Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

This book is a withering criticism of the class of society that Thomas Sowell calls the “intellectuals” (journalists and columnists, public intellectuals, writers, sociologists).

Sowell’s thesis is that intellectuals try to persuade the public to support policies that may do greater harm than good while enjoying complete immunity from the bad consequences of their recommendations. For example in the 1920’s and 1930’s intellectuals widely called for disarmament, making it very difficult for British politicians to order the military to arm itself in response to Nazi Germany’s growing military power. The intellectuals in charge of Britain’s media had created an atmosphere where politicians would have risked their jobs if they had done what they know to be right, since the public had been indoctrinated by the intellectuals to fight rearmament. In this way the intellectuals were responsible for making Britain almost lose World War II to Germany, and yet no intellectual faced any consequences for recommending such a self-defeating policy.

Thomas Sowell is an economist and in this role considers the intellectuals pests in issues of economic policy. They recommend vast changes in economic policy without having the competence to understand the consequences, and without suffering any repercussions when their policy recommendations do great harm to major sections of society.

Intellectuals throughout the 20th century have called for gun control laws, thinking that this would make society safer. They ignore the fact that Switzerland, where gun ownership is extremely high, suffers far less crime than the United States. And when intellectuals in Britain managed to pass strong control laws, this actually lead to a vast increase in crime. Intellectuals also strongly supported weaker punishments of criminals in Britain, which according to Sowell is partly responsible for Britain’s crime crisis. And when conservatives in the United States managed to create strong anti-crime policies in the 1990’s, which lead to a sharp decline in crime, the intellectuals only expressed bewilderment at this “unexplainable” phenomenon when to Sowell the explanation is extremely obvious: keeping more criminals in prison means fewer criminals out there committing crime.

This book should be required reading for all Muslim intellectuals living in the West. It is a great help in creating a critical attitude toward nice-sounding popular doctrines promoted by Western intellectuals.

Sowell belongs to the neoconservative Hoover Institution. He shares the anti-Muslim bias of neoconservatives; almost all mentions of Muslims in his books are negative (while having worked extremely hard to defend the image and rights of Jews while always ignoring the possibility that Jewish behavior may have had something to do with anti-Semitism). In this book he does not disappoint:

The intelligentsia in some European nations have gone further—being apologetic to Muslims at home and abroad, and having acquiesced in the setting up of de facto Muslim enclaves with their own rules and standards within Europe, as well as overlooking their violations of the national laws in the European countries in which Muslim immigrants have settled.

The Hoover Institution is active in promoting the image of Muslims as the West’s new Jews as the Jews were seen in the past: separate, alien, unpatriotic, living in enclaves, and having large numbers of anti-Western radicals among them.

However, Sowell’s anti-Muslim bias should be no obstacle to Muslims to benefit from his expertise and his very important work in promoting a more rational intellectual atmosphere and in defending Western civilization from, ironically, largely Jewish attempts to undermine its pride and patriotism. Jews are heavily over-represented among the intellectuals he criticizes in this book; he comes back again and again to the Jewish Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who spent his career working to weaken the US Constitution in order to make room for his own elitist agenda. Brandeis was followed in prominence by the Jewish legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, who continued the project of justifying twisting the Constitution and the law in order to make judges and legal scholars the elite who decide what the law should be for the masses. Sowell also reserves much criticism for heavily-Jewish (and extremely elitist) media outlets like The New York Times. He also often criticizes fields of academia heavily influenced by Jewish activists, such as sociology, which was permanently biased against the West in the aftermath of the works of Freud, Franz Boas and the key members of the Frankfurt School, all of whom were Jewish with strong Jewish identities and obvious anti-Western agendas.

Arabic Grammar in Context by Mohammad T. Alhawary

Arabic Grammar in Context (2016) by professor Mohammad T. Alhawary is an enjoyable and beneficial resource for learners of Arabic. It features excerpts from actual Arabic books and articles and uses them to illustrate grammatical points.

The book is not for complete beginners and should be used either after studying a basic grammar book or alongside one.

As is typical for books published by academic publishers, it is somewhat overpriced at over $40 on Amazon.

An Islamic Examination of Homosexuality as an Identity

Our society trains us to think in a certain way (“If you disagree with me, then you’re hateful!”) and imposes limiters on our minds as we quote back popular talking points (“Love is love!”) without always examining them first or showing a willingness to consider different arguments. So I’m writing today, not as some moral authority, because I’m likely guilty of the same biases, but simply in an effort to share another argument, one that examines the queer identity on an interpersonal rather than societal level, in hopes that the following ideas might help people entrenched in Western culture think about the Islamic stance on homosexuality.

Throughout human history up until rather recently, homosexuality was considered an act, not an identity. Its recent reframing is a social construct based in Western society. That doesn’t make the identity “not real,” but it does make it not as rigidly inherent as people often talk about it being, which has certain philosophical implications (but that’s for another essay). There are even proponents of queer theory who argue that since sexuality is a spectrum on which people can fluidly shift, sexuality as an identity label therefore might not be the most useful way to conceptualize the subject.

Turning specifically to the Islamic conceptualization, it’s no surprise that homosexuality is inharmonious with Islam; Islam is a way of life in which one strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the physical. To define one’s very identity by one’s sexual attractions tips that balance sharply to the physical. Though such identities have become normalized in Western culture, think about the implications of believing that the most crucial, defining bit of information you have to share about yourself is what you’re into, what “gets you off.” Why does anyone other than one’s partner (let alone all of society) need to know such an intimate detail about a person anyway? Defining oneself based on one’s most animal-like moments is reductive to one’s capacity as a human. For this reason, even “straight” as an identity label is not Islamically sanctioned; we are all just humans.

A life so heavily focused on worldly pleasures is a life that seeks to hold value only in this super temporary world. One might argue back, “It’s not about pleasures, but love.” But the homosexual identity starts from a place of ruling out the possibility of all physical relationships other than same-sex ones, before ties are even established with a specific person. Setting the parameters for love based on lust invalidates such counterarguments.

One final thought, having said all this: it is the act that is not allowed in Islam, not the people who are seen as inherently different and therefore rejected. In fact, they are not inherently different at all, and that’s the point. But so long as they continue to identify as such, it’s also important to note that Islam teaches Muslims to always treat others with respect, even if their way of life differs greatly from the Islamic one. In one Quranic passage describing the tale of Prophet Lot, whose people were engaging in homosexual acts, he notably said to them not “I hate you,” but “I hate what you do.” Though this subject is complex and understandably touchy, I hope folks have found these ideas not offensive, but helpful. We are all trying our best to come to the truth and live in the best way. Jazakum Allah khair.

Arabic: An Essential Grammar by Faruk Abu-Chacra

Arabic: An Essential Grammar by Faruk Abu-Chacra (2018) is a fair guide for beginners to Arabic grammar, although it is extremely overpriced ($48 USD on Amazon right now) for the value that it offers.

Learners wishing to master Arabic grammar should content themselves with the fact that they should read at least half a dozen Arabic grammar books before they can gain a reasonable handle on the highly intricate and confusing system that is Arabic grammar. This book would be a reasonable choice among others.

The book suffers from many errors in its Arabic orthography. It also suffers from the fact that lines that contain Arabic mixed with English have a much wider line-spacing compared to lines that contain only English, giving the text a very uneven look. Below is an example taken from the book preview on Google Books:

Another issue is that the section hints on the right (the text in the gray box shown above) seem to be entirely misplaced and have no relationship with the actual text.

The book, like many other grammar books, also suffers from using an unsatisfactory transliteration system. I wish all English books dealing with Arabic would start using the Brill system.

Additionally, on page 265 an Arabic phrase is erroneously said to be in the Quran:

The phrase la-ʿaḍīm actually never occurs in the Quran.

Science in the Islamic world grew at the fastest rate in 2018

The Scimago Journal & Country Rank numbers for 2018 are in and they show tremendous growth among some of the the 11 top scientific publishers among the Muslim-majority countries. The number of new scientific papers published in 2018 was 44,616, which is almost twice the highest growth recorded over the past 22 years.

Iran continues to be the top scientific publisher in the Islamic world, followed by Turkey and Indonesia. The numbers do not include the scientific output of India’s 200 million Muslims.

The greatest growth came from Indonesia, which went from 18683 papers in 2017 to 31708 papers in 2018 (an increase of 13025 papers). The second highest growth came from Egypt (+5016 papers), and the third highest from Iraq (+4087).

The Islamic world is now publishing more science than either Germany, France or the United Kingdom. If the rate of growth over the past 10 years is maintained, the Islamic world will surpass the United States by 2036 assuming there is no significant growth among these Western countries (which is a reasonable assumption).

Of course, the quality of the papers published by Muslim countries is not as high as those published in more advanced countries, but that too should be expected to improve over time.

Source for the data: The Scimago Journal & Country Rank

Shah Waliullah on the Art of Being Knowledgeable

The religion of Islam, perhaps more than any other religion, is characterized by its emphasis on scholarship (daneshmandī دانش مندی  in Farsi/Urdu), on the acquiring of knowledge (ʿilm) and wisdom (ḥikma), and on the sharing of knowledge through education (Rosenthal, 2007).

The responsibility of the education (taʿlīm) of mankind is taken up by Allah [swt] Himself. Allah [swt] says, “Al-raḥmān—He taught the Quran—He created man—He taught him speech.” (The Quran, verses 55:1-4). To educate mankind with the true knowledge and to guide them to the straight path, Allah [swt] has sent messengers (anbiyāʾ), pious men (awliyāʾ), scholars (ʿulamāʾ), researchers (mujtahidīn), and teachers (muʿallimīn) to mankind, to which Allah [swt] refers as an immense bounty from Him. Allah [swt] says, “… and He has taught you what you did not know—and the bounty of Allah upon you is immense.” (The Quran, verse 4:113).

In this article, we will leverage insights from the profound Islamic scholar of India, Qutubuddin Ahmad bin Abdur Rahim, popularly known as Shah Waliullah Dehlawi on the scholastic arts of learning and education (Fann-e Danishmandī فن دانش مندی).

Shah Waliullah was born in the 18th century, and he is believed, largely due to his erudite scholarship and service in safeguarding the Islamic faith, to be the Mujaddid (Renewer) and Mujtahid (Researcher-Jurist) of his century. Shah Waliullah produced more than 50 books on various subjects, including the Quran, Hadith, fiqh (jurisprudence), taawwuf (mysticism) and Asrār-e Dīn (“Secrets of the Faith”). Among his many services are the translation of the Holy Quran in Persian, the language of the populace. The magnum opus of Shah Waliullah, Hujjat Allāh al-bāligha (The conclusive argument from God), is an encyclopedic work that deals with intellectual investigations into the underlying wisdom behind the injunctions of religion and covers diverse topics, including ethics, politics, and human development. Due to the profundity of his contributions and his substantial intellectual stature, Shah Waliullah has been referred to as the Ghazālī and Ibn Taymiyya of his generation.

The Art of Scholarship (Fann-e Daneshmandī)

In this post, we will review the insights shared by Shah Waliullah in his book Risāla-ye daneshmandī (رسالہ دانش مندی, The epistle of scholarship), which provides insights into a rigorous methodology for education and learning. Risāla-ye daneshmandī is a valuable tract for everyone involved in the field of learning, education, and knowledge, and provides precious guidelines on how to learn and teach and acquire wisdom and knowledge. This book was authored by Shah Waliullah in Persian and was transcribed into Arabic and completed with a commentary by his illustrious son Shah Rafiuddin in the book Takmīl Al-azhān (تكميل الاذهان, The perfecting of minds).

To understand the meaning of the title Risāla-ye daneshmandī, let’s tolerate an etymological digression. The word daneshtan in Persian means “knowing”, while the word mand when used with daneshman means “one with knowledge”. The author, while explaining the word daneshmandī describes that it refers to ketāb dānī. This roughly translates into “mastery of books“, with the word ketāb referring to books and the word dān referring to being a holder or container.

According to the author, there are three levels of daneshmandī or mastery of knowledge:

1) Muṭālaʿa of books: one has read the book and has understood the meaning through realization (taḥqīq);

2) Tadrīs of books: one becomes a teacher and communicates the reality of the books further to students;

3) Tashrīḥ of books: one writes a commentary and excels in manifesting the reality of the book.

The author goes on to describe the benefits of acquiring daneshmandī. The first being that the student learns the art of reading a book (muṭālaʿa) and in most conditions the student’s understanding will approach the real intent of the author. The second being that the student will be able to learn the general skills that are necessary for mastering books. Since students are not taught this science, they are often averse to reading subtle books—whose meaning appears disintegrated (muntashir) to them at first glance.

The author stresses that Fann-e Daneshmandī (The Art of Scholarship) is general and applies to the rational (maʿqulāt) as well as traditional or textually transmitted (manqulāt) sciences and to demonstrative (burhānī) sciences as well as abstract (khiṭābī) sciences.

The Five Types of Knowledge Comprised by Fann-e Daneshmandī

According to Shah Waliullah and Shah Rafiuddin, the art of education and learning comprises five types of knowledge: (1) ʿIlm-e munāẓara (dialectics); (2) ʿIlm-e taʿlīm wa tadrīs (education and teaching); (3) ʿIlm-e talammuz (pupilship); (4) ʿIlm-e taṣnīf (writing/compiling); and (5) ʿIlm-e muṭālaʿa (reading).

1- Knowledge of The Principles of Debate/Dialectics (ʿIlm-e uṣūl-e munāẓara): When a person wants to benefit a non-believer through his knowledge, this is known in Fann-e Daneshmandī as ʿIlm-e munāẓara. This is relevant when we wish to educate a person who questions the basis of our thoughts and beliefs. Using ‘ʿIlm-e munāẓara one can perform the attainment of knowledge (istifāda) as well as the dissemination of knowledge (ifāda). This knowledge helps in debates, generally used in ʿIlm-e kalām (dialectical theology), or for bringing someone who does not have sound beliefs and ideologies to the straight path by the aid of Allah [swt].

2) Knowledge of The Principles of Education and Teaching (Ilm-e uūl-e taʿlīm wa tadrīs): When knowledge is given to someone who is obedient and willing to learn, then this is known as tadrīs (or education). To quench the thirst of the students, the prerequisite is that the teacher must intend to give benefit to the student with sincerity and Godliness (li-llāhiyat) and must remove all the things that impede the student’s learning.

3) Knowledge of The Principles of Pupilship (‘ʿIlm-e uṣūl-e talammuz): When the intention is to benefit a student who also wants to learn, then this knowledge is imparted orally face to face. With this art, the student can quench their scholarly thirst by acquiring knowledge from their teachers but with the condition that they should intend to acquire knowledge and be ready to remove all hurdles that may impede in this (otherwise the mind due to its various preoccupations will not be able to fully acquire or discharge the benefit).

4) Knowledge of The Principles of Writing (ʿIlm-e uṣūl-e taṣnīf): When someone wants to benefit the common folk, then this may be done through writing (taḥrīr) and compiling (tanīf) books.  A student who has acquired basic knowledge but wants to expand the breadth of his knowledge and to communicate his thoughts to others should learn a lively way of writing that is able to arouse interest in the reader. (In recent terminology, this may be called the principles of journalism [ṣiḥāfa]).

5) Knowledge of The Principles of Reading and Research (ʿIlm-e uṣūl-e muṭālaʿa wa-taḥqīq): When someone wants to benefit from his/her knowledge and benefit from others’ experiences, this is known as ʿIlm-e muṭālaʿa (reading).  If a person, after acquiring knowledge, wants further knowledge or wants to specialize in an area, then ʿIlm-e uṣūl-e muṭālaʿa wa-taḥqīq of Fann-e Daneshmandī are relevant.  This skill can help in the continuous improvement of one’s knowledge. This knowledge has a right on every scholar and the one who does not satisfy this right is deficient and is likely to even lose the acquired knowledge. Every scholar thus should develop a habit of reading and research.

Insights on Taʿlīm and Tadrīs for Teachers from Fann-e Daneshmandī

The book Risāla-ye daneshmandī is rich in insights for educators. The author explains that if a scholar wishes to teach a book to students in a scholarly and rigorous manner, then he must necessary keep in mind the following fifteen matters.

(1) Controlling the difficult (ḍabṭ-e mushkil): The identification of difficult words in the textual excerpt (ʿibāra). This involves clarifications on grammar and orthography.

(2) Explaining the strange (gharīb): The explanation of unknown or infrequently used unfamiliar words and phrases and the clarification of their linguistic and technical meanings.

(3) Opening up the locked (mughlaq) text: The teacher must expound on the “locked” places (mughlaq) in the text. For example, the teacher must resolve the confusion that may arise if the excerpt (ʿibāra) contains a difficult phrasing (tarkīb) or an unfamiliar grammatical tense (ṣīgha).

(4) Giving examples (mithāl) and representations (taṣwīr):  The teacher must clarify the issue under discussion through examples (mithāl) or by presenting various subsumed cases. For example, if the book states an abstract principle, the teacher must make it concrete by providing clarifying examples.

(5) Bringing evidence near (taqrīb al-dalāʾil): The teacher must bring the evidence closer to the student’s mind (taqrīb al-dalāʾil). For example, if the book establishes evidence for a position, the teacher must make explicit any hidden premises (makhfī muqaddamāt) and try to uncover the basic axioms upon which the evidence is based.

(6) Clear definitions (taʿrīfāt): The teacher should explain the qualifications involved in definitions. The definitions chosen should be comprehensive (jāmiʿ) of all subsumed ideas and exclusive (māniʿ) so that they may exclude other distinctive forms. The ideas should be enunciated by comparing and contrasting and by suitable conditional qualifications and extensions where appropriate (sharṭ wa-basṭ).  Furthermore, these definitions should not contain any redundancies to ensure that the matter is not clouded in the students’ minds.

(7) Identification of general principles (qawāʿid kulliya): The teacher should clearly explain the general underlying principles (qawāʿid kulliya) so that students may be able to grasp the limits of the definitions, the categories, and the involved examples. These principles should be comprehensive (jāmiʿ) and exclusive (māniʿ) and should not contain redundancies.

(8) Rationale of restrictions (ḥaṣr): The teacher should explain the rationale of categorizations and explain if it is based on inductive arguments (generalizing from specific instances) or on rational or logical arguments. The scholar should also explain the reason for the sequencing of principles (qawāʿid) and chapters/divisions (fuṣūl) in the book and explain if there is a reason for their advancement (taqdīm) and postponement (taʾkhīr).

(9) Differentiation (tafrīq) of similar (mutashābih) concepts: The teacher should clearly differentiate between similar-looking but distinct things (i.e. he must perform tafrīq). For example, if two opinions are prima facie similar but different in reality, the scholar should illuminate this matter by clearly highlighting the differences so that there is no confusion.

(10) Reconciling (taṭbīq) between differing (mukhtalif) concepts: The teacher should be able to perform reconciliation (taṭbīq) between two matters that are apparently but not in reality contradicting—e.g., these two matters may be particular manifestations of the same underlying principle but in different situations. If there is an apparent conflict between two places in the text written by the author, the teacher should resolve this discordance. 

(11) Removal (izāla) of potential objections (iʿtirāḍāt): The teacher should correct the potential confusions that may likely occur. The teacher should anticipate what problems the students may face and work on mitigating these possible confusions. This point is in fact the completion (takmila) of point (1).

(12) Clarification of references and differences (fī-hi naḍar): The teacher should discuss the relevance and importance of references where a reference is cited. Where the author has stated fī-hi naḍar (noted a dispute in the stated matter), the teacher should explain what the author means. If a passage is the response to an unstated question (suʾāl muqaddar), the author should clarify and highlight this.

(13) Translation (tarjama) into the language of the students: If the student’s language is not the same as that the book is written in, the teacher should translate the text into the language of the students.

(14) Reviewing (tanqīḥ) of different opinions and identification (taʿyīn) of the best opinion: When different instructions are provided/reviewed, the correct interpretation should be identified. That is, if at any place in the book there is a difference of opinion that brings a point in dispute, the teacher should review the various opinions and describe the most correct opinion. This method should also be used when resolving the potential differences of opinion on the correct interpretation of difficult words and phrases.

(15) Making the lecture easy (sahl):  Lastly, the speech of the teacher must be easy to understand and the teacher must clearly and concisely explain the text in a way that is easily understandable for the students. The teacher should use brevity (ījāz and ikhtiṣār) without mixing in superfluous concepts or words for the ease of students’ understanding.

When the teacher follows the 15 instructions articulated, then that teacher will become perfect (kāmil) in lecturing and giving lessons (dars-w tadrīs) and in the explanation and elucidation (sharḥ-w tafsīr) of the book. 

In another place, the author recommends that the teacher should start the process of teaching a book by first summarizing the subject matter with conciseness (ijmāl). Secondly, during explanation, the teacher can explain the intent of the author at various places. Thirdly, the teacher should tell the students that they should keep these matters before themselves during the study of a book. Fourthly, the teacher should compare the reading of the students against his own reading and correct the student where needed so that the student does not repeat the mistake in the future. Fifthly, the teacher should ask the student to write a commentary to explain the book so that the capability of the student may be tested.


The book Risāla-ye daneshmandī offers timeless insights into the art of scholarship and mastering knowledge that is as relevant today as it was almost three centuries ago when it was penned down by one of the Islamic scholarly giants, Shah Waliullah Muhaddith Dehlawi. This is a must read for serious students of the Islamic tradition who are involved in the business of learning, teaching, and research. In particular, the book provides specific guidelines for educators which we have reproduced in this post. For further information, the interested readers can read the book in its entirety (translated in Urdu) at


Rosenthal, Franz. Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period by Tarif Khalidi

Get it on Amazon

This 1994 book is one of the most enjoyable Islamic studies books I have read, providing a survey of the development of the Islamic intellectual tradition. It covers the development of Hadith, sira (Prophetic biography), Adab (the Islamic literary arts) and Islamic historical writing.

It is a good book for beginners as all technical terms are gently introduced and explained. One issue the book suffers from is the rudimentary transliteration system it uses, but this is not surprising for a book published in the 1990’s.

Tarif Khalidi, born 24 January 1938, in Jerusalem, is a Palestinian historian who is now a professor at the American University of Beirut.

Restoring the original interpretation of Surat Quraysh (Quran 106)

A review of Uri Rubin “Quraysh and their winter and summer journey: On the interpretation of Sura 106.”1

Surat Quraysh is often translated as follows in English:

  1. For the security of Quraysh.
  2. Their security during winter and summer journeys.
  3. Let them worship the Lord of this House.
  4. Who has fed them against hunger, and has secured them against fear.

This translation (and the Arabic interpretations it is inspired by) have always seemed unsatisfactory to me; the message seems too weak to me for a Meccan sura.

The sura starts in a strange way: li-ilāfi quraysh (“for the security of Quraysh”). The starting li can be interpreted as means “for”, as in the above translation. But many exegetes considered it a lām al-taʿajjub, meaning that it is used to express wonder, or even reservation. Thus the meaning could be “Wonder you at the security of Quraysh!”, or “Woe to the security of Quraysh!”.

The word ilāf also means “habituation”, “preoccupation”, besides “security” and “safety”. Thus the meaning could be “Wonder you at the preoccupation of Quraysh!”. And this is the interpretation proposed by Uri Rubin. Thus the original meaning of the sura may be as follows:

  1. Woe to the preoccupation of Quraysh! / Wonder you at the preoccupation of Quraysh!
  2. Their preoccupation with the winter and summer journeys.
  3. Let them worship the Lord of this House.
  4. Who has fed them against hunger, and has secured them against fear.

To me, now the sura’s message has the expected strength; the sura is an attack on Quraysh’s preoccupation with trade and a call for them to get busy with the task God has chosen for them: to be caretakers of His sanctuary. Of course, we have no guarantee that this is the correct interpretation, but it seems likely.

Rubin argues that the Quranic view is Quraysh is wrongful to be preoccupied with trade. By endowing Quraysh with a ḥaram (sanctuary) to which pilgrims carry provisions from all over Arabia, Quraysh has no need for trade since God has already answered the prayer of Abraham [as] (mentioned elsewhere in the Quran) to provide the sanctuary with food and goods. God is saying that Quraysh should be busy taking care of the sanctuary and its pilgrims rather than leaving it to seek worldly profits.

Since this original interpretation placed Quraysh in a very negative light, later Muslims sought other interpretations that preserved the good image of Quraysh. Thus the sura was interpreted as saying that God was recounting His favor upon Quraysh by enabling them to securely and easily engage in their trade journeys.

Uri Rubin argues that the Sura started out as an admonishment against Quraysh that was later reinterpreted to preserve a good image of the tribe.

Al-Jahiz’s approach to knowledge and culture

Al-Jahiz (d. 868 CE) had an interesting approach to foreign cultures that I believe should be the modern Muslim’s approach as well (despite disagreeing with him on theology):

Jahiz was to advance the theory and practice of Adab1 by employing it as a system for the study of nature and society, a system that eschews narrow specialization in favour of a discursive, multi-faceted approach, willing to investigate all natural and social phenomena in a tolerant and sceptical spirit. Jahizian Adab is an Adab which believes in the infinitely didactic possibilities of nature, in man's need to investigate this world of reason and harmony which God has placed at his disposal and for his instruction, a world where even the 'wing of a mosquito' is enough for a lifetime of research. For Jahiz, Islam is, intellectually, a beginning and not an end. He believed that Islam had inherited world civilizations and that its true task was to carry through this legacy, to advance it by claiming as its own all the best that had ever been thought or accomplished. Just as Islam was the final and complete religious message, so its culture was to be heir to all earlier cultures. Accordingly, neither the veneration of antiquity or foreign cultures nor a conservative refusal to tolerate foreignness was acceptable but an open-mindedness which sought wisdom in all its manifestations, and whatever its sources.

Tariq Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (1994)

Does God really laugh? A study of the hadiths on God’s laughter

A review of Livnat Holtzman’s article “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.”1

There are a few hadith narrations that mention the laughter of God, which is something not mentioned in the Quran. One of the best-known hadiths mentioning God’s laughter is the following from Abū Hurayra:

So Allah will bring him near to the gate of Paradise, and when he sees what is in it, he will remain silent as long as Allah will, and then he will say, 'O Lord! Let me enter Paradise.' Allah will say, 'Didn't you promise that you would not ask Me for anything other than that? Woe to you, O son of Adam ! How treacherous you are!' On that, the man will say, 'O Lord! Do not make me the most wretched of Your creation,' and will keep on invoking Allah till Allah will laugh and when Allah will laugh because of him, then He will allow him to enter Paradise, and when he will enter Paradise, he will be addressed, 'Wish from so-and-so.' He will wish till all his wishes will be fulfilled, then Allah will say, All this (i.e. what you have wished for) and as much again therewith are for you.' " Abu Huraira added: That man will be the last of the people of Paradise to enter (Paradise).

Sahih al-Bukhari 6573

As part of my review of Livnat Holtzman’s article, I decided to do a quick survey of the major hadith collections (including the Musnad) for hadiths that mention the word yaḍḥaku (“he laughs”), I then gathered all of the hadiths that use this word in reference to God. Below is the result:

According to my probabilistic hadith verification methodology, here are the reliability indicators of the hadiths:

  • Abū Hurayra 22.7%
  • Abū Hurayra 26.5%
  • Jābir b. ʿAbdallāh 10.88%
  • Abū Razīn 5.85%
  • Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī 1.94%
  • Nuʿaym b. Hammār 4.66%

The strongest hadith is the second one at 26.5% which falls between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ in my methodology (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%).

We can then do a final step to combine all of these probabilities. Since we are combining different hadiths, each probability is first halved.


= 0.50236594

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.2% that the crux of their meaning is authentic, which is much higher than the 30% necessary for ṣaḥīḥ. So the conclusion is that the support for God’s laughter is quite strong in the hadith literature. Note that this is only a partial survey, a complete survey will likely enhance this probability upwards of 60%.

Interpreting God’s laughter

The Ashʿarite theologians considered it problematic to attribute laughter to God, so they reinterpreted God’s laughter as a reference to His mercy. The traditionalists (the major group of them being the Ḥanbalites), however, considered reinterpretation unacceptable, so they taught that God’s laughter should be interpreted literally even if we do not exactly understand its nature.

Below is a statement of creed (ʿaqīda) attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE, after whom the Ḥanbalī school is named) and mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his Hādī al-arwāḥ (The guide of souls):

We believe that God sits on His throne. However, He is not confined to limitations of space. We believe that God sees and hears and talks and laughs and is joyful.

The hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (d. 1149 CE), when asked about God’s laughter, said that it is hypocrisy and apostasy to attempt to interpret it.

The Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) criticized members of his own school for believing that God laughs until His molar “teeth” can be seen (as is narrated in a weak narration). He says that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Quran and Hadith (such as God having “hands” or laughing) were only intended to help new converts to Islam connect with God. Had God been described to them theologically as not being a body, not being in any place, having no dimension, and not moving, the new converts would have become perplexed and unable to relate to Him.

So Ibn al-Jawzī takes a path similar to the Ashʿarites in interpreting God’s laughter metaphorically, as referring to His mercy and grace.

Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of God’s laughter

The most interesting contribution of Holtzmann’s article is her discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on the issue. Whenever we see Ibn Taymiyya apply his vast intellect to a question, we can be sure to hear something original and interesting.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, it is wrong to consider laughter an imperfection in God as the theologians do. A person who laughs is more perfect than a person who cries. And a person who is capable of both love and hatred is more perfect than a person who is only capable of love. Part of perfection is to have the ability to respond to each situation in the most appropriate way possible.

Here he uses the same technique that he used to overturn Islamic theological orthodoxy and show that a God who acts in time is superior to a God who does not (see my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya). As Jon Hoover shows in his Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Ibn Taymiyya is dedicated to a juristic agenda whose first principle is to always seek to find ways to think of and describe God in the most perfect way possible.

So according to Ibn Taymiyya, while we should not attempt to exactly understand God’s laughter, we should also avoid the theological mistake of thinking that something that is imperfect in humans is imperfect when applied to God. Laughter can be a perfection for God. It is just one of the numerous ways in which His perfection becomes manifest to humans.

The Unleashed Thunderbolts of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya by Yasir Qadhi

A review of Shakh Yasir Qadhi’s paper “‘The Unleashed Thunderbolts’ of Ibn Qayyim al-Ǧawziyyah: An Introductory Essay.”1

This 2010 paper by Yasir Qadhi is a study of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s al-Ṣawāʿiq al-mursala ʿalā al-Jahmīya wa-l-Muʿaṭṭila (The Unleashed Thunderbolts against the Jahmites and the Negators [of Divine Attributes]). I will focus on Ibn al-Qayyim’s positions as transmitted by Yasir Qadhi.

Ibn al-Qayyim speaks against taʾwīl, the act of reinterpreting a statement in the Quran or hadith in a way that avoids its literal meaning, such as saying that when God refers to His “hand” in the Quran, this is actually a reference to His power. Ibn al-Qayyim says that there are only three possible reasons why a speaker would speak in a way that would require reinterpretation:

  • The speaker is not sincere and does not wish to express the clearest possible meaning.
  • The speaker is not knowledgeable about what he is saying.
  • The speaker is not eloquent and is unable to express himself clearly.

Naturally, since none of these apply to God or His Messenger PBUH, Ibn al-Qayyim’s conclusion is that there is no room for taʾwīl in Islam. But there is another possibility that he does not consider; perhaps God uses such expressions as tests and as encouragement for Muslims to look more deeply into the matter so that they can get to know God better.

They are tests in that they lead to disagreement among Muslims and in this way bring out their characters. Will they hold on to the tie of religious brotherhood and overcome their disagreements so that they can love those who disagree with them, or will they fail the test and use these disagreements as justifications for demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents? I believe Ibn al-Qayyim falls into the category of those who at least partially failed the test; his use of the phrase “Unleashed Thunderbolts” clearly implies that those who disagree with them deserve extreme divine punishment as Yasir Qadhi says.

Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to mention four “pillars of falsehood” (ṭawāghīt, sing. ṭāghūt) that he believes are the fundamental principles that are relied on by misguided Muslims (i.e. Ashʿarites, Muʿtazilites and philosophers) to destroy the foundations of religion.

The first ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210 CE) that verbal evidence do not yield certain knowledge. The theologians viewed the evidence of hadith as inherently probabilistic, since in almost all cases we can never be sure if the information was transmitted with 100% accuracy. They also viewed the process of interpreting the Quran and hadith as inherently probabilistic since we cannot always be sure that we understood the exact meaning that a verse or hadith statement is meant to convey.

Ibn al-Qayyim argues against that and says if that was really the case, life would become impossible since we could never be sure of the meaning of the statements that those around us made. Ibn al-Qayyim’s arguments as mentioned by Yasir Qadhi are all polemical and unconvincing.

The second ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that intellectual evidence takes priority over scripture when the two are in conflict. Ibn al-Qayyim relies on his mentor Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments against this principle, saying that reason and revelation can never be truly in conflict. Whenever reason and revelation appear to be in conflict, it is the deficiency of human reason that is to blame. Therefore when Aristotelian logic seems to support a truth that goes against revelation, the deficiency is in that logic.

This point is well made since the history of Islamic theology is full of theologians who believed that they had absolute logical proofs for their doctrines that were later proven to be logically invalid. Whenever we believe that we have discovered a fact that clearly goes against revelation, it may only take a decade or two before someone else shows us that the fact and revelation are actually not in conflict (as in the case of evolution).

Strangely, Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to argue that Hell is not eternal since it serves God no purpose to eternally punish a temporal creation. As I argue in my essay A Quranic Phenomenology of Atheism, the reason why eternal punishment may be necessary is that by disbelieving in God, a person stands up to the Infinite and asks Him to do His worst to them. It can be said that here Ibn al-Qayyim breaks all of his own principles: he ignores the literal meaning of the Quran and hadith, he prefers his own reason over revelation, and he breaks with the views of the Companions and the Salaf.

The third ṭāghūt is the concept of majāz (allegory) that is used by the Ashʿarites. Ashʿarites claim that the Quran uses allegorical language, for example when God refers to being “above” the Throne, this is merely an allegory rather than a reference to God having a direction of “aboveness” in space (since God is not in space). Ibn al-Qayyim strangely argues that statements such as “Zayd is a lion” are not actually allegorical because anyone with a sound mind can immediately understand the meaning that is meant by it; namely that Zayd is brave.

He argues that there is no textual indication that God’s attributes should be interpreted metaphorically. He says that it is demeaning to God’s exalted nature to suggest that attributes such as His being “above” do not have a literally meaning. He claims that all of the Companions and the Salaf agreed that these attributes should be interpreted literally.

The fourth ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that the traditions of the Prophet PBUH can only yield probabilistic knowledge. Ibn al-Qayyim’s view is that singular (āḥād) narrations (which lack multiple supporting chains) can yield certain knowledge when there is supporting evidence. I believe that Ibn al-Qayyim exaggerates the position of his opponents, since they too acted upon singular narrations despite acknowledging their probabilistic reliability. His act merely implies that his opponents are using an invalid approach to hadith–despite the fact the end result is largely the same. It is therefore merely or largely a polemical attack meant to lump together extreme rejectors of hadith with the Ashʿarites.

In his conclusion, Yasir Qadhi mentions that Ibn al-Qayyim’s attack is one of the most sophisticated ones ever launched against the Ashʿarites. He calls for reassessing common views of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya as shallow literalists. I agree that despite the failure of many of their attacks and their polemical style, they were worthy opponents of the theologians who must be taken seriously. Recent Western scholarship has continued to support this thesis, a good example being the 2010 book Ibn Taymiyya and His Times.

A Manual of Civilized Sexuality

Get it on Amazon: Paperback | Kindle

My new book A Manual of Civilized Sexuality: What Science, Feminism and Our Pornographic Culture Cannot Teach Us about the Most Important Things in Love, Romance and Intimacy is now available on While this book is written for a general Western audience, the contents are extremely relevant to Muslims interested in understanding Islam’s views on sexuality.

In this book I present a framework for a morality of human sexuality that makes no reference to religion (while being fully compatible with it).

The modern world demonizes masculinity among men while promoting it among women; believing that the only truly worthy woman is one who lives up to masculine standards of behavior and achievement. I show that by adopting an evolutionary1 view and combining it with Kant’s simple moral philosophy, we gain the very best that feminism stands for (true equality of the sexes) without either sex having to abandon its natural instincts and its masculine/feminine persona. I therefore present a post-feminist view of gender relations that makes feminism irrelevant for those who live truly moral and civilized lives.

Islam tells us that it is wrong for a man to do something as seemingly innocuous as admiring a woman’s body on the street. The scholars are also agreed that watching pornography is immoral. But where does the “wrongness” in such behaviors come from? I show that this wrongness is related to our basic humanity. Any erotic enjoyment that lacks an interpersonal aspect is morally wrong and damaging to one’s own humanity; it takes away our ability to enjoy the warmth of human relationships. We are not animals and our sexuality is deeply tied to our humanity–requiring very specific rules of behavior that the Abrahamic religions get right.

From the Amazon description:

A Manual of Civilized Sexuality explores the most important issues in the modern couple’s life: from dating and romance to the morality of eroticism and intimacy, to finding spiritual meaning in life. Author Ikram Hawramani unites Kant’s beautiful and simple moral philosophy with an evolutionary understanding of masculinity and femininity, showing how both sexes can lead authentic lives tuned to their own instincts while living in Kant’s “Kingdom of Ends” where love, beauty and freedom reign. Couples who have been happily married for decades and who continue to have infinite love and consideration for each other already live in the Kingdom of Ends. This book shows you the path for getting there.

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh (published 1990) is a collection of papers written in honor of the Palestinian-American professor Farhat Jacob Ziadeh (1917-2016), founder and first chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington.

I bought this book after seeing it cited in Omar Farahat’s 2019 book The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology and finding it for sale for only $6 on, without looking into the book’s contributors. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that it had articles by some of the best scholars of Islamic studies in the late 20th century: Wael Hallaq, George Makdisi, his son John Makdisi, and Bernard Weiss.

The first article is by Wael Hallaq and studies the problem of inductive corroboration in Islamic legal reasoning. How many witnesses are required to prove a point beyond doubt? Hallaq studies the issue of the mutawātir report (a hadith report that is transmitted by so many people that a person can be completely sure of its authenticity). Some scholars fixed the number for establishing tawātur at five witnesses, while others chose 12, 20, 40, 70 or 313. But during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the dominant view emerged that only God knows how many witnesses would be required for tawātur.

The opposite of a mutawātir report is an āḥād (“singular”) report; a report that does not come from a sufficient number of transmitters to establish certainty. Hallaq argues that according to the jurists, an āḥād report had a probability of authenticity of less than 1 (i.e. less than 100%) but higher than 0.5 (50%). By the mere fact of a report having an unbroken chain of transmitters to the Prophet PBUH, it was considered more likely to be authentic than not. And when two singular reports support a particular point or issue, the probability increases.

In my essay Mathematical Hadith Verification: A Guide to the New Science of Probabilistic Hadith Transmitter Criticism I propose a way of formalizing these probabilities. But unlike the jurists, I treat the probability of the reliability of each transmitter independently. Each transmitter is given the benefit of the doubt by being considered as 60% likely to be truthful and accurate. But when more transmitters are added to a chain, their probabilities are combined, lowering the integrity of the information transmitted.

The second article is by Jeanette Wakin of Columbia University (d. 1998) and focuses on the views of the Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn Qudāma (d. 1223) regarding interpreting divine commands. When God tells us in the Quran to do something, does this imply permission, recommendation or obligation? In verse 5:2, God tells us, “when you leave the state of iḥrām, then hunt.” Interpreting this command as implying obligation means that every pilgrim is obligated to go hunting after they are done with the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca. But of course, it is widely known that hunting is not obligatory; so the command must only imply permission. While jurists like al-Ghazālī adopted the moderate view that divine commands cannot be interpreted as permission, recommendation or obligation unless we can find out more information about the command (for example in the Prophet’s traditions PBUH), Ibn Qudāma’s view was that all commands imply obligation unless proven otherwise, except in the case of a command that comes after a prohibition, in which case the command only implies permission (as in the hunting example above).

Bernard Weiss’s article is on the problem of objectivity in Islamic law. How can objectivity be ensured in the interpretation of the law? Do the differences among scholars on matters of law imply a lack of objectivity? Weiss argues that the jurist’s performance of ijtihād (of re-analyzing the sources of the law and reaching new decisions) is how objectivity is ensured within our human limitations. Studying revelation (the Quran and the Sunna, i.e. the Prophet’s words and actions) always has a chance of leading to new results. But in order to have practical law, we must be able to establish an end to this process, otherwise we will never reach a conclusion; we will always be suffering the uncertainty that better knowledge and understanding will lead to different results.

The process of ijtihād solves this dilemma by giving a qualified jurist the right to do his own independent research until he reaches a point when he can in all honesty say that he has done his best with what is available. At that point he can issue a ruling that will be considered objective and applicable for himself and his followers. The process of ijtihād therefore leads to a historically-limited instance of objectivity; the best objectivity that can be had within our human limitations. And when each jurist performs this through time, we get a historical series of objectivities, each presumably better than that which preceded it.

Farhat J. Ziadeh’s article is on the issue of ʿadāla (“justice” or “justness”), the quality of a witness being considered reliable and trustworthy by an Islamic court. He mentions the interesting anecdote of a man who refused to pay the voluntary separation gift that a man owes to his divorced wife. The judge who presided over the separation later refused to accept the man as a reliable witness in a different case because the man had refused to be charitable and God-fearing in the previous case. Another interesting anecdote is that al-Ḥakam I (d. 822 CE), a ruler of Umayyad Spain, was rejected as a reliable witness by a judge that he himself had appointed.

Ziadeh argues that Islam led to a transformation of the Arab ideals of virtue. In the pre-Islamic era, virtue was a warrior’s courage, a rich person’s generosity, and the dedication to keeping one’s word even at the cost of losing a loved one. But in the civilized atmosphere of the Islamic city, the virtues were those qualities that enabled the law to function properly.

The fifth article is by David F. Forte, a law professor at Cleveland State University. He tries to clarify the Islamic principles of property rights by studying how Islamic law deals with the issue of lost property. He concludes that Islamic law is more concerned with the rights of a property owner than the English common law.

George Makdisi’s article is going to be of the most interest to Western readers. He defends his thesis, that he has defended in many other places, that Islam created the concepts of professor, doctoral dissertation and academic freedom.

Since Islam lacks an ecclesiastical hierarchy that can decide issues of orthodoxy, the only way to ensure arrival at consensus in a legitimate way was to adopt academic freedom. A legitimate fatwā in Islam is one that is given by a professor who enjoys perfect academic freedom to agree or disagree with anyone else. The West had no need for academic freedom because the true authorities on matters of religious doctrine were the bishops in unity with the pope. Islam, lacking such authorities, was forced to adopt a rational way of arriving at authoritative religious rulings in their absence. And the solution was the academic freedom of the professor or muftī. When all the professors, in perfect freedom and autonomy, agreed on a particular ruling, that meant that the ruling was authoritative.

Orthodoxy in Christianity was determined by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Orthodoxy in Islam was determined by the autonomous consensus of the professors, just as in modern science. In science a particular theory can only become “orthodox” when all eligible scientists study it and arrive at a consensus about its reasonableness and likelihood of correctness. Islam was forced to create this “scientific method” of arriving at consensus due to suffering the same situation that science suffers: there is no higher authority than the scholars, researchers and professors themselves to help them come to legitimate conclusions on the issues under question.

The West took many centuries to digest the imported Islamic concepts of professor and academic freedom. Western professors in the 13th century still lacked the academic freedom that Islamic professors had enjoyed since at least the 8th century. In Christianity, dissent among the professors was considered an evil that led to heresy. In Islam, dissent was the most important way of ensuring orthodoxy, which is why it developed a vast literature of dissent where the disagreements of the professors were recorded.

The idea of a professor freely expressing dissenting opinions had no place in Western civilization until the power of the Church weakened and the professors were able to acquire some autonomy from it.

John Makdisi’s article focuses on the possible Islamic influences on the English common law. His article is an earlier version of his famous 1999 article “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” (which can be downloaded here). He argues that the assize of novel disseisin, a crucial aspect of the development of the common law established by Henry II in the wake of the Assize of Clarendon of 1166, may have had an Islamic origin, and studies the historical context in which this Islamic influence may have been acquired.

The last four articles by William Ballantyne, Ian Edge, Ann Mayer and David Pearl respectively deal with the issue of the application and integration of the Sharia in modern Islamic states. I discuss the contents of some of these articles in my essay Solving the Problem of the Codification of the Sharia.

Why a Muslim should read or listen to the Quran for an hour everyday

Assalamualaikum, from my readings I noticed that you consistently reminded us readers to at least allocate one hour a day to listen to the Quran. So, with regards to that how long have you practiced this and what changes have you felt ever since you started practising it.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

I started seriously practicing this since last Ramadan when I promised God to spend an hour every day in extra worship.

Since I started doing that, everything in my life has seemed to go more smoothly and I have enjoyed numerous new blessings that I never expected.

The greatest benefit has been the fact that it makes sinning almost impossible. It feels like God is always with me and I cannot engage in any sinful idea without feeling His strong presence. So it is a way of ensuring true submission to Him.

Another benefit is that it feels like my life is on a course managed by God. I do not care what happens tomorrow, next month or next year. God is in charge and He will ensure my good. So it has completely removed all anxiety I have had about the future.

To me therefore it seems like a Muslim who wishes to be extraordinary and who wishes to achieve the peak of spirituality should make this a daily practice that they plan to do for all of their lifetime. There is nothing better than always being in God’s presence; it takes life’s problems away, it takes away all sins, it makes life meaningful and it brings constant new blessings. Problems that seemed unsolvable to me in the past have disappeared.

Medieval Female Mystics of Islam

‘Minarets, Cairo’ by Arthur Streeton, 1897.

A review of Arezou Azad, “Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy.” (Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013) 53-88).

Andrea Cabrera

The article, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: the Quiet Legacy” was written by Arezou Azad, who is a Leverhulme Research Officer of the Oriental Studies Faculty at the University of Oxford.

In this paper, we find a brief and summarized information about a 9th century female mystic Umm ʿAlī, from Balkh.

Azad starts by mentioning the lack of reliable sources that may enable researchers to find more female mystics from the past, which can be due to some external reasons that do not outline lack of interest from women’s side, lack or preparation or possible social repression. In fact, as the article mentions, a great number of female scholars were found during the first century after the advent of Islam, then we find another peak of female presence during the 9th century, declining again until the 12th and 13th centuries, where we find once again traces of female scholars.

Umm ʿAlī, despite being a Sufi, can be considered a good example of determination and commitment toward education. Born in a wealthy family from the upper class, Umm ʿAlī is the granddaughter of a governor from the Abbasid regime in Balkh, which helped her inherit a great amount of money, enough to pay for her journey to Mecca to perform Hajj and her studies in that city for a period of 7 years.

In the paper we find two versions of Umm ʿAlī: the first one is an educated “worldly” woman who even lectures her husband, the renown Sufi scholar Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad Khidrawayh, on how to hold dinner for another famous Sufi scholar. She was manly enough to ask her husband to marry her to her teacher, in front of whom she even removed the veil from her face, provoking her husband’s jealousy.

The second version shows us a more refined and centered woman, who supported all of her husband’s views. The masculine attributes are not mentioned, nor the nominal marriage to her mentor.

Due to lack of references it is hard to conclude which version is the accurate one, for example whether she just pursuing increasing her knowledge at any cost. The article leaves the door opened for the reader to create her/her own opinion of Umm ʿAlī, but highlights her educational achievements and the great importance that female education was given in Islam, which unfortunately, has been fading away because of some un-Islamic views.

Ikram Hawramani

In her paper, University of Birmingham professor Arezou Azad studies the career of the medieval female mystic Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh.

Azad complains that it is often difficult to distinguish fact from myth in the accounts on Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801). This is the case with lives of the Sufi saints since their disciples and admirers, removed from them by generations and centuries, naturally felt a strong urge to elevate their masters to the highest spiritual stations. Therefore Sufism never developed strict criteria for telling fact from fiction when it came to information on the lives and sayings of the saints.

Azad also complains that most recent research has focused on Rābiʿa. Her paper is a contribution toward shifting the focus to other female mystics of Islam. She mentions that over the past two decades (meaning 1993-2013), studies have revealed that women exercised far more power than was previously believed. This is a welcome observation and in keeping with my contention that the historical reality of male-female relationships is that women were always equal partakers in all civilizations, despite what feminist theories of historical misogyny might suggest (of course, the existence of some misogyny has always been a fact). And based on this contention, I hope to work toward contributing a post-feminist, or what I simply call a humanist, perspective toward the study of women that assumes from the get-go that men and women are already equal in power, worth and civilization-forming ability. A study by University of Western Ontario professor Maya Shatzmiller found that “women were involved in economic life in medieval Islam to an important degree.”

Columbia University professor Richard W. Bulliet has stated that the inclusion of women in the classical biographical entries were often due to their kinship ties with the compiler. This is in keeping with Darwinian theories of kinship where humans are wont to see people of closer kinship as “more human” than people of more distant kinship. It is to have a female-excluding worldview in a masculine scholarly culture, but kinship ties make it difficult for the male writer to uphold this exclusionary view toward closely related females. While a man may have a general view toward women, this view is difficult to uphold toward women he knows personally. An aunt, for example, is automatically excluded from the female category in the mind and included in the human category instead, this making it much more likely for the male writer to treat her on human terms rather than mere female terms.

Azad mentions that the 14th century Egyptian scholar Ibn al-Ḥājj (d. 1336 CE) spoke against women sitting across men during learning sessions, considering inappropriate. But she makes the astute remark that rather than his perspective, rather than representing a widely-followed norm and prescription, actually represents the opposite. Women’s free mingling with men in mosques had become a reality and this scholar simply tried to express his disapproval of it. In my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims, I caution against viewing Islamic scholars’ statements as representations of norms since they often actually represent the opposite; they are anti-norms that they only wished to become norms. When Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) complains about various errant practices in the Baghdad of his time, while a casual reading by a past Orientalist may have led him to think of the Baghdadian culture of the time as a theocratic society controlled by scholars, the evidence actually suggests the exact opposite: scholars had little power to control their societies, showing the great freedom enjoyed by the Muslims of the time. The reality of Islamic societies is that the elite of Islam (the scholars and the devout Muslims) often as a class stand against the elite of society and the “ordinary” Muslims. The Islamic elite always pull in one direction (toward a better practice of Islam), while the rest of society often pulls in the other direction (toward slackness and freedom). In this way a dynamic equilibrium is reached that cannot in any way be honestly described as a theocracy.

However, it is true that in classical Islam there was often a partnership between the social elite and the religious elite, as Azad discusses. But I believe this does not disprove my thesis since we have numerous examples of the religious laxity of many of the social elite of classical Islam. It was, for example, an extraordinarily pious step when one of the Abbasid caliphs decided to ban alcohol drinking-houses, showing that the Caliphate’s usual policy had been one of tolerance toward such an un-Islamic aspect of their society.

In her paper, Azad focuses on the career of Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh, a female mystic and a member of the elite of Balkh’s society mentioned in a number of Sufi-oriented Iranian sources. She was taught tafsīr by Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbdallāh al-al-Tirmidhī (d. 853-4) and transmitted his book in this field. She stayed seven years in Mecca after performing the pilgrimage in order to seek knowledge. This was not unusual. Davidson College professor Jonathan Berkey mentions that out of 1075 women listed in a biographical dictionary of the fifteenth century, 411 obtained a similar education.

Umm ʿAlī’s husband was the judge and mystic Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh (probably died 854-5). Umm ʿAlī took the interesting step of proposing to her husband. Al-Ḥujwirī (d. 1077) mentions (to use Azad’s translation, the first note in brackets is mine):

When she changed her mind [about not marrying], she sent someone [with a message] to Aḥ mad: “Ask my father for my hand.” He did not respond. She sent someone [again with a message]: “Oh Aḥmad, I did not think you a man who would not follow the path of truth. Be a guide of the road; do not put obstacles on it.” Aḥmad sent someone [with a message] to ask her father for her hand.

Azad narrates an anecdote in which Umm ʿAlī “removes the veil from her face” upon meeting the famous mystic Abū Yazīd (Bāyazīd) al-Biṣtāmī (d. 874 or 877-8) Al-Ḥujwirī recounts this as “Fāṭima niqāb az rūy bar-dāsht” (Fāṭima removed the niqāb from her face) (while her husband was present). This suggests that she merely broke a social convention rather than Islamic law—she did not necessarily remove her full ḥijāb. She simply trusted the great mystic enough to break social convention and let him see her face, believing that he would not objectify her for her beauty and attractions but continue to see her as a fellow human mystic. Elsewhere it is mentioned that once when Bāyazīd comments on the henna designs she has on her hand, she decided to stop learning with him, believing that this was an unacceptable breach of etiquette—the great mystic had taken note of her external appearance. Thus rather than suggesting any laxity toward religious law, the anecdote suggests her high character and her bravery in breaking social convention due to the trust she had in the power of the mystical path upon men.

In conclusion, Azad’s study is a very welcome contribution to rejuvenating the legacy of Islam’s great women in the classical period.

On the Impossibility of 1984: Hawramani’s Theological Law of Propaganda

According to the Wikipedia article, propaganda is:

information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented. Propaganda is often associated with material prepared by governments, but activist groups, companies, religious organizations and the media can also produce propaganda.

It is the dream of perhaps all governments to produce (a) a coherent, fictive vision of reality (past, present and future) and (b) to convince the populace of the truth of this fictive worldview.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 is an exploration of an imaginary world where propaganda has been taken to its logical conclusion. The government is able to create a reality and implant it in almost every citizen’s mind through a very powerful system of propaganda and control.

Reading 1984 is naturally a depressing experience since there appears to be no realistic reason why such a world cannot eventually come about. As the science of propaganda continues to improve, especially today that it can be enhanced with extremely capable artificial intelligence, governments will continue to be able to exert better control over the minds of citizens.

George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

For an atheist who views the world as a closed system, there is no realistic reason to be optimistic about the future of propaganda. The propaganda system will continue to improve until it reaches a point of singularity where it becomes more complex than any human mind, and thus capable of exerting irresistible influence on human minds. A person can of course refer to chaos theory or quantum uncertainty to say that any system of propaganda can eventually break down due to the simple unpredictability of human thought. But this is just a possibility, and one can still fear the thought that a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to find ways of handling chaos and uncertainty.

But for a theist, things are much more hopeful. By considering this universe a simulation-like thing (as I discuss in this essay), and by considering the soul an entity that resides outside of it, we are faced with a situation where the complexity of the human can never be overcome. The human soul resides outside the simulation and is independent of it, therefore the simulation can never overcome its complexity. It would be like trying to open a locked box with a key that is inside it.

As is common with all simulations, the infrastructure upon which the simulation runs is more complex than the simulation itself. A video game is a simulation, and the world inside is far, far less complex than the computer upon which the video game operates. The soul belongs to that higher-order world of complexity, therefore it is impossible for anything within our universe to reach its level of complexity. Therefore since (a) the soul is independent of the universe and (b) the soul belongs to a higher-order reality, it follows that (c) no system of information within the universe can match it or overpower it.

Thus Hawramani’s Theological Law of Propaganda is:

No system of propaganda can ever reach the complexity of a single human intellect, therefore humanity is eternally immune from complete control by propaganda.

To put it another way, the dystopian vision of 1984 is unrealistic and impossible. All governments’ efforts at mind-control of the populace are incredibly feeble compared to the object they are dealing with: humans. Humans, by the virtue of having extra-universal souls, are not objects but subjects–subjects that look into the universe from the outside.

Thus as a theist, I can justify complete optimism about humanity’s ability to overcome propaganda.

Of course, I have an even more important reason to be optimistic: God exists, He is in charge, and He will not let any tyrant entirely corrupt His earth:

And they defeated them by God’s leave, and David killed Goliath, and God gave him sovereignty and wisdom, and taught him as He willed. Were it not for God restraining the people, some by means of others, the earth would have gone to ruin. But God is gracious towards mankind.

The Quran, verse 2:251.

An Imam was fired for believing in evolution

Some news from Twitter:

An Imam was fired for believing in evolution. I replied to the tweet with a link to my essay in which I discuss the compatibility of the Quran and evolution. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like anyone bothered to read it, so I only got a lot of self-congratulating replies from true believers in atheism.

The Atonement by William Lane Craig

I became interested in the Christian theologian William Lane Craig after reading Jacobus Erasmus’s The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, a 2018 book that reconsiders Craig’s views on this argument for God’s existence and tries to strengthen it. I was surprised by just how strong this argument is, although it does not reach the level of “proof”. A true proof is one that all rational people can accept. But no argument for God’s existence reaches this level–there is always room for some doubt, there is always a “leap of faith” necessary in order to accept the argument. As the Christian theologian recently stated on Twitter:

Alister McGrath’s statement applies very well to the The Kalām Cosmological Argument. As a faithful person who has already made the leap of faith, it further convinces me just how incredibly unwise it is to doubt God’s existence. But I admit that a dedicated atheist can question it.

I decided to embark on a journey to read most of Craig’s books starting with his newest, which was The Atonement. This is as part of my efforts to familiarize myself with Christian theology. The studying of Christianity by Muslims is sometimes framed under the unfortunate rhetoric of “knowing the enemy”. That attitude will hopefully go away as Muslims interact more with Christians and recognize the need to see Christians as fellow humans and persons doing their best to serve God as they understand Him. Of course many Christians also have a similarly unfortunate attitude toward the study of Islam. But when interacting with a non-Muslim group, the proper way is to focus on the best and most humane among them and treat them as they like to be treated, rather than focusing on the worst and using this to justify bad treatment.

The Atonement is a short defense of the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement on both theological and legal grounds. An interesting aspect of the book is the author’s use of modern legal theory. The book is a good representative of what we might call the cutting-edge of Western theological and legal thought. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement attempts to justify how the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ [as] (something Islam denies but Christianity considers foundational to its theology) leads to the salvation of Christians. How does the torture and death of an innocent person lead to forgiveness and salvation for others?

Some Christian theologians, similar to the Muslim Muʿtazilites, had the “cosmic justice machine” view of God. According to them God is forced to be just in all things, which means that He is prevented from forgiving sins unless there is a good and just reason for this forgiveness.

William Lane Craig

As a non-Muʿtazilite, I naturally find that view of God highly unsatisfactory. God has many attributes and He is not forced to act by any one of them. He is forgiving, He is just, and He is avenging. And He is free according to which attribute He should treat a particular person or group of persons. He can forgive someone even if our idea of justice requires the person to be punished, because this is the essence of forgiveness: to choose not to do some injury to someone despite the fact that they justly deserve it. My view of God as freely choosing to act according to whichever attribute He prefers is also why I reject the Sufi view that loving God is better than fearing Him (as discussed here). Loving God pleases God’s attribute of the Loving, while fearing Him pleases His attribute of the Mighty (among others). Who are we to choose whether pleasing one of His attributes is better than pleasing another? The proper, God-fearing view in my opinion is to respect all of God’s attributes equally. This means that serving God out of fear and desire is just as good as serving God out of love. Ideally, of course, we should serve God out of fear, love and desire, and out of the intellectual recognition of the fact that God is One who deserves to be worshiped, not out of fear, love or desire, but because that is something He simply deserves. The love and appreciation of all of His attributes should be the foundation of our worship of God.

According to the cosmic justice machine theory (to which Craig subscribes to some degree), therefore, the Atonement was necessary because God could not justly forgive humanity without first demanding that a sacrifice or offering should be made to Him, or demanding that a particular person be punished as a substitute and representative of humanity.

An alternative theory to that is the moral influence theory, according to which the Atonement was meant as an example to humanity rather than as an offering for sin. Other arguments are also mentioned but I will not go into the details here.

An important problem with all doctrines of Atonement is the issue of imputation. How is it rational that a particular person be held responsible for the sins of all others? Various responses to this problem are mentioned in the book. For example it is mentioned that God, as Supreme Ruler, has the right to punish a person for the sins of another. Just because we cannot easily envision how this can be just or rational does not mean that it is not.

A strong argument in favor of the imputation of humanity’s sins to Christ is the concept of vicarious liability. This legal concept refers to the fact that, for example, an employer can be punished for crimes committed by his employees. Even though he himself has committed no fault, the employee’s fault can legally fall upon the employer. Similarly, Christ can be considered the master of mankind and therefore any sins committed by his underlings can be in some way imputed to him. The fact that he accepts this responsibility and imputation willingly makes its justice even stronger.

Another defense is that God’s punishment of Christ, even though on the face of it unjust, helped prevent a greater harm, which was the destruction of all of humanity for their sins.

Defining guilt and pardon

Craig analyses the concept of guilt and rejects the definition that guilt is simply the fact of having committed a crime or sin. Guilt, instead, is a person’s liability for punishment.

According to this view, pardon is the act of taking away a person’s liability for punishment without implying that the person did not commit the crime. The commitment of the crime is acknowledged, but the act of pardon takes away all guilt. Craig says:

A person who has served his sentence has paid his debt to society, and so is now no longer guilty; that is to say, no longer liable to punishment. Similarly, a person who has been pardoned is by all accounts no longer liable to punishment for the crime he committed.

Since Craig to some degree believes in the cosmic justice machine theory, he concludes that God’s pardon of our sins could only be justly accomplished if someone was punished for them. There is a contradiction between pardon and justice that can only be resolved if the pardon only takes place when some punishment has taken place (in this case the punishment that Christ bore willingly for the sake of humanity). Thus God is powerless to pardon without punishment since that would be unjust.

As should be clear from what I said earlier, I find Craig’s final solution to the contradiction between justice and pardon unsatisfactory. My solution would be that God is free when it comes to which one of His attributes He acts according to. He can act according to His attribute of Mercy regardless of what His attribute of Justice demands. There is no contradiction here because there is no higher power forcing God to act according to one attribute and not another.

He will not be questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned.

The Quran, verse 21:23.

One argument against my view would be that it suggests that God could just as easily be cruel as He can be kind. But that argument is preempted by the following Quranic verse:

Say, “To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has prescribed for Himself mercy. He will gather you to the Day of Resurrection, in which there is no doubt. Those who lost their souls do not believe.

The Quran, verse 6:12.

God has freely chosen His attribute of Mercy as an overruling attribute, which is likely why in Islam His two major names by which we call Him are al-raḥmān al-rahīm (“The Most Mercifully Gracious”, “The Most Mercifully Compassionate”). Both names come from the RḤM root (“mercy”, “kindness”, “womb”).

Of course my solution would likely not work for a Christian since it would invalidate the commonly accepted versions of the Doctrine of the Atonement. If God could have forgiven us anyway, there would not have been a need for Christs’ suffering, or his suffering would have only served the purpose of a reminder and example to humanity.

In the last paragraph of the book, Craig states:

As mentioned earlier, it is not at all implausible that only in a world that includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. God’s wisdom, not only His love and holiness, is thus manifest in the atoning death of Christ.

In conclusion, The Atonement is a good defense of Christian doctrine and contains some ideas that Muslim thinkers can benefit from. The analyses of the concepts of guilt and pardon are especially worthy.

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