture to the scientific cause, there is cogent reason to believe that signficant passages in the Qur’an are in fact addressing the scientific mind in modern man. Seeking to be as dispassionate as possible, let me illustrate the point with a few such verses:

(1) The Qur’an is silent about the age of the Earth and, for that matter, when life first appeared on it; although it does say: And We made from water every living creature. Will they not believe? [21:30] Is this a reference to the primordial soup in the Earth’s early waters, perhaps? Or to the evidence which suggests that life first emerged onto dry land some four-hundred million years ago, from sea-creatures and other aquatic life forms?

(2) Another intriguing verse declares: We built the heaven with might and it is We who are expanding it. [51:47] This does seem like a highly probable pointer to cosmology’s modern belief that galaxies are flying apart from each other as the universe expands.

(3) The fact that galaxies are flying apart from each other, say cosmologists, there must have been a time when galaxies were closer together; and a time earlier still when all the galaxies and material in the universe was crunched-up together into an incredibly small space. This infinitely-compact universe, for some reason, suddenly expanded, in an event cosmologists call “The Big-Bang”. Interestingly, the Qur’an insists: Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were at first joined, then We split them apart. [21:30]

(4) The final example is the vivid Quranic account of how a human embryo forms in its mother’s womb: We created man from a product of clay. Then We placed him as a drop in a safe lodging. Then We fashioned the drop into a clot of blood that clings, then We made the clinging clot into a chewed-like lump, then We turned the lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best of Creators! [23:12-14]

What is significant here, as in the previous three examples, is that at the time of their revelation these Quranic assertions ran completely counter to the science of the day. In fact, science was only able to uncover the truth of these claims within only the last century or so!

One must not be tempted by these verses into thinking that the Qur’an is a text-book on science or a catalogue of scientific facts. These verses are primarily asserting the i‘jaz, the “miraculous” and “inimitable” nature of the Qur’an, thereby demonstrating it truly is the Word of God. Turner, I think, captured the essence of the matter when he wrote:

‘The Koran describes God, the principles of belief and the fate of man in the world to come, but it is no work on theology; it contains accounts of past prophets and faith communities of old, but it is no history book; it contains invocations and words of inspiration; but it is no book of prayer.

Legal issues are discussed in it, but it is no book of law; it tells us how the Creator fashions the cosmos and makes the world turn, but it is no treatise on cosmology; it describes the alternation of day and night, and the development of the foetus in the womb, but it is no compendium of natural science.

It examines the heart and mind of man, and the existential dilemma of being human but longing for the divine, yet it is no work on popular psychology.

It is all of those things and it is none of those things: more than any other book can it truly be said of the enigmatic Koran that it is far more than simply the sum of its com- ponent parts.’1

1. Collin Turner, Islam: the Basics (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 41.

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