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

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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.

A Manual of Civilized Sexuality

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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.

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 a 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.

Books I recommend

You have mentioned some books like In the footsteps of the prophet, and the Quran by Abdul Haleem, are there any other Islamic books you would like to recommend?

Please take a look at the new page on our site The Modern Islamic Studies Curriculum. These are books that I strongly recommend to all Muslim intellectuals and students of Islamic studies.

[Updated April 8, 2019]

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology by Sabine Schmidtke

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This impressive volume brings together essays by many highly respected Western-educated scholars of Islam. Comparing it to The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (which I shortly reviewed here), this book is far more in-depth and analytical. In fact the Cambridge Companion feels like a preface to this more sophisticated (and much longer) book. This book will likely be a classic of Islamic studies, an achievement that helps take the entire field of Islamic theology forward.

One issue I have with the book is that many of the articles focus far more on history and social backgrounds than on the actual theological ideas. The two most important Islamic theological doctrines, Ashʿarism and Māturīdism, never receive a completely satisfactory exposition.

A number of the articles mislabel Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) as Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148), which could confuse readers. Below I will mention a few highlights from the book.

I was interested to learn about Ḍirār b. ʿAmr (d. 815 CE), an early Muslim theologian who developed the anti-Aristotelian idea that the universe is entirely made up of “accidents” (attributes or properties), rejecting Aristotle’s theory of the existence of “matter” or substance as a separate thing from its properties. Rejecting the concept of matter helps detach Islamic theology from the nature-supremacism of Aristotle (and later Ibn Rushd), who envisioned nature as something of an eternal entity that chained God’s freedom of action.

The Aristotelian theory creates great difficulty for explaining miracles because miracles seem to override nature, which breaks the primacy of matter. Nidhal Guessoum, who subscribes to that worldview, is forced to explain away miracles by reference to ideas like quantum uncertainty and the placebo effect in his book Islam’s Quantum Question (as I discuss in my review of it here). But if the entire universe is made up of attributes so that matter is nothing but a collection of attributes (as Ḍirār b. ʿAmr asserts), then this turns the universe into something of a simulation where everything has no basic reality of its own. Its realness always comes from God who upholds this “simulation”.

That is the key idea in my Ghazali-inspired computational theory of the universe. According to Ḍirār b. ʿAmr, if we translate his ideas into the computational language, everything in this universe is merely information held inside the Divine Register (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūḍ), similar to the way a video game’s universe is entirely information held inside a piece of hardware inside a computer known as RAM.

There is complete equality between one bit of information and another bit. The bits that define matter and the bits that define its attributes are equal so that everything can be considered an attribute. The matter-ness of matter is just another attribute. This means that for God to perform a miracle, all that He has to do is flip bits of information inside the Register. The stick of Moses [as] can turn into a snake because God, who is in charge of the simulation, can easily change the bits of information in the Register that define the stick-ness of the stick so that for a time it becomes a snake. Aristotelians like Ibn Rushd and Guessoum cannot envision this because to them matter is not information in a simulation, it is something that has its own “reality” that is almost separate from God’s control.

In their view, God is unable to perform miracles or is severely limited in His capacity to perform them the way we understand them because the laws of matter do not permit miracles.

But Ḍirār b. ʿAmr’s theology (and orthodox, Ashʿarite Islamic theology) has no such problem with miracles because nature is entirely made up of information controlled by God. This orthodox theology that so many ill-educated science-minded people consider to be irrational and backward is in fact highly futuristic in its outlook if we interpret it in modern terms. It makes solving problems like reconciling Islam and evolutionary theory a rather easy exercise, as I discuss in my essay Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template.

Regarding the issue of free will, the Iranian Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 772 CE, after whom the Ḥanafī school is named), came up with a moderate solution. God creates all things, including everything that takes place in the world. But humans intend, and God either carries out the intention or not. It is for this intention that they are responsible. This fits with the computational theory; the universe is like a simulation that is under God’s absolute control. Nothing happens inside it except when God makes it happen. But humans have been given the power to intend things. They are given a “remote control” to their bodies, they issue commands (intentions) and God either carries it out (by moving their bodies for them and allowing the intention to be carried out) or He does not (by refusing to move their bodies, or by causing the simulation to get in their way). For example a good person who intends to sin may be hindered by God. God can either cause a weakness and fatigue in them that takes away their ability to carry out the sin, or He may bring about causes that prevent the sin from being possible to carry out.

His views were the basis of the development of the Ḥanafī theological tradition that found its full development with the Arab Iranian scholar Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 945 CE).

Abū Ḥanīfa and Māturīdī shared the conviction that humans can tell good from evil based on reason alone (without the guidance of revelation). Ashʿarite scholars like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) developed a highly “Darwinian” view of human ethical reasoning; humans know good from evil due to their empathy for fellow humans and their knowledge of consequences, rather than due to the existence of some absolute ideal of good and evil that humans can appreciate (as the Muʿtazilites claimed). While Muʿtazilites have often been celebrated in Western thoughts as Islam’s arch-rationalists, in this case as in many others, the orthodox Islamic view is actually more “scientific”. It rejects the Muʿtazilite trust in human reason’s philosophical ability to know good and evil with a more naturalistic, Darwinian explanation. According to Rāzī humans develop ethical ideas based on experience, not based on philosophical axioms that exist independently of the world and God.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is a great resource for everyone interested in Islamic theology, the history of Islamic thought and some the key issues relating to the interpretation of the Quran.

Believing Women in Islam (2019) by Asma Barlas and David Raeburn Finn

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Believing Women in Islam: A Brief Introduction by Asma Barlas and David Raeburn Finn is a short book that attempts to present the main ideas of Barlas’s longer work “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran.

First, I should mention that I believe that any self-respecting and civilized man should demand that his female mate be his equal–he cannot enter into a relationship with an inferior being because that is damaging to his own self-respect. If I love a woman, I should love her as an infinitely respected person, not as a “woman” who is somehow categorically inferior to men.

I dislike the label “feminist” because I believe focusing exclusively on the rights and issues of any particular group of humans (women, children, men, Sunni Muslims, Jews) always invariably leads to injustice because it promotes a lack of empathy toward those who are excluded. It is far more civilized, humane and constructive to focus on the rights and issues of infinitely respected, dignified and inviolable persons regardless of what grouping they belong to. Just because a boy or man happens to have male sex organs is in no way, shape or form a good reason to consider his emotions and sufferings of any less importance than a woman’s.

In fact, I believe there is something deeply misogynistic about the feminist worldview (not necessarily shared by all feminists) that women are somehow the perpetual victims of history who were little more than animals controlled by men, lacking any sort of courage, agency or self-assertion. I rather subscribe to the worldview that women were full partakers in history–they chose, they self-asserted, they contributed, they were as much full-human members of their societies as the men were. The theory of the patriarchy is the misogynistic theory that men are somehow, miraculously, capable of keeping women at an inferior position compared to themselves, in something of a master-slave relation, perpetually. Are women so mentally and spiritually inferior to men that they should have put up with such a dynamic for all of history until a few feminists came along to enlighten them? I believe this is incredibly demeaning toward women’s courage and capabilities. Yes, throughout history there were various restrictions on women–but the crucial factor is that the women themselves helped maintain these restrictions. They were not like herd animals controlled by men as patriarchy theory claims–they were full partakers in their civilizations who accepted and supported the particular treatment of women in their societies.

Men and women are both equally responsible for the treatment of women in their societies. It is an insult to women and a figment of the imagination to think that the treatment of women in society is entirely or even largely men’s business. I am not saying that things were great for women, but that women themselves, as free human agents, fully contributed to the way women were treated in their societies. Women were not helpless witnesses to the abuse of women as is often portrayed by feminist ideologues. They took part in it, for example by inciting male relatives to keep their wives “in check”, by enjoying the knowledge that a woman they disliked was being abused, and mothers-in-law were throughout the world often quite happy to be utterly abusive toward their female brides. Any theory of women’s status and abuse that ignores women’s support for the abuse of women is ignoring reality for ideological motives.

If the treatment of women was unjust in a society, then a brief survey of the same society would show us that the men too suffered various forms of mistreatment despite their greater freedom of movement. The problem of their societies was not some anti-female conspiracy, it was a lack of appreciation for the rights and dignity of persons. And if the rights and dignity of persons is appreciated and promoted throughout society, women naturally become men’s equals without any need for feminism promoting women’s rights in particular. If you see the infinitely respected person inside a woman, then her woman-ness becomes completely irrelevant to  how you love her and treat her. Her personhood is so incredibly important that her sex organs have no way to overshadow it.

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Why can’t we have a larger movement inclusive of both men and women that promotes the rights and equality of all persons regardless of their gender or race? This is in fact what classical humanism promotes. Not the arrogant secular humanism that considers humans somehow perfect and needless of guidance, but the humble, self-aware humanism of philosophers like Tzvetan Todorov inspired by the great French humanists. If we take to heart humanist teachings about the dignity and inviolability of persons, this automatically embraces all that moderate feminism truly stands for while avoiding the harms that come from focusing exclusively on the interests of a particular group of humans.

The founding myth of today’s feminism can thus be summarized as “Women were always subhuman until we feminists came to correct matters.” Believing Women in Islam fully assumes the truth of this myth and relies on it for its analysis, and for this reason it has little to offer beyond rehashing already-existing feminist views.

Barlas and Finn write, regarding the apparent lack of sufficient emphasis on women’s rights in the Quran and Sunnah:

God either (1) could not locate or (2) did not care about misogynistic practices in jahili societies. And don't think these stark alternatives are the end of the problem for patriarchal apologists. If God is all-knowing, God either knew and cared or failed to note or care about future generations.

There is a third possibility that they disregard due to the limits of their feminist framework. The third possibility is that women, as full partakers in human civilization, are able to fend for themselves. They support the treatment of women in their own societies even if it has unjust elements the way men support the treatment of men in their societies even if there are unjust elements to this treatment. Their worldview envisions half of society as somehow asleep, or as inferior humans, animals, who were somehow totally incapable of controlling and directing the course of their civilizations. This is utter nonsense–a figment of the feminist imagination. Women are full humans and they are as much responsible for the nature and elements of their civilization as the men are. The Quran and Sunnah lack feminist verses because they consider men and women already equal before God, already equal partakers in civilization, and therefore in no need of classifying one gender against the other and constantly telling one gender to be nice to the other because in this there would be an inherent misogyny. Telling men to be feminist toward women tells them that women are inferior creatures, children, who must be treated not as equals, but as inferiors deserving favors. It is much better and more intelligent for the Quran to simply treat all Muslims as persons, knowing that the men and women are together full partakers in civilization and require no special motivation for one side to avoid mistreating the other–because they are already equal, already they have equal power to shape, form and control their civilization and fend for themselves. The “patriarchy” is the myth that men are clever enough, powerful enough, and women inferior enough, stupid enough, for men to have a position of privilege over women that women are totally incapable of doing anything about. This is a rather low opinion to have of any human, male or female.

Regarding the hijab-related verses of the Quran, they write:

But the so-called modesty verses are specifically addressed to the Prophet and are advisory, not compelling. They are counsel, not commands. Cloaks and shawls in that era covered bosoms and necks, not heads, faces, hands, or feet. Moreover, the counsel was designed specifically to differentiate believing women in Mecca from slaves and prostitutes at a time when jahili men commonly abused both. The jilbab marked believing women as off-limits.

What they recommend is what I call “historical localization” of the Quran. The Quranic verses on the hijab were meant for a specific time and place and not for another. I refute this view of the hijab verses in this article.

So here is the question: Are Barlas and Finn willing to give women the right to interpret these verses for themselves? And if 99% of devout women interpret these verses as requiring the hijab in the modern world, are Barlas and Finn willing to admit that as full humans, these women have the right to interpret these verses in this way even if it goes against the interpretation of the two of them?

I believe in a pluralistic Islam (see my essay) and in autonomous consensus (see my essay). This means that while I respect Barlas and Finn’s particular interpretation of the hijab verses for themselves, I reject any suggestion that this interpretation is any more valid or authoritative than the common interpretation of believing women themselves of these verses–who believe that the verses require the hijab even in the modern world. True feminism requires that you respect the personhood of each woman, and that means respecting them even when they partake in their civilization in a way that you do not like. She is as much a human as you are and you have no right to force your views on her. Barlas and Finn do say that some women wear the hijab as a personal choice for modesty. But it seems that they only consider this a valid choice if it comes out of a person’s personal desire rather than out of their adherence to the classical interpretation of the hijab verses.

In other words, the two of them are not pluralists. They believe ignoring the hijab verses is the only correct interpretation and, if I am not mistaken, they deny the majority of  Muslim women the right to interpret the verses in the classical way.

Regarding the famous “wife-beating” verse of 4:34 which establishes the concept of qiwāma (men being in charge of their households), they write:

Many Arabic-English versions mistranslate the key word, qawwamun, then use that to explicitly claim that the verse asserts male privilege: "Men are in charge of women," "Men are protectors," "Men are the managers of the affairs of women," "Men are superior to [women]." Both "maintainers" and "breadwinners" are by all accounts warranted by the Arabic meaning of the word qawwamun. Male privilege, however, is neither suggested nor implied. So how was that conclusion reached?

This is a rather weak line of argumentation. As I discuss in my detailed analysis of verse 4:34 and the issue of wife-beating, the word qawwāmūn is inescapably related to command and being in charge, as one of the earliest exegetes of the Quran, the Prophet’s Companion Ibn ʿAbbās, says. What makes it inescapable is that the verse clearly states that God has given men a “superiority in rank” to women and goes from mentioning qawwāmūn to mentioning the issue of discipline. If this word was merely about men being bread-winners, then it is rather silly to mention (1) a superiority in rank and (2) suddenly switch mid-verse to the issue of discipline. But if the word has to do with authority in the household as all classical exegetes agree, then it makes perfect sense that the issue of discipline would immediately come up.

Their denial of the classical interpretation of this verse therefore requires breathtaking leaps of logic–it is almost as incredible as arguing that the color black is actually white and that it has been only considered black due to a patriarchal conspiracy. The feminist author Amina Wadud recognized the weakness of this line of argumentation and abandoned her efforts to reinterpret them.

Barlas and Finn are unable to come up with any interpretation of verse 4:34 that preserves the ordinary meaning of wa-ḍribūhunna (“and strike them”) that does not encourage violence against women, and for this reason they are forced to use the unconvincing argument that this word is not being used to mean striking. Again, in the free market of ideas that Islam should be, people should be free to understand the Quran on their own terms. And it would be no surprise if history continues to support the classical reading, since it is so obvious and convincing. As for how wife-beating could ever be a thing in a civilized and self-respecting society, I discuss it in detail in my essay on the verse. The short of it is that after establishing men’s authority in the household, the Quran needs to give men the power to enforce this authority (authority without enforcement power is largely useless), and very similar to the way the police is given the right to use violence in extreme circumstances, men too are given this “policing right”. Please read the full essay where I discuss how this does not lead to a reign of terror of the husbands, just as in a well-functioning society the police never have to use violence. If a man’s violence against his wife is unjust, unjustified and abusive, then that is punishable by the Islamic law of scholars like Ibn Ḥazm.

I agree with Amina Wadud that wife-beating has no place among self-respecting and mature adults. This is beyond doubt. Wife-beating should be considered absurd and taboo by the average Muslim. But as I discuss in the essay, the verse has nothing to do with well-functioning, middle class marriages. Verse 4:34 continued to give me trouble until recently when I realized it was about law-enforcement and social order. Please read the essay for the details.

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It may be asked how could a man respect his wife as an equal if he is given “authority” in his household? It is similar to the way a project manager respects his colleagues who work under him as equals. He does not treat them as inferior humans, he knows that he has been given authority by the higher ups in order for the enterprise to function properly. In the same way, a man is entrusted with authority by God in order for the household to function properly. Why is it given to men and not women? The answer is that because men and women are different.

See the recent book Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women which was published by Oxford University Press. The book covers the theories of the great feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in detail. There are important differences between males and females in all primates, including humans, both in physical and psychological traits. God’s justification for giving men authority over women must have something to do with these traits.

I am aware that pseudoscientific arguments have often been abused by some of the religious to justify low opinions about women (they are emotional, etc.). I do not in anyway suggest that science conclusively shows that patriarchal family organization is the best. What I argue is that science shows that there are clear differences between men and women, therefore it is not entirely implausible that such differences can be the basis for different roles in the family. Much further scientific research will be needed to show the correctness or falsity of this assertion. Is I have stated, from God’s perspective, men and women are already equal partakers in civilization. By giving men authority over women, God’s purpose is for families to function better. So the scientific question is this: do devout Muslim families that respect this authority function better than other families or not? Is there more happiness or less? Is there more dysfunction, drug abuse and depression in such families or in others? Detailed and unbiased scientific studies would be required to test the full effects of this patriarchal social organization. My contention is that giving men authority in the household leads to objectively better results for everyone involved, including women. It is the final results, the objective effects, that matter here, rather than theoretical discussions about whether this is fair or unfair.

If a woman is made happier by her husband being in charge of the household, what right do you have to take this away from her? Should you not respect her as a person to choose for herself what she is most happy with? If 99% or 90% of devout Muslim women are perfectly happy with men being authorities in the household, what right do you have to attack them for this? It is highly misogynistic to think that all of these women are somehow brainwashed or like herd animals incapable of thinking for themselves–unfortunately a very common, elitist feminist worldview.

The book deals with the issue of two women witnesses’ testimonies being equal to one man’s. This is not a matter I have studied deeply so I do not have much to say about it. I believe that the only thing that would settle the debate in this case is unbiased and detailed scientific studies that show how men and women differ in their accuracy as witnesses. If they are shown to be equal, then this can help us interpret the verse’s meaning better. And if it shown that women and men differ, then those differences should be taken into account.

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The writers attack the Islamic toleration for polygyny (having multiple wives), apparently believing that this is inherently unjust to women. But as A.S. Amin shows in his book Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology, there are strong arguments for polygyny actually improving women’s status and well-being. Again, if two consenting female adults agree to be wives to the same man, and if we respect each female as an infinitely respected person, then we should leave it to themselves to make the choice. Polygyny is somewhat taboo in perhaps all middle class, cosmopolitan Muslim societies, and I consider that a good thing since I do not like men making their wives unhappy by finding new (often younger) wives to be their competitors. But there are cases where it is beneficial, so if a society is properly well-educated and cosmopolitan, we can trust the men and women to make the appropriate choices in most cases.

Believing Women in Islam ends with a discussion of the issues inherent in interpreting the Quran. The book is a good summary of the latest feminist arguments against various unjust practices against women, although it offers nothing new as far as I could find compared to other feminist works like the 2015 book Men in Charge?. Its attacks on concepts like the hijab and qiwāma are likely to prove futile since it is unlikely that most devout Muslim women would find their arguments convincing. It will likely give hope to women already avoiding the hijab and living somewhat feminist lifestyles that their way of life is not entirely invalid in Islamic terms (whether such hope is justified or not is another issue). But when it comes to the Muslim community as a whole, we can expect it to continue just as before–slowly improving its treatment of women as its appreciation for humanist ideals like personhood improves, while continuing to hold onto the plain meaning of the Quranic directives.

The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology by Tim Winter

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The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology is a good introduction to the topic of Islamic theology and its relationship with Sufism. It was edited by Timothy Winter, known to Muslims as Shaykh Abd al-Hakim Murad. The essays are by many well-known and highly respected scholars, such as Shaykh Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Yahya Michot.

The essays are mostly introductions to their topics and do not delve too deeply into the details. In fact many of them end right when things seemed to start to get interesting to me, for example Steffen A. J. Stelzer’s highly interesting chapter on ethics.

The book could have as well been titled An Introduction to Islamic Theology. This makes it different from other Cambridge Companions I have read where scholars delve deeply and present new interpretations and theories of their own. Here the scholars almost entirely limit themselves to presenting overviews of the topics they discuss, which is beneficial for beginners to the topic, but not so beneficial for those wishing for detailed discussions.

The two exceptions are Steffen A. J. Stelzer’s essay on ethics and Toby Mayer’s essay on theology and Sufism, which present new and interesting analysis.

The Making of Salafism by Henri Lauzière

Henri Lauzière’s 2016 book The Making of Salafism is about how Salafism as we know it today was invented in the 20th century. I discovered Lauzière’s work through reading his 2010 article “The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History,” in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. That article overturned many of my assumptions about Salafism that are commonly repeated today by Muslim intellectuals: that it somehow started with Muhammad Abduh (1849 – 1905) and that later on it was “stolen” by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis.

Henri Lauzière, Northwestern University Associate Professor

Lauzière 2010 article presents convincing evidence that Muhammad Abduh never considered himself a “Salafi”, and that the people who originally used the “Salafi” epithet did not usually have today’s Salafism in mind. On the one hand there were scholars like the Syrian Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866 – 1914) and the Iraqi Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī (d. 1924) who stood for modernism, criticized the Wahhabis, and considered themselves a followers of theological Salafism, which Western scholars today call Traditionalism.

Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī

This school of thought took its inspiration from Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (known reverentially as Imam Aḥmad) and among its followers are the imams al-Bukhārī and Muslim and many of the best known members of the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools: Abū Ḥāmid al-Isfarāʾīnī (Shāfiʿī), Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn al-Jawzī (Ḥanbalī), Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shāhrazūrī (Shāfiʿī), Imam al-Nawawī (Shāfiʿī), Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn Taymīya (Ḥanbalī) and Ibn al-Qayyim (Ḥanbalī).

This theological Salafism is nothing new within Islam, it is in fact one of the oldest intellectual strains within it and, unlike today’s Salafism, was never a challenger to the madhhabs (schools of thought).

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī

In parallel to such theological Salafis, a Salafiyya Bookstore was established in Cairo by Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1969) and Abd al-Fattāḥ Qatlān (d. 1939). It is clear from the activity of this bookstore that they did not have today’s Salafism in mind either when they used the “Salafi” title, whether in naming their bookstore or their magazine. They published books by philosophers like al-Farabi and were highly modernist in their thinking. “Salafism” to them was the use of Islam’s ancient heritage (including philosophy and kalām, disliked Islamic fields of study according to today’s Salafis) in order to promote a sense of hope and pride among the colonized Muslims of the time.

Muhammad Abduh

At this point Rashid Rida (1865 – 1935), a disciple of Muhammad Abduh, comes on the scene to promote his vision of Islamic reform. While at first he continued to promote Muhammad Abduh’s teachings, in the 1920’s he started to increasingly describe himself and his movement as “Salafi”. For him, claiming to be “Salafi” was a way of breaking away from the traditional schools of thought without being called a deviant or liberal. By claiming to follow a version of Islam even more authentic and original than the version followed by the scholars of his day, he could break away while maintaining his credentials as a respectable Muslim thinker.

Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb

Things changed with the establishment of the Saudi state and their conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1924. Rashid Rida considered the Saudi state the only viable successor state to the Ottomans and apparently put all of his hopes in them. He started to defend the Wahhabis and their actions, apparently thinking that their ways of thought could eventually be softened and modernized (he was quite wrong). 

Rashid Rida

With the establishment of the Saudi state, the Salafiyya Bookstore largely abandoned its modernist tendencies. With the involvement of Rida, a Salafiyya Press and Bookstore was established in Mecca in 1927 that was little more than a Wahhabi propaganda press, printing works like Ibn Bishr’s pro-Wahhabi History of Najd, in which the slaughter of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians is proclaimed as a great victory (the 1801 Wahhabi sack of Karbala). I recently saw a quotation from Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud (1871 – 1953) saying that not only was he not sorry that the Wahhabis had engaged in that massacre, but that he would happily do it all over again if he had the chance. This explains Winston Churchill’s opinion of him:

The British recognised Ibn Saud's control of Arabia, and by 1922 his subsidy was raised to 100,000 a year by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. At the same time, Churchill described Ibn Saud's Wahhabis as akin to the present-day Taliban, telling the House of Commons in July 1921 that they were 'austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty' and that 'they hold it as an article of duty, as well as faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.'

However, Churchill also later wrote that 'my admiration for him [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us', and the British government set about consolidating its grip on this loyalty. In 1917 London had dispatched Harry St John Philby--father of Kim, the later Soviet spy--to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until Ibn Saudi's death in 1953. Philby's role was 'to consult with the Foreign Office over ways to consolidate the rule and extend the influence' of Ibn Said. A 1927 treaty ceded control of the country's foreign affairs to Britain.

Professor Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam

Throughout this time, there was no such thing as “Salafism” the way we understand it today. Salafism was a fluid and largely undefined concept that started as a movement to promote the greatness of the ancients of the Islamic world as a way of fighting off the cultural influence of the West.

Rashid Rida became increasingly pro-Wahhabi and did everything in his power to support the Saudi state, most importantly sending his own disciples to work in the Saudi educational establishment in the Hijaz. The people of Mecca and Medina had no love for the Wahhabis and considered them backward and ill-educated, while they respected Egyptian scholars and intellectuals.

Rashid Rida never became a Wahhabi himself. He continued to maintain his reformist views that the Wahhabis had no interest in while also continuing to write apologetics in support of the Wahhabis.

The Making of Salafism

That brings us to Lauzière’s 2016 book The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. This monograph expands on the 2010 article but adds a major new element with its focus on the career of Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali, the Western-educated Moroccon Sufi who became a modernist reformist and disciple of Rashid Rida only to become increasingly Wahhabized over the decades until he became one of the best known figures of the international Wahhabi mission.

Lauzière starts with a discussion of the fact that “Salafism” as we understand it today was completely non-existent before the 20th century. Salafi claims about the existence of a “Salafi” doctrine in the works of great scholars like Ibn Taymiyya are misplaced (although I believe seeds for today’s Salafism do exist in his writings–for example in his refusal to be called a Ḥanbalī, wherein he refused to be defined by madhhab boundaries similar to today’s Salafis). Salafism to them was the well-known Traditionalism I mentioned earlier; it simply meant to refuse to engage in philosophical speculation about the nature of God. It was in no shape or form a worldview that defined everything, nor was it a competitor to the traditional madhhabs. As late as the first two decades of the 20th century, we have textual evidence from Nuʿmān al-Ālūsī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī and Muhammad Abduh using “Salafism” to refer only to theological Salafism. Later Rida tried to claim that Abduh was a Salafi in the modern sense, but the complete lack of evidence to that, and evidence to its contrary, show that this was just an effort to revise history.

A comical misunderstanding

Louis Massignon

The great French Orientalist Louis Massignon (1883 – 1962) was in contact with Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī and other scholars and was receiving a magazine published by the Salafiyya Bookstore. In a 1925 paper, Massignon tried to make sense of this new “Salafi” movement and attributed it to Muhammad Abduh and his mentor Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838 – 1897). He considered it a reformist and modernist movement founded by these two scholars. This myth of a “reformist Salafism” that continues to be repeated today appears to have originated here with Massignon.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

ʿAllāl al-Fāsī (1910 – 1974), a Moroccan political activist and religious intellectual, appears to have been inspired by Massignon’s writings on Salafism so that he took it up, later becoming one of the main representatives of “modernist Salafism”, which he believed had started with al-Afghani and Abduh.

ʿAllāl al-Fāsī

This reformist Salafism was everything Massignon thought it was: a movement of religious intellectuals who admired the West, desired reform and wished to restore the glory days of Islamic civilization. Later Westerners who tried to study Salafism really believed that Salafism had started as a reformist movement because they knew of prominent people like al-Fāsī who called themselves Salafis.

The reality, of course, was that al-Fāsī had been misled by Massignon’s erroneous writings about the existence of a modernist movement named Salafism into adopting that form of Islam.

Therefore the idea that Salafism was “hijacked” by the Wahhabis, as Khaled Abou El-Fadl states in a 2001 article, is incorrect because there was no Salafism at the time to be hijacked. There was one group that called itself Salafi but used it only in the theological sense, as al-Qāsimī did. There was also a modernist group, the Moroccan Salafis, who had taken up the “Salafi” epithet based on Massignon’s writings. There was also Rida, who started to take up the “Salafi” label in the 1920’s despite having no clear idea what exactly it had to mean. He considered the Wahhabis the Islamic world’s best hope for fighting colonialism and therefore defended them despite his misgivings about their beliefs and actions and sometimes wrote absurd articles in which he portrayed the Wahhabis as not so different from the modernist readers of his journal al-Manar.

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali (1893 – 1987) is best known in the West for the Saudi-sponsored translation of the Quran known as The Noble Quran, which was written by Muhammad Muhsin Khan and al-Hilali, sometimes referred to as the Hilali-Khan translation. Al-Hilali’s career is a good representation of how Salafism became the Salafism we know today. Al-Hilali’s career is one of the central themes of Lauzière’s book.

Al-Hilali was originally a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. In explaining his abandonment of Sufism, al-Hilali claimed that at one point (in the late 1910’s perhaps or early 1920’s), while praying on a cold night in the desert, he had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH in which the Prophet instructed him to study religious science. When al-Hilali asked him whether to study bātin science (mysticism) or ẓāhir (non-mysticism-related Islamic studies), the Prophet says to study the ẓāhir.

Al-Hilali arrived in Egypt in 1922 and soon became a student of Rashid Rida. Later he traveled to India and Iraq. As part of the support of Rida and his disciples for the Saudi state, al-Hilali was invited to work as a teacher in the Saudi educational establishment in 1927. He became faculty supervisor at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

At this time al-Hilali was extremely anti-Sufi and considered Sufism an evil and corrupt doctrine. When he discovered that one of the professors at the Prophet’s Mosque was a Sufi (Alfa Hashim), he wrote an anti-Sufi polemic and gave it to a Wahhabi judge, requesting that Hashim be fired. Hashim, in order to absolve himself from al-Hilali’s accusations, was made to write an anti-Sufi tract in which he condemned various doctrines of the Tijaniyya order.

When a Wahhabi scholar Ibn Bulayhid (d. 1940) discovered that al-Hilali was teaching that the earth is round, he made a big fuss and called it a bidʿa (heretical innovation), saying that the proper Islamic doctrine is that the earth is flat. He ordered al-Hilali and Hamza (another Egyptian and Rida disciple) to repent. The rest of the Wahhabi faculty started to treat the two of them as deviants and heretics. Al-Hilali managed to find supporting evidence from Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim’s writings on the earth being round, which made Ibn Bulayhid calm down, although he never admitted to having erred. Rida had to assure his readers in al-Manar that not all Wahhabis believe that the earth is flat.

Decades later, al-Hilali voiced support for Ibn Baz’s fatwa in which Ibn Baz declared that (a) the earth is flat and (b) anyone who disagrees with that can be put to death. Al-Hilali spoke French, had spent years in Europe and was very familiar was Western science (and early in his career worked to promote it). It seems unlikely that he would have really accepted the earth’s flatness, therefore his support for Ibn Baz’s fatwa appears to have been nothing but an effort to ingratiate himself with this all-important Saudi religious authority. It is, however, not impossible that later in his life he became so Wahhabized that he could convince himself to prefer Wahhabi “truths” to mere scientific truths.

In 1927 Rida had changed his moderate reformist tone so that he start to publish anti-Shia articles by al-Hilali. Rida had hoped that his disciples could spread his ideals of balanced reform among the Wahhabis. But quite the opposite happened. In their eagerness to fit in within the Saudi establishment, nearly all his disciples became increasingly Wahhabized.

Between 1930 and 1950 al-Hilali lead a double public life. On the one hand, he supported anti-colonial efforts among all Muslims without caring too much about how deviant their religious doctrines were according to Wahhabi standards. On the other hand, he continued to publish polemics in Wahhabi journals against various Muslim groups he accused of deviance and unbelief. Thus while he was increasingly becoming a Wahhabi purist, he continued to hold onto his ideals for reform and adopted tolerant attitudes toward certain “deviant” Muslim groups when he considered it beneficial to do so, something authentic (Najdi) Wahhabis would have never done.

Al-Hilali returned to Morocco at the end of his life, being paid by the Saudi state to continue spreading Wahhabism. From the 1970’s onwards Salafism slowly crystallized into what we know today, largely due to Wahhabi influence. Many individuals came on the scene to define a “Salafi method” for judging legal and theological issues outside the madhhabs. In his conclusion, Lauzière states:

The idea of a distinctive Sunni methodology applicable to Islamic theology, law, and virtually all other aspects of the religious and human experience was itself untraditional. Therefore, the purist version of Salafism should not be understood as a medieval or early modern concept or movement. To say that it dates from the time of Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab not only is anachronistic but also obfuscates the development of modern Islamic thought. Although many of the ingredients of purist Salafism are old, the recipe and the final product (including the term Salafism) are not.

The Making of Salafism is an admirable work of scholarship–thorough and balanced. I looked forward to reading Henri Lauzière’s future works.

The Crucible of Islam by G. W. Bowersock

Get it on Amazon

G. W. Bowersock’s 2017 book The Crucible of Islam is a very brief survey of the religious and political situation of Arabia in the centuries leading up to the coming of Islam. There is mention of the relationship of the Byzantines, Persians and Ethiopians with the Jews and Christians of Yemen and Arabia.

The purpose of the book is to shed light on the “crucible” in which Islam was made. Due to the extreme lack of documentary evidence on the situation in Mecca and its surroundings, the book is restricted to retelling the stories of a few major events in the surroundings that may (or may) not have had an important influence in the way Islam came about. The Ethiopians conquered Yemen and Christianized it. The Persians and Byzantines competed for influence over the region through their relationships with allied Arab tribes. I cannot really say that much light has been shed on the crucible of Islam; due to its briefness and the lack of documentary evidence, the book serves mostly to show how little we know about the reality of the facts on the ground.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is Michael Lecker’s theory that the Ghassanids in Medina may have had a role in encouraging the Jews and pagans to unite under the rule the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius may have encouraged his clients the Ghassanids to do this in order to ensure that the Persians did not regain influence over the Medina region.

Below are some notes on (mostly minor) issues and errors that I encountered in my reading.

On page 39 he says there are no daughters of Allah mentioned in the Quran. While it is true that no daughters of Allah are mentioned by name, the Quran does contain mention of the pagans attributing daughters to Allah:

Glen Bowersock, Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

And they attribute to God daughters—exalted is He—and for themselves what they desire. (The Quran, verse 16:57)

Ask them, “Are the daughters for your Lord, while for them the sons?” (The Quran, verse 37:149)

Or for Him the daughters, and for you the sons? (The Quran, verse 52:39)

He considers the Wars of Apostasy an inappropriate label because he assumes they were majorly aimed at false prophets like Musaylama. But according to Muslim sources these wars were aimed first at tribes that refused to pay the zakat which they had paid during the time of the Prophet PBUH. The war on Musaylama was a sequel to these, and rather than being directed at extinguishing a rival religion specifically, the war was an act of statecraft; Musaylama had established a state that was at war with the Muslim state, and the Muslim state responded.

He mentions the word ukhdūd as referring to the Trenches in the Battle of the Trench, even though the name universally used is khandaq. He mentions that chapter 85 of the Quran al-Burūj commemorates this battle when there is no relationship between the chapter and the battle whatsoever. This chapter in fact commemorates that killing of Christians by Yemeni Jews, a chapter of pre-Islamic history that Bowersock himself mentions often. The chapter of Quran the actually commemorates the Battle of the Trench is chapter 33, al-Aḥzāb (“The Confederates”).

He mentions that the relics of the True Cross had been moved to Baghdad in 614, possibly meaning al-Madāʾin because Baghdad did not exist at the time.

He says that the Prophet’s cousin ʿAlī b. Abū Ṭalib did not belong to the Quraysh tribe but to the Banū Hāshim, confusing clan differences with tribal differences. Banū Hāshim were actually a clan within Quraysh.

He mentions that the Prophet PBUH “reconstructed” the Kaʿba. The phrasing implies that he did this as part of his mission. There is no evidence as far as I know that the Prophet PBUH made any changes to the Kaʿba. He had taken part in repairs to the Kaʿba before he became a prophet.

His treatment of the Dome of the Rock seems to suggest that he is unaware that the mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqṣā) is actually the original mosque that was established on the Mount. He expects the traveler Arculf to have seen the rock in the mosque, but since the mosque does not actually include the rock and is hundreds of meters away from it, it is quite natural that Arculf does not mention the rock. The Dome of the Rock itself is not a mosque but merely a shrine.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind and the Decline of Islamic Civilization

A response to Robert R. Reilly’s book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Last I year I published then took down an early version of this essay. This is the updated version (also published as chapter 3 of my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims).

In his essay “The Problem of Islamic Decadence”, the British historian J. J. Saunders (1910 – 1972) mentions the many theories that Westerners have proposed to explain why Muslims went from being the all-powerful rulers of the world to being backward and politically weak.

Considering Islamic civilization a weak and backward one is a relatively new thing. Saunders writes:

Not until the Age of Enlightenment did the West awake to the fact that its enemy and former mentor had slipped so far behind: only then were attempts made to account for this decline. Up to the end of the seventeenth century Islam presented the appearance of great strength and viguor, at least politically: the three leading Muslim States, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia and Mogul India, ranked among the world’s great powers, and even the Sharifian kingdom of Morocco was treated with respect by Christian nations as late as the age of Louis XIV. Around 1700 there was a noticeable change. The final repulse of the Turks from Vienna (1683), the Christian reconquest of Hungary, and the Peace of Carlowitz (1699), registered the unmistakable decay of Ottoman might. The death of Awrangzib (1707) was followed by the rapid disintegration of the Mogul Empire. The fall of the Safavid dynasty (1722) ended the political greatness of Persia.[1]

Among undeniable signs of the decline of Islamic civilization were the fact that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb needed a Dutch passport to perform the Hajj in 1706,[2] and the fact that the Ottomans were so geographically ignorant that they were taken aback by the appearance of a Russian fleet in the Mediterranean in 1770, not knowing that the Baltic Sea was connected to the Atlantic Ocean according to Saunders.[3] As early as 1670, a European traveler through Persia and India noticed the lack of intellectual curiosity and the low technological sophistication of these lands.[4]

The French intellectuals Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Voltaire (1694-1778) and the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) blamed government tyranny and mismanagement for the state of Muslim societies.[5] Ernest Renan, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 19th century, blamed Islamic theology. According to Renan:

Only by freeing themselves from the paralysing grip of the Koran and the Law could the Muslim people hope to contribute again to the general advance of civilisation.[6]

Since Renan, the idea that Islam causes backwardness has been thoroughly taken up by the West’s intelligentsia so that it is taken for a fact these days—despite its banality and its sociologically amateur understanding of the functioning human societies. The works of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are a more sophisticated restatement of Renan’s ideas. One of the latest contributions to this field of Islam-blaming is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis by Robert R. Reilly.[7] This essay focuses on a critique of Reilly’s writing while introducing an alternative, and far more plausible, explanation.

Reilly argues that the Islamic theological doctrine of predestination and other Ash’arite—the dominant theological framework within Sunni Islam—teachings have driven Muslims to a fatalistic, anti-intellectual dead-end, a “suicide” as Reilly describes it, quoting Fazlur Rahman (1919 – 1988), the famous Pakistani Islamic intellectual.

Reilly’s thesis is that scholarly theological positions hamper Muslim curiosity and intellectual achievement. He asserts that religious scholars and their doctrines have the power to put a damper on the freedom of thought among Muslims. In his rather depressing vision, intelligent Muslims are almost mind-controlled by a fatalistic Islam, and if only they would abandon this version of Islam, they would, as if by magic, acquire the ability to stop being narrow-minded and develop into full human beings. As is sadly typical of Western discourses about Islam, Reilly compares the very worst examples of the people of the Middle East with the best of the West, and from this highly skewed comparison he concludes that Islam must be the reason why the Middle East is not doing as well as the West.

If Reilly is right that the presently dominant version of Islam causes narrow-mindedness and is tantamount to “intellectual suicide”, then we would expect the intellectual elite of the Muslim world to be severely affected by this suicidal doctrine. Men and women who would have been scientists and inventors in a different reality would instead be narrow-minded and anti-intellectual worshipers at the feet of the religious scholars. It sounds like the set-up for a good story, but is there any reality to this scenario? The question to ask is: are city-dwelling, cosmopolitan Muslims hampered in their intellectual curiosity by theological doctrines?

Reilly’s answer should be yes. These people would be responsible for intellectual progress; but there is supposedly little intellectual progress, therefore these people are instead narrow-minded anti-intellectuals who need to be freed from harmful Islamic doctrines.

In the Reilly’s imagination, Muslim hordes listen to their religious scholars then zealously go on to implement whatever backward thing said scholars recommend.

But in the world of reality, like George Eliot’s Christians and George Orwell’s proletarian Catholics, Muslims politely listen to the preachers at the Friday sermons, then go out to think whatever they themselves choose to think. If the sermon makes sense within their personal, familial and cultural conceptual frameworks, they may be motivated to slightly change their behavior in response to it. And if it did not survive this critique, the content will simply be ignored. And if a preacher insults their intelligence or conscience one too many times, they will simply stop attending their sermons and find another mosque to go to (if one is available). If not, they may go to the sermon as late as possible to catch the obligatory performance of the communal prayer after sermon ends, as I have seen some Muslims do.

Reilly writes:

There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been on the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.

Reilly quotes things like the above, thinking that they are somehow representative of all Muslims, when:

  1. Saudi’s cosmopolitan Muslims would find that just as laughable as any Westerner.
  2. There are perhaps tens of thousands of Americans who do not believe the moon landings ever happened. A quick search on for “moon landing hoax” brings up dozens of books.
  3. Saudi Arabia, this supposed capital of Islamic backwardness, now produces more scientific research[8] than Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel or Romania.[9]

Whether Saudi’s Wahhabi preachers dislike the country’s research institutions or not, the Muslim population not only tolerates them, but is proud of them and their achievements. In 2010, the Saudi website al-Weeam reported that a female Saudi student had come first in her class at Southampton University in England. The article led to 88 comments, most of which praised her achievement. A few of the usual suspects were present to mention how she was suffering moral decay by being in England, but these were the exception “that proves the rule”; most readers found positive value in her achievement and expressed pride in it.[10]

An illustration of the independence of the Muslim mind from religious scholars is the way Iran’s middle class rejects the Shia practice of temporary marriage, rightly recognizing it as legalized prostitution[11]despite scholarly approval for it.

Egypt is a very conservative country, yet its scientific output has increased from 4,515 scientific research papers published in 2005 to 17,300 in 2016. It is common to brush such data aside by saying this progress is happening despite Islam. Even if the research institutions that are producing these papers are staffed by devout Muslims, this is brushed aside by saying that they are not really Muslim in their hearts, that they have abandoned parts of Islam and this enables them to be rational and human. In this way, all actual cases of Muslims acting rationally, acting as intelligent and modern creatures, are dismissed in order to maintain the narrative that Islam promotes irrationality.

Western pundits preemptively close all doors to data that would prove their theses wrong; any data about real Muslims behaving intelligently, rationally and humanistically is inadmissible to them (they are not real Muslims, or they are doing what they do despite Islam), while all data showing otherwise is admissible.

Reilly, as many other pundits, considers Wahhabism somehow a natural form of Islam that has the danger of spreading to all Muslim minds. This is despite the fact it is likely only practiced by less than 1% of the world’s Muslims, largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims strongly dislike it. When the Wahhabi Ibn Saud conquered Mecca and Medina with the help of British funding[12] in the 1920’s, the people of these two cities so strongly disliked Wahhabi preachers that he had to import clerics from Egypt.[13]

Reilly has to focus on Wahhabism because he is trying to explain why Islam is causing so much terrorism.[14] Like almost all of those who try to answer this question, he tries to find the reasons for Islamic terrorism within Islamic cultures and societies, ignorant of the fact Islamic terrorism is very much a 20th century phenomenon triggered by colonial rule in Egypt, the Jewish ethnic cleansing of Palestine[15], and the US arming, training and funding of the Wahhabi Taliban and al-Qaeda organizations in the 1980’s in order to weaken the Soviet Union.[16]

Instead of trying to look blindly grope inside Muslim minds for the causes of Islamic terrorism, Reilly would probably do much better to call up a few of his friends at the Pentagon.[17]

The decline of Islamic science

The rise of the rationalist Mu’tazilites coincided with the rise of Islamic science in the 9th century, and the fall of the Mu’tazilites and the rise of Ash’arites in the 11th century coincided with the fall of Islamic science. Reilly considers it his most important contribution to the discussion of the decline of Islam to suggest that the abandonment of Mu’tazilite doctrine and the adoption of the less intellectual Ash’arite doctrine was a cause for the decline and fall of Islamic civilization. For him this correlation equals causation.

During the period of decline that started from 900 CE onward, the Abbasid empire suffered repeated Turkic invasions. The same process that caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (centuries of barbarian invasions causing a breakdown in urban networks of professionalism and trade) happened to Islam from the 10th century to the 15th century. The West was spared this process during the same period so that it enjoyed a Renaissance in peace just as the Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni was carrying on his slaughter of cosmopolitan and productive Iranian cities.

Baghdad was the center of Abbasid science and philosophy, which was largely conducted by Iranians coming from the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia. These cities were one by one decimated by the Turkic and Mongol invasions, and Baghadad itself never recovered from the destruction of its irrigation system by the Mongols.[18] Two centuries after the Mongols, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane re-destroyed Baghdad even more thoroughly than the Mongols had managed.[19]

Russia and Poland, the only significant areas of the West that suffered Mongol and Turkic invasions during the same period, were until recently just as famous for being backward and undeveloped as the Muslim lands, despite being Christian lands. John Saunders writes:

Since the conversion of Northmen and the Magyars around 1000, Western Europe had been completely free from this scourge. The Mongols, who devastated Russia as thoroughly as they did Western Asia, got as far as Silesia in 1241 before their leaders were obliged to return home in order to elect a new Great Khan. Had they pressed westwards to the Rhine and the Atlantic and overrun Germany, Italy and France, which they could probably have done with ease, there would have been no Renaissance, and the West, like Russia, would have taken centuries to reconstruct the shattered fabric of its civilisation. Western Europe has perhaps never properly appreciated its good fortune in escaping conquest by the last and most dreadful of the invaders from the steppes of Asia. It emerged from the Dark Ages in the eleventh century, at the very time when the first barbarian blows were being struck at the world of Islam, and it was able from then onwards to build up a new civilisation on the Atlantic fringe of the Eurasian continent uninterrupted by the raids and devastations of Turks or Mongols or Bedouins.

Now that the destruction brought by the barbarian invasions has been repaired and trade has resumed, we should take another look at Muslim societies and see whether things are changing or not. Islam has not changed greatly in the past 200 years. Muslims continue to consider the Quran the literal Word of God and the hadith collections of al-Bukhārī and Muslim as canons of the faith. If Renan, Lewis and Reilly are right that Islamic theology is causing a closing of the Muslim mind (John Saunders, too, considers Islam a potential negative influence), we would expect little change to have taken place after the restoration of peace, because they tell us that it is the Muslims’ Islamic beliefs that is making them backward and decadent, not something outside of Islam, such as historical circumstances.

Today, throughout the Muslim world there is great interest in philosophy, in science, in literature. The top 6 Muslim-majority countries in terms of population (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Turkey) have increased their scientific output by three to ten times in the past ten years alone.  Iran now publishes more scientific research papers in peer-reviewed journals than Sweden, Poland or Belgium. Muslims are sending their children to Western-inspired universities by the millions. In Iran and Egypt, most Western bestsellers are translated and published a year or two after their publication in the West. It is breathtakingly ignorant to color one’s understanding of the Muslim societies of today by prejudices inspired by the decaying societies of 1000-1900. Islamic theology has remained the same, yet everything else is changing.

The Scientific Revolution was the edge of edges that enabled Europe to rule the world until the year 2000. It has only been in the past 20 years (since the 1990’s) that the nations outside of Europe, Muslim and non-Muslim, discovered the importance of formal scientific research. Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India and China realized they would forever be second-class citizens on the world stage, clients of Europe, as long as they did not have a system for churning out discoveries as Europe did.

All of the 20th century was a difficult lesson for the third world in learning that, to keep up with Europe, it is not sufficient to copy its technologies; one needs to recreate its scientific research culture. Only this enables one to have the well-educated and well-equipped men and women needed to develop the blades of aircraft engines and the connectors used in supercomputers.

At the moment that I am writing this, we stand at the moment in history when the non-European world has finally realized the essential necessity for scientists. China went from publishing 28,000 scientific papers in 1996 to over 400,000 in 2016. Recently it was announced that China had surpassed the United States in its output to become the world’s number one publisher of scientific research.[20] Iran has seen even more dramatic growth, going from less than 1000 papers in 1996 to over 47,000 in 2016. Similar growth can be seen in all major Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.

We are now in a major turning point in history, perhaps as important as that in 1600 when Western Europe became the world’s supreme civilization. The thing that gave Europe its permanent edge over the past centuries no longer solely belongs to it. The culture of scientific inquiry is being recreated throughout the world, so that today any of Egypt, Iran, India or Malaysia is likely perfectly capable of carrying science forward even if Europe and the United States were to vanish from the world.

A theory that blames Islam for the Islamic world’s status today will have to tell us that this recent realization of the crucial importance of science to national prowess and prosperity is going to make little difference as long as Muslims remain devout. We are supposedly backward because of Islam, not because of historical circumstances. But a quick comparison between Muslim countries and their non-Muslim equivalents in the next section shows that this is just a figment of the imagination; these nations are remaining devout Muslims while embracing science.

We Muslims are often given the nonsensical choice of either choosing to be human or choosing to be Muslim, and in Western works like S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment and Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment, the writers make it amply clear that they could never see eye-to-eye with a faithful and devout Muslim (who is invariably an enemy of rationality and intellectual progress). They cannot conceive of someone as intelligent as themselves (or God forbid, more intelligent) being a faithful Muslim.

Caught between Western discussions of often imaginary Muslims are actual, living and breathing Muslims who are experiencing no crisis, who are happy to engage in intellectual pursuits, and who while respecting the religious scholars, do not take them seriously when what they say goes against reason and conscience. Are Muslim doctors systematically avoiding intellectual inquiry because of Ash’arite indoctrination? This is such an incredibly outlandish thought that it would make most Muslims laugh. Are Muslim parents systematically forbidding their children from reading Western classics and studying the humanities at Western universities? No. They see no conflict between intellectual inquiry and Islam because to them there is no conflict, and it is their opinion that matters; it is they who make Islam’s history.

Imaginary Muslims live in Muslim “no-go zones”, do not read except strict religious literature, do everything the scholars tell them, and keep their women in cages. Real Muslims live wherever they want, read whatever they like, are respectful but inwardly skeptical toward the religious scholars and treat their women according to whatever their human instincts and cultures demand. It is time that we started considering real Muslims in our discussions of Islam. Imaginary Muslims need to be taught reason, rationality and humanism. Actual Muslims do not—they have already embraced these ideas and integrated them into their own lives. In just a single century the Islamic world’s scientific output has increased by orders of magnitude, nearly all Muslim families have started to send their children to secular universities that have popped up all over the Muslim lands, and almost all Muslim countries have adopted some form of constitutional democracy. This, I believe, is sufficient progress for just one century.

Harmful theology?

The Ash’arites (represented by al-Ghazālī and others) said that God is capable of willing anything. Reilly thinks this shows a dangerous moral relativism within Islam, since it tells us that God’s nature is totally arbitrary.

But this is fantastical nonsense; a Muslim cannot perform the obligatory prayer without referring to God as the Gracious, the Merciful, multiple times, amounting to a minimum of 36 times a day. Can a theological idea that the majority of Muslims have never even heard of[21] somehow override this consistent emphasis on God’s attributes of grace and mercy?

Reilly writes that the elimination of cause and effect “makes prediction impossible”. He refers to the case of certain Islamic scholars getting weather forecasts banned between 1983-1984 as evidence.  But his evidence actually takes away from his thesis; even in a traditional and supposedly backward country like Pakistan, the ulema could not get weather forecasts banned for more than a year. The scholars won for one year and consistently lost every single year before and after that—despite Pakistan remaining very much a conservative Muslim country. The sensible conclusion is not that Muslims believe in irrationalist nonsense, but that they reject nonsense even if it comes from their religious scholars.

The Safavids and Qajars were not Ash’arites, they were in fact Shia who maintained respect for the opposing rationalist Mu’tazilite tradition, yet they were no more open to intellectual inquiry than the Ash’arite Ottomans. Additionally, today Ash’arite Sunni countries like Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia are not behind non-Ash’arite Iran and Azerbaijan in science and intellectual inquiry. Both the past and the present show that Ash’arite theology is useless as a predictor of the openness or closedness of the Muslim mind.

If religious scholars abuse Islamic theology to attack common sense, Muslims will feel embarrassed that their religion has to be represented by such people. Reilly continually uses the excesses of certain minor sects and political groups in their support for unreasonable policies as proof for Ash’arite theology’s extreme influence, despite the fact that the majority of Muslims consider these groups unrespectable and unworthy of attention. George Makdisi mentions an interesting case of theological abuse by a scholar:

The Spanish grammarian Ibn Mada’ (d. 592/1196) wrote a refutation of the concept of the regent (‘āmil: regens) in grammar, on the basis that government belongs to God alone. The author, applying the Ash’ari theological view to grammar, denies the power of the regent on the basis that desinential inflections are really the result of God’s acts; they are merely attributed (kasb) to man. Needless to say that this view had no success in the field of grammar.[22]

A person who views Islam as an anti-intellectual force will consider the above “typical” of Islam. But Makdisi, who understands the functioning of real-world Islamic societies, considers it “needless to say” that this absurd abuse of theology was not taken seriously by Muslims. The quoted anecdote does not show that Ash’arism had a negative influence on Muslim minds, it in fact shows the opposite; Muslims by and large do not accept nonsense even when dressed in the language of religion.

It is tempting for an intellectual, especially a Westerner, to think of himself or herself as a knight in shining armor chosen to rid the Muslim world of its backwardness, chosen to bring the Muslims out of the darkness of faith into the light of reason. But such a person, if they were to go to cosmopolitan places like Cairo or Tehran, and if they were to have dinner at a devout cosmopolitan Muslim’s home, will find that there is no need for the battering ram of reason and rationality they brought with themselves. The closed gates of the Muslim mind are an illusion; there are no gates. Look at the books sold on the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Baghdad. The openness of the Islamic world of today to ideas from around the world would shock medieval Islamic theologians (and medieval Christian theologians). Even in the Islamic theocracy of Iran the books of freethinkers like Avicenna and the latest Western bestsellers are not merely tolerated but celebrated. This alone should be sufficient to show that the idea of “closed” Muslim societies and minds is uninformed fantasizing.

[1] J. J. Saunders, Muslims & Mongols: Essays on Medieval Asia, ed. G.W. Rice, Christchurch: University of Canterbury and Whitcoulli Limited, 1977, 27.

[2] Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey, 26.

[3] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols, 106.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid., 104.

[7] Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010.

[8] 18,953 research papers in 2016 according to Scimago Journal and Country Rank.

[9] Perhaps the larger part of Saudi’s scientific growth is due to the importation of foreign scientists. But the fact that the Saudis are willing to spend billions of dollars on research, and the fact that the Saudi population is not up in arms against this scientific growth but actually supports it should give us pause.

[10] Sālim al-Shaybānī, “Mutaba`ithah saudiyyah tuhaqiq injaz ilmi wa tatafawwaq al-talabah al-baritaniyyin fi jami`atihim”, Alweeam, December 1, 2010, (retrieved January 27, 2018).

[11] One can marry someone for a day as long as a cleric is present to officiate the wedding.

[12] See Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, London: Profile Books Ltd, 2018.

[13] See Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

[14] Almost all cases of Islamic terrorism are carried out by Wahhabis and sects following similar doctrines.

[15] For the Palestinian issue, see Ila Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007.

[16] See Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s Wars for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2016.

[17] The Pentagon was providing regular flights to al-Qaeda members right before 9/11, as FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds has publicized. See Edmonds’ interview with Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine: “Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?”, November 1, 2009, (retrieved December 24, 2018).

[18] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols,  114.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dockrilll, Peter. “China Just Overtook The US in Scientific Output For The First Time.” ScienceAlert, January 23, 2018, (retrieved March 5, 2018).

[21] In my discussions of Ash’arite theology with Muslims, I have found that they find it very unsettling and outlandish, since it goes against the normative Islam they have learned throughout their lives; that God is just and kind.

[22] George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: With Special Reference to Scholasticism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990, 124.

What are some good books on al-Ghazali?

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times is a collection of high-quality scholarly essays on Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE) edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed. It is highly worth reading for anyone interested in this important and controversial character of Islamic history. Maybe I should mention that I do not consider myself a follower of Ibn Taymiyya. I do like some aspects of his thinking as do many important mainstream Islamic thinkers, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Yasir Qadhi.

The book is an important contribution to our understanding of Ibn Taymiyya, refuting the views of both his extremist supporters and his critics. The essay show that Ibn Taymiyya is a far more sophisticated and multi-dimensional thinker than is commonly imagined. This book will hopefully serve as a landmark in ending the simplistic, biased and prejudiced treatments that Ibn Taymiyya has so far received in both Muslim and Western sources.

The first essay by Caterina Bori shows that Ibn Taymiyya was not a representative of the Ḥanbalī school, quite the opposite. He was something of an outsider to the school and was surrounded by a very small group of highly dedicated followers.

Jon Hoover’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya has unique theological views that differ greatly from Ḥanbalī orthodoxy and that do not follow directly from the views of the Salaf (“Pious Predecessors”, the earliest few generations of Muslims). He argues that God’s relationship with humans is personal and dynamic. He acts directly in time and interacts with humans. This is a far more satisfying view of God to the modern mind compared to the impersonal God of more popular versions of Islamic theology.

M. Sait Özervarli’s essay continues the discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s theology. Ibn Taymiyya, like Ibn Rushd, argues that there can never contradiction between rationality and scripture. When there is a contradiction, either scripture has been misunderstood, or the rational evidence has been misconstrued. According to Özervarli, Ibn Taymiyya argues for a Quran-centered empirical rationalism that shuns the complicated arguments of the kalam-theologians and takes its inspiration from the basic facts of life that we observe around us. According to Ibn Taymiyya there is no need for philosophical proofs of God’s existence since the Quran is full of signs that point to God. These signs are a sufficiency to those who understand them properly.

Racha el Omari’s essay focuses on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemics against Ashʿarite theology (the “orthodox” theology of scholars like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī). Ibn Taymiyya argues for a “theology of the Salaf” that goes beyond Ḥanbalī theology and tries to always re-derive its theological views from the views of the earliest Muslims, although just how much Ibn Taymiyya’s theology agrees with that of the Salaf has to be studied further. It is seems more historically accurate to me to say that the Salaf did not really have much of a theology beyond their faith in the Quran’s literal meaning. This means that any effort to develop an intellectually satisfying theological framework will always need to go far beyond what the Salaf ever said or imagined, and Ibn Taymiyya’s theology seems to fit this description: whenever he tries to build a sophisticated argument in support of some view, he has to venture out on his own onto territory that the Salaf never explored. For this reason he was criticized by other Ḥanbalīs for engaging in too much philosophical thinking.

The essay by Walid A. Saleh examines Ibn Taymiyya’s approach to interpreting the Quran as it is laid out in his short treatise Muqaddima fī uṣūl al-tafsīr (An Introduction on the Foundations of Quranic Exgesis). Saleh calls Ibn Taymiyya’s approach “radical hermeneutics” since it attempts to throw away the existing exegetical tradition in order to take the field back to its origins among the Salaf. It tries to force the authority of the hadith tradition and the opinions of the Salaf on the field so that no one would be allowed to interpret the Quran in any way save the way of hadith and the Salaf. Anyone who tries to put forth an interpretation of a Quranic verse will have to find a basis for it in hadith or the opinions of the Salaf. This intellectual caging of interpretive freedom is meant to ensure the “purity” of Quranic interpretations so that heretical and misguided interpretations do not enter into it. Among scholars who followed his methodology are his student Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 CE), who continued to respect the existing exegetical tradition, and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505 CE), who according to Saleh produced the classic work of the genre of exegesis that Ibn Taymiyya called for. Modern Muslims who are not entirely happy with this restricted methodology can still benefit from sources that try to follow it, considering them one legitimate voice among others (even if such sources consider themselves the only legitimate voices).

Livnat Holtzman discusses Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim’s theological views on human freedom and choice. Ibn Taymiyya breaks with existing views on God’s guidance to say that while all humans are born in a state of purity and guidance, a person can go on to choose what is good or evil, and according to this choice, God goes on to guide them further or misguide them. This is a refreshingly rational treatment of the question compared to the views of other scholars. There is still an important question that his theology does not answer; how can free-willed decisions be really free if they can be predicted with 100% accuracy by God beforehand? I have never read an intellectually satisfying answer from any Muslim scholar on this.

Yossef Rapoport discusses Ibn Taymiyya’s unique legal methodology, such as his rejection of accepted legal tricks that used lawful means for unlawful ends, and his breaking away with Ḥanbalī tradition in order to call for persistent ijtihād (striving to solve issues of law and theology using one’s efforts rather than merely relying on the opinions of past scholars). Intention is of primary importance to Ibn Taymiyya; even if all the proper legal forms are obeyed, if the aim is evil, he wholeheartedly rejects it. As is usual with Ibn Taymiyya, his views are in general refreshingly modern and rational.

Tariq al-Jamil’s essay is a short discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Shia polemical views. The essay by David Thomas is on Ibn Taymiyya’s polemical response to a Christian piece of writing that attempted to insinuate that all Muslims would embrace Christianity if they understood the Quran and the Bible better. Rather than responding to the Christian piece directly, Ibn Taymiyya uses it as an occasion to discuss why Islam is superior to Christianity.

The essay by Khaled el-Rouayheb argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s popularity in the post-classical era has been greatly exaggerated. He was a marginal figure who was rarely mentioned or taken seriously by the scholars that came after him. This state of affairs continued for five centuries after Ibn Taymiyya’s death. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a movement started to rehabilitate his image and popularize his works. The most important figures in this movement were Nuʿmān Khayr al-Dīn al-Ālūsī (d. 1899 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).

Raquel M. Ukeles’ essay argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of such things as the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was more sophisticated than is realized or acknowledged by his modern admirers. While he considered such things false innovations (bidaʿ, plural of bidʿa), he recommended tolerance toward its practitioners, saying that they could even get a great reward from God for their good intentions. He therefore takes a highly intelligent stance on the issue:

  • Those who follow the way of the earliest Muslims and believe in rejecting innovations must shun such things. If they engage in them, they would be committing a sin.
  • Those among qualified scholars whose own personal opinion (ijtihād) has convinced them that such celebrations are religiously acceptable should be respected. They have the right to their own opinions.
  • Those among the Muslim masses who celebrate such things should be judged by their intentions. If they do it out of good intentions, their deed is accepted. If they do it for other intentions, their deed is rejected.

That is an amazingly tolerant view compared to that of some of those who today think they are representative of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings.

The last essay is by Mona Hassan. She argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s views regarding the caliphate have been misconstrued by much of Western scholarship. Western scholars like Henri Laoust wrongly believed that Ibn Taymiyya had done away with classical scholarly view of the necessity of the existence of a ruler that followed the ideals of the Rashidun caliphs. She also discusses his fatwas regarding the permissibility of fighting the Mongols. The group that assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 claimed that their actions were legitimate according to Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas. Hassan says that this group completely misread Ibn Taymiyya, whose framework is actually concerned with fighting outlaws and rebels. Ironically, that extremist group itself falls within the definition of those groups that Ibn Taymiyya believes can be legitimately fought by the Muslims. She discusses Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s statements in support of peaceful political participation. Al-Qaradawi uses two of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas to show that Ibn Taymiyya’s was not an isolationist as some of his admirers believe but rather believed in participating in politics where this could serve a constructive purpose.

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times should interest anyone interested in a sophisticated understanding of Ibn Taymīya, Islamic intellectual history and the origins of Salafism.

Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question (originally published in French in 2009, published in English in 2011) is well worth reading, mainly for its detailed refutation of various pseudo-scientific defenses of Islam and the Quran that have been offered by others. His detailed critique of Iʿjāz literature and its supporters (such as Zaghloul El-Naggar), who purport to show scientific “miracles” found in the Quran and hadith using the flimsiest of evidence, will hopefully help bring the discussion on Islam and science to a higher and less embarrassing plane in the Muslim world.

Guessoum’s refutation of misguided Muslim arguments against the theory of evolution (such as those of Harun Yahya and Seyyed Hussein Nasr) and his overview of the scientific support for evolution are also highly valuable.

The book is marred by Guessoum’s attempts at coming up with “scientific” explanations for miracles. He suggests that Jesus’s healing of the blind may have actually been the placebo effect, seemingly finding it the most scientifically satisfactory explanation. This rather naive reasoning is symptomatic of the fact that Guessoum offers very little in the way of synthesis, despite the subtitle’s promised “reconciliation”. The book is largely overview and refutation, with little in the way of creative theological problem-solving.

Guessoum follows Aristotle and Ibn Rushd in conceiving of nature as a principle that stands above God–what I will call the nature supremacist view. When Mother Nature says something (miracles do not happen), and God says something else (miracles happen), the plain meaning of God’s words is to be ignored to please Nature. Thus Guessoum finds it more satisfactory to believe that the stick of Moses turning into a snake was actually an illusion rather than a fact of reality. Guessoum’s theology is therefore secularized and defensive; he has to find flimsy scientific-sounding excuses (the placebo effect, quantum mechanical indeterminacy) to explain away Quranic statements about divine action in order to be more scientifically “authentic”.

A respect for Islam’s traditional theology and an effort to reconcile it with modern science is largely absent from the book. Guessoum seems to think it beneath him to take the plain sense of the Quran literally. Like Ziauddin Sardar (whom he admires and whose thought he covers in some detail), he thinks that a person as intelligent and well-educated as himself could never be a traditionalist. Guessoum writes:

I commented that the reconciliation between the two depends strongly on the reading (literal vs. interpretative) that one adopts for the religious texts. The more literal the person is, the more problems she/he will find in harmonising science with Islam.1

That is only the case for Guessoum himself–and only because he has accepted to be driven into the nature supremacist corner. There is an alternative that he is wholly unaware of: the Ghazalian worldview. Guessoum is dismissive toward al-Ghazali (who is “orthodox” and therefore automatically persona non grata to Guessoum), unaware that al-Ghazali’s universe-as-simulation metaphor (which Guessoum cites and summarily discards) provides for a better reconciliation of Islam and science than his Aristotle-and-Ibn Rushd-inspired nature-supremacist worldview.

The Ghazalian worldview accepts the plain sense of the Quran while remaining utterly rationalist and empiricist toward the natural world. It is more faithful to the Quran because it does not try to explain anything in it away in the service of Mother Nature, and it is more faithful to science because it does not abuse concepts borrowed from fields like quantum mechanics to support mystical explanations. It is both as God-centered as any mystical view of the universe and as scientific as any atheist scientist may desire.

In the Ghazalian worldview, since we free our conception of God from the chains of nature supremacism, the literal meaning of the Quran stops giving us trouble. God caused the Red Sea to part? That is problematic to Guessoum and Guessoum’s imaginary literalist since he must come up with an explanation that pleases Mother Nature almost as a deity alongside God. But in the Ghazalian view explaining it is the simplest thing in the world: the person in charge of a simulation can make any change to it he wants. He can cause it to run according to natural laws that he can suspend whenever he wishes. There is no need for quantum mechanical or psychological explanations of this miracle because nature is not a god alongside God, nature is merely a projection, a mirage, upheld by God. Trying to find scientific explanations for miracles is as silly as a video game character trying to find explanations for miraculous events inside the video game using the game’s logic that they see around them, wholly unaware that the video game is actually hosted on a computer and that the miraculous event was just a number that switched inside the computer’s RAM. By being unaware that there is one logic to the inside of the game and another, far more sophisticated, logic to the outside of it, all explanations our character comes up with will be hopelessly inadequate. Only once the creator of the game sends a revelation into the game telling the character that there is an outside infrastructure to the game will the character be able to finally understand the miracle. The miracle had no basis within the game’s logic because it followed a different logic, a foreign, outer logic.

The parting of the Red Sea had no need for scientific intermediaries because scientific factors are how God normally does things; when He abnormally does things as in the case of miracles, He is acting unscientifically. Science merely describes God’s normal ways of operating this simulation. So trying to come up with scientific explanations for miracles is to think that God has to bow down to Mother Nature and do things her way rather than His way.

According to Guessoum, and I hope I am not being too harsh here, a self-respecting and scientifically-minded Muslim must believe that God has no choice but to act according to the laws of nature. Why? What is so special about nature that God must bow down to it? What a low opinion to have about God! Guessoum could argue that God acts according to nature by choice, but there is no suggestion in the book that he has such a conception. He appears to think of God and nature as two equally powerful deities, apparently thinking this is the only way we can “reconcile” the two and remain scientifically respectable.

I respect Guessoum’s right to have his own theology. But I do not respect his apparent thinking that his secularized and defensive theology is the only intelligent and rationalist one. This could of course simply be due to his lack of knowledge of the details and sophistication of Islamic theology. See my essay on reconciling Islam and Darwinian evolution for more on the Ghazalian worldview and how it fits perfectly within a rationalist worldview.

Selection bias and cultural intertia

He discusses a 2007 conference on “Quranic Healing” organized in Abu Dhabi and attended by many university professors and professionals. The keynote speaker called for integrating “Quranic healing” into medicine in university curricula. Topics discussed included the effect of Quran recitation on water and the scientific basis for the evil eye.

Reading such reports, I had difficulty reminding myself that all this was being presented in the twenty-first-century conferences and not in dark medieval gatherings.2

There is a selection bias here: only the minority of Muslim professors and professionals who find “Quranic healing” interesting would have been interested in attending such a conference. This tells us nothing about the potential majority of elite Muslims who would have found such a conference absurd. That conference could either be (1) a sign that Muslims are still medieval in their thinking on some matters or (2) one of the last gasps of the dying breed of Muslim professors and professionals who engage in such silly abuses of religion and science.

Guessoum expresses many aspects of what I call “Muslim middle class horror syndrome”; the horror of middle class Muslims at what we might call ordinary Muslims. He decries the fact that a Quran memorization competition at his son’s school (in the UAE) attracted the interest of all the parents while a science fair barely attracted a few of them. The Quran competition only focused on memorization, not understanding, and the parents apparently could not care less about comprehension as long as memorization took place.

“Islam” might be a completely irrelevant variable here from a social science perspective. Children of doctors and other highly educated professionals, regardless of their parents’ religiosity, are going to enjoy having parents that are going to be as open-minded and interested in science education as Guessoum. And children of uneducated parents are going to not have parents that are interested in science education. It just so happens that in the UAE, most children are the children of uneducated parents.

To put it another way, Islamic beliefs never prevented children born to highly-educated parents from reading and taking in dozens of modern scientific books. Guessoum, who had such an upbringing, somehow thinks he is unique. I doubt he is. With or without Islam, children who come from families predisposed to love knowledge and learning will get a wide, modern education. The idea that there are highly intelligent Muslims who refuse to read scientific books (as Guessoum’s theory of the ailment of Islamic cultures would predict) is completely a figment of the imagination; there are no such Muslims.

Now, I do not deny that the Arab/Islamic world suffers from far more superstition and anti-scientific attitudes than, say, Sweden. But this may simply represent cultural inertia. The number of people getting a university degree in the Middle East has increased by orders of magnitude in the past 50 years, and this cannot help but slowly change their cultures. It is just that change takes time.

We should therefore look at the attitudes of devout Muslim children versus their parents to find out whether Islam is preventing progress as their culture changes or not. I am very much of the opinion that Islam is quite irrelevant here.

To put it another way: Islam never prevented someone from being a rationalist. It did not do that in 850 CE, and it does not do that today. Islam can be used as an excuse for irrationalism, but it can also be used as an excuse for rationalism. It is quite amazing that, seeing the extremely diverse worldviews of Islam’s different scholars, one can hold onto the view that Islam somehow hampers rationalism. The existence and celebrity status of rationalists like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī should be sufficient evidence to show that a person predisposed to rationalism will find rationalism through Islam. It is humans themselves who make Islam rationalist or irrationalist as their own personal and cultural tendencies make them. Islam may not be a causal factor here–it may simply be a victim.

Another support for my argument is this: In the Middle East, secularists who reject Islam and proudly embrace theories like evolution as alternatives to the Islamic worldview are going to be just as ignorant about real science as Muslims of equal education / socio-economic status. They will follow a narrow-minded, make-believe science that is almost half made up of a secularist metaphysics. This means that it is the culture that is the problem, not the religion. Even if religion is abandoned, ignorance and narrow-mindedness remains because of cultural inertia. I do not have data to back this up, but my experience of the Middle East strongly supports this view.

The solution is going to be slow and will take much time. If each generation is slightly more rationalist than the one before it, then we can consider that progress. Egypt’s scientific output has increased from about 2800 research papers in 1996 to 17,000 in 2017. That is a tremendous increase in scientific output that at least partly reflects increased funding and engagement, and will likely have important ramifications for Egyptian culture. We see the same pattern almost everywhere else in Muslim majority countries: Pakistan went from 890 papers in 1996 to 15800 in 2017, Iran publishes more science than Belgium, Sweden or Poland (data from Scimago Journal & Country Rank).

The anti-Ghazali prejudice

While his treatment of al-Ghazali is friendlier than many others, he too submits to the Orientalist myth that al-Ghazali had a harmful effect on philosophy. He writes:

He remains an icon of Islamic classical scholarship, although for philosophy and science his legacy and influence were minimal, if not negative.3

Recent Western scholarship has shown that al-Ghazali wasn’t just a non-enemy of philosophy; he actually tried to integrate philosophy with spirituality and Islamic law. See Frank Griffel’s Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology and Kenneth Garden’s The First Islamic Reviver. Guessoum’s understanding of al-Ghazali is therefore outdated and unaware of recent scholarship.

Wahhabism, Ibn Taymiyya and Salafism

I am neither a Salafi nor follower of Ibn Taymiyya but I am forced here to defend them against Guessoum’s treatment. He conflates Wahhabism with Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings. Unfortunately it looks like it will take decades before we can rescue Ibn Taymiyya’s image from these caricatures. Guessoum really likes Ibn Rushd’s assertion that there can never be conflict between rational knowledge and scripture–a concept that was in fact very strongly defended by Ibn Taymiyya as well. As a modern Muslim, I find Ibn Taymiyya’s version of the argument superior to Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd continues to hold onto philosophical arrogance–the belief that when scripture and philosophy conflict, philosophy should be used to explain away scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya has the opposite, and wiser and more modern (some would say postmodern) view. Rather than arrogantly thinking that we are always superior to scripture, we should acknowledge that scripture is superior to us. When there is a seeming conflict between scripture and philosophy (I include science in this), rather than naively explaining away the conflict, we should look deeper and consider the possibility that it is our seemingly rational arguments that are at fault. A good example is the question of Darwinian evolution. Past reformers tried to reconcile Islam and Darwinian evolution by explaining away Islam’s views on creation. As I show in my essay on Islam and evolution, now that we have progressed further in our knowledge, we can actually fully support scripture’s views while maintaining rationality. It was rationality that was at fault in the past, not scripture. As our rationality improved, we realized that scripture had it right all along.

A wise person takes a lesson from this: we should strongly resist the desire to explain away scripture when there is a seeming conflict between it and rationality. We should always keep in mind that future generations may solve the conflict without being forced to throw away the plain meaning of scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya, despite his faults, was a wonderfully intelligent, open-minded and rationalistic scholar. To those of us wishing for a more intelligent and empirical Islamic law, Ibn Taymiyya is a much-needed breath of fresh air compared to the scholars who came before him (for example in his rejection of the triple divorce, in his consideration of the common good as a positive thing in its own right). Those interested in a sophisticated view of Ibn Taymiyya should check out Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, see my review of it here).

Guessoum writes the following gross mischaracterization of Salafis (who, according to him, are the same as Wahhabis, but perhaps he was simplifying for the sake of his readers):

And Salafis often nonchalantly dismiss scientific and other truths whenever they appear to conflict with their literal understanding of Islamic texts or with injunctions found in the Qur’an and in the Hadith. No effort at interpretation is ever made to reconcile such truths; the Texts come first – complete with the readings and understandings of the Salaf.4

In reality Salafism is a diverse doctrine with an important non-Wahhabi element. Some of the most ardent Salafi followers of Ibn Taymiyya are in fact far more rationalistic in their understanding of Islam than many other Muslims (due to their critical approach to the opinions of previous scholars and toward hadith). As for Salafis rejecting science, if we ignore Wahhabi propagandists then I doubt there is any such pattern.

Did Muslims invent science?

Guessoum mentions Ziauddin Sardar’s defense of Muslims as originators of science and rightly does not agree with it. Despite his high respect for Sardar, he feels free to criticize his often politically motivated statements about Islam and the supposed intrinsic racism of the West, something I was pleased to see. Sardar unfortunately often acts as a propagandist capitalizing on fashionable Western trends, the current fashion being the doctrine that while all cultures and civilizations are somehow equally worthy, Western culture and civilization is inherently evil. For my previous criticism of Sardar see my essay An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

Guessoum says that modern science is a recent phenomenon. He gives a number of the attributes of science, such as objectivity and a focus on experimentation. I believe the relationship of medieval Muslims with science deserved further discussion. First, let me propose a simple definition of science that captures its modern spirit and shows why medieval Muslims did not really have science as we understand it:

Science is autonomous consensus-seeking about explanations of the natural world.

An explanation is only scientific if it there is autonomous consensus about it among humans. Autonomous consensus means for many people to reach the same conclusion despite the almost-complete lack of pressure on them to reach that conclusion. If you have people in the United States, China and Egypt study the same phenomenon and reach the same conclusion about its explanation even though no one is forcing them to agree, then we call that conclusion scientific. Of course, this process can lead to false results, but the point is that as the process is carried out, it uncovers its own falsehoods and corrects them.

Guessoum says that an essential aspect of science is methodological naturalism (the insistence on natural, rather than supernatural, explanations). I believe this may not be necessary because autonomous consensus-seeking automatically, over the centuries, leads to methodological naturalism. Humans necessarily do not all share the same faith or the same liking for supernatural explanations. Therefore when humans seek consensus, they necessarily must discard supernatural explanations one by one until only the natural remains. In other words, discarding supernatural explanations is a side-effect of autonomous consensus-seeking, it is not an essential part of it. You simply cannot have humans from different cities and countries all come to the same autonomous consensus on some supernatural explanation because that requires equality of faith and theology, something that never exists. But they can come to autonomous consensus about natural explanations, since no faith or theology is needed for this. Therefore the seeking of consensus about the natural world automatically causes the supernatural to fade away over time until only the natural remains.

Now, medieval Muslims did not really have science because, while many brilliant minds sought explanations of the natural world (thus possessing one aspect of science), they did not have any concept of the importance of autonomous consensus-seeking, which is the essential element of modern science. They worked independently to understand the natural world, but they did not have sufficient self-awareness to generalize their methods into an agreed-upon process for uncovering the workings of the natural world. Al-Biruni defended science’s inductive method, but his method was never generally accepted or practiced. It took centuries of development before humans had sufficient self-awareness to think of science as a thing in itself. This self-awareness only started in the late 16th century with people like Francis Bacon.

Saying medieval Muslims had science therefore discards an essential aspect of its development. We should instead say that medieval Muslims had elements of modern science while lacking its essential quality: that of being able to see science as a thing in itself, a process of consensus-seeking for uncovering facts about the natural world. Muslim “science” was un-self-aware science. Self-awareness is essential to modern science. Therefore trying to drag the concept of modern science into the medieval era, as people like Ziauddin Sardar try to do, only muddies the waters. It is also an insult to the ingenuity and hard work of Europeans who were able to see science as a thing in itself.

It is true that Muslims contributed two essential things to science: the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral dissertation that comes with it (see George Makdisi’s books). Christianity is a hierarchical religion that had little respect for independent initiative among scholars. Europe literally imported academic freedom from Islamic civilization where it was considered essential to the validity of the rulings of legal scholars (muftis). This was a foreign element in European universities that caused great conflict at first. Originally European universities were little more than servants of the Church and subservient to its authority. But Islamic academic freedom continually weakened the Church’s authority over the universities. Eventually, modern science was born out of this atmosphere.

Islam may have been essential to the development of modern science, but Islam did not have modern science. It only provided some of its building blocks. It took Europe centuries to sufficiently develop these building blocks into what became modern science. While ignoring Islam’s contribution to the development of science is an injustice, ignoring Europe’s contribution to its development is also an injustice.

The “Islamization of knowledge”

One of the best contributions of the book is Guessoum’s critical appraisal of the “Islamization of knowledge” fad of the 1980’s. This ill-defined program for reviving the Islamic world was based on the assumption that the modern sciences need to be re-built with Islamic concepts at their heart. This program was opposed by Ziauddin Sardar, who still subscribes to the equally silly post-modern idea that there is something inherently dangerous, un-objective and un-Islamic about modern science. Sardar’s modest proposal for solving Islam’s supposed science problem is the somewhat insane suggestion that we should throw out all of modern science’s axioms about the universe, nature, time and humanity to replace them with Islamic ones.

Both the Islamization of knowledge program and Sardar’s are little more than hasty reactions to the West’s dominance. Both subscribe to the utopian idea that there is some magical fairy land of knowledge that can be attained once we somehow (nobody knows exactly how) combine Islam and science.

The main underpinning of these two sides of the same coin is elitism: they come from a minority of intellectuals who think their services are needed to give the rest of the unwashed Muslim masses the keys to some utopia of knowledge. They are unable to realize, or refuse to admit, that every single Muslim intellectual and scientist will already be viewing the world just as they themselves do. Every Muslim intellectual and scientist will be forced to integrate Islamic ethics within their scientific and philosophical worldviews merely by existing and doing their jobs.

Sardar also thinks that the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim scientists out there are ignorant of ethical concerns. Science is inherently supposed to be “violent”, somehow these scientists are blind to the fact while he is not. Isn’t being so special wonderful?

Theistic science and metaphysical pluralism

Guessoum gives an overview of the concept of theistic science, the idea that science should be or can be practiced in a non-secularized way. The problem it responds to is the metaphysical intolerance of some atheists who falsely believe that science leaves no room for religion. But in our answer to this mindset we should not hold onto yet another form of metaphysical intolerance. We should first point out that all science has some metaphysical underpinnings (even if it is atheist metaphysics). Next, we should call for metaphysical pluralism: we do not dehumanize others regardless of their metaphysics, and we respect them as our cooperators in our seeking of autonomous consensus regarding natural phenomena, even if our metaphysics differ.

Consensus-seeking can be carried out regarding both natural phenomena and metaphysics. When it comes to natural phenomena, it is clear that all humanity is capable of hoping to reach consensus. But when it comes to metaphysics, we know that it is impossible for consensus to exist. There will always be Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists.

What does that entail? For those of sufficient humanism and insight, it entails metaphysical pluralism. All humans enjoy a divine spirit, an inviolable dignity, that gives them the right to be partakers in consensus-seeking: both physical and metaphysical. That means we should not attack individuals who propose godless metaphysics (even if we criticize their theories). We must not attack the persons, but we can critique their thinking. We must not try to use force, arguing that theism must be accepted by all. We must instead call for pluralism: all humans have the right to seek the truth on their own terms.

The only thing that we fight against is metaphysical intolerance: when militant atheists deny us the right to have our own metaphysics. Through metaphysical pluralism we can have intelligent discussions with those who disagree with us without dehumanizing them and refusing them the right to their independence of conscience.

It is true that atheist metaphysics can have very dangerous consequences (think the metaphysics of the Bolsheviks that gave them the right to summarily execute suspected dissidents). But the same applies to religious metaphysics; the religious too can use their metaphysics to support dangerous and inhuman doctrines. Therefore it is rather lacking in self-awareness to argue that theistic metaphysics is always more constructive and life-affirming than non-theistic ones. Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists can all reach a humanist metaphysics that transcends religious differences. We can, for example, all agree on the rule “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Non-theists, atheist or agnostic, remain human and continue to enjoy their God-given inviolability and dignity. We must leave it to them to accept their own metaphysics: there is no compulsion in faith/creed/religion, as the Quran tells us. If there is no metaphysical compulsion, then this means there is metaphysical freedom. People should be free to come up with their own metaphysics, and we should be free to come up with our own, and both sides should be free to critique the other’s metaphysics. Problems only arise in cases of metaphysical imperialism and intolerance.

Of course, disagreements on metaphysics can lead to severe practical differences, as in the argument over very-late-term abortions. In such cases, as the spirit of Islamic law teaches us, the lesser evil should be chosen. And the lesser evil is tolerance, even if it leads to what some consider horrible deaths. In a Western society where the law permits such abortions, the lesser evil is to tolerate the law while working peacefully to persuade others to change it, as most people seem to recognize. The alternative would be a civil war between supporters of the law and its critics, leading to far greater evils.


Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question is a good contribution to the discussion on Islam and science. While there is much in it that can be criticized, it can still perform the function the writer hand in mind for it; helping expose the weaknesses in the way the relationship between science and religion is envisioned in the Middle East.

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims

My new book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims is now available on This book grew out of a review of Shahab Ahmed’s wonderful What is Islam? that I was preparing last January. Once it passed 15,000 words, I decided that I might as well to turn into a book on the sociology of Islam. Reading Robert R. Reilly’s ridiculous caricature of Islam in his Closing of the Muslim Mind gave me extra impetus to work on it.

At some point I became dissatisfied with my work and put the project on pause. I went on to read 30 books and close to 100 scholarly papers on relevant topics (mainly Western Islamic studies and the evolutionary study of culture). Roger Scruton was especially helpful in clarifying the important issue of human sexuality and how it relates to religion. Recently I felt confident enough to pick up the project again. I rewrote the book and integrated some new essays into it, and this is the result.

From the introduction:

Many Western intellectuals cause Muslims to want to cringe as soon as they open their mouths to speak about Islam. Even if they have read multiple books on Islam, they are often capable of the most gargantuan mischaracterizations of the religion. There is a serious gap in knowledge between Islam as it is described in books and Islam as it is understood and practiced in the real world—and this book aims to fill that gap.

The Moral World of the Qur’an by M. A. Draz

Dastūr al-Akhlāq fī l-Qurʾān might one of the most important works of Islamic philosophy in the 20th century. It is a work on Quranic moral philosophy by Muhammad Abdullah Draz (1894-1958), a highly intelligent Egyptian Islamic scholar who had thoroughly studied the Western philosophical tradition. The work was originally written in French as a PhD dissertation titled La morale du Coran presented to Sorbonne University. It was translated into Arabic by Abd al-Sabur Shahin and published in 1973. The English version, titled The Moral World of the Qur’an, was published in 2008 by I. B. Tauris (Amazon link, it is absurdly expensive at the moment unfortunately).

When picking up a book by a non-Western Islamic scholar, one fears to see modes of reasoning that are centuries behind the times (as commonly seen in polemical and partisan works). Draz is an early example, perhaps one of the earliest, of an Islamic scholar who is willing to engage with the West with a thoroughly open mind, willing to take Western thinkers seriously and willing to view Islam from a Western framework. He does his best to predict attacks on his lines of reasoning and answers many possible criticism. I did not expect to learn too much from this work, being so familiar with the Quran. But I am pleased to say that some parts of it were highly enlightening.

Unfortunately both the Arabic and the English translation leave much to be desired. The Arabic translation appears to be a somewhat word-for-word translation of the French, extremely difficult to follow due to the near-complete absence of Arabic modes of expression. The English is not much better; its language feels almost as outdated as a book from 1850.

Shorter (and cheaper) version on Amazon. Also available as Kindle ebook.

Maybe the reason is Draz’s own French writing still (his Arabic writings in his other books and articles are extremely easy to follow). What the book needs is a thorough modernization effort that does not merely translate the paragraphs but translates his thoughts into modern English.

I found the following version (published 2018) by Basma Abdelgafar titled Morality in the Qur’an: The Greater Good of Humanity and bought it from the Kindle store. It shortens the work in order to make it more accessible. While this is a very welcome effort, unfortunately it is more on the order of study notes due to its highly abridged nature, and it uses many technical words that even college graduates will likely struggle. Still, it might be the best introduction to Draz’s thought that there is.

The Way of the Spiritual Muslim

My new book The Way of the Spiritual Muslim is now available on as a paperback and Kindle ebook. This book contains all of the sayings of Ibn al-Jawzī and Ibn al-Qayyim from my previous books along with new sections presenting the sayings of Ibn ʿAbbās, al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, al-Fuḍayl bin ʿIyāḍ, Imam al-Shāfiʿī, Imam Aḥmad, Imam al-Ghazālī,  Jalāl al-Dīn Rumi and Ibn ʿAṭāʾ-Allāh.

Is it sinful to cherry-pick which scholars you listen to?

Is it sinful for me to cherry-pick what kind of da'wah I want to hear and accept? I don't enjoy and accept some of the 'ulama here in my country for their way of speaking or delivering the speech, even if it's true. I kinda disappointed by the traditionalist point of view and I want to start to build my own perspective to perceive Islam the way I really want to see and feel about it. I dislike the feeling of extremism that emerges every time I try to accept them, and so I stopped listening.

Actually according to Imam al-Ghazali it is obligatory upon you to build your own Islam out of all the pieces you can gather rather than trying to follow the opinions of others. So what you are doing is perfectly fine. If you are not satisfied with what you hear, that means you are intelligent enough to seek knowledge on your own and to surpass them in understanding. Become a scholar yourself.

I recommend reading Western scholarly works about Islam’s great scholars and thinkers, such as Imam al-Ghazali, Rumi, al-Shafi`i, Imam Malik and others then reading the books they cite, and you will find a whole new world open up to you.

Check out these books if possible:

Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy

Malik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period 

A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb

The First Islamic Reviver: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and his Revival of the Religious Sciences

The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History 

The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: With Special Reference to Scholasticism

What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic

The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology

An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses)

I have had Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim since 2010, but I only got around to reading it recently. This is one of the funniest books written by a Muslim, rivaling the books of Turkey’s Aziz Nesin. In what is perhaps my favorite scene of the book, Sardar camps out in the office of a Saudi official who is refusing to let him leave the country. In order to make a point, he reads the classic Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes in front of him.

A cover of Ibn Marzuban’s The Book of the Superiority of Dogs

Soon after getting into the book, it becomes clear that Sardar is not engaging in a rigorous retelling of past events. The book appears to be a fictionalized memoir. The characters he disapproves of appear comical and cartoonish, while the characters he approves of jump out of the page to lecture the reader.

Many famous characters of the Islamic history of the second part of the twentieth century show up: the Pakistani Islamist Mawdudi, Said Ramadan (father of the intellectual Tariq Ramadan), Sheikh Nazim, Ian Dallas (Abdul Qadir al-Murabit), Ibn Baz (the Saudi scholar), the Palestinian-American philosopher Ismail al-Faruqi, the Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq, Usama bin Laden (seen by Sardar from afar according to him) and the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (famous for being put on trial for sodomy by Mahathir Mohamad’s government, according to Sardar a false accusation designed to destroy his career).

We see Sardar jump from one Islamic thinker or leader to another, first worshipfully following them, then discovering that their thinking has fatal flaws that makes it impossible for Sardar to continue alongside them. Maududi seems to have great ideas about freeing the Islamic world from foreign interference, but he has a medieval attitude toward women. Speaking of Said Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood members:

And that was my problem with the members of the Brotherhood. They see themselves as perfect; they were certain of everything. In short, they were ideologues: Islam, for them, was an ideology that allowed for no imperfections, no deviation, and, in the final analysis, no humanity. This is why I found so many of them repugnant.

Sardar looks into Sufism and finds that organized Sufism often leads to authoritarianism, made up of Sufi masters surrounded by a zealous and intolerant inner circle of worshipful followers who demand absolute and unquestioning obedience from initiates. Sardar says that he traveled to Morocco to find out if Ian Dallas’s version of Sufism really had its origins in the authentic Sufism of that country, but he fails to make any investigations, suggesting that that may not have been the (main) reason for his trip.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and censorship

In one of the worst parts of the book, Sardar spends many pages trying (and failing) to convince readers that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet Muhammad PBUH in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses is somehow simply unacceptable. He does not bother to present a framework within which a pluralist society may decide what is and what is not acceptable to say. To a skeptical reader, it almost appears as if Sardar is saying:

We Muslims are simply too immature and uncivilized to deal with criticism and mockery, so please do not criticize or mock what is dear and holy to us or else we will flip out!

He compares the Satanic Verses to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, saying that books and ideas can be dangerous—the usual patter that today America’s democrats use to tell us why it is such a great idea to put them in charge of censoring the nation’s media.

Sardar also makes the pitiful argument that similar attacks on Jews would have never been accepted in the West. True, we all know the double standards. We have songs by a Jewish singer on YouTube calling Mary mother of Jesus a whore. We have the Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman saying she would happily crucify Jesus again without anyone batting an eye. But just because Jews enjoy an unfair advantage does not mean we should ask for the same. We should join the Christians in insisting on the rule of law and equal standards rather than clamoring for special treatment like little children.

According to Sardar, Muslims should get special protection for what they hold holy and dear because…because… they can’t handle things otherwise. This is especially bad because Sardar presents himself as a futuristic liberal Muslim who has risen above the pack. If this enlightened Muslim is so narrow-minded to be incapable of seeing the dangerous implications of his support for censorship what hope is there for the rest of us?

Sardar is unable to appreciate the fact that placing limitations on free speech will mean that politicians, with their all too obvious short-sightedness and hunger for power, will end up deciding who can say what. Whatever the harms of free speech, allowing politicians to limit it is breathtakingly naive. It is amazing that Sardar can spend a lifetime in the West and fail to get the memo on this. In Islam, when faced with two evils, we are required to choose the lesser one. It shouldn’t take a genius to recognize that free speech is the lesser evil compared to censorship. I do not want anyone, no matter how pious or wise, to decide for me what books I can and cannot read. There is no way to make censorship better than free speech. The censorship department, even if full of democratically elected people, will inevitably make decisions based on political considerations and personal alliances. You cannot neglect the human element when designing any political institution, something too many Muslim political thinkers of the past kept failing to learn.

I am sure Sardar, in his private life, would not want anyone telling him what he can and cannot read. As is typical of many 20th century thinkers and leaders, he probably thinks he personally should be free to read what he wants while also thinking he has the right to limit other people’s reading rights. Regardless of how vile Rushdie’s book was, if his work is truly worthless then he should be given no power to ruin freedom of speech for us by prompting us to create an authority that can censor books.

What exactly is the harm of Rushdie’s book?

Sardar, other thinkers, and Islamic preachers who inflame people’s feelings about anti-Islam books and cartoons promote hysteria to satisfy their own desire for revenge. Ask them why the Satanic Verses should be banned and you will hear vague phrases like the “protection of the honor and dignity of Islam”. So Rushdie wrote a book that disgusts Muslims; what exactly is its harm beyond making you feel upset if you try to read it? If you are afraid it will give people negative impressions of Islam, the reality is that people’s impressions of Islam are already as negative as they can get. If you are afraid it will cause people to leave Islam, it is actually far more likely to inflame feelings of allegiance to the ummah by making Muslims feel that their identity is unfairly under attack.

At the end of the day, what Rushdie’s book achieves is close to nothing. It will not cause people to leave Islam. It will affirm the negative views of those who already had negative views about Islam. And as for those who have no firm beliefs about Islam, it will merely be one influence among countless others on their thinking and they will soon forget most of it. And among the non-Muslims who have a positive view of Islam, they will either see it as an unfair attack or as something strange and difficult to understand. Rushdie’s book will soon be nothing more than a footnote in history, and the only reason it will keep being remembered is that too many Muslims were immature enough to make such a big deal of it as to make it a worldwide bestseller.

Metaphorical interpretation

Sardar firmly plants himself within the liberal, non-mainstream camp within Islam by supporting a metaphorical interpretation of the Quran. He seems to think, along with many Westerners, that taking the Quran too literally is bound to lead to narrow-mindedness and extremism. I understand where they are coming from. If the Quran was a man-made book like the works of Plato and Marx, then it would have been true that taking it literally would lead to serious problems, since it would mean that one man’s limited and potentially misguided thinking would control the fates of millions of people. Isn’t it so much more sensible to open the door for updating the book so that Muslims can move with the times?

Sardar thinks the Quran should be read historically, as if God was not intelligent enough to foresee that humanity could very well continue for the next 100,000 years. According to Sardar God gave humanity a book that is stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia. That is a rather low opinion to have of the God who invented this universe. Shouldn’t a real God be capable of giving us a book that can stand the tests of time?

The reality, as I will explain, is that the Quran is just such a book. The more literally you take it, and the more firmly you try to follow it, the more moderate you become. You don’t have to take my word for it, just look at the historical evidence. The most kind, peaceful and moderate Islamic leaders in modern history have all been ardent lovers of the Quran who treated it not as a historical artifact but as if it was sent down the very day they were reading it: the Pakistani poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, the Turkish revivalist Said Nursi, the greatly loved Egyptian scholar Mohammed al-Ghazali (not to be confused with the more famous medieval al-Ghazali), the Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh. These were not extremists. In fact many of them have been subject to constant attacks by extremists for being too liberal and open-minded. A US government officer recently published a book on how Moftizadeh’s Quran-centered version of Islam can be used a role model for fighting extremism (see The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan).

The Quran has a special status which Sardar has apparently failed to grasp. He thinks that admitting that the Paradise described in the Quran is really a physical Paradise is something that can only be done by an ignorant literalist. This is a rather insulting view to have of the majority of the world’s Muslims who do believe in a physical Paradise. Unfortunately, the path he recommends, of giving Paradise-related verses a metaphorical interpretation (they are apparently really about a mystical reality that cannot be described in words) leads to turning Quran-interpretation into a free-for-all. He offers no convincing explanation for why he thinks this is a valid way of interpreting the book apart from the fact that he really wishes things to be that way. He is doing the same thing that extremists do; reading his own prejudices into the Quran rather than letting the book speak for itself.

God’s speech plainly tells me about a physical Paradise. Sardar and some others say that these are actually references to a non-physical reality. I will take God’s words about Paradise any day over any human’s.


Sardar is a good intellectual and his skepticism toward the Islamic thought of the second half of the 20th century was justified and necessary. He, however, is stuck in the mindset of the Muslims he despises; he believes in hurling insults and making caricatures of his intellectual opposition, rather than rising above the argument and treating those who disagree with him as full humans, to be respected and treated with an open heart. If you close your heart to those who disagree with you, you are no better than them no matter how enlightened you think you are (see my essay Consensual Communities). Sardar is a liberal who attacks the (supposedly) narrow-minded conservatives/literalists. As I explain in the linked essay, one can rise above this argument to find a third path that can actually lead to positive outcomes.

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