Essays

Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya

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Recently I have been reading many works on Islamic theology (kalām) in order to find answers to certain questions and paradoxes inherent within the Islamic theological worldview.

Since I was already familiar with Ashʿarite theology (Islam’s dominant theological school), I decided to focus on al-Māturīdī (d. 944 CE), who represents Islam’s alternative yet orthodox theological school popular in the Ḥanafī school and propagated by the Seljuqs and Ottomans. The Māturīdite school is thought to be more reasonable and balanced than the Ashʿarite school, although they agree on many important questions. In the admirably detailed and precise study al-Māturīdī and the Development of Sunnī Theology in Samarqand (published in German in the 1990’s and in English in 2014) the German scholar Ulrich Rudolph presents what we know about al-Māturīdī’s life (we know very little actually) and the development of his thought.

Al-Māturīdī was the first Ḥanafite scholar to truly develop a theological system that could compete with the Muʿtazilites yet maintain respect for traditional views starting with Abū Ḥanīfa’s (d. 767 CE). He was extremely well-versed in Muʿtazilī theology and even had some knowledge of philosophy.

After finishing that book, I went on to read Bulqāsim al-Ghāli’s 1989 study Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī and His Theological Views (Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī wa-Āraʾuhu al-ʿAqdīya). The book was largely lacking in details and I did not learn too much that is new from it. I then read the 2009 book Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī and His Kalām Opinions (Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī wa-Āraʾuhu al-Kalāmīya) by ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Maghribī. This book is based on a PhD dissertation. This book may be the first Arabic book that discusses al-Māturīdī’s theology at a very high scholarly standard and makes full use of al-Māturīdī’s neglected commentary on the Quran.

One of al-Māturīdī’s great contributions to Islamic thought is his defense of free will without submitting to the Muʿtazilite framework. Other members of the Maturidite school, such as al-Taftazānī (d. 1389 CE) and Qadi Zadeh (d. c. 1600 CE) continued the tradition of affirming the existence of true free will in humans. Their position is therefore opposed to the position of important Ashʿarite theologians like al-Rāzī who believed humans only appear to be free but are in reality completely lacking in freedom.

I next read Frank Griffel’s Al-Ghazālīʾs Philosophical Theology, one of the best studies of al-Ghazālī up to date. He refutes the tired old trope that al-Ghazālī “destroyed” Islamic philosophy and shows that he was actually essential to the integration of Aristotelian-Avicennan philosophy within Islamic theology.

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The scholar Richard M. Frank had accused al-Ghazālī of secretly being a follower of Avicenna and only paying lip service to his own Ashʿarite school. One of Griffel’s tasks in this book is to refute that view and show that al-Ghazālī continued to adhere to orthodox Islamic theology while also embracing significant Avicennan influences.

In their determination to uphold God’s absolute power and control over the universe, Ashʿarite theologians argued that God is the only “actor” in the world. Humans have no power to move anything in this world unless God moves it for them. They also developed the theory of “atomistic time” that says that nothing has the power to exist from one moment to another by itself. It is God who re-creates every object and its properties moment by moment. When a ball rolls, it is not that its atoms move. It is actually God who this moment allows the atoms to be at this position, and the next moment He re-creates the atoms at the next position, and so on during each moment. This is similar to the way that in a video game when something moves, the computer simply changes the information held inside the computer hardware in order to create the impression of movement. The universe, in the Ashʿarite and Māturīdite worldviews, which is known as occasionalism, is like a computer simulation controlled by God. Nothing has any objective reality of its own, and nothing has the power to cause anything. Reality is entirely a “computer simulation”, like in the film The Matrix, that God controls and operates.

Besides solving the problem of how God relates to the universe and how human actions come about, this worldview also solves the problem of miracles. The laws of nature are merely God’s habits in the way He operates the universe. He has the power to suspend these habits in certain circumstances and bring about miracles since He is not chained by the laws of nature. The laws of nature are simply the rules of the simulation that God Himself maintains. He can operate it according to different rules if and when He chooses. He can cause a mountain to fly because there is no outside rule that prevents this. The laws of nature are properties of things inside the simulation. But since God is outside the simulation, He can do anything He wants regardless of nature.

This might be one of the magnificent achievements of Islamic thought. Muslim theologians were able to think outside the box of the universe and freed their conception of God from the chains of nature. In this way they were able to reaffirm God’s absolute power and transcendence more explicitly and powerfully than had ever been done before as far as I am aware.

Some have objected that viewing the world in the occasionalist way makes science impossible since it teaches that causes do not necessarily lead to effects. Al-Ghazālī mentioned the famous example that a piece of cotton will not necessarily burn when it touches fire–it only burns because God makes it burn. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) criticized this by saying this makes the world arbitrary and makes real knowledge impossible, since we can never be sure if what we consider the laws of nature this moment will continue to be the laws of nature the next moment. Robert R. Reilly, in his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind (which I reviewed and refuted here) accepts Ibn Rushd’s criticism and thinks that al-Ghazālī is promoting a senseless and irrationalist worldview. But al-Ghazālī himself mentions and replies to this criticism in his Incoherence of the Philosophers. It is God who operates the universe, but He operates it in a predictable and rational manner. So saying that everything happens because of God does not prevent us from having a scientific worldview. Science merely studies God’s habits. The laws of nature are stable and we can expect them to continue being stable. We just admit that the laws are upheld by God and that there is no power forcing God to operate them a certain way. He just decided to operate things in this way.

So as a lover of science I can be perfectly happy with occasionalism, viewing the universe as a simulation controlled and operated by God, while also appreciating and contributing to science. Science is merely the study of God’s habits and handiwork in the universe. I am as much a rationalist and skeptic as any scientist, but I believe that God runs the show behind the scenes. My view that God is in charge behind the scenes has no influence on my scientific worldview. I am exactly like a scientist who believes the universe could be a simulation–there are in fact scientists who admit this possibility. Occasionalism, therefore, is not irrationalism. It is simply to admit this possibility of the universe being a simulation, a possibility that even atheists can admit. The disagreement then would be about whether the simulation is controlled by God or some other entity.

We further strengthen occasionalism’s rationality by proposing what I call a principle of “plausible deniability”. It is God’s will that He should remain hidden and that His existence should be scientifically unprovable. His existence should be deniable–humans should be able to disbelieve in Him. This allows humans to choose whether to be believers or not. God does not want to force belief on people as the Quran makes clear. Therefore the principle of plausible deniability says that the universe must act in a scientific way to preserve God’s hidden-ness. There should never be any “glitches in the Matrix” that cause scientists to doubt the universe really works scientifically (i.e. miracles should not happen on an everyday basis, making it impossible to reach scientific conclusions about how the world works). As an occasionalist who believes in the principle of plausible deniability, I fully believe in an utterly rational and scientific universe.

Richard M. Frank argued that al-Ghazālī is a non-occasionalist who believes in secondary causes (meaning that he does not really believe the universe is like a simulation controlled by God, rather, he believes that it operates according to pre-determined “natural laws” as Avicenna believed). Michael Marmura disagreed and argued for the exact opposite; al-Ghazālī was a complete occasionalist who only mentioned Avicennan causality as mental experiments meant for argumentation with the philosophers. Griffel disagrees with both of them and offers what he considers to be a synthesis: al-Ghazālī was undecided as to whether the universal really runs in an occasionalist way or whether it runs in an Avicennan way. As he himself says in the Incoherence, both options are equally acceptable to him.

Al-Ghazālī says that we can either explain miracles the occasionalist way, by saying that God temporarily changed the laws of nature, or the Avicennan way, by saying that miracles are natural events whose causes we simply do not know. The stick of Moses that turned into a snake may have actually followed a sped-up version of natural causation. Perhaps the stick decayed extremely quickly and a snake was caused to come alive from the same material according to natural laws (I prefer the first, occasionalist, explanation).

Al-Ghazālīʾs teacher al-Juwaynī (d. 1085 CE) followed the classical, “occasionalist” Ashʿarite conception that God creates every human action. He also seems to have been influenced by philosophical ideas about “secondary causality”, believing that human actions were largely (or entirely) the result of previous causes that create in them the motivation to do certain things.

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210 CE) subscribed to a similar theory, believing that previous circumstances determine what humans do. Unlike previous thinkers, he correctly recognized that if all human actions are predetermined by God and come from previous causes (themselves also predetermined by God), then there is no room for human free will. He therefore concluded that humans only appear to be free-willed. They do not really have free will. I would have expected someone as intelligent as al-Rāzī to have come up with a better solution, so it is disappointing that he was satisfied with this intellectual dead-end.

So according to al-Juwaynī, al-Rāzī and also al-Ghazālī, since God has foreknowledge of everything, it is as if He already has a “film” of how history will play out. Everything we say and do is already in the film. Yet we are still somehow responsible for our actions. Recognizing the dangers this realization poses to Islamic belief, al-Ghazālī says:

Accept God’s actions and stay calm! And when the predestination is mentioned, be quiet! The walls have ears and people who have a weak understanding surround you. Walk along the path of the weakest among you. And do not take away the veil from the sun in front of bats because that would be the cause of their ruin.

So that appears to be the state of affairs in orthodox Islamic theology when it comes to the conflict between free will and predestination. We are responsible for our actions–yet everything we do is already written and recorded. And since this would upset people if they heard it, the recommendation is to just not talk about it.

This rather dreary view of the universe did not get significantly challenged within mainstream Sunnism until Ibn Taymiyya came along.

Ibn Taymiyya’s Theology

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Jon Hoover’s essay in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (which I reviewed here) had informed me that Ibn Taymiyya has unique solutions that could help end the intellectual dead-end that orthodox Islamic theology had arrived at with thinkers like al-Ghazāli and al-Rāzī. I therefore decided to read Hoover’s Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, a highly detailed and informative study of Ibn Taymiyya’s theological thought that is based on Hoover’s doctoral dissertation,

The Ashʿarites denied that God created the universe for a purpose, because in their view this implies that God has a need for the universe, which implies that God is imperfect. In order to defend God’s absolute needlessness, they had to assert that the creation of the universe was totally without desire, aim or purpose.

The Ashʿarites also came up with the idea of dead-time (already mentioned) where all of history, past, present and future is like a film that God already possesses. They had to assert this because they thought that assuming the future to be non-existent would imply that God’s knowledge changes (increases or decreases) as time moves forward. To them change in God was unacceptable because it implied imperfection. God should already know everything that my possibly happen from pre-eternity so that His knowledge may stay still and never change.

Ibn Taymiyya rejected that view of time. To him God exists in “real time”. If you envision eternity as a line, the present moment is a point on it and we and God experience it together. Even though God is eternal and the universe was created in time, this does not mean that God’s time is dissociated from the universe’s time. Time is real everywhere. Below is a diagram of how Ibn Taymiyya may have understood time:

According to Ibn Taymiyya, if God had already willed everything that may happen from pre-eternity, that means nothing would ever happen because everything would already be complete, like a finished film on a shelf. But the reality is that we experience time and change, which to him proves that time is real and that God’s will interacts with the universe in real time rather than having interacted with it just once in pre-eternity as the Ashʿarites claim.

The Ashʿarites had to posit a changeless knowledge and will in God to defend the Greek-inspired idea that God does not change. Ibn Taymiyya criticizes this idea of a chained God who cannot will or create anything truly new. He says a God who can will and create new things in time is actually more perfect than one who cannot do that. In this way, he defends the real-time view of God against the dead-time of the Ashʿarites. To Ibn Taymiyya, God is perpetually dynamic, active and creative in real time, since such a God is more perfect than a still God.

A person may object that this means God is subject to time. In reality time is subject to God–God creates time moment by moment by His will and power. God is eternal, but one of His actions can precede another (since we say a dynamic God is more perfect than a still God), and “time” simply means the succession of God’s acts. If God stopped acting, time would stand still–the universe would be like a paused video game. God acts every moment by causing atoms and photos to vibrate and move, and this is perhaps what causes time to exist. If everything stopped moving, time would stand still.

And they ask you to hasten the punishment. But God never breaks His promise. A day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your count.

The Quran, verse 22:47

The above verse both suggests that God is involved dynamically with time, and that time is relative. God can control how fast time moves in a universe merely by slowing down or speeding up how fast photons and atoms vibrate and move. The above verse suggests that our universe runs very fast compared to how God measures time on the outside of the universe. 1000 years pass here inside the universe when only one day passes with God. It is as if we live in a video game that has been sped-up by a factor of about 354360 (these are the number of days in 1000 lunar years).

Ashʿarites say it is impossible for God to do things one after another since He should do everything in one instant in pre-eternity. But Ibn Taymiyya says that a God who creates things one after another is more perfect. And if God creates things one after another, and if He creates each moment, then this means time is real, for us and for God, by God’s own choice in choosing to create each moment. Ashʿarites say time is just an illusion and this makes them deny free will since they think God should already have a film of all of history. But if time is real, if God is creating each moment the very moment it happens, this makes room for development and change in the film of history. History would not be a closed book or completed film, but a living and developing story.

Both the Ashʿarites and Muʿtazilites said that God is aimless and purposeless in creating the universe, since otherwise it would mean that God gained something from creating the universe. It would mean that God was imperfect and aimed to become perfect by creating the universe. But Ibn Taymiyya responds:

Anyone who commits an act in which there is neither pleasure, nor benefit nor profit for himself in any respect, neither sooner nor later, is aimless, and he is not praised for this.

Ibn Taymiyya says that a God who acts with wise purpose is more perfect than a purposeless God, so God must have a wise purpose in creating the universe. Ashʿarites respond that this implies God was imperfect and had a need in order to perfect Himself. Ibn Taymiyya responds that perfection means doing everything in its own time and imperfection is when something is absent when it should be present. Thus to Ibn Taymiyya perpetual, dynamic and wise creation is an expression of God’s perfection. It is not purposeless because to create with purpose is an attribute of God from eternity and an expression of His perfection. He has no need for the creation, but it is an expression of His perfection to create perpetually.

Ibn Taymiyya’s theology falls short of resolving the predestination and free will paradox. He says that God is the one who creates all human acts (something we can agree with), but he goes on to say that God also creates the causes that lead to humans choosing one thing over another. While he argues extensively that humans are responsible for their actions, he also argues for the contradictory position that humans ultimately have no choice, saying human choice actually is jabr bi-tawaṣṣut al-irāda (compulsion by means of the will [that God Himself creates]), which is also what al-Rāzī says.

Defending Free Will with the Maturīdīs

While Ibn Taymiyya failed to resolve the predestination and free will paradox, he provided an important building block for the solution, namely refuting the Ashʿarite view of “dead time”, replacing it with the theory of real time–the idea that God’s acts follow each other, therefore time is real and history is not a finished film; it is a developing story. The future is non- existent and God brings about each new moment of history in real time. When He answers a prayer, He really and truly intervenes in the universe to bring about a change for the benefit of the person, while the Ashʿarites say the prayer and its answer both would have already been written and compelled from pre-eternity.

Ibn Taymiyya’s theology often depends on the consideration of what is the most perfect quality for God to possess. He thus says an active and dynamic God is more perfect the Ashʿarite still God. The question to ask is this: what God is more perfect, one who can create a truly free-willed creature, or one who cannot make such a creature?

Ashʿarites, al-Ghazāli, al-Rāzī and Ibn Taymiyya all say that God is utterly chained by His very nature into being incapable of creating free-willed creatures since He must create all intentions, wills and actions. God is incapable of making room for humans to be free.

Is that God more perfect or a God who has the power to create creatures who are truly free? We humans can make robots, but we can never give them the power to have free will. Everything they do will always come from their programming. Even if we allow them to freely choose what to do based on their environment, it is the environment that decides completely what they should do. Even if we add a bit of randomness to their decisions so that they randomly choose between their choices, there will be no wisdom or choice in their decision. It will be random, arbitrary, purposeless.

What is unique about humans is that unlike robots, they have an extra dimension to them that gives them the ability to truly choose, as the Maturīdī scholars believe. This is likely the Trust that God refers to in this verse:

We offered the Trust to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains; but they refused to bear it, and were apprehensive of it; but the human being accepted it. He was unfair and ignorant.

The Quran, verse 33:72

God has entrusted us with a power that He Himself, in His wisdom and creativity, created–the power of a creature to choose between good and evil. We can therefore say with al-Māturīdī that there is an element of ikhtiyār (the ability to choose) given to humans by God.

We do not say, like the Muʿtazilites and Qadarites, that humans create their own actions. We instead can propose the following three-step process:

  • The human intends based on a power delegated to them by God. Humans are given the power by God to create their own intentions. A God who can delegate decisions to His creatures is more perfect than a God who is incapable of delegation.
  • God either creates a will in them (or does not create it)
  • God either creates the external action (or does not create it)

God is therefore utterly in charge of the universe and humans can never will anything unless God wills it and permits it (in the second step). We humans can only intend things, based on the ikhtiyār (freedom to choose) that God has given us, and it is God who creates everything else from then on.

We can also reject the Muʿtazilite/Qadarite view that God does not create evil actions. They say if God created evil actions He would be responsible for them. But we say that when humans intend evil, God, when He wishes, may allow it to happen out of a wise purpose that He has. God is not responsible for evil because evil comes from human intentions. He only carries out those intentions in order to preserve the system of the universe that He has created. When the human intends evil, God may treat them with khidhlān (forsaking) as Abū Ḥanīfa and al-Māturīdī say, allowing the evil to be carried out. I discuss the problem of evil and its solution in more detail in my essay: Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Predetermination (Qadar) in the Quran

There are authentic narrations where the Prophet suggests humans have no free will. The issue of hadith will be dealt with later. The Quran itself, however, never tells us anywhere that future human decisions are already written and known beforehand. The predetermination that the Quran talks about is always about things that befall humans from the outside:

But God will not delay a soul when its time has come. God is Informed of what you do. (63:11)

God created you from dust, then from a small drop; then He made you pairs. No female conceives, or delivers, except with His knowledge. No living thing advances in years, or its life is shortened, except it be in a Record. That is surely easy for God. (35:11)

Whatever good happens to you is from God, and whatever bad happens to you is from your own self. We sent you to humanity as a messenger, and God is Witness enough. (4:79)

No calamity occurs on earth, or in your souls, but it is in a Book, even before We make it happen. That is easy for God. (57:23)

The Quran also tells us that guidance comes only from God:

O you who believe! Do not follow Satan’s footsteps. Whoever follows Satan’s footsteps—he advocates obscenity and immorality. Were it not for God’s grace towards you, and His mercy, not one of you would have been pure, ever. But God purifies whomever He wills. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (24:21)

You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whom He wills, and He knows best those who are guided. (28:56)

If we base our opinions only on the Quran and a number of authentic hadiths, the view of predestination that we get is that God is in charge of all external circumstances of humans. He is also in charge of guiding us. We, however, are in charge of choosing our internal responses. God can give us guidance but we can intend rejection of it. This is what kufr means, to know the truth about God, to be guided to God, but to deny Him anyway.

Rather than telling us that the world is like a film that is already finished, the Quran gives us the impression that the universe operates in real time as Ibn Taymiyya says. What is “written” in our predestination are the external circumstances in our lives. God knows exactly whether we will get that job and when we will be living next year and when we will die. The external circumstances of our lives are entirely in His charge. But this does not mean that our circumstances are rigid and unchangeable. The Quran says:

God erases whatever He wills, and He affirms. With Him is the Mother Book. (13:39)

This gives the impression that the Protected Tablet (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ) is not rigid but changeable. The Prophet supports this view in this sound narration:

لَا يَرُدُّ القَضَاءَ إلَّا الدُّعَاءُ، وَلَا يَزِيدُ فِي العُمُرِ إلَّا البِرُّ

Nothing counters God's decree except supplication, and nothing increases lifespan except righteousness.

(Narrated in al-Tirmidhi, authenticated by al-Albani in al-Silsila al-Sahiha 154 and in Sahih al-Jami` 7687)

According to the above hadith, if your present choices have made you deserve Hell, all that you need to do is pray for guidance and forgiveness, and that will change God’s decree. The Prophet also prayed for God’s decrees to be changed:

... and I ask you to make every decree You decree for me to be a good.

Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 870; Muṣannaf Abī Shayba 28767

and also:

O Allah, whoever believes in you, and bears witness that I am your messenger, then cause him to love meeting you, and ease your decrees on him, and decrease from him the worldly life. And whoever does not believe in you, and does not bear witness that I am your Messenger, then do not cause him to love meeting you, and do not ease your decree on him, and increase for him of the worldly life.

Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 208

and also:

Narrated Anas:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said," None of you should long for death because of a calamity that had befallen him, and if he cannot, but long for death, then he should say, 'O Allah! Let me live as long as life is better for me, and take my life if death is better for me.' "

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 6351

The above prayers only make sense if the future, i.e. qadar, was changeable.

When the Prophet says that our place in Paradise or Hell is already determined, we can interpret this as saying that if the world ended today, God knows whether we will be in Paradise or Hell. But this does not mean that we cannot change our place through prayer.

God’s qadar (predetermination) may simply refer to the fact that all alternative futures that God offers us are controlled by Him. You can choose to be good or bad, but in both alternative futures you may predestined to become a doctor. Even though we choose between futures, God creates the shape and nature of all futures.

Ibn Taymiyya’s real-time view of the universe and the Māturīdī affirmation of true free will help create a coherent theory of free will in Islam.

The Ashʿarite views of dead time and a still God contradict free will, since in their view nothing new ever happens. Everything is already finished, so we only appear to be living, breathing and choosing. But Ibn Taymiyya’s real-time view tells us that the future is non-existent and God actively and creatively creates it moment by moment. Accordingly, there is room for free will since we interact with God in real time. God’s predetermination simply means that He decides the shape of all alternative futures. But He does not force us to choose one future and avoid another. He gives us a true free choice in deciding which future we want to be in.

The views offered here are perfectly in concordance with everything the Quran says. As al-Rāzī admits, the verses on predestination and free will can be used to argue both for hard determinism and for free will. He and others like Frank Griffel think that the Quran has a contradictory stance toward predestination and free will; God determines everything, yet humans are responsible for their actions.

But by merging Ibn Taymiyya and the Māturīdī school’s views, we can resolve all apparent contradictions: God determines and creates all futures, but humans decide which futures they will be in. We can never escape what God has determined, but at times God offers us alternative futures and we choose which one we will be in. Our choice of which future we will be in is never said to be predetermined in the Quran. It rather constantly affirms the alternative, that it is we who decide whether we corrupt or purify ourselves with our choices.

And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it.

And inspired it with its wickedness and its righteousness.

Successful is he who purifies it.

Failing is he who corrupts it.

The Quran, verses 91:7-10.

And if we make good choices, God decrees further good things to happen to us:

And when he reached his maturity, and became established, We gave him wisdom and knowledge. Thus do We reward the virtuous.

The Quran, verse 28:14

Moses was virtuous, so God decreed that He should gain wisdom and knowledge.

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do.

The Quran, verse 16:97

Above, God affirms that He will decree a good worldly life for those who work righteousness.

And when your Lord proclaimed: “If you give thanks, I will grant you increase; but if you are ungrateful, My punishment is severe.”

The Quran, verse 14:7

Above, God affirms that there is a contractual relationship between the believers and Himself. If we are grateful, He will decree for us an increase in good things. And if we are ungrateful, He will cause us torment.

Life is like walking down a road created by God. At some points the road forks into multiple roads (also all created by God), but we are free which of these roads we choose to walk down. God responds to righteous choices by decreeing good things for us, and responds to wicked choices by decreeing hardships and disasters for us.

In Sheba’s homeland there used to be a wonder: two gardens, on the right, and on the left. “Eat of your Lord’s provision, and give thanks to Him.” A good land, and a forgiving Lord.

But they turned away, so We unleashed against them the flood of the dam; and We substituted their two gardens with two gardens of bitter fruits, thorny shrubs, and meager harvest.

We thus penalized them for their ingratitude. Would We penalize any but the ungrateful?

The Quran, verses 34:15-17

One of the biggest problems in the Quran regarding free will and predestination are in verses 4:78-79, which some believe are contradictory:

Wherever you may be, death will catch up with you, even if you were in fortified towers. When a good fortune comes their way, they say, “This is from God.” But when a misfortune befalls them, they say, “This is from you.” Say, “All is from God.” So what is the matter with these people, that they hardly understand a thing?

Whatever good happens to you is from God, and whatever bad happens to you is from your own self. We sent you to humanity as a messenger, and God is Witness enough.

The Quran, verses 4:78-79

But according to my Taymiyyan-Maturīdī synthesis, the first verse is saying that whatever befalls humans does so because God caused it (moved the relevant atoms, etc.) for the thing to happen. So it is all from God. It also means that God is utterly in charge of all futures, so whatever future comes about, it is always from God. The second verse, however, says that the reason why a thing befalls you could either be God’s favor upon you (if it is a good thing) or the result of your own bad choices (if it is a bad thing).

In other words, when faced with two futures, future A (good) and future B (bad), both are created by God. But if you choose the good future and it takes place, that is a blessing from God. And if you choose the bad future, that is your own fault. So both futures are from God, and the bad future takes place because of your choice.

This may be why the Prophet says:

لَا يَقْضِي اللَّهُ لَهُ شَيْئًا إِلَّا كَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُ

God never decrees a thing for [the believer] except that it is good for him.

Musnad Aḥmad 19884 and Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 729

God’s attitude toward the believer is only mercy; the hadith could be saying that God never, of His own volition, intends and wills evil for the believer. God does not like to watch us suffer.

This, however, does not address the question of God causing suffering to a believer as a test. Perhaps it means that if the believer was perfectly pious and sinless, they would not need any test or hardship and so nothing evil would ever befall them. God’s tests are there to teach us true submission to His will and power. If we reach the impossible standard of perfect submission, then that would be an end of tests and hardship–possibly.

God’s Guidance and the Sealing of Hearts

The Quranic verses on God guiding and misguiding humans or sealing the hearts of unbelievers have often been used to justify fatalism–the idea that humans absolutely have no role in the universe; their acts and choices are all created by God.

Had God willed, He would have made you one congregation, but He leaves astray whom He wills, and He guides whom He wills. And you will surely be questioned about what you used to do.

The Quran, verse 16:93

By believing that God causes all human choices, classical Sunni theologians believed that God can make something obligatory upon a person when it is impossible for them to do it. The classical example is the fact that God calls unbelievers to guidance, yet He Himself has supposedly sealed their hearts–making it impossible for them to be guided.

Based on what we have said so far, we can solve this problem by saying that God guides humans, but He also gives humans the freedom to accept or reject guidance. He shows us the truth, as He says:

We will show them Our signs on the horizons, and in their very souls, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness over everything?

The Quran, verse 41:53

But after showing us His signs, He lets us choose guidance or disbelief. Those who believe will be further guided by God, while those who disbelieve will be led astray:

As for those who believe and do good deeds, their Lord guides them by their faith. Rivers will flow beneath them in the Gardens of Bliss. (The Quran, verse 10:9)

Those who disbelieve say, “If only a miracle was sent down to him from his Lord.” Say, “God leads astray whomever He wills, and He guides to Himself whoever repents.” (The Quran, verse 13:27)

Guidance is therefore from God, but it is conditional upon human intentions. Those who believe, do good deeds and repent are blessed with further guidance. Those who disbelieve are caused to go further astray as a punishment. We can either choose guidance or reject it.

How will God guide a people who disbelieved after having believed, and had witnessed that the Messenger is true, and the clear proofs had come to them? God does not guide the unjust people.

The Quran, verse 3:86

The above verse says God will not guide unjust people who first believed then chose to reject the Prophet .

God’s guidance is not random. He does not force some people to go to Hell and some to Paradise as Ashʿarites and hadith scholars think. Rather, God allows us to choose our places in the Hellfire or Paradise. God knows whether we will be in the Hellfire or Paradise if we were to die this moment. He also knows all possible futures. But He has given us the freedom to erase what has been predetermined for us and change it based on our choices. You may be a sinner and God may have predestined you to have an unhappy life. But if you repent and become pious, God may rewrite your predestination so that He allows you to have a happier life.

As for the sealing of the hearts of unbelievers, it refers to those who have sinned and rejected God so severely and for so long that God has decided to seal their fate and prevent them from repenting.

Indeed, whoever commits misdeeds, and becomes surrounded by his iniquities—these are the inmates of the Fire, wherein they will dwell forever.

The Quran, verse 2:81

The Quran also says:

I will turn away from My revelations those who behave proudly on earth without justification. Even if they see every sign, they will not believe in it; and if they see the path of rectitude, they will not adopt it for a path; and if they see the path of error, they will adopt it for a path. That is because they denied Our revelations, and paid no attention to them.

The Quran, verse 7:146

God does not randomly seal hearts. He seals the hearts of those who commit so much evil that God decides they do not deserve to have the chance to repent. Once that happens, He seals their hearts and makes it impossible for them to ever seek repentance from Him.

The Remaining Paradox: God’s Foreknowledge

The creation of the future is a dynamic process between God and humanity. God constantly offers us multiple futures and we choose the ones we want to actually be in. We can never create a future God does not want because it is God who creates the futures. We only choose. Even if all of humanity wants to start a war, the futures God offers us may all lack the war. His will overrides humanity’s will and the war will never take place.

This, however, leads to the question: Does God know which future you will choose before you choose it? If God already knows which future you will choose, how can the choice possibly be free?

This is a logical paradox. If a decision is truly free, it seems like it should be unpredictable. Imagine that you create a robot that has free will. Even if you know everything there is to know about the robot, you will never be able to know what it will do next because its decisions are free. If you could always predict with 100% accuracy what the robot will always decide, then there is no free will involved. Freedom means to be able to make a genuine choice that comes from your inner self and that is not forced upon you from the outside by circumstances, or forced upon you by your brain chemistry. It is a genuine choice of the soul that is completely independent of the universe.

Saying that a free-willed decision is knowable before it is made may be as nonsensical as saying that God can make a 4-sided triangle, or that He can make an object so heavy that He Himself cannot move it. It is possible that free-willed human decisions are logically unknowable by their very nature because of the way God has made them. The decision is truly free and delegated to the human by God in a way that makes foreknowledge of it impossible (but there is an alternative view as will be discussed).

As mentioned, Ashʿarites, al-Ghazāli, al-Rāzī all say that God is utterly chained by His very nature into being incapable of creating free-willed creatures since He must create all intentions, wills and actions. God is incapable of making room for humans to be really, truly free.

So the question is this: Is God powerful enough to create a creature whose decision is so free that it is impossible to predict its decisions beforehand?

As far as I know, no Muslim theologian has ever posed that question directly.

Saying that God has foreknowledge of our decisions may be an insult against God’s power, because it suggests that God is incapable of producing a creature whose decision is so free that it is impossible to predict the decision beforehand. Is God incapable of making such a creature? Yet saying God does not have foreknowledge of our decisions may be an insult against His being All-Knowing.

Orthodox Muslim theologians like al-Rāzī chose to go with the first potential insult, saying God is incapable of making a truly free-willed creature, while non-orthodox Muʿtazilites went with the second potential insult, saying God is incapable of foreknowledge of human decisions.

We who know better should avoid both insults and choose a moderate path between them; leaving the judgment of these matters to God and relying on what we are certain about–the fact that we are responsible for our decisions, and the fact that God is utterly in charge of the universe.

Out of fear for God, we should not deny the possibility that God somehow knows all future decisions even before they are decided, even though this sounds like nonsense and like a contradiction of free will. We have very little knowledge of the world outside our universe and we do not know the true nature of God and His knowledge. Therefore rather than denying God’s foreknowledge, we should admit both possibilities:

  • Either it is logically impossible for foreknowledge to apply to free-willed decisions. The future is a creative act between God and humans. In this view, saying it is possible to know a free-willed decision before it is made is nonsensical–it is like saying God can create a 4-sided triangle. God, of course, can predetermine the direction of the future, and no human can will anything He does not want. But He delegates some decisions to humans, and therefore this allows them to choose between different futures. It is logically impossible to know which future will be chosen before it is chosen because in order for a decision to be truly free, it should not be predictable. God Himself, with His infinite power and creativity, has chosen to create a creature who can make unpredictable decisions. Of course, when God wants, He can also force decisions on humans. We do not deny God’s power to do this.
  • Or God has a mysterious power to know which future a human will choose even before he chooses it. In this view, God will already have a “film” of all of history, past and future, and nothing will change in it. This appears to completely contradict free will, but rather than denying it, out of fear for God, we leave its meaning to God. God knows everything that may possibly be known.

What we know for certain from the Quran is that we are responsible for our decisions. We also know that God is utterly in charge of our destinies. We also know that fatalism is forbidden–we cannot say that it is already predetermined whether we will be in Paradise or Hell so that there is no point in good deeds:

The polytheists will say, “Had God willed, we would not have practiced idolatry, nor would have our forefathers, nor would we have prohibited anything.” Likewise those before them lied, until they tasted Our might. Say, “Do you have any knowledge that you can produce for us? You follow nothing but conjecture, and you only guess.” (6:148)

However, we must also reject al-Rāzī’s statement that humans only appear to be free. It is mere conjecture. Rather, we should say that we simply do not know the solution to the paradox and that we leave the matter to God. As far as we know, we are free in our choices, God is utterly in charge, and whether His foreknowledge applies to our future decisions or not is a dangerous matter that we leave to God. Logically it appears that foreknowledge should not apply to free will, but we admit that God is so great and so infinitely beyond our knowledge that we say logic is not necessarily sufficient to override the possibility of God’s foreknowledge.

The Predestination of Prophets

He said, “I am only the messenger of your Lord, to give you the gift of a pure son.”

The Quran, verse 19:19

In the above verse, an angel tells Mary mother of Jesus that she will have a “pure” son. This means that Jesus was predestined to be pure. We see the same in the case of John (Prophet Yaḥyā):

Then the angels called out to him, as he stood praying in the sanctuary: “God gives you good news of John; confirming a Word from God, and honorable, and moral, and a prophet; one of the upright.”

The Quran, verse 3:39

Above, Zechariah is told that his unborn son will be honorable, moral and upright, as if John himself would have no say in the matter. This does not nullify free will in general. What it means is that certain chosen individuals will be protected by God from sins and disbelief. As we said above, humans only intend, but God creates the will in them to do good or bad. In the case of the prophets, even if they willed something bad, God could override their will and prevent them from carrying out the sin.

While the generality of humans enjoy free will, prophets enjoy a more restricted free will that is under God’s divine guidance and control. In this way God can have a plan for a prophet even before the prophet’s birth and ensure that His plan is fully carried out. He may give the prophet sufficient free will for them to be human to some degree, while preventing them from ever deviating from His plan.

The same protection is also likely enjoyed by pious believers. God eases them toward good deeds and makes evil deeds difficult for them by overriding their will when He wants and restricting their freedom to sin as a favor upon them. But when it comes to impious and rebellious people, God takes away His protection:

Whoever makes a breach with the Messenger, after the guidance has become clear to him, and follows other than the path of the believers, We will direct him in the direction he has chosen, and commit him to Hell—what a terrible destination!

The Quran, verse 4:115

On Contradicting Hadith Narrations

Numerous hadiths suggest that people are condemned to Paradise or Hell even before they are born. These hadiths seem to completely contradict free will and divine justice. Due to the great number of hadiths on this issue and their conflicting nature, I have dedicated a supplementary essay to it here: A Study of the Hadiths on Qadar (Predestination): Judging Between Fatalism and Free Will

My conclusion in that essay is that the hadith literature is not conclusive in forcing fatalism on us. We have the choice to reject fatalism, and since rejecting it is the more sensible and Quranic choice, and since it is supported by multiple authentic narrations, then this should be the choice of someone who prefers the theological worldview I have described here in this essay.

We know that Imam al-Bukhārī rejected a few authentic narrations when he considered their meaning absurd, as Jonathan Brown’s studies have shown.1 Imam Mālik too refused to act by certain authentic hadith narrations when they went against the practice of the people of Medina (see the PhD dissertation The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qur’an, the Muwatta’ and Madinan Amal by Yasin Dutton). We may never know, but perhaps if Imam al-Bukhārī had been against fatalism, he would have considered fatalistic narrations to be unauthentic regardless of their chains.

Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya both rejected fatalism and did their best to reinterpret fatalistic hadith narrations to make room for true free choice and the possibility of change in a person’s fate; see Livnat Holtzman’s essay in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times.

Conclusion

We know for certain that we are responsible for our actions. This should be the basis of our thinking about these matters. Suppositions about predetermination and divine foreknowledge should never dishearten us from doing goods deeds and avoiding sin, because we should not abandon a certainty (our responsibility) for the sake of speculations.

In summary, we accept human responsibility, divine predetermination of the alternative futures, the possibility of change in destinies, and the possibility of true human free will. We affirm God’s All-Knowing and All-Powerful attributes, that He is utterly in charge of the universe, that no human can will anything unless God allows it and creates the will. We also admit the paradox between free will and divine foreknowledge and leave its ultimate solution to God. We do not want to say there is anything God does not know. But there is no shame in God being powerful enough to create a creature who is free enough to make decisions that are intrinsically impossible to predict. This affirms His attribute of the All-Powerful, even if on the face of it it appears to go against His attribute of the All-Knowing. Since we have no firm knowledge of these matters, we leave their ultimate solution to God: it may be an insult against God to deny the possibility of true, impossible-to-predict free will (because it suggests God is incapable of making such a thing), and it may also be an insult against God to say that future human decisions are impossible to predict (because it suggests God does not know future human decisions).

God allows us to choose between alternative futures, but all futures are created by God. Prayer is beneficial because God may respond by creating brand-new alternative futures that did not exist before and that contain many blessings that we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. We can never escape God’s decree, but we can affect what God decrees for us by our piety or sinfulness. If we are pious, God rewards us by decreeing good things, and if we are sinful, God may punish us by decreeing bad things for us. This is what the plain meaning of the Quran and the Prophet’s statement on prayer changing one’s predestiny suggest.

A Study of the Hadiths on Qadar (Predestination): Judging Between Fatalism and Free Will

This is a supplement to my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya

Qadar (divine predestination) is one of the most controversial issues in Islam. Muslim thinkers are generally divided into two groups on this issue. There are the rationalists and semi-rationalists like the Matūrīdīs, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya and most mainstream intellectuals who try to make room for human choice and free will and do their best to avoid asserting fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that all of humanity is divided into believers and disbelievers from birth–we have absolutely no choice but to live out the lives that are predestined for us even before we were conceived. According to fatalism, whether your destination is Paradise or Hell is something decided by God before your birth and you have absolutely no choice in the matter.

While most mainstream thinkers try to avoid fatalism, its most ardent defenders are the scholars of hadith, who believe that fatalism is proven through numerous narrations and that doubting it is disbelief. While we can believe in qadar (predestination) with or without fatalism, hadith scholars say we must only believe in the fatalistic interpretation of qadar.

The issue is very important because if humanity was really created in a fatalistic manner, it would make the creation of humanity sound rather useless and pointless. Humans would already be divided into the dwellers of Paradise and Hell from before birth and they would have no choice but to end up there. How could any just, wise and sensible God create such a system? Believing that you might end up in Hell because it is “decreed” for you even if you are a believer now (as some hadiths say) leads to a rather depressing and hopeless worldview and has nothing to do with the worldview of the Quran.

Qadar can be interpreted in two ways: the first way is that God decides everything that befalls you without forcing you to choose between good and evil, so that you can choose between a good or evil destiny even if you have no control over what befalls you in life. This is what orthodox rationalists like the Maturīdīs say. The second way to interpret qadar is to say that it means, besides controlling what befalls you, God also controls your choices. You have no choice in whether you end up in Paradise or Hell–it was decreed for you even before birth. This is what the fatalist hadith scholars believe. Which view of qadar is to be preferred?

So far the argument between the rationalists and the fatalists has failed to progress because neither side engages with the other on the other’s terms. The rationalists use rational and Quranic evidence to argue that fatalism is unjustified and senseless–God must give us some choice in the matter of our destiny. The hadith scholars wholly reject rational arguments and say that since hadith “proves” fatalism, there is no room for rational argumentation. The rationalists have often had little interest in or knowledge of hadith and have merely resorted to stating that the Quran and rational arguments should be given preference.

In this essay I will perform the unique task of engaging with the issue of fatalism and free will using the hadith scholars’ own terms and methods. I decided that this study was necessary because I am working on synthesizing Matūrīdī theology with Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s theology in order to reconcile free will and predestination in an orthodox and coherent manner. But the biggest hurdle I have faced in this task are the fatalistic hadith narrations that seem to contradict divine justice and wisdom and that make it impossible to build a satisfactory and complete Islamic theological theory.

As I will show in this essay, despite what hadith scholars believe, the evidence for fatalism is not really that strong. In fact, one major characteristic that becomes clear throughout this study is the unusual level of weakness and doubtfulness associated with most fatalistic narrations, which in itself is a strong argument against fatalism. If fatalism was such a crucial aspect of Islam, why did the Prophet fail to clearly state it enough times for us to get just one single hadith that is corroborated by four or more Companions? In fact, even if lower our standard to requiring only two Companions’ witnessing to a fatalistic hadith coming through two transmitters and so on, we have no hadiths that reach even this level.

Ideally we should have four or more Companions narrate the same hadith (each through four transmitters and so on) in order to prove a point beyond doubt in theology. Singular (aḥād) narrations that come only from one or two Companions do not prove anything beyond doubt when it comes to matters of uṣūl (fundamentals). It is perfectly fine to accept a narration from a single Companion on secondary (furūʿ) matters, such as the Prophetic way to use the miswāk (a type of toothbrush made from an Arabian tree). But when it comes to crucial matters that completely change the nature of our religion, we should require a much higher standard of evidence. Islam requires four witnesses to prove a case of fornication. Shouldn’t we at least require the same standard of evidence on crucial issues of our faith? This is especially necessary when hadiths conflict with the Quran, reason and with other narrations that support the opposing case.

Al-Bayhaqi’s Kitāb al-Qaḍāʾ wa-l-Qadar

I have based this study mainly on Kitāb al-Qaḍāʾ wa-l-Qadar (The Book of Predestination) by the hadith scholar Imam al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066 CE), may God have mercy on him. This book tries to bring together all existing hadith narrations on the issue of qadar and tries to prove fatalism in the strongest terms. I only dealt with hadiths that are authentic or may be considered to have a chance of authenticity, or may be of doubtful authenticity. I have skipped the ones that are judged by most hadith scholars to be fabricated and unauthentic since there is no point in dealing with them.

To find additional evidence for and against fatalism, I have surveyed the entirety of the two volumes of Ṣaḥīḥ Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaghīr wa-Ziyādatuh by Imam Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 1999, may God have mercy on him). This book attempts to bring together almost all existing authentic Prophetic statements from the hadith literature from dozens of sources. It is a good resource for finding Prophetic information on any chosen topic.

Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī’s Ṣaḥīḥ Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaghīr wa-Ziyādatuh

I did not merely do a keyword search for words having to do with qadar since many Prophetic statements on qadar do not actually mention the word or anything close to it. It was therefore necessary to read the entire book.

Summary

As will be shown below, there is only one wholly authentic narration that comes from multiple Companions that affirms fatalism (that humans are divided into believers and disbelievers before birth and their fate never changes). There are also three other narrations, each coming from a single Companion, that affirm fatalism.

As mentioned, we must require four Companions’ hadiths to prove theological points. However, since the three-Companion hadith is the most significant fatalistic hadith in existence, I will deal it with specifically.

I will mention Anas’s version since all three Companions’ hadiths agree on its meaning:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "At every womb Allah appoints an angel who says, 'O Lord! A drop of semen, O Lord! A clot. O Lord! A little lump of flesh." Then if Allah wishes (to complete) its creation, the angel asks, (O Lord!) Will it be a male or female, a wretched or a blessed, and how much will his provision be? And what will his age be?' So all that is written while the child is still in the mother's womb."

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 318

This hadith is fatalistic because it implies that wretchedness and blessedness in the afterlife is decided for the person from their mother’s womb. This hadith is actually not very well-attested. Here is a diagram of the narrations coming from Anas:

The hadith only comes through Ḥammād b. Zayd, through ʿUbaydallāh, so we have to trust that these individuals correctly understood and transmitted the hadith. Thus we have no second opinion on Anas having said this. And here is a diagram of the narrations from Ibn Masʿūd:

This hadith too comes only through single individuals; al-Aʿmash, through Zayd b. Wahb. The other attesting chains of Salama b. Kuhayl and Abū Ṭufayl are not fully reliable and can be ignored. The version from the third Companion Ḥudhayfa b. Usayd is as follows (right to left):

It comes only through Abū al-Ṭufayl through various badly-attested chains.

This is the most important fatalistic hadith. In order to accept it, we have to trust that Ibn Masʿūd correctly understood the Prophet , that Zayd b. Wahb correctly understood Ibn Masʿūd, and that al-Aʿmash correctly understood Zayd. The same applies to the other Companions’ hadiths. This is an extremely precarious structure to rely on for something so important, especially something that is not found in the Quran and that appears to contradict its wisdom and plain meaning.

Another reason to doubt it is that we have a non-fatalistic version of the hadith coming from Ḥudhayfa b. Usayd, from an authentic chain except for one individual who is trusted by some and not others (Abū al-Zubayr al-Makkī):

حَدَّثَنِي أَبُو الطَّاهِرِ، أَحْمَدُ بْنُ عَمْرِو بْنِ سَرْحٍ أَخْبَرَنَا ابْنُ وَهْبٍ، أَخْبَرَنِي عَمْرُو، بْنُ الْحَارِثِ عَنْ أَبِي الزُّبَيْرِ الْمَكِّيِّ، أَنَّ عَامِرَ بْنَ وَاثِلَةَ، حَدَّثَهُ أَنَّهُ، سَمِعَ عَبْدَ اللَّهِ بْنَ مَسْعُودٍ، يَقُولُ الشَّقِيُّ مَنْ شَقِيَ فِي بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ وَالسَّعِيدُ مَنْ وُعِظَ بِغَيْرِهِ ‏.‏ فَأَتَى رَجُلاً مِنْ أَصْحَابِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُقَالُ لَهُ حُذَيْفَةُ بْنُ أَسِيدٍ الْغِفَارِيُّ فَحَدَّثَهُ بِذَلِكَ مِنْ قَوْلِ ابْنِ مَسْعُودٍ فَقَالَ وَكَيْفَ يَشْقَى رَجُلٌ بِغَيْرِ عَمَلٍ فَقَالَ لَهُ الرَّجُلُ أَتَعْجَبُ مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَإِنِّي سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏ "‏ إِذَا مَرَّ بِالنُّطْفَةِ ثِنْتَانِ وَأَرْبَعُونَ لَيْلَةً بَعَثَ اللَّهُ إِلَيْهَا مَلَكًا فَصَوَّرَهَا وَخَلَقَ سَمْعَهَا وَبَصَرَهَا وَجِلْدَهَا وَلَحْمَهَا وَعِظَامَهَا ثُمَّ ‏.‏ قَالَ يَا رَبِّ أَذَكَرٌ أَمْ أُنْثَى فَيَقْضِي رَبُّكَ مَا شَاءَ وَيَكْتُبُ الْمَلَكُ ثُمَّ يَقُولُ يَا رَبِّ أَجَلُهُ ‏.‏ فَيَقُولُ رَبُّكَ مَا شَاءَ وَيَكْتُبُ الْمَلَكُ ثُمَّ يَقُولُ يَا رَبِّ رِزْقُهُ ‏.‏ فَيَقْضِي رَبُّكَ مَا شَاءَ وَيَكْتُبُ الْمَلَكُ ثُمَّ يَخْرُجُ الْمَلَكُ بِالصَّحِيفَةِ فِي يَدِهِ فَلاَ يَزِيدُ عَلَى مَا أُمِرَ وَلاَ يَنْقُصُ ‏"‏ ‏.‏

ʿĀmir b. Wāthila said that he heard 'Abdullah b. Mas'ud say that wretched one is the one who is wretched in the womb of his mother and the happy one is he who takes a lesson from the (fate of) others. The narrator came to a person from amongst the Companions of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) who was called Ḥudhayfa b. Usayd al-Ghifārī and said: How can a person be an evil one without (committing an evil) deed? Thereupon the person said to him: You are surprised at this, whereas I have heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying: When forty-two nights pass after the semen gets into the womb, Allah sends the angel and gives him shape. Then he creates his sense of hearing, sense of sight, his skin, his flesh, his bones, and then says: My Lord, would he be male or female? And your Lord decides as He desires and the angel then puts down that also and then says: My Lord, what about his age? And your Lord decides as He likes it and the angel puts it down. Then he says: My Lord, what about his livelihood? And then the Lord decides as He likes and the angel writes it down, and then the angel gets out with his scroll of destiny in his hand and nothing is added to it and nothing is subtracted from it.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2645 a

Notice that above, it is Ibn Masʿūd himself who makes the fatalistic statement. The actual Prophetic hadith narrated by Ḥudhayfa b. Usayd completely lacks all fatalism. It merely says that a person’s death-timing, livelihood and sex is determined in the womb. There is no mention of a person’s deeds or fate in the afterlife being written there.

Ibn Masʿūd himself appears to have been a fatalist. His statement that people are differentiated into Hell-dwellers and Paradise-dwellers from the womb is attested from authentic chains. It seems quite possible that Ibn Masʿūd’s opinion became mixed up with the content of the Prophetic statement so that Ibn Masʿūd’s fatalistic interpretation of it became a part of it in people’s minds. Later people may have “corrected” the hadith by adding the fatalism to it that seemed obvious to them. We can therefore conclude that the hadith in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2645 a is likely to be the original and authentic version.

The fatalistic narrations are countered by an authentic narration that affirms the changeability of qadar, thus wholly contradicting fatalism. There are also a number of other authentic narrations that only make sense if the world is not fatalistic but dynamic and changeable.

What we have, therefore, are a number of authentic narrations and the entirety of the Quran, all of which go against fatalism, and a few other narrations that assert fatalism, the most important of which is not worth relying on in this matter since it is refuted by another version of itself that lacks fatalism. If the fatalistic version had come through four Companions, each of whom said it to four trustworthy people, and so on until it reached us, we would have had no choice but to consider it true. But as it is, it seems justified to prefer the Quran and the non-fatalistic version to it.

The correct and just attitude, therefore, is to acknowledge the inconclusive and contradictory nature of the hadith evidence and to acknowledge that many different interpretations are possible. The hadith scholars’ insistence on fatalism seems unjustified.

Since our sense of justice and wisdom is repulsed by fatalism, and since it demolishes much of the beauty and sense of the Quran’s statements, I think we are justified in taking the below hadith’s advice regarding this issue by doubting fatalism and considering the non-fatalistic interpretation of qadar of scholars like Ibn Taymiyya to be the likely correct one.

Narrated by the Companions Abū Ḥumayd and Abū Usayd:

إِذَا سَمِعْتُمُ الْحَدِيثَ عَنِّي تَعْرِفُهُ قُلُوبُكُمْ ، وَتَلِينُ لَهُ أَشْعَارُكُمْ وَأَبْشَارُكُمْ ، وَتَرَوْنَ أَنَّهُ مِنْكُمْ قَرِيبٌ فَأَنَا أَوْلَاكُمْ بِهِ ، وَإِذَا سَمِعْتُمُ الْحَدِيثَ عَنِّي تُنْكِرُهُ قُلُوبُكُمْ ، وَتَنْفِرُ مِنْهُ أَشْعَارُكُمْ وَأَبْشَارُكُمْ ، وَتَرَوْنَ أَنَّهُ مِنْكُمْ بَعِيدٌ ، فَأَنَا أَبْعَدُكُمْ مِنْه

If you hear hadith from me and your heart knows it, and your feelings and good cheer lean toward it, and you consider it close to you, then I am closer to it than you. And if you hear hadith from me hadith that your hearts do not know, and your feelings and good cheer are repulsed by it, and you consider it distant from you, then I am more distant from it than you.

Musnad Aḥmad 15808, a very similar version is considered hasan by al-Albānī

The above hadith comes from wholly trusted and reliable transmitters.

We are in charge of whether we will be happy or wretched in the afterlife through choosing to accept God’s guidance or rejecting His guidance. As the Quran states, all humans attested to God’s oneness before they were born:

And when Your Lord summoned the descendants of Adam, and made them testify about themselves. “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we testify.” Thus you cannot say on the Day of Resurrection, “We were unaware of this.”

The Quran, verse 7:172

This is the fiṭra (pristine original state of humanity) that all humans are born with, as the following hadith affirms:

Every child is born on the fiṭra but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity or Magainism...

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 1359, a similar version in Ṣaḥīh Muslim 2658 d

All human souls attested to God’s oneness before they were born, and they are born in that state, ready to either become believers or disbelievers as they age. God guides them to Himself through various means throughout life until they become convinced of the truth of His prophets:

We will show them Our signs on the horizons, and in their very souls, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness over everything?

The Quran, verse 41:53

Once they reach that conviction, they either choose guidance and God increases them in guidance and rewards them with Paradise, or they constantly choose disbelief and God causes them to be misguided and rewards them with Hell. This is the picture that the Quran and numerous hadiths draw for us and it is preferable to the fatalistic understanding of Islam that implies that people are needlessly thrown into Paradise or Hell without having any say in the matter.

Technical Details

Verification Methodology

I have used most existing books on the criticism of hadith transmitters in judging the trustworthiness of a transmitter. However, I have been more strict in my judgments than is typical of hadith scholars. If 10 scholars consider someone trustworthy but two respected ones consider them weak, then I have gone with the weak judgment. I have also seriously taken into account the statements of scholars that a person is trustworthy but cannot be relied on in legal judgments.

My strictness seems justified because when it comes to such a crucial and fundamental matter, it seems only right to only trust the transmitters with impeccable or nearly-impeccable reputations.

Fatalistic Hadith Narrations

There are so many fatalistic hadiths in this section that, from the face of it, it appears that they prove fatalism. But the section against fatalism later will also be supported by numerous hadiths.

Narrated Abū Hurayra:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Moses argued with Adam and said to him (Adam), 'You are the one who got the people out of Paradise by your sin, and thus made them miserable." Adam replied, 'O Moses! You are the one whom Allah selected for His Message and for His direct talk. Yet you blame me for a thing which Allah had ordained for me before He created me?" Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) further said, "So Adam overcame Moses by this Argument."

Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 262

This hadith comes from a single Companion. It does not have to be interpreted fatalistically; perhaps Adam was specially destined to make his error. That does not prove the same applies to all human choices. There is a weaker version of this hadith from ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb.

The following narration is from ʿAlī b. Abū Ṭālib:

We were accompanying a funeral procession in Baqi Al-Gharqad (graveyard in Al-Madinah) when the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) proceeded towards us and sat down. We sat around him. He had a small stick in his hand. He was bending down his head and scraping the ground with the stick. He said, "There is none among you but has a place assigned for him either in Paradise or in Hell." The Companions said: "O Messenger of Allah, should we not depend upon what has been written for us (and give up doing good deeds)?'' The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, "Carry on doing good deeds. Every one will find it easy to do such deeds (as will lead him to his destined place) for which he has been created."

Al-Bukhari and Muslim, mentioned in Riyad as-Salihin Book 7, Hadith 945

This hadith only comes from ʿAlī. As other narrations will show later, even if someone is destined for Paradise or Hell, that does not mean this destiny cannot change. Therefore even if our place in Paradise or Hell is decided right now, if we choose to be good or evil later on, that place may change. This hadith therefore does not necessarily imply fatalism.

The next hadith is from ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn:

Has there been drawn a distinction between the people of Paradise and the denizens of hell? [The Prophet ] said: Yes. It was again said: (If it is so), then what is the use of doing good deeds? Thereupon he said: Everyone is facilitated in what has been created for him.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2649 a

This hadith, despite being in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (a shorter version is also in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7551) has Yazīd b. Shurayk al-Ẓubbaʿī in all of its chains of transmitters, who was considered weak by Yaḥyā b. Muʿīn according to Ibn ʿUlayya and as being below the degree of authenticity by Abū Aḥmad al-Ḥākim. Below is a diagram of all existing chains of this hadith:

This hadith only comes from one Companion through a precarious chain. We have to take Muʿtarrif b. ʿAbdallah’s word for it that ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn really said that, and we have to take Yazīd b. Shurayk al-Ẓubbaʿī’s word for it that Muʿtarrif b. ʿAbdallah said that.

The next one is from Saʿd b. Mālik:

عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ : مَا مِنْ نَفْسٍ إِلَّا وَقَدْ كَتَبَ اللَّهُ مَدْخَلَهَا وَمَخْرَجَهَا وَمَا هِيَ لَاقِيَةٌ ، فَقَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنَ الْأَنْصَارِ : فَفِيمَ الْعَمَلُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ؟ قَالَ : اعْمَلُوا فَكُلٌّ مُيَسَّرٌ ، مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ يُيَسِّرُهُ لِعَمَلِ أَهْلِهَا ، وَمَنْ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ النَّارِ يُيَسِّرُهُ لِعَمَلِ أَهْلِهَا ، قَالَ : فَقَالَ الْأَنْصَارِيُّ : الْآنَ حَقَّ الْعَمَلُ

The Prophet said: "There is not a soul except that God has written for it its entrance and exit and what he will face." So a man from al-Ansar said: "So what is the purpose of deeds O Messenger of God?" He said, "Do [good] deeds for each person is eased [toward their destiny]. Whoever is of the people of Paradise is eased toward the deeds of its people, and whoever is of the people of Hell is eased toward the deeds of its people." So the man from al-Ansar said, "Now deeds have become obligatory [i.e. now the truth of the need to do good deeds has been shown]."

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 39

This hadith has Aḥmad b. Rusta in its chain, who is unknown.

This hadith is narrated by Surāqa b. Mālik:

قَالَ : فَحُدِّثْنَا عَنْ دِينِنَا هَذَا كَأَنَّا خُلِقْنَا لَهُ السَّاعَةَ نَعْمَلُ لِشَيْءٍ قَدْ جَرَتْ بِهِ الْمَقَادِيرُ وَجَفَّتْ بِهِ الْأَقْلَامُ أَمْ لِشَيْءٍ يُسْتَقْبَلُ ؟ قَالَ : بَلْ لِشَيْءٍ قَدْ جَرَتْ بِهِ الْمَقَادِيرُ ، وَجَفَّتْ بِهِ الْأَقْلَامُ ، قَالَ : فَفِيمَ الْعَمَلُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ؟ قَالَ : اعْمَلُوا فَكُلٌّ مُيَسَّرٌ لِمَا خُلِقَ ، قَالَ : ثُمَّ قَرَأَ الْآيَةَ { فَأَمَّا مَنْ أَعْطَى وَاتَّقَى وَصَدَّقَ بِالْحُسْنَى } إِلَى آخِرِ الْآيَةِ

We were told about this religion of ours as if had been created for it this hour. "Do we work for something whose measures/predestination has come to be and from which the pens have dried, or do we [work for] something to be looked forward to [in the future]?" [the Prophet ] said, "No, rather for something that whose measure/predestination has come to be and from which the pens have dried." He said, "So what are deeds for?" He said, "Do good deeds, because everyone is eased toward that which he has been created for." Then he recited the verse, "As for him who gives, fears God and affirms the truth of the good..." to the end of the verse.

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 40

This hadith has Abū al-Zubayr Muḥammad b. Muslim in its chain, who is considered a non-hujja by Abū Ḥatim al-Rāzī, meaning his hadiths are not reliable enough to be used as proof-texts in legal debates. Sufyān b. ʿUyayna also appears to consider him weak.

Al-Bayhaqī in al-Qadar 390 mentions a similar narration that has ʿAṭṭāf b. Khālid in its chain who is considered weak by al-Dāraquṭnī. It also has an unknown person in its chain called Ṭalḥa b. ʿAbdallah b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. It also has Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Saʿīd al-Rāzī who is unknown and considered weak by al-Dāraquṭnī.

Next is the following strange hadith from ʿAbdallah b. ʿAmr:

The Messenger of Allah (s.a.w) came out to us with two books in hand. And he said: "Do you know what these two books are?" We said: "No, O Messenger of Allah! Unless you inform us." He said about the one that was in his right hand: "This is a book from the Lord of the worlds, in it are the names of the people of Paradise, and the name of their fathers and their tribes. Then there is a summary at the end of them, there being no addition to them nor deduction from them forever." Then he said about the one that was in his left: "This is a book from the Lord of the worlds, in it are the names of the people of Fire, and the name of their fathers and their tribes. Then there is a summary at the end of them, there being no addition to them nor deduction from them forever.' The companions said: 'So why work O Messenger of Allah! Since the matter is already decided (and over)?' He said: 'Seek to do what is right and draw nearer, for indeed the inhabitant of Paradise, shall have his work sealed off with the deeds of the people of Paradise, whichever deeds he did. And indeed the inhabitant of Fire, shall have his work sealed off with the deeds of the people of Fire, whichever deeds he did.' Then the Messenger of Allah motioned with his hands, casting them down and said: 'Your Lord finished with the slaves, a group in Paradise, and a group in the Blazing Fire."

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 41, Al-Tirmidhī Vol. 4, Book 6, Hadith 2141

This hadith has Abū Qābil Ḥuyay b. Hāniʾ in its chain who is considered weak by multiple scholars. Another version comes from Saʿīd b. Sinān who is also weak.

Below is a second hadith from ʿAbdallah b. ʿAmr:

 قَالَ : دَخَلْتُ عَلَى عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرِو بْنِ الْعَاصِ وَهُوَ فِي حَائِطٍ لَهُ بِالطَّائِفِ فَذَكَرَ حَدِيثًا طَوِيلًا . قَالَ : وَسَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ : إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ خَلَقَ خَلْقَهُ فِي ظُلْمَةٍ ، ثُمَّ أَلْقَى عَلَيْهِمْ مِنْ نُورِهِ ، فَمَنْ أَصَابَهُ مِنْ ذَلِكَ النُّورِ يَوْمَئِذٍ شَيْءٌ اهْتَدَى ، وَمَنْ أَخْطَأَهُ ضَلَّ ، فَلِذَلِكَ أَقُولُ : جَفَّ الْقَلَمُ عَلَى عِلْمِ اللَّهِ

I entered upon ʿAbdallah b. ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ while he was in a garden of his in al-Ṭāʾif, so he mentioned a long hadith. He said, "And I heard the Prophet say, 'God, Mighty and High is He, created His creation in darkness. Then He threw on them from His light. So whoever was struck by any of that light then he is guided. And whoever it missed became misguided. So that is why I said, 'The pen has dried upon God's knowledge.'"

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 43

This hadith comes entirely from trustworthy transmitters, but it comes only from one Companion, through a single transmitter ʿAbdullah b. Fayrūz al-Daylamī. In another hadith from the same transmitter as above, this same Companion denies that he has said a person is either wretched or blessed from his mother’s womb:

قُلْتُ لِعَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو إِنَّهُ بَلَغَنِي أَنَّكَ تُحَدِّثُ أَنَّ الشَّقِيَّ مَنْ شَقِيَ فِي بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ ، فَقَالَ : أَمَا إِنِّي لَا أُحِلُّ لِأَحَدٍ أَنْ يَكْذِبَ عَلَيَّ ، إِنِّي سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقُولُ : إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ خَلَقَ خَلْقَهُ فِي ظُلْمَةٍ ثُمَّ أَلْقَى عَلَيْهِمْ نُورًا مِنْ نُورِهِ ، فَمَنْ أَصَابَهُ شَيْءٌ مِنْ ذَلِكَ النُّورِ اهْتَدَى ، وَمَنْ أَخْطَأَهُ ضَلَّ

I said to ʿAbdallah b. ʿAmr that I have heard you say that a person is wretched who is wretched from his mothers womb. He said, "I do not allow anyone to make up lies in my name. I heard the Prophet said, 'God, Mighty and High is He, created His creation in darkness. Then He threw on them from His light. So whoever was struck by any of that light then he is guided. And whoever it missed became misguided.'"

Musnad al-Ṭayālisī 2394

It appears that ʿAbdallah b. ʿAmr is only denying having said that without denying its meaning, since what he says above is still fatalistic. Since both fatalistic hadiths come only from one Companion, only through ʿAbdullah b. Fayrūz al-Daylamī, they are not strong enough to be used as conclusive proofs.

Next is a hadith that comes from many Companions:

On the day He created Adam, God grabbed his offspring in two handfuls. All good ones fell into His right hand and all evil ones into His other hand. He then said, "Those who are the companions of the right and I do not care. They will enter Paradise. And those are the companions of the Hellfire."

However, none of the versions are actually very authentic:

  • The version from the Companion Abū Mūsa al-Ashʿarī has Yazīd al-Raqāshī in its chain of transmitter who is a weak transmitter. (Al-Ṭabarāni, al-Muʿjam al-Awṣat 11431)
  • The version from the Companion Abū al-Dardāʾ has Abū al-Rabīʿ Sulaymān b. ʿUtba who was considered weak by Yaḥya b. Muʿīn. (Musnad Aḥmad 26870)
  • The version from the Companion Muʿādh b. Jabal has the weak transmitter Barāʾ al-Ghanawī. (Musnad Aḥmad 21597)
  • The version from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Qatāda al-Sulamī has Rāshid b. Saʿd who was considered weak by Ibn Ḥazm. (Ṣaḥīh Ibn Ḥibbān 339)
  • The versions from Anas has al-Ḥakam b. Sinān who is a weak narrator. (Musnad Abī Yaʿlā 3359, 3328)
  • The version from Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq has Fiṭr b. Khalīfa who was considered weak by Abū Dawūd and al-Juzjāni. (Al-Jāmiʿ li-Muʿammar b. Rāshid 701; al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 391)
  • The version from ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb has Muslim b. Yasār in it, who is unknown.
  • The version from Hishām b. al-Ḥakīm was transmitted by Rāshid b. Saʿd, who was considered weak by Ibn Ḥazm. It also has ʿAbdallāh b. Ṣāliḥ who was severely criticized and considered untrustworthy by many scholars (Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 226). Another version of it comes through Baqīya b. al-Walīd who was considered a performer of tadl$is from weak narrators (he heard something from a weak narrator then said he heard it from a trustworthy person). Al-Bayhaqī himself says he is not a ḥujja (his hadiths are not strong enough to be used as proof-texts in legal debates). (Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 227) Another version of it comes through Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm b. al-ʿUlāʾ who was considered unreliable by al-Nasāʾī and Abū Dawūd.

The next hadith is from ʿĀʾisha:

ʿĀʾisha, the mother of the believers, said that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) was called to lead the funeral prayer of a child of the Ansar. I said:
Allah's Messenger, there is happiness for this child who is a bird from the birds of Paradise for it committed no sin nor has he reached the age when one can commit sin. He said: ʿĀʾisha, per perhaps it may be otherwise, because God created for Paradise those who are fit for it while they were yet in their father's loins and created for Hell those who are to go to Hell. He created them for Hell while they were yet in their father's loins.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2662 c

This hadith only comes to us through Ṭalḥa b. Yaḥyā, who is described by al-Bukhārī as munkar al-ḥadīth, meaning he narrates unique narrations that contain information not corroborated by any other hadiths, which is a cause for doubting his authenticity. Al-Qaṭṭān and al-Sājī described him as laysa bi-l-qawī (“not strong”), meaning that his hadiths are not of the highest quality (i.e. not saḥīḥ).

Next is a hadith that seems to completely contradict divine wisdom and justice:

قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : هَؤُلَاءِ لِلْجَنَّةِ وَلَا أُبَالِي ، وَهَؤُلَاءِ لِلنَّارِ وَلَاأُبَالِي

The Prophet said, "[God said], 'Those are for Paradise and I do not care. And those are for the Fire and I do not care.'"

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar, 54

This hadith has various versions and mentions that right after the creation of Adam, all of his offspring were brought forth and God divided them into the dwellers of Paradise and Hell before they were even born. The one above is transmitted by Naṣr b. Aḥmad b. Abī Ṣura al-Marwazī who is unknown and therefore cannot be relied on.

  • There is another version from Abū al-Dardāʾ’ (Musnad Aḥmad 26870) which has Abū al-Rabīʿ Sulaymān b. ʿUtba in its chain who was unknown and considered unreliable by Yaḥyā b. Muʿīn.
  • Another version mentioned a Companion named Abū ʿAbdallāh (Musnad Aḥmad 17250) which contains Abū Naḍra Mundhir b. Mālik who is known to have become unreliable in his memory in his old age. The hadith is strange in that it does not mention who heard the Prophet say his statement to Abū ʿAbdallāh, as if there is an anonymous hearer involved, which suggests that Abū Naḍra heard it from some anonymous source.
  • Another version from Muʿādh b. Jabal has the weak transmitter Barāʾ b. ʿAbdallāh al-Ghanawī (Musnad Aḥmad 21597).
  • The version from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Qatāda al-Sulāmī has Muʿawiya b. Ṣaliḥ, who was considered not reliable enough for his narrations to be used as proof-texts by Abū Ḥatim al-Rāzī while Qaṭṭān and Yaḥyā b. Muʿīn considered his narrations unacceptable. It also has Rashīd b. Saʿd who was considered unreliable by Ibn Ḥazm.
  • The version from Abū Musā al-Ashʿarī has Yazīd b. Abān al-Raqāshī, who was considered matrūk (so unreliable that his hadiths should be abandoned) by al-Nasāʾī and Abū Aḥmad al-Ḥākim al-Kabīr (al-Ṭabarānī, al-Muʿjam al-Awsaṭ 11431)
  • The version from Anas has al-Ḥakam b. Sinān who is a weak transmitter. (Musnad Abū Yaʿlā al-Mawṣlī, 3359)
  • The version from Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq has Fiṭr b. Khalīfa who was considered weak by Abū Dawūd and Abū Saʿīd b. Yūnus al-Miṣrī. (Muʿammar b. al-Rāshid, al-Jāmiʿ 701)

Another version simply says:

Those are for that and those are for that. Then the people divided into groups, but they do not differ in predestination (qadar).

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar, 53

This version has Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. al-Zubayr who is known to make errors in his transmissions from Sufyān al-Thawrī, and this hadith happens to be a transmission from Sufyān al-Thawrī.

We also have this extremely fatalistic hadith from Ibn Masʿūd, dealt with in the summary above:

ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd said :
The Messenger of Allah (May ) who spoke the truth and whose word was belief told us the following : The constituents of one of you are collected for forty days in his mother’s womb, then they become a piece of congealed blood for a similar period, then they become a lump of flesh for a similar period. Then Allah sends to him an angel with four words who records his provision the period of his life, his deeds, and whether he will be miserable or blessed ; thereafter he breathes the spirit into him. One of you will do the deeds of those who go to Paradise so that there will be only a cubit between him and it or will be within a cubit, then what is decreed will overcome him so that he will do the deeds of those who go to Hell and will enter it; and one of you will do the deeds of those who go to hell, so that there will be only a cubit between him and it or will be within a cubit, then what is decreed will overcome him, so that he will do the deeds of those who go to Paradise and will enter it.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2645 a, a version is also in al-Bukhārī 7056

Its chain is fully authentic. A shorter version version of it comes from Anas:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "At every womb Allah appoints an angel who says, 'O Lord! A drop of semen, O Lord! A clot. O Lord! A little lump of flesh." Then if Allah wishes (to complete) its creation, the angel asks, (O Lord!) Will it be a male or female, a wretched or a blessed, and how much will his provision be? And what will his age be?' So all that is written while the child is still in the mother's womb."

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 318

The chain of this one is also fully authentic.

There is another version from Hudhayfa b. Usayd (al-Albāni, Ṣaḥīh al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaghīr wa-Ziyādatuhu 797) that lacks any mention of wretchedness or blessedness, and lacks mention of God determining his actions beforehand. Another version from Hudhayfa b. Usayd (al-Albāni, Ṣaḥīh al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaghīr wa-Ziyādatuhu 1984) says at the end “Then God makes him (yajʿaluhu) wretched or blessed”, which leaves room for interpreting it as a reference to divine guidance throughout a person’s life. Another version of his is as fatalistic as Ibn Mas’ud’s:

Hudhayfa b. Usayd reported directly from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) that he said:

When the drop of (semen) remains in the womb for forty or fifty (days) or forty nights, the angel comes and says: My Lord, will he be good or evil? And both these things would be written. Then the angel says: My Lord, would he be male or female? And both these things are written. And his deeds and actions, his death, his livelihood; these are also recorded. Then his document of destiny is rolled and there is no addition to nor subtraction from it.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2644

Hudhayfa b. Usayd’s non-fatalistic version could have been the original statement of the Prophet that was later enlarged by adding the fatalistic meanings. But I admit that this is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the fatalistic argument.

Another fatalistic hadith from Abū al-Dardāʾ says:

فَرَغَ اللَّهُ إِلَى كُلِّ عَبْدٍ مِنْ خَمْسٍ ، مِنْ أَجَلِهِ وَمِنْ عَمَلِهِ وَرِزْقِهِ وَأَثَرِهِ وَمَضْجَعِهِ ، لَا يَتَعَدَّاهُنَّ عَبْدٌ

God has finished [dealing with five things in regards to His servant]: the timing of his death, his work, his provision, his footprint and his place of death. He will never be able to transgress these.

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar, 64

This hadith is authentic but only comes from one Companion, through one transmitter.

Another hadith from Ubayy b. Kaʿb says:

إِنَّ الْغُلَامَ الَّذِي قَتَلَهُ الْخَضِرُ طُبِعَ كَافِرًا ، وَلَوْ عَاشَ لَأَرْهَقَ أَبَوَيْهِ طُغْيَانًا وَكُفْرًا

The boy who was killed by Khidr had been sealed with disbelief. If he had lived he would have overwhelmed his parents to with oppression and disbelief.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2662 a

This hadith comes only from one Companion. It can be given a non-fatalistic interpretation: the boy may have been a few years past puberty (when a person becomes responsible for their deeds) and may have already committed so many evil deeds that his heart had been sealed by God. The Quranic verse, however, suggests that his death was based on a probabilistic judgment of his future evil nature, because it says “we feared”, rather than “we knew”, that he would overwhelm them with oppression and disbelief.

As for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared he would overwhelm them with oppression and disbelief.

The Quran, verse 18:80

Another version from the same Companion takes away all fatalism:

وَكَانَ يَوْمَ طُبِعَ كَافِرًا

That day he was sealed with disbelief.

Sunan Abi Dawud 4706

Rather than saying he was sealed with disbelief from birth, it says he was sealed with disbelief on that day. This hadith comes from an authentic chain (authenticated by al-Albānī), but it has Isrāʾīl b. Yūnus who was widely considered authentic but considered unauthentic by Ibn Ḥazm and ʿAlī b. al-Madīnī.

Another fatalistic hadith from Ibn ʿAbbās says:

خَلَقَ اللَّهُ فِرْعَوْنَ فِي بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ كَافِرًا ، وَخَلَقَ يَحْيَى بْنَ زَكَرِيَّا فِي بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ مُؤْمِنًا

God created Pharaoh in his mother's womb as a disbeliever, and He created John son of Zechariah in his mother's womb as a believer.

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 69

This hadith has Yāhya b. Baṣtam in its chain who was considered unreliable by al-Bukhārī and Ibn Ḥibbān. Another version of it comes through Ayyūb b. Khawṭ in it who is also weak (al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 69). Another version of it comes from Ibn Masʿūd but comes through Naṣr b. Ṭarīf who is weak (al-Bayhaqī,, al-Qadar 70). Another version from Ibn Masʿūd has the weak narrator Abū Umayya b. al-Hābaṭī (al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 71). Another version has ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm who is not perfectly authentic, it also has Shādh b. Fayyāḍ who is known to transmit munkar (unusual and doubtful) narrations through this type of chain. Another version also has ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm and his son al-Khalīl b. ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm whose hadiths from his father are also considered munkar. Another version of this hadith (al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 72) from Ibn Masʿūd comes through Abū Hilāl Muḥammad b. Sulaym al-Rāsī who is considered weak by Daraquṭnī and al-Qaṭṭān.

Another fatalistic hadith from Ibn Masʿūd starts with:

 الْعَبْدُ يُولَدُ مُؤْمِنًا وَيَعِيشُ مُؤْمِنًا وَيَمُوتُ مُؤْمِنًا ، وَالْعَبْدُ يُولَدُ كَافِرًا وَيَعِيشُ كَافِرًا وَيَمُوتُ كَافِرًا...

The servant is born a believer, lives as a believer and dies a believer, and the servant is born a disbeliever, lives as a disbeliever, and dies a disbeliever.

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 71

This hadith also comes from Shādh b. Fayyāḍ through ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm, both of whom are of doubtful reliability.

Another fatalistic hadith from Abū Hurayra says:

The happy [in the afterlife] is the one who is happy from his mother's womb.

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 74

This hadith is authentic. But this statement only comes only from the two Companions Ibn Masʿūd and Abū Hurayra through questionable chains. Most hadiths attribute the saying to Ibn Masʿūd himself rather than the Prophet . The version from Abū Hurayra comes from a rather precarious chain:

This hadith only comes through the fourth transmitter above, making it rather doubtful. The version from Ibn Masʿūd is even worse (Ibn Māja 45). Its chain has Abū al-Aḥwaṣ ʿAwf b. Mālik who was a mudallis. The chain also has Abū Isḥāq ʿAmr b. ʿAbdallāh, another mudallis whose memory weakened in old age. It also has a third mudallis Musā b. ʿUqba. It also has the unknown transmitter ʿUbayd b. Maymūn. Both versions are therefore quite unworthy of relying on.

Another hadith from ʿĀʾisha says:

إِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ وَإِنَّهُ لَمَكْتُوبٌ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِنَّهُ مِنْ أَهْلِ النَّارِ ، فَإِذَا كَانَ قَبْلَ مَوْتِهِ تَحَوَّلَ فَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ النَّارِ فَمَاتَ ، فَدَخَلَ النَّارَ ، وَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ النَّارِ وَإِنَّهُ لَمَكْتُوبٌ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِنَّهُ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ ، فَإِذَا كَانَ قَبْلَ مَوْتِهِ تَحَوَّلَ فَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ ، فَدَخَلَ الْجَنَّةَ

A person performs the deeds of a person of Paradise while he is written in the Book as a person of Hell. Before his death he reverts and performs the deeds of the people of Hell, so when he dies he enters Hell. [And vice versa]

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 80

This hadith only comes through the little-known narrator Ashʿath b. Hilāl al-Jurjānī and for this reason it is doubtful. Another version of it comes from the weak narrator ʿUbaydallāh b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Mawhib (al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 79).

The next hadith is from the Companion al-ʿUrs b. ʿUmayra:

سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقُولُ : إِنَّ الْعَبْدَ مِنْ عِبَادِ اللَّهِ لَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ الْبُرْهَةَ مِنْ دَهْرِهِ ، فَتُعْرَضُ لَهُ الْجَادَّةُ مِنْ جَوَادِّ النَّارِ ، فَيَعْمَلُ بِهَا حَتَّى يَمُوتَ عَلَيْهَا وَذَلِكَ مَا كُتِبَ لَهُ . وَإِنَّ الْعَبْدَ مِنْ عِبَادِ اللَّهِ لَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ النَّارِ الْبُرْهَةَ مِنْ دَهْرِهِ ، فَتُعْرَضُ لَهُ الْجَادَّةُ مِنْ جَوَادِّ الْجَنَّةِ ، فَيَعْمَلُ بِهَا حَتَّى يَمُوتَ عَلَيْهَا وَذَلِكَ لِمَا كُتِبَ لَهُ

I heard the Messenger of God say, "The servant among the servants of God performs the deeds of the people of Paradise for a period of his lifetime. Then a road of the roads of Hell are presented to him so that he performs acts according to it and dies in that state, and that is because of what has been decreed for him [by God]. [And vice versa]

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 82

This hadith’s chain has Yūsuf b. Yazīd who is considered to have had a weak memory, to make numerous errors and to have little knowledge of hadith. It also has Saʿīd b. Kathīr b. ʿUfayr who confused and mixed up narrations according to ʿAlī b. al-Madīnī. It also has the little-known transmitter Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥakam b. Yazīd al-Ramlī.

The next hadith is from ʿAbdallāh b. ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb:

جَاءَ أَهْلُ نَجْرَانَ إِلَى النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالُوا : الْآجَالُ وَالْأَرْزَاقُ تُقَدَّرُ ، وَالْأَعْمَالُ إِلَيْنَا . فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ تَبَارَكَ وَتَعَالَى : { إِنَّ الْمُجْرِمِينَ فِي ضَلَالٍ وَسُعُرٍ } إِلَى قَوْلِهِ : { كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلَقْنَاهُ بِقَدَرٍ }إِلَى قَوْلِهِ : { وَكُلُّ صَغِيرٍ وَكَبِيرٍ مُسْتَطَرٌ }

The people of Najran came to the Prophet and said, "The death-timings and the provisions are decreed, but deeds are ours." So God sent down: "The wicked are in confusion and madness." to His saying, "Everything we created with a qadar." to His saying, "And everything, small or great, is written."

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 113

This hadith comes through al-Hudhayl b. Bilāl al-Madāʾinī, who was considered weak by Yaḥyā b. Muʿīn, Abū Dawūd, al-Nasāʾī and al-Daraquṭnī.

لَمَّا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : { لِمَنْ شَاءَ مِنْكُمْ أَنْ يَسْتَقِيمَ } قَالُوا : الْأَمْرُ إِلَيْنَا إِنْ شِئْنَا اسْتَقَمْنَا ، وَإِنْ شِئْنَا لَمْ نَسْتَقِمْ . فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ : { وَمَا تَشَاءُونَ إِلَّا أَنْ يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ }

When God, Mighty and He is He, sent down upon His messenger : "For whoever among you who wishes to be upright", they said, "The matter is [in our hands]. If we wish we will be upright, and if we wish we will not be upright." So God sent down, "You do not will [a thing] except that God, the Lord of the Worlds, wills it."

Al-Bayhaqi, al-Qadar 116

This hadith comes from the transmitter Mālik b. Sulaymān who is considered weak by Abū Dawūd, al-Nasāʾī and al-Daraquṭnī. It also has an incomplete (mursal) chain of narrators since the first transmitter does not mention which Companion he heard it from. The chain also has Baqqiya b. al-Walīd, who is known to perform tadlīs from untrustworthy transmitters (he says he heard something from a trusted person but actually heard an untrustworthy person say that he heard it from a trustworthy person). The chain also has Muhammad b. Muṣaffā who is another performer of tadlīs and who is known to err often.

Narration 128 in al-Bayhaqī’s al-Qadar mentions the angels Gabriel, Michael and Isrāfīl arguing on the issue of qadar leading to a fatalistic conclusion. The hadith is unreliable: it has the transmitter Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad who was considered unreliable by Sufyan b. ʿUyayna and al-Wāqidī. The chain also has Abū Muslim Muḥammad b. al-Zubayr who was mentioned by Sufyan b. ʿUyayna and al-Sakhtiyānī as if they considered him unreliable.

Al-Bayhaqī in hadiths 134, 135 and 139 in his al-Qadar presents authentic narrations all of which say that belief in qadar, “its good and its bad”, is obligatory on a Muslim. The hadiths do not have a fatalistic meaning.

In hadith 149, al-Bayhaqī mentions a long fatalistic hadith that mentions the respected Successor Saʿīd b. al-Musayyab getting angry when someone says humans have free will to do good or evil. He narrates a Prophetic statement that says humans are created either for Paradise or Hell [from birth]. This hadith comes through the unknown transmitter ʿAṭīya b. ʿAṭīya and al-Dhahabī says it is a fabricated hadith.

In al-Qadar 306, al-Bayhaqī mentions a shorter version of this hadith from a different chain. The chain has ʿAmr b. Shuʿayb who is considered to be below the degree of authenticity by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī. The hadith also has ʿAbdallah b. Lahīʿa who is widely considered weak.

In al-Qadar 309, al-Bayhaqī mentions a narration from ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb in which he implies that God creates people for Paradise or Hell from birth. Its chain has Khālid b. al-Ḥadhdhāʾ who is considered not reliable enough for his hadiths to be used as proof-texts by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī. The chain also has Abū Bakr b. Isḥāq al-Faqīh who is unknown and whose hadiths are munkar (unique and doubtful) according to al-Bukhārī.

The hadith below appears to be fatalistic, but it actually can be used to argue against fatalism:

Narrated Abū Hurayra:

I said, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! I am a young man and I am afraid that I may commit illegal sexual intercourse and I cannot afford to marry." He kept silent, and then repeated my question once again, but he kept silent. I said the same (for the third time) and he remained silent. Then repeated my question (for the fourth time), and only then the Prophet said, "O Abu Hurayra! The pen has dried after writing what you are going to confront. So (it does not matter whether you) get yourself castrated or not."

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 5076

The Prophet says that what Abū Hurayra is going to face in life is already written. Yet he admits that Abū Hurayra has a choice in whether he castrates himself or not. This could actually be an affirmation of his free will. This hadith comes through Yūnus b. Yazīd who erred often in his narrations from al-Zuhrī (this one is such a narration) according to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. Another in the chain, ʿAbdallāh b. Wahb, was known to be a performer of tadlīs. This evidence is not sufficient to consider the hadith weak, but its chain is low-quality.

Next is a hadith from Ibn ʿAbbās:

I did not see anything so resembling minor sins as what Abū Hurayra said from the Prophet, who said, "Allah has written for the son of Adam his inevitable share of adultery whether he is aware of it or not: The adultery of the eye is the looking (at something which is sinful to look at), and the adultery of the tongue is to utter (what it is unlawful to utter), and the innerself wishes and longs for (adultery) and the private parts turn that into reality or refrain from submitting to the temptation."

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6612

This hadith is authentic, but it only comes from Abū Hurayra through a precarious chain:

A version comes directly from Abū Hurayra (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2658 a) but through Suhayl b. Abū Ṣāliḥ who was considered weak by al-Dāraquṭnī.

Narrated Ibn ʿUmar:

The Prophet (ﷺ) forbade vowing and said, "In fact, vowing does not prevent anything, but it makes a miser spend his property."

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6608

Another version of it comes from Abū Hurayra and explicitly mentions qadar:

Do not take vows, for a vow has no effect against qadar; it is only from the miserly that something is extracted.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1640 a

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī also has a hadith with the same meaning from Abū Hurayra (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6609) with a stronger chain. The authenticity of both hadiths seems established. But since no other Companions mention it, it falls short of the gold-standard of four Companions. And since vowing was very common in Arabia, it is strange that there are not any more hadiths where the Prophet forbids vowing.

However, assuming it is authentic, we can still give it a non-fatalistic interpretation. If we assume the possibility of change in qadar (as the Prophet affirms in other narrations), the Prophet is saying we cannot counter God’s qadar with vows. This does not mean that it does not have an influence on what God decrees. It is also likely that the Prophet was not laying down a theological idea but trying to discourage people from a practice he disliked. The Prophet is saying we cannot force God to do anything through vows (perhaps people assumed vows were binding on God). The Prophet is not necessarily stating that vows cannot have an influence on qadar if and when God chooses.

The next hadith (al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar, 230) is authentic and from Ibn ʿAbbās. He says the Prophet said nothing will befall him except that which God has written for him, and that “the scrolls have dried and the pens have been lifted.” This hadith sounds fatalistic, but since it only mentions what befalls a person (rather than what they will do in life), it cannot be used to support fatalism with certainty. The Prophet may also be saying that, at this moment, the scrolls have dried and the pens have been lifted rather than saying there can never be any change in qadar in the future.

Next is a hadith that mentions multiple Companions:

Ibn al-Daylamī said :
I went to Ubayy b. Kaʿb and said him : I am confused about qadar, so tell me something by means of which Allah may remove the confusion from my mind. He replied : were Allah to punish everyone in the heavens and in the earth. He would do so without being unjust to them, and were he to show mercy to them his mercy would be much better than their actions merited. Were you to spend in support of Allah’s cause an amount of gold equivalent to Uḥud, Allah would not accept it from you till you believed in divine decree and knew that what has come to you could not miss you and that what has missed you could not come to you. Were you to die believing anything else you would enter Hell. He said : I then went to ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd and he said something to the same effect. I next went to Hudhayfa b. al-Yamān and he said something to the same effect. I next went to Zayd b. Thābit who told me something from the Prophet (May ) to the same effect.

Sunan Abī Dawūd 4699

This hadith has Muhammad b. Kathīr in its chain, who is considered weak by Yaḥyā b. Muʿīn, al-Jīlī and al-Baghdādī. A different version of it is narrated by al-Bayhaqī in al-Qadar 305. This hadith has Muʿāwiya b. Ṣāliḥ in its chain, whose hadiths cannot be used as proof-texts according to Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī. It also has his son ʿAbdallāh b. Ṣāliḥ who has a worse reputation than his father. Al-Nasāʾī says he is not trustworthy and Ibn al-Madīnī said he avoids all narrations from him.

This hadith is therefore not high-quality. It also does not actually support fatalism since the Companions only affirm the meaning of qadar that is accepted by both sides. However, their saying that it would be just if God was to punish everyone in the heavens and the earth is strange and questionable. In al-Qadar 414 al-Bayhaqī mentions another version of this hadith with a weaker chain. The chain has Hishām b. Saʿd who was widely considered to be weak. It also has Saʿīd b. Hilāl who was considered below authentic by Ibn Ḥazm.

ʿUbāda b. al-Ṣāmit said to his son :
Son! You will not get the taste of the reality of faith until you know that what has come to you could not miss you, and that what has missed you could not come to you. I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say: The first thing Allah created was the pen. He said to it: Write. It asked: What should I write, my Lord? He said: Write what was decreed about everything till the Last Hour comes. Son! I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say : He who dies on something other than this does not belong to me.

Sunan Abi Dawud 4700 (sahih according to al-Albani)

The last transmitter of the above hadith is considered to have erred sometimes. Otherwise the hadith has an authentic chain. It does not have a fatalistic meaning since it does not say that the goodness or wickedness of humans was decreed then. It could be referring only to the decreeing of things that would befall humans.

Anti-Fatalistic Narrations

 لَا يَزِيدُ فِي الْعُمْرِ إِلَّا الْبِرُّ ، وَلَا يَرُدُّ الْقَدَرَ إِلَّا الدُّعَاءُ ، وَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيُحْرَمُ الرِّزْقَ بِخَطِيئَةٍ يَعْمَلُهَا

Nothing increases lifetime except righteousness, and nothing counters qadar except prayer, and a man may be forbidden provision because of a sin he commits.

Sunan Ibn Māja 90, authenticated by al-Albānī, Ibn Ḥibbān and al-Ḥākim al-Nisābūrī

This hadith has entirely reliable transmitters except for ʿAbdalah b. Abī al-Jaʿd, who is little-known but considered trustworthy by Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī. This hadith contradicts all fatalistic narrations that say nothing will ever change in a person’s qadar (“the scroll has dried”, etc.). A different version of the hadith adds the following (said by the Prophet ):

إِنَّ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ لَمَكْتُوبٌ : يَا ابْنَ آدَمَ ، اتَّقَ رَبَّكَ ، وَبِرَّ وَالِدَكَ ، وَصِلْ رَحِمَكَ ، أَمْدُدْ لَكَ فِي عُمُرِكَ ، وَأُيَسِّرْ لَكَ يُسْرَكَ ، وَأَصْرِفْ عَنْكَ عُسْرَكَ

It is written in the Torah: O child of Adam, fear your Lord, be dutiful toward your parents, be dutiful toward your relatives, and I will extend your lifetime, ease for you your ease, and take away from you your difficulty.

Musnad al-Rūyānī, 608

This version also comes from entirely trusted transmitters except for Sālim b. Rāfiʿ who is considered unknown by some and trusted by others. Since the saying is in the context of qadar, the concept of dynamic, changeable qadar is strongly suggested by it. What we choose to do, whether we do good or evil, changes what God causes to befall us. This is the opposite of fatalism.

Faʿḍāla b. ʿUbayd:

أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، قَالَ : اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِكَ ، وَشَهِدَ أَنِّي رَسُولُكَ ، فَحَبِّبْ إِلَيْهِ لِقَاءَكَ ، وَسَهِّلْ عَلَيْهِ قَضَاءَكَ ، وَأَقْلِلْ لَهُ مِنَ الدُّنْيَا ، وَمَنْ لَمْ يُؤْمِنْ بِكَ وَلَمْ يَشْهَدْ أَنِّي رَسُولُكَ ، فَلَا تُحَبِّبْ إِلَيْهِ لِقَاءَكَ ، وَلَا تُسَهِّلْ عَلَيْهِ قَضَاءَكَ ، وَأَكْثِرْ لَهُ مِنَ الدُّنْيَا

The Prophet said, "O Allah, whoever believes in you, and bears witness that I am your messenger, then cause him to love meeting you, and ease your decrees on him, and decrease from him the worldly life. And whoever does not believe in you, and does not bear witness that I am your Messenger, then do not cause him to love meeting you, and do not ease your decree on him, and increase for him of the worldly life."

Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 208

This hadith has a wholly authentic chain. In it the Prophet speaks as if God’s decree is changeable, for he prays that it should be eased or not eased. There would be no point in this prayer if qadar was unchangeable.

ʿĀʾisha:

وَأَسْأَلُكَ أَنْ تَجْعَلَ كُلَّ قَضَاءٍ قَضَيْتَهُ لِي خَيْرًا

... and I ask you to make every decree You decree for me to be a good.

Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 870; Muṣannaf Abī Shayba 28767

The above hadith comes from two chains from wholly trusted transmitters. The first chain contains one individual whose memory weakened in old age. The second chain does not contain that individual. The Prophet again speaks as if God’s decrees are changeable. If God’s decrees never changed, the meaning of the prayer would be, “O God do what you would have done anyway.”

ʿAmmār b. Yāsir

أَحْيِنِي مَا عَلِمْتَ الْحَيَاةَ خَيْرًا لِي ، وَتَوَفَّنِي إِذَا كَانَتِ الْوَفَاةُ خَيْرًا لِي

... cause me to live while You know life to be better for me, and cause me to die if death is better for me ...

Sahih Ibn Hibban 2005, al-Mustadrak 1878

The above is a quotation from a long hadith in which the Prophet prays for a number of things. The hadith comes from two chains both of which are wholly authentic except that both contain a trusted individual who occasionally errs. If a person’s death-timing could never change, there would be no point in this prayer. It therefore appears that the Prophet believed that prayer could change qadar.

Narrated Abū Hurayra:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "Every child is born on the fiṭra but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity or Magainism, as an animal delivers a perfect baby animal. Do you find it mutilated?" Then Abu Huraira recited the holy verses: "The pure Allah's Islamic nature (true faith of Islam) (i.e. worshipping none but Allah) with which He has created human beings. No change let there be in the religion of Allah (i.e. joining none in worship with Allah). That is the straight religion (Islam) but most of men know, not." (30.30)

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 1359, a similar version in Ṣaḥīh Muslim 2658 d

The above entirely authentic hadith seems to contradict those hadiths that say humans are divided into the dwellers of Paradise and Hell from before birth. All humans are born on the pure fiṭra (which according to Ibn Taymiyya means belief in a basic form of Islam), but later they become corrupted.

Narrated Abū Huraira:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "Allah says, 'If My slave intends to do a bad deed then (O Angels) do not write it unless he does it; if he does it, then write it as it is, but if he refrains from doing it for My Sake, then write it as a good deed (in his account). (On the other hand) if he intends to do a good deed, but does not do it, then write a good deed (in his account), and if he does it, then write it for him (in his account) as ten good deeds up to seven-hundred times.' "

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 7501

If all human deeds had already been written and the “scrolls” had dried, what is meant by things being recorded and not recorded above? The above hadith suggests a dynamic timeline of life rather a frozen one as fatalism suggests.

Al-Barāʾ b. ʿĀzib reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said:What is your opinion about the delight of a person whose camel loaded with the provisions of food and drink is lost and that moves about with its nosestring trailing upon the waterless desert in which there is neither food nor drink, and lie wanders about in search of that until he is completely exhausted and then accidentally it happens to pass by the trunk of a tree and its nosestring gets entangled in that and he finds it entangled therein? He (in response to the question of the Holy Prophet) said: Allah's Messenger, he would feel highly delighted. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said. By Allah, Allah is more delighted at the repentance of His servant than that person (as he finds his lost) camel.

Ṣaḥīh Muslim 2746, the most authentic chain at Musnad Aḥmad 18206

The above narration comes from entirely trusted transmitters in Aḥmad’s Musnad. It is strange that God would be so happy with a human’s repentance if He had pre-decreed that the person would repent anyway. But it would make perfect sense if the person had a choice between repenting and not repenting.

In the authentic narration below, the Prophet affirms that he has choice over his actions:

ʿĀʾisha said: "The Messenger of Allah used to divide his time equally among his wives then he would say: 'O Allah, this is what I have done with regard to that over which I have control, so do not blame me for that over which You have control and I do not.'"

Sunan al-Nasāʾī 3943 (authentic)

If the Prophet had been a fatalist, he would have said that he has no control over how he divides his time, since his choices are in God’s hands anyway.

Narrated Anas:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Allah will say to that person of the (Hell) Fire who will receive the least punishment, 'If you had everything on the earth, would you give it as a ransom to free yourself (i.e. save yourself from this Fire)?' He will say, 'Yes.' Then Allah will say, 'While you were in the backbone of Adam, I asked you much less than this, i.e. not to worship others besides Me, but you insisted on worshiping others besides me.' "

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 3334, Ṣaḥīh Muslim 2805 a

The above only makes sense if God had not already separated the children of Adam into believers and disbelievers before birth. It is nonsensical that God would decree that some people should enter the Hellfire only to go on to blame them for not worshiping Him.

Below is a narration not from the Prophet but from Ibn ʿAbbās:

{ وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنْ بَنِي آدَمَ } الْآيَةَ قَالَ : خَلَقَ اللَّهُ آدَمَ فَأَخَذَ مِيثَاقَهُ أَنَّهُ رَبُّهُ ، وَكَتَبَ أَجَلَهُ وَرِزْقَهُ وَمَصَائِبَهُ ثُمَّ أَخْرَجَ مِنْ ظَهْرِهِ كَالذَّرِّ فَأَخَذَ مِيثَاقَهُمْ أَنَّهُ رَبُّهُمْ ، وَكَتَبَ أَجَلَهُمْ وَأَرْزَاقَهُمْ وَمَصَائِبَهُمْ

"And when your Lord took from the children of Adam"...the rest of the verse. [Ibn ʿAbbās said], "God created Adam and took his oath that He is his Lord. Then He wrote the timing of his death, his provision, and the catastrophes that would be fall him. Then He brought out [his offspring] from his back like dust specks and took their oath that He is their Lord. Then He wrote the timing of their death, their provisions and their catastrophes.

Al-Bayhaqī, al-Qadar 49

In this entirely authentic narration, there is no fatalism in Ibn ʿAbbās’s interpretation. What befalls humans has been written in their predestiny, but what they will choose in the future is not forced upon them there.

Narrated Anas:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said," None of you should long for death because of a calamity that had befallen him, and if he cannot, but long for death, then he should say, 'O Allah! Let me live as long as life is better for me, and take my life if death is better for me.' "

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 6351

The above prayer would only make sense if qadar was changeable through prayer. Otherwise, if a person’s death-timing could never change, the prayer would mean “O God do what You would do anyway.”

Abū Hurayra:

سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقُولُ : لَا يَدْخُلُ أَحَدٌ النَّارَ إِلَّا أُرِيَ مَقْعَدَهُ مِنَ الْجَنَّةِ ، لَوْ أَحْسَنَ لِيَكُونَ عَلَيْهِ حَسْرَةً ، وَلَا يَدْخُلُ الْجَنَّةَ أَحَدٌ إِلَّا أُرِيَ مَقْعَدَهُ مِنَ النَّارِ لَوْ أَسَاءَ لِيَزْدَادَ شُكْرًا

I heard the Messenger of God saying, "No one enters the Fire except that his seat he would be shown his seat in Paradise had he been a doer of good so that it becomes a cause of regret for him. And no one enters Paradise except that he is shown his station in the Fire had he been wicked so that he would increase in gratitude.

Musnad Aḥmad 10795, considered Ṣaḥīḥ by al-Albānī

This hadith’s chain has Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad b. Bahrām who is unknown. It also has ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Dhakwān who is considered weak by some scholars. I am putting it here to balance out all the low-quality narrations I mentioned in the pro-fatalism section. This hadith suggests that a person has a choice between Paradise and Hell since he has two places prepared for him. If it was decided for him that he would go to Paradise or Hell from before birth, then this hadith wouldn’t make sense.

Narrated Abū Hurayra:

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "The prayer of anyone of you is granted (by Allah) if he does not show impatience (by saying, "I invoked Allah but my request has not been granted.")

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 6340

The above hadith has an entirely authentic chain. The plain meaning of the hadith suggests that a person has two choices; either he waits patiently and God changes qadar in his favor, or waits impatiently and God allows qadar to stay unchanged.

Narrated ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Truthfulness leads to righteousness, and righteousness leads to Paradise. And a man keeps on telling the truth until he becomes a truthful person. Falsehood leads to Al-Fajur (i.e. wickedness, evil-doing), and Al-Fajur (wickedness) leads to the (Hell) Fire, and a man may keep on telling lies till he is written before Allah, a liar."

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 6094

This hadith comes from a wholly authentic chain. The hadith suggests that a person is not written as a liar to begin with unless they choose to constantly lie.

Narrated ʿAʾisha the mother of the faithful believers:

One night Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) offered the prayer in the Mosque and the people followed him. The next night he also offered the prayer and too many people gathered. On the third and the fourth nights more people gathered, but Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) did not come out to them. In the morning he said, "I saw what you were doing and nothing but the fear that it (i.e. the prayer) might be enjoined on you, stopped me from coming to you." And that happened in the month of Ramadan.

Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī 1129

This is another hadith with a wholly authentic chain. If the Prophet had been a fatalist, he should have believed that God had already decreed what would be obligatory on the Muslims. Here he acts as if he thinks his choices would affect God’s decrees.

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 they should be treated as equals. 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 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 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 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 Amazon.com 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, weam.co/4351 (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, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/whos-afraid-of-sibel-edmonds/ (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,  https://www.sciencealert.com/china-just-overtook-us-in-scientific-output-first-time-published-research (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.

The Philosophical Reason why Homosexual Relationships are “Wrong”

Some preliminary thoughts on homosexuality that uses the Western philosophy of personhood to argue that homosexual relationships are morally wrong. Although homosexual desires can be natural and blameless, acting on them is harmful.

The line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” from the 1939 film Gone with the Wind was one of the most shocking examples of profanity that had been shown on screen up to that time in the English language. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s brought with it a flood of profanity-celebrating cultural products; films, novels and songs. There is a good reason why the celebration of sexual freedom and the celebration of profanity come hand-in-hand: they are both symptoms of the same process–the increasing corporealization of humans that takes place when a culture abandons its traditional values.

To corporealize a person means to treat them as if they were a mere body rather than a person. Seeing a person you respect slip on a banana peel in front of an audience is highly embarrassing because it corporealizes them: it takes attention away from their unique personhood and reveals them to us as mere bodies, helplessly flailing around and falling. Immediately after such an accident, it becomes extremely difficult to take that person seriously, for example if they were about to give a speech. It will take a while for the memory of the embarrassing incident to fade away so that we can start to see the person again as a person, not an object, and so that we can take them seriously.

Rape is a form of corporealization: it is to use a person as an instrument for one’s own pleasure, with their humanity, their personhood, stripped away from them. Mugging someone is also a form of corporealization: the person is treated as a mere instrument, a tool for enriching oneself, without consideration for who they are and what kind of person they are. Rape and mugging are, in a way, the same crime: the crime of treating a person as if they were merely a tool that can be used for one’s own purposes.

Whenever we treat someone as if they were not a person, as if they were not possessed of an inviolable dignity, uniqueness and transcendence as humans, we corporealize them. The philosopher Kant calls this to treat a person as a means (instrument) rather than as an end (aim/goal).

The way this ties into the issue of homosexuality is that homosexual relationships are corporealizing. They stress the fact of our fleshiness at the expense of our personhood.

If you imagine an idealistic, fairy tale homosexual relationship where the couple utterly love and respect each other and live in a society that happily respects and accepts them, there appears to be nothing wrong with the picture. There in fact are some people who have created such a world for themselves–highly intelligent professionals who are in homosexual relationships and surrounded by social circles that love, respect and accept them.

But you cannot judge social policy by looking at the rare successes and ignore the average person who is in such relationships. Even if 10% of homosexuals can live in such a happy world, we need to look at the remaining 90% to see how they live and behave. The homosexual dating app Grindr is a good illustration of ordinary homosexuality. Its very name refers to the sexual act, and those who use it consider it largely a “sex app”, an app for those who find someone whom they meet for an hour before moving on immediately to having sex with each other.

Ordinary rather than elite male homosexuality is largely about finding attractive male bodies to use for one’s own pleasure. It is sex in its physicality that is the focus of the lifestyle; the focus is on one’s own body, one’s own penis and its needs, and attractive pieces of flesh that can satisfy those needs.

Ordinary homosexuality normalizes the “hookup” culture that is also practiced by heterosexuals, especially in the West. If you see nothing with wrong hookup cultures, then you will likely see nothing wrong with homosexual relationships.

But there is a deep problem with hookup cultures, and anything that leads to hookup cultures is morally wrong. So the problem with homosexuality is not necessarily anything within it (unless we believe in God, but this essay is not about divinely ordained morality), the problem with homosexuality is that it is a force that always leads to hookup cultures.

So the philosophical reason why homosexuality is wrong is expressed in this syllogism:

  • Hookup cultures are morally wrong
  • The practice of (male) homosexuality always leads to hookup cultures
  • Therefore homosexual lifestyles are wrong

Hookup cultures and civilizations

In order to show that homosexuality is wrong, we need to show that hookup cultures are wrong, i.e. harmful. What is wrong with the meat-market mentality of the hookup culture where most people are interested in quickly finding fellow humans to use for sexual pleasure then discard?

The reason is that the hookup culture is diametrically opposed to traditional marriage and the wholesome family atmosphere that it is meant to create. Marriage is the basis of civilization. By destroying marriage, hookup cultures destroy civilization.

Think of two types of men. One of them, the civilization man, is interested in finding a woman to love, building a family and contributing to his civilization’s future through his works. The other, the hookup culture man, man is interested in his own pleasures. He wants to take as much as he can from the civilization he lives in by sleeping with as many women as he wants without caring for the future.

Now imagine two civilizations. One of them is filled with civilization men, the other with hookup culture men. Which civilization is going to be prosperous, productive and successful?

Imagine the civilization in the Victorian novel Pride and Prejudice. This is a society where everyone has extreme respect for their parents, siblings and spouses. Everyone is treated as automatically worthy by the virtue of being born into that civilization. Mrs. Bennet in the novel is an ignorant and annoying woman. But since she is a wife and a mother, she is treated with extreme respect and consideration by everyone around her. She is like a queen who is treated with respect whether she deserves it or not because her society has a place reserved for her that gives her status and protects her from insults and demeaning treatment.

In that society, almost everyone feels important, needed and necessary for their society. Depression is rare because everyone treats you like you matter regardless of whether you are attractive or interesting. No one can insult you or treat you in a demeaning way. Everyone is busy working to maintain the illusion that you are important and loved. And since everyone is involved in it, the illusion becomes reality. You never feel lost or purposeless because there is so much going on around you that is constantly reinforces in you the feeling that you are important and essential to that society–to your parents, siblings, spouse and children. Even a stupid, unattractive and poor man is treated like a king within his own household by his relatives, spouse and children. The mother, regardless of her personal qualities, is Mother and is treated like a queen who deserves a special status and consideration.

That society is a human and humane society that is utterly suited to the happiness and mental health of its members. That is what it is like to live in a society filled with civilization men and women.

Many people who have never lived in such a society think that it is all an illusion. They laugh at Victorian novels and think it is all pretense that those people were so respectful toward each other. They think there are all kinds of evil and ugly things hidden underneath. But as a rare person who grew up in a such a society in Iran and Iraq, I know its truth and its irreplaceable value. I want to live in a society where dads are loved and considered irreplaceable by their wives and children rather than being treated like village idiots as so many dads are treated in the West. I want to live in a society where mothers are respected as Mother, important, irreplaceable and possessing inviolable dignity.

If you have never read a Jane Austen novel, I recommend you read a few to know exactly what I am talking about. And having been brought up in a similar society, I know that it is not all a lie. Such societies do exist–all that is needed is strong religious belief and respect for traditional values.

The hookup jungle

Now think of the hookup culture where every woman is judged by her beauty and bodily attributes. She has no place reserved for her in this hookup society. Her only place is assured by the virtue of her body. If men want to have sex with her, she is worthy. If men are disgusted by her because she is ugly, then she has no worth. Imagine the utter despair of unattractive men and women in this hookup culture where no one wants them and no one treats them like they are worthy. It is a jungle where everyone is judged not as humans, but as animals. If you can be a good instrument of other people’s pleasure–if you have charisma and physical attractiveness, you are treated like the king of the jungle. And if you lack these, you are cast away to the margins where you have to be content with being forever alone and unwanted.

That is what many young men and women experience as they eagerly abandon their families and embrace the hookup culture thinking that it will give them all that they desire. They find out that all it can give them is short-lived climaxes of pleasure followed by long periods of feeling worthless and fearful for one’s status in the popularity contest.

Since Western society has not utterly degenerated, some of these young people are able to abandon the horrors of the hookup jungle to build families, switching their mode of life from the hookup life to the civilization life. They leave the jungle and hope to embrace the normalcy of a traditional way of life.

But their life in the hookup culture causes many forms of often irreparable damage. The corporealization mentality of the hookup culture where everyone is an instrument rather than an infinitely worthy person causes them to be cynical, distrusting and disrespectful toward their families, societies and future spouses. By having lived such a degenerate life for so long, they will not be able to miraculously switch to acting like Victorian gentlemen and ladies in their respect and love for other people. They will rather be like so many failed individuals in the West, having damaged their relationships with their families irreparably so that they cannot count on their help. When a person spends years corporelizing other humans and being corporealized themselves, they are unable to see their fellow humans as persons anymore. They find it difficult to respect their parents because father and mother are two corporealized bags of matter like every other human. They can be beneficial materially for oneself, so that the corporealizer treats the father as an ATM and the mother as something of a servant. They certainly cannot be treated like kings and queens enjoying infinite respect because they themselves are incapable of envisioning any human deserving such respect since they themselves were so corporealized by everyone around them that they now feel everyone corporealizes them all the time.

Such people often build a half-successful marriage with an equally damaged human and beget a child who suffers the consequences of their damagedness. The couple do not truly respect each other because they are not very capable of treating others as persons. They continue to maintain the cynicism, distrust and sense of worthlessness that the hookup culture imparted upon them. And the child grows up in an atmosphere where no one is sure of their place. The dad is not sure of his place with his woman because the woman, having been used by so many men before, cannot truly trust him nor fully embrace the role of Wife to an infinitely respected Husband. To her the very idea of respecting a man like that sounds utterly ridiculous, a silly joke, a pretense. She is incapable of appreciating that the atmosphere in novels like Pride and Prejudice is actually real.

And the man, having used so many women in the past and been used by so many women, considers his wife merely just another woman who now happens to be his wife. He is unable to truly trust her or to embrace the role of Husband as an infinitely respected and irreplaceable person in his household.

You may find it easy to imagine a couple who enjoyed the party life of the hookup culture in their 20’s then went into to build a perfectly happy and wholesome family life in their 30’s. But that is just your imagination. You may be thinking of a few successful examples and ignoring the majority; the failures and train wrecks that are everywhere around us.

If you are unable to imagine being in a society like that in Pride and Prejudice, then you yourself may be the product of the trauma and destruction that the hookup culture has brought on your society. You may be unable to imagine any alternative, so you think this is all that there can be, and you think this is just how life is. And from such a perspective, you will be unable to appreciate my reasoning for why homosexuality is wrong.

Male homosexuality and hookup cultures

As mentioned, male homosexuality leads to hookup cultures. A statistic that backs up this claim is that in surveys homosexual men constantly report having many times more more sexual partners than heterosexual men. It is in the nature of the male libido to demand constant stimulation and variety. It sounds utterly stupid to the average homosexual to limit their satisfaction to just one man that they love as Husband, with whom they live side by side through life until they die hand in hand. It feels far more natural, interesting, and fun to use apps like Grindr to constantly meet the best available males around them.

My assertion therefore is that there can never be such a thing as the normalization of male homosexuality in a society without the normalization of hookup cultures. And that means that the normalization of male homosexuality destroys the basis for the existence of the Pride and Prejudice society.

To me the Pride and Prejudice society is the only truly civilized and wholesome society that can exist in the modern world. Such a society must be defended and maintained, and a part of this means to do everything needed to prevent hookup cultures, which includes an avoidance of homosexual relationships.

If you think there can be normalized homosexuality without hookup cultures, the burden of proof is on you. You may be thinking of a few idealistic images of homosexual relationships and ignoring the behavior of the majority of male homosexuals.

Islam forbids alcohol despite the fact that some people can use it safely, because among ordinary alcohol users there are many who are unable to use it safely, so as a whole it is a danger to society. In the same way, even if there are some of the elite who can live homosexual lifestyles without it being a danger to society, among the ordinary homosexual population there are many who are unable to live this lifestyle safely, therefore as a whole it is a danger to society.

And if you do not believe in the worth of the Pride and Prejudice society and the need to create and maintain it, then we will just have to agree to disagree. Defending this society means defending the treatment of humans as persons rather than corporealized objects. And this to me is an infinitely important goal, because treating humans as persons is the basis for all civilized human life. Anything that promotes it is good, anything that promotes its opposite is evil and dangerous.

Male homosexual relationships promote the corporealization of humans because they allow the male libido to run wild and use numerous other humans for the satisfaction of its physical desires. Other humans are instrumentalized by it (turned into instruments), and in this way the flesh becomes paramount and the personhood of the people involved fades away. The average person who engages in this lifestyle will find it impossible to be part of the Pride and Prejudice society where humans are treated as persons of infinite worth. The same of course also applies to a heterosexual man who constantly sleeps with random women and prostitutes and makes his sexuality the paramount factor in his life.

The average man’s homosexual lifestyle causes him to sink into obscenity. He becomes a servant of his sex drive, a sex addict for whom traditional morality sounds like a pretense. His male sex drive’s predatory nature dominates him so that he starts to see other humans largely in terms of their ability to stimulate him sexually. The same is true of a heterosexual pornography addict whose brain becomes rewired in a way that makes it nearly impossible for him to relate to other humans within the context of civilized, humane social relationships. Every woman he sees is just another a bag of matter whose ability to satisfy him is the first thing he thinks about.

For the good of society and civilization, therefore, it is paramount that the male sex drive be limited through marriage. Allowing his sex drive to run wild through hookup cultures, whether homosexual or heterosexual, causes him to degenerate into something of a predatory animal in society who is far more concerned with his next climax than with living a wholesome, humane life surrounded by infinitely respected persons.

As civilized humans we therefore face a choice. Either we give men free reign to their sex drive so that they become a sex-seeking underclass who feel out of place in respectable society, or we limit their freedom so that they are forced to marry a woman, be content with her, and go through the extremely difficult process of making something worthy and productive of their lives.

Female homosexuals

I have not covered female homosexuality so far because it is different from male homosexuality. Women are more interested in long-term relationships than short-term flings, therefore their homosexuality is not a direct force for bringing on the hookup culture (as far as I am aware). But since no society can approve female homosexuality without also approving male homosexuality, female homosexuality is an indirect force for bringing on the hookup culture, therefore it too should be avoided if we wish to avoid creating hookup cultures.

Ibn Taymiyya and His Times

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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 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.

Conclusion

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.

The Universal Digital Library: A Platform that Makes Digital Piracy Unnecessary, Funds Creators, and Makes eBooks, Games and Software Affordable

There is no reason why we can’t make a perfectly legal, and better, alternative to platforms like Popcorn Time

In my previous essay Why Digital Piracy is Ethical and Necessary I discussed why there are no proper digital libraries: publishers pretend that digital goods cannot be sold. They demand continuous rents for digital products they give to libraries, making things like ebooks costlier (and for more difficult to lend due to various licensing clauses) than printed books. In this essay I will discuss an alternative model for digital libraries that will accomplish the following:

  • It will accomplish everything the digital piracy scene currently accomplishes: providing a very low-cost method of conveniently accessing digital products.
  • It will help break the power of the publishers by bypassing them: the library becomes an alternative platform where creators can offer their products for “sale” (as will be explained).
  • It will help create an open alternative to the “walled garden” approaches of Steam and Kindle Unlimited.
  • It will help support creators by creating a highly convenient method for people from around the world to pool their funds in order to buy the products they need.

This is how the Universal Digital Library works: When the Library buys a copy of a digital product (we will use the example of an ebook), it buys the right to lend out one copy of this ebook to one user at a time for two weeks. If two library users want to access the same ebook at the same time, the Library pays for a second copy of the ebook to lend out to the second user. Once two weeks are over, the ebook is “returned”, meaning that it is deleted from the user’s computer by the Library program. Once it is returned, the ebook can be lent out again to another user.

In this way, the Universal Digital Library recreates the way a traditional, real-world library works. It treats digital goods exactly like physical goods. An ebook is just like a print book: the Library has to acquire one copy for each user. If there is a bestseller that thousands of people want to read at the same time, the Library will need to pay for thousands of copies of that book if it wants every user to read it immediately. If the Library cannot afford to pay for thousands of copies, users will need to join waiting lists as in a real library.

This creates an interesting economic effect: a digital product can only sell as many copies as there are people who want to use it simultaneously. If the maximum number of Library members who want to read your ebook is 1000 at the ebook’s most popular phase, and if the Library buys 1000 copies to satisfy all members, from then on the sales of the ebook will drop to zero since every member that comes afterwards will have access to one of those 1000 copies to borrow (once the members start “returning” them).

This, of course, means that ebook creators will have to price their ebooks very high in order to make a profit, since the Library gobbles all the copies it needs until it stops buying. And that is fine, as I discuss below.

Major Features of the Library

A Self-Publishing and Fundraising Platform for Digital Creators

The Library will have a self-serve system for ebook creators, video game makers, software makers, filmmakers and the creators of all other kinds of sell-able and lend-able digital products. If you write ebooks, you can upload the book to the library, set your price, then let the users start borrowing it. The Library will have a pool of money that it uses to buy copies of products that users borrow. The Library will need an algorithm to decide when to buy books: it will take into account the demand for it and the book’s sale price. If Stephen King wants to put his latest book on the Library, he can price each copy at $1,000 USD. For every Library member who joins the waiting list for that book, the Library assigns a certain portion of funds to buying a copy. In order to reward more affordably priced products, the Library can use the following algorithm to decide how much funds to allocate for buying each product:

for each member on the waiting list, during each funding round, assign this amount in dollars to the book's buying fund: 1 / square root of the sale price

This algorithm is designed to reward affordably priced products: the amount of funds assigned to each product decreases the higher its price is

So if a book is priced at $1,000, 1 over its square root is 1/31.6, or $0.03. This means that for every member who joins the waiting list for Stephen King’s book, the Library assigns $0.03 to buying it during each funding round. A funding round could be a daily thing: every day the Library distributes all its income (from donations and subscription fees) over all products on members’ waiting lists. So if there are 100,000 members on Stephen King’s book’s waiting list, that means 300,000 cents will be assigned to its buying fund per day, meaning $3000 per day. This means that the Library acquires three new copies of the book every day. Members will also be able to donate specifically to buying a certain product. So those 100,000 members on the waiting list may donate thousands of dollars daily to acquire more copies. In this way, the Library enables it members to pool their resources to acquire the products they want (if you wonder why anyone would want to donate, read on).

King may realize that he can make money faster by lowering the price. If he prices the book at $250 instead, that would mean $0.06 per user on the waiting list, amounting to $6000 per day. But that $6000 will now buy 24 copies every day. Within a month the Library will have 720 copies of the book. If King prices the book at only $10, the Library will pay out $31,000 per day, amounting to 3,100 copies bought per day. Within a month it will acquire about 100,000 copies, pay out about $1 million to King, and stop buying the book altogether since all possible demand is now met.

But when it comes to non-bestselling writers, they will have to price their books lower in order to make sales, since the waiting list for the book will be much shorter. Let’s say you write an ebook on repairing cars. You can upload the ebook to the Library and price it at $100. For each member who joins the book’s waiting list, 1/10 USD, or $0.10, will be assigned per day to its buying fund. Since the Library serves the entire world, 1000 people may simultaneously want to borrow the book at any one time, meaning that eventually the writer may sell $100,000 worth of the book. Each day the Library will assign $.10 USD for each member on the book’s waiting list, which equals $100 per day. The writer earns $100 per day for that ebook every day, and the Library acquires one new copy every day (since each copy costs $100). Eventually a point of equilibrium is reached where anyone can read the book without having to join a waiting list since the Library ends up having so many copies of it.

The Viable Photoshop Alternative

The Universal Library will not be for ebooks alone. It can also host anything else that can be sold digitally, such as software. The existence of the Library will actually encourage the creation of a wholly new ecosystem for software. A company may develop a Photoshop alternative, let’s call it Imageshop, and place it on the Library for $1000. The Library will have to acquire one copy of this software for each member who wants to use it. If the software is good enough, it would be no surprise of 100,000 people from around the world have a need for it simultaneously within a two-week period. And that means $100 million worth of copies that the Library will need to acquire in order to satisfy the demand.

Many companies may try to develop Photoshop alternatives to upload to the Library, and the ones that are priced cheaper will be funded more quickly due to the funding algorithm–provided that there is sufficiently high demand for it.

The way the Library will work on the client-side will be like Steam. Library members will “borrow” a piece of software, say Imageshop, which will be installed on their device for two weeks. Once the borrowing period is over, the Library program disables the software unless the Library member can renew their borrow and there is no waiting list. If there is a waiting list, the software may be disabled without being uninstalled until the borrow can be renewed. A member may also be allowed to renew their borrow by making a small donation which would cause them to jump to the top of the waiting list.

A Digital Sales Platform for Indie Films

If you want to make an independent film and sell it on the Internet, your options are limited to a few major companies that will demand a major share of any revenues. The Library can act as an independent movie publishing platform: Filmmakers upload their films to the Library and set a price. Similar to ebooks, high-demand films can set prices like $1000 and expect to make millions of dollars through the Library. Lower-demand films can set lower prices.

A Democratic Steam Alternative

Steam on my Linux desktop

Steam is Valve Corporation’s famous platform for buying and installing video games. Steam continues the anti-consumer traditions of the publishing industry but maintains a major user base due to its many convenient features. The Library can function as a Steam alternative: just like in the case for software, users can borrow games and play them for two weeks on their machines. The Library can function as a funding platform for independent video game companies: they can upload their game, set a price, and let the Library members decide (through joining the waiting list) how much the Library will spend on acquiring copies of it.

Ending Apple and Google’s App Store Walled Gardens of Garbage

Apple and Google’s approach to smartphone apps is “we and the publishers extracting every penny that can be extracted from consumers.” Google especially has made one of the most unusable app stores in its attempt to control which apps users buy. The Library can function as an app borrowing store where the same economics as those for other software will be at play.

Ending the Absurdity of Scientific Paper Pricing

How would you like to pay $15 to read a single article?

Today reading a 20-page scientific paper often costs $30 or more, making them unaffordable to independent researchers and encouraging the use of pirate platforms like Sci-Hub. The Universal Digital Library can democratize the scientific publishing world and allow researchers to pool their funds for convenient and low-cost access. Similar to ebooks, papers can be priced according to demand. A newly published paper that thousands of people will be interested in reading at the same time can be priced at $100 so that it earns about $100 per day from the Library. Lower-demand papers can be priced at $30 and still make thousands of dollars for its creators.

Ending Publisher Gatekeeping and Walled Garden Behavior

The promotional home page for Amazon’s rather limited Kindle Unlimited platform

The Library can act as a worldwide publisher that connects creators with consumers, making publishers unnecessary. Platforms like Kindle Unlimited are somewhat nice for reading books, but they are still extremely handicapped and consumer-unfriendly:

  • Amazon and publishers together decide what books to place on the platform. Users have no voice.
  • Amazon can arbitrarily remove any book it wants from its platform
  • Paying $10 a month to read a limited selection of books does not make sense unless you are the ideal Platonic consumer who only reads what major publishers dump on them (there is also a large selection of mostly sub-par works by unknown writers).

The Universal Digital Library will be the common-sense alternative to Kindle Unlimited. It will cost much less, it will break the power of publishers and middle men like Amazon, it will empower creators, and it will empower consumers by offering them full-featured versions of the products rather than highly stripped down and limited versions. Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader does not allow me to copy a single sentence from books I’m reading.

Kindle Unlimited is about turning ebooks into cable TV: Amazon and its friends get to decide what you can read and how you can read it.

If like me you are interested in making the world a better place through long-term-oriented projects, then you will see the Universal Digital Library as the wholesome, pro-humanity, creator-friendly and consumer-friendly alternative to absurd walled gardens like Kindle Unlimited.

The Two-Week Borrowing Period

I made a few mentions of a two-week borrowing period above. Such a period will have to be enforced just like in a physical library in order to allow members to have the time to use the digital products to their hearts’ content. The two-week borrowing period is also very important for creators since it decides how many copies of each product the Library will need. Since we are trying to recreate a physical Library in digital space, a two-week period seems sensible. However, just like in a physical library, users will be able to “return” their copies prior to the expiry of their borrow period.

How the Library Gets Funded

The Library will get funded through donations and possibly a low monthly subscription fee. The goal of the Library should be to make digital products accessible to those who cannot pay for them the ordinary way, so a free subscription plan may also be offered. The Library may also earn money through advertisements by recommending products to members, although the non-democratic nature of this always makes it a questionable practice. But if ads are necessary for the Library to exist or can make a significant contribution to improving it, then I believe they are justifiable.

 

We Can Make This Right Now

The Universal Digital Library does not have to wait for any breakthrough or legal change. It can be created right now. It will of course need to invite creators to upload their content according to the Library’s terms:

  • One copy for each simultaneous user.
  • The Library keeps the copy forever. Once it buys one copy of Imageshop, it is exactly the same as a physical library buying a physical book. The publisher has no right to demand it back.
  • The Library has the right to infinitely copy each product while paying the full price for each copy.

A single talented programmer will actually be able to build the entire platform. This is something I have thought about doing, but my other projects have so far prevented me.

On DRM

The most difficult part will be implementing DRM (digital rights management) to prevent easily copying and sharing of the content of the Library by unfriendly actors. Now, the Library must take a common-sense approach to this problem: There is no way to prevent all piracy. There should be a minimum DRM that prevents casual users from sharing the Library’s contents illegitimately, but the DRM should not make the digital products less useful. Users should have access to proper PDF versions of books.

At the beginning the Library can function without any DRM. It will be like existing digital libraries like the pirate-made Popcorn Time. If creators can be convinced to upload their digital products without the existence of DRM, then that would be the best solution. DRM is largely about giving creators a false sense of security since users intent on piracy can always find a way. Using a few free and open source Linux tools a person could easily–within just a few minutes–copy the entire contents of a Kindle ebook and turn it into a PDF using Kindle’s Cloud Reader website. There is nothing Amazon can do about this.

The Library makes piracy largely unnecessary, so it is almost entirely a waste of efforts for it to worry about making piracy impossible. The Library’s program on my computer should be like Steam: it should be so convenient to use, and so powerful and rich, that I never have to think about pirating anything.

The Muslim Plan for Western Civilization: There is No Plan

Interior da Catedral de Amiens by Jules Victor Genisson (1842)

Do Muslims hope to establish a World Caliphate? It is undeniable that some Muslims, including religious scholars, look forward to one day there existing a new Islamic empire that represents “true” Islam and that brings back the glory of the olden days. As is usual with fantasy-land Islam, the thinking is top-down, the caliphate has to be established first, then good things will come.

This is the thinking that drives Islamist political parties, who believe in acquiring power first, then doing good with it. Fortunately, most Muslims do not find their fantasy-land ideologies practical or interesting, therefore throughout the world the history of Islamism has been one of perpetual failure.

Among Muslims there are also ideas about the coming of a “Mahdi” who will establish some holy kingdom before the world ends. Similar to the way Robert R. Reilly thinks that Ash‘arite doctrines are causing a closing of Muslim minds, there are Western books that study Islamic End Days literature and from that make sweeping claims about the thinking and potential future behavior of Muslims. They ignore that almost all of that literature is open to doubt, including the coming of the Mahdi, since it is not based on the Quran. It largely relies on dubious and likely fabricated materials. In the view of many Muslims, End Days literature is entertainment for the masses rather than an intellectually compelling framework to base one’s thinking on.

The truth of the matter is that among Muslims, there is little agreement over what a Muslim’s priorities should be and what they should be working for. Like the Christians of Victorian England, they are happy enough to just get along. This is good, because, like the Christian society of Victorian England, it means there is little room for radical ideologies. People do not expect magic solutions to their problems.

Islam is a democratic religion in that everyone is a civilian. Religious scholars, intellectuals, free thinkers, radicals, conservatives, modernists, ultra modernists, feminists, Western spectators and Western saviors all vie for control of the heart and soul of Islam to reform it, to drag it kicking and screaming into the new century, to open its eyes, its mind, to elevate it, to secularize it, to stop it from having such a hold over people’s minds. All of them largely fail to recognize the limits of their power over human nature, this human nature that everyone tries to mold, unaware that it is a sovereign, a self-molder.

A few months before writing these words I randomly happened upon an online article by Claude Polin, a French professor at Paris-Sorbonne University that I did not read, except for its first paragraph, which said:

What used to be Western civilization is indeed threatened today with progressive extinction at the hands of Muslim immigration, which considers the West as a worthless relic of a useless past, at best, or, in the minds of Islam’s more or less hidden leaders, as a hostile multisecular force to be destroyed, either by sheer violence or by submerging it under a demographic tsunami.1

His phrase “Islam’s more or less hidden leaders” is such a sad misconstruction of Islam that it is almost charming.

In truth, Islam has no leaders, and this is its great strength and weakness. Even if all of the Muslims in the world were wiped out by some calamity, and the world continued without Islam for 500 years, all it takes is for some random person to discover a Quran for them to restart Islam anew.

Islam does not work to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. Islam is best envisioned as similar to yoga; a person can carry it out daily and expect health benefits from it, but it does not promise to magically solve their problems, turn humans into angels or make this world other than what it is.

Muslims, like bees, are a life form that gives shape to the world, only to go on to die. There is no bee master plan to turn the whole world into one big hive, it is sufficient honor for a bee to take part in the dance of a bee’s existence, and this dance leads to complex and interesting hives that are not the product of a master plan, but the product of each bee following its instincts.

Those who envision secret Muslim plans and societies should actually be far more worried about Islam the way it is. A Leaderless, plan-less movement cannot be fought. There are no leaders to bribe or kill, no plans to obstruct. A person has believed the negative propaganda about Muslims may despairingly wonder what one can do about Muslims. Discovering a hidden organization of shadowy Muslims who have no good intentions toward the West and prosecuting its leadership will give one a nice sense of accomplishment. But there is no such accomplishment to be had.

The best way to envision the functioning and thinking of Muslim societies and their ideas about the world is to compare them with late 19th century English society. This society was Christian, yet Christianity was considered nowhere sufficient to give society everything it needed of meaning and identity. It was a Christian society that looked outward. God’s free men and women experienced the world and tried to make the best of it. In that society, everyone probably had a relative who saw nothing wrong with bringing up religion in polite conversation, using it to propound how society should work and how people should behave. But most people considered such a person deficient in civility. This is not to say that those Christians did not let religion affect their lives. For them religion was an important part of their personal meaning-making projects and strongly affected their behavior, but they would have found it insulting to be considered “Christians” only, as if that said everything one needed to know about them.

The same applies to the Muslims I am describing. There is a reason why “Islamic” social media networks, magazines and newspapers almost all invariably fail. An “Islamic” alternative to Facebook sounds useless to Muslims (some, out of a sense of religious duty, may praise the idea while never actually wanting to use it). Muslim users of social media in the West almost all invariably have non-Muslims in their networks. An “Islamic” social media network narrows down the scope of their lives. It is does not do justice to the complex cultural lives they lead. Muslim users of social media in the West almost all invariably have non-Muslims in their networks. An “Islamic” social media network narrows down the scope of their lives. It does not do justice to the complex cultural lives they lead.

The embodied Islam of Muslim populations, compared to the embodied Christianity of Christian populations, are extremely similar in their real-world consequences. When reading novels like Pride and Prejudice, I was always amazed at how Islamic the ways of thinking and behavior of the characters were. Certainly my father did not drink wine like Mr. Bennet, but the social atmosphere is so similar to the social atmosphere of my Iranian Sunni background that I could have been reading a novel about a Muslim society. The same extends to later works by Christians, such as The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien and the Harry Potter novels by Rowling. There is nothing in the human fabric of these novels, in their ideas and ideals, that feel foreign to me. The characters in these novels could have been Muslim; “Islamizing” the novels would only cause minute aesthetic changes. For example, the people of Rohan wouldn’t drink wine when celebrating weddings.

J. K. Rowling, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare are bestselling authors in Iran, according to Adinehbook.com, one of Iran’s major online booksellers.

Comparing cosmopolitan Muslim societies of today to the cosmopolitan Christian societies of the 19th century is a very fruitful exercise. If we focus on religious discourse among Muslims and compare that to religious discourse among Christians, we get the misleading idea that the two communities are fundamentally different. But if we look at the embodied Islam of today’s cosmopolitan Muslims to the embodied Christianity of late 19th century England, we see two very similar societies whose differences are aesthetic rather than essential.

For a Westerner, it is of course not easy, and in fact often quite impossible, to get a true sense of the experience of embodied Islam. George Orwell writes:

It is quite easy to be on terms of intimacy with a foreign ‘intellectual’, but it is not at all easy to be on terms of intimacy with an ordinary respectable foreigner of the middle class. How many Englishmen have seen the inside of an ordinary French bourgeois family, for instance? Probably it would be quite impossible to do so, short of marrying into it. And it is rather similar with the English working class.

Orwell beautifully sums up the difficulty in understanding the inner life of a foreign society, and it is this very same problem that has made it so difficult for Westerners to understand Islam. To understand Muslims, it is not sufficient merely to spend time in a Middle Eastern country. It is quite possible for a Westerner to spend a decade or more in an Oriental country only to go back home with nothing but a large bag of prejudices, as so many British colonial servants did.

Westerners who have the best understanding of Islam, as Orwell predicts above, are those who have married into Muslim families. Even Western converts to Islam can have highly inaccurate pictures of the functioning of Muslim societies. They can occasionally be observed on the Internet complaining about how none of the Muslims they meet act as the Muslims of their imaginations. It can take them quite a long time to come to terms with the fact that self-consciously religious people are always a minority whether in Muslim or Christian societies, and that most believers by and large judge things based on custom and do not often think to differentiate between what is religious and what is merely cultural.

A Westerner who wants to find out what will happen if the number of Muslims increases can look at the Muslim middle class of Cairo, Turkey, Tehran and Kuala Lumpur when they get the rare opportunity to do so and see how they conduct themselves. They are busy as intellectuals, researchers, scientists and professionals doing what they can to make the world a better place. Their daughters go to university, write books and read even more books. What is on their minds is not Islamic law and Islamic plans, it is solving the problems they see around them.

God’s Stewards

A faithful Muslim eager to live a useful life will naturally look in the Quran to find out if God has any pointers to give regarding what they should do with their lives. For radicals wishing to destroy society then rebuild it, the Quran is vexingly deficient when it comes to utopian ideas. A Muslim who carefully reads the Quran learns that a Muslim’s purpose in life is to be God’s steward. In a farming society, a steward is someone who takes care of a farm when the master is absent, for example when the master goes on a long journey abroad. Stewardship is the purpose of humanity:

When your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am placing a steward [i.e. Adam] on earth.’…2

It is He who made you stewards on the earth, and raised some of you in ranks over others, in order to test you through what He has given you. Your Lord is Quick in retribution, and He is Forgiving and Merciful.3

13. We destroyed generations before you when they did wrong. Their messengers came to them with clear signs, but they would not believe. Thus We requite the sinful people. 14. Then We made you stewards on earth after them, to see how you would behave.4

It is He who made you stewards on earth. Whoever disbelieves, his disbelief will recoil upon him. The disbelief of the disbelievers adds only to their Lord’s disfavor of them. The disbelief of the disbelievers adds only to their perdition.5

‘O David, We have made you a steward in the land, so judge between the people with justice, and do not follow desire, lest it diverts you from God’s path. Those who stray from God’s path will have a painful punishment, for having ignored the Day of Account.’6

The Arabic word for ‘steward’ is khalīfa, which is often translated as “successor”, “deputy” and “vicegerent” in translations of the Quran. The word “steward”, however, expresses its meaning better. A steward cares for the land and manages it for the sake of a master, taking the master’s wishes into account, but having great freedom to use his or her own creativity. A Muslim is a steward who looks after the earth in the apparent absence of its master. He or she is God’s steward, God’s agent on earth.

Muslims, as God’s stewards, do what they can to promote what is good and to reduce what is evil and harmful. And this means for every Muslim to do what is best with what they have wherever they are. Every single good act done in this world is an act of stewardship, and thus an act of worship, whether it is the planting of a tree, helping a friend in need, or donating money to a scientific research institute with the aim of making the world a better place. To make the world a better place, to leave it better than you found it, is to be a steward, and by extension this is what it means to be a Muslim.

In Islam, there is no utopian goal to achieve. Even if we create a worldwide caliphate that rules the world for the next 500 years, it too will perish like all the caliphates before it. Whether we rule or are ruled, whether we are weak or strong, it does not matter; what matters is to do good with the time given us.

The Quran teaches a long view of history that is best expressed in the thinking of the elves in the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels. The elven lord Elrond says:

I have seen three ages7 in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.

The Quran’s long view of history teaches that the end never justifies the means. Even if we establish what we suppose to be a state that best represents God’s wishes, any evil we do in the process will be counted against us. This is a crucial moral teaching that is opposed to the utopianism of Marxists and various other man-made ideologies that always justify evil and murder if it is done for a supposed greater good. The Quran, in fact, goes to an extreme length to teach its lesson that the end never justifies the means:

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.8

Killing an innocent person is the same as killing all of humanity. There is a mathematics of infinity in this; the life of a human is of infinite worth, meaning that no expected good, no matter how great, not even the founding of the world’s greatest and happiest empire, justifies the killing of a single innocent person.

I can think of no greater affirmation of the transcendence of the human individual and no greater obstruction to Marxist-style utopianism. The verse’s other teaching, that saving a single life is like saving all of humanity, is equally important. A glorious, population-wide victory that is accomplished through evil is of no worth compared to uplifting a single human soul.

The Quran’s view of history is wise and sad. It deflates glory by teaching that it always comes to an end. It deflates human arrogance by teaching that nothing we achieve will last forever, except the good we do that God records for us. It does not teach hopelessness, however. A steward has duties that he or she must carry out, and that means they must try to be the best they can be wherever they are. It teaches to work for good but to not get carried away by this, like it happens to so many, through teaching that hurting even a single human is a grave sin no matter what we hope to accomplish.

Westerners who learn that there are positive and constructive interpretations of Islam, and that there also are negative and dangerous interpretations, go on to worry about the bad interpretations taking over. Am I not just one moderate voice among a sea of radicals? What defenses do Muslim societies have against radicalism? We have a very strong defense, and that is our humanity. Muslims, being humans, are blessed with reason and conscience. Coming into contact with non-Muslims, they are capable of appreciating the humanity in them and empathizing with them. No Muslim I know will happily watch a Christian girl get tortured, they would in fact do their best to stop it. Their empathy for this girl is not due to theological principles. They do not need to go look it up in an Islamic law reference whether empathy for Christian girls is allowed. It is due to their being human and their not believing in a tribalist ideology that dehumanizes outsiders.

Our humanity is sufficient for us as Muslims to make us good and kind people who are not intent on turning this world into Hell. Our history and our present shows this. Radicals like Wahhabis have never been able to take charge except with the support of powerful sponsors, such as the Saudi family in Saudi Arabia (with help from Britain, see Professor Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam) and the CIA in Afghanistan (see Professor Andrew J. Bacevich’s America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History).

Muslims, of course, are not paragons of virtue. They are subject to all of the human weaknesses and vices. But they are humans who also embody the same morality that built Western civilization. In Tolkien’s Return of the King, Gandalf says:

But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?

The character Gandalf represents what an ideal Muslim would be in this world. Gandalf arrives at Middle Earth (where the story takes place), spends his entire time improving, protecting, educating, not expecting anything in return, never seeking power, and expecting to one day leave it all behind, as he does at the end of the story. I like to use the example of Gandalf because he is a Western character created by a Christian man. This highest ideal that this Christian man could conceive of gets amazingly close to the highest ideal of Islam, showing the closeness of Islam and Christianity once we can get beyond technicalities and see what truly drives Muslims/Christians. Tolkien’s embodied Christianity is very similar to my embodied Islam.

A Muslim is like a steward who watches over a farm with a sense of duty, knowing that he or she is not its master and that one day he or she will leave it. This stewardship does not seek mastery. It does not condescendingly look down on the world, wanting to control it and remake it for the benefit of the unwashed peasants, like Marxism does. It rather approaches humanity with a sense of respect, honoring it, being considerate toward it, recognizing the dignity of its own meaning-making projects, then wants to do good where it can, without force, but with gentle persuasion. The steward treats his or her fellow humans as equals, claiming no authority beyond speaking the truth.

A Muslim, unlike Gandalf, is denied the pleasure of considering themselves crucial to the course of history. History does not depend on my success or failure. Even if I fail, even if all my works are lost, God is capable of raising another person like me in very little time the way he measures time. This denies us the pleasure of self-importance, while bestowing upon us the pleasure of knowing that we cannot fail. God is already in charge, so nothing we can do can add to his power.

Rebels, radicals, revolutionaries and fundamentalists are closet aristocrats, as was recognized by Frank Herbert.9 They patronizingly look down on the masses, invalidating the meaning-making project of ordinary mortals, considering themselves the chosen elite who see through the mirages that the gullible masses cannot see through who will remake the world in their own image. They always create a feudal mini-aristocracy with themselves at the top, making decisions for everyone else, always with everyone else’s good in mind, of course. A Marxist radical has no plans for being a peasant in Siberia, contributing in their little way to the communist project. They want to be in Moscow at the heart of things, part of a celebrated, powerful and conceitedly benevolent elite that decides things for everyone else. Those who oppose the revolution of course should be shot and wiped out like insects, it is for the greater good.

A Muslim steward is exactly what the above are not. A defining characteristic of Muslim stewardship is the non-seeking of power, which is a very morally demanding requirement. We like to think that we need to gain power in order to do good. The Quran teaches to do good right now, without regard for power.

Whoever seeks glory, then [let them know that] to God belongs all glory…10

All doers of good run the risk of becoming tyrants in the name of the greater good. It is very morally demanding to remain humble, to actually respect other humans and listen to them, when one thinks of themselves as a doer of God’s will, one whose actions are sanctioned by the Transcendent. A Muslim, eager to do good and spread God’s message, may fervently wish to increase the number of Muslims, which should help achieve some imagined utopia. But the Quran deflates these glorious hopes:

Had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed. Will you then compel people to become believers?11

6. Perhaps you may destroy yourself with grief, chasing after them, if they do not believe in this information. 7. [But] We made what is upon the earth an ornament for it, to test them as to which of them is best in conduct. 8. And We will turn what is on it into barren waste.12

The second passage quoted above, speaking to someone who is upset that the people around them refuse to live up to their expectations, reminds the reader that this world is a testing hall and that it will one day become a barren waste, so why be so eager, why let desire overcome you, even if it is desire to do good?

Being a doer of good also runs the risk of being a busybody who does more harm than good with their good intentions. The ideal steward gets beyond this too. By respecting other humans as sovereign meaning-makers, they have a humble approach that admits mistakes and claims no divine sanction or guidance. All power-seeking, glory-seeking and influence-seeking are shunned. If they deserve power, God will grant it, if and when he chooses. Stewards are the servants of an all-powerful master who is already in charge of the universe and who lacks nothing; a steward cannot do God any favors. God has zero need for the steward; rather, any role granted to the steward is a gift and favor from God.

The above is an ideal that Muslims can hope to emulate, although most of them do not achieve it. And the majority of Muslims will likely not be able to describe their role in the above terms. A Muslim who reads the Quran dedicatedly is gently nudged along to recognize and avoid mistake after mistake until they form a vague modus operandi that is to some degree like that of the Gandalf-like steward of God mentioned above. They know that they should not be attached to wealth, to power, to results, always being reminded that this world will end sooner or later, always being told to be kind and forgiving and to do good deeds, and all of these slowly narrow down the scope of possible behavior in the name of God, so that a Muslim who is a dedicated follower of the Quran can, in most circumstances, know the pitfalls to avoid. Through years of falling, of making mistakes, of achieving fruitless victories, and of being reminded and taught by the Quran, a devout and religiously eager Muslim’s character is slowly developed into that of a steward.

By learning all the things that a Muslim should not be, a Muslim learns what they should be. And along the way, they are offered various Gandalf-like characters in the Quran that they are encouraged to emulate. Gandalf, of course, being a divinely-sent guide who helps humanity and then leaves, is almost certainly inspired by the Biblical/Quranic prophets.

All of the lovers of the Quran I have met have been kind, compassionate humanists who can appreciate the humanity even in those who disagree with them and oppose them.13

The effect of the Quran’s teachings is very clear for those willing to see it. Extremism only results when the Quranic program is abandoned for a man-made program, often put forward by a prominent thinker who replaces the stewardship core of the Quran with a focus on seeking power in the name of the greater good.

Political Islam

To not seek power but try to do good, relying on God, will naturally feel naïve, especially for young people who are eager for action and glory. It may sound like nothing but foolishness to not want to seize the world and make it better, and certainly this is how some will interpret these views about God’s stewards. But if there is a God, and if he is as he says he is in the Quran, then the steward’s mode of behavior makes perfect sense. The Quran teaches that, when it comes to power, the game is already over. God is already in charge and he needs no favors. What he wants is just one thing:

1. Blessed is He in whose hand is the sovereignty, and Who has power over everything. 2. He who created death and life—to test you as to which of you is better in conduct. He is the Almighty, the Forgiving.14

We are in the presence of an all-powerful Mentor-King; while we cannot do him any favors, and while he already has total power, he is interested in seeing what we will do. He is interested in seeing us work toward the highest ideals we can imagine. This world is nothing but God’s factory for producing humans who worked toward those ideals.

To a person who does not believe in the metaphysical, a belief system that rejects power may sound self-defeating. How can one hope to do good if one lacks power? If the metaphysical did not exist, it would naturally make sense to seek power, to act according to the physical laws of the world, including sociological laws.

But if the metaphysical exists, if the God of the Quran is a true God, and if one believes in him, then it makes sense to take him at his word; to do as he says, rather than as our human desires would have us do. As Muslims who believe in the Quran, we believe that all power already belongs to God, therefore what must be sought is what is with God, not what is with people.

An ideal steward does not seek power; therefore he or she cannot be part of a political party without suffering inner moral conflict. To them politics is a game for power-hungry, pathological personalities, or naïve do-gooders.

While Islamists have a top-down view, where they have to be at the top to force goodness on everyone else, Muslim populations have a grassroots view, the view that if everyone were good and wholesome inside, the country’s leadership would be good and wholesome. The example of Muhammad and Saladin support this grassroots view, and so does the Quran:

God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves/their souls.15

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them established stewards on earth, as He made those before them established stewards, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear…16

128. Moses said to his people, ‘Seek help in God, and be patient. The earth belongs to God. He gives it in inheritance to whomever He wills of His servants, and the future belongs to the righteous.’ 129. They said, ‘We were persecuted before you came to us, and after you came to us.’ He said, ‘Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy, and make you established stewards in the land; then He will see how you behave.’17

The last passage with Moses shows the opinion of one of the Quran’s main characters when it comes to politics. He calls his followers to be patient and tells them that God may choose to one day make them powerful. He does not tell them to seek power or to be up in arms against the Pharaoh. Muhammad’s life shows the same pattern. Despite years of persecution, abuse and torture, his followers patiently took it all without striking back and without organizing into a mob or militia. In the end, God’s promise came true the way it came true for Moses’ people; Muhammad was invited to become the ruler of the city-state of Medina, and from there a worldwide power was established,that was soon to be corrupted and turned into an instrument of evil and injustice, again, similar to the story of the people of Moses, who, no sooner had they been established in Canaan than they started to worship other gods and engage in evil.

None of the prophets mentioned in the Quran took part in a power struggle as part of furthering their message. Moses did not try to stir up a rebellion against Pharaoh despite the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews who probably took him seriously. The prophets try to effect reform within the existing power structure, through persuasion rather than force. They often attract a following of largely poor and powerless people. They are laughed at and are threatened with expulsion. The prophet and his followers endure until God grants them refuge and safety, such as in the form of Muhammad’s migration to Medina. Only then he had to be involved in politics.

While the Quran’s teachings and its long view of history strongly discourage political power-seeking, they do not discourage political activism. The great stewards of the Quran were people who spoke up against evil and injustice and tried to make things better. In fact, it appears that part of the function of a steward is to be a gadfly to the strong and powerful:

And to Median, [We sent] their brother Shuaib. He said, “O my people, worship God; you have no god other than Him. A clear proof has come to you from your Lord. Give full measure and weight, and do not cheat people out of their rights, and do not corrupt the land once it has been set right. This is better for you, if you are believers.” “And do not lurk on every path, making threats and turning away from the path of God those who believe in Him, seeking to distort it. And remember how you were few, and how He made you numerous. So note the consequences for the corrupters.”…The arrogant elite among his people said, “O Shuaib, We will evict you from our town, along with those who believe with you, unless you return to our religion.” He said, “Even if we are unwilling?”[/note]

We meet this same steward in another passage where we meet the only instance of the word “reform” in the Quran:

88. He said, “O my people, have you considered? What if I have clear evidence from my Lord, and He has given me good livelihood from Himself? I have no desire to do what I forbid you from doing. I desire nothing but reform, as far as I can. My success lies only with God. In Him I trust, and to Him I turn.”

89. “O my people, let not your hostility towards me cause you to suffer what was suffered by the people of Noah, or the people of Hud, or the people of Saleh. The people of Lot are not far away from you.”

90. “And ask your Lord for forgiveness, and repent to Him. My Lord is Merciful and Loving.”
91. They said, “O Shuaib, we do not understand much of what you say, and we see that you are weak among us. Were it not for your tribe, we would have stoned you. You are of no value to us.”18

Shuaib is such an annoyance to the power elite of Median that they threaten to stone him to death. His ideas about financial reform are met as follows, which is one of the rare places in the Quran where we see sarcasm used:

They said, “O Shuaib, does your prayer command you that we abandon what our ancestors worshiped, or doing with our wealth what we want? You are the one who is intelligent and wise.”19

Muslim stewards, who are meant to emulate these stewards before them,20 are called, through following their example, to be political activists and reformers without being power-seekers. It is perhaps every politician’s wish to be allowed to do whatever they think is good without being taken to task for it, and for most politicians, this often means doing evil in the name of the greater good, something that is wholly rejected by Islamic morality. Muslims are taught to think that all power belongs to God. This teaches them to not be intimidated by powerful people. A steward looks at a king or dictator and sees them become a footnote in the history of such and such 100 years from now. It is an annoyance and a challenge for the elite oligarchy of a nation to not be taken seriously; for their wealth and power to be devalued and their authority rejected whenever they justify evil in the name of good. And that is exactly what the ideal steward does.

The ideal stewards are also perhaps the ideal citizens of a democracy, because they hold politicians to the highest standards and take them to account whenever they deviate. They cannot be silenced or intimidated because they do not take the world and its powers seriously. They cannot be bought with promises of wealth and power because they reject these things, believing that the wealth and power that God grants is better. And since they themselves do not partake in the game of politics, they have no attachment that blinds them. They critique everyone and speak their minds freely, considering none too holy or dangerous to be critiqued. Ideal stewards are threats to established power whether they are in a Muslim or non-Muslim country, unless the power is truly benign and benevolent. In Saudi Arabia they would criticize the excesses of the Saudi family, the evils of Saudi’s servility to the United States, the evils and corruptions seen in their own neighborhoods and towns. In the United States, instead of acting like an interest group that allies itself with whatever politician who promises Muslims good things, they judge everything the way God would judge them. A politician who tries to woo Muslims but has a record of supporting unethical corporations will be judged by that record by a true steward.

The Muslim population, like any population, is subject to manipulation and intimidation. The above only describes the ideal steward that the pious and intelligent among the Muslims try to emulate.

While political power-seeking is rejected by the best Muslims, political activism is not. A Muslim can be involved in all kinds of activities meant to reduce corruption and create reform, as long it does not involve power-seeking. Instead of creating the American Muslim Party that seeks to gain power to do good, they donate their money to institutes that seek to hold the government accountable, or they themselves work as writers, journalists and activists working for various political causes.

Turkey’s Muslims support Recep Tayyip Erdoğan because he is a charismatic personality who promises to work toward empowering the Turks. The fantasy Islam view would seek to find in Erdoğan an embodiment of Islam, then it would seek to generalize this; this is what Islam looks like if it were to be allowed to gain power.

In reality, had Turkey been an entirely Christian country, an Erdoğan would still have been very much possible; a populist who seeks power in the name of nationalism and caters to the religious feelings of the population is nothing special. This is what any clever populist would do, and this is what many Eastern European leaders do to attract Christian voters.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has tried to spread its ideology of seeking power in the name of the greater good to the rest of the world, yet despite the fact that it has a moderate Sunni ideology, its history has been a history of perpetual failure. Even though its various offshoots claim to have nothing in mind but the betterment of Muslims, Muslims, being humans with independent and skeptical minds, judge them as humans do. The Islamist parties may claim to have the best ideas about how society should function, their ranks may even contain certain individuals admired for their piety and sincerity, yet due to their politicized nature, the average Muslim feels uncomfortable associating with them; there is no compelling reason to do so, and the existence of hierarchies of power within these organizations makes them feel dirty to Muslims. Even if a Muslim has a positive view of them, joining them feels like losing one’s independence and freedom, since one immediately becomes subservient to the party’s power structure.

The translation of the Western institution of a political party into an “Islamic” one leads to inherent contradictions and dysfunctions. The Quran teaches an extreme egalitarianism where no person is superior to any other and where every person retains the right to critique any other. The Islamic political party invariably clashes with this framework of thought; for a self-respecting intellectual to join them is to degrade himself or herself. One automatically becomes associated with a power structure full of individuals of questionable sincerity (even if a few are known to be sincere). This attachment to this structure is a loss of intellectual independence and a loss of the God-given freedom of the soul, and it always feels too similar to associating oneself with the rich and powerful for it to feel elevating, regardless of one’s intentions for joining the party.

In the Kurdistan region of Iraq (population over 5 million), there are multiple moderate Islamist parties seeking power, the main one considering itself the Kurdish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the fact that the region is a Muslim-majority, Sunni-majority region, these parties have had little success, even among devout Muslims.

When it comes to an Islamist party, the individuals working for it are judged individually. Some of them are the butts of jokes, others are admired. And to devout Muslims, joining the party feels like taking part in some ridiculous pantomime, the way joining a political party feels to many Americans and Europeans. It feels especially degrading to an intelligent person who values their own independence of mind. They may, of course, vote for an Islamist candidate in a local election if they consider him or her to be sincere and worthy, or if they consider him or her the lesser evil compared to other candidates.

The example of the failure of political Islam to gain ground in Iraqi Kurdistan has been repeated everywhere else in the Islamic world. When the Islamic world is given a chance to function on its own without foreign interference, as in Malaysia, what comes about is a very Western-style civilization where Islamists have little reach. Muslims, rather than giving into Islamist hysteria, remain culturally conservative, respecting their institutions and shunning radicals.

Iran had a democratic government that was overthrown by the CIA and British intelligence.21 A violent and incompetent military dictator was reinstated, whose forced secularization project and all-powerful police state engendered sufficient hatred and disgust among the Iranian population that they were glad to accept any alternative. The Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini exploited this opportunity, attracting both the religious and the secular through professing respect for the principles of democracy and religious freedom.22 After gaining power, Khomeini quickly moved to secure his position, making himself absolute ruler, with direct control of the military and the political process.23

It would be a mistake to see in Iran an expression of the natural tendencies of a Muslim people. Iran is what happens when a country is made the plaything of Western powers that support a despotic dictator and his police state. Khomeini appeared at the right time and was given constant coverage by the West’s media during his stay in France, helping convince the Iranians that he was their natural leader against the tyrannical Shah. Khomeini did not show his true colors until months after the founding of the revolutionary government, and for a few years into his rule, the pretense of true democracy was maintained.

I consider the failure of political Islam a good thing despite the fact that I consider many of the people involved in it good people, and despite the fact that I believe them when they say they have the best of intentions, because political Islam always ends up being a vehicle for oppression if it achieves its goal of gaining power. Let us think of an imaginary Muslim village in which there is an Islamist who wants to create his own political party. The Islamist thinks, “If only everyone joined this party, we would be able to do so much good!” This thought, in itself, is dehumanizing toward his fellow humans, because it ignores the fact that many among his fellow villagers could have powerful human reasons for not associating with him and his friends and for not wanting to belong to a power structure that operates in parallel to the one already in force (law, custom, societal relations). Perhaps they remember his past, and knowing that he is not infallible, are not comfortable with giving him even more power.

The Islamist has to believe in the utopian but inhuman idea that everyone could become a member of his party. It is only in the heights of arrogance that a person cannot see that people could have thousands of reasons for not wanting to join him. What occurs in reality is that the Islamist is able to attract a following of like-minded people, closet aristocrats who, just like Marxists, think they should think for the benefit of everyone else and make their decisions for them. The party grows until it attracts perhaps 5% of the village’s population, more if it has wealthy backers.24Then it stalls. Unless a preponderance of unfortunate circumstances enables them to gain power as happened in Iran, the party will remain on the margins of society. People may appreciate any good they do, they may even befriend them closely, but they will not submit themselves to it.

The reason that Muslims do not join Islamist parties is the same reason that most Americans do not join political parties. Americans may identify more with one party than another; the Republican Party continues to profess some allegiance to Christian morality, and this helps attract devout Christian voters. But the parties are not treated as representative of the heart and soul of the population; they are rather treated like artificial structures, similar to corporations. They are not the will of the people; they are the will of the people who work for the party.

Similar attitudes can be seen among Muslims toward Islamist parties. Even in a conservatively Muslim country like Egypt, in the 2012 presidential elections, the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won by a narrow margin over the secular candidate Ahmed Shafik (51.73% versus 48.27%). Morsi’s government, reflecting the usual Islamist mindset (as is also seen in Erdoğan’s Turkey), tried to give itself sweeping powers, leading to violent protests and opening the way for the Western-backed coup the ousted him.25Morsi appeared to be a sincere and a well-meaning leader, but this does not excuse his lack of interest in dealing with his detractors on equal terms. Feeling himself blocked and hindered at every turn by the seculars, he tried to give himself the leverage of power in order to overcome these obstacles.  This is not stewardly behavior, since a steward works through persuasion rather than compulsion. His thinking was probably that he could do so much good if only these dinosaurs left over from the previous regime could be taken out of the way. His wish for leverage was nothing more than a wish for overcoming the will of nearly half the population supposedly for their own good. This is not civilized behavior, since it discounts the human sovereignty of this section of the population. If he had been rightly respectful of his fellow humans, he would have worked to create a new political system that equally pleased the seculars. This would have meant creating a secular government that respected religious freedom and that did not impose Islam on secular citizens.

If a Western country ends up having a population that is half Muslim, this in no way suggests that this would open the way for an Islamist takeover of the government. Islamists have failed miserably in the heartlands of Islam, it is sheer fantasy to think that they would have more success in the West. Albania’s population was 56.7% Muslim in 2011,26 yet it has a stable Western-style government. The president is Ilir Meta, a Muslim who claims adherence to Islamic values, yet he is indistinguishable from any Western statesman in his manners and politics.

Similar to so many other issues concerning Muslims, the issue of Islam and politics has a “fantasy Islam” version imbibed with the worst prejudices, and a real-world version that is complex and full of human elements.

Jihad

It is a fact that up to the 20th century there was a mainstream view that jihad (literally “striving in the way of God”) was meant as a military endeavor aimed at the constant expansion of Islam. Taking such views seriously, as representative of Islam-the-sociological-phenomenon, is like reading the sermons of the Catholic Church in support of the Crusades as representative of Christianity.

The vagueness of the concept of jihad in the Quran lends itself to many interpretations. The religious scholars, from their ivory towers, continued to favor the interpretation that jihad was a call to constant expansion. The Muslims were the good guys, so it only made sense to spread this goodness as far and wide as possible, and to only make peace with the infidels only when too weak to carry jihad forth.

The world-jihad idea continued to survive in the madrasas of the scholars while the real world around them completely ignored it. Muslim states maintained diplomatic ties with those around them and acted similar to non-Muslim states, dealing with the world according to the needs of the time. The concept of jihad continued to be used by rulers who wished to drum up support for their wars, but the theoretical idea of permanent, non-stop jihad was just that, a theory, that was used when convenient without defining the modus operandi of any Muslim government.

It has been common to take the scholars at their word, completely ignore history, and paint the picture of Islam as a permanently aggressive force that can never live in peace with the outside. One should distinguish between the fantasy Islam of the scholars and the real-world Islam embodied by Muslim populations. It is completely irrelevant what scholars write in their books if the average Muslim does not take their writings on some topic seriously. And this has been exactly the case when it comes to jihad. There is no urgent need for reform of the Islamic literature to prevent the Middle East from blowing up as some reformers think. The overwhelming majority of Muslims themselves stand against Jihadi ideologies because they have a human understanding of the world around them and know that the utopia promised by Jihadism is complete nonsense, and the American-trained head-cutters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria provide ample proof to Muslims for the horror and misery that Jihadism promises. For Muslims, it is not necessary for the jihad to be taken out of their medieval books for them to be safe from Jihadism; being blessed with living somewhere that is not relevant to the United States’ geopolitical goals, such as Morocco, is the best way to be safe.

Things are actually even better than that. With the increase in literacy and learning over the past 200 years and the wide dissemination of Islamic references among the population (references are no longer locked away in madrasas) has enabled Muslim intellectuals to start engaging with the scholars and challenging them to reform their thinking when it comes to jihad, so that throughout the world today Muslims, including the most respected and admired scholars, are busy redefining and clarifying the concept. As already said, this is not of crucial importance to the world’s Muslims, what is taking place is that embodied Islam is finally seeping into theoretical Islam now that Islamic scholarship is no longer bound to the ivory tower atmosphere of the madrasas.

500 years ago, the majority of Muslims lived in states that acted like modern states; with borders, diplomatic policies and sophisticated diplomats and statesmen. That continues to this day. Modernizing jihad doctrine will not change anything when it comes to the realities of daily life for Muslims. It will only help remove an annoyance; that of Muslims being considered potential Jihadists by the ignorant.

As a devout Muslim, I naturally take the Quran’s statements regarding jihad seriously. My interpretation, which is the interpretation of the overwhelming majority of Muslims one way or another, is that jihad refers to two things at the same time: the duty of every Muslim to contribute toward defending theirs states against aggressors, and the more general duty of every Muslim to strive to please God: to be a steward. Most of the Quran’s discussions of jihad are centered on warfare, but not all of them. While he was a subject of the pagans of Mecca, Prophet Muhammad was commanded to conduct jihad against them (in the Meccan chapter 25 of the Quran). Did this mean that he started to gather up an armed group to take over the city? Of course not, since he was receiving revelations from God, not from the CIA. God had forbidden him from fighting. While being commanded to conduct jihad, he was also commanded to forgive the pagans and be lenient toward them (verse 86:17, 15:85, 15:94). An intelligent reader of the Quran has therefore to reconcile these facts, and the reconciliation, which has been conducted everywhere in the Muslim world in some form, is that jihad’s general meaning is to strive for the sake of God in whatever way possible, while one of its specific applications is toward conducting warfare when the circumstances justly demand it. Violent jihad is a matter of statecraft; it was only permitted to the Prophet once he had become the ruler of the sovereign state of Medina.

I have been asked why the Quran contains violent verses; why is it not a nice book telling us just to be nice? The reason is that life is not nice. Is there a single state in the world whose rulers say that they will not keep an army because niceness is sufficient? Even Sweden, perhaps the most strongly environmentalist and feminist nation in the world, keeps a powerful army. The Quran, among its many moral and ethical teachings, provides suggestions toward proper foreign policy; it recommends that Muslims keep well-equipped fighting forces (as every country today does), it defines where and when fighting can take place and where and when it cannot, and always recommends that the Muslim side should accept peace offers from the other side (2:193, etc.), and asks Muslims to respect their contracts and treaties. The Quran has a no-nonsense but ethical view of foreign policy. Calling the Quran violent because it defines and regulates the violent requirements of foreign policy is like calling the US Constitution violent, since it does the same.

 

The Fate of Western Civilization

The comparatively high fertility rate of Muslims living in the West has created fears of an “Islamization” of the Western world. Some people talk about Eurabia and Londonistan. By placing the issue of the growth of Muslims outside the bounds of public discourse, leftist media organizations like the New York Times have been able to stifle discussions of the topic, so that anyone who brings it up can be automatically dismissed as a bigot.

Opposite them stand a minor group of dissident intellectuals who think they are bravely fighting for the fate of their civilization against foreign invasion, having fallen into the trap of confusing fantasy Islam with real-world Islam.

Today, Portugal’s population is shrinking. Its countryside is being abandoned, thousands of villages are being reclaimed by nature.27 As the population deteriorates, the remaining citizens have to move to larger towns in order to get the services they need. According to the World Bank, Portugal’s fertility rate has been below replacement levels since 1982, meaning Portuguese women have been having fewer children than is needed to maintain their population.28 It usually takes 30 years for a population to start shrinking once it hits below-replacement fertility. Portugal’s population peaked at 10.57 million in 2010. By 2016 it had fallen to 10.32 million.

Portugal’s fertility rate in 2015 was 1.23, meaning that women of fertile age were on average having 1.23 children throughout their fertile period. The women in a population need to give birth to about 2.1 children in their lifetimes in order to produce a new generation that is the same size as the one before it. What Portugal’s fertility rate means is that each generation will only reach 58.5% the size of the previous generation. In this way, a village that has a population of 250 fertile-age women (total population 1000) will only have 10 fertile-age women left in 6 generations (168 years), due to the successive shrinkage of each generation. By then, this imaginary village would probably have long been abandoned.

What is happening to Portugal, which has been spared Muslim immigration, seems to be a run-of-the-mill process that happens to all civilizations. A socially conservative, high-fertility-rate population establishes itself in an area and builds it up. Prosperity and growth come about until a stage of civic life is reached where people question the virtue of having children; life goes on well enough without them, so why burden oneself with them? Having children becomes a choice rather than an unquestioned part of life as it used to be for the supposedly naïve forefathers of old. Why burden oneself with children when there is so much to do, and when one hasn’t yet figured out the meaning and purpose of life, and when one is already under so many financial pressures?

Western youth by and large do not consider themselves part of the project that is Western civilization and those who have passed through the Western university system are likely to have been taught by their professors to consider this civilization evil and harmful, something to apologize for and dissociate themselves from. Such youth will naturally not feel bound to contribute to this civilization, nor will they look forward to the civilization’s flowering.

It is culture that lead to civilizations. The Victorian bourgeoisie (i.e. middle and upper classes) had a reliable and predictable social system that led to so much free time and energy that everyone was in some way thinking of doing good works, of making themselves useful. In an uncivilized society people do not have to worry about being useful. One is either useful or dead. The material world’s demands fully capture one’s attention. One has to seek food, shelter, avoid predators, avoid social threats, find mates and keep mates. Victorian Christianity suppressed that “noise” of the material world; it put them all out of the way. Food and shelter were plenty; a rigid social code made social life very predictable; a rigid sexual morality made mates reliable. While religion is often thought of as a restrictor of freedom, it can actually be thought of as a creator of freedom. It suppresses the noise of the material world and its demands, creating a reliable structure within which one is free to act.

Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.29

An imaginary “free” society where no man can trust his wife (who is free to flirt and cheat), where he cannot trust his business partner, where he cannot trust his own children, where he uses drugs and prostitutes without being sanctioned, is not a free society. It is a society that is very much oppressed by the material world. Hence it is an unproductive society.

The best sign that a society is too oppressed by the material world to have free energy for other things might be below-replacement fertility rates. Having and raising children requires great commitment of one’s energies, and the presence of trust in one’s mate and the social system. In a modern society these are lacking. The material world drains one’s energies through financial need, unhelpful relatives, unkind and uncharitable employers who are determined to give as little as they can to their employees, and not the least of its oppressive qualities: the unreliability of mates. In this world of misanthropes, how is a man or woman to find the energy and stability to produce children? Women’s strong instinctive desire for children ensures that many will have at least one child in their lifetimes, and a few will have two. But they stop there. And that is nowhere enough to sustain civilization.

The usual story of a civilization is one of acquiring a culture. Note that I am including religion in my definition of culture, in fact it is culture’s most essential element. The culture suppresses noise and makes life stable (think of the Germanic tribes converting to Christianity and becoming the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire), which leads to the freeing of energy to build and create. Eventually the population questions the worth of their culture, so that its elements are slowly abandoned. Life loses its reliability and stability, noise reasserts itself and drains energy, fertility rates fall below replacement levels, the civilization enters into a centuries-long era of twilight until it either goes extinct, is conquered, or acquires a new culture that revitalizes it.

A civilization can continue functioning for centuries during its twilight. If Portugal’s population continues to shrink at its 2014 rate of 0.5%, it will still have 6.2 million people a hundred years from now, and 200 years from now it will have 3.7 million people.

What will happen if this dying civilization acquires Islam? To avoid the racial issue, let us imagine that this happens through the conversion of the local population, rather than immigration.

If we are to use ideas from fantasy Islam to make projections about what may happen, as is so often done, one may imagine a militant Wahhabi dystopia coming about.

But if we are to think about real-world Islam, the embodied Islam of Muslim populations, we get a very different picture. Iranian society provides a very useful data point. Being the largest Muslim Indo-European nation, they are distant cousins of the Portuguese. Looking at Iranians (whether the Shia majority or the millions of Iranian Sunnis), we may ask if they are doing anything that is fundamentally at odds with the Portuguese Western-style way of life. Are Iranians systematically destroying their pre-Islamic heritage and rejecting it? No, in fact they are quite proud of it and celebrate it. Iran’s national epic is the Shahnameh, which is largely concerned with pre-Islamic Iran. Iran’s most important annual festival is Noruz, which is a pre-Islamic celebration.

Iranian women, instead of being docile women in need of rescue, could shock Victorian women with how independent and opinionated they are. You can scarcely meet a middle class Iranian girl who does not consider herself something of a philosopher and a poet, and who does not have a strong voice in her family, feeling free to contradict and make fun of her brothers and give advice to her father.

Iran has a thriving intellectual atmosphere, with most Western bestsellers translated into Persian within months. Not everything is well with Iran, of course, but despite the fact that the government uses and propounds Shia Islam to maintain its rule, the population itself is made up of independent-minded citizens who think for themselves.

We can use the example of Iranian society to project what may happen if a Portuguese ghost town was to be re-inhabited by 100,000 Portuguese Muslims.

I should mention here that I do not wish to suggest that I support open borders and uncontrolled migration. I respect each country’s sovereign right to decide its own fate.

Similar to Christianity, Islam would suppress the noise of material life, making social life stable and predictable. While the Portuguese cultural elite are content to merely exist and enjoy life while it lasts, this town’s population will have an optimistic, purposeful, forward-looking culture. The town will have above-replacement fertility and a growing economy.

Similar to the way a person in India can go from a Muslim to a non-Muslim town with ease, a person can visit this town without feeling like they have entered a foreign, non-Portuguese land. There will be more women wearing the hijab, and fewer places to drink alcohol at, but the city’s growing economy will likely attract many non-Muslim workers from the rest of Portugal.

The town will not be a utopia, but it can be expected to show the best features seen in other intelligent and cosmopolitan Muslim populations, such as in Tehran and Kuala Lumpur. It will be a society similar to late Victorian society, a mix of religiosity and European common sense.

The fear of Islam among Western intellectuals is the fear of loss. We do not want a beautiful German town full of beautiful Gothic architecture to become an Arabian desert. Would Muslims not want to destroy the Western heritage to replace it with an “Islamic” one?

What would be lost if a Portuguese town converted to Islam? The town’s alcohol-drinking culture would be lost. Casinos and brothels would have to close down due to the lack of a customer base long before any law is passed banning them. If the town is on the Atlantic coast, there would no longer be scantily clad young women to view on the beaches. Any existing pig farms would close down. Restaurants would stop offering pork-containing dishes.

What else?

It is actually quite difficult to come up with anything else beyond these largely cosmetic differences. The same way that devout Muslims have no trouble contributing to Egypt’s various civic institutions, devout Muslim Portuguese would have no trouble continuing their town’s hundreds of institutions. Newspapers, book clubs, libraries, philosophical societies, animal welfare societies, sports clubs, museums, in short, everything a Westerner considers “Western” institutions would continue to function like before. Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Malaysia have these same institutions, why would the Portuguese fail to maintain theirs?

Migrants and Converts

Economic growth requires increases in population or increases in productivity. Since increases in productivity are limited by physical laws, the European elite prefer immigration as a way of replenishing lost productive capacity and going beyond it. Immigration helps increase economic growth, which leads to increases in military, economic, technological and political power on the world stage, and most importantly, helps ensure that the government can continue to make interest and pension payments by importing more young people to tax.

Canada has had below-replacement fertility rates since 1972. By now it would have been a country with a shrinking population, with villages and towns suffering Portuguese fates. Instead, thanks largely to immigration, the population has doubled since 1960. Canada is a rising star that will soon overshadow Spain in achievement and power. Canada’s immigration policies prefer people with educational achievement. This has ensured that the migrant population has been productive and largely problem-free, so that the Canadian population has a far more positive attitude toward immigration compared to other Western countries. Canada’s over one million Muslims are so boringly middle class, similar to California’s Iranians, that they rarely make the news.

The issue of immigration is a sensitive one. The very rich of the West like it because it means that they can maintain their wealth and power. Their real estate would lose value and their businesses would lose customers if the population shrinks, therefore they constantly lobby for increased immigration while confident that they can continue living in exclusive and expensive mostly-white neighborhoods that migrants cannot afford to live in. The rest of the population either like it or dislike it depending on where they live and their social positions and cultural values. For some immigration means increased taxes, fewer jobs and worse services, and they dislike it for these. Some dislike it for increasing the number of strangers in their societies, they dislike constantly meeting people whose morality and beliefs are a mystery. It was so much simpler back in the old days when basically everyone you met throughout the day followed the same cultural protocols as yourself.

And then there are those who out of humanitarian considerations like the idea of helping less privileged people enjoy a Western life.

If the Syrians in Germany are less prosperous and slightly more criminal than Germans, the exact same thing would be seen if Brazilian Christian immigrants or even Appalachian whites from the United States were to be admitted into Germany. Making it about religion feels satisfying to some Westerners since it “shows” the superiority of their civilization. This is a hasty jump to conclusions that does not bother to look beneath the surface since focusing on the surface is so gratifying.

Whatever good or bad things that Islam (rather than Arabs or whatever race or ethnicity) will cause to the West can only be studied accurately if we hold all other things constant. This is one of the basic principles of the social sciences. It means that we should look at converts to Islam in the West and their descendants rather than foreigners, since foreigners do not just bring Islam with them, but a far larger cultural heritage. Converts have the same cultural heritage as the native non-Muslims, with their only difference being religion, helping us see the effects of Islam in isolation from confounding factors like culture.

Do Europeans become less productive, less intelligent or more criminal when they convert to Islam?

Der Spiegel reported in 2007 that 4000 Germans were annually converting to Islam.30 In 2011, there were supposed to be 100,000 converts to Islam in Britain.31 If we keep in mind the imaginary Portuguese example, these conversions do not represent a loss to European culture, but a gain. While secular Westerners are not carrying their weight, not doing what they must to continue their civilization, these Europeans are embracing a new conceptual framework that enables them to continue their civilization. Even if there are only a few hundred thousand converts to Islam among ethnic Europeans in Europe and North America, these people are perfectly capable of carrying forth both their European genes and their European heritage. Iranians are not rejecting their pre-Islamic Iranian heritage, why would Europeans do that?

The Europeans who could synthesize their humane and beautiful Christianity of the Victorian era out of the rigid and sometimes inhuman Christianity of the Middle Ages can very well do the same with Islam. Iranian intellectuals have done that for Islam, why not Europeans?

An important convert demographic in the United States is African American inmates who convert in prison. These men, when they are released, rather than becoming more criminal as a simple-minded view of Islam might suggest actually, perhaps for the first time in their lives, start to think very seriously about forming a family and holding down a job.

My long view of history prevents me from gleefully looking forward to the Islamization of the West. Even if Islam spreads greatly for the next century or two, some new force can come about that wipes it out, as it happened to every former Islamic power. The Quran says this regarding past nations:

That was a nation that has passed; for them is what they have earned, and for you is what you have earned; and you will not be questioned about what they used to do.32

My view of future nations is the same. Whatever good or evil they do is their business, and nothing they accomplish will last forever. Our duty is to do good with the time given to us.

It will, of course, be very interesting to see what Europeans will do with Islam. I trust in their humanity and common sense to enable them to make something good and beautiful out of it. European Muslims have already produced incredible Islamic works, such as Brown’s Canonization and Wymann-Landgraf’s Malik and Medina, works that are just as sensible, moderate and sophisticated as any other European work of scholarship.

If we want to perform an intellectually honest comparison between Western civilization’s representatives and Islam’s representatives, we must compare the best of the West with the best of Islam, rather than comparing the intellectual elite of the West with the criminal underclass of Muslim societies. Look at the American math professor Jeffrey Lang, the American scholar Hamza Yusuf, the British philosopher Martin Lings, the British scholar Timothy Winter, the German diplomat Murad Wilfried Hofmann, all of whom deeply studied Islam and embraced it yet remained every bit as dedicated to contributing to Western civilization as any Western intellectual.

The only way we can have an intelligent discussion about Islam’s future in the West is to compare the intellectuals Westerners respect with the intellectuals Western Muslims respect. Conceptualizing Muslims as a horde of invaders may be satisfying to some, but it does not get us anywhere toward making empirically accurate predictions about future Muslim behavior. It is our intellectuals who are busy preparing the Muslim “program” in the West. One needs to be familiar with the thought of this intellectual elite of Western Islam before considering themselves in any shape or form well-informed about Muslims and their thought and potential future behavior.

For the question of “Sharia law” and pluralism please see my essay: Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life: The Path to Moderate Islam between Pluralism, Authoritarianism, Conformity and Individualism

Reader Questions

A post in your website titled "The Muslim Plan for Western Civilization" talks about how Muslims should not seek power, and I do found that there is no explicit verse in The Quran that says for Muslim to establish an Islamic State. Back in my times being in a halaqa, there is a hadith that narrates about The 5 Periods of Era (The Prophetic Era of Muhammad, Caliphate, Mulkan Jabriyan, Mulkan 'Adhan, and Caliphate based on Prophethood). I hope you would explain it to me. Jazakallah.

There is no verse in the Quran that clearly and unequivocally asks Muslims to establish an Islamic state. It also never asks Muslims to seek power. Everything the Quran says about governance is vague and can be interpreted in many ways. Mainstream Muslim thinkers believe that this means that the Quran leaves it to each Muslim community to decide its own governance matters according to whatever works best in their particular time and place. I will be happy to discuss any particular verse you have in mind.

As for the hadith you mentioned, the final part that says “then a caliphate will be established according to the methodology of Prophethood” is narrated by only one person (Ibrāhīm al-Wāsiṭī) whose narrations are matrūk (”abandoned”) meaning they are so unreliable as to be unworthy of being cited. Please see the study (Arabic PDF) on this by the hadith scholar Dr. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi.

So there is no authentic narration (as far as I have heard) that talks about the establishment of a utopian caliphate in the future.

There is a serious problem with hadith narrations where there is a short authentic version and a longer version that someone modified according to their own imagination. For example there is a famous hadith that says Muslims will be divided into 73 sects. This is authentic. But then someone added this to its end: “And all of them will enter the Hellfire except one.” And that completely changed its meaning and turned it into a tool for intolerant groups to claim to possess the truth and claim everyone who disagrees with them will go to Hell (see my article on this hadith).

Ijmāʿ as Scientific Consensus: Defining Consensus in Islam and Ending Its Abuse

Ijmāʿ  (“consensus”) is one of the most abused concepts in Islam, used as a weapon by many in order to claim that no one has the right to disagree with them. It helps shut down free discussion and intimidate independent Muslim thinkers into keeping silent about their views. Ijmāʾ, as it is used in scholarly rhetoric today, often means nothing more than:

Everyone who agrees with me agrees with me. Therefore you do not have the right to disagree with me.

By stating that there is a consensus on any issue, it is implied that those with whose opinions differ from the supposed “consensus”, meaning that they are deviants, hypocrites and unbelievers in their hearts.

This is a rather sad state of things for a civilization that invented the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral thesis (see George Makdisis The Rise of Colleges).

There is therefore a strong need for reaching, well, a consensus, on the meaning of consensus in Islam. Based on my conception of the mainstream Muslim community as a “consensual community” (see my essay Consensual Communities), I hereby define ijmāʿ as:

A consensus reached by all respected scholars belonging to a community working in full independence of conscience and seeking the truth and nothing but the truth.The presence of any form of pressure and intimidation for scholars to reach a pre-defined conclusion makes the ijmāʿ null and avoid. The presence of a single respected scholar, working independence of conscience and seeking nothing but the truth, who reaches a conclusion different from the conclusion of the majority makes the consensus null and avoid, because consensus only applies when the solution to an issue is so clear and obvious to every knowledgeable truth-seeker that not a single one of them finds a reason to disagree.

A more summarized definition is:

Ijmāʿ is nothing more or less than the autonomous concurrence of ijtihāds.

When multiple scholars perform ijtihād (independent investigation of a particular matter) and all come to the same conclusion independently, then they have ijmāʿ on that particular matter.

There can be different groupings of consensus. For example, there can be a consensus among the Maliki scholars on a certain issue, if all respected Maliki scholars, working independently, seeking the truth and fearing no repercussions for disagreement, reach the same conclusion in their ijtihāds on a certain question. The great 20th century Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abdullah Draz (1894 – 1958) writes:

The job of consensus is to make a ruling on a new question on morality, legislation or worship. The questions that consensus seeks to answer are subsidiary matters (furūʿ) rather than matters of belief (ʿaqīda). A Muslim does not require the authority of others to justify his own beliefs. If consensus is reached on a certain matter then that is what is desired; the external shape of the body of scholars that reached the consensus is not important. Whether they are official members of a legislative body appointed by the government, or members elected by the people to give a ruling on a specific issue. And it is not important whether those legislators are all in the same region or whether they give their rulings separately. None of this affects the value of the result they reach, provided that they reached it in the correct way. The essence of the matter is that every member should feel his own complete independence in thought and in moral responsibility and he must express his opinion freely after examining the issue from all angles. We should note that those whose opinions are sought for consensus are scholars who are experts in the questions that have been referred to them. They must also have the necessary documents and other evidence needed for making a ruling, and they must be well-versed in the history of Islamic law (fiqh), being familiar with its formation and stages of development.

Therefore consensus, in Islamic legislation, is not as some Orientalists say, is not a made up of arbitrary opinions given haphazardly. It rather represents the unity that comes from persuasion. Truth is what obligates this persuasion on enlightened minds. When scholars reach consensus on a certain question, that is due to nothing other than their going back to the Quranic texts and Prophetic traditions, striving to extract the best opinion from them. When they agree on a particular opinion after their careful evaluation of the texts, this means that this opinion is the correct one, or that it is the closest one to correctness, and based on this all Muslims adopt it.1

When it comes to the mainstream Muslim community, matters of consensus are those that all respected scholars of all the respected schools agree on. We cannot, of course, survey every single existing scholar’s opinion. Consensus is therefore always approximate rather than absolute. If there is a particular question of law and every respected scholar of every school freely gives the exact same answer, then we can considerate that an approximate consensus, and we can be fairly certain that disagreement with it is forbidden unless a respected scholar is found who disagrees with the consensus, thus nullifying it. A single respected scholar’s opinion is sufficient to make it a lie to claim the existence of consensus.

Dead consensus and living consensus

Another form of the abuse of consensus is to claim that since all the scholars who lived before a convenient cut-off date agreed on a certain matter, therefore disagreement on the matter is now forbidden.

Such a claim of consensus almost always encapsulates a double lie:

  1. There is no consensus on the cut-off date (do we put the cut-off date at the first three generations, or before the year 1000, or perhaps 1750 so that my favorite scholar’s opinions can also be included?). Since there is no consensus on this supposed basis for consensus, it cannot be a basis for claiming consensus.
  2. Anyone who studies almost any question deeply enough will find respected scholars from Islam’s earliest periods who disagreed with the supposed consensus.

Beyond that, I will also argue that

  1. Living consensus should trump dead consensus.
  2. Disagreement of dead scholars does not nullify living consensus

In other words, if all living scholars freely agree on a certain question, even if there was a consensus or near-consensus among dead scholars on the question, the living consensus rules. This does not meant that we throw out that opinions of dead scholars. Rather, the opinions of dead scholars live on in the minds of living scholars. Each scholar, to be a scholar, must be very familiar with the Islamic scholarly tradition and must love it and accept it rather than rejecting it. Living scholars bring us the opinions of dead scholars while improving them with new research and updating them to fit new contexts.

The reason why the opinions of dead scholars take second place to the opinions of living scholars is because we can never be sure what factors exactly went into a dead scholar’s opinion. They may have held onto a certain opinion out of loyalty to a school of thought, out of loyalty to their teachers or friends, or out of having access to limited knowledge. Throughout history, until very recently, books were very expensive and each Islamic school of thought (madhhab) had its own libraries that largely held books from the madhhab itself, in this way limiting the access of scholars to the works of outside scholars. It is nearly always possible that a dead scholar would have changed his opinions had he had access to better research tools.

When it comes to the opinion of a dead scholar compared to that of a living scholar, assuming that both are equally intelligent and sincere, the living scholar may either be convinced by the dead scholar’s arguments, in this way bringing back the dead scholar’s opinion to life, or they may not be convinced by it and know better opinions. The acceptance of living scholars for the opinions of dead scholars can be considered as the validity test for those opinions. The opinions of living scholars therefore represent our living tradition, made up of the knowledge of the past enhanced by better research and perspective.

There are some people who read books by medieval Islamic scholars (say Ibn Taymiyya), and when they find that the opinions of most living scholars are different from the opinions of this dead scholar, they conclude that since the dead scholar lived so many centuries in the past, they must be closer to the truth, having opinions that are more “authentic”. The problem with this is that they ignore the opinions of the hundreds of scholars who came after Ibn Taymiyya, critiqued his opinions like they critique every scholar’s opinions and accepted some of them, improved some and rejected some. By ignoring the living Islamic scholarly tradition and jumping to some random point in history, we throw out centuries of intelligent discussion and development. A person who does this can fall into the grossest errors, unless they spend decades in research and study, only to discover at the end that the living Islamic scholarly tradition is itself the result of the same process of research and study. It is similar to rejecting modern advanced mathematics, going back to medieval mathematics as the more authentic and original mathematics, then spending decades developing those mathematics. At the end of that path a person may discover that they have wasted decades arriving at conclusions that were all easily accessible in modern books of mathematics.

Reading the books of past scholars with love and sincerity is perfectly fine. It is also perfectly fine to be skeptical of modern scholars and to compare their opinions to the opinions of past scholars. Every Muslim intellectual should be doing both of these things. What is not fine is submitting one’s independence of mind to the authority and prestige of a dead scholar, turning them into some sort of superhuman authority that cannot be critiqued or disagreed with. As Ibn Tamiyyah says:

Whoever chooses a person, whoever it may be, and constantly and steadfastly agrees with him in speech and action, then he is of: "those who have divided their religion and became sects." (The Quran, verse 30:32).

The living Islamic scholarly tradition is, or must be, a tradition of continuous and sincere critique that seeks the truth and nothing but the truth in all matters, never submitting to any authority besides Truth (which is one of the names of God).

We must all seek consensus, not through intimidation and appeals to the authority of dead scholars, but through free and independent research that seeks nothing but the truth. If scholars from around the world examine the same evidence and reach the same conclusions, freely and without being forced by one factor or another, then that is true consensus.

In this way, the Islamic scholarly tradition follows exactly the same methodology as the scientific method. In science, consensus is reached when scientists throughout the world examine the same evidence and reach the same conclusions. If two scientists examine the same evidence but reach different conclusions, then there is no consensus. Good scientists are very careful when declaring something as true, always welcoming criticism and contradicting research and theories, because that is the only way we humans, with our weaknesses and limited capacities, can be sure that we are on the right path.

Ijmāʿ, therefore, in Islam should have the exact same meaning that consensus has in science: when qualified experts examine the same evidence and reach the same conclusion, freely and without being forced, then we call that a consensus. Even if a hundred respected scientists agree on the truth of something, the presence of a single respected and qualified scientist that disagrees is sufficient to disprove the existence of consensus.

I am sure that not all Muslims will accept the above way of thinking, which may suggest that talking about consensus is futile since there can be no consensus about the concept of consensus. But my aim in writing this essay is not to convince all Muslims. My aim is to arm intelligent Muslims against these evils:

  1. False claims of consensus that are used to intimidate and silence respected scholars from voicing their opinions, in this way destroying the all-important scientific process by which the Islamic scholarly tradition develops and weeds out errors and falsehoods.
  2. False claims of consensus that are used to destroy the reputation of dead scholars and deprive the Islamic tradition of their works (such as Muqatil bin Sulayman).
  3. Appeals to the prestige of dead scholars that are used by the ignorant to unfairly attack the reputation of living scholars.

وَمَا أُرِيدُ أَنْ أُخَالِفَكُمْ إِلَى مَا أَنْهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ إِنْ أُرِيدُ إِلَّا الْإِصْلَاحَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُ وَمَا تَوْفِيقِي إِلَّا بِاللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ وَإِلَيْهِ أُنِيبُ

I have no desire to do what I forbid you from doing. I desire nothing but reform, as far as I can. My success lies only with God. In Him I trust, and to Him I turn. (The Quran, verse 11:88)

Why Digital Piracy is Ethical and Necessary

Disclaimer: This is an academic essay on the ethics of digital piracy. It is not a call for breaking the law by pirating. Some jurisdictions punish piracy severely, therefore the risk is entirely your own if you choose to break the law by pirating content.

For my proposal for a digital library that makes piracy unnecessary please see my essay The Universal Digital Library.

It is very strange that in these enlightened days there isn’t a single major philosophical voice to be heard that can talk intelligently about digital piracy. Publishers of software, films, songs, ebooks and scientific papers like to maintain that piracy is theft. The famous “You wouldn’t steal a car” ad is a typical example of publishers wanting to pressure digital pirates into ceasing piracy by likening piracy to the theft of cars and handbags. As I will explain, the amount of hubris and solipsism in the creators of such ads is breathtaking; the only reason piracy is rampant is because publishers are refusing to sell their digital products the way ordinary goods are sold. Since they can make more money by pretending that digital goods cannot be sold but only hired, they prevent functional digital libraries from existing, and this creates a very strong need for piracy as the only way such a library can be created.

Publishers are dead set on preventing the needy from pooling their resources to acquire the digital goods they need. The pretense that digital goods are only for hire enables publishers to legally create a  new type of oppressive and dystopian market dynamic where all the power belongs to the publishers and none to the consumers. Piracy is a natural and moral human reaction to this illicit power grab.

Copyright: the two aspects

In the digital world, “copyright” is the “right” of creators to two things:

  1. To not have their works used commercially without their permission.
  2. To not have their works lent freely and added to a worldwide library that anyone can access freely.

The first right is a moral right. Imagine if a person writes a great book and publishes 1000 copies of it, only for a big corporation to come and reprint millions of copies of it for its own profit. A person has some sort of moral right to dictate how their works are used in commercial settings. A photographer should get paid if their photo is used on someone’s book cover. The same applies to using someone’s music track in a film. In these cases, piracy is clearly “stealing” and people recognize it as such intuitively. YouTube channels that copy content from other channels without permission are incessantly charged with stealing by other YouTube users, showing that one does not need special powers to recognize the essential injustice in the commercial use of other people’s digital work without their permission.

Before the advent of printing, copying books by hand was accepted as a normal and moral practice. The only cases I can think of where writers objected to copying is where they had privately shared a book that they did not want to spread, as in Sir Isaac Newton’s private work The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms. This was a short book that he had written for the private use of Princess Caroline, later the Queen of England. It was pirated by the Parisian publisher Guillaume Cavalier and printed without his permission in 1725. In this case, two moral rights of Newton were violated: his right to privacy and his right for his work not to be used commercially without his permission.

I support the right of writers and other creators to have their privacy respected. However, once a book is released to the public, then the right to privacy is no longer applicable.

Once printing became easy, the problem arose of publishers “stealing” people’s writings and publishing them for profit, for this reason there was a need for copyright. The sense of “stealing” applies now when it did not apply in the past. Future revenues can now be expected from books, something that only became possible through printing. Books have become trade items, and without respecting the exclusive commercial rights of the writer, those future revenues will be lost to them. Therefore common decency, and thus morality, requires that we do not profit by other people’s intellectual works until they have become part of the public domain, for example until 20 years have passed since the publication of the work.

The second aspect

It is the second “right” that concerns us here. What moral right does a writer have to force me not to lend a book to my friends and family?

And if they accept that lending to friends and family is fine, what right do they have to prevent me from placing the book in a library so that the whole town may benefit from it?

They may concede that that is fine too, as long as the book is a legitimate copy that has been paid for. When it comes to digital books, or ebooks, writers want to import the reality of physical products into the digital world by introducing artificial limitations on how libraries can function. They want the digital library to function like a physical library so that only one person at a time can access an ebook if the library has only paid for one copy of the ebook. If the digital library wants ten people to be able to read the same ebook simultaneously, it will have to buy ten copies.

That is actually a great idea, despite its absurdity… if only publishers were decent enough to allow it. But they do not. They pretend digital goods cannot be bought, only hired. And that means they get to force all libraries to abide by the terms they dictate. Today a digital library cannot just buy an ebook and lend it out to those who want it. No, the publishers want to have their greedy hands on the entire lending process because they can–extracting every penny from it that they can.

The selling of digital goods similar to physical goods would have enabled the creation of a universal Internet library that all of humanity could benefit from. Henceforth I will refer to it as the Universal Library. It would have been something like the Steam platform that is currently used for video games, but it would have had all possible digital goods, and it would have only allowed one person at a time to use each copy of a product. A popular book that was demanded by 100 people simultaneously would have required that the library purchase 100 copies of it. Users would pay a monthly subscription fee that would go toward the maintenance of the library and the purchase of products.

A Universal Library would prevent any bestseller from selling more than a few hundred thousand copies, because that would be the maximum number of people throughout the world who would be interested in reading the book simultaneously during the book’s most popular phase. The library can buy a few hundred thousand copies and from there on sales would drop close to zero because anyone can access the book through the library.

Does a writer have a moral right to prevent their book from being placed in a Universal Library?

They do not. And that is why piracy is ethical when it is done by someone who cannot easily afford to buy the product (or who can only buy a highly dysfunctional version of it while the pirated version is far more useful, as in the case of viewing a book through Kindle’s cloud reader–which makes it impossible to copy and paste text–compared to viewing the same book after downloading it from a pirate site). Pirates are merely borrowing books from the “library” that publishers do not want created.

Today, in the world of piracy, we have three kinds of people:

  • Immoral publishers who abuse the law to prevent us from creating decent digital libraries.
  • Moral pirates who believe in supporting creators and do so when possible, but who use the morally-justified black market Universal Library created by the piracy scene. It is morally good for those who cannot afford a digital product to benefit from it, since it costs its creators nothing. It is morally evil for publishers to deprive such people of their products. The piracy scene helps achieve a moral good and prevent a moral evil.
  • There are also immoral pirates who can afford to buy a product easily but refuse to do so out of stinginess.

A decent human would want what is morally best for everyone involved. They should make money, but they will be happy to make less if it means a proper digital library can be created that can benefit humanity greatly. The people who need such a library are those who cannot buy the product anyway, and a decent human would be happy to share their digital products for free with those who cannot afford them (since digital products cost the creators nothing to replicate).

My thinking of online piracy therefore starts from this radical thought experiment:

What if publishers were decent humans?

The duty of sharing

A publisher will say that they want to sell (or rather lend out) their digital product according to the terms they dictate. You can take their product or leave it. If you want their product, you have to abide by their terms. This mentality uses legal constructs to work toward indecent, greedy and immoral aims. For this reason even though their thinking is legally valid, it is morally invalid. A publisher has no moral right to deprive the needy of goods that can be given away at zero cost. No one has such a moral right in this universe. They have a legal right to do these things, but if they use those legal rights, they are indecent humans.

In an ideal world of decent humans, digital products would be priced according to the paying ability of the buyer. Only those who can buy a $10 ebook without suffering economic hardship should pay for the ebook, everyone else should get it lent to them for free from a library. This is what decent humans will do, even though publishers will find it as shockingly unacceptable as Oliver Twist asking for more food.

Piracy as a market solution to publisher indecency

Digital pirates help restore the moral balance by making it possible for the needy to acquire digital products freely. The Internet piracy scene can be thought of as a black market Universal Library.

If publishers were not so greedy, there would already be a legitimate alternative to the piracy scene; the Universal Library that could lend millions of ebooks freely as the pirate Library Genesis does, a library for scientific and scholarly papers that could lend them freely as the pirate Sci-Hub does, and similar libraries for music, videos, software and video games.

That is what things would be like if publishers were decent humans. But since they are not, pirates have decided to create this library anyway since it is morally good, even if it is illegal. Pirates perform a service to humanity by making the greed and selfishness of publishers irrelevant and restoring the balance: those who can pay will pay for the products and those who cannot will get them lent to them for free from the pirate library.

The ethical pirate is a decent human being whose actions do not cause any upset for digital creators who are also decent human beings. Yes, their actions would shock and anger the typical corporate executive. But they do not deserve our consideration. If a pirate is so poor that they cannot even buy a $10 book without suffering economic hardship, then their stance is that they can pirate anything they want without paying anyone. If they are rich enough to afford the products they want, they will support the creators with their money. They may first pirate the book or software to try it out, and if they like it, they may then go on to buy a legitimate copy or find another way of supporting the creators. Rather than buying a book from a publisher, knowing that only a small portion of the book’s price goes to the author, they may donate some money to the author directly.

In all of these cases, the goal is to make the world a better place. The world is a better place when a poor person can get the digital products they need without suffering hardship. And the world is a better place when those who are rich enough to support creators do support them.

Legal reform of copyright for the digital age

Clearly there is a problem with the legal system if it tries to enforce immoral laws. As I have suggested, a moral copyright system would make piracy unnecessary. The legal reform is quite simple: Make it a law that a library can offer any digital product to one user at a time without any sort of restriction. No digital publisher or creator should have the right, in any shape or form, to restrict what a library can do with their product as long as they have acquired one legitimate copy of the product for each user.

The current state of digital lending is utterly pathetic because it is the scrooges who are in charge of the laws. From a Boston.com article:

Publishers put restrictions not just on which ebooks libraries can offer, but how they can offer them. Some publishers only allow for an ebook to be borrowed 26 times before the library has to purchase the license again. Others opt for the license to expire after a year. And still others instead charge libraries significantly more than they do consumers for ebooks.

[...]

Nobody who buys an ebook—library, consumer, or otherwise—actually owns it upon purchase. Instead, they purchase a license to access the content. The distinction might seem like a small one, but it has presented publishers with the opportunity to explore new ways of working with libraries in the digital age. And in so doing, it’s caused massive headaches for libraries as they’ve sought to broaden their ebook collections.

Once the law is changed, a Universal Library can be created (something like Steam, but for everything) that for a monthly subscription fee enables its users to enjoy all the music, videos, software, books and scholarly papers they want. When it comes to things like video games and software, they should remain installed on a user’s machine but only a limited number of people should be able to use them at the same time, so that the library is forced to buy more copies to enable more users to use them simultaneously. Ideally the subscription fee should be variable so that needy subscribers can choose to pay a much lower fee. Once the library has purchased a digital product from a publisher, they should have zero relationship with the publisher from that moment on. The fee should only go toward maintaining the library and helping it acquire more products through purchases.

Alternative models

Allowing digital products to be lent out similar to physical products, without any licensing terms involved, is the simplest and most effective model that I know of for creating a situation where decent humans do no wrong to their fellow humans. It is not the only possible model. Today a company could create a Steam alternative that offers all kinds of digital products for a subscription fee just as the Universal Library would. But due to the need to reach licensing deals with every single publisher, their platform will not entirely remove the need for piracy because a. many products will be missing from the platform due to the inability to reach deals with every publisher and b. the overhead involved in paying licensing fees and dealing with publishers will cause the system to be too costly for users. For this reason the piracy scene will still be very necessary even if such a platform existed.

Even if a platform like Amazon’s KindleUnlimited grows to the point that every publisher is forced to put its books on it in order to avoid losses, this will lead to a whole new problem: Amazon will have too much power and will use that power to profit at the expense of both its users, creators and publishers. Therefore I do not foresee a future where content licensing can ever solve the piracy problem. Greedy gatekeepers will always try to extract rent from any content licensing scheme one way or another, making piracy necessary.

Conclusion

Some people have asked me about the Islamic stance on digital piracy. The above can be considered the Islamic stance: common decency from both producers and consumers. It is true that consumers have a moral duty to pay, but that is not the only duty in this situation. Creators and publishers too have a moral duty to freely share their products with those who cannot pay for them. I cannot envision a decent human being who refuses to perform either of these duties. These two moral duties must be balanced; both sides must fulfill their duties.

Publishers should have no right to prevent a Universal Library from being created. Until such a library is created, the ethical pirate’s stance is the proper stance morally: those who are able have a duty to support the creators by paying them for their products, those who cannot pay have the moral right (but not the legal right) to enjoy digital products for free using the informal Universal Library that is today’s digital piracy scene.

Wherever possible, pirates should punish publishers for their greed by supporting creators directly. Publishers are evil when they pretend digital goods are different from physical goods by forcing people to buy a “license” to view the content rather than selling the content, as discussed by the Boston.com article quoted above. This is what is preventing proper digital libraries from being created. Publishers are actively making the world a worse place just to satisfy their own greed.

Before any progress can be made regarding piracy, publishers and creators must stop being evil. They must allow proper digital libraries to exist so that the needy can pool their resources in order to acquire legitimate copies of the products they need.

Until then, piracy will continue to force these scrooges to do the involuntary charity of sharing their products with the needy for free. Even better, piracy punishes their greed by allowing people to get their products for free while enabling them, the pirates, to restrict their support only to those creators who do deserve support.

The two salvations: How erotic beauty is a false category of beauty

In his 2009 book Beauty, the wonderful British philosopher Roger Scruton says many insightful things about beauty. His book inspired me to create my own Islamic theory of aesthetics in which I assert that a beautiful thing is nothing other than that which brings us face-to-face with God. The reason that the most beautiful and picturesque scenes of nature and architecture bring tears to our eyes and make us feel morally uplifted is because beautiful things, in order to be beautiful, must point to God. Beauty is not some independent ideal or standard. Beauty is the power of an object to point the human soul to God. Nothing that is ugly is morally uplifting, and nothing that is beautiful fails to morally uplift us, to make us feel God’s presence and offer us a door to salvation.

This theory applies to music as well. Bach says:

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

Whether a composer of classical music seeks God or seeks beauty, they are seeking the exact same thing. All beautiful music has the power to cause mystical experience in us because what makes music beautiful is the fact that it can cause mystical experience in us. This is in opposition to pop music, which celebrates bodily desires and human weaknesses rather than striving toward the Creator. Some types of music can of course blend elements from both categories.

To experience beauty is to experience God in some small way. Beauty is morally uplifting because it connects us with the source that gives life meaning: the Creator. (See my essay Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics for more on this.) You can verify this theory on your own by looking at a set of beautiful pictures and doing your best appreciate their beauty while keeping your mind free of distractions. As you continue doing this, you will start to feel a mystical connectedness. You will get a feeling of goodness and wholesomeness, as if you are becoming a better, more admirable person.

You may realize that you are seeking some sort of climax. Each picture seems to bring you closer to something you need and desire. And that thing which beauty brings us closer to is God. If you are religious, the experience of beauty always brings with it the desire to praise God. If you are irreligious and do not believe in a God, you can still feel the mystical connectedness. Beauty will be like an open door to God that you will refuse to step through.

This essay is on the issue of erotic beauty. Scruton speaks of erotic beauty (think nude paintings of women) and its special nature. He mentions the “fall” that an observer experiences if he allows himself to become sexually aroused by the painting (as opposed to appreciating it solely for the “beauty” contained therein). For Scruton and many others, erotic beauty is a special category of beauty. It involves something that has the power to sexually attract, but that the observer can appreciate without sexual attraction.

Below I explain why I am highly skeptical of the concept and consider it a false category, or at least something to be categorized separately from ordinary beauty.

Erotic art at its most basic level is a genre of art in which mostly male artists draw sexually attractive females in meaningful and beautiful contexts. It is not the mere beauty of the human form that draws artists to erotic art. If the human form was so beautiful, we would have expected to find a very rich genre of depictions of children and anonymous males. But there is no such genre. This closely parallels the fact that while on the Internet there are thousands of websites dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude females, there are almost none dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude males. It is not the appreciation of the beauty of the human form that draws artists (and consumers of pornography) to nude females. It is the male sex drive. A man can enjoy himself for hours inside a gallery that only has paintings of nude females. But he will very quickly tire of a gallery that hosts only paintings of nude prepubescent children or nude males (assuming he only finds women sexually attractive).

All beautiful things are morally uplifting. There can be such a thing as a morally uplifting painting that includes a nude person, but the uplift always comes from something else. The painting might depict a very dramatic scene from a story that would be morally uplifting even if one took the trouble to paint clothes over the subjects. The nudity is not essential. The reason that men have created the category of erotic beauty is because of a mistake of the male brain. A nude woman does not merely represent something highly desirable (as in an expensive car). She represents salvation. Speaking biologically, a man’s highest achievement in life is to have a female give him her sexual approval through acting sexually open towards him. And a nude female in a painting is registered as that by the male viewer, because she is nude. Women are not normally nude, they only are during the prelude to sexual union.

A woman’s sexual approval (i.e. her attraction to him and her expressing that she is willing to mate with him, her nudity representing just such an approval) represents millions of years of evolution patting the man on the back, telling him he is a good and worthy male specimen. Perhaps nothing else in the world has such a power to cause a man’s ego to inflate. A woman’s sexual approval means that everything about a man is right, good and proper. He is good-looking, his social status is desirable, he is admirable, he has so much worth that a woman, despite her intense scrutiny of his weaknesses and failings, is willing to put her life and her future in his hands by accepting to procreate with him and become dependent on him.

In short, female nudity is registered by the male brain as female sexual approval, which is registered by the male brain as an invitation to the highest possible achievement in biological life.

A painting of a nude woman is intensely interesting and captivating to a male because for him a nude woman is an offer of biological salvation. A nude female is more interesting to a man than a planet full of treasure. Treasure is nothing more than a means of attaining biological salvation–of attracting a woman’s love and procreating with her. A nude female represents the end result of this process–she is more fundamental than treasure; she is the end result of treasure. Speaking from an evolutionary biology perspective, treasure is only a means toward securing her companionship.

That beautiful nude female, if only she looks at you and accepts you, can make you the happiest man on earth. The same way that beautiful architecture takes us into God’s presence who offers us otherworldly salvation, a nude painting of a female offers us worldly salvation.

Erotic art is interesting only because of a false promise; it misleads the male brain into thinking it is being promised salvation. Just as a religious man may be captivated by the hope of salvation represented by a cheap pilgrimage package to Canterbury or Mecca, any man can be captivated by the promise of biological salvation that attractive females represent (and the less dressed, the more captivating, because less dress means more nearness to the goal). The attraction for females is not a simple desire for sexual enjoyment. The reason why females are so incredibly attractive and why they are used everywhere in marketing to sell things to males is that females represent salvation and immortality because they represent an opportunity for a man’s to pass on his genes, in this way accomplishing his primary purpose in biological life.

You do not have to lustfully glance at a nude painting in order to experience this promise of salvation. Even if you try to stay classy and do your best to avoid the “fall” that comes from sexually objectifying a female, your brain registers the female promise of sexual/biological salvation perfectly: it is only the fact that a fertile-looking female is depicted in the artwork that makes the art interesting as “erotic” art.

When artists draw nude females, they seek salvation. She is the worldly deity who can forgive us our faults, make us happy and give us all that we desire. She is the ultimate aim of existence once we ignore God. It is for this reason that all irreligious male artists are partly obsessed with drawing sexually attractive females (and almost no artist is willing to paint a nude old woman, unless he is the type of person who also likes to draw pictures of unsettling things).

Religious and spiritual artists, on the other hand, focus on nature, architecture, historical scenes and other asexual things that are going to be rather “boring” to males who have fully embraced their animal nature and believe in no higher ideal than salvation through women.

Many irreligious artists worship at the foot of women. They seek salvation, but since they have closed their hearts to mystical salvation, they become enamored of earthly salvation through the female. The desire for this salvation turns the female into an infinitely powerful and infinitely worthy goddess for the male. He places her on a pedestal and prays to her day and night. Turn toward me and give this humble, worthless servant some worth!

There are, of course, artists who believe in God yet also seek salvation through female nudity, mixing their worship of God with their worship of the female.

If you look at a picture gallery that hosts a random selection of images, some of which are beautiful nature scenes and others beautiful, half-naked females, you will instantly feel the extreme conflict between appreciating a nature scene and appreciating a nude female. The female calls you to a wholly different experience compared to the nature scene. And if you give in to her call, the nature scene becomes infinitely boring because the accomplishment of your biological salvation is right before you. Your earthly goddess captures all of your attention so that you have no interest in connecting with the heavenly God. The presence of a nude or half-nude female in a gallery on a website is a very jarring element (at least for males) that can totally ruin his enjoyment in the non-erotic pictures. Classical nude paintings are better in this regard because they are not so obnoxiously sexualized, allowing a man to continue to see a woman as a person rather than an object despite her nudity. However, no matter how well the artist manages to prevent us from sexualizing his nude subject (as Botticelli manages in his Birth of Venus), the fact remains that the painting is made up of two elements: the non-erotic beauty that points to God, and the eroticism that points to biological salvation.

To put it another way, had Venus been properly clothed, the painting would have been a better conduit of beauty. Her nudity conflicts with the moral uplift. It is a jarring element that causes a confusion in the male brain between his desire for spiritual salvation and his desire for biological salvation.

Below is Botticelli’s Venus with an abaya on, probably done by a Persian artist. Once you get over the comical aspect of adding hijab to a nude painting, you may realize that this painting lacks nothing compared to the nude version. It is just as beautiful and meaningful. Not just that, but it is actually better, because now the jarring element of the call for biological salvation is removed. One can appreciate it solely for its beauty, its real, morally uplifting beauty.1

For these reasons, as a Muslim I feel justified in considering nude art an improper and unnecessary category of art. It is merely the expression of the rather banal activity of males seeking salvation through the female body. It is true that eroticism is incredibly captivating. But for a spiritual person it is a dead end. It points away from God. It invites us to engage in fantasies of biological salvation that at best have nothing to contribute to our mission in life and at worst cause us to fall into seeking a false deity through female-worship.

This is not an expression of some sort of moral outrage about nude art, nor is it a call to destroy existing erotic art. But as civilized, self-respecting and God-fearing men, once we realize that nudity is merely a call to biological salvation, we should give preference to the higher salvation by avoiding nudity, whether in its production or consumption, and by seeking God through seeking beauty that lacks the jarring erotic element.

To experience beauty is to experience God. To experience eroticism is to experience your body’s desire for immortality through biological reproduction. To experience erotic beauty is to experience a beautiful thing with eroticism added on as a distraction. Removal of the eroticism removes the distraction without removing the beauty.

This essay is written from a male perspective since the key driver behind erotic art is (or so far has been) the male sex drive. It will be interesting to read a female philosopher’s take on the issue.

A Hadith Scholar Presents New Evidence that Aisha was Near 18 the Day of Her Marriage to the Prophet Muhammad

The age of Aisha bint Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with her and her father, at the time of her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad is one of the thorny issues in modern Islam, used as one of the main talking points against Islam by Islam’s detractors. How could God’s Prophet, a widower over the age of 50, accept to engage a 6-year-old and go on to wed her when she was 9?

Even Western-educated Islamic scholars like Yasir Qadhi and Jonathan Brown find themselves unable to critique the official narrative because they follow the traditional methodologies of the field of hadith, in which the authenticity of a hadith’s chain of narrators is the most important fact about it. Since Aisha’s age is explicitly stated by Aisha herself in Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim, most scholars consider themselves unable to critique it. While many Muslims are satisfied by the commonly accepted narrative, it remains a fact that for many non-Muslims the Prophet’s marriage to a 9-year-old remains an insurmountable barrier to them accepting Islam as a respectable doctrine. And what a waste if the historical evidence shows us that the Prophet did not actually marry a 9-year-old, but a young woman who was almost 18!

Dr. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi

A new challenge to the traditional narrative of Aisha’s marriage comes from the Syrian hadith scholar Dr. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi, an expert in the new field of matn criticism. He has taught as a professor at the prestigious al-Qarawiyyin University in Morocco, Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, College of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Dubai and al-Makkah al-Maftuha University in Jeddah. Unlike traditional hadith criticism, which focuses almost solely on verifying the trustworthiness of the people who transmit a certain hadith, matn criticism compares the contents of hadith narrations to the contents of other hadith narrations and any other available historical evidence in order to try to reconstruct the objective historical reality of the event that the hadith describes. We know that even Imam al-Bukhari used this method to reject authentic narrations that clearly conflicted with observed reality (see Dr. Jonathan Brown’s 2008 article “How We Know Early Ḥadīth Critics Did Matn Criticism and Why It’s So Hard to Find” Islamic Law and Society vol. 15, no. 2). The field of matn criticism (matn means the text of the hadith, as opposed to its chain of narrators) expands and standardizes this method of analysis that previous scholars only rarely engaged in.

According to Dr. al-Idlibi’s study of the issue of Aisha’s age, while the hadith in which she mentions her age as 9 at the time of her wedding is clearly authentic, there is a great detail of evidence that contradict her statement, and in his judgment, the evidence is sufficient for us to conclude that Aisha was simply mistaken due to the fact that she made that statement in her old age. For one reason or another, Aisha, in her old age, had the mistaken belief that she was 9 at the time of her wedding. Since we only have her word for it (there is no other evidence that backs up her statement), and since all the other evidence from many different sources point to her actually having been closer to 18, it is concluded by Dr. al-Idlibi that while the hadith is an authentic narration, since it is contradicted by historical reality, it must be rejected in favor of alternative theories.

The cover of Dr. al-Idlibi’s 1983 book Manhaj Naqt al-Matn (The Methodology of Matn Criticism)

Below is a translation of Dr. al-Idlibi’s 2018 paper (published on his website at idlbi.net) in which publishes his research on this matter and responds to the objections of other scholars. [link to the original Arabic PDF]

This translation is only a rough draft. I am making it public since I believe this will be more beneficial than waiting many months before I can get to rewriting it (since I am busy with other projects). Translator’s notes are in double square brackets [[like this]] due to the fact that the author uses square brackets in some places. I have also added some notes as footnotes (there are no footnotes from the author). I will need to review the translation to make sure all of my notes are separated in double square brackets, because there might a few places where I added notes in other ways.

 

Start of Translated Paper

The Age of the Lady Aisha On the Day of Her Marriage Contract and the Day of Her Wedding

The Hadiths on Calculating the Age of the Lady Aisha the Day of Her Marriage and the Day of Her Wedding

by Dr. Ṣalāh al-Dīn bin Aḥmad al-Idlibī

In the Name of Most, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

Praise be to God in blessedness and abundance, as He desires and pleases, and praise be to God by whose bounty all good deeds are completed, O God, help this matter come to a good conclusion, and help us finish in goodness, by Your bounty and grace O Most Gracious among the gracious.

Hadith has come to us from the Prophet that he concluded a marriage contract involving Aisha, may God be pleased with her, when she was six years old, and that he married her when she was nine. Is this hadith sound when it comes to its isnād [chain of narrators] and matn [content]? A study is indispensable.

I had read an article on this topic written by a researcher in which he made efforts to prove this hadith to be unsound both in terms of its isnād and its matn. I decided that it was possible to benefit from his article for what it contained of useful research ideas while pardoning its weak points, in order to work towards reaching a correct conclusion based on sound evidence, by God’s leave, because of the importance of elucidating the correct perspective on this matter of Prophetic biography and hadith. This is a study supported by evidence on Aisha’s birth and the calculation of her age at the time of her marriage contract with the Prophet and at the time of her wedding. There are two opinions on this matter:

The first and most famous opinion: It is the opinion that he concluded the marriage contract when she was six and wed her when she was nine, relying on what is mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari and other collections. This implies that she was born six years after the start of the Revelation.1

Abū Nuʿaym [al-Iṣfahānī, d. 1038 CE, Persian hadith scholar and historian, student of al-Ṭabarānī and teacher of al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdadī] in his Maʿrifat al-Ṣaḥāba that Aisha was six then [at the conclusion of the marriage contract].

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr [d. 1071, an Andalusian Mālikī scholar] says in al-Istīʿāb:

The Prophet married her [concluded the marriage contract] in Mecca before the hijra when she was six years old, and some say seven, and consummated the marriage with her in Medina when she was nine. I do not know of any disagreement on this matter. The Prophet died when she was eighteen years old.

Ibn Ḥajar [d. 1449 CE, an Egyptian hadith scholar] says in Fatḥ al-Bārī [his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari]:

She was born in the age of Islam, eight years or so before the hijra. The Prophet died when she was about eighteen years old.

The second opinion: This opinion is that the Prophet concluded the marriage contract when she was fourteen years old and wed her when she was seventeen, approaching eighteen. This would mean that she was born four years before the Revelation. The writings of Ibn Isḥāq [d. 770 CE, a biographer of the Prophet] and al-Ṭabarī [d. 923 CE, a Persian historian and Islamic scholar] point toward this, as will be mentioned in the fourth and fifth section below on the evidence behind the second opinion.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr says in his book al-Durar fī Ikhtiṣār al-Maghāzī wa-l-Siyar when recounting the names of the earliest Muslims: “And Asmāʾ bint Abū Bakr, and ʿĀʾisha bint Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq while she was a little girl.” This goes against what he mentioned in al-Istīʿāb.

Evidence for the first opinion

Al-Bukhārī, Muslim and others narrate through various transmitters from Hishām bin ʿUrwa, from his father, from Aisha, that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and wed her when she was nine. Muslim narrates it through Maʿmar, from al-Zuhrī, from ʿUrwa, from Aisha. Ibn Ḥanbal and Muslim also narrated through al-Aswad bin Yazīd al-Nakhaʿī from Aisha. There are also other chains that go back to her for this hadith.

The word tazawwajahā can be used to mean the concluding of a marriage contract, and this is what is meant in this hadith.

This hadith’s chain of narrators is authentic, so they are mistaken who think that this hadith only comes to us through Hishām bin ʿUrwa and that it might be his mistake or delusion.

Ibn Abī Shayba [d. 849 CE, an early Persian scholar of hadith and hadith collector] narrate through al-Aswad from Aisha that the Prophet wed her when she was nine and that he died when she was eighteen.

Abū ʿUwāna [d. 928 CE, a Persian hadith transmitter] narrates in al-Mustakhraj  from Urwa, from Aisha, that Prophet concluded the marriage contract with her when she was six or seven and that he wed her when she was nine while she still had her toys, and that he died when she was eighteen.

This narration has a supporting piece of evidence in a hadith of [the Companion] Ibn Masʿūd which might be thought to affirm Aisha’s hadith above, but it is actually unauthentic. Al-Tirmidhī narrates in al-ʿIlal al-Kabīr from Yaḥyā bin Aktham from Yaḥyā bin Ādam from Isrāʾīl bin Yūnus from his grand father Abū Isḥāq from Abū ʿUbayda from his father ʿAbdullāh bin Masʿūd that he said: “The Prophet concluded the marriage contract with Aisha when she was six years old and consummated the marriage with her when she was nine, and he passed away when she was eighteen.” Al-ʿUqaylī [d. 934, a hadith scholar] mentions this narration in al-Ḍuʿafāʾ [his collection of unauthentic narrations] from Muḥammad bin Mūsā al-Balkhī from Mālik bin Sulaymān al-Harawī from Isrāʾīl. And al-Ṭabarānī narrates it in al-Kabīr from Muḥammad bin Mūsā bin Ḥammād al-Barbarī from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Ṣāliḥ al-Azdī from Yaḥyā bin Ādam from Shurayk from Abū Isḥāq from Abū ʿUbayda from Ibn Masʿūd.

In the first chain [al-Tirmidhī’s] there is Yaḥyā bin Aktham, who has been declared a weak [untrustworthy and unsound] transmitter [ḍaʿīf], for he steals hadiths [he takes a hadith and claims to have heard it directly from a reliable transmitter when he has not]. In the second chain [Al-ʿUqaylī’s] is Muḥammad bin Mūsā al-Balkhī, who I could not find in the biographical dictionaries. In it there is also Mālik bin Sulaymān al-Harawī, who is weak. In the third chain [that of al-Ṭabarānī] there is Muḥammad bin Mūsā bin Ḥammād al-Barbarī (d. 294 AH), whom al-Daraquṭnī declared non-authentic (laysa bi-l-qawī). In it there is also ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Ṣāliḥ al-Azdī, who was from Kūfa but resided in Baghdad. He was considered trustworthy and died in 235 AH. In the chain there is also Yaḥyā bin Ādam (d. 203 AH), who is another Kūfan. In the chain there is also Shurayk bin ʿAbdullāh, a transmitter who has a trustworthy character but who erred often and engaged in tadlīs.2 He died in 177 AH. And in both chains there is Abū Isḥāq al-Sabīʿī, who is a trustworthy Kūfan who also engages in tadlīs. In the chain there is also Abū ʿUbayda who is trusted but who never heard anything from his father. Therefore this chain is weak.

Additionally, Imam al-Bukharī considered narrations from Isrāʾīl bin Yūnus from his grand father Abū Isḥāq maʿlūl [problematic and questionable]. It is also mentioned to be this way in al-ʿIlal al-Kabīr of al-Tirmidhi. It is also mentioned thus in al-ʿUqaylīs al-Ḍuʿafāʾ al-Kabīr but without giving a citation for his source.

Therefore since this hadith of Ibn Masʿūd is weak, it is incorrect to use it as support for Aisha’s hadith.

The above is what I had written about the authenticity of the chains leading to Ibn Masʿūd’s hadith. Then I ran into commentary by the honorable brother Sheikh Ḥātim al-ʿAwnī, may God preserve him in goodness and good health, in which he mentions two other chains leading to Ibn Masʿūd’s hadith in the Sunan of Ibn Māja and al-Sunan al-Kubrā of al-Nasāʾī. According to this new information, I will update my judgment of the hadith as follows:

Al-Tirmidhī reports in al-ʿIlal al-Kabīr and al-Nasāʾī in al-Sunan al-Kubrā from two narrators, from Yaḥyā bin Ādam from Isrāʾīl bin Yūnus from his grandfather (Abu Ishaq) from Abu Abaydah from his father (Abdullah ibn Masud) that he said: The Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, married Aisha when she was a girl of six years, and consummated the marriage with her when she was a girl of nine years, and he passed away when she was a girl of eighteen. Ibn Maja and al-Uqayli narrated in the al-Du`afaa’ (their collections of unauthentic narrations) from two other chains from Israil. Al-Uqayli also reports it in al-Du`afaa’ from Abdullah bin Rajaa’ from Israel in a broken chain (mursal) that does not mention “from Abdullah ibn Masud”.

Al-Tabarani narrates it in al-Kabir from Muhammad bin Musa bin Hammad al-Barbari from Abdul Rahman bin Salih al-Azdi from Yahya bin Adam from Shurayk from Abu Ishaq from Abu Ubaydah from Ibn Masud. (Al-Tabarani mistook Muhammad bin Musa bin Hammad al-Barbari when he said “from Yahya from Adam from Shurayk” since he is not reliable (qawi), as al-Daraqutni has said, and he went against two other hadith collectors who narrated the hadith using the chain “from Yahya from Adam from Israil”.

And al-Nasāʾī narrates it in al-Sunan al-Kubrā from Qutayba bin Said from Ubthur from Mutrif bin Turayf al-Kufi from Abu Ishaq from Abu Ubayda from Aisha along the same lines. [Qutayba bin Said is from Balkh and reliable (thiqa). He died in 240 AH. Ubthur bin al-Qasim al-Kufi is reliable (thiqa) and died in 178 AH. Mutrif bin Turayf al-Kufi is reliable and died in 142 AH].

[Abu Ishaq al-Sabi`i Amr bin Abdullah bin Ubayd is a Kufan and reliable but would engage in tadlis and his memory changed near the end of his life. He was born in 32 AH and died around 127 AH. Abu Ubayda Aamir bin Abdullah bin Masud is a Kufan and mostly reliable (fihi lin) died in 81 AH, and did not hear any narrations from his father due to his young age at the time of his father’s death]. Therefore this is a weak chain.

In summary, regarding the chains going back to Abu Ubaydah bin Abdullah bin Masud:

The chain of Shurayk bin Abdullah from Abu Ishaq is a mistake of the hadith collector.

As for the chain of Israil from Abu Ishaq, regarding it al-Bukhari said, as is mentioned in al-Ilal al-Kabir of al-Tirmidhi:

"This is an error. The chain is instead Abu Ishaq from Abu Ubaydah that the Prophet married Aisha..." This is how they mention Israil's narration(s?) from Abu Ishaq, and they say: "From Abu Ubaydah from Aisha" also.

The chain of Mutrif bin Turayf from Abu Ishaq from Abu Ubaydah from Aisha is the one that correctly mentions the Companion names, and if it is so then the chains of Abu Ubayda go back to Aisha.

Since the narrator that narrates from Ibn Masud is unreliable and problematic, it is incorrect to strengthen Aisha’s hadith by it.

Evidence for the second opinion

1. Aisha is younger than her sister Asmaa’ by ten years. Asmaa’ was born 27 years before the hijra, or 14 years before the start of the Revelation. This means that Aisha was born four years before the start of the Revelation.

Ibn Abd al-Barr in his al-Isti`aab and Ibn Asaakir in Tarikh Dimashq narrate from two chains from al-Asma`i from Ibn Abi al-Zinad that he had said: “Asma bint Abu Bakr is about ten years older than Aisha.” And this is a good (jayyid) isnad.

And Abu Nu`aym says in his Ma`rifat al-Sahaba in his article on Asmaa’: She was born before the start of the Islamic calendar by 27 years, and she died in 73 AH in Mecca days after her son Abdullah bin al-Zubayr was killed when she was 100 years old.

What corroborates this narration with regards to knowing Asmaa’s year of birth is what Abu Nu`aym narrates from her, that she had said: “I saw Zayd bin Amr bin Nufayl with his back to the Ka`ba saying: “O gathering of Quraysh, none among you follows Ibrahim’s religion except I.” Zayd had died when Quraysh was rebuilding the Ka`ba before the Revelation came to the Messenger by five years, as Ibn Sa`d mentions in al-Tabaqat from Saeed bin al-Musayyab, meaning 18 years before the hijra. That makes her age 9 at the time she heard him (i.e. Zayd bin Amr). This makes sense, since one who remembers such details cannot be much younger than nine.

Ibn al-Athir says in Usud al-Ghaaba:

Abu Nuaym says: "She was born before the calendar by 27 years." Ibn Abd al-Barr says in al-Isti`ab: "Asmaa' died in Mecca in the month of Jamadi al-Ula in the year 73 AH. She died when she had reached 100."

2. Al-Bukhari narrates from Aisha, may God be pleased with her, that she had said:

The verse "But the Hour is their appointment [for due punishment], and the Hour is more disastrous and more bitter."3 was sent down upon Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, while I was a little girl4, playing. The suras al-Baqara and al-Nisaa' had not been sent down until I was with him.

Al-Qurtubi says in his tafsir: Ibn Abbas said: “Between the revelation of this verse and the Battle of Badr passed seven years.” If that is so, this means that it was sent down before the hijra by five years, and eight years after the start of the Revelation.

Ibn Sida says in al-Muhkam and Ibn Manzur in Lisan al-Arab: al-Jariyah: A young women (fatiyyah). A fatiyya is another word for al-shabba (a pubescent woman). It appears that they use this word to refer to a girl at the very beginning of her puberty.

So how old was Aisha when 54:46 was revealed, which was revealed eight years after the Revelation?

According to the first opinion above she would have been four years old. A four-year-old is never referred to as a jariyah. Therefore the conclusion from this is that the first opinion is wrong, while according to the second opinion she would have been 12 at the time of this revelation, and this is what fits the meaning of jariyah as used in the language.

3. Al-Bukhari narrates from Aisha that she has said:

I never knew my parents except as Muslims (i.e. she had no memory of their being pagans due to being born so close to their conversion to Islam). Not a day would pass except that the Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, would come to us at the two extremities of the day, early and late. Once the Muslims started to face trials, Abu Bakr left toward Abyssinia, until he reached Barak al-Ghimad and met Ibn al-Dughna..."

These two narrations are clues toward two things:

The first is that a child cannot comprehend her parents having a religion different from the religion of the people around them before the age of four. If Aisha had been born four years after the Revelation, and her first comprehension of her religious environment was at the age of eight, then her saying “I never knew my parents except as Muslims” is a useless statement since it is well known that Abu Bakr converted early and that Umm Ruman (Aisha’s mother) had also converted early in Mecca as Ibn Sa`d mentions.

But if she had been born four years before the Revelation, and she only started to be aware of her religious environment at the first year of the Revelation, then this statement is a useful statement: Once she became aware of her surroundings, both her parents were Muslim (rather than just Abu Bakr).

This is a clue that suggests she was born around four years before the Revelation, which is what the other clues suggest.

And the second clue is that when she says “Once the Muslims started to face trials, Abu Bakr left toward Abyssinia”, the passage expresses that this happened after she became aware of her parents being Muslim. There is in this a suggestion that she was able to comprehend her surroundings when this event took place, and we know that the migration of the Companions to Abyssinia took place near the middle of the fifth year of the Revelation, and their second migration took place at the end of the fifth year and the beginning of the sixth year.

Had Aisha been born in the fourth year of the Revelation, she would not have able to understand what was going on at the beginning of the sixth year. But if she had been born four years before the Revelation, she would have clearly comprehended this events.

4. Ibn Ishaq says in his biography of the Prophet (sira) when mentioning the names of those who converted to Islam the earliest:

Some people of the Bedouin tribes converted, among them Said bin Zayd bin Amr bin Nufayl, and his wife Fatima bint al-Khattab, and Asmaa' bint Abu Bakr, and Aisha bint Abu Bakr while she was a little girl... then God Almighty ordered His Messenger, peace and blessings of God be upon him, to proclaim his message publicly and to call people and invite them to God Almighty. Perhaps he had been secretive until he was ordered to make his message public, so that he spent some years after the Revelation until the command came: "Then declare what you are commanded and turn away from the polytheists"5

Ibn Kathir transmitted some of this text, paraphrasing it, saying:

Ibn Ishaq said: God ordered His Messenger three years after the Revelation to proclaim what He had order him, and to be patient toward the hurtful things the polytheists did.

Ibn Ishaq’s words mean that Aisha was among those who converted to Islam during the period of the Secret Call after the Revelation (i.e. the first three years), and that she was a little girl at this time. If that period lasted three years, then perhaps she attended some of the secret gatherings during that latter days of that period. According to the saying that she was born four years after the Revelation then this does not fit at all. But according to the second opinion (her being born four years before the Revelation), then her age at that time would have been six or seven. Perhaps Ibn Ishaq mentioned her among the earliest Muslims due to the stature of her father Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, and because of Ibn Ishaq’s desire to mention her alongside her sister Asmaa’ who was ten years her senior.

5. Al-Tabari says in his Tarikh:

Abu Bakr married during the pre-Islamic period Qutayla bint Abd al-Uzza and from this marriage Abdullah and Asmaa' were born to him. He also married Umm Ruman bint Amir during the pre-Islamic period and from this marriage Abd al-Rahman and Aisha were born to him. All of these four children were born to his two wives that we mentioned in the pre-Islamic period.

Al-Tabari explicitly states that Abu Bakr married his two wives during the pre-Islamic period. But there is no use in him mentioning “in the pre-Islamic period” at the end of the passage (because he had already mentioned that at the beginning) unless the last “in the pre-Islamic period” refers to his children having been born before the Revelation.

This is then an explicit and clear historical text that Aisha was born before the Revelation.

6. Ibn Abi Aasim mentions in al-Aahaad wa-l-Mathani and al-Tabarani in al-Mu`jam al-Kabir and al-Haakim in al-Mustadrak from Aisha, may God be pleased with her, that Khawla bint Hakim, wife of Uthman bin Mazdh`un, may God be pleased with them, said in Mecca to the Messenger of God : “O Messenger of God, will you not marry?” He said: “Who then?” She said: “A virgin if you want, or a non-virgin.” He said: “And what virgin is there?” She said: “Daughter of the most beloved of God’s creation to you, Aisha bint Abu Bakr.” He said: “And what non-virgin is there?” She said: “Sawda bint Zum`a.” He said: “Go and mention to them my interest.” And this was after the death of Khadija, may God be pleased with her, as the other narrations show.

The passage shows that Khawla, may God be pleased with her, wanted to find a wife for the Messenger because he had become wifeless after Khadija’s death. It is extremely far-fetched for a six-year-old’s hand in marriage to be sought for him in such a situation. But if she had been fourteen at the time, then that is sensible.

There is no doubt that the concurrence of all of these clues supporting the theory that the Prophet had engaged Aisha when she was 14 and married her when she was close to 18 is strong evidence that this indeed is what really happened.

As for what has been reliably narrated from Aisha that the Prophet married her when she was nine, this must be a delusion (wahm). According to the preferable opinions on the dating of this hadith, she had lived for 75 years at the time, so perhaps some forgetfulness had afflicted her so that she reported according to her delusion.

It appears that there is no escape from concluding the Aisha’s hadith is a delusion because of the concurrence of all of those pieces of evidence that contradict it.

Conclusion

The preferable opinion, from the concurrence of all those clues, is that Aisha, may God be pleased with her, was born four years before the Revelation, and that the Messenger of God engaged her in the 10th year of the Revelation when she was 14, three years before the hijra, and that he married her at the end of the first year of the hijra when she was close to 18 years.

The hadith that mentions that Aisha was six at her engagement and nine at her marriage has a sound chain of narrators, but it contradicts these reliable historical pieces of evidence, therefore it is aberrant (shadh) and likely to be a delusion.

Along with those, the great scholars of hadith, may God have mercy on them, have stated that when a hadith’s content (matn) is contradicted by that which is more reliable historically, then it is rejected, because that shows that an error had crept into the hadith due to the delusion of one of the hadith’s narrators. And God knows best.

Below is a new piece of evidence that I ran into today:

7. Al-Tahawi narrates in Ahkam al-Qur’an from Ali bin Abd al-Rahman from al-Munjab bin al-Harith al-Taymi, and from Fahd bin Sulayman from Muhammad bin Saeed al-Asbahani, both from Ali bin Mus-hir from Hisham bin Urwa from his father from Aisha, may God be pleased with her, that she said:

And what knowledge do Abu Said al-Khudri and Anas bin Malik have of the hadith of the Messenger of God ? They were two little boys.

[Ali bin Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Mughira is a Kufan who lived in Egypt. Reliable. Died 272 AH. Al-Munjab bin al-Harith is a Kufan. Mentioned in Ibn Hibban’s al-Thiqqaat (his collection of reliable narrators), Muslim also narrated many narrations from him in his Sahih. Al-Dhahabi and Ibn Hajar considered him reliable. Died 231 AH. Fahd bin Sulayman is a Kufan who went to Egypt. Reliable. Died 189 AH. Hisham bin Urwa bin al-Zubayr is a Medinan who went to Iraq. Reliable but perhaps engaged in tadlis of his father’s narrations (saying he had heard something directly when he had actually heard it from his father). Died 146 AH. Urwa bin al-Zubayr is reliable. Died around 94 AH.]

Al-Tabarni narrates it in his al-Mu`jam al-Kabir from Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Hadrami from Munjab bin al-Harith from Ali bin Mus-hir from Hisham bin Urwa that he had said that Aisha had said so. [Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Hadrami Matin (?) is a Kufan. Reliable and hafidh (a hadith master). Died 297 AH and lived 95 years.] This chain is broken between Hisham bin Urwa and Aisha.

Ibn Asakir narrates it from Abu al-Hasan Ali bin al-Hasan al-Mawazini from Abu al-Husayn bin Abi al-Nasr from Abu Bakr Yusuf bin al-Qasim from Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Saakin from Ali bin al-Haytham from al-Mu`alli bin Mansur from Ali bin Mus-hir from Hisham bin Urwa from his father from Aisha.

[Ali bin al-Hasan al-Mawazni is a Damascene. Reliable. Died 514 AH. Muhammad bin Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Nasr is a Damascene, highly trusted. Died 446 AH. Yusuf bin al-Qasim al-Miyanji is reliable, born before 290 AH and died 375 AH. Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Saakin al-Zanjani is trusted, died 300 AH. Ali bin al-Haytham is a Baghdadian. Al-Bukhari transmitted a narration from him. Ibn Hajar says he is acceptable. Al-Mu`alli bin Mansur is from Rayy, lived in Baghdad. Reliable with minor issues. Died 211 AH.] Ibn Abd al-Barr mentions it in Jami` Bayan al-Ilm from Ali bin Mus-hir in an unbroken chain. Therefore perhaps it can be said that this narration is reliably transmitted from Aisha.

If it is so then it is important to know the year of birth of Abu Said al-Khudri and Anas bin Malik, may God be pleased with them, because they were both born about ten years before the hijra, and Aisha, according to the common narrative, is younger than these two Companions by a year. It does not fit that she should say “they were two little boys” if she was a year younger than them.

But according to the second opinion (her being born four years before the Revelation), she was seven years older than them, so that on her wedding day, which was about a year after the hijra, both of them were 11 years old while she was about 18, so that she had a better understanding of the events of that time. It therefore makes sense that she should say they were two little boys.

Below is another piece of evidence I discovered after the above:

8. Ibn Abi Aasim mentions in al-Aahaad wa-l-Mathani and al-Dawlabi in al-Dhurriyya al-Taahira and al-Tahawi in Mushkil al-Aathar and al-Tabarani in al-Mu`jam al-Kabir and al-Bayhaqi in Dalaa’il al-Nubuwwa by the way of Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Amr bin Uthman from his mother Fatima bint al-Husayn that Aisha, wife of the Prophet , spoke to her saying:

"The Messenger of God in his illness in which he passed away said to Fatima, "Daughter come bend forward." So she did, so he spoke to her in whispers for an hour. Then she rose up, crying. Then he said to her: "Daughter come bend forward." So she did. So she did and they spoke in whispers for another hour. Then when she rose up she was smiling." Aisha said: "O daughter, tell me what your dad whispered to you about." Then when God had taken his soul, Fatima said: "As for now, very well. He whispered to me the first time, telling me that Gabriel used to review the Quran with him once a year and that he had reviewed the Quran with me twice this year. That made me cry. Then he whispered to the last time saying that I would be the first of his family to be reunited with him and he said: "You are the first lady of the women of Paradise except for (?) the Virgin Mary daughter of Imran." So I smiled at that.

[Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Amr bin Uthman bin Affan is a Medinan. Unreliable. Died 145 AH. His mother Fatima daughter of the Martyred al-Husayn, may God be pleased with him, narrated from many Companions and many reliable narrators narrated from her. Ibn Hibban mentioned her in his collection of reliable narrators. Ibn Hajar considers her reliable.] This chain is therefore unsound.

The clue is that Aisha called Fatima “O daughter”. According to the most common views Fatima was born five years before the Revelation, or close to the Revelation or soon after it. If Aisha had been born after the Revelation by four years, this would mean that Fatima would be eight to four years older than her. It is very strange and unlikely that the younger would refer to the older as “O daughter”, even if the younger was the older’s father’s wife.

But if Aisha had been born four years before the Revelation, then this would mean Fatima would be one year older than her, or perhaps three years younger than her or thereabouts. If one prefers the opinion that Fatima was younger by three years, then it would not be far-fetched for the older to say “O daughter” to the younger, while if one prefers the opinion that Fatima is one year older than Aisha or thereabouts, which is the more common view, then this small difference in age would not make it very unlikely that the younger would say “O daughter” to the slightly older one if the younger was the older’s stepmother.

In this narration there is a clear clue that Aisha was born before the Revelation by four years and not after it by four years. This narration, although it has an unsound chain, it has many corroborating narrations (shawahid).

Below is a new clue I discovered after the above one:

9. Ibn Abi Asim narrates in al-Aahaad, and Ibn Rahawayh and Ibn Hanbal and al-Tabari in al-Tarikh and al-Tabarani in al-Kabir and al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi from many sub-chains (turuq) from Muhammad bin Amr bin Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib from Aisha that she had said:

When Khadija died, Khawla bint Hakim wife of Uthman bin Maz`un said: “O Messenger of God, will you not marry?” He said: “Who then?” She said: “A virgin if you want, or a non-virgin.” He said: “And what virgin is there?” She said: “Daughter of the most beloved of God’s creation to you, Aisha bint Abu Bakr.” He said: “And what non-virgin is there?” She said: “Sawda bint Zum`a.”

In this hadith it is mentioned that Khawla said to Abu Bakr: “The messenger of God sent me to ask for Aisha’s hand in marriage.” He said to her to her: “Wait,” then he went out. Umm Ruman mother of Aisha said to her: “Mut`im bin Adi had asked for her hand for his son. By God, Abu Bakr has never made a promise that he broke later.” Abu Bakr went to Mut`im bin Adi while his wife was there, mother of the young man. She said: “O Ibn Abi Quhafa (i.e. O Abu Bakr), perhaps you will require our companion [[referring to her son?]] to apostatize to your religion if he marries your daughter.” Abu Bakr said to Mut`m bin Adi: “Yes, what do you say?” He said: “She says such and such.” So he left them, his heart content that the promise he thought he had made was no longer in force.

Some researchers believe that Aisha was engaged to Jubayr bin Mut`im bin Adi before her engagement to the Prophet . This is a piece of evidence that she was much older than six at the time of her engagement to the Prophet.

I believe this is inaccurate, because Aisha was not engaged to Jubayr bin Mut`im. Rather, Mut`im bin Adi had merely mentioned his interest in having his son marry her and had secured a promise from Abu Bakr that he would approve of such a union. Such agreements take place often among people even if the two are small children, even infants and toddlers.

I heard a brother using this as evidence that Aisha had been engaged to Jubayr bin Mut`im, but I did not mention it among the pieces of evidence I mentioned above because I did not find it very convincing. But then I realized that it contained a clue toward Aisha having been born before the Revelation:

The story shows that Mut`im bin Adi and his wife were followers of polytheism at the time and disliked to become Muslims and disliked that their son should convert to this religion if he married Aisha. It is well-known how ardent Abu Bakr was toward calling people toward this religion, so it is highly unlikely that, had Aisha been born after the Revelation, for Mut`m bin Adi to mention his interest in her with his strong adherence to polytheism to Abu Bakr and for Abu Bakr to agree to the prospect of such a union. Therefore no explanation remains except that Mut`im bin Adi’s mention of his interest in marrying Aisha to his son and his securing a promise to that effect from Abu Bakr had happened before the Revelation. This means that Aisha had been born before, and not after, the Revelation.

10. Al-Bukhari narrates from Anas, may God be pleased with him, that he had said:

On the day [[of the battle]] of Uhad when [[some]] people retreated and left the Prophet, I saw `Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Um Sulaim, with their robes tucked up so that the bangles around their ankles were visible hurrying with their water skins [[in another narration it is said, "carrying the water skins on their backs"]]. Then they would pour the water in the mouths of the people, and return to fill the water skins again and came back again to pour water in the mouths of the people.

It is similarly narrated in Sahih Muslim. Ibn Hajar also mentions it as such in Mustakhraj al-Ismaili.

According to the common view, Aisha’s age at the time of the Battle of Uhud was 11, and according to the second view it was 19.

Al-Khattabi says in his book A`laam al-Hadith:

Regarding his saying tanquzaan, naqz means to skip or jump, but I consider it to have been tazifraan, and zafr means to carry heavy containers, and the container itself is called zifr.6

I say: Tanquzan al-qirab7 has no meaning here. Al-Khattabi did well to interpret zafr as carrying heavy containers. In Ibn Manzur’s Lisan al-Arab‘s there is that which indicates that the expression points toward that.

If it is so, then this does not make sense according to the common view, because a 11-year-old wouldn’t be able to carry heavy water containers to carry it to the wounded, empty the mouths of the wounded than go back to refill them and come back again, as opposed to a 19-year-old. This means that the second opinion is the preferable one.

Perhaps none of the above clues by themselves are sufficient to prove that there was a delusion in the narration in which Aisha is mentioned as having been six years old at the time of the engagement and nine on the day of her marriage, and to prove that the second opinion that she was 14 at the time of engagement and 17 at the day of her marriage is the preferable one. But the concurrence of all those clues together is a strong piece of evidence toward that.

Answer to a debate on this study

The Quran mentions the iddah (waiting period) of women who have not menstruated yet, saying: “And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women – if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated.”8 The intent of the Quranic text is that the `aqd [[engagement contract]] has been completed before their puberty. This meaning is obvious and there is no debate about it, and there is doubt about its permissibility, but it is not meant for all people.

The question that my arise is whether there is a fault or shortcoming in the marriage of the Prophet to Aisha as a young girl, so that we desire to prefer the second opinion9 in order to absolve the Prophet’s station from that?

I say: There is no deficiency in the marriage of the Prophet to Aisha before her puberty, if that is proven. If it were to be proven, then it is obligatory to submit oneself and have complete faith that it took place for some wisdom, whether we understand it or not.

Whoever thinks that verifying this historical information is done with the intent of contradicting the intent of the Quranic text is far off the mark. The question of Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage is not in such a category. It is, rather, a historical question, something that may be correct or incorrect. There is a great difference between the permissibility of something taking place and its actual taking place.

The purpose of studying this historical subject should not be the fact that today’s culture has stopped accepting such differences in age between married couples. What comes to us from the Prophet , his words and his deeds, is the scale by which we weigh ideas and opinions, not the other way round:

But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [[O Muhammad]], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [[full, willing]] submission.10

Historical narrations regarding her age being greater than 9 by some years are many. We cannot call any of them independent proofs, but together they form a strong and clear pieces of evidence that cannot be ignored. We also cannot prefer what Aisha says over the sum of those pieces of evidence, because numerous clues, when they reach such a magnitude, are strong than the word of one Companion, who is not protected from confusion, error and forgetfulness.

It is unlikely that Aisha, may God be pleased with her, should be ignorant about such an important matter in her life that concerns her personally. But if she suffered forgetfulness due to old age, then that makes it possible.

The books of hadith are stronger in reliability than the books of history and revolve around the soundness of chains of narrators. And it is so when it comes to knowing narrations that come from only one narrator and those that come from multiple chains. The matter here is not a comparison between the books of hadith and the books of history. It is a comparison between a hadith that comes authentically from one Companion in the books of hadith and ten pieces of evidence from the books of hadith and the books of history. My opinion is that we must prefer the sum of those clues to that single narration that comes from one Companion in the books of hadith.

I finished writing the original study with the first six clues many years ago. I finished writing the additions on April 7, 2015.

A debate with a brother on Aisha’s age the day of her marriage

There is a respected brother who thinks that what I wrote on calculating Aisha’s age the day of her marriage is a help toward secularists and rationalists who wish to sow doubt about authentic  narrations and who wish to reduce the stature of the Sahihayn [[Sahih Bukhari and Muslim.], especially Sahih al-Bukhari, and who wish to doubt its contents using false arguments. He said he had expected me to be the first one to stand up to the vicious attack of those corrupters on Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet which is mentioned in two most authentic books of hadith, and refute them with strong pieces of evidence and arguments.

I say:

Secularists use various means to try to attack authentic narrations. There is a vicious attack from corrupters on the books of hadith and on our scholars and leaders who have spent their lives in the service of these books. These facts are obvious. Perhaps what will come will be worse than what has passed if we remain asleep. I consider it one of our primary duties to respond to those attacks with powerful proofs and arguments.

The person who engages in this [[who engages in responding to attacks on hadith]] is only one of two kinds as far as I can tell, and God knows best. Either they believe the narrations in the Sahihayn represent indubitable authentic texts except for minor issues pointed out by Ibn Salah [[a major hadith scholar, d. 1245 CE]], may God have mercy on him. Or they behave as searchers after truth, seeking guidance in the Radiant Book about which our Lord says: ‘Say: “Come bring your evidence.”‘[[Verse 2:111 and two others.]]

I am not, by God’s grace, of the first kind of person [[i.e. he is not one who treats Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim as if they are beyond all doubt and criticism]]. So that the reader may know why I am not of that type, they should read my article “Ahadith al-Sahihayn hal Da“afa l-Ulamaa’ Ba`duha?”[[“The hadiths of the Sahihyan: Did the Scholars Consider Some of them Unauthentic?” Link to the article in Arabic]] In it there are the names of tens of scholars who considered some of the narrations in the Sahihayn unauthentic, starting with the generation of al-Bukhari and Muslim’s teachers, then their peers, then those who came after them through Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar and others.

I, respected brother, seek evidence and proof, because this is what is required of all of us if we were to make the Quran, the guidance, radiance and healing, our source of judgment.

Today it is as if we are besieged by the criticisms and suspicions that the launchers of that vicious attack subject us to, and many people become lost in it. Generations will be lost and will perish if they see weak responses to those attacks, thinking that this is what religion is [[i.e. thinking that Islam has no good and satisfactory responses to the criticisms of its critics]], so that they wholly distance themselves from it and abandon it. May God protect us.

The reasons for that are many. Both of us understand many of the reasons and the ways toward fixing them. But there is something that some of us may be heedless of, which is to come short when it comes to scientific research and to fixedly and blindly adhere to certain unproven views [[of the past scholars]], treating them as unquestionable truths when they are not.

I repeat that the reader of this debate may have difficulty understanding it unless they read my article “The hadiths of the Sahihyan: Did the Scholars Consider Some of them Unauthentic?”.

Example:

Al-Bukhari and Muslim narrate in their Sahih collections from Anas bin Malik that:

A Bedouin man came to the Prophet and said: "O Messenger of God, when will the Hour [[i.e. Judgment Day]] be held?" He said: "Woe to you! What have you prepared for it?" He said: "I have prepared nothing except that I love God and His Messenger." He said: "You are [[or will be]] with those you love." We asked: "Will we be the same?" He said; "Yes." We were overjoyed at that. A young manservant of Mughira passed by who was of my age. Thereupon he [[the Prophet]] said: "If he lives long he would not grow very old till the Hour would come."

Many of the latter-day scholars say regarding such narrations “It is mentioned in al-Bukhari and Muslim,” and they stop there. They also often say that everything in the Sahihayn is authentic. And today we repeating the fruits of our shortcomings in studying those narrations.

Every person of sense can see that this narration contradicts observed reality, since that boy lived and died and many generations died after it, yet the Judgment Day has not yet been held.

The attackers have become emboldened because of that, saying it is a lie made in the name of the Prophet , and that the two scholars [[al-Bukhari and Muslim]] were at fault to include the likes of such fabricated narrations in their Sahihayn.

To know the correct phrasing that is reliably attributable to the Prophet we must know the other narration of this hadith, which is also in the Sahihayn. Al-Bukhari and Muslim narrate from Aisha that she said:

Some rough Bedouins used to visit the Prophet and ask him, "When will the Hour be?" He would look at the youngest of all of them and say, "If this should live till he is very old, your Hour (the death of the people addressed) will take place."

The hadith, according to this narration, informs them that if this boy lives then he will not die until your Hour will come, meaning your death. By that he meant that none of them will be alive once that [[boy’s]] generation passes, and the death of a human is their Hour, which is what a sensible human should be concerned about. As for the coming of the Hour that refers to the end of the world then this is not something one should busy themselves with. This hadith as narrated from Aisha, may God be pleased with her, is sound both according to its chain of narrators and its content (matn).

As for the narration from Anas bin Malik, in it there is a flaw in the wording of saa`atukum [[“your Hour”]], so that it has become hatta taqum al-saa`a [[“till the Hour would come”]], which have very different meanings.

I have not found Anas’s hadith in al-Daraqutni’s Kitab al-Tatabbu` nor in other works of `ilal [[works that list the flaws in hadith narrations]]. Would Ibn Salah and those who agree with him that this hadith is sound beyond doubt?

Here there is an important matter that deserves consideration, which is that that the imams al-Bukhari and Muslim, may God have mercy on them, referred to the thubut [[provenness or extreme reliability]] of the narration from Aisha and the lack of thubut in the narration from Anas, each of them does this in his own way. [If you wish, check out our article “In Ya`ish Hadha al-Ghulam falan Yakun al-Haram Hata Taqum al-Saa`a”] [[“If this boy lives long he would not grow very old till the Hour would come.” link to Arabic article.]]

Since many scholars say that everything in the Sahihayn is sound, and since people find in them a narration that contradicts observed reality, what is the expected result? The result is that the trust that many generations have in the word of scholars is shaken. And even more dangerous than that is the shaking of people’s trust in all of the narrations in the Sahihayn, and this is the true catastrophe.

When a person insists on denying the deficiencies and shortcomings that exist, he gains the approval of those people whose feelings make it impossible for them to accept that some of the inherited traditions may contain errors, but he loses the trust of a great many people who no longer accept statements without evidence, and perhaps the trust of the current generation and those that will come after. I believe the loss here is much greater. But when a person admits the shortcomings that have existed, then while he loses the respect of the minority of people who cannot accept the possibility of error in the inherited traditions, he gains the trust of a great many people who do not accept statements without evidence, and perhaps the trust of the current generation and the generations that will come after, and I believe the gain here is great.

The important thing is not gain or loss. What matters is to seek the truth based on evidence and following where it leads regardless of what people may say.

The brother said:

The main goal of those distorters of the truth who doubt that the age of Aisha at the time of her marriage was nine is to slander a legal ruling that the Quran mentions, which is the marriage of little girls that God's refers to: "And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women - if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated," which the scholars are on consensus about according to legal forms.

I say:

The matter of the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha when she was nine is a historical question. We want to know whether it took place in this way or not. What matters to us is the result of the research, not the question of the marriage of little girls and its concomitant proof-texts and legal forms, nor what the doubters desire.

The brother said:

We have not heard from a single scholar of the past that says such a thing.

Meaning one who says Aisha was born before the Revelation.

I say:

Past scholars had authentic and explicit narrations from Aisha that the Prophet engaged her when she was six and married her when she was nine. It is logical that they say that it was so. But the related evidence [[on her age]] requires collation and comparison, and since to them it was a fact of history [[that she was born after the Revelation]], they had no motivation to look further into it.

I have not found anyone who has compared Aisha’s hadith with contradicting historical evidence other than Imam al-Dhahabi, may God have mercy on him, as will be mentioned. But he did not look deeply into it.

The respected brother believes that al-Tabari mentioned the narration that mentions Aisha being born in the pre-Islamic period from Ali bin Muhammad from “one who spoke to him”, and this “one” is unknown, and al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi agree on this.

I say:

Ali bin Muhammad al-Madaa’ini is trustworthy (sadduq), died in 224 AH. Al-Tabari says regarding this narration: “Ali bin Muhammad narrated from one who spoke to him, and one whom I mentioned among his teachers, and al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi agreed with him [[they narrated the same narration]].” Then he places the text of the narration. So the narration is narrated by al-Madaa’ini from a number of his teachers, not from one unknown narrator, and the agreement of al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi strengthen it. This makes it a historical clue without doubt.

And if it is said whether this chain of narrators is sound, I say no, but this is a clue, not a piece of evidence. Evidence is the sum of clues, and in this case, by God’s grace, we have ten clues.

The respected brother mentioned the hadith of Abdullah bin Safwan from Aisha, in which there is her saying “The Messenger of God married me when I was seven and I was sent to be with him when I was nine.” He also mentioned the hadith about her wedding and her transfer to the Prophet’s home in which similar assertions are made. He mentioned a number of narrations from her that say that she said such things.

I say:

This does not add anything to what has been authentically transmitted from Aisha from her own words [[in al-Bukhari and Muslim]]. If two hadiths or three or more come from her and if we say that some delusion happened to her in her old age, then this is nothing new. What would add something would be a narration from another Companion with a sound chain that asserts the same regarding her being nine on the day of her wedding. And this is what I have not found until now.

I mentioned in the paper what has been narrated from Abdullah bin Masud that strengthens Aisha’s saying, and I demonstrated that it is an unsound and problematic narration.

The respected brother said:

Does it befit her stature that delusion should be attributed to her?

I say:

If this really happened to her, then why does it not befit her? In this there is not an accusation of deficiency in her character. She herself pointed to Abdullah bin Umar that he was deluded about some narrations and no one blamed her for that, nor did anyone say it did not befit [[Abdullah ibn Umar that he should be deluded.]]

The respected brother said:

If Aisha fell into a delusion regarding what she said, then what about her playing with toys that none other than little children play with and that adults do not play with. If her age was greater than 20, or that her age after the Tabuk Campaign was greater than 27.

Then he mentioned three narrations that he based his argument on. He mentioned the one narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

The Messenger of Allah married me when I was six years old. Then we came to Al-Madinah and settled among Banu Harith bin Khazraj. I became ill and my hair fell out, then it grew back and became abundant. My mother Umm Ruman came to me while I was on an Urjuhah with some of my friends, and called for me. I went to her, and I did not know what she wanted. She took me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house, and I was panting. When I got my breath back, she took some water and wiped my face and head, and led me into the house. There were some woman of the Ansar inside the house, and they said: 'With blessings and good fortune [[from Allah]].' [[My mother]] handed me over to them and they tidied me up. And suddenly I saw the Messenger of Allah in the morning. And she handed me over to him and I was at that time, nine years old.

He said that this cannot be a delusion, because it narrates events that clearly demonstrate her young age, it is not mere statements from her.

He also mentioned what al-Bukhari and Muslim narrated from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

I used to play with dolls in the presence of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and my friends would play with me. When the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, entered, they would hide from him and he would call them to join me and they would play with me.

He also mentioned the hadith that Abu Dawud mentions in his Sunan from Aisha that she said:

When the Messenger of Allah arrived after the expedition to Tabuk or Khaybar (the narrator is doubtful), the draught raised an end of a curtain which was hung in front of her store-room, revealing some dolls which belonged to her.

He asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Messenger of Allah laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth.

I say:

It has been narrated from Aisha that she playing on a swing the day of her wedding with her friends. It has also been narrated from her that she toys that she continued to play with with her friends after her marriage. It is as if the respected brother is saying: “If she was nine the day of her wedding, then these facts that she narrates about herself are not strange regarding a girl of nine. But if she was eighteen, then these facts would be unlikely for a girl of eighteen.

I say;

Yes, there is something strange about them, but I do not consider them extremely strange and unlikely. Perhaps this was in the early part of her married life.

It is fair for the respected brother to ask: What do we say about the hadith that Abu Dawud narrated? Did she continue to play with girls and a winged horse until the time of the Campaigns of Tabuk or Khaybar?

I say:

The Tabuk Campaign was in the month of Rajab of the 9 AH. The Khaybar Campaign was before that by two years and a half in the Muharram of year 7 AH. The age of Aisha the day of the Campaign of Tabukr was close to 26. But there is unsoundness in the chain of this hadith and it also has flaws:

As for the chain, in it there is Yahya bin Ayyub al-Ghafiqi al-Misri. This man was considered reliable by al-Ijli, Yaqoub bin Sufyan, al-Bazar and Ibrahim al-Harbi, and Ibn Hibban mentioned him in his collection of reliable narrators. Al-Bukhari said he was a truth-telling man. But Ibn Hanbal said that he had a bad memory. Ibn Saad said: He narrates strange/questionable narrations [[munkar al-hadith]]. Abu Hatim said: He tells the truth, his narrations should be written but not used in legal opinions [[la yuhtaj bihi]]. Al-Ismaili said: His narrations are not to be used in legal opinions. Abu Ahmad la-Hakim said: If he speaks from his memory, he errs. But if he speaks that which has written down, then there is no issue with that. Al-Daraqutni says: There are questions of reliability in some of his narrations.

Such a narrator, when he mentions something singular [[something that no one else has said]], his saying should be used as the basis of any argument.

As for flaws and confusion, Abu Dawud and al-Bayhaqi narrated this hadith from Said bin al-Hakam bin Abi Maryam from Yahya bin Ayyub from Ammara bin Ghuzayya from Muhammad bin Ibrahim from Abi Salama bin Abd al-Rahman from Aisha, and Ibn Hibban narrated it from Abdullah bin Wahb from Yahya bin Ayyub from Amar bin Ghuzayya from Salim bin Abi al-Nadr from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

[[The Prophet]] came in while I was playing with toys and raised the end of the curtain and asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Messenger of Allah laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth.

It is clear that Yahya bin Ayyub fell into confusion [[idtaraba]] in narrating this hadith both in its chain and its content. He was deluded into changing the names of some of the men in the chain and added to the content the story of the return from a campaign. Since he is described as having a bad memory and as there being confusion in his narrations, then this is sufficient to reject his narration.

Since the origin of the hadith is reliably transmitted in the Sahihayn in the narration of Urwa from Aisha without the extra additions, then the parts of Yahya bin Ayyub’s narration that agree with the narration in the Sahihayn are sound. It appears that he had it memorized, and that his other narration that mentions [[the Prophet’s]] coming from a campaign with changes to the chain of narrators is unsound.

I mentioned in the paper the story of the coming of Khawla bint Hakeekm to the Messenger of God after the death of Khadija and her offer to ask for women’s hand in marriage for him while he had no other wife other than Khadija. I say: The passage indicates that Khawla wanted to ask for women’s hand in marriage after the death of Khadija because he had become wifeless. It is extremely unlikely in such circumstances for her to ask for a six-year-old’s hand in marriage for him. But if she were 14 at the time, then that becomes sensible.

The respected brother said regarding me:

He concludes that it is extremely unlikely for Khawla to ask for a six-year-old's hand in marriage for the Prophet , and he summarizes the narration and does not mention its ending where Aisha explicitly mentions her age. Indeed, his conclusion also contradicts a narration from Imam Ahmad and others from Khawla bint Hakim in which it is explicitly mentioned that Aisha was nine years old.

I say:

Considering the narration far-fetched comes from the fact that it does not make sense for a man whose wife has died and who has no other wife to have a six-year-old engaged to him. [[Perhaps Dr. al-Idlibi is saying that a respected man in society, even if he were to accept a very young girl as a second wife, he would not accept her as his only wife because he would require someone mature enough to befit him.]] So take not.

As for the issue of summarizing the narration and not mentioning that it states her age, this requires a clarification.

Imam Ahmad and Ishaq bin Rahawayh narrate in their musnad books from Muhammad bin Bishr al-Abdri from Muhammad bin Amr bin Alqama from Abi Salama bin Abd al-Rahman bin Awf and Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib that they both said: When Khadija died Khawla bint Hakim, wife of Uthman bin Maz`un, came and said: “O Messenger of God, will you not marry?” and so on to the rest of the hadith. At the end of hadith there is: “Aisha said: So we came to Medina, and the Messenger of God came and entered our house. The Messenger of God transferred me to my own house when I was a girl of nine.”

This was narrated by Ibn Abi Aasim in his al-Aahaad wa-l-Mathaani and al-Tabarani in al-Kabir and al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi from two other chains from Muhammad bin Amr bin Alqama from Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib from Aisha the like of it.

The narration in the Musnad works of Ahmad and Ishaq appear in the form of a broken-chained narration [[mursal]], but the hadith is from Aisha because at the end it is said: “Aisha said: So we came to Medina, and the Messenger of God came and entered our house. The Messenger of God transferred me to my own house when I was a girl of nine.” So this hadith goes back to a narration of Aisha herself.

I emphasize that this narration does not add anything from what has reliably come from Aisha from her own words [[i.e. while it strengthens the narrative that Aisha really stated such things, it does not help disprove Dr. Idlibi’s conclusion that she suffered from a delusion at her old age.]] What would matter is a narration from a different Companion with a sound chain of narrators that corroborrates Aisha’s claim that she was nine the day of her wedding, and this is what I have not found till now.

The brother’s saying “a narration that Imam Ahmad and others have narrated from Khawla bint Hakeem” contradicts reality, because it suggests that this hadith in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad is part of the complete-chained narrations coming from Khawla bint Hakeem, but it is not so, for Khawla bint Hakeem in this hadith in the Musnad of Ahmad and other hadith books is merely a speaker [[khaatiba]]. She never said that she heard the Prophet say such things, nor did any narrators transmit such from her. The narration is from Aisha’s complete-chained hadiths and it is her own narration. [[Dr. Idlibi’s is pointing out that Khawla is not part of the chain of transmitters for this hadith. She is merely a character mentioned in a hadith by Aisha.]]

I said in my paper that the great scholars of hadith, may God have mercy on them, have said that when a hadith’s text [[matn]] contradicts facts of history that are better attested, then the hadith is rejected, because this means an error was introduced into the hadith due to the delusion of one of the narrators.

The respected brother commented on this by saying:

If historians had reliable evidence and were agreed on dating Aisha's birth, we would have been able to reject these sound narrations from her due to the possibility of delusion and forgetfulness. But when we see that the historical evidence has been criticized, and we see that the Successors, the great hadith memorizers [[huffaz]] and hadith scholars narrating that which goes against the historical evidence, then this makes us hold on to the narrations in the Sahihayn and other hadith works and we consider it unlikely that delusion and forgetfulness were factors. Among such opinions are what al-Dhahabi says: "She, meaning Asmaa', was older than Aisha by ten years or so." (Siyar A`laam al-Nubalaa', vol 2, 188) and what Ibn Hajar said: "Aisha was born after the Revelation by four or five years." (Al-Isaba, vol 8, 16).

I say:

When he says “we see that the Successors, the great hadith memorizers and hadith scholars narrating that which goes against the historical evidence”, there is in it ignorance of those narrators who narrated hadiths containing hadith-based clues that contradict Aisha’s hadith, which the brother neglected to mention.

The saying of al-Dhahabi, Ibn Hajar and others of the past and recent scholars is based on the famous narration that is in front of them with many sound chains of narrators going back to Aisha. This is not something they said after detailed research, it is merely a saying that they repeated.

Imam al-Dhahabi says in Siyar A`laam al-Nubalaa regarding Asmaa’ bint Abu Bakr that she was ten or so years older than Aisha, and this is in his biography of Asmaa’. But after a few lines he says: ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad says: “Asmaa was older than Aisha by ten years.”‘

Al-Dhahabi then said in his Siyar in his biography of Asmaa’s son Abdullah bin Zubayr: “She was older than Aisha by many years.” Then he said: ‘Ibn Abi al-Zinad says: “She was older than Aisha by ten years.”‘ Then he comments on this by saying: ‘Then according to this her age would be 91 years, but Hisham bin Urwa said: “She lived 100 years, not missing one year of this.”‘ He mentions in Tarikh al-Islam in his biography of Asmaa’ the saying of Ibn Abi al-Zinad and he writes a similar comment to this one in it.

You see that al-Dhahabi, the great scholar and historian, mentions different, contradictory, narrations as if he is unsure which ones to prefer, and he did not engage in a deep study and comparison of them.

If the historical clues I mentioned are not sufficient, then there are many clues from the books of hadith that point to Aisha being older than what the famous narration mentions, and those clues are the clues mentioned above in 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 10. It appears the respected brother has ignored them.

I repeat that clues are not evidence, but that the sum of clues can become  evidence, and if they all corroborate one another, then they can become a strong piece of evidence toward what I said.

The respected brother said regarding me:

He relies on the narration of Ibn Abi al-Zinad in determining the difference between Aisha and Asmaa's ages, disregarding what has been said about it in the literature of hadith criticism.

Then he said:

It is incorrect to rely on Ibn Abi al-Zinad's narration because of what follows: 1. Ibn Abi al-Zinad (100-174 AH) is the only narrator who determines the age difference between Asmaa' and Aisha at ten years. There is much previous evidence coming from more than one Successor, and it is well known that greater amounts of evidence surpass smaller amounts. 2. The narration that Ibn Abd al-Barr narrates from him in al-Isti`aab is not conclusive; there is doubt in it, as he says: "She was ten or so years older than Aisha" His saying "or so" agrees with the other narrations that the difference between them was ten and some years [[bid`u `ashara, meaning somewhere between 13 and 19]]. 3. Many scholars have considered Ibn Abi al-Zinad unreliable. In his biography in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (vol 6, 172) Imam Ahmad says about him: "His hadiths are confused." Ibn Ma`een says: "His hadiths are not used by hadith scholars as a basis for legal opinions." Ibn Hibban says: "Abd al-Rahman was one of those who would transmit unique narrations that were rejected and that was due to his bad memory and his frequent errors, therefore it is impermissible to use his hadiths as bases for legal opinions except in those narrations that agree with other reliable narrators." Al-Dhahabi says: "His hadiths are good [[hasan]]." It is clear from this that the hadiths that are unique to Ibn Abi al-Zinad and that contradict other reliable narrators cannot be used as bases for legal opinions.

I say:

It is impermissible to ignore a historical statement that one of the Successors of the Successors says and that is corroborated by narrations that contain many clues. The sayings of the latter-day scholars regarding determining Aisha’s age are mere transmission and copying of the famous narration’s contents.

The question now is: Is there any source on this matter other than what Aisha has said? If someone says yes and goes on to use other narrations by her, then he is corroborating a claim by itself. The actual question is whether there is any other source. His argument is begging [[dodging]] the question.

Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi al-Zinad is one of the Successors of the Successors and a teller of the truth [[sadduq]. He heard hadiths in Baghdad and transmitted them. The scholars of hadith considered the narrations he transmitted from Baghdad unsound, while they considered his narrations from Medina sound. The respected brother used Tahdhib al-Tahdhib as a reference and transmitted some opinions on considering him unsound and he ignored that which goes against those opinions. The same book mentions:

Musa ibn Salama said: I came to Medina and went to Malik bin Anas and said to him: I came to you to hear knowledge and to hear knowledge from those you tell me to. He said: "Go to Ibn Abi al-Zinad". Abu Dawud says from Ibn Ma`een: "The most authentic of transmitters from Hisham bin Urwa is Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad." Ali bin al-Madini said: "What he transmitted in Medina is authentic and that which he transmitted in Baghad was corrupted by the people of Baghdad." Yaqoub bin Shayba said: "Reliable and trustworthy, but there is weakness in some of his hadiths." Ahmad said, according to what al-Saaji related: "His hadiths are sound." Ibn Ma`een said, according to what al-Saaji related: "Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad from his father al-A`raj from Abu Hurayra is a reliable chain." Al-Tirmidhi and al-`Ijli say [[about him]]: "Trustworthy." Al-Aajiri relates from Abu Dawud: "He was a great scholar of the Quran and a great scholar of narrations."

There is no doubt that he cannot be legally relied upon on those narrations that he uniquely narrated, but his statement as a Medinan regarding Medinan female Companions is acceptable and I see no reason to dismiss them. Abu Dawud praised him when he said “he was…a great scholar of narrations.” If he says to us: “Asmaa’ bin Abu Bakr was ten years older than Aisha,” it is unacceptable to call his statement unsound and reject it.

As for his statement that there is much previous evidence from more than one Successor, he does not mention the evidence that comes from more than one Successor.

The statement “and she was older than Aisha by ten years or so” means that the difference was ten years more or less, that perhaps the difference is more or less by a month or year. Interpreting it as meaning that it could refer to three or more years of difference is far-fetched according to linguistic usage. If the difference was seven years or thirteen years, a person will not say “the difference is ten years or so.”

Additionally, Asmaa’ died 73 years after the hijra, having reached 100 years. This means that she was born before the Revelation by 14 years. If Aisha had been born 4 years after the Revelation as the common narrative says, this would mean that Asmaa’ was 18 years older than her. Does this fit the famous narrations?

Among the important issues is that this respected brother does not differentiate between clues and evidence, so that he treats clues as if they are evidence, then refutes them by saying they do not reach the standard of evidence. If he meditates upon my words when I say that they are only clues, I believe that his statements would have been very different. If I had thought that any of those clues were strong pieces of evidence I would have called them such, but I said they are clues, and clues do not represent [[independent]] evidence.

Where is the evidence then?

The evidence is formed by the sum of the clues. The concurrence of those ten clues that all suggest Aisha was born before the Revelation and not after it by four years is the evidence that a delusion had entered into the matter.

I hope that the respected brother and gracious readers will read those ten clues calmly and with meditation. After that, it remains to each of us his or her own effort and reward, and He [[God]] is the friend of the doers of good.

Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and put not in our hearts [any] resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed You are Kind and Merciful.

Written by Salah al-Din al-Idlibi on January 6, 2018.

End of translated article

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 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.

Conclusion

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.

What the Prophets Teach Us About the Proper Etiquette of Dua (Supplication)

In answer to questions regarding the nature and ideal manner of supplication in Islam

The true servant of God is the one who accepts whatever the Creator decrees. If he asks of Him and He answers, he considers that a privilege granted by Him, and if he is denied, he considers that an act of the Master doing what He wills toward His subjects, so that there is no complaint in his heart toward his condition.

Ibn al-Jawzi

In this article I will explore what the Quran teaches us about the proper way of interacting with God when supplicating to Him. How does one show proper respect toward God during prayer? And what things are the best things to pray for, and what things are not so good to pray for? If you are looking for a quick answer, go to the bottom of the article to the “Summary and Conclusion” section.

The Prayers of the Prophtes in the Quran

The Quran encourages us to emulate the manners of the Prophets mentioned in the Quran when it says:

Those are they whom God has guided, so emulate them in their guidance. (From verse 6:90)

When it comes to prayer, the Quran gives us many examples of the way the Prophets interacted with God in their prayers.

Prophet Muhammad

We have the example of our Prophet Muhammad . He strongly desired for the qibla (the direction faced during the formal prayer) to be changed so that the Muslims would face Mecca rather than Jerusalem. But he did not voice his desire. He had submitted his heart so thoroughly to God that he considered it God’s business to decide the direction of the prayer and change it if and when He wanted, he did not presume to interfere with this by praying for a different direction despite his own personal desires. Still, God heard his unvoiced prayer; the Quran says:

We have seen your face turned towards the heaven. So We will turn you towards a direction that will satisfy you. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque. And wherever you may be, turn your faces towards it. Those who were given the Book know that it is the Truth from their Lord; and God is not unaware of what they do. (The Quran, verse 2:144)

Hadith narrations tell us that the Prophet prayed very ardently for God’s help before the Battle of Badr, a battle that was to decide the fate of the Muslims forever:

The Prophet (ﷺ) turned (his face) towards the Qibla. Then he stretched his hands and began his supplication to his Lord: "O Allah, accomplish for me what Thou hast promised to me. O Allah, bring about what Thou hast promised to me. O Allah, if this small band of Muslims is destroyed. Thou will not be worshipped on this earth." He continued his supplication to his Lord, stretching his hands, facing the Qibla, until his mantle slipped down from his shoulders.

Quoted from the longer narration at Sahih Muslim 1763

The Prophet is also mentioned in certain hadith narrations teaching his Companions, may God be pleased with them, how to supplicate.

'Aishah (May Allah be pleased with her) reported:
I asked: "O Messenger of Allah! If I realize Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what should I supplicate in it?" He (ﷺ) replied, "You should supplicate: Allahumma innaka 'afuwwun, tuhibbul-'afwa, fa'fu 'anni (O Allah, You are Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me)."

Al-Tirmidhi Book 9, Hadith 1195, Sunan Ibn Majah 3850 (judged authentic)

Abdullah reported that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) used to supplicate (in these words):
" O Allah. I beg of Thee right guidance, safeguard against evils, chastity and freedom from want."

Sahih Muslim Book 48, Hadith 97

Prophet Adam and His Wife

22. So he lured them with deceit. And when they tasted the tree, their nakedness became evident to them, and they began covering themselves with the leaves of the Garden. And their Lord called out to them, “Did I not forbid you from this tree, and say to you that Satan is a sworn enemy to you?”

23. They said, “Our Lord, we have done wrong to ourselves. Unless You forgive us, and have mercy on us, we will be among the losers.” (The Quran, verses 7:22-23)

Prophet Nūḥ (Noah)

The Quran also gives us the example of a Prophet who makes the mistake of praying for something he should not be praying for. When Noah’s son is about to drown in the Flood, the following exchange takes place:

45. And Noah called to his Lord. He said, “O My Lord, my son is of my family, and Your promise is true, and You are the Wisest of the wise.”

46. He said, “O Noah, he is not of your family. It is an unrighteous deed. So do not ask Me about something you know nothing about. I admonish you, lest you be one of the ignorant.”

47. He said, “O My Lord, I seek refuge with You, from asking You for what I have no knowledge of. Unless You forgive me, and have mercy on me, I will be one of the losers.”

48. It was said, “O Noah, disembark with peace from Us; and with blessings upon you, and upon communities from those with you. And other communities We will grant prosperity, and then a painful torment from Us will befall them.” (The Quran, verses 11:45-48)

Noah’s son has proudly refused to embark on the Ark, saying that he would go to a mountain to be saved from the Flood (verse 11:43). When Noah sees him drowning, his fatherly instinct is to want to save him, so he calls out to God. Like the other Prophets, he does not make a specific demand, he only expresses the state of his heart to God but fears God too much to make demands of Him. In this case, God rebuffs him. Noah is not punished for praying for the wrong thing, he is only corrected (he is a Prophet and should know better than to try to save someone who proudly refused to be saved, even if it is his own son), then the kind words in verse 11:48 are said to him.

We also have these verses about him:

9. Before them the people of Noah disbelieved. They rejected Our servant, and said, “Crazy,” and he was rebuked.

10. So he appealed to his Lord, “I am overwhelmed, so help me.” (54:9-10)

In another place in the Quran we have Prophet Noah praying against those who rejected his message (after nine centuries of trying), while also praying for certain other things:

26. Noah said, “My Lord, do not leave of the unbelievers a single dweller on earth.

27. If You leave them, they will mislead your servants, and will breed only wicked unbelievers.

28. My Lord! Forgive me and my parents, and anyone who enters my home in faith, and all the believing men and believing women; and do not increase the wrongdoers except in perdition.” (The Quran, verse 71:26-28)

Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham)

We also have the example of Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham), who prays for some general things and some specific things:

35. Recall that Abraham said, “O my Lord, make this land peaceful, and keep me and my sons from worshiping idols.”

36. “My Lord, they have led many people astray. Whoever follows me belongs with me; and whoever disobeys me—You are Forgiving and Merciful.

37. “Our Lord, I have settled some of my offspring in a valley of no vegetation, by Your Sacred House, our Lord, so that they may perform the prayers. So make the hearts of some people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, that they may be thankful.”

38. “Our Lord, You know what we conceal and what we reveal. And nothing is hidden from God, on earth or in the heaven.”

39. “Praise be to God, Who has given me, in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac. My Lord is the Hearer of Prayers.”

40. “My Lord, make me one who performs the prayer, and from my offspring. Our Lord, accept my supplication.”

41. “Our Lord, forgive me, and my parents, and the believers, on the Day the Reckoning takes place.” (The Quran, verses 14:35-41)

We also have the following passage that gives us some more detail on Prophet Ibrāhīm’s prayers:

126. When Abraham said, “O My Lord, make this a peaceful land, and provide its people with fruits—whoever of them believes in God and the Last Day.” He said, “And whoever disbelieves, I will give him a little enjoyment, then I will consign him to the punishment of the Fire; how miserable the destiny!”

127. As Abraham raises the foundations of the House, together with Ishmael, “Our Lord, accept it from us, You are the Hearer, the Knower.

128. Our Lord, and make us submissive to You, and from our descendants a community submissive to You. And show us our rites, and accept our repentance. You are the Acceptor of Repentance, the Merciful.

129. Our Lord, and raise up among them a messenger, of themselves, who will recite to them Your revelations, and teach them the Book and wisdom, and purify them. You are the Almighty, the Wise.” (The Quran, verses 2:126-129)

We also have this passage:

83. “My Lord! Grant me wisdom, and include me with the righteous.

84. And give me a reputation of truth among the others.

85. And make me of the inheritors of the Garden of Bliss.

86. And forgive my father—he was one of the misguided.

87. And do not disgrace me on the Day they are resurrected.

88. The Day when neither wealth nor children will help. (Verse 26:83-88)

Prophet Ayyūb (Job)

Another example of prophetic manners when it comes to prayer is Prophet Ayyūb (Biblical Job). He suffered from a terrible illness, but instead of praying for a cure, this was his prayer:

And Job, when he cried out to his Lord: “Great harm has afflicted me, and you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” So We answered him, lifted his suffering, and restored his family to him, and their like with them—a mercy from Us, and a reminder for the worshipers. (The Quran, verse 21:83-84)

Ayyūb does not presume to ask for a cure. He simply says to God that he is suffering terribly while praising His mercy, leaving it to God to decide what to do in his case. His submission and awe toward God is so great that he probably considers it impolite to ask God to cure him when God is already fully aware of his situation. But he cannot help himself and cries out in pain, and God responds to him even though he does not specifically ask for anything.

Prophet Yūnus (Jonah)

87. And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!”

88. So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Prophet Yūsuf (Joseph)

Prophet Yūsuf is mentioned making this prayer:

My Lord, You have given me some authority, and taught me some interpretation of events. Initiator of the heavens and the earth; You are my Protector in this life and in the Hereafter. Receive my soul in submission, and unite me with the righteous.” (Verse 12:101)

Prophet Mūsā (Moses)

We have the example of Prophet Mūsā (Moses) who, like Noah, makes a vengeful prayer:

88. Moses said, “Our Lord, you have given Pharaoh and his chiefs splendor and wealth in the worldly life. Our Lord, for them to lead away from Your path. Our Lord, obliterate their wealth, and harden their hearts, so that they will not believe until they see the painful torment.”

89. He said, “Your prayer has been answered, so go straight, and do not follow the path of those who do not know.” (The Quran, verses 10:88-89)

One may rightly wonder why a Prophet would make such a negative prayer instead of forgiving and trying to make the world a better place. And why does God grant it? The reason is that the party against whom the prayer is made (Pharaoh) fully deserves the punishment Moses asks for for his murder and oppression of the believers. When a faithful servant of God makes such a prayer, God grants it because it is just and fair to grant it when it is against someone like Pharaoh, and because granting it is no loss for anyone. It would have been better for Pharaoh and his people if he had become a believer, but since he was so immersed in evil for so long, God allowed his fate to be sealed. Destroying him and his army was no loss for anyone, since God can re-create a civilization like his in an instant if He wished. The loss is entirely Pharaoh’s loss.

He also prays in the following way for God’s help when God chooses him to be a messenger:

25. He said, “My Lord, put my heart at peace for me.

26. And ease my task for me.

27. And untie the knot from my tongue.

28. So they can understand my speech.

29. And appoint an assistant for me, from my family.

30. Aaron, my brother.

31. Strengthen me with him.

32. And have him share in my mission.

33. That we may glorify You much.

34. And remember You much.

35. You are always watching over us.”

36. He said, “You are granted your request, O Moses. (Verses 20:25-36)

The following are other verses that mention him praying:

He said, “My Lord, forgive me and my brother, and admit us into Your mercy; for you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” (7:151)

And Moses chose from his people seventy men for Our appointment. When the tremor shook them, he said, “My Lord, had You willed, You could have destroyed them before, and me too. Will you destroy us for what the fools among us have done? This is but Your test—with it You misguide whomever You will, and guide whomever You will. You are our Protector, so forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are the Best of Forgivers.” (Verse 7:155)

He said, “My Lord, I have wronged myself, so forgive me.” So He forgave him. He is the Forgiver, the Merciful. (Verse 28:16)

Prophet Sulaymān (Solomon)

We also have the example of Prophet Sulaymān (Solomon) who asks to be given worldly power and his prayer is granted by God:

34. We tested Solomon, and placed a body on his throne; then he repented.

35. He said, “My Lord, forgive me, and grant me a kingdom never to be attained by anyone after me. You are the Giver.” (The Quran, verses 38:34-35)

Prophet Zakarīyā (Zechariah)

We also have the example of Prophet Zakarīyā (Biblical Zechariah). He was childless in his old age, and after being impressed by the piety of the young Mary (mother of Prophet Jesus, peace be upon them), he prays for a child for himself:

Thereupon Zechariah prayed to his Lord; he said, “My Lord, bestow on me good offspring from Your presence; You are the Hearer of Prayers.” (The Quran, verse 3:38)

This time we have a Prophet who prays for something specific; a child.

Prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus)

We also have the following verse about Prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus):

Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.” (5:114)

The Quranic Prayers

 

And among them is he who says, “Our Lord, give us goodness in this world, and goodness in the Hereafter, and protect us from the torment of the Fire.” (Verse 2:201)

And when they confronted Goliath and his troops, they said, “Our Lord, pour down patience on us, and strengthen our foothold, and support us against the faithless people.” (Verse 2:250)

285. The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord, as did the believers. They all have believed in God, and His angels, and His scriptures, and His messengers: “We make no distinction between any of His messengers.” And they say, “We hear and we obey. Your forgiveness, our Lord. To you is the destiny.” 286. God does not burden any soul beyond its capacity. To its credit is what it earns, and against it is what it commits. “Our Lord, do not condemn us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord, do not burden us as You have burdened those before us. Our Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear; and pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Lord and Master, so help us against the disbelieving people.” (Verses 2:285-286)

Those who say, “Our Lord, we have believed, so forgive us our sins, and save us from the suffering of the Fire.” (Verse 3:16)

“Our Lord, do not cause our hearts to swerve after You have guided us, and bestow on us mercy from Your presence; You are the Giver.” (Verse 3:8)

“Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.” (3:53)

Their only words were, “Our Lord, forgive us our offences, and our excesses in our conduct, and strengthen our foothold, and help us against the disbelieving people.” (3:147)

And why would you not fight in the cause of God, and the helpless men, and women, and children, cry out, “Our Lord, deliver us from this town whose people are oppressive, and appoint for us from Your Presence a Protector, and appoint for us from Your Presence a Victor.” (Verse 4:75)

And when their eyes are directed towards the inmates of the Fire, they will say, “Our Lord, do not place us among the wrongdoing people.” (Verse 7:47)

“We would be fabricating falsehood against God, if we were to return to your religion, after God has saved us from it. It is not for us to return to it, unless God, our Lord, wills. Our Lord embraces all things in knowledge. In God we place our trust. Our Lord, decide between us and our people in truth, for You are the Best of Deciders.” (Verse 7:89)

“You are taking vengeance on us only because we have believed in the signs of our Lord when they have come to us.” “Our Lord! Pour out patience upon us, and receive our souls in submission.” (Verse 7:126)

They said, “In God we have put our trust. Our Lord, do not make us victims of the oppressive people.” (Verse 10:85)

191. Those who remember God while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You, so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” 192. “Our Lord, whomever You commit to the Fire, You have disgraced. The wrongdoers will have no helpers.” 193. “Our Lord, we have heard a caller calling to the faith: `Believe in your Lord,' and we have believed. Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, and remit our misdeeds, and make us die in the company of the virtuous.” 194. “Our Lord, and give us what You have promised us through Your messengers, and do not disgrace us on the Day of Resurrection. Surely You never break a promise.” (Verses 3:191-194)

And lower to them the wing of humility, out of mercy, and say, “My Lord, have mercy on them, as they raised me when I was a child.” (Verse 17:24)

And say, “My Lord, lead me in through an entry of truth, and lead me out through an exit of truth, and grant me from You a supporting power.” (Verse 17:80)

When the youths took shelter in the cave, they said, “Our Lord, give us mercy from Yourself, and bless our affair with guidance.” (Verse 18:10)

28. Then, when you and those with you are settled in the Ark, say, “Praise be to God, who has saved us from the wrongdoing people.” 29. And say, “My Lord, land me with a blessed landing, as you are the best of situators.” (Verses 23:28-29)

And say, “My Lord, I seek refuge with You from the urgings of the devils. 98. And I seek refuge with You, my Lord, lest they come into my presence.” (Verses 23:97-98)

There was a group of My servants who would say, "Our Lord, we have believed, so forgive us, and have mercy on us; You are the Best of the merciful." (Verse 23:109)

And those who say, ‘‘Our Lord, avert from us the suffering of Hell, for its suffering is continuous. (Verse 25:65)

And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us delight in our spouses and our children, and make us a good example for the righteous.” (Verse 25:74)

7. Those who carry the Throne, and those around it, glorify their Lord with praise, and believe in Him, and ask for forgiveness for those who believe: “Our Lord, You have encompassed everything in mercy and knowledge; so forgive those who repent and follow Your path, and protect them from the agony of the Blaze. 8. And admit them, Our Lord, into the Gardens of Eternity, which You have promised them, and the righteous among their parents, and their spouses, and their offspring. You are indeed the Almighty, the Most Wise. (Verses 40:7-8)

We have enjoined upon man kindness to his parents. His mother carried him with difficulty, and delivered him with difficulty. His bearing and weaning takes thirty months. Until, when he has attained his maturity, and has reached forty years, he says, “Lord, enable me to appreciate the blessings You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to act with righteousness, pleasing You. And improve my children for me. I have sincerely repented to You, and I am of those who have surrendered.” (Verse 46:15)

And those who came after them, saying, “Our Lord, forgive us, and our brethren who preceded us in faith, and leave no malice in our hearts towards those who believe. Our Lord, You are Clement and Merciful.” (Verse 59:10)

Our Lord, do not make us a target for those who disbelieve, and forgive us, our Lord. You are indeed the Mighty and Wise. (Verse 60:5)

O you who believe! Repent to God with sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remit your sins, and admit you into gardens beneath which rivers flow, on the Day when God will not disappoint the Prophet and those who believed with him. Their light streaming before them, and to their right, they will say, “Our Lord, complete our light for us, and forgive us; You are capable of all things.” (Verse 66:8)

And God illustrates an example of those who believe: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord, build for me, with you, a house in Paradise, and save me from Pharaoh and his works, and save me from the wrongdoing people.” (Verse 66:11)

And say, “My Lord, forgive and have mercy, for You are the Best of the merciful.” (Verse 93:118)

The Lesson from the Prophets’ Prayers

Almost all of the Prophets are mentioned as praying for God’s mercy and His forgiveness. This is the central theme of the vast majority of the prayers mentioned in the Quran. The Quran does not encourage us to pray for material things. In one of the most beautiful prayers in the Quran, we have Pharaoh’s wife praying for a house, not in this world, but in Paradise (Verse 66:8). The Quran encourages us to take care of the state of our souls and to give priority to the afterlife over the present life:

16. But you prefer the present life.

17. Though the Hereafter is better, and more lasting. (Verses 87:16-17)

Judging by what the Quran teaches us, it is almost an insult to God to ask Him for specific material gain, such as getting that particular car or house, or marrying a particular person. The Prophetic attitude is to ask for God’s help, mercy and blessings in general terms while living it to Him to take care of the details.

However, the Prophets make an exception when there is an overwhelming need. Prophet Muhammad asks to win the Battle of Badr even though God is capable of making the Muslims supreme in the Arabian peninsula whether they win the battle or not. This is what the Quran teaches at the beginning of Sūrat al-Rūm:

2. The Romans have been defeated.

3. In a nearby territory. But following their defeat, they will be victorious.

4. In a few years. The matter is up to God, in the past, and in the future. On that day, the believers will rejoice.

5. In God’s support. He supports whomever He wills. He is the Almighty, the Merciful.

6. The promise of God—God never breaks His promise, but most people do not know.

7. They know an outer aspect of the worldly life, but they are heedless of the Hereafter. (The Quran, verses 30:2-7)

The Quran acknowledges that the Muslims will celebrate when the Romans (who were Christians and thus were considered to follow the same God as the Muslims) win against the more pagan-like Persians. But the passage reminds us that God is in charge regardless of who wins and who loses, so we should not be too attached to what happens in this world, we should be more worried about the hereafter.

The other Prophets too at times ask for things that are not entirely spiritual. Ayyūb cries out to God when his pain becomes too great. Zakarīyā asks for a son. These should be considered exceptions that the Prophets made to their general rule (of always leaving things to God to decide, and only asking Him for His mercy, forgiveness and support).

We also have the example of Sulaymān which is somewhat conflicting with the rest, because he asks to be given a kingdom so great that no one will have the like of it afterwards. It appears from the Quranic mentions of Sulaymān that his appreciation for material things came from a deep spirituality rather than from a love of the worldly life.

30. And We granted David, Solomon, an excellent servant. He was penitent.

31. When the beautiful horses were paraded before him in the evening.

32. He said, “I have loved the niceties of this world because of the remembrance of my Lord—until it disappeared behind the veil.

33. Bring them back to me.” And he began caressing their legs and necks.

34. We tested Solomon, and placed a body on his throne; then he repented.

35. He said, “My Lord, forgive me, and grant me a kingdom never to be attained by anyone after me. You are the Giver.”

36. So We placed the wind at his service, blowing gently by his command, wherever he directed.

37. And the demons—every builder and diver.

38. And others fettered in chains.

39. “This is Our gift; so give generously, or withhold; without account.”

40. For him is nearness to Us, and a beautiful resort. (The Quran, verses 38:30-40)

Verse 32 above has many conflicting interpretations, but I prefer Muhammad Asad’s interpretation which fits the rest of the Quran, in that Sulaymān states that his love for niceties of this world comes from his remembrance of God. This would sound far-fetched in an ordinary person, but when a Prophet, descended from a Prophet and from a long line of Prophets before him claims this, we can believe him. God answers his prayer and says that the works done by Sulaymān were expressions of appreciation toward God:

10. We bestowed upon David favor from Us: “O mountains, and birds: echo with him.” And We softened iron for him.

11. “Make coats of armor, and measure the links well; and work righteousness. I am Observant of everything you do.”

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno.

13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative. (The Quran, verse 34:10-11).

Sulaymān and his father were chosen for greatness in this world because of their deep spirituality. They were not worshipers of the worldly life, they appreciated it because they sensed God’s power and greatness through them.

What all of this teaches us is that we should not treat God like a genie in a bottle who answers wishes. We should instead treat Him like an all-powerful King who always knows what is best for us. We can make specific prayers when pain or desire overwhelms us, and He will humor us by responding to our prayer if He wishes, since it doesn’t decrease anything from His power. He gave Sulaymān everything he asked for because it did not cost Him anything to give him all of that, and because Sulaymān was a spiritual and appreciative servant who deserved it. God is a King who does what He wants in regards to His different servants.

Summary and Conclusion

Here are the general conclusions I have reached from studying the prayers of the Prophets:

  1. General prayers for God’s forgiveness, guidance and mercy are the best. Prophets are rarely concerned with material things, their main concern is God.
  2. If we strongly desire a specific thing, we can pray for it, but we should always do this with extreme respect and humility toward God. Prophet Nuh’s saying in verse 11:47 perfectly describes the attitude of the believer toward God when making prayers: “O My Lord, I seek refuge with You, from asking You for what I have no knowledge of. Unless You forgive me, and have mercy on me, I will be one of the losers.”
  3. It is highly insulting toward God to treat Him like a genie in a bottle, telling Him that He must do this thing for us otherwise we will be upset with Him. When praying, we must always keep in mind that God may have a different plan for us and that God wants us to prioritize our spirituality over our material desires.

Asking God for material things, thinking that we can get those things then hold onto them, shows great ignorance about the nature of this world. You can get the car you desire, but two years later you could be in an accident and lose it. There is no way to hold onto the material things we have in this world, we could always lose them, therefore the Prophetic attitude is to leave the material world in God’s care and to focus on the spiritual world, asking His help and guidance in our own spiritual growth and never treating Him like a lover of the worldly life would treat a magic lamp or ring that gives them what they desire.

When asking God for something specific, you should always keep in mind that God is in charge and it is His decision whether He grants what we ask or not, and if He does not, we have no right to complain. Every single blessing we enjoy, our very existence in this world, rely on His support every second of every day. God can give us everything we want, but He wants to give them to us when we have achieved Sulaymān’s spirituality, when we see God’s greatness and presence in everything around us (see this essay for how to achieve such a state and remain there permanently). Once we have achieved that, our attachment to the worldly life will have weakened to such a degree that we no longer feel a need to pray for material things. We end up living in God’s presence, seeking His love and guidance more than anything else.

 

Islam and Depression: A Survival Guide

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A street in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Please note that this article is not meant as a replacement for medical help, but as a supplement to it.

What does Islam have to offer someone who has been suffering depression for years and sees no end in sight to their suffering?

Depression is not sadness and cannot be cured by thinking positively as some people insultingly think. The dismissive attitude of many Muslim immigrants toward depression is due to the fact that, thanks to having very large and well-functioning families, they enjoy a very powerful protection against depression that is largely lacking in the West (for more on this see the section on loneliness and social alienation below). Depression is what it feels like to be stuck in darkness between two high walls, with no way forward and no way backward. Every bad memory of the past feels as if it happened this very moment, while the future feels as if it will contain nothing but a continuation of the present misery. Depression is not caused by thinking negative thoughts. The line of causation is in the opposite direction; it is the depression that causes the negative thoughts. A depressed person can think of a happy event that took place years ago only to remember the negative things that happened during it. The negativity of depression blankets all of their thoughts like a dark cloud.

Some forms of depression are caused by life circumstances, while others, such as bipolar depression, are caused by chemical changes in the brain that are completely outside a person’s control. Positive things happening in their lives can help them experience short episodes of happiness, but these episodes end very quickly and the depression always comes back. For this reason, such people need long-term strategies that take the reality of their situation into account.

In this essay I will describe a long-term plan for dealing with depression that first takes the spiritual side into account and then the material side. This plan is not a cure, it is designed to make depression understandable and manageable for the person who suffers it so that they may, with God’s help, slowly climb out of it.

Acceptance

When we are depressed, we feel as if we have been abandoned in this big, wide world to suffer on our own, without any purpose or wisdom behind it. Day after day passes, we suffer, and we are not better off for it. What is the point?

The first step toward dealing with depression is to realize that God could solve all of our problems and take away our depression an instant, but He is choosing not to do it. You have not been abandoned by Him, He is allowing this to happen to you and watching you suffer every second. This sounds rather cruel, why would a kind God allow this? Some people abandon religion because of this, being unable to accept that a true God would watch humanity suffer without intervening to help them.

But think about Prophet Muhammad . He was chosen by God to teach and spread His religion. Yet he had to suffer abuse and persecution in Mecca for 13 year. Why did God allow this to happen? God could have made the Prophet successful on the very first day he received the revelation. But instead he had to go through an excruciatingly painful 13-year process filled with failures and losses.

The reason for that is that the universe is designed by God to function in this way. We can call the process that the Prophet had to go through “suffering through time”. Patiently suffering through time is how a believer’s character is proven. The Prophet could have just suffered for a day or two, or a month, then he could have been granted success. But God did not lose anything by letting him suffer for 13 years, those years were necessary for him to be shaped into the person he was.

Suffering through time is how we prove, every hour of every day, that we have faith in God. It enables us to affirm, and affirm, and affirm our faith day after day and year after year until we have truly proven ourselves to God. Once we reach the stage He desires, He can then grant us the greatest success and the greatest happiness in a single day.

Your depression is not purposeless. Your depression is a matter between you and God. He is completely in charge of it and only He can put a stop to it, if and when He wants. This is not to deny that your depression may have a material cause and may be treatable with the right drugs and therapies; but it is all up to God whether you will be able to find the right people to help you and the right treatment. God’s help does not come down from the sky in the shape of angels, He helps us by arranging this world in the right way for us to be helped while hiding His own hand in the matter. God does not want us to see Him or to see any direct evidence of His existence, He wants us to always have the option of doubting His existence, because this is what enables us to prove our faith in Him. There is no point in having faith in something when you have direct evidence of its existence, it would be like having faith in the law of gravity.

When you suffer, if you turn your back on God and blame Him for not helping you, you are failing His test. The attitude He wants you to show is one of submission and acceptance, the attitude that the Prophets of the Quran all show toward God when they suffer. Your attitude should not be, “God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. You are so cruel to allow this to go on!” Your attitude should be:

God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. Forgive any sins that may have brought me here, help me correct any mistakes I have made that have brought me here, guide me and increase me in knowledge. Help me learn what I am supposed to be learning.

Depression is one of the ways that God distinguishes His faithful believers from the fair-weather believers whose faith is only strong when things are going well in their lives. Depression is an opportunity for you to transcend your human limitations, to show that you can love God and believe in Him even as He watches you suffer. This proves that you truly respect Him the way He deserves to be respected (by always thinking the best of Him) and that you have faith in His power, wisdom and love.

So be like Prophet Muhammad and the other Prophets. Do not despair, for if you do, you fail the test.

Think the best of God

It can be very difficult to think any positive thoughts about God when you feel so bad. In fact, sometimes it can be all that you can do to stop yourself from thinking very bad thoughts about Him. Those who truly fail their test are those who allow their suffering to permanently color their thinking about God. They build up a strong grudge and hatred against God for creating them, for creating this world the way it is. Some of these people end up calling themselves atheists, even though they do not really doubt God’s existence in their hearts, they just have a blinding hatred for Him.

If the best that you can do is to resist negative thoughts about God, then this is the best that you can do. God does not ask you to do more than you are able. Resist negative thoughts and constantly pray to God for His help.

Give up, surrender and learn the lesson

Depression causes you to suffer through time, sometimes for months and years, in order to prove your powerlessness to you. Depression shows you that you are not in charge. It is like a storm that throws us here and there, wherever it wants, while we are powerless to do anything about it. And that is the point. Suffering is designed to make us humble ourselves before God:

We sent messengers to communities before you, and We afflicted them with suffering and hardship, that they may humble themselves. If only, when Our calamity came upon them, they humbled themselves. But their hearts hardened, and Satan made their deeds appear good to them. (The Quran, verses 6:42-43)

The Quran also says:

But those who do not believe in the Hereafter are swerving from the path. Even if We had mercy on them, and relieved their problems, they would still blindly persist in their defiance. We have already gripped them with suffering, but they did not surrender to their Lord, nor did they humble themselves. Until, when We have opened before them a gate of intense agony, at once they will despair. (Verse 23:73-77)

The above passage describes the response of many people to depression. Rather than using the opportunity to affirm their faith in God, they despair. And if they are cured, rather than learning anything from their suffering, they again go back to ignoring God for most of them time.

Your depression is designed to help you break that cycle. God wants you to give up and surrender, to acknowledge that there is no power in this world besides Him. The Quran tells us the story of Prophet Yunus (Biblical Jonas) who also despaired of God like so many people do, but he was able to overcome his despair:

And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Like Prophet Yunus, surrender completely to God and acknowledge that He is in charge and that only He can help you.

Stop hurrying

When suffering depression, we always wish for a magic cure that will stop the pain immediately. But remember the stories of the Prophets. Prophet Yaʾqūb lamented the loss of his son Yusūf for years before God gave him back his son. God could have prevented his suffering, but He did not. Yaʾqūb did not complain to God, asking Him why He had to do that to him when He could solve all of his problems instantly. He instead accepted his fate and knew that the matter was in God’s hands and that only God knew where it would lead.

Rather than rejecting your suffering, come to terms with it by accepting it and accepting the fact that it may go on for the foreseeable future. Rather than giving God an ultimatum, saying He should cure you within the next week or month or else you will stop believing in Him, your attitude should be one of utter submission. You belong to God and it is His business what He does with you.

Imagine someone who suffers depression for 60 years, dies, then enters Paradise, where every day is as good as the happiest memories of their lives, and where they can live forever. Exchanging a mere 60 years for an eternity of complete happiness is very much worth it if we think about it.

But the deal God offers us is actually much better than that. The Quran says:

Truly, with hardship always comes ease. (94:5 and 94:6)

It also says:

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good [worldly] life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do. (16:97)

It also says:

And thus We established Yusuf in the land, to live therein wherever he wished. We touch with Our mercy whomever We will, and We never waste the reward of the righteous. But the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and observed piety. (Verses 12:56-67)

Prophet Yusuf suffered unjustly for many years, being away from his family and later being put in prison for no fault of his own. But the Quran says God rewarded him in this worldly life by granting him a very high status, while also keeping in store a greater reward in the hereafter.

Cure your soul then seek a material cure

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes...

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, “The Journey of Job”

Let us say, like in those lines above from the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, you have accepted your fate. You have faced God and said to Him in all sincerity that you are willing to take whatever He sends your way. What is there to do next?

The next step is to make it part of your daily routine to perform a certain amount of extra worship, if you are able (if not, read on for what to do). What I recommend is performing at least an hour of tahajjud and Quran-reading every night before bed (see here for more details), other times and other forms of worship might work better for some. Your goal should not be to perform this until you get a cure. Your goal should be to perform this daily for the rest of your life.

It is impossible to remain close to God, to submit to Him and to rely on Him in full sincerity unless you dedicate a part of your day, every day, to extra worship. Just a few days of skipping this extra worship is sufficient to re-attach your heart to the worldly life and to put you back in square one, lost in the worldly life and faraway from God.

It is against human nature to submit to God, to remain pure of sin, to rely on Him and to only seek refuge in Him. Human nature makes us want to be egotistic, short-sighted and selfish. We need daily work to subdue the ego and restore the balance. You cannot maintain the character and spirituality of the Prophets and saints if you do not work for it daily. As soon as you stop the work, your human nature will reassert itself. This is a struggle that we have to keep for the rest of our lives.

If you are desperate to escape your depression, then this should be your first step. Promise God to perform an extra hour of worship every day for the rest of your life if He enables you to do it, and ask Him to give you a meaningful and productive life in return. Do this and your life may completely change within the next few months.

If you are too demotivated to perform worship

Sometimes it is enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. If that is the case with you, start praying for these three things every time you think about God: ease, guidance and forgiveness. Even if you do not feel repentant, even if you cannot help but feel resentment for being in the situation you are, keep asking God for His forgiveness. Instead of turning your back on Him because of your suffering and resentment, turn to Him despite these things. Start facing Him and conversing with Him even if you do not feel like it, even if your negative thoughts make you feel as if He dislikes you and has abandoned you. Voice your thoughts to Him and complain to Him of your situation and your suffering.

Keep turning to God again and again and again even if everything makes you want to turn away from Him in anger and resentment. Do your best to think the best of Him regardless of how you feel. God is not going to ignore you. But He will not magically cure your situation either, God, in general, does not perform miracles in front of us, because that would be direct evidence for His existence. He wants to hide Himself from us so that we have the choice of having faith in Him or rejecting Him. While God will likely not suddenly fix your situation, if you keep up doing these things, He will cause small changes in your life that will accumulate over time, so that in three months, or six months, things could be very different for you.

Keep asking for God’s help and slowly, but surely, He will help you get on your feet and rebuild your life.

Start measuring time in periods of 3 months

When we are depressed, we tend to measure our suffering in minutes and hours. We feel as if our situation will continue in exactly the same way for eternity. We cannot think of any happy memories and we cannot think of anything to be optimistic about.

That is the normal depressed brain at work. What you should do is override that type of thinking by reminding yourself that change takes time, because God does not magically solve our problems for us. He helps us help ourselves, helping us so subtly that afterwards we are almost always able to take all the credit and ignore His part in it.

Start thinking of time in terms of three-month periods. Follow the advice in this essay then three months from now look back and see how things have changed. Chances are you will be in a much better state than you are now. And three months after that things will be even better. After a year passes, you may still have some depression, but God may have caused many changes in your life that enable you to feel much more purposeful and optimistic than you feel now.

Material considerations

 

Exercise

Some people claim that exercise can cure depression. You should rightly be skeptical of such claims. But it is true that exercise can greatly improve your levels of motivation. It might make you feel 30% better than you feel right now, you may still feel depressed, but this might just be enough to give you the motivation to perform tahajjud, Quran-reading and other beneficial things. I recommend performing an hour of vigorous but not too strenuous exercise on an exercise bike. You can do it while watching a video.

Loneliness and social alienation

People who grow up in larger families are less likely to be depressed. Merely having more people around you in your life can be your greatest defense against depression, even if your relationship with these people has many flaws. For some Muslim immigrants coming from the Middle East, depression sounds like a wholly alien and impenetrable thing because they have never experienced it themselves and have no idea what is like to experience it. Some of them rather insultingly talk about how it is a lack of spirituality or a possession by Satan that is causing depression. The reason these people cannot experience depression is the fact they come from societies organized in such a way that make depression almost impossible, and in this is an important clue for treating depression.

In the Middle East, it is common for a person to be surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles, siblings and other relatives who all contribute to a person’s self-esteem. The conviviality of these societies makes each person feel cared about, as if they have a very important place reserved for them by their societies. To understand the nature of this “place”, it is best compared to a king or queen’s throne. A king or queen gets treated with extreme respect and consideration regardless of who they are and what kind of personalities they have. The fact that they are king or queen, the fact that they have this “place” reserved for them by society, makes everyone treat them that way. In the same way, in a well-functioning Middle Eastern society, each person is given a “place” that ensures them love, respect and consideration regardless of their personalities. In other words, a person in such a society does not have to do anything to earn the respect and consideration of those around them. These things are automatically granted to them merely by the virtue of being born into that society.

Imagine if one day you woke up and discovered you are in a king’s palace and everyone started treating you like you are the king or queen. It will not take very long for you to believe it when everyone does that for you. In those Middle Eastern societies I am describing, a person is made to feel the same way by their relatives; they are treated as if they are lovable, as if they are important, as if they matter very much, and since everyone around them does that, a person starts to believe these things. This is probably more powerful than any anti-depressant. Each relative contributes 2% or 3% to a person’s sense of being important and lovable, and what do you know, it all adds up to such a high degree that it is made physically impossible for that person to suffer depression.

In the West, while certain people enjoy similar societies, this is the exception. In general, people in the West are socially alienated; most of the people around them do not treat them as if they have a place of great importance reserved for them. They are not surrounded on every side by people who treat them as if they are very important and very worthy of love. And because of that, people feel that they do not really have a place in society. They feel displaced, alienated.

To understand these things better, I recommend that you read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (in the 19th century at least some Western societies used to be like the Middle Eastern ones I describe). In the story, Mrs. Bennet is a rather ignorant and annoying woman and people are aware of it, yet everyone treats her as if she is an important person and as if she matters very much. It can be said that she does not “deserve” this good treatment. She has not done anything to deserve it, it is something automatically given to her by her society, and this acts as a very strong defense against her feeling lonely and depressed. It is almost as if there is a society-wide conspiracy to make her feel important and loved.

For a person to feel as if they matter and as if they are loved, it is essential that people around them constantly reaffirm these things. In the Middle East, this happens for most people on a daily basis because it is embedded within almost every social interaction. No one needs to say “I love you” because it is so strongly assumed that saying that is as ridiculous and unnecessary as saying “electricity exists”. In the West, however, a person can spend an entire day without anyone affirming their worth and importance. And if this continues day after day and week after week, so that feeling loved and cared about is a pleasant surprise rather than as common as air, then apathy and depression are the result.

Depression, in other words, is the natural result of people not constantly reassuring you, implicitly through their actions and manners, that you are loved and cared for.

According to that, the cure would be to have a large extended family that acts the way I described above. But since the type of family and society we have is out of our control, there isn’t much we can do about them. But recognizing the displacement and alienation are important contributors to depression can help you come up with strategies to use this knowledge to reduce your depression.

For example, having people around you even if you do not know them can help improve how you feel. You can confirm this by going to a coffee shop or library. You will be a lot more motivated to read something beneficial at one of these venues than you will be alone at home. Just having people around you gives you a sense of belonging that somewhat reduces your depression.

The best way to attack depression would be to increase your social connections, simply increasing the number of people you meet on a daily basis who are nice to you will greatly improve your self-esteem and diminish your depression. Many cities have clubs and meet-up groups that you can join to spend more time around other people. There are many sites like VolunteerMatch.org that help you find volunteering opportunities around you, volunteer at the charities and projects you like and the people you meet and your interactions with them can help you as much as any antidepressant can.

For an introverted person, meeting new people is always a challenge, this is something that exercise can help with because exercise reduces social anxiety. If you just ran for two miles, social anxiety would be the last thing on your mind for a while.

Try to spend less time alone and more time around other people. If you live with your parents, stay in the living room more often and spend less time in your room.

It is not always possible to do something about loneliness, and sometimes you are stuck around people who only worsen your depression. For this reason it is crucial that you constantly ask for God’s help, because He can arrange your circumstances for you and create ways for you reduce your loneliness. He can open doors for you that you did not know even existed.

Get medical help

Some types of depression are caused by your brain’s physiology. A person with bipolar II is going to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of depression and elation. Some of these people never get diagnosed because they are good hiding their depression and their periods of elation never reaches the point of mania and psychosis (as happens in bipolar I).

While medical help will likely not entirely cure you, it can improve how you feel to the point where you can feel motivated to do other things to improve your situation. If there is a drug that can reduce your depression by half, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t benefit from that. Therapy can also be very helpful, not necessarily because of any special knowledge of the therapist, but because just having someone be nice to you and treat you like you matter is very important for fighting depression.

Educate yourself

There are many people who, after reading a dozen or more books, were able to find just the right lifestyle and routine to help them keep their depression under control. Read memoirs and autobiographies by people who suffered from depression. Read any book on the topic of depression that you find interesting. These books can help point you in the right direction even if none of them give you a complete answer.

Summary: Remain with God

God can help you get into exactly the right situation you need to cure your depression. He can help you find exactly the right type of medical help that can help you, or guide you to the right advice or the right life choices. Realize that you are not in charge and that if God does not help you, nothing can. You should do everything you can to help yourself, but it is God who can make all the difference between whether your efforts will be successful or end in failure.

You should therefore prioritize the spiritual side over the material side. Take care of the state of your heart and soul, and God can take care of the rest for you by making things easy for you and guiding you in the right direction.

For more Islamic advice relevant to depression and other hardships, please check out my following essays:

 

Professor Abu Zahra: The Egyptian Islamic Scholar who Rejected the Punishment of Stoning

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898 – 1974)

Muhammad Abu Zahra was one of the foremost authorities on Islamic law in the 20th century, whose works on the various schools of Islamic law continue to be used in academia. He was a member of Al-Azhar University’s Academy of Islamic Research and a Professor of Islamic law at Cairo University. He was loved by his students for his personality that united piety, open-mindness and a great sense of humor.

In the year 1972, two years before his death, at in Islamic conference held in the city of al-Bayḍāʾ in Libya, he shook the scholarly community by declaring his informed personal opinion (ijtihād) regarding the stoning of adulterers in Islam, in which he rejected the punishment based on a number of arguments. While his arguments are not conclusive, they deserve to be taken seriously. If even there is the slightest chance that he is correct, then that should be sufficient to put a permanent suspension on this punishment, because it involves the taking of human lives, and we cannot do that if we cannot be sure whether God really commands it or not.

The reason why the majority of scholars defend the punishment is not that they like it. The historical evidence shows that Islamic judges have been extremely loathe to carry out this punishment, to the point of accepting to be banished from their cities rather than sign the order to stone someone. The reason they defend it is that it is mentioned in a number of authentic narrations. Putting these narrations into question would require rebuilding the foundations of the field of hadith studies from scratch, a task that most scholars have been unwilling to contemplate until recently, although things appear to be slowly changing with respected hadith scholars like Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Idlibī engaging in content criticism and finding it acceptable to reject “authentic” narrations even in al-Bukhari and Muslim that go contrary to empirical evidence.

While the evidence for stoning is very strong and the Companions supported it even after the Prophet’s death , the evidence that stoning adulterers was a punishment that was abrogated by the Quran (but which the Companions apparently did not realize) is as follows:

  • There is no evidence that the Prophet stoned anyone after the revelation of Surat al-Nur which prescribes lashing for adulterers.
  • The Quran says slave women will only deserve half the punishment of free women (4:25). Stoning is not a punishment that can be halved.
  • Surat al-Nur was specifically revealed regarding the case of a married woman (Aisha) being accused of adultery. Its very first verses prescribe lashes to “adulterers”. It makes little sense that this verse, revealed in the case of a married woman, would start out (and finish) by only mentioning punishments for unmarried people.
  • Verse 4:15 tells Muslims to keep “their adulterous women” in the home until they either die or “God makes for them a way”. There is no hint in the verse that this is meant only for unmarried women, and “God making a way for them” only makes sense if these women had been given the punishment of lashing then left to themselves to repent and perhaps later remarry.

We do not have conclusive proof that stoning was abrogated. But even if there is the slightest chance that it was, since it involves the taking of human lives, perhaps Muslims can abandon the punishment out of respect for the possibility that the punishment may be wrongful. Even if there is a 99% chance that stoning was to be performed by Muslims after the Prophet’s death and there is a 1% chance that stoning was abrogated and the Companions did not appreciate this abrogation, this 1% chance is perhaps sufficient to put a hold on the punishment of stoning out of fear for God.

Without further ado, below is a translated article written by a young Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the respected Egyptian scholar, on Sheikh Abu Zahra’s opinion (here is an archived link to the Arabic original taken from al-Qaradawi’s website).

Beginning of translated article

In this forum [referring to the 1972 conference], the Sheikh Abu Zahra exploded a fiqhī (jurisprudential) bomb that shook the attendants, by surprising them with his new opinion. The Sheikh, may God have mercy on him, stood up during the conference and said: “I have been keeping secret a jurisprudential opinion for the past 20 years. I had spilled the beans to Dr. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ʿĀmir, isn’t it so doctor?” The doctor [who was present] replied in the affirmative. [He continued:]

It is time for me to make it public before I meet God, glory to Him, in case He asks me why I kept my knowledge secret and did not show it to the people. This opinion is related to the issue of the stoning of married adulterers. My opinion is that stoning was a Jewish practice that the Messenger at first followed, until the practice was abrogated by the punishment of a hundred lashes in Sūrat al-Nūr. And I have three arguments for this: First, God, glory to Him, says:

"When they are married, if they commit adultery, their punishment shall be half that of free women." [The Quran, verse 4:25]

Stoning is not a punishment that can be halved, which shows that the punishment is the one mentioned in Sūrat al-Nūr [i.e. 100 lashes].

My second argument is what al-Bukhārī narrates in his Ṣaḥīḥ from ʿAbdullāh bin Awfā that he was asked whether the punishment of stoning was carried out before or after Sūrat al-Nūr was revealed, and he replied that he did not know.

My third argument: The hadith they relied on [in support of stoning], saying that it was first part of the Quran then it was abrogated while its ruling remained, is not something that a rational mind can accept. Why would a verse be abrogated but its ruling remain in force?

And the argument that it was part of a written book of Quran but a she-goat ate the page cannot be logically accepted.

When the Sheikh finished his speech, most of the attendants started to verbally assault him. Many stood up and repeated what the books of fiqh say on these arguments. But the Sheikh remained steadfast in his stance.

When the meeting broke up, I [i.e. Yusuf al-Qaradawi] said to him: “O Mawlānā [Our Master], my opinion is similar to yours, but it is more likely to be accepted.” He asked what my opinion was. I said: “It is mentioned in authentic hadith that the punishment of the unmarried is 100 lashes, while the punishment of the married is 100 lashes along with stoning.”

He said: “And what is your conclusion from this hadith?”

I said: “Your Honor knows that the Ḥanafīs say regarding the first part of the hadith that the punishment is flogging, but that banishment and exile is allowed according to the judgment of the ruler, but that it is not obligatory in all cases. In addition to this, authentic narrations have come to us regarding stoning during the Prophetic time. He carried out stoning against Jews, against Māʿiz [bin Mālik], against al-Ghāmidīya [a woman’s name], and he sent one of his Companions to investigate the laborer’s wife, telling him to carry out stoning if she confesses. It is also narrated that Umar and Ali carried out stoning after the time of the Prophet.”

The Sheikh did not agree with me. He said:

O Yusuf, is it conceivable that Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Mercy Gifted to Mankind, would stone people to death? This is Judaic law, and it fits the cruelty of Judaic culture.

[It is unclear whether this following paragraph is Abu Zahra or al-Qaradawi speaking:] Sheikh al-Zarqā [a renowned 20th century Syrian scholar] agrees with the majority, but he disagrees with them in his definition of muḥṣin [the category of adulterers that can be stoned]. They say that a muḥṣin is any person who has married at some point, even if they have divorced or their spouse has died and are currently unmarried. But al-Zarqā says a muḥṣin is one who is presently married. This is also the opinion of the Sheikh Rashid Rida which he has mentioned in his Tafsīr al-Manār.

[Al-Qaradawi speaking:] I thought for a long time about Abu Zahra’s statement that he had kept his opinion secret for twenty years. Why did he keep it secret and not mention it in a lecture, book or article? He did that out of the fear that the masses would move against him and that his character and reputation would be maligned and vilified as happened in this conference. I said to myself, “How many new opinions and ijtihāds are locked up in their owners’ hearts until it dies with them without anyone hearing of them or transmitting them?”

That is why when I spoke of the framework for modern ijtihād, I said that we should open our hearts to those who make mistakes in their ijtihāds, for in this way ijtihād is revived and flourishes. A mujtahid is a fallible human. It is their right, no, even their obligation, to perform ijtihād and to publicize their opinions. It is not obligatory on them to always be right. As long as we close our hearts to opinions that go against the majority, ijtihād will not grow and will not give its fruits.

The truth is that what some people consider to be in error might actually be the correct opinion, especially when times and places change. It appears that the violent attack that Sheikh Abu Zahra faced made him keep silent about his opinion [after the conference], so that he did not write it down. Perhaps the reason is that he did not live long after it, for he died some months later, may God’s mercy and pleasure be with him. I saw that in his book Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law he had attributed this opinion to the Khawārij and mentioned them using the same arguments that he mentioned in Libya. I believe that was before the conference [i.e. his book was published before the conference, this seems to be confirmed by WorldCat.org which lists versions of this book published in 1970 and before].

End of translated article

The Point of Marriage in Islam (and the Problem with Romantic Relationships Outside of Marriage)

An essay on the question of whether romantic relationships outside of marriage are acceptable in Islam, and if not, why. Why is marriage such a big deal in religiously conservative societies? Why can’t people just enjoy themselves without involving everyone and their mother in their private affairs?

Islamic law does not have anything strict to say on the topic of romance. As religious scholars admit, falling in love is something we cannot help. But there are ways to engage in romantic relationships that fit within Islam’s framework of ethics and morality, and there are ways that conflict with it. Islam is not made to be applied in a vacuum. It is assumed that people who embrace Islam will, generation after generation, build their own culture around it, using its morality and ethical teachings to create their own standards of manners, etiquette and appropriate behavior. We see this in all Muslim societies. They often have a vast set of standards of behavior that cannot be found in any religious text. The reason for this is simple. Human life is so complicated that there is no way to define every single detail of their lives in a religious text. Rather, Islam provides general guidelines, people fill out the specifics, except in those rare cases where specifics are given (such as in the case of dividing an inheritance). If you were brought up in a devout Muslim family, you know that your parents will likely not think very highly of your being in a romantic relationship without their knowledge. To understand why there is a good reason for this taboo on romantic relationships outside the knowledge of your family and society, we have to talk about the point of marriage.

In Islam the appropriate, safe and socially integrated way for a man and woman to be in a relationship is through marriage. In many Western societies that have lost their religious beliefs, marriage is just a formality. Many people engage in intimate relationships without seeing a need for officially marrying. That is the primitive, natural way for humans to do things. Islam (and Christianity, and Judaism, and most sophisticated cultures) add an extra layer of formality to the relationships between men and women that greatly complicate matters. What is the point of that?

The point is that the formality enables the man and woman to relate to each other as socially integrated humans. A religiously conservative husband (assuming he is a relatively well-educated and civilized man) does not just see his wife as a piece of attractive flesh that can be treated however he likes. The solemnity of marriage, the fact that it involves so many people’s approval and attention, means that he is forced to look at her and see her not just as a body, but as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. She is not detached from her society and background. She is a great deal greater than her body and her personality. And that means he is forced to respect her as a person. He is beholden to dozens of other people who will all have something to say about it if he mistreats her. Through the constant interactions with her family, he is reminded over and over again that she is more than just a body, that she is a person with an honored social status. One could say that we can have such relationships without involving our families; we do not need our families to force us to be nice and considerate toward our spouses. But the reality is that human nature always “reverts to the mean”. At the beginning of a romantic relationship we can treat the other person with the greatest consideration. But once the honeymoon is over, the couple start to take each other more and more for granted and start to do less and less for each other. This is something that has been experienced by most people, who may have at first thought they would be the exception to the rule. The point of socially integrating a romantic relationship into society is to extend the honeymoon-level of consideration to the period that comes after the honeymoon. That is the magic that social integration achieves and that is almost impossible to achieve without it.

A wife, in a religiously conservative society, is not just a random woman who signed some paperwork. She has a defined and honored social status. It is similar to the way a queen is honored and respected by the virtue of her social status, without anyone caring what her body or personality are like. Just by being queen, she gets all kinds of rights and privileges. In a similar way, marriage in a conservative, religious society forces men to treat women as if they are more than their bodies, their beauty or their personalities. You can see this at work in classical English-language novels like Pride and Prejudice, when the West was still highly religious. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the novel’s heroine, is an extremely ignorant and annoying person. But thanks to the institution of marriage, everyone around her is forced to treat her with great respect. This is respect that she does not “deserve” if we were to look at her personal qualities. That is the point of marriage; it integrates people into society, gives them a status and position, and in this way protects their honor and dignity. Today a person like Mrs. Bennet would be made fun of by her children for being stupid and ignorant. She would probably have to take antidepressants because no one will treat her like she matters. In a society like that of Pride and Prejudice or like today’s conservative Muslim societies, she will be treated like she matters, because the society’s values and the institution of marriage force everyone around her to treat her with great respect and dignity and to take her opinions seriously regardless of how ignorant or stupid she is.

That makes her feel like she is important, like there is a place for her in society. She feels appreciated and is happy with her lot in life.

Such a system has its own problems. But as a person who has experienced such societies in countries like Iran and Iraq, and their opposite in the United States, I can say that such a social system is far superior to the disintegrated societies of the West (of course, things are not bad everywhere in the West and there are still many happy families and societies). In secular societies a woman has to prove her worth to be respected and taken seriously. In a traditional society she does not need to prove anything. She is a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and since these social roles are taken very seriously, they grant her all the respect she desires without having to do anything. She is like a queen who is born into a social position without having to work for it.

Naturally, the system also provides similar benefits to men. A wife has to treat her husband, even if he is not very intelligent or attractive or interesting, as a person who matters. In a class I was attending in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a woman said that her husband had “the most boring job in the world.” It was a funny statement, but it made wonder why a woman of my society would consider it extremely vulgar for a woman to say such a thing about her husband in public. The reason, of course, is that in my society a husband is not just any random man. A wife and her husband together rule their own little private kingdom where they are honored and valued, and it would be as foolish for her to make fun of her husband as it would be for a queen to make fun of her king in public. In a religiously conservative society, a wife does not treat her husband as if he is a random male, she treats him according to the demands and duties of the offices they both hold; the offices of “husband” and “wife”. It is similar to the way a company executive treats another executive; or one government official or minister treats another. They cannot treat one another as random humans who met on the street, they have to respect the office or rank held by the other person and treat them according to that.

Marriage as Election

If you think about it deeply, in a religiously conservative society a marriage is an election. The extended families on both sides are given a proposal and study it, until they cast their votes in favor of or against the marriage taking place. This process is sometimes taken as seriously as the cardinals take the process of electing a new pope. Once the marriage is approved, the husband and wife end up wearing the “robes of honor” that signifies their new offices or ranks that society has elected to give to the two of them through its approval. In a disintegrated society “walking down the aisle” does not have that much significance (although it can still be quite affecting), while in a religiously conservative society “walking down the aisle” is quite similar to the coronation of a new king or queen and just as serious and solemn. It is how society integrates these two new people into its future. The wedding process in Islam is similar to two kingdoms coming together to agree on the formation of a new kingdom on their borders with one side providing the new king and the other the new queen.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 by William Frith (1865)

In Islam, when a man wants to marry a woman, he has to first present himself to her family. The family judges him and casts votes either in his favor or against him. A critic of Islam, on reading this, may jump to the conclusion that that means the family control’s a woman relationship. But that is just the prejudiced nonsense that we Muslims have to deal with every day. The woman, being part of the family, also casts her own votes. If she is in favor of the man, her vote may count as 50% of the necessary vote. If her mother also approves, that may add another 25% to the vote, meaning that the family as a whole is 75% in favor of the marriage. If the father disapproves, his 25% negative vote would have to stand against the 75% positive vote, meaning that he will be under pressure to justify himself, and this pressure may make him slowly change his mind in favor of the man. These percentages of course change from family to family, and if the woman has siblings, they too will cast their votes. Ideally, and in most cases, the marriage will only go forward once the man has 100% of the vote of the woman’s family, and the woman has 100% of the vote of the man’s family. This makes the formation of the marriage something that is done with the unanimous vote of both of their families.

This extra layer of complexity and formality that religious societies have (and truly primitive societies lack) helps create a society where most people feel as if they matter regardless of their personal qualities. By the mere virtue of being in that society they get a great deal of respect and honor. The society as a whole acts like an aristocracy where everyone holds some important position and has to be treated according to it.

Romance Outside of Marriage

The reason that a romantic relationship outside of marriage is not liked by religiously conservative societies is that it does not fit well within the above picture. It is perfectly fine to be in love with someone and to know that they love you back, and to work toward getting married through socially-approved methods. The problem is when two people in such a society try to bypass their society in order to enjoy the benefits that come with marriage without doing the hard work of getting the approval of their society. They want to enjoy the benefits of the office of marriage without bothering to get elected.

A man and woman who build a romantic relationship without involving their families are insulting both of their families. The pleasures of love are something granted by society to people who go through the process that society has designed for creating romantic relationships in a safe and integrated way. A religiously conservative society honors you, takes you seriously and treats you like you matter very much just because you were born into that society. You did not do any work to deserve being honored by your society the way they honor you. The honor is granted to you by the mere virtue of being born into that society. But in return for honoring you, society demands that you honor it back. The way that people take their relationship with you seriously, treating you as if you are a worthy and important human being just because you are a daughter/sister/niece and so on, you have to take your relationship with them seriously.

And that means that when it comes to a romantic relationship, you cannot act entirely on your own initiative. You can do so at first, for example you may love someone and think they love you back. You can act on this and find out if they are interested in marriage. If they are, then that is when you should involve your family. The longer you wait, the more you involve yourself romantically with them, the more insulting your actions become toward your family. Your family’s involvement and approval are necessary to integrate your relationship with your society. This ensures that the person you wish to marry will become beholden to their office and the duties that come with it. A husband cannot treat a wife in any way he likes, he has to treat her in the way that his socially-granted office requires of him. In the same way, the wife is beholden to her office. These offices force them to be nice and considerate toward one another and toward one another’s family even if they do not feel like it. They act according to their office, not according to their personal desires.

The worst cases of abuse that I have heard about in the Middle East have often involved a man taking a wife then separating her from her family, such as by moving to a different city or country. When that happens, when the woman is taken out of her social context, he no longer feels beholden to her family and society. He starts to treat her however he likes. If he is a good and kind man then she would be in no danger. But if he is not, then there is nothing forcing him to be kind and considerate. She is fully at his mercy. Even if there are laws in their country against domestic abuse, these laws rarely do anything until things get really bad, sometimes after years of abuse. Most cases of abuse will likely not involve the law, and emotional abuse, which the law largely ignores, can be just as bad as physical abuse. In a religiously conservative society, by integrating marital relationships within society, a woman gets a great amount of protection for her rights and dignity.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet cannot start beating or insulting his wife even if he feels like it, because he knows everyone around him will be seriously angry and upset with him if he does that. Any undignified treatment of his wife will bring upon him a great deal of negative consequences that have nothing to do with the law.

One of Mr. Bennet’s daughters (Lydia) tries to have a romantic relationship with a man without involving her family. Her family are naturally greatly upset and insulted by this. A modern reader might think their reaction illogical and unjustified, a silly and hysterical response to an unimportant matter. But within that religiously conservative society, they have every reason to be upset and insulted, because she is being disloyal to her society. Her action is similar to a minister making an important decision about his country without consulting the other ministers. It is also similar to an employee making an important decision about his or her company without consulting the other employees. It is a betrayal because she is making a decision that affects everyone around her without bothering to get their opinion, approval or involvement. It is also similar to your daughter deciding to sell the family car or the house without consulting anyone else.

The result of her action is that her family lose their respect for her. They continue to treat her with the basic dignity that everyone gets in that society, but her action has proven that she is either foolish, disloyal and ungrateful. She has been treated with the greatest honor all her life even though she has done nothing to deserve it, yet instead of repaying that treatment in kind by honoring her parents and relatives and helping her society continue in a healthy way, she thinks she can make a decision that affects everyone without consulting them.

Now a person may ask why marriage has to be such a serious decision (it is like selling the family car like I said). Why shouldn’t it be her own business? The reason is that marriage is a fundamental aspect of society, similar to birth and death. It is how society creates new humans and integrates them into itself. Marriage, in a conservative society, is very serious business because it has everything to do with society’s existence, survival and continuation. Selling the family car is serious business because it affects everyone’s fate and happiness in the family. Marriage is serious business for the same reason. Everyone around you wants you to marry in a way that enables them to continue having you as a beloved daughter or son. Marriage should be about you entering a higher and better stage in society while everyone continues to love and appreciate you. They want to grant you the office and all the honors and respect that come with it. But if you bypass this, if you try to create your own happiness without regard for your family, this will break apart the way everyone around you relates to you; they could in fact lose you forever, and what you did could give them as much sadness as if you had died. It is quite similar to an aristocrat betraying his or her country. They lose their honors, their place in society, and their own families can no longer relate to them.

When we are young and desirous of love, we wish to avoid the difficulties society throws before us when it comes to love and romance. We wish to find a lover and go live in the woods together without anyone interfering with our lives. The young man will treat his lover like a queen, she will treat him like a king, and everything will be happy ever after. But those who are naive enough to actually go through with such a plan almost invariably end up suffering the greatest misery. All that it takes is a month or two for the honeymoon period of the relationship to be over. When it is over, the two start to take each other more and more for granted. Neither of them sees the other in a socially integrated way; he is no longer a king but a not-too-attractive male with all kinds of annoying habits and shortcomings. She is no longer a queen but a demanding or needy female with an anxiety problem. Neither of them is capable of being the other’s “everything”. They start to miss their previous, socially integrated lives that so effortlessly granted them so much respect and honor, and they wish to get that back. They will enviously look at those who “married right” and who continue to get the love and respect of their families, while they themselves are outcasts who have the tiresome task of being everything for each other.

The problem with romantic relationships outside of marriage is that such relationships have their own gravity that pulls people away from their families and societies, unless they quickly involve their families. As most classical fiction and poetry tells us, romantic relationships make demands on us that can break apart our families and lead to much misery. So an intelligent and pious Muslim girl will avoid romantic entanglements like the plague, knowing that despite the pleasures such relationships bring they can also do the greatest harm to her long-term happiness among her family and friends. Like a good girl in a Victorian novel, she finds it far beneath her to develop a romantic relationship outside of the knowledge and approval of her family. That is something done by low-class and uncultured women, it is not something she does.

If a man falls in love with her and approaches her, if she likes him then she will refer him to her family. She can introduce the matter to her parents, who may ask to see him. If they think it is too early for marriage (maybe they want their daughter to complete her university degree first) but they approve of the man, they can perform the nikāḥ ceremony for them without performing the wedding. This would officially engage them and make it perfectly fine for them, from the point of view of Islamic law, to become romantically attached to one another and to do whatever the typical engaged Western couple do before marriage. This is how marriages work in Iran, whether among Sunni or Shia Iranians. The nikāḥ ceremony makes their engagement official. During the engagement period the man and woman are given freedom to spend time together and go out together, they are considered to be dating. But it is culturally taboo for them to become sexually intimate until after the wedding. If they do become intimate, they do not break any Islamic laws because they have performed the nikāḥ ceremony and are already married according to Islam, they are merely delaying the consummation of the marriage.

In the above way, a man and woman can safely date and get to know one another in a way that enjoys society’s approval and protection. While in the West we often have boyfriends and girlfriends treating each other with the meanest and most disrespectful and hurtful attitudes, by solemnizing the relationship before dating can take place, the couple are forced to be nice and considerate toward one another regardless of how they feel. In the West we run into many people whose self-esteem has been completely shattered because of an abusive partner’s actions toward them. This solemn dating system helps prevent that. Since their families are greatly involved, they feel beholden to everyone around them to act responsibly and respectfully. To a Muslim woman who understands the benefits of this system, it would sound like utter madness to involve herself with a man without enjoying these protections. It would be like a queen going anonymous and getting into a relationship with man on the street who, of course, can treat her with the greatest disregard and disrespect. A queen, by going through the formal, socially approved methods for getting married, ensures that her husband will continue to treat her like a queen. In the same way, a self-respecting Muslim woman demands a husband who will continue to treat her like she is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. The husband is forced to take her social status very seriously, and this ensures even if she has the most infuriating and annoying behaviors, he will tolerate her and not insult her. She, of course, is forced to have the same respectful attitude.

The above is how things work in many relationships in religiously conservative society. Of course, things do not always go perfectly and we have cases of the greatest disrespect and abuse. But the point is the nature of the average relationship in such a society compared to the average relationship in other societies. If 90% of Muslim marriages involve a husband and wife who respect each other greatly compared to 50% of secular Western marriages, then that is a great proof of the superiority of the conservative, Islamic system.

Love and Duty

Sometimes we cannot help it and fall in love with someone our families do not approve of. In such a situation, we have to balance our responsibilities toward our family and friends on the one hand, and our desire for personal fulfillment on the other. It would be highly irresponsible of us to bypass our families and let the romantic relationship take its course (even if we desire to do this with all of our hearts). We should instead try to convince our families to approve of the relationship, and if they are adamantly against it, we should patiently wait. When they see that we are refusing all other marriage opportunities, then they may slowly, after months or years, change their minds. That is the price way pay for enjoying the honors given to us by our religiously conservative societies.

We are free to ignore our families and do whatever we want. But the costs of doing this are very high and very few romantic partners deserve this sacrifice. When your family sees that you are staying loyal to them and patiently waiting for their approval, that is likely to soften their hearts, compared to if you were to try to keep a romantic relationship going out of their sight and enjoying it regardless of what they think.

It is not always easy to be patient or to make the right decisions. But it should always be our goal to mend things between us and our families and friends. We should remain loyal to them and honor them as much as we can the way they honor us. If we make the error of engaging a romantic relationship without their knowledge, we should try to tell them as soon as we can. Our desire for the pleasures of love should be counterbalanced by our knowledge that we have many decades in front of us. The honors our religiously conservative societies grant to us are extremely valuable and we should not let them go to waste, we should instead work to maintain and improve our societies.

In the United States, you have homeless people who have rich family members and relatives who do not care about them. That is what things look like when a society has disintegrated. The reason why society gets in the way of your desire for casual romantic relationships is to prevent that from happening. Our conservative Muslim societies, despite of their myriad problems, are infinitely superior to a society where things are in such a state. Romantic relationships outside of our families’ approval almost always end up damaging our relationship with our families unless things go perfectly, which they rarely do.

Romantic entanglements often force us to make a choice between our loyalty toward our families and our loyalty toward our lovers. The wise and pious thing to do is to not put ourselves in such a situation. Our religiously conservative societies are not against our enjoying ourselves. What they want is for us to do this in a way that enables to keep enjoying society’s benefits, to keep the love and respect of our families and to contribute something back to their happiness. And the way to do this is through having our relationships critiqued and approved by them. Once we have their blessing, we can enjoy ourselves as much as we want in a way that adds to their happiness and to the health of our societies rather than causing harm to them. It is, of course, sometimes a great sacrifice to put our romantic relationships at society’s mercy, letting it decide whether it can go forward or not. But in return for this show of loyalty, we continue to enjoy the great respect and honor that such a society has for us and that we did not do anything to deserve them to begin with. By continuing to respect our religiously conservative societies and holding ourselves to the high standards they demand of us, we can continue to enjoy our Pride and Prejudice-like world.

As for those who have never enjoyed living in such a world (converts, for example), through following traditional Islamic values you can be the initiator of such a world (although it can take generations for it to fully develop and flower).

I should mention that I have never actually seen a Muslim society that lived up to the high standards of good manners and ethics depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It represents an ideal that we can aim for. I should also mention that when young Muslims engage in illicit relationships, their families and societies are often partly responsible. When our children do not get the love and respect they deserve, they seek these things from others when they grow up and get the chance, and a romantic relationship, by promising them a lover that truly loves them and cares for them, can appear as a highly attractive alternative to the lowly lives they currently suffer in their families. Some families treat their children, especially their daughters, as part of their home’s furniture rather than as proper humans to be honored and respected and treated as integral parts of the family’s life. The beautiful thing about Islam is that when everyone tries to follow it as best as they can, they naturally tend toward the beautiful society depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It is when we fail at following Islam’s values, whether through disrespecting our parents or neglecting our children, that we suffer the painful consequences mentioned above.

Is Islam really pluralistic? An Islamic defense of pluralism

Mardin, Turkey

If Islamic teachings can be used to defend pluralism, that tells us something very important about the future of Islam. My views are not unique; they are similar to those of the great twentieth century Egyptian scholar Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh Drāz (1894 – 1958 CE), who defended a similar vision in many of his articles and books.1

It is sometimes the case that the idea of pluralism is used by liberals and secularists to feign an attitude of open-mindedness that in reality hides their contempt for those who disagree with them. In the name of respecting the other side, they demand respect while reserving the right to give no respect in return where it matters. Conservatives are required to respect liberals in the name of pluralism, but the liberals often are quite incapable of realizing that these means they too should be respectful toward the conservatives.

Liberals, in the name of pluralism and diversity, often belittle and demonize the “outdated mullahs” and misogynists who supposedly represent the counterpart to liberalism. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in the views of conservative scholars. But when this comes from someone who has no empathy for them, who considers them an enemy to belittle and defeat, then what we are really seeing is a narrow-minded bigot who in the name of liberalism attacks his or her enemies. He or she demands respect but gives back respect only with the utmost reluctance.

The Middle East is full of intellectuals who speak of democracy, freedom and pluralism all the time while, at one and the same time, having the most militant and authoritarian attitude toward conservatives. In the name of liberal ideals, they claim to possess the moral superiority, to enforce their views on everyone who disagrees with them. That brand of secularism, the brand of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Michel Aflaq is familiar to most conservative Middle Easterners and is recognized for what it is; totalitarian, dehumanizing ideologies that think they possess the whole of the truth and are prepared to murder innocent men, women and children to get what they want.

But that closed-mindedness of the secularists should not make us dehumanize them the way they dehumanize us. This is where many Muslim intellectuals seem to be stuck, or at least were stuck in the 20th century. Conservative intellectuals belittled liberals for watering down the religion. Liberals belittled conservatives for being living fossils. And what neither side is capable of seeing is that there is one and the same attitude underlying the thinking of both sides. Saying this would shock both sides since they think they could not be more different from one another, and each thinks it will or should one day defeat or wipe out the other. That attitude is the anti-humanist attitude, and sadly this is where many are stuck.

It is the attitude that thinks it has the right to dehumanize and belittle the inner experience of other humans. Conservative intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a liberal Muslim to where they are today. And liberal intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a conservative Muslim or an outdated mullah to be where they are today. Neither side is willing to really, truly acknowledge the humanity of the other side. Listen to a conservative and it soon comes out in his speech that he does not see liberals and secularists as really human; they are “liberals” and “secularists”, a different, non-human species that is accorded no sympathy. And listen to liberal and the exact same thing comes out; they do not see that conservatives and mullahs are really humans: they are “conservatives” and “mullahs”, different, non-human species that deserve neither respect nor sympathy.

The two sides are unable to see that both of them are part of the problem and that there is a better way. It is to see the other side as made up of people just like yourself, it is to treat them according to the Golden Rule: treat your neighbor the way you like to be treated yourself. Rather than discounting the inner experience of our fellow humans—the validity of their thinking and their right to independence of mind and conscience—we should respect these things that they possess as much as we respect them in ourselves.

What stops many from having such an attitude is that to them the very reason they disagree with the other side is their own superiority of intellect and upbringing, which supposedly enables them to see truths the other, due to their stupidity, ignorance or corruption, cannot see. If they were to relent and give up this sense of superiority, this would be an admission of equality with other side; an admission that the other side’s truths are just as good as their own truths. But to them history is a battle to be win. Admitting that there could be any validity in the thinking of the other side is an admission that the other side has some good things about them. When you are trying to win a battle, the last thing you want to do is admit the humanity of the other side. You want to reduce them to pests and cockroaches that have to be wiped out. You want to keep the morale of your soldiers high by telling them how infinitely superior in every conceivable way your side is compared to the other side, and how it is destiny, history, God Himself who will ensure that your side will wipe out the other.

This battle mentality prevents both sides from seeing that there is a new, unexplored territory that is far superior to the grounds they fight for.

Pluralism without Relativism

The problem with real pluralism, that is, the humanist attitude, is that it seems to acknowledge that there are multiple truths; the other side can reach conclusions different from ours and yet be somehow “right”. How can that be when we believe there is only one truth that we all aim for?

All of us humans work toward discovering the truth. But due to our differences in talents, knowledge, circumstances and experiences, we often differ from one another in the things we observe and the conclusions we draw from them. Even though we all seek the truth, none of us can ever acquire the whole of the truth, unless we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow miraculously avoid all of the pitfalls and limitations of human understanding. Even though the truth is one, I might know only a small amount of it. And among the truths that I think I know, 80% might actually be really true and 20% might be false for all that I know. Below is a diagram to clarify this:

There is only one truth, represented by the circle, surrounded by falsehood, a sea of darkness, on all sides. The circle does not represent all of truth but important truths that we tend to disagree with others about. The green rectangle represents a human’s efforts at discovering these truths. They end up discovering some of them, but along the way they also pickup countless biases, prejudices and false beliefs and ideas that they think are true. That is the part of the rectangle that is in the gray area.

This person can have two attitudes about themselves: they can delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint is entirely true, that their green rectangle is miraculously wholly within the light, or they can humbly acknowledge their limitations and say that they may be wrong about some things. Political authoritarians, whether conservative or liberal, think that their viewpoint entirely captures truth and avoids falsehood, or that through proper submission to their authority this can be achieved sooner or later.

Now we can add a second person’s views to the diagram, this time represented by the yellow rectangle:

Person B knows many of the real truths that Person A knows. This is represented by the area that is shared between the two rectangles inside the circle. Person B also shares some of the prejudices and false beliefs as Person A, represented by the gray area on the right, outside the circle, that is shared between the two of them. He or she also has some prejudices and false beliefs that Person A does not have, represented by the gray areas that are only in the yellow rectangle and not in the green rectangle.

But most importantly, Person B also knows much more of the truth than Person A, represented by the new light areas covered by the yellow rectangle. Person B is closer to the truth on many things than Person A is. If Person B continues on this path, if they continue studying and discovering, their rectangle may expand downwards as follows so that it captures more of the light:

In the meantime, Person A may, though reading bad sources and reaching bad conclusions from their experiences, may actually expand their rectangle into the darkness rather than into the light:

What that means is that Person A is now sure of many new “facts” that are actually falsehoods.

The horror of recognizing our inherently limited and biased viewpoints causes some people to recoil into the delusion that by defining a narrow set of criteria, they can miraculously acquire the whole of the truth, be safe from falsehood and be the possessors of a light that gives them the right to rule over over all who disagree with them. This is the myth behind both Marxism and militant Wahhabism. They both imagine that they possess all the important truths, believe that they are so safe from falsehood that it is only those who disagree with them who have prejudices and false beliefs. Wahhabis distort reality into this:

Marxists do the same:

In both ideologies, all that is outside the ideology is by definition false, evil, prejudiced, misguided. All that is inside is good, wholesome, light. Both believe that their ideology captures the whole of the truth and is free from error. No disagreement or difference with the ideology is allowed, because any disagreement is automatically considered to be in the sea of falsehood.

Pluralism and Islam

Below is a diagram that represents the reality of life; it represents many people all trying to discover the truth:

It is this picture that horrifies Wahhabis and Marxists into wanting to chop off all the bits that do not fit. How can we have any form of community or progress in a world so complex and diverse? The Wahhabi and Marxist answer is that we cannot, therefore we have to force one view on everyone. Some conservative Muslims also suffer from a similar attitude. They believe that a very strong promotion of conformity is the only way to protect the integrity of the Muslim community. Disagreement is strongly discouraged and even attacked because when an intellectual disagrees with the rest, he is weakening the embattled umma. In support of the umma, we are supposed to keep silent when our intellects and consciences would have us speak. Cowardice becomes virtue; the cowardly who do not speak the truth fit in perfectly, while the brave who speak against falsehoods are shunned and attacked for being troublemakers and threats to the umma.

The conformist assumption is that since “we” (the conformists) have the right ideas about religion and “they” do not, it is only right and just that “our” ideas should be forced on “them”. The question about who these people are who decide the truth for everyone else is not treated in detail, but it includes “me, my friends and everyone else who agrees with me.” We can call this the “top-down” approach to Islam; the idea that a minority should hold the reigns over the majority. They will be the benevolent dictators who tell everyone else what Islam should be. This is, of course, a self-elected priesthood, and it is what Wahhabism and Marxism share in common.

The numerous Islamist disasters of the past century should have been sufficient to convince most Muslims that the top-down, priesthood model is dysfunctional and impracticable, and perhaps most Muslims have been convinced. The alternative to the priesthood model is the ground-up (or grassroots) model, which is the model followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide (even though they do not talk about it), and it is also the model followed by Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The ground-up model, rather than involving a minority that seeks to force its ideas on everyone else, is a model that seeks consensus with others. The Prophet did not say “I miraculously possess the truth, so do as I say or else!” The only person in Islamic history who could have claimed divine guidance for forcing his views on others refused to do so.

The Prophetic model was to seek to build a community through persuading other humans, while respecting their right to disagree with him, even to leave his community. His community was a consensual community in which everyone was persuaded of the truth of his message. In other words, his community functioned on the basis that humans can be persuaded of the truth without the necessity for authoritarian methods.

The experience of Muslim communities living in the West today lends the greatest support to the ground-up model. We do not have a religious authority enforcing its views on us. We do not have a morality police forcing our women to wear hijab. We listen to scholars coming from various schools of thought. People happily pray the noon prayer at one mosque and the evening prayer at another without caring much about whether the imam of the mosque follows one school or another. Most people could not care less whether the imam believes in the theological views of al-Ashʿarī, al-Maturidī or ibn Ḥanbal.

We have a community of democratic consensus in which we agree on the most important things without anyone having any authority to force his or her views on us. Any one of us could leave Islam at any time without facing any repercussions from a religious or political authority. The only way to make a member of this community do something or behave in a certain way is through persuading them. Our sheikhs do not have the power to whip men who fail to show up for the Friday prayers like the Wahhabi chief of the Shammar tribe used to do in 1840’s Arabia,2 yet our mosques are packed during those prayers.

Our community as a whole only acts communally on things upon which there is consensus (such as the obligatory nature of the Friday prayer), while leaving it to each person to act upon those things upon which there is no consensus. This freedom and lack of authority has not led to a “disintegration”, “corruption” or “decay” of our religion as conformists and authoritarians predict. Rather, it has led to a peaceful religious community that focuses on the most important things (worship and charity) while being largely free of religious strife. People eagerly read the works of classical scholars and attend lectures in which hadith narrations are explained. In an atmosphere that is free from authority, people, rather than abandoning Islam and forgetting about it, continue to hold on tightly to it.

The disagreements among the various Muslim schools of thought leads certain people to dream of the unity and political power that could be achieved if everyone agreed with everyone else. And a certain type of pathological personality takes this thinking to its extreme: unity and political power are the sole guidelines for Muslim existence; it is perfectly fine to oppress, restrict and terrorize every Muslim who disagrees with the version of Islam that Mr. Authoritarian and his friends cook up, and in this way a “unity” is achieved (that is in reality filled with hatred, fear and discontent) where no one dares to criticize the self-elected Muslim priesthood.

Communities of Consensus

Authoritarians think Islam needs political authority to keep its integrity. The experience of the Prophet and of Muslim communities throughout history shows that it does not. A community of consensus is not one where the same views are forced on everyone. It is where the Islamic and legal practices we follow are all derived from our shared agreement on them. Everyone follows Islam in their own way and according to their own conscience, but since Islam is derived from the Quran and the Sunna, their practice of Islam ends up being very similar in most regards to other people’s practice of Islam. In this way a community organically comes into being where, by the mere fact of everyone doing their best to follow Islam, they form a strong but peaceful community. There is no authority forcing its views on anyone. Everyone is treated as a respected and honored human who is doing his or her best to make sense of Islam and life.

Authoritarians might predict that this free atmosphere will lead to a situation where the community divides into many groups each of which has its own misguided interpretation of Islam, so that only a tiny minority remains who continue to hold onto the true religion.

But the question is whether that authoritarian prediction is factually accurate. Does it reflect reality? It is certainly true that there have been periods in which what are considered by most to have been misguided sects flourished, but to say that that happened because authoritarians were not there to save the day is to give preferential treatment to one explanation out of a dozen possible ones. It seems far more likely that the flourishing of misguided sects, similar to the flourishing of Marxism, came about because of authoritarianism not despite it; a small minority of authoritarians forced their corrupt views on everyone else and punished disagreement.

The ground-up model of Prophet Muhammad , the prophets before him, and mainstream Muslim communities shows the authoritarian prediction (that Islam will decay without authority) to be a fairy tale. Mosque after mosque after mosque in the West operates just like the mosques found in the East, despite our far greater freedom to change things and do whatever we like.

The reason is simple: humans are not animals. They are not sheep that need to be led by priesthood as authoritarians imagine. Humans, honored by God to the point that the angels bowed down to them, prefer to be on the side of the truth rather than falsehood once educated.

Prophet Muhammad’s attitude toward the people around him was the humanist attitude. It was to treat the people around him, Muslim and non-Muslim, as intrinsically worthy. When a person disagreed with him or even made fun of him, he did not attack and demonize them. He instead wished what is best for them. Why? An authoritarian will say the Prophet was acting like a politician, being nice, polite and forgiving not because he thought humans deserve such a treatment, but because this was the best way to manipulate them into becoming Muslim.

Authoritarians like many Wahhabis do not believe in the intrinsic worth of human life, therefore that is the only way they can explain the Prophet’s behavior and the behavior of the prophets before him; political manipulation. That is what they have reduced Islam’s beautiful moral and ethical teachings to. That is Islam according to these supposedly morally superior authoritarians who think they have the right to decide what Islam should be for everyone else.

Were the prophets nothing more than political manipulators when they were being kind to the disbelieving folk around them? Were the desperate efforts of Prophet Nūḥ (Noah) to save his people from the flood by trying to persuade them to believe in God just him doing his job? Is it not more accurate to say that as a human, he had love and sympathy for these fellow humans and did not wish bad things to happen to them?

Was Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham) merely doing his job as a political manipulator when he argued with God’s angels in order to protect a group of homosexual rapists from God’s punishment? Is it not far more likely that as a kindly and loving human he did not like the thought of these people suffering punishment, that he saw intrinsic worship in them despite being considered some of the worst sinners in existence? And even more importantly, God does not criticize him for arguing with His command, He praises him:

When Abraham's fear subsided, and the good news had reached him, he started pleading with Us concerning the people of Lot.

Abraham was gentle, kind, penitent.

“O Abraham, refrain from this. The command of your Lord has come; they have incurred an irreversible punishment.”3

The picture we have here is of a human who loves his fellow humans, who wishes what is best for them, and wishes to avert harm from them even when God has declared that harm should come to them. And God does not blame him for this. He praises him for having sympathy for these sinners. He dedicates an entire verse of the Quran to praising him for his sympathy.

This is the example of our Prophet Ibrāhīm , the father of our umma as we call him during every prayer. Rather than being an authoritarian who gloated in destroying those who disagreed with him, he tried to protect the worst sinners from God’s punishment, going so far as to make a scene arguing with God’s angels.

If that is not one of the strongest affirmations of the humanist attitude then I do not know what can be.

Since people are intrinsically worthy, since they are honored by God, since they are sacred, since God praises our desire to protect sinners, then it logically follows that persuasion rather than force should be our method in our dealings with them. Since force is prohibited, the only way to build a Muslim community is through persuasion. Each member of the Muslim community is treated as intrinsically worthy regardless of their opinions. If that was Ibrāhīm’s attitude toward the worst sinners, it is far more imperative upon us to have a similar attitude toward those who believe in God and His Prophet .

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Organic Communities

My theory of the formation of Islamic communities is the complete opposite of the Islamist and authoritarian theories. When a group of people believe in God and His Messenger , they are naturally and organically inclined to form a moderate community that reflects the best teachings of Islam, without needing the services of authoritarians.

Authoritarians have an extremely low opinion of humanity, seeing most humans as something more akin to animals than humans who deserved the angels’ prostration. And their highness of their opinion of themselves is often in equal proportion to the lowness of their opinion of others. Such people exist everywhere, in all communities and religions. It is human nature to like to think highly of ourselves and lowly of those who disagree with us. Authoritarians are people immature and unscrupulous enough to take this to the extreme of turning themselves into demigods who miraculously possess the truth and who also possess the right to force this supposed truth on others.

My theory is that humans, by the mere virtue of being human, after accepting God and His Prophet , possess the right to read the Quran and hadith and other works and come to their own conclusions about them. This, rather than leading to disintegration in the community, leads to the formation of moderate communities, because all humans, once given the Quran and the Sunna, all slowly incline toward the same truth. Their humanity and their belief in God and the Prophet are what bind them into a community, not some authority that forces conformity on them.

This community has inertia of its own. An ultra-liberal Muslim who comes into the community and speaks of how gay marriage should be legalized, and a militant Wahhabi Muslim who comes into the community and speaks of how Muslims should be obsessing about political power night and day, get shunned by the community, the way an extended family shuns that annoying vegan relative who keeps lecturing everyone about his or her moral superiority. The community’s inertia is the product of human nature, the Quran, the Sunna and the opinions of respected classical and modern scholars. All of these things merge together and form a vague set of beliefs, manners and practices that most of the community shares.

Such a community has a natural inclination toward conformity, balanced by the fact that there is no authority forcing any single view on the members, so that each person differs in some ways in their views from those around them. The natural human desire to belong and fit within a community pulls the members toward conformity, while the natural human desire to have independence of mind and conscience pulls the members toward individualism. And the result is a balance between these two forces. We try to fit in as much as we can, doing our best to avoid offending others and trying to stay out of the line of sight of the community members who have a tendency to get ticked off easily. But in our private lives each person has his own favorite scholars and intellectuals. The Syrians and Egyptians at the mosque love Mohammed al-Ghazali and follow his style of Islam. The Turks love Said Nursî. The Pakistanis and Indians have their own scholars, often unknown outside of their cultures. The converts have their own style of Islam, often based in part on the thinking and ideas of high-profile converts who came before them.

Publicly, people try to fit in out of good manners. They do not voice their private religious opinions to avoid useless arguments. Privately, they enjoy freedom of intellect and conscience. And out of these two things a moderate and peaceful community is created.

Authoritarians think they can do better than the above through the use of force and manipulation tactics. In the West, since they cannot use force, their favorite tactic is appealing to authority. They attack Muslims who do not follow their versions of Islam by acting as if their opinions are the only possibly valid ones. They often speak of how there is ijmāʿ (“consensus”) that everyone should do what they say. This is often a downright lie, since there is often no consensus on even the simplest and most essential things within Islam, such as how to perform the ablution. Whenever they claim consensus on something, all it takes is a cursory look through the classical sources to find highly respected scholars who disagree with their view. Mention that to them and they will come up with some underhanded argument for why that scholar’s opinion does not count, even if they were quoting their opinion yesterday in support of a different supposed “consensus”.

There is also another consensus that I have already referred to, the organic consensus of the community. There is consensus among the members of every mainstream Muslim community on a great number of things. We believe that there is only one God and that the Quran transmits His uncorrupted words, that Muhammad was His last Messenger, that murder, stealing and adultery are wrong. A person who goes against these things can rightly be said to be outside the consensus of the community.

The Delusion of the Authoritarian Utopia

Authoritarians think that the community described is not good enough. They think that it would be so much better, people would be so much more united, if they were given free rein to dictate Islam to everyone else and manufacture consensus out of thin air on every big and small issue.

But let us say we do as they want. Let us give them free rein. What happens next? Does our love for Islam increase? Does our sense of unity increase? Do we start to love and appreciate one another more now that we have the One True version of Islam forced on all of us?

Of course not. In fact, quite the opposite happens. The culture of conformity that authoritarians promote means that the most dishonest and cowardly raise to the top. They have no firm principles of their own, so they are perfectly happy to fit in with the authoritarians to get privileges in return.

And as for the rest of the community, they continue to hold on to their own individual beliefs in private, but now they will be more careful in keeping their beliefs to themselves to avoid the attention of the authoritarians.

Rather than increasing unity, the authoritarians increase division. Some people, out of ignorance or self-interest, end up siding with the authoritarians, while others, out of conscientious difficulty with authoritarian beliefs and tactics, end up staying away from them as much as possible. The community is divided into two: the “career Muslims” who side with the authorities and derive power and privilege from this (as in Saudi’s Wahhabi ideologues and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), and the ordinary Muslims who look on with dismay, keep quiet and keep following Islam in their own way in private as much as they can.

The Issue of Islamic Law (the Sharia)

Authoritarians often act as if there is an inherent conflict between living in a democratic and pluralistic society and the application of the Sharia, the implication being that 1. anyone who feels proud to be a citizen of a liberal democratic society is betraying the umma and 2. we should submit to whatever half-baked plan they have for implementing the Sharia (which often starts with the application of the punishments prescribed in it). The truth is that there is no conflict between democracy and the Sharia unless one is an authoritarian, whether a secularist authoritarian who wishes to force secularism on everyone, or an Islamist authoritarian who wishes to force Islam on everyone.

We do not have to submit to the views of either of these two immature sides. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims can together create a constitution that applies to everyone in the country, Muslim and non-Muslim. Then, each city or state in the country should have the right to choose its own laws beyond the constitution, as is the case in the United States and many other countries. If there is a particular city or state that democratically chooses to implement the Sharia on its Muslim population, then I do not think most fair-minded and educated person would have a problem with that. And if there is a liberal city or state that does not want Sharia law, then the democratic process means that it will not get Sharia law.

Muslims, non-Muslims, conservatives and liberals can all sit down like mature humans and have an intelligent discussion on the best way to run their country that ensures the rights of everyone as much as possible. If most people’s basic assumption is that all humans are sacred and deserve protection and sympathy, then a fair and just system can be created that does not do injury to any group.

Respecting Muslims Who Disagree With Us

We can now go back to the question that this essay started with. What should be an educated and open-minded Muslim’s stance toward Muslims who disagree with them significantly?

Our stance should be the humanist, or Abrahamic, stance. They should be treated with respect and consideration regardless of their beliefs. They should not be insulted or demonized. But that does not mean that we should treat them as if their beliefs are just as valid as ours. We can point out why we disagree with them. We can politely debate them. We can politely but firmly prevent them from doing violence to our practice of Islam as discovered through the process of organic consensus. To give a dramatic example, a man who thinks he should have the right to pray naked at the mosque should be prevented from doing so. He has the right to make of Islam what he wants, and he has the right to defend his idea that prayer should be performed in nudity at the mosque, but he does not have the right to intrude upon the public manners and etiquette surrounding religion as developed through the process of organic consensus. He can start his own mosque and do that in it and see where that takes him. He does not have the right to force his religious views on others by claiming that his version of Islam is as valid as that which has been organically and democratically developed by the community over the years.

We can have a pluralistic Islamic society without becoming secularists. As long as secularism is not forced on us, our communities will naturally tend toward moderate, conservative Islam as is followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide. Human nature itself, with the help of the Quran and the Sunna, gravitates toward such an Islam.

It is not only secularists who should enjoy polite and respectful treatment. The same should apply to Muslims that we consider outdated, ignorant, or somewhat extremist and authoritarian. Whatever is wrong with them, they still deserve the same kindly attitude that Prophet Ibrāhīm had toward the People of Lūṭ (Lot). Whatever their mistakes, sins or deficiencies, they are still humans honored in the sight of God. It is not through insults and snarky attitudes that we can bring such people back to the path of moderation, it is through love, through making them feel appreciated and valued.

Authoritarians are afraid of the loss of power and authority that comes with letting every Muslim come to their own conclusions about Islam in complete freedom and independence. They want to control history so that things may go the way they want. They want, in short, to play God and determine humanity’s fate. But the burden of proof is on them to show that their thinking leads to a better and more pious Muslim community. It seems to me that it does not; it rather promotes dislike and hatred for Islam through their abuses of people’s rights and dignities.

Respecting Sectarian Muslims

Our attitude toward Muslims belonging to other sects can be the same as our attitude toward Muslims that do not perfectly fit in within our community (see above) and Christians (see below). They possess many of the truths we possess, and the fact of their humanity demands sympathy and respect.

Respecting non-Muslims

The same pluralist framework can be extended to non-Muslims. They too are sacred, even if they are engaged in what Islam considers the worst of sins; they are at least as sacred as Prophet Ibrāhīm considered the People of Lūṭ to be. Some Muslims are so distant from the Quran that they think it almost a betrayal of the umma to have respect and sympathy for non-Muslims when Islam’s great Patriarch, Ibrāhīm, had just such an attitude.

Non-Muslims too are truth-seekers. They have the right to examine the evidence that life presents to them and come to their own conclusions. This is why the Quran is adamant that religion should not be forced on people. Rather than treating non-Muslims as misguided and twisted people, we should treat them as fellow humans, sacred and deserving of protection and sympathy. They too have some view of the truth even if we assume it is a narrower vision than ours, and there should be nothing too surprising in some non-Muslims knowing some truths that some Muslims do not know.

The above diagram represents the efforts of a Muslim (green), Christian (blue) and atheist (yellow) at discovering the truth (of course, as viewed from an Islamic perspective). They all appreciate and agree on certain truths (for example, perhaps the fact that humans are sacred and should not be murdered without due cause and process). They also share some of the same false beliefs. In the diagram, the Muslim person has a better view of the truth than either. The atheist has only a small view. That is not to say that every Muslim has a superior view of the truth compared to every Christian, or that every Christian is superior to every atheist in this regard. And as already mentioned these truths are the important things in life that we sometimes disagree on. An atheist may know many facts about a field of science; that is not our concern here.

The atheist novelist Terry Pratchett (died in 2015) made many fair and occasionally unfair criticisms of religious people in his novels. But he believed in the sanctity of human life, saying that the objectification of humans is one of the greatest evils (or the root of all evil). This is an incredibly important truth, defended in the Quran in this way:

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.4

The above verse, as has been realized by interpreters, is telling us that human life has infinite worth. Regardless of how large the population becomes, killing a single human is as evil as killing all of humanity. This means that there is something special, sacred, about humans. Terry Pratchett, in recognizing this essential truth and defending it, is morally superior in this regard to any Muslim who does not believe in the sanctity of human life and justifies murder in the name of Islam.

Despite our differences with non-Muslims, they are still our brothers and sisters, since we are all Children of Adam as the Quran constantly reminds us. Our attitude toward them should be the same as the attitude of the Prophets toward humanity; and attitude of respect and sympathy, not out of a desire to manipulate them, but because this is the right and just way to treat humans.

Conclusion

Muslim unity will not come about through force, but through love and sympathy. Muslims, by the virtue of being humans, have a natural tendency toward creating communities of consensus that practice moderate, conservative Islam without the need for authority.

Authoritarians are mistaken in their belief that their services are needed to guide Islam. Empirical reality proves their views false; the world is full of highly faithful and devout Muslim communities that have no authority forcing any version of Islam on them.

Our appreciation for the sanctity of human life, our sympathy for our fellow humans, and the guidance of the Prophets should form the basis of how we relate to everyone around us. People are to be respected regardless of their beliefs, unless they try to force their beliefs on others, in which case they are to be stopped. Our communities should be tolerant toward both ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative Muslims who do not fit in very well within the moderate Islam of the community as long as they do not try to do violence to the community.

Our attitude toward non-Muslims should be one of respect and sympathy, not one of belligerence. It is true that not all non-Muslims are nice and respectful people. I do not call for naive trust in non-Muslims or for being desperate to live up to their expectations. We treat them according to what we know to be right and just, and part of that is respect and sympathy toward those who mean us no harm.

As for those who have not fought against you for your religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not prohibit you from dealing with them kindly and equitably. God loves the equitable.

But God prohibits you from befriending those who fought against you over your religion, and expelled you from your homes, and aided in your expulsion. Whoever takes them for friends—these are the wrongdoers.5

Reader Questions

Is Islam really pluralistic? I've been wondering this for a long time. If so then why does Allah speak harsh against other religions, and the ahadith too?

God’s business with humanity is one thing, our business with humanity is another. God judges humanity and deals with them according to His justice and mercy. He does not give us the right to become judges over humanity and decide who gets to live and who to die, who gets blessings and who gets punishments. The way we deal with humanity is based on the laws and ethics He defines for us, not according to what we think God thinks about certain people. You might think your neighbor is a great sinner, but you have no right to take their judgment and punishment into your own hands. If they break the law, then the law will deal with them. If they do not break the law, then it is God’s business to judge them and deal with them.

As almost any mainstream scholar will tell you, the Quran does not forbid us from living peacefully in pluralistic societies, and this is the opinion reached by the majority of Muslims. A minority of Muslims, those with authoritarian personalities, disagree and think that their version of Islam should be forced on everyone. By what right? Because they supposedly possess truths that 99% of Muslims, including the best educated and most knowledgeable among them, do not possess.

So the first step in their thinking is to dismiss, demonize and dehumanize the majority of Muslims. This enables them to claim the right to be the ones who decide what is true and what is false and to be the juries, judges and executioners over everyone else in society.

Needless to say, it is only a very small minority of often mentally disturbed people who think like that. Islam does not have a pope or priesthood, therefore no one can ever rightly claim to possess the right to define religion for others. The practice of Islam is not based on an authority that defines religion (except in a few authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, or in Shia Islam where the Grand Ayatollahs have the authority to define religion). The practice of Islam as seen throughout the world is based on organic consensus, the fact of many people all coming to the same conclusion in complete freedom of mind and conscience. No one is forcing the mainstream mosques in London to all pray in the same way, yet that is just what happens. In Christianity, we have a situation where different groups are constantly splintering off from one another. In mainstream Islam we have quite the opposite situation: we have a vast amount of diversity throughout the Islamic world, yet we are all constantly gravitating toward that organic consensus I mentioned, where we agree with other Muslims on the most important things in our religion.

That is one of the reasons why Sunni Islam is the largest religion in the world (1.5 billion, compared to 1.2 billion for Catholic Christians). Sunni Islam cannot splinter like Christianity because it is entirely made up of splinters. Each individual makes his or her own Islam through what they learn from the Quran and the Sunna. Each person, in complete freedom of mind and conscience (except in certain authoritarian cultures) examines Islam’s texts and reaches largely the same conclusions as everyone else (with some usually unimportant differences). This gives us Sunni Muslims the incredible privilege of being able to go to almost any mosque in the world and feel at home there; we know that the people of that mosque went through the same process we went through and reached largely the same conclusions, and that regardless of what mosque we go to, there are usually some people who will largely agree with our views.

Making sense of the hadith literature is like trying to solve a puzzle, there are thousands of pieces of varying authenticity (even narrations that are considered ṣaḥīḥ themselves vary greatly in their authenticity). To make sense of things, scholars have to sit down and bring together all relevant narrations on any issue and try to make a unified system out of them. And when it comes to the issue of pluralism, every mainstream scholar who has sat down to do this work has come to the same conclusion, which is that Islam is not opposed to pluralism. The exception are those who have authoritarian personalities and wish to make a case for forcing their version of Islam on everyone, so what they do is cherry pick a dozen narrations and verses of the Quran, say that those verses of the Quran that get in their way are “abrogated” so that they can ignore them, and in this way they reach the conclusion they started with, which is that they have the right to force their version of Islam on everyone else. And to explain why most scholars disagree with them, they say that most scholars are misguided or hypocrites. Since they cannot prove their case through reasoned argument, they resort to demonizing those who disagree with them.

If we study the history of Islamic societies, we will find that mainstream Muslim societies everywhere have been extremely pluralistic. Whether you look at the Abbasid Empire, Muslim Spain, India’s Malabar coast, Java or Malaysia, you will find that for most of their histories they were extremely pluralistic. People of all kinds of beliefs and leanings lived side by side together without wanting to do violence to each other. The default attitude of Muslims toward non-Muslims has been one of “live and let live.” There has always been an authoritarian minority that has desired to force everyone to become “better” Muslims and to force non-Muslims to become Muslims. Every society, Muslim and non-Muslim, has these authoritarians who think that the world would be so much better if they could force their opinions on others. But the reality of Muslim life has always been one of pluralism except for those rare but disastrous instances when religion and politics became united, so that an authoritarian person tried to force his religious views on others. We have the example of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn’s Miḥna (Inquisition) which tried to force Muʿtazilī theology on everyone. We also have the example of Ibn Abdul Wahhab who allied himself with the Saudi family and in the name of spreading “true” Islam justified the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims.

But those disasters are the exception that proves the rule. For every million Muslims who live under an authoritarian version of Islam we have 99 million who live in pluralistic Muslim societies. There is still work to be done to protect things like free speech and the rights of minorities in these societies, and there are cases of unjust persecution (or rather useless blasphemy laws). But anyone who has lived in Egypt, Iraq, Syria or Turkey knows that you run into the most atheistic and anti-religious individuals every day without anyone trying to do them harm. Almost all of the Middle East’s universities invariably have some secularist professors who show the greatest disdain for religion without anyone getting in their way or trying to harm them. The community I grew up in in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which is supposed to be 98% Muslim, is full of atheists and secularists who make anti-religion posts on Facebook on a daily basis (and get upset when no one takes them seriously) . Islam’s detractors focus on the 1% of bad cases, ignore the 99% of peaceful and pluralistic Muslim societies, then tell us that Islam promotes intolerance.

Islam’s detractors blame the problems of the Middle East on Islam, ignoring the fact that Christian Latin America suffers from almost exactly the same problems everywhere. Latin America has dysfunctional democracies, far more child marriages than the Middle East, orders of magnitude more crime than the Middle East (Brazil’s murder rate is 29, Egypt’s is 2.51), a far more serious rape problem (Brazil’s rape rate is 37, Morocco’s is somewhere between 2 and 4), and honor killings. Where is the outcry against Christianity for promoting such things? According to Islam’s detractors, Latin America’s people are humans and have human problems, while the problems of Muslim societies are invariably blamed on Islam. These detractors are in general incapable of realizing that by their type of twisted thinking Latin America’s problems could be blamed on Christianity. And when it is pointed out that Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Turkey and Malaysia are far ahead of most of Latin America’s Christian countries when it comes to scientific research and technological innovation, you will see them switch gears and explain why the good things in Muslim societies are despite Islam.

So when it comes to the issue of pluralism we have the majority of Muslim scholars and intellectuals, who have all independently come to the conclusion that there is no conflict between Islam and pluralism today, and then we have an authoritarian minority who think that Islam is anti-pluralistic, and since they do not have any convincing evidence for their opinions and know that they cannot win in a fair and open debate, they resort to personal attacks against the majority. In the pluralistic majority we have all kinds of opinions; liberals, conservatives, moderates, Salafis. What unites them all is their unwillingness to use force on others. They are all happy enough to live in relative peace and prosperity and leave matters of governance to the experts and politicians.

Who to ask?

When it comes to questions like “Is Islam pluralistic?” it is important to separate the views of the average Muslim from the views of educated Muslims who are actually familiar with the Quran and Prophetic Traditions. Uneducated Muslims might ignorantly think that it is part of their religious duty to support forcing everyone to wear hijab and making the Sharia the law of the land. Asking such people about pluralism will not lead to any useful results about the nature of Islam. It would be similar to going to the backward parts of the United States, such as West Virginia, and finding random Christians and asking them whether ideally the Christian Church should make the laws of the land and many will likely agree that this is a good idea. Or we can ask them whether the hijab should be prohibited, or whether building mosques and synagogues should be prohibited, or whether all religions besides Christianity should be prohibited, and we will probably find many who say “Yes!” to these things. It would be highly unfair to consider these opinions as representative of Christianity.

To get an accurate idea of what Christians think about these matters, we have to find educated Christians; pastors, priests, and well-educated faithful Christians (architects, doctors, others with post-graduate degrees), people who have read more than a few books in their lives. And if you ask these people about the Christian view on pluralism, then you will generally get intelligent and sophisticated answers in support of it.

We should do the same when asking Muslims about these things. I’ve never met a Muslim doctor or architect, or a Muslim with a degree in Islamic studies, who supports the authoritarian side. People capable of reading Islam’s literature and judging it for themselves almost all invariably come to the same conclusions as everyone else. Rather than asking random people on the street or listening to random keyboard jihadists on the Internet when it comes to the issue of pluralism, we should listen to well-educated and well-respected scholars and intellectuals, and it is a blindly obvious fact that throughout the Muslim world, from Malaysia to Morocco, almost all of them agree on Islam’s compatibility with pluralism. This is not because almost every Muslim who knows the Islamic tradition is corrupt or a hypocrite (as authoritarians claim). It is because when someone tries to come to terms with all of the complex and contradictory pieces of evidence that we have, we are forced to admit the limits of our knowledge and the great amount of freedom and diversity that is possible within Islam.

People like the Taliban, who were taught Wahhabism in schools founded by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, short-circuited this process of discussion and free examination of evidence and used funding and weapons provided by the CIA to take over Afghanistan. The nice Americans knew exactly what they were doing. As admitted by the mastermind of the plan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, they wanted to use these Muslims as bait (and paid them hundreds of millions of dollars annually) to make the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan, and that is just what happened. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million innocent Afghans died in this Machiavellian plan to further US interests by weakening the Soviet Union. (See America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by professor Andrew J. Bacevich).

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