Essays

The Uniqueness of Western Civilization by Ricardo Duchesne

There are times when you read a book that completely change your understanding of the world, answering questions you have had for most of your life, and even better, answering questions you did not know you had. This is such a book. Duchesne unites economic analysis, anthropology, history and philosophy in order to make a compelling argument for why Western civilization is truly unique and unlike any other civilization.

Since writing this book, Duchesne has been influenced by white nationalist writers into seeking genetic answers for the uniqueness of the West. But the current book is free from genetic explanations. Duchesne also has a very negative view of Muslims, considering them unassimilable and inherently opposed to Western civilization. But that shouldn’t stop us from benefiting from his work. One of the most hateful fashions in the media and academia today is discarding a person’s valuable work because of their beliefs and motives.

Duchesne’s greatest contribution is his theory that the uniqueness of the West comes from the fact that the ancient Indo-Europeans who took over Europe had a very special feature: their elite was made up of individually sovereign aristocrats. While all societies throughout the world have had aristocratic elites, what was unique about the West was the fact that its aristocrats were individualized and free. This is extremely unusual and as far as I know it was something that never existed anywhere else.

The ancient Middle East never enjoyed the existence of individually sovereign aristocrats. The elite under the pharaohs had no right to compete with each other for renown and prestige because all renown and prestige belonged solely to the pharaoh. The same was true in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. The king was the only person who had the right to claim personal worth and glory.

But among the Europeans, the Greeks, Romans and the Indo-European barbarians around them, the entire arrangement of society revolved around the competition of its sovereign aristocrats for personal prestige and glory. They had no toleration for kings who reduced the aristocracy to mere minions and slaves as happened throughout the world. They demanded equality and free competition.

Thus in the Greek epic the Iliad, the warrior aristocracy is made up of free individuals who recognized no master above them. Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus were all sovereign individuals. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is an illustration of the situation outside the European realm. There is only one hero, who is, naturally, a despotic king. There is no room in this epic for other heroes since these societies were organized around the recognition of a single individual in the entire state who could claim personal prestige and glory.

The theory of the presence of a sovereign aristocracy in the West and its absence elsewhere also explains why the Indo-Europeans of Persia and India failed to create civilizations equal to those of Europe. The Indo-Europeans who took over Persia and India quickly embraced the Oriental despotic form of rule that has always existed in these areas. The sovereign aristocracy disappeared to be replaced by all-powerful rulers. The reason for this change appears to be different natural environments. The European climate could support individual farmers who could sustain themselves without any need for complex irrigation systems that required centralization. In the East, however, civilizations were extremely dependent on irrigation systems that made farmers desperately dependent on their chiefs and kings. The king could easily cause the farmers to starve by refusing to provide them with the irrigation systems they were so desperately dependent on.

The Westernization of the World

If we take the ideas in Uniqueness seriously and ignore Duchesne’s recent writings about the genetic uniqueness of Europeans, the conclusion is that the great accomplishments of the West are a matter of culture. The door is open for any culture in the world to embrace the Western system, leading to a similar flowering of creativity and accomplishment. The key is individualism. The culture must recognize the equal dignity, mastery and right to prestige of all citizens, rather than recognizing only one despotic ruler who monopolizes mastery and prestige.

Thus any culture that embraces the Western ideal of the equality of citizens before the law will create a system that will lead to a similar restless drive among citizens for accomplishment. According to the social scientists Santos, Varnum and Grossmann, there has been a significant increase in individualism throughout the world. The world is increasingly adopting the Western ideal of sovereign individuality.

I was surprised to discover that one of the most popular Arabic songs on YouTube (with 154 million views) is a song that preaches strict individualism, titled “Be You”.

The Israeli social scientists Licht, Goldschmid and Schwartz have discovered that there is a very strong correlation between individualism and the rule of law, non-corruption and democratic accountability. As individualism increases throughout the world, we can expect more and more functional democracies to come into existence.

The “Wickedness” of the West

According to the currently fashionable ideology at the sociology departments of Western universities, the West is uniquely evil. It doesn’t matter that the Chinese colonized the lands of ethnic minorities and sometimes massacred them; it is the Western colonization of other lands that is unforgivable. It doesn’t matter that the native Americans slaughtered and enslaved each other, or that the Aztecs practiced mass human sacrifice; it is the intrusion of the West into this utterly evil and inhuman social system that is unforgivable. It doesn’t matter that Africans used to enslave each other by the millions; it is the fact of Westerners buying these slaves that is unforgivable. It doesn’t matter that India has an utterly racist and dehumanizing cast system or that Israel is an apartheid state; it is the racial inequalities in the West that is unforgivable.

The action of the Europeans on the world scene over the past few centuries were clearly motivated by much greed for wealth and power. But a person who does not have an ax to grind against Westerners will see them and their actions as no worse than those of the rest of the peoples of the world. And not just that, but such a person will also appreciate the uniquely positive and humane contributions that the West has made to make the lot of non-Westerners better. It was the British who spent vast amounts of wealth, and large numbers of the lives of their own, to police the seas in the 19th century to put an end to the slave trade. Yes, the British engaged in it before, like almost all other peoples. But it was they, and not the Chinese, Indians, Muslims or Africans who developed an anti-slavery ideology that ensured that slavery would be abolished throughout the world. But to those who are moved by hate against the West, this is irrelevant. The West is evil, and the facts do not matter.

China as the West’s Equal

There is a concerted academic effort aimed at showing that China was equal to the West until the 1800’s when the West discovered the use of coal and gained access to the colonized Americas. The point is to show that Western civilization has nothing to be proud of in being responsible for the intellectual and industrial revolutions that made it the supreme world power by the 19th century. The West simply enjoyed “windfalls” in its easy access to coal and in its access to colonial markets.

We are supposed to believe that the West was stuck in the same position as China in the 19th century, with the population quickly approaching its ecological limits. This truly was the case in China, where a lack of innovation coupled with maximized land use meant that the population could no longer expand beyond its 350 million citizens. It was already producing food at the maximum rate it could, and the only solution for keeping their population under control was widespread female infanticide (something that is supposed to be morally neutral since it wasn’t Westerners doing it).

Britain is supposed to have enjoyed a “windfall” in its acquisition of the Americas, but the historian Kenneth Pomerantz shows no interest in China’s bloody colonization of vast swathes of non-Chinese lands to the west over the centuries. In his distorted worldview “colonization” is something that only Europeans do. Pomerantz also shows no interest in the “windfall” that China enjoyed in possessing lands capable of growing rice; a crop that produces two harvests per year. He also shows no interest in the fact that China greatly benefited from the use of potatoes–a “windfall” crop acquired from the Americas.

The first part of Duchesne’s book is dedicated to refuting the current academic narrative of a China that was a counterpart to the West until the 19th century. He shows that the West was improving its technology and capacity to support its population at a rate that enabled it to continue to support growing populations. This was something China was incapable of due to its lack of innovation.

“Eurocentrics” like Duchesne have been characterized as believing that the West achieved its supremacy without any debts to other cultures. But Duchesne clearly opposes such a view:

By 1200, Europe had recovered much of the scientific and philosophical accomplishment produced within the rest of the world. Persian, Byzantine, Chinese, Indian, African, and Islamic cultures were essential ingredients in Europe’s ascendancy. Affirming the uniqueness of Western civilization in no way implies the idea that Europe can be viewed as a self-contained civilization. A major secret of European creativeness was precisely its multicultural inheritance and its wider geographical linkages with the peoples of the world.

Humans as Passive Animals

One of Duchesne’s major efforts is to refute the popular academic conception of humans as passive actors in world history, controlled by circumstances and environments that made them what they are. Duchesne argues that Westerners were active agents who sought wealth and prestige, not passive agents who couldn’t help doing what they did due to economic circumstances.

The view of humans as passive animals stuck in their circumstances is often associated with Marx, although I believe that we can detect the same strains of thought in many other highly influential 19th and 20th century intellectual movements, almost all of them led by Jewish thinkers.

  • Marx: Humans are passive animals controlled by economic class conflict.
  • Freud: Humans are passive animals controlled by sexuality-based conflict within families.
  • The Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse): Humans are passive animals controlled by social pathologies peculiar to the Western-Christian mentality.
  • Betty Friedan aka Bettye Naomi Goldstein: Humans are passive animals controlled by sex-based class conflict (Marxism translated into feminism).
  • Louis Brandeis and Ronald Dworkin: Humans are passive animals who do not know what is good for them; the elite must gain control of the legal system to force upon them what is good for them.
  • Leo Strauss and his neo-conservative students: Humans (meaning ordinary Christians) are passive animals to be controlled by an atheistic philosophical elite behind the scenes.
  • Jacques Derrida: Humans are passive animals controlled by dominant discourses that maintain power structures.
  • Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank: Humans are passive animals controlled by dominant “world systems”.
  • Jared Diamond: Humans are passive animals controlled by environmental forces.

The only major non-Jewish intellectual who espoused similar ideas is Michel Foucault. It appears that there is something about Jewish culture that makes these intellectuals prefer removing human agency from their explanations of human behavior.

It should go without saying that this view of humans as passive animals controlled by circumstances is wholly foreign to Western civilization, which has always celebrated human agency. The thinking of these intellectuals can therefore be characterized as an importation of a foreign, Jewish view of humans into Western discourse, and the results are as anyone would expect.

All of the above radical movements (the most important today being the mix of cultural Marxism and postmodernism that rules in academia) are pests on intellectual development and scholarship and will ultimately be squashed by the constant, restless, innocent search for truth that continues to characterize many Westerners, and today, non-Westerners. I have high hopes in the increase of Muslim participation in intellectual fields. Muslims who follow Islamic morality will reject the relativization of truth and the reduction of humans to mere animals and will continue the Western tradition of respecting the inviolable dignity of humans.

The Islamic Doctorate

One minor criticism I have is Duchesne’s lack of knowledge of George Makdisi’s work. Thus Duchesne thinks that the crucial development of doctorates and the “the license to teach” (professorship) were uniquely Western, when Makdisi’s work strongly suggests that these were borrowed from Islam (as I discuss here). Islam did have a doctorate (the taʿliqa) that granted the person professorship. Islam also invented the idea of academic freedom. What Islam failed to do was extend this concept to other fields of inquiry. The doctorate and professorship were strictly limited to Islamic law. This was borrowed by the West, but crucially, the West extended it to all fields of inquiry.

The West learned a great deal from Islam. But its culture of aristocratic egalitarianism meant that Westerners were far more motivated to take these ideas further in competition with each other.

History and Philosophy

Duchesne dedicates a great deal of writing to discussing Hegel’s views on the development of human consciousness out of the conflict between individuals. Duchesne believes that Hegel’s views on history actually only apply to Europeans rather than all humans. Hegel believed that human self-consciousness developed out of a “struggle to the death” with other humans. Hegel believed that a struggle to the death between two humans would end up in one of them enslaving the other. This is an unsatisfactory end because the master cannot accomplish true self-consciousness unless another master recognizes him. Therefore the true development of history requires the presence of multiple masters recognizing each other.

Duchesne rejects common interpretations of Hegel to suggest that this struggle is not just an abstract concept, but a description of the reality of the struggle to the death between barbarian European aristocrats, who accomplished self-consciousness through struggling with each other for prestige. Europeans accomplished self-consciousness before all other peoples because only they had a culture of sovereign aristocrats rather than omnipotent, despotic lords.

Duchesne says that there is an “unbroken link” between the earliest European Indo-Europeans who came out of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the various Germanic and Scandinavian barbarians, and the culture of medieval Europe to the present day. The process of the struggle to the death between aristocrats led to the development of the concept of equal citizens before the law. Only Europeans could have developed such a concept because only they had a social system defined by the existence of multiple, equal masters, rather than a system defined by the existence of a single master (a Pharaoh, a Persian “king of kings” or a Chinese emperor).

The End of Western Uniqueness

As I mentioned earlier, if we accept the theory that the West’s uniqueness comes from its recognition of the dignity and rights of the individual, then the spread of these ideas throughout the world means that the entire world is now part of the same Western system. Gone are the days when only Westerners competed with each other for individual prestige through innovation.

The Westernization of Islamic Studies

A very interesting aspect of the spread of Western aristocratic egalitarianism is the way Muslim intellectuals and scholars today have started to challenge the scholarly tradition of Oriental despotism that characterized Islamic studies in the past. What we have today are thousands of intellectuals and scholars throughout the world who are bravely challenging long-held beliefs in their individualist search for truth. They have, for example, defended women’s right to divorce and the right of Muslims to leave Islam without being molested, not by discarding Islamic teachings out of a desire to live up to Western standards, but by recognizing that Islam actually supports these views.

In the case of Christianity, the individualist search for truth meant that it suffered persistent attacks on its foundations as philologists in the 19th and 20th centuries subjected its texts and beliefs to rigorous scholarly study and debate. The view of many Westerners unfamiliar with Islam is that Islam too will have its foundations weakened as its study becomes more scientific. But the reality as I see it is quite the opposite. If Islam is really “true”, then it will survive the process intact.

And that is what I see all around me. Having benefited from the latest Western studies of Islam, my view of Islam’s validity has only strengthened. Those who look forward to the secularization of the world may take comfort in the history of the weakening of Christianity, believing that Islam will go through a similar process. But my view is that those hopes will never materialize. Western students of Islamic studies such as Jonathan Brown and Umar Wymann-Landgraf, who have subjected the Islamic scriptures (in their case the Hadith literature) to rigorous Western-style analysis have actually ended up converting to Islam.

Joram van Klaveren

We are also seeing a possible trend of anti-Islam activists converting. Joram van Klaveren, a close ally of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, in the middle of writing an anti-Islam book, ended up converting. What other religion in the world has such a power? Another far-right convert is Arthur Wagner. Yet another is Arnoud van Doorn.

Why are these lovers and defenders of Western civilization converting to Islam if Islam is inherently opposed to Western values?

It is my view that these activists, feeling embattled by the constant attacks on Western values, and recognizing that Christianity offers no hope, realized the Islam is actually the best hope for the survival of their civilization.

Why People Dislike Middleman Minorities: A Fix for Thomas Sowell’s Blind Spot

On most days of Ramadan, fasting makes it impossible for me to do my usual programming and writing work. For this reason I spent most of the daytime hours of this Ramadan reading books, finishing over 20 books (mainly audiobooks).

For years I have been aware of Thomas Sowell as perhaps the greatest living African American intellectual, and this Ramadan I finally got around to reading many of his books.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a very unique intellectual, a type that is very rare both among whites and blacks, and among blacks others like him are almost non-existent. He rejects the popular liberal ideology that presently rules in Western academia and media, and his status as a black person has enabled him to say things about racial and ethnic issues that most whites would likely not be able to get away with without being charged with racism. Sowell is, or at least tries to be, an empiricist, making him a man after my own heart. He rejects nice-sounding, feel-good political ideas for ideas that actually have merit and have been tested in the real world for their efficacy. Thus, for example, he rejects affirmative action (the practice among universities to allow blacks with lower qualifications to enter in preference to better-qualified whites), considering it harmful to blacks by making them think they should live up to lower standards than whites (among various other reasons). He also rejects the common narrative that many common problems of blacks today (such as father absenteeism and low economic status) are directly traceable to slavery, mentioning the fact that blacks in the early 20th century had much better social characteristics (such as male dedication to their families) than blacks in the second half of the 20th century.

Thomas Sowell is not, however, entirely free from bias. He sometimes strongly reflects the neoconservative bias of the Hoover Institution that he works for, for example considering free trade a highly positive thing and ignoring the technological servitude that results from it. He is also strongly invested in the Frankfurt School ideology that there are no interesting genetic-behavioral differences between different populations despite the existence of the vast literature of behavioral genetics. He also has a very strong pro-Israel stance (neoconservatism’s foreign policy views mirror Israel’s interests so exactly that they might as well have been written directly in Tel Aviv), naively thinking that the Muslim hostility toward Israel is merely anti-Semitism. He also entirely ignores the possibility that historical anti-Semitism may have had anything to do with Jewish behavior, again perfectly reflecting the Frankfurt School / neoconservative ideology.

However, Sowell has worked tirelessly to fight the pathologization of Western civilization that has been a major focus of the works of the members of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals who later emerged as the neoconservatives. Sowell has always maintained a certain independence and empiricism in spite of the influence of his milieu and his powerful intellect has enabled him to break out of important aspects of his intellectual conditioning.

I started by reading his autobiography A Personal Odyssey, one of the most enjoyable and enlightening autobiographies I have read. I went on to read his economics books Basic Economics, Applied Economics and Economic Facts and Fallacies. I then read his 1981 book Ethnic America: A History, a historical and economic analysis of the various ethnicities that make up America (the British, the Germans, the Italians, Jews, etc.). Next I read his trilogy on race and culture: Race and Culture: A World View (1995), Migrations and Cultures: A World View (1996), and Conquests and Cultures: An International History (1998).

I recently finished Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005), a collection of essays on various issues. The most interesting aspect of this work is his study of “redneck” culture. According to Sowell, redneck culture originated in Britain and was characterized by high criminality and violence, a lack of interest in education, pride, grandiosity and sexual promiscuity. Redneck migrants from England brought their culture with them and established themselves in the American South, repeating the same behaviors that they were famous for in Britain.

Since nine tenth of black slaves lived in the South, they had the unfortunate fate of being acculturated to this redneck culture. Therefore according to Sowell, things that we consider to be “black” culture today (such as gangster rap and a low opinion of education) are actually the redneck culture of Britain that blacks took in. Blacks that were freed in the 19th century and lived in the North abandoned this redneck culture and took in New England’s extremely different (and far more productive) culture, so that these blacks were far more prosperous and educated and suffered far less from the problems that plagued both the whites and blacks of the South. He mentions that once “redneck” Southern blacks started to migrate en masse to the North, the New England blacks looked down on them and would do their best to move out of neighborhoods that these newly arrived blacks lived in, just as the whites did.

Another interesting topic that he covers in his highly unique way is slavery. Rejecting the common Western narrative that the West was somehow uniquely evil in its practice of slavery, Sowell says that slavery was a global phenomenon, and that Western civilization was actually the one that was almost entirely responsible for abolishing it. In the 18th and 19th century the British developed the idea that slavery was morally wrong and unacceptable, and they started to spend vast resources fighting it. The British started to patrol the seas with their ships, fighting slave traders around the world. This British crusade against slavery has been largely forgotten.

Islam and slavery

It was the British who forced the Ottoman Empire to ban slavery. Despite Islam’s humane attitude toward slaves and its strong encouragement for freeing them, it is a fact of history that slavery in the Islamic world represents one of the greatest moral failings of our civilization. We now realize, thanks mainly to Western civilization, that the most Islamic attitude toward slavery is tolerating it with the explicit goal of working to eradicate it. But throughout the centuries, Muslims failed to put this program into practice, instead representing one of the greatest forces supporting slavery throughout the world by creating a strong demand for it. Muslims happily purchased slaves without worrying about how these slaves were created in the first place: the extremely inhuman process by which African, Arab and European slave-raiders acquired slaves to be sold in the Islamic world.

It is not much to be proud of that Islam had very important protections for slave rights when it had nothing to say about how these slaves were acquired in the first place. By creating a vast market for slaves, the Muslims encouraged mass slaughter of Africans and Europeans by cruel slave-raiders. It is amazing to think that all of these Muslims, despite the high morality that the Quran and hadith taught them, did almost nothing about this incredibly unjust and oppressive system until the British came along to civilize them.

Islam and interest

As an economist, Thomas Sowell considers the charging of interest an essential part of the functioning of any well-developed economic system. To him, therefore, the fact that Islam forbids interest is just an ignorant and foolish prejudice that misunderstands the function of interest. Interest makes it possible to mobilize the wealth of society by encouraging the wealthy to use their money to fund economic growth. If people place their savings in the bank, and the bank lends this money to corporations that can invest the money in various economic projects, this makes it possible to mobilize a vast amount of society’s wealth in the service of economic projects.

What Sowell does not realize is that it is perfectly possible to do this without interest. It is, however, true that the ban on interest was a great limiting factor on economic growth in the Islamic world until Muslims learned in the 20th century that it is possible to create the Western pattern of wealth mobilization without interest by creating Islamic banks.

But now that the system is in place, the ban of interest is no longer a limiting factor on economic growth. Islamic finance makes it possible to mobilize society’s wealth without the use of interest through the ṣukūk system, enabling the creation of a financial world that is far more humane and borrower-friendly than the current, usurious Western financial system. For example, in an Islamic home mortgage, no loan is involved, and in the case of default, the home buyer always gets money back. Compare this to the Western system where default means not only losing the home, but sometimes owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bank. This incredibly unjust usurious system of the West makes it practically certain that the wealth of the bankers will continuously grow at a faster rate than the wealth of society, making the bankers the richest and most powerful people in the country, as has happened in the West. See my essay: Why the Banks are So Powerful and Why the Bible and the Quran Forbid Usury: Charting How Interest Creates Obscene Wealth Inequality.

Middleman minorities

A big focus of Thomas Sowell’s work is on so-called “middleman minorities”. These are ethnicities such as the Jews in the West, the Chinese in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, and the Lebanese and Indians in Africa. Middleman minorities all share certain attributes:

  • They are generally wealthier than the native population.
  • They are clannish and keep to themselves, maintaining a separate culture from the native population.
  • They keep ties with their home countries and build international trade and financial networks with their co-ethnics.
  • They are often involved in money-lending.
  • They often monopolize entire sectors of the economy.

Middleman minorities have invariably been resented by the native population, who envy the wealth, success and power of the middleman minorities and dislike their separate, clannish existence.

According to Sowell, it is only prejudice and envy that makes native populations dislike middleman minorities since these minorities serve essential functions in their economies. For example, the Chinese in Malaysia are responsible for developing various sectors of the Malaysian economy, sectors that would have been far less developed, and perhaps even non-existent, if the Chinese had not been there. According to Sowell the middleman minorities create the wealth they enjoy. They do not exploit the native population and do not steal their wealth.

So why do natives dislike middlemen? Why were Jews so universally hated in Europe when they served such “essential” economic functions? Why did the Ugandans expel the Indian and Pakistanis who had helped build up so much of their economies? Why do Malaysians and Indonesians so dislike the Chinese among them?

Genetic-cultural altruism

Thomas Sowell’s unsatisfactory answers to the above questions are a very good illustration of the way specialization limits the intellectual horizons of specialists. Being an economist, he thinks of middleman minorities largely in economic terms and sees their positive contributions as more than justifying whatever else the presence of these middleman minorities may entail.

But an evolutionist is going to have a very different view of the clash between natives and middlemen. From an evolutionary perspective, ideally everyone you do business with will be your father. Genetic relatedness makes people more kind toward their own kin than towards strangers. And this behavior comes out on a daily basis in the interactions between the natives and the genetically separate middlemen.

When you need a loan from a bank, rather than going to someone from a strange land and culture who probably dislikes you and has no love for you, you would much rather go to the bank that is run by your father. You know you will be treated with much more sympathy, love and respect.

When you are desperate for employment, you know that your father will be much more likely to employ you than a random stranger who only thinks of you in economic terms.

Middleman minorities are a jarring element in the social fabric of the natives’ society. The natives want to be treated as kin, as humans, by their fellow humans. But middleman minorities only think of the natives in economic terms, dehumanizing them into mere tools of economics. This is an incredibly disorienting, degrading and alienating experience for a native. By being an impermeable, non-kin group, we know that middlemen deal with us only according to the harsh, cold laws of economics, rather than dealing with us as family.

The clannishness of middleman minorities only exacerbates the problem. By creating an impermeable group that deals with its own members charitably while dealing with natives as excluded aliens, they make the population feel as aliens in their own hometowns and countries. This is highly disconcerting. To go from the loving atmosphere of your own kin and ethnicity to the cold atmosphere of the alien middleman is never a pleasant experience.

The solution, the only solution, is for the middleman minority to go native by making their group permeable. Middleman populations such as historical Jews that are stringent about preventing intermarriage and cultural exchange are guaranteed to provoke extreme hostility by making the native population feel like aliens in their own lands. On the other hand, middleman groups that intermarry and become part of the native population both genetically and culturally will end all possible hostilities within a few generations, as happened with the Arab settlers in Southeast Asia (compare with the hostility that the Chinese provoke there nowadays). The Arabs intermarried and became part of the population. Despite their great economic success and their maintenance of familial and economic ties with the Yemeni coastal areas that they came from, they provoked no hostility that I can discover.

While middleman minorities may make the economy more efficient by their activities, they also make it less human by remaining alien, impermeable and clannish and having an us vs. them mentality toward the native population. The various expulsions of middleman minorities throughout history show that people would much rather enjoy a less efficient but more humane economy run by natives than a more efficient but less humane economy run by middleman minorities.

An economist like Thomas Sowell thinks that the natives should simply swallow their pride and their desire to be treated with the dignity that kin treat them for the sake of having clannish middleman minorities make their economies more efficient. This may make sense economically, but it makes no sense from a wider, human perspective.

The indignity of separatism

Middleman minorities, by the very fact of refusing to intermarry and assimilate with the natives, tell the natives on a daily basis that they consider themselves superior: the natives are simply not worth marrying. This is incredibly degrading to the natives. By considering themselves a superior genetic-cultural stock, the middleman minorities constantly stress the inferiority of the natives upon their psyches. It is highly naive to expect the natives to be content with this state of things. To the natives this is an itch that cannot be scratched. And the increasing success and prominence of the middlemen only serve to remind the natives of their own inferiority.

The main problem with middleman minorities is not that they are genetically different from the natives, but that they work to maintain this genetic difference. A native does not need to be an intellectual to realize that this maintenance of genetic separatism is a judgment on his or her ethnicity. They know that they are treated as not being good enough. And that, in turn, leads to their developing a group identity of superiority over the middlemen: if you treat me as inferior, I will treat you as inferior. This leads to the stressing and exaggeration of the negative qualities of the middlemen among the natives. They are avaricious, uncharitable, selfish, lacking common decency, inhuman. The natives develop an ideology of ethnic pride that justifies to themselves their right to fight back against being treated as inferior, and this in turn leads to the natives calling for laws discriminating against the middlemen, boycotts, and even violence.

So the question is this: do middleman minorities have a moral right to practice business in an alien nation while maintaining genetic and cultural separatism? I believe this is a question that only the natives can decide for themselves. If the value that the middlemen offer is so great as to be worth the indignity of tolerating them, then the natives can choose to do so. And if the value they offer is not that great, they can choose to expel them. While economically the second choice may not make “sense”, from a psychological and evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense.

While we can feel sorry for the many innocent people who have been harmed in riots and expulsions, we cannot ignore the reality that their separatism is directly responsible for this treatment.

To put it another way, the natives have a moral right to demand to be treated as equally worthy by the middleman minority, and that, above all, means that the middleman minority must cease its clannishness and separatism and must start to intermarry with the natives. Middleman minorities that have gone this route, such as the Japanese in the United States, have completely ceased to be an issue, while middleman minorities such as the Jews in the United States, who have continued to work hard to fight intermarriage, continue to provoke some hostility. The Koreans working in black ghettos in the United States also provoke hostility due to their maintenance of genetic separatism from the blacks they serve.

Sowell may say that the middleman minority has a good reason to remain separate: the natives have an inferior culture. The Chinese, for example, say that the Malays are lazy and less reliable. But the Chinese could marry the Malays and attempt to fuse their supposedly superior culture with that of the Malays. Even if this involves sacrificing aspects of their superior culture, it may be the only reasonable way forward to end the conflict

The solution for the ethnic conflicts that have plagued Southeast Asia is for the governments of these countries to strongly promote intermarriage. In Thailand, due to the fact that the Chinese and the Thais share the same religion, intermarriage has been more common and with it the hostility toward the Chinese has been less pronounced. But in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the Buddhist-Muslim difference is a significant barrier to intermarriage, hostility has been much more pronounced. These countries can greatly reduce the conflict by passing laws that treat the Chinese as natives if they are married to a native.

A significant new middleman minority population are the Chinese in Africa. It is essential for African countries to instate policies requiring intermarriage in order to prevent the same sordid story of riots, pogroms and expulsions that have plagued the history of middleman minorities throughout the world. Unfortunately African nationalist ideas in some countries make the officials of these governments (such as in Uganda) hostile to the idea of intermarriage, a very unconstructive attitude that will only set up the stage for ethnic conflict.

The Philosophy of Pornography and Masturbation

Why is it wrong to watch pornography? Even if a person is not religious, they will still feel guilt and shame about a porn-watching habit. Where does this come from? Even the most free-thinking and atheistic person will have reservations about watching pornography with their family, even if everyone in the family is an adult. They are consenting adults, and no one is harmed in the film (it can be a computer-generated film). So where does the wrongness come from?

This was one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer for myself. My diaries contain many entries over the years where I argued why watching pornography is wrong only to defeat my own arguments. Being religious, I did not need to justify the wrongness of pornography to myself in order to avoid it. I already knew it was wrong; I just wanted a good intellectual argument for why it is so.

They key that opened this mystery to me and many other mysteries about sexuality was Roger Scruton’s 1986 book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. Finally I found arguments that could satisfy my skeptical self.

A popular argument against pornography is that people are harmed in its creation. This is true, but it does not cut to the root of the problem. Imagine if thousands of yours in the future a person discovers a computer hard drive filled with pornography. All of the people in the films or pictures are dead. Surely whatever harm was associated with the creation of those films or pictures would no longer be relevant. Enjoying them would be similar to enjoying visiting the pyramids in Egypt. We know thousands greatly suffered in those projects. But that does not prevent us from enjoying the sight of the pyramids; their magnificence and beauty.

Or imagine an artificial intelligence system that can generate pornography that is better and more realistic than the real thing. No one is harmed in the creation of such pornography. So what is the right moral approach to it?

Evolutionary psychology and the uniqueness of humans

The root problem with pornography is not the way it is created. It is also not the erotic enjoyment it creates in its consumer. It is also not exactly the way it is supposed to cause a person not to enjoy real sexual intimacy or to become lazy and disinterested in seeking out real-life partners.

The problem goes deeper.

The basic problem is that humans are not animals. Enjoying pornography means breaking a moral rule that is tied to our basic humanity; it is our humanity that is damaged in the process.

A main attraction of the evolutionary study of human psychology since Nietzsche and his Darwinian influencers has been the sense of perspective and knowledge that we gain over fellow humans when we view them as mere bags of matter controlled by built-in biological instincts; our relationships become so simple if we look at them solely through Darwinian eyes. My mother loves me because she has genetic instincts that make her love me. If she is just a mere collection of matter who is configured to be nice to me then that takes away all of my duties and responsibilities toward her. I may still be nice and dutiful toward her because I have genetic instincts to be this way toward her, but I will not pretend that there is anything to this relationship between selfish genes using us for their own ends. Looking at humans this way, we feel like our eyes have been opened. We see the cold, harsh reality of existence and have at least taken a first step toward dealing with it, a step that (we think) most of those around us cannot even conceive of taking.

And yet, our actual, lived human experience proves the utter falseness of the above way of seeing the world. My mother is not just a mere collection of matter; she is also a person. Persons possess self-consciousness, inviolable dignity and infinite worth. A single uninteresting and “average” person is worth more than any amount of money you can imagine; all great moral philosophers would agree that even if a country could gain trillions of dollars by killing a single innocent person, it would be evil and morally unjustified for it to do so. Somehow a single person is worth more money than the entire world can offer.

We live between two completely opposed views of humans. One of them is only too happy to reduce humans to mere collections of atoms. The other one accepts nothing less than infinity as the worth and dignity of each and every human.

If were to commit genocide by eradicating an ant colony, most people would not think the worse of me. Yet genocide against humans is widely agreed to be a terrible crime. There is something unique about humans that makes it inappropriate to treat them like insects or animals. There is no agreement on where this uniqueness comes from. Science can only view humans as clever bags of matter, so it cannot enlighten us about why humans are special. According to some religions humans possess a soul, breathed into them by God, that makes them unique and unlike other living creatures.

Whatever the source of the uniqueness, what concerns us here is that most thinkers agree on the fact that such uniqueness exists.

Being human

Knowing the uniqueness of our humanity, we are pushed to ask how this relates to our conduct toward others. How do you treat something that has infinite worth?

The German philosopher Kant proposed the famous principle (or categorical imperative) that humans must be treated as ends rather than means. This idea nicely encapsulates the basis for all of our modern thinking about human rights and dignity.

To treat a human as an “end” means to not treat them as a means, instrument or tool for one’s own benefit. The word “end” here is being used in the sense of “final aim”, “goal”. A human is an end when you view them as an inviolable entity that cannot be used, dominated, sold, raped or killed for another’s benefit. While we can pick up a rock, lump of wood or some other object and use it as a tool, humans, by the mere virtue of being human, are excluded from this category of “objects”. Humans are subjects, inviolable entities that look out into the universe while somehow being independent of it. Humans can use anything they want as a tool, except for other humans.

Humans possess what I call personhood; personhood refers to our uniqueness. Persons are not objects. Treating persons morally has its own universe of rules that have nothing to do with the animal world. Yes, we have a natural or evolutionary genetic inheritance; we are animals and a study of our genes and hormones can easily show our closeness to other animals. But we are not just animals. We are also persons. We have a dual nature: both the animal and the person.

The problem with pornography is that it is only concerned with the animal in us.

Obscenity

Obscenity is anything that treats or depicts humans as if they were mere animals. A picture of one’s parents naked is obscene because it stressed upon us their animal nature to the exclusion of their personhood. We are forced to see them as animals; their personhood is not in the picture.

A picture of a dead loved one who has suffered a terrible accident that mutilated their faces and bodies is also obscene. It shows them as a mere collection of atoms that has been turned into chaos by the physical world. The world has turned them into an object. We do not want to see our loved ones as objects. So we turn away from such a picture with disgust, try to forget it, and continue to imagine them as they were when they still lived.

Pornography is obscene because it depicts humans as reduced to mere bodies. It does not capture the personhood of the humans; they might as well be corpses that are animated to perform the sex act. And enjoying pornography makes us feel guilt and shame because we join this partying of corpses. In a small way we become like the great tyrants of history, happy to watch humans reduced to animals that can be used for our pleasure. In that world that we join during the watching of pornography these humans become mere objects. If during the pornographic scene we watch an explosion tear these humans apart, it is merely an interesting data point. The corpses are rearranged in a new way and nothing fundamental is lost, because they were already corpses when we were enjoying their flesh to the exclusion of their personhood.

Hentai and erotica

If online forums are to be believed, many young men progress from viewing erotic pictures to “hardcore” pornography, to watching the genre known as hentai (Japanese-inspired cartoon pornography). Hentai has no rules and it is famous for its depiction of extreme violence during sex acts. It depicts beautiful females torn apart by tentacled monstrosities. The viewer is surprised to find that they actually enjoy seeing this. That is because the tearing apart of humans in cartoon pornography does not break any moral rules of pornography. When humans are reduced to mere objects, as if they were corpses, it is only the next logical step to explore what can be done to corpses.

The same applies to erotic novels like Fifty Shades of Grey. Erotic novels are merely pornography intended (mostly) for female use. The intense violence does not feel wrong because it is not being done to human persons but to depersonalized humans, virtual corpses.

Since pornography breaks the first rule of morality toward other humans and objectifies them and takes away their personhood, in the moral universe of pornography violence and death are merely the logical extension of taking pleasure in the objectification of humans.

Moral self-creation

I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that he cannot see an American woman without imagining her lips around his own penis. This is a good illustration of what pornography does to our psychology.

Moral self-creation refers to the fact that every time we treat a fellow human in a certain way, this reflects back on us and changes who we are. Every time you treat some cruelly, this feedback into your own internal universe and changes you. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others.

We cannot treat other humans in a moral vacuum. Every choice we make toward others is always associated with a moral cost or benefit. You can justify to yourself that a particular person deserves cruelty; they have done you harm and they have no sympathy or mercy toward you. Yet the moment you perform an act of cruelty toward them, you feel yourself lessened and damaged by this. The Islamic theologian Ibn Taymiyya took note of this when he said:

No one has ever taken revenge for himself except that it created in him a degradation and humiliation in his psyche, because revenge looks like strength and power on the outside but on the inside it is degradation and humiliation, while forgiveness creates strength and power both on the inside and out.

By harming us, a person damages their own internal universe. Taking revenge on them only causes damage in the other direction; in our own internal universe. Revenge can taste sweet to the animal in us, but to the person in us, it is always a degradation.

I call this moral self-creation. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others. Every one of your actions feeds back into yourself and changes you. And if the action is immoral; if you break Kant’s categorical imperative and treat other humans the way you do not like to be treated yourself, you degrade yourself. No reasoning or pretense can undo this damage. The person in you only knows and recognizes itself according to the way it treats other persons. You cannot say to yourself, “I utterly damaged this person but I cut off myself from the consequences.” The very knowledge that you damaged a person makes you recognize yourself, see yourself and feel yourself as the person who did that damage.

This is why our guilt follows us around and does not leave us. The guilt is the recognition of the damage you have done to yourself. You mutilate your spirit by every damage you do to another person. The mutilation remains and cannot be erased except by treating other persons in a better way. Every treatment of others creates you morally. You are the architect of your spirit by the way you treat others. Your guilt is the recognition that you damaged this architecture. And the only way to undo it is by doing what is necessary to rebuild it and improve it. Reasoning to yourself and justifying things to yourself does absolutely nothing to your spirit’s architecture. It will lay in tatters and ruins until you learn that you have no access to this architecture. You have no key to it; it is closed to you. It is only open to others: only others can take away your guilt by the way you treat them. Other persons are the only key to our spirit; the way we treat them feedback into it and changes it.

Pornography involves treating other humans as if they were merely animals. It is the worst degradation of a human’s personhood that can be imagined. We tear apart their dual nature, the animal and the person, throw away the person, and enjoy the animal. Since pornography generally involves pictures and videos taken by others, we can delude ourselves into thinking that there is no harm in it; the wrong was done by others, not us. Pornography can even be computer-generated, so where is the harm in that?

The problem is that the process of moral self-creation is always in force in us. Even if you reason to yourself that no one is harmed in that picture or video, you are harmed. You recognize yourself as a user and degrader of other humans. You are willing to treat other humans as animals and this knowledge feeds back into you. Your spirit does not understand your reasoning that no one is harmed and has no use for it. It only recognizes that you are a human who uses other humans. You are willing to enjoy the tearing apart of humans from their personhood, you are willing to objectify and use them. The treatment of other persons in pornography, even if computer-generated, makes the architecture of your internal universe open up and take in the damage.

Afterwards you feel guilt. You recognize that you have been lessened and degraded. Your guilt is the pain you feel at the damage you have done to yourself. You have gone from a person existing in the warmth and dignity of human society to something less. You recognize the infinite worth and dignity of other humans, and by transgressing against this recognition, you feel that you are unworthy of human society. You feel that the persons around you, your mother and father for example, are giants, whole universes, but you yourself, by partaking in a dehumanizing, dirty and furtive pleasure, are something less. You are a damaged and polluted universe that cries out to become whole again.

Sinking into obscenity

A pornography addict will one day discover that they live in a new world. They may have a memory of the warmth and innocence of the world of their childhood. But everything is now harsh and cold. They feel alienated from their fellow humans and from their societies. Family life, love, the beauty and solemnity of classical literature, all these things seem to them to exist in a different reality that is closed to them.

By making it a habit to depersonalize other humans, the pornography addict can no longer relate to other humans with solemnity and seriousness. They feel that we are all animals pretending to be something more. They daily experience of pornography constantly reinforces this animal view of humanity. Morality starts to feel like a pretense. They become cynical and in social situations such as family gathering they feel that they are only playing a part assigned to them by “society”.

This cynical view also pervades their relationships. The male pornography addict cannot enjoy the innocence of love; of treating a woman as if she is the most important person in their world. She is just a body and personality with various failings and annoying habits. Opening his heart to her and treating her as if she is more than an animal feels strange and unusual.

Pornography equalizes all humans into a new world order of bodies. One body can be as good as another for satisfying one’s needs. But love and romance require treating a person as if they are infinitely worthy and irreplaceable. The “morality” that pornography teaches is entirely opposed to the morality of love. The two cannot coexist.

Lust and erotic love

Lust is obscene while erotic love is beautiful–even though they both involve sexual desire. Lust is depersonalized sexual desire; lust directed at someone does not care for their uniqueness and personhood. A man who lusts after Elizabeth can be be satisfied with an equally attractive Jane. But erotic love is directed at a specific person; a man who is in love with Elizabeth and desires her will not be satisfied by any other woman of equal attractiveness.

Erotic love allows us to engage in sexuality while remaining fully human. We continue to see the other human as a person even during sexual intimacy.

But lust is inhuman and bestial. It is the fact of one animal desiring another. Obviously pornography can only stimulate and celebrate lust. It is impossible to connect with the depicted person on human terms, person-to-person. And by training us to relate lustfully to fellow humans, this becomes the rule in our minds. Like Christopher Hitchens, we see every attractive person as a potential actor or actress in a pornographic scene.

Masturbation

Masturbation is one of the obscene pleasures that is very often associated with pornography. I consider masturbation obscene for two reasons. First, it nearly always involves the fantasy of using another human for one’s own pleasure–a human that cannot answer back. It lacks the aspect of the union of two conscious and willing first-person perspectives that is the gold-standard of non-obscene sexuality.

Second, it involves the aspect of a first-person perspective turning to itself; using its own body as if the human is merely a body. The is no respect for personhood involved; the human and its personhood turns to its own body, treating themselves as if they are something to be used. It is a form of self-use that is quite similar to, if not the same as, using another’s body for pleasure without respect for their personhood.

This then brings us into the strange reality that a person’s own body is forbidden territory to themselves. This is strange, but even if you reject the above argument, you can still feel the reality of it: masturbation is always associated with a sense of shame, loss and degradation once the pleasure is over. It is a form of lusting after one’s own body: a body with no humanity, a body that cannot answer back; a corpse.

Masturbation is therefore an attack on a human’s personhood. It makes no difference that in this case the attack is against oneself.

Recovering from obscenity

I have heard Western men say that they see themselves as mere children in comparison with their grandfathers and ancestors. Looking at pictures of these solemn ancient men, they cannot help but feel their own inadequacy.

I believe that it is our pornographic culture that has filled the West with men who feel degraded in comparison to their ancestors. There can be no sense of solemnity and greatness in a person who has habituated themselves to obscenity.

It is only by following the iron rule of Kant’s categorical imperative in our lives that we can maintain a sense of our infinite worth and dignity as humans. And this means turning away from the obscene in all things. By treating fellow humans as infinitely worthy of respect, this treatment feeds back into our own internal universe and rebuilds its architecture into something solemn and beautiful.

A man who follows this rule in his life will feel no inadequacy in comparison to his ancestors. He will in fact feel in a position to critique them as his equals. Through moral self-creation, a man has the chance to enlarge himself until he towers over all of his ancestors.

Why We Should Stop Using the Word “Islamophobia”

Recently the British philosopher Roger Scruton was sacked from his government position for stating in an interview that Islamophobia is a propaganda word “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood”, among other statements. The interview was intentionally redacted by the journalist to put Scruton in the worst light possible. Since then the journalist has disappeared from social media after refusing to release the full tape of the interview.

Roger Scruton

The treatment that Scruton has received is typical. He has dared to sin against what the Western zeitgeist considers sacrosanct. There is no forgiveness possible, and he is given no opportunity to justify himself. The zeitgeist is his judge, jury and executioner, and there is no appeal possible. Scruton has been unpersoned; he is considered to be no longer a human and to not deserve to be treated with human decency.

This is especially sad because Scruton has been one of the very few Western intellectuals who has tried to engage with Muslim intellectuals. Second-rate intellectuals are happy to regurgitate 19th century Orientalist theories about Islam without bothering to actually read a recent scholarly book or two on the religion. The great progress that the Western study of Islam has made in the past few decades has completely passed them by. Scruton, however, has been willing to sit with intellectuals like Hamza Yusuf in dialog. He also has a close relationship with a hijabi Syrian lady trying to rebuild Syria’s destroyed architecture. Scruton has been one of the very few intellectuals willing to treat Muslims as humans rather than as second-class humans to be shunned.

While Scruton’s views on Islam do not always hit the mark, we should acknowledge that he has done far more than others to try to engage with it and understand it. He should be celebrated for this and whatever erroneous statement he makes should easily be forgiven. So even if what he had said about Islamophobia had been unacceptable, it should still be the easiest thing in the world to continue to consider him a respectable intellectual and thinker and to continue to engage in dialog with him.

But the truth is that his view of the term “Islamophobia” hits the mark, whether he is right that it was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood or not.

The problem with “Islamophobia”

According to the New World Encyclopedia,

The term phobia, from the Greek φόβος meaning "fear," is a strong, persistent, and irrational fear or anxiety of certain situations, objects, activities, or persons. A phobia disorder is defined by an excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. Phobias are generally believed to emerge following highly traumatic experiences.

"Phobia", The New World Encyclopedia.

According to this definition of phobia, Islamophobia is an irrational and unreasonable fear or anxiety about Islam.

For a politically-minded person, Islamophobia is a very useful word (similar to homophobia and other modern, politically-instituted “phobias”). It helps insinuate that a person who criticizes or dislikes the object under question is irrational and unreasonable. It helps identify a group of humans as irrational and unreasonable, and in this way helps justify demeaning and dehumanizing them and their concerns.

Islamophobia makes dialog impossible. If you fear Islam, you are the problem, not Islam. It discards the subjective experience of those who fear or dislike Islam while promoting an authoritarian ideology that accepts nothing less than full submission to a positive view of Islam as the only option for a reasonable and rational human.

Making Islamophobia sound like a reasonable word may seem like a great accomplishment for a politically-minded Muslim. It helps create an easy-to-use framework for attacking anyone who expresses criticism of Islam. Calling them an “Islamophobe” automatically suggests that the attacked person is irrational and unreasonable. Whatever concerns or criticisms they have are worthless. And not only that, the politicization of the word also helps take this attack further, making it an attack on their basic humanity. An Islamophobe is not a person with human rights, they are an irrational and insane unperson who should not be treated like a human.

But what do we gain by using this slur against people? It does not change anyone’s mind about Islam. It only helps drive their opinions underground, so that they start to feel that there is an oppressive system above them that prevents them from freely voicing their opinions. Islam restricts their freedom of speech so that the only places where they can voice their opinions become Internet forums and YouTube comment sections.

By forcing criticism of Islam and Muslims into the underground, we only help it grow. Not only do these people hold on to their former opinions, they feel encouraged to only become more extreme because of the feeling that their opinions and their humanity are discarded from the start by Muslims.

The rationality of fearing Islam

Islamophobia implies that it is irrational to fear Islam. This sounds frankly idiotic to someone who feels that the evidence is all around them for why they should fear Islam. Terrorist attack after terrorist attack reinforces the view that Islam is a danger to society. Documentaries are constantly published about the suffering of women under Sharia courts in Pakistan or Britain.

The disgust that our Muslim intellectuals express at terrorist attacks does not help remove the association between Islam and terrorism for the simple reason that most people do not get to see the statements of these intellectuals.

The first step for dealing with the fear of Islam in the West is to acknowledge that this fear is rational. Within the subjective experience of the Western person who is exposed to images of terrorism and abuse of women, it is perfectly rational to conclude that Islam is a source of these evils. Calling them irrational is only taken by them as an insult and a slur. Islamophobia tells them that if they make the rational connection between Islam and terrorism, that they are doing something wrong. But they know perfectly well that they are rational, so the insult does nothing to prevent them from making such a connection. It only reinforces their view actually, because they start to sense that there is an Orwellian force from above that wants them to throw away their rationality for a new, politically-instituted faux rationality that somehow finds it logical not to connect Islam with terrorism and other negative things.

It is perfectly rational for a person to fear or dislike Islam based on the information that they are exposed to everyday. The problem is not with the rationality of these people. The problem is with the information that they are exposed to. Discounting these people’s subjective experience is a most futile exercise. The rational conclusion based on the information that they are exposed to is that Islam is a problem. If we want people to stop making this conclusion, we cannot do it by attacking their rationality, but by changing the information.

The information received by a Westerner about Islam is partly true and partly made up of prejudices. The true part consists of the news of terrorist attacks and articles and documentaries about the suffering of women and women’s rights activists among Muslims. The right course of action is not to attack people who bring such information to people’s minds when it is done with journalistic integrity. The right course is to remove the causes for such information being created in the first place by working to promote a tolerant and civilized Islam that naturally prevents terrorism, the abuse of women and all other incentives for the creation of negative information about Islam.

Humanizing the “Islamophobe”

The way to convincing a person who has a negative view of Islam that their view is wrong or imperfect is not to dehumanize them by calling them an Islamophobe, but by treating them as complete humans equal to ourselves.

Kant’s moral philosophy teaches us that the only proper way to treat a fellow human is to treat them as “ends” rather than “means”. Every human is endowed with infinite worth and inviolable dignity from the moment they are born. This is a moral right possessed by all humans, and breaking it by dehumanizing those we dislike only reflects negatively on ourselves. Breaking Kant’s categorical imperative to treat humans as infinitely worthy proves that we are willing to dehumanize some humans. We do not believe in universal human rights and arrogantly think that we can be judge, jury and executioner against humans we dislike.

So how do we treat someone who fears or dislikes Islam? By treating them as if they have every right to come to their own conclusions about Islam. When a Muslim treats a person who dislikes Islam as if the person has infinite worth and dignity, the result is that the person ends up seeing an aspect of Islam that they did not see before.

Good and evil are not equal. Repel evil with good, and the person who was your enemy becomes like an intimate friend.

But none will attain it except those who persevere, and none will attain it except the very fortunate.

The Quran, verses 41:34-35.

Whenever we treat a person who dislikes Islam as less than ourselves, we are showing them that we are willing to discard their inviolable dignity for the sake of our desire for power and comfort. Sensing that we dehumanize them, they will only feel justified in further dehumanizing us. This creates a positive feedback loop that only increases the radicalization of both sides so that we end up with angry and intolerant Muslims who accept nothing but submission to a positive view of Islam from others, and angry and intolerant dislikers of Islam who feel fully justified in working to further increase people’s negative view of Islam by writing or sharing information on Islam’s negative aspects.

This is not how civilized people should behave. By treating critics of Islam with the utmost respect and consideration (regardless of whether they treat us the same way), we show that we follow a higher, better and more civilized morality and in this way prove that we are worthy of being engaged with intellectually. We should display kindness and consideration to critics of Islam, not out of an attempt to manipulate them, but because that is the type of people we are.

A Muslim imam’s preaching for respect and tolerance sounds rather hollow when they are willing to dehumanize people by calling them Islamophobes. An Islamphobe is a person, and persons have the right to be treated the way we like to be treated ourselves (Kant’s categorical imperative). By calling them Islamophobes we break the first rule of morality when it comes to our fellow humans. Nothing we say after that will have any force or meaning. We have started by dehumanizing those who dislike us.

If Islam truly makes us moral and civilized, this should first of all things come out in our actions and words. By using “Islamophobia” we break the first rule of moral and civilized treatment of others, in this way showing ourselves to be rather immoral and uncivilized. We make dialog impossible by calling critics of Islam irrational. If they are intrinsically irrational, then no conclusion they can reach is valid. If we make it a condition for them to like Islam before we consider them rational, then we are basically telling them to sell their independence of mind and conscience to us so that they can become fully human.

Rather than using Islamophobia to dehumanize our opponents, we should make every effort in the opposite direction, constantly showing them that we continue to see them as respected and dignified humans regardless of what conclusions they have reached. They are humans whose subjective experience has made them develop a negative view of Islam based on the information they have received. We do not fix this situation by putting the guilt on them and their rationality, but by showing them that there is a problem with the information.

Fixing the Information Imbalance

The West’s media is largely owned or run by Zionist Jews or Zionist non-Jews with strong loyalty to Israel (The New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, Fox News, Disney, Universal Pictures, Comcast, Random House Publishing, the list goes on). It is in the interest of these media outlets to promote a negative view of Islam. The difference is that while some Zionist outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are unabashedly anti-Islam, leftist outlets like the The New York Times and The Guardian go about their anti-Islam propaganda in a classier way. For example The Guardian has a policy of never using the word “kill” when Israel kills Palestinians. Israel attacks Gaza and Palestinians “die”. Widespread criticism of this duplicity led them to change their headlines a number of times while sticking to the policy of not using “kill” in reference to Israeli killing of Palestinians.

Another “classy” way in which these outlets bias their content against Muslim is by doing something that I call “controlling word spend”. News articles maintain the pretense of neutrality by speaking of both sides of the conflict when mentioning Israeli-Palestinian clashes, but the Israeli side gets many more words dedicated to it, in this way creating the unbalanced impression that the suffering of the Israelis is much more important and that the Muslims and their suffering is just an afterthought. A case in point of this extremely vicious sleight of hand is the following typical article that covers an episode of conflict between Israel and Gaza:

To a casual observer, the article looks fair and balanced. It shows the picture of a Palestinian infant’s funeral, for example. But if you study the word spend of the article, you find the following:

  • 1115 words are dedicated to mentioning pro-Israel points (discussing the suffering of Israeli civilians and Israel’s need to defend itself.)
  • 141 words are dedicated to mentioning pro-Palestinian points (discussing the suffering of Palestinians and their unfair treatment by Israel)
  • 752 words are neutral, supporting neither side.

To show just how unbalanced this coverage is, below is the same numbers expressed as a chart:

Through this clever and insidious method, The New York Times ensures that Westerners always get to empathize far more with Israelis than Palestinians despite the fact that five times more Palestinians than Israelis were killed.

Besides that egregiously unbalanced dedication of words to the different sides, The New York Times also works hard to humanize the Israelis. The article mentions that a rabbi was killed. Not an “Israeli” but a rabbi. The Israelis destroyed a number of anonymous “buildings” while the Palestinians struck a kindergarten in the town of Sderot and the oncology department at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. The interior decoration of one of the Israeli victim’s houses (whose full name and age is given) is described. In this way the article gives its Western readers all kinds of opportunities to empathize with the Israelis and to see their individuality and their suffering, while the Palestinians remain anonymous and their buildings just “buildings”.

The West’s “Islamophobia” is really a media problem, and the solution is for Muslims to create alternative media outlets that do not suffer from the anti-Islam bias of Zionist-owned outlets (which is nearly all of them). We can never expect these outlets to be fair to Muslims because dehumanizing Muslims is crucial to their agenda of supporting Israel at all costs.

This imbalance is not limited to coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is pervasive and easily noticeable by a Muslim (but not by the non-Muslims it is aimed it). The popular YouTube documentaries channel Real Stories has 22 highly anti-Muslim documentaries (discussing Sharia courts, polygamy and terrorism) and only four documentaries that were neutral or positive (discussing hajj and romantic love among Muslims).

It is this grossly biased coverage of Muslims that is promoting so much “Islamophobia”.

We need more Muslim writers, journalists, blogs, news sites, publishing houses and film-making studios. We need to take break the stranglehold of these media outlets over information about Islam so that Westerners may start to get a fair and balanced treatment of Islam and Muslims. By correcting their information sources, we correct the “Islamophobia” problem.

Now, complaining about Western media’s unfair treatment of Muslims is not going to convince anyone to think better of Muslims. We need to completely remake the media environment so that Westerners stop being constantly barraged by one-sided, anti-Islam coverage of Islam and Muslims.

We need to recognize that the mainstream media of the West is our enemy, and we need to exert every effort we can to undo their control over the minds of Westerners.

And we cannot achieve that by creating media outlets that are unfairly biased in favor of Muslims. We need to create media that lives up to the highest standards of Islamic morality, which should begin by embodying a loyalty to the truth above all other considerations.

Conclusion

The West’s “Islamophobia” problem is an information imbalance problem, and correcting it requires creating alternatives to the existing mainstream media.

A Quranic Phenomenology of Atheism

It is common in religious thought to dismiss atheists as obstinate wrongdoers who reject religion out of a combination of irrationality, egotism and their preference for their base desires. But if we appreciate the great honor and dignity that God bestowed on all of humanity (the angels bowed down to us)1, we should perhaps be more willing to explore the atheist’s subjective experience. Another reason to respect the subjective experience of atheists is the great dedication to morality and uprightness that some of them display.

The first book by an atheist that I read was Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods (published 1992). As if by some Discworld magic, the book was being sold by a street bookseller in my Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyyah, Iraq at a time when it was very difficult for me to find English books to buy and read since they were so rare. Since then I have gone on to read 40 novels by him, some of them many times.

Pratchett’s Small God is an all-out attack against Christianity that shows some aspects of Pratchett at their best; his humor and his willingness to admit the good even in the religious. But he also displays a great deal of ignorance about religion like in all his other novels. Since his view of the universe is entirely materialistic, he is unwilling to explore the foundation of religious experience: the possibility of the existence of a soul that instinctively recognizes its creator. By discarding this essential aspect of religion, religion becomes just a silly experiment involving good and bad humans. Good humans like the Prophet Brutha in Small Gods can wield religion to create goodness in the world, while bad humans like Vorbis in the same novel use it to gain power and control.

Terry Pratchett’s view of history is perhaps best summed up in footnote 19 of his Last Continent:

In fact it's the view of the more thoughtful historians, particularly those who have spent time in the same bar as the theoretical physicists, that the entirety of human history can be considered as a sort of blooper reel. All those wars, all those famines caused by malign stupidity, all that determined, mindless repetition of the same old errors, are in the great cosmic scheme of things only equivalent to Mr Spock's ears falling off.

It is one of the greatest failings of Pratchett’s philosophy that he never explores what it is that makes humans morally special. As his career progressed as a writer, he became more and more of a moralist, frequently repeating his teaching that “evil starts when people are treated like things,” which is just a rephrasing of Kant’s categorical imperative to treat humans as ends in themselves rather than as means (things to be used).

But why is it evil to treat humans like things? Shouldn’t a wise person make it one of the goals of their lives to discover this? Pratchett seems to just take it for granted.

In this essay I wish to do for atheists what they are rarely willing to do for the religious: to study their subjective experience in full seriousness. But as a religious person who has studied the questions of morality, I cannot study them on the materialist terms they dictate, since that will get us nowhere. The question of the rightness or wrongness of atheism can only be answered by studying it from a perspective that enjoys a vantage that is outside the box of the universe.

The Covenant of Alast

The Quran tells us:

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.

According to the Quran, all of humanity have already testified to God’s Lordship, and by extension, His existence. By taking this Covenant as our starting point, the justification for God’s perspective on atheism becomes clear; His extreme dislike for it and His view that it is an unjustified choice within our universe.

Humans are not blank slates that go on to either choose theism or atheism based on their upbringing and personal reflection. Humans start out as theists then the knowledge is embedded within their souls while being absent from their brain’s memory.

Imagine our universe as a sphere. The soul is not a part of it, it is outside the universe and looks into it. As Kant and Pratchett tell us, the soul is not an object within our universe and the greatest wrongs of morality start when we treat souls as objects. Souls are subjects, they are like eyes that look into the universe from the outside.

The brain is an object with its own memory and knowledge. The soul is a subject with its own memory and knowledge. The human experience involves a unity of these two different realities.

The soul has knowledge of the Covenant while the brain does not. The point of religion is to bring that knowledge into the brain’s awareness, uniting both body and soul in the Covenant.

Kufr

The Arabic term kufr is used to refer to what atheists do when they reject God. Kufr has a dual meaning that makes it impossible to translate into a simple word in English. It means “to cover”, thus a farmer performs a physical act of kufr when he covers a seed with soil. It also means “to show ingratitude”, thus the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was accused of kufr toward his pagan society when he rejected what they considered holy; they had given him honor and social status, but he displayed kufr in return for these favors.

Speaking from the perspective of the Covenant of Alast, kufr toward God involves two actions: covering and repressing the knowledge of the soul about the Covenant, and displaying ingratitude toward God for His favors upon us, the most important favor being the fact of existing. For every human that exists, an infinite number of humans can be imagined that do not exist.

The very fact of being a self-aware subject looking into this universe is an incredible blessing and favor that requires gratitude.

The Quranic phenomenology of kufr

According to the Quran, one of the essential distinctive features of atheism is hesitation and uncertainty.

Those who disbelieve will continue to be hesitant about it, until the Hour comes upon them suddenly, or there comes to them the torment of a desolate Day.

The Quran, verse 22:55.

Whoever associates anything with God—it is as though he has fallen from the sky, and is snatched by the birds, or is swept away by the wind to a distant abyss.

The Quran, verse 22:31.

Since kufr involves the brain rejecting what the soul knows, it is literally impossible to achieve complete contentment with atheism. The heart cannot settle on it; there is constant tension between the soul and the brain.

The way out of this tension is to build up a rational framework in the brain that can overpower the soul’s knowledge.

Those who took their religion lightly, and in jest, and whom the worldly life deceived. Today We will ignore them, as they ignored the meeting on this Day of theirs, and they used to deny Our revelations.

The Quran, verse 7:51.

The Quran calls this rational framework “being deceived by the worldly life”. In involves taking religion lightly and in jest, and seeking arguments to fortify one’s defenses against their soul’s knowledge. Terry Pratchett and Richard Dawkins are great examples of people who do their best to use both strategies. They cannot help but constantly seek new ways of mocking religion, while also constantly seeking consolation in extra-religious constructs, the most important today being evolutionary science.

This explains a common atheist phenomenon: disgust when religion is mentioned, and celebration when yet another argument is found in support of their reasons for rejecting religion:

When God alone is mentioned, the hearts of those who do not believe in the Hereafter shrink with resentment. But when those other than Him are mentioned, they become filled with joy.

The Quran, verse 39:45.

Religion is an annoyance that always threatens to bring back to sense of tension between the brain and the soul. It is a nuisance that is best dealt with by disgust: the atheist must never study religion too deeply in case this increases their existential discomfort. So they should rather only study religion through the works of atheist preachers like Dawkins who can present religion to them safely; in a way that causes no discomfort but only reinforces the person’s ability to overpower the soul. Dedicated atheists therefore always seek “safe spaces”; atheist echo chambers that can filter out all that is discomfort-inducing about religious thought and philosophy. All that is actually meaningful about religion must be ignored in favor of consoling mockeries about it and consoling scientific theories about how God’s existence is unlikely.

The most difficult thing in life for an atheist is taking religion seriously; to study it as if it is true and finding out where that takes them. This is a heart-wrenching experience because it intensifies the pain of the tension between the brain and soul. It is much better to build an idea of religion made up only of negative facts about it. An atheist has to build a special neural network in their brains that can reassure them that religion is stupid dangerous.

This “atheist theory of religion” is constantly maintained and fortified through the consoling works of atheist preachers. An image of religion is formed that is entirely made up of slivers of historical knowledge that present religion in a negative light: the Inquisition, jihad, terrorism, the abuse of women, the suffering of freethinkers in past ages or modern Islamic societies, the burning of witches, the Crusades, the European wars of religion. This carefully sculpted religious edifice serves as a reference point whenever the atheist is in doubt. Whenever the possibility of God’s existence comes to mind, a cinematic reel starts in the brain that shows images of inquisition, crusade and jihad.

The sin of jaḥd

In fact, it is clear signs in the hearts of those given knowledge. No one disacknowledges Our signs except the wrongdoers.

The Quran, verse 29:49.

The Quran calls the process of finding arguments against God jaḥd (“denial”, “disacknowledgment”). This is not a morally neutral action; it is wrong and brings guilt on the person who does it. Denial of God always involves lying:

Who does greater wrong than he who fabricates lies about God? These will be presented before their Lord, and the witnesses will say, “These are they who lied about their Lord.” Indeed, the curse of God is upon the wrongdoers.

Those who hinder others from the path of God, and seek to make it crooked; and regarding the Hereafter, they are in denial.

The Quran, verses 11:18-19.

Atheism therefore involves dishonesty. The soul knows something but uses the brain to express its opposite. Atheism also involves scheming:

In fact, the scheming of those who disbelieve is made to appear good to them, and they are averted from the path. Whomever God misguides has no guide.

From the Quran, verse 13:33.

Divine rights and human arrogance

Not one of their Lord’s signs comes to them, but they turn away from it.

They denied the truth when it has come to them; but soon will reach them the news of what they used to ridicule.

The Quran, verses 6:4-5.

From the Quran’s perspective, one of the laws of morality within our universe is to admit the truth of the “signs” (revelations and other pointers) of God. The Quran says the “truth” has come to them but they ridiculed it, and the news of what they ridicule will soon come to them.

This is a very important point for understanding the Quranic view of atheism. The Quran’s view is that within our universe, there is a moral law that requires humans to admit to God’s truth. By the mere fact of existing in this universe, this law applies to us and makes demands on us.

The Quran’s view is that there can be no truly honorable, just and moral position against God.

Those who reject Our revelations and are too arrogant to uphold them—the doors of Heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise, until the camel passes through the eye of the needle. Thus We repay the guilty. (The Quran, verse 7:40)

And they said, “No matter what sign you bring us, to bewitch us with, we will not believe in you.” So We let loose upon them the flood, and the locusts, and the lice, and the frogs, and blood—all explicit signs—but they were too arrogant. They were a sinful people. (The Quran, verses 7:132-133)

Those who do not expect to meet Us say, “If only the angels were sent down to us, or we could see our Lord.” They have grown arrogant within themselves, and have become excessively defiant. On the Day when they see the angels—there will be no good news for sinners on that Day; and they will say, “A protective refuge.” (The Quran, verses 25:21-22)

Rejecting God’s signs is not a rational position; it is an emotional one. It always involves arrogance. So when humans demand hard evidence for God’s existence, God does not say they are making a rational demand. Rather than answering their demand, God (1) calls them arrogant and (2) promises them that those rational proofs will only be given them when they will no longer be of any use to them.

This goes to the essence of the argument between atheists and God. Atheists demand hard evidence, God says they are arrogant to make such a demand. There is no dialog possible between the two positions: atheists claim to be making a rational demand, God says they are making an emotional one. Atheists believe they have a right to hard evidence, God says they have no such right and that demanding such a right can only be due to arrogance.

It is God’s view that He deserves to be believed and worshiped without hard evidence. It is the atheist view that God does not deserve that. God’s view is that His “signs”, the soft evidence of revelation and the evidence of design in our universe are sufficient to prove beyond doubt to a human that He exists and deserves to be worshiped. The atheists, however, “harden their hearts” to this evidence and use the emotion of arrogance to prevent their souls from seeing this evidence and giving it the respect it deserves.

To put it another way, God, through His creation of the universe and His interventions (His revelations), has created a system that makes it morally compulsory on all humans to believe in Him and follow His wishes. An atheist, by breaking this moral law, deserves eternal punishment for being so arrogant as to believe that they are above this law.

The atheist’s crime is therefore to believe and act in a way that expresses their view that they are above the cosmic law instituted by God in this universe.

God gives no weight to their rational criticisms of religion; it can only come through arrogance because He knows that the system He has created guides millions to believing in Him and worshiping Him everyday.

As for those who dispute about God after His call has been answered [by others], their argument is null and void with their Lord; and upon them falls wrath; and a grievous torment awaits them.

The Quran, verse 42:16.

The atheist, therefore, claims that their rational experience makes them disbelieve in God. God’s view is that they are lying. There can be no such thing as rational experience making one disbelieve in God. It can only be emotional experience that leads to disbelief; the emotional experience of arrogance. And this arrogance, in God’s view, deserves an answer.

The wrath of God

When those who disbelieve see you, they treat you only with ridicule: “Is this the one who mentions your gods?” And they reject the mention of the Merciful.

The human being was created of haste. I will show you My signs, so do not seek to rush Me.

And they say, “When will this promise come true, if you are truthful?”

If those who disbelieve only knew, when they cannot keep the fire off their faces and off their backs, and they will not be helped.

The Quran, verses 21:36-39.

It can be difficult even for a religious person to justify why God expresses so much anger against atheism. If a human honestly seeks the truth and concludes that God is unlikely to exist, why should this be treated with extreme anger rather than neutrality by God?

The reason is that atheism can never be an honest, neutral choice. It involves the action of a soul that feels God’s presence at all times but that chooses to build a rational framework to justify why it should not submit to God and then uses the emotion of arrogance to uphold this seemingly rational framework.

The soul of the atheist is like Satan who was in the presence of God, knew God’s power and lordship, yet chose knowingly and intentionally to disobey Him and condemn himself to eternal damnation.

God therefore appear to challenge the human soul: You know I exist, but you have the power to justify to yourself disbelief in Me for a while. So what will you do?

God does not merely let humans rely on their soul’s knowledge of Him. He goes the extra step of convincing the human brain of His existence:

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.

When knowledge of God’s lordship are united in a human’s brain and soul, the human finds himself or herself fully in the position of Satan; standing before God while having the power to obey or disobey Him. They also know that by disobeying Him they are asking for a ticket to Hell. So what will they do?

Life is not a simple matter of a brain seeking to know itself and its relationship with the universe–a blank slate that is slowly formed into a theist or atheist. It is something much more serious. It is a matter of standing before an infinitely powerful God, in full awareness, while having the choice to disobey Him.

For a soul, therefore, disobeying Him is not an innocent mistake, it is a crime against a cosmic law. God has empowered each soul with His own power of free will. He has raised us to a position of equality with Him in the matter of choice. And this elevation of our status brings us face-to-face with a terrifying reality. Our choices are not simple and innocent choices; they are the choices of a minister who stands before the King. Denying His power and greatness means knowingly choosing to clash with this terrifying power. God, being infinitely great and worthy of worship and submission, accepts nothing short of infinite suffering as punishment for the soul that dares to knowingly stand up to Him.

We may wish for a simpler and nicer universe. But whether we like it or not, we find ourselves stuck in a terrible game where the stakes are infinitely high.

God is utterly kind and merciful toward those humans who do not abuse their freedom in this game and who do not turn their backs on the knowledge that they have deep within their souls. And as for those who knowingly disobey God, God treats this as a challenge to His greatness and power. When you challenge the Infinite to do what He can to you, what do you expect in return? What higher power, what morality, is there to justify you?

Satan’s role

We said to the angels, “Bow down to Adam.” So they bowed down, except for Satan. He was of the jinn, and he defied the command of his Lord. Will you take him and his offspring as lords instead of Me, when they are an enemy to you? Evil is the exchange for the wrongdoers.

The Quran, verse 18:50.

It is easy to ignore Satan role in our world since as religious people we tend to focus on God. But Satan is an active presence in our lives, and he may explain some of the behavior we see among atheists.

When We said to the angels, “Bow down before Adam,” they bowed down, except for Satan. He said, “Shall I bow down before someone You created from mud?”

He said, “Do You see this one whom You have honored more than me? If You reprieve me until the Day of Resurrection, I will bring his descendants under my sway, except for a few.”

He said, “Begone! Whoever of them follows you—Hell is your reward, an ample reward.”

“And entice whomever of them you can with your voice, and rally against them your cavalry and your infantry, and share with them in wealth and children, and make promises to them.” But Satan promises them nothing but delusion.

“As for My devotees, you have no authority over them.” Your Lord is an adequate Guardian.

The Quran, verses 17:61-65.

Satan may be called the king of the atheists. By actively rejecting God, an atheist cannot help but passively fall under the sway of Satan. When God is taken out of the picture, what is left is Satan. Satan is like a natural force that inspires and reaffirms the atheist mindset. An atheist, after rejecting God, can open their heart to the universe and seek spiritual satisfaction and actually get something back; a religious alternative to religion that continually receives inspiration from an active spiritual presence in our universe.

An atheist can feel that what they are doing is right and good and even spiritual. There is beauty in our universe that inspires the soul. But the atheist, rather than using this as a way of connecting with God, uses it as a way of connecting with Satan. Satan’s promises become a spiritual religion: the universe has no creator; we will cease existing after death; but the universe is beautiful and we are self-aware; so our task is to find beauty and meaning in a Godless world. The atheist attaches their heart to this new religion which becomes the most meaningful and beautiful thing in their lives. They go on to become extremely intolerant and militant preachers of this new religion that must end all other religions.

Conclusion

According to the Quran, there is no such thing as innocently choosing to be an atheist. Atheism involves a soul that stands in God’s presence but that arrogantly chooses to build a rational framework for denying Him in order to gain comfort and consolation for a short while during its lifetime in this world. The atheist, like Satan, knowingly challenges God to do His worst.

Atheism involves a lifetime of asking God to give oneself a ticket to Hell. This wish comes true sooner or later.

I do not wish to suggest that any atheist individual is going to Hell. The fate of individuals is in God’s hands and it should be left to Him to judge each case. But it certainly seems to be the case that to be an atheist is to challenge God to do His worst, at least once the point is reached when both soul and brain are united in their knowledge of God.

Solving the Problem of the Codification of the Sharia

Kau Ban Mosque in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Abstract

I argue that the existence of an inherent contradiction between the Islamic Sharia and codification is imaginary and caused by paying insufficient attention to the nature of the workings of the Sharia and how it relates to the state. So far codification has meant the imposition of the hegemony of the state over the Islamic legal process. It is possible to create a legitimate and authoritative Sharia code by reversing this process: imbibing the ideals of the Sharia into the legislature and making its principles the governing doctrines on how the process of codification should be carried out.

In law, codification is the process of collecting legal rulings into a legal code or book of law that is then made the official source of law for a jurisdiction, for example for a town or country. Traditional Islamic law until the 19th century was alien to codification because codification was a bureaucratic need that was only recognized in that century after the influence of Western legal systems. The first important attempt at the codification of Islamic law was made in British-controlled India.1 The British considered the Islamic practice of law as “as an uncontrollable and corrupted mass of individual juristic opinion” according to Wael Hallaq.2 Hallaq considers the British attempt at codification as an outgrowth of colonialism. Islamic law was severed from its roots in order to fit in with British ideals of how the law should function.

The Ottoman Mecelle of 1876 was the first attempt by a sovereign Islamic state to codify Islamic law.3 Samy Ayoub considers the Mecella a legitimate outgrowth of the Hanafi legal system of the Ottoman Empire,4 while Wael Hallaq considers it a state imposition that by steps almost totally replaced the Sharia.5

The essence of Islamic jurisprudence was the constant re-analysis of the sources of Islamic law in order derive new rulings (fatwās) based on the individual and autonomous research of a jurist (muftī). According to George Makdisi, a jurist could not even rely on his previous rulings to create new rulings; this would have been considered an unacceptable breach of the jurist’s duty to constantly re-analyze the sources of Islamic law (the Quran, the sunna, the consensus of past scholars, and Medinan ʿamal in the case of the Mālikī school).6

Islam gave rise to the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral dissertation, only adopted by the West after centuries of conflict between the Church and the universities. Since Islam has no official ecclesiastical hierarchy, each professor of the law (jurist or muftī) had to be an independent authority who could profess independent, autonomous opinions on matters of law. The very term “professor” comes from Islam: a professor is someone who has studied the law sufficiently with a master and who has produced a taʿlīqa (doctoral dissertation), an original thesis that proves his competence as an independent thinker.

Islam’s muftīs were the world’s first professors. Islam, however, never extended the concept of the professor beyond the field of Islamic law. It was Western civilization that took this step and created the concept of “professor” as an independent authority on any field of knowledge.

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

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

From the 19th century onward, many Muslim states adopted Western legal codes as part of their process of modernization. While many of these codes purport to respect the Sharia or to consider it a primary source of law, the reality is that they are forced to break the very foundation of the Sharia in their efforts to codify it.

The Sharia functions, like science, on the basis of the autonomous consensus of the professors. Governments, however, want stable legal codes that they can control. The call for the Islamization of the law in various Muslim countries has always ran into the contradiction between the Sharia’s system of autonomous consensus and the Western legal practice of creating legal codes.7 A Pakistani court adopted the punishment of a hundred lashes for married individuals found guilty of zinā (fornication). Traditional religious scholars found this an unacceptable breach of Islamic law since the traditional punishment for such individuals is stoning to death.8 The government of President Zia ul Haq, in order to maintain the support of the scholars, called for a rehearing of the case and changed the composition of the court to include traditionalist scholars. The result was that the court arrived at the traditional ruling of stoning to death.9

From the Sharia perspective, the artificial creation of a new ruling such as this that becomes the authoritative law of the land is a miscarriage of jurisprudence, since it destroys the Sharia’s reliance on the autonomous consensus of the professors of the law and replaces it with a government-elected clerical regime. The new legal code abolishes the academic freedom of the professors of the law and replaces it with the government’s monopoly power over the courts.

Professor Ann Elizabeth Mayer, in relation to the conflict between the Sharia and codification, proposes the establishment of a new doctrine toward it that somehow makes it accommodate codification, while admitting that it will be a delicate and painful process. But rather than seeking to abolish the Sharia’s autonomous foundations in favor of rigid codification, a synthesis is possible that embraces both modern democratic ideals of legislation and the Sharia’s autonomous nature.

The synthesis of the Sharia and legal codification

By understanding the workings of the Sharia, translating its ideals to the realm of modern legislation becomes a somewhat simple exercise. The “Islamization” problem of the modern Islamic state is not with Islam or secularism, but with the way the state attempts to enforce its hegemony over the communities it governs, as Noah Salomon argues.10 Anver M. Emon argues that critiques of the codification of Islamic law are often based on an ideology of the way the state functions or should function, rather than on an inherent contradiction between Islamic law and codification.11 I believe that it is possible to envision a state legislature that can fully represent the ideals of the Sharia while working within a codified system of law.

Authoritative Sharia rulings demand that the lawmaking authority should be made up of professors of the law that enjoy the following characteristics:

  • The attainment of formal education under the masters of the law and the presentation of an original doctoral thesis that proves their competence to profess independent rulings.
  • The academic freedom to profess opinions arrived at through personal, independent research that is not in any way influenced or controlled by a higher authority.

What an Islamic state can do is to bring together all willing professors of the law into a legislative council, for a example a house of parliament, where they can debate aspects of the law and pass rulings. Such a council, rather than being made up of elected professors, should automatically admit all professors who have proven their competence in their field (for example by getting their doctoral degree). This allows for the creation of a lawmaking body that is made up of all eligible professors in the land, just as in the traditional practice of Sharia lawmaking where every professor had the right to participate in lawmaking. Government interference with the admission process of professors into the legislative body will naturally corrupt its essential essence of autonomy, since the government will be able to support the laws it desires by choosing to admit only the professors that support the state.

In many Arab countries top religious officials are selected by the state. George Washington University Professor Nathan J. Brown describes this type of control over religious institutions as both imposing and clumsy.12 The control of the Egyptian military regime over al-Azhar University has lead to renowned scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi describing government-elected jurists like Dr. Ali Gomaa as “the jurist of the soldiers.”13 It is clear that state interference with Islamic lawmaking is self-defeating: A state-controlled process cannot achieve the all-important aspect of legitimacy that traditional Islamic law enjoys. In this way state laws enjoy neither legitimacy nor the widespread support of the Muslim populace.

Speaking of our imagined “council of the professors of the law”: When disagreements arise, the lawmaking body can decide matters based on the votes cast by the professors. The ruling that gets the most votes is the one that is integrated into the legal code. Dissenting opinions will also be integrated into the code, so that citizens can be given the choice to act by the dissenting opinion where this is feasible, similar to the way that the four-school courts of the Mamlūks functioned.14

It would be logistically unfeasible to convene all of the law professors, who may number in the many thousands, into a single legislative house. Instead, the legislative body can work by issuing calls for fatwās from all of the professors without requiring them to convene. The legislative body can then collate all of the fatwās and determine which ruling has the most support.

And in order to protect the integrity of the process, a legislative council can be elected by the professors themselves that oversees the process of issuing fatwā calls, collating fatwās and integrating them into the legal code.

Each professor should have the right to propose a change to the legal code. Whenever a change to the legal code is proposed, a new fatwā call can be issued and the professors can either stand by their previous fatwās or issue new ones.

In this way a stable legal code can be created that enjoys the widespread support of the professors of the law and that satisfies the principles of the Sharia: academic freedom, non-exclusivity and changeability (the ability to always go back to the sources and reach new rulings). In this way a living and constantly up-to-date legal code can be created. Since some aspects of the law are highly specialized, each specialization can have its own council and professors.

The Dark Side of Swearing: The Philosophical Reason Why Using Profanity is Wrong

A philosophical investigation of why using various forms of profanity is dangerous and harmful in the long-term. Included is a discussion of why using the word “sexy” casually is wrong.

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.

This article heavily relies on the philosophical thought of the great British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (1944 – ).

To corporealize a person (a verb I have coined) 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 Golden Rule of Jesus and Muhammad, part of what C. S. Lewis called that Tao, is to “treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.” We like to be treated as centers of independent moral judgment, not as tools of other people. It is a horrible violation of your dignity if someone right now comes along, drags you away from the screen and starts to cut your hair without your consent. This treatment corporealizes you–throws away your independence, your free will, and treats you as if you were merely a random collection of atoms that can be treated however that person wishes. The Golden Rule teaches us to never treat others in such a way, since we ourselves never want to be treated like that. Kant formalized this by declaring that we must always treat others as ends, not means.

Profanity is shocking, gross and insulting because the basis of profanity is always to cause in the minds of the audience the image of a corporealized human.

Profanity always associates humans with gross or inferior matter or with sexuality (profanity can also have religious blasphemy as its basis, which will be dealt with later). The strong sexual element in profanity is due the fact that when a person is revealed to us as a sexed animal rather than a person, they become something less than human in our eyes. Their moral depth, their free will, their conscience, their inviolable dignity as humans, is all thrown out to to be replaced by the image of an animal. We can do anything we like to them because only humans, only persons, deserve to be treated according to the Golden Rule. You do not treat cows according to the Golden Rule. Cows can be slaughtered.

The dark side of profanity is that, by corporealizing fellow humans and stripping away their personhood, we justify to ourselves treating them with the worst treatment. Whenever you hear someone say “She is a cow,” you should immediately translate this to yourself as, “She is not a person.” When a woman is called a “whore”, the implication is that she is not a person–she is merely goods that can be sold. When a man is called a “jerk-off”, the intent is to bring to the mind of the listener or reader the image of that man masturbating. By depicting them as engaging in a degrading sexual act, the implication is that he is just an animal-like creature who does not deserve to be treated like a human.

Of course, such insults in general are only weak suggestions and insinuations that we can ignore. But the problem is that when they become commonplace and respectable to use in public, as they have largely become in Western culture, this has an influence on the way we envision fellow humans. Profanity teaches that some humans are not humans. And this lesson can be taken to heart. It is very hard to take the idea of the inviolability of humans seriously in a culture that constantly corporealizes people.

A moralist will call expressions like “What the fuck?” a “degradation” of culture when it is used by the elite. I have a hard time respecting the writer Reza Aslan because he keeps using the word “fuck” on Twitter. “What the fuck?” brings the imagery of sexual intercourse out of the bedroom in order to grab attention and create a reaction. It is effective at that, but there is a cost to it. If you do not care about the cost, or do not realize there is a cost, then you will have no trouble using it. Many in the West think it is just a silly social rule that such expressions are frowned upon.

Using profanity is the act of breaking something in order to grab attention. When an intellectual does that, it shows their shallowness and lack of reflection, because it means that either they have not thought carefully about the nature of profanity, or that they are irresponsible enough to know that profanity involves breaking something without caring about the thing broken.

The cost, the broken thing, is that by bringing sex out of the bedroom, the corporealization of humans is normalized. I recently saw a social media post by a teenager who complained that he/she was being made very uncomfortable by their mother wearing a dog collar in the house (apparently as a playful expression of her sexual submissiveness to her husband). Seeing one’s mother as an object of sex makes it very difficult to treat her as “Mother”. “Mother” is a social definition, a person within a social context, she is not a body with sex organs. We never want to think of her sex organs because that destroys the social “Mother” in our minds. Once she is reduced to her sexuality, the person fades away so that only the flesh remains. The child no longer knows how to treat her: is she Mother or is she a sexed female animal?

The mother’s excuse was that she was free to celebrate her sexuality the way she wanted. And her logic makes perfect sense within the West’s present culture: why shouldn’t a woman be proud of her sexedness when everything around her tells her to be proud of it and to show it off?

The cost of bringing sex out of the bedroom is that it literally breaks down social relations. To give an extreme example; a boy cannot respect his parents if he constantly sees them having sex, even if technically they are doing nothing wrong and no one is being harmed. By strongly impressing upon the child their sexedness, their bodies, the fact of their being animals, the human element evaporates. The child is disgusted, turns away and wants to have nothing to do with his parents. The child wants Mother and Father, two social persons, not two sexed pieces of flesh. When Mother and Father reduce themselves to sexed animals before the child, they are engaging in child abuse. They are depriving the child of the right to socially relate to them by forcing the child to see them corporealized.

Using any form of profanity is an act of either taking sexuality out of the bedroom where it should remain, or an act of dehumanizing people in order to insinuate that they should be treated as less than human. It is true that it is degenerative because encourages us to corporealize society and throw away the basis for the way we relate to other humans as humans. It calls for turning society into something that has the harsh, inhuman atmosphere of a jungle. Everyone is a piece of flesh; there remains no inviolability for humans.

An important expression of corporealiziation is the way today in the West people have no trouble dehumanizing their political opponents. Imagine the irony of people saying they believe in human rights while habitually using insults on Twitter to insinuate that this or that person is not really a human and therefore deserves no human rights. Supposedly respectable members of society have no trouble calling Donald Trump a “piece of shit” on Twitter.

Regardless of your hatred for him, if you cross the line and dehumanize him this way, you are showing that you do not really believe in human rights. You maintain a double standard where only people you like are really humans. And this is what is clearly seen in almost all Western political discourse today.

Whenever a disliked person is dehumanized like that, the hard-won centuries of development of the humanistic ideal is thrown into the trashcan. In order to vent their anger, these people are willing to reduce fellow humans to animals or worse, completely forgetting the inviolable place that each human should have in a modern, civilized society.

What conservative Christian (think Victorian) and Islamic society achieve is a non-corporealized human culture where people are forced to treat other people with respect whether they feel like it or not. These traditional, civilized societies continually emphasize persons and de-emphasize bodies through keeping bodily functions, including sex, out of sight. Read Victorian newspapers and you will see how respectful everyone is forced to be toward everyone else. Today’s culture appears totally insane and completely unhinged by comparison–everyone is suffering from a form of insanity that blinds them to the humanity of the persons they dislike. Non-corporealized, traditional cultures keep this form of insanity in check, and an important part of their method for keeping it in check is the fact that they strongly disapprove of profanity and public expressions of sexuality.

Traditional Christianity and Islam had civilized culture figured out: you do not dehumanize others, and you do not do anything to spread a dehumanizing, corporealized worldview even if it is by a mere swearword. Today’s Western culture has no idea what it is doing: it thinks it calls for human rights when it freely dehumanizes millions who belong to the opposing political camp. It calls for children’s rights when it destroys their ability to relate socially, as humans rather than animals. to their families as it encourages the open celebration of sexuality.

If you want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, then you will always avoid profanity. Yes, it is good at grabbing attention. But damaging your home and civilization just to grab attention is a rather cheap trick.

Religious profanity

Religious profanity, like all profanity, involves breaking something in order to grab attention. In this case, rather than breaking the Golden Rule of the non-corporealization of fellow humans, it breaks a rule valued by a particular religion. No self-respecting intellectual should be guilty of this because it still indirectly breaks the Golden Rule by treating other humans the way we do not like to be treated ourselves.

Saying “damn” is inappropriate because it makes light of a very serious matter: eternal damnation in Hell. Saying “What the hell?” is similar, it brings something grave and serious into a casual context, in this way stripping it of its importance. Similar to the way corporealization strips the personhood from a human, these curse words strip the gravity and religious significance of an important item of faith, desecrating them. Corporealization is the desecration of a human, while religious profanity is the desecration of an item of faith.

If you do not care about the feelings of a Christian who is hurt when you insult Jesus, it shows that you are not truly civilized–that the centuries of development of the humanist ideal have passed you by. You are not a respectable member of polite society. For this reason I expect every self-respecting intellectual to avoid curse words of religious origin.

The problem with “sexy”

The word “sexy” is not a swearword, but it is closely related to our topic.

I was recently disappointed to see some Islamic intellectuals use the word “sexy” on social media casually. This is of course not a very big deal. But the problem with “sexy” is that, like profanity, it celebrates the corporealization of humans. The word “sexy” is properly used to describe the fact that a human possesses the capacity to stimulate other humans sexually. Rather than celebrating a person’s personhood, it celebrates their bodies. It turns them into objects and forgets the fact that they are inviolable subjects looking into the universe, not mere objects that can be treated in isolation of their personhood. A “sexy” woman is a woman who can titillate men’s sexual desire. We do not care about her moral character and personhood, the fact that is brought to the fore is that she is a female with desirable sexual features and sex organs that can be used for a man’s pleasure.

It would have been much worse if those Muslim intellectuals had used the word to describe a woman. They did the much less serious act of borrowing a corporealizing term and using it in a non-sexual context. The problem remains that by using the term, they are taking part in the West’s corporealizing culture to some degree. They are taking part in normalizing the use of the word “sexy” in non-personal contexts.

Note that the word “sexy” is perfectly fine to use toward a woman with whom you have a consensual personal relationship. There is no problem with me using it to describe my own wife in private because we have an interpersonal relationship. She has given consent to a personal relationship with me that involves a sexual element. But even here it can still be wrong to use if I use it in a casual way that implies she is merely of interest to me by the virtue of her body. What takes away the wrongness is the constant reassurance in the relationship that I see her as a person, not a body. The constant presence of the interpersonal aspect of the relationship makes room for engaging in eroticism without it being dehumanizing and corporealizing. All eroticism that loses sight of the person and focuses entirely on the body is automatically improper, obscene and corporealizing.

For more on the interpersonal aspect of human sexual relations please see the interesting article “What #MeToo and hooking up teach us about the meaning of sex” by Elizabeth Schlueter and Nathan Schlueter.

Mathematical Hadith Verification

Islam’s hadith literature (reports about the actions and sayings of the Prophet PBUH) is one of the most problematic aspects of the religion due to the issues concerning the reliability of transmitters. How do we know if a report going back six or seven generations to the Prophet PBUH truly and accurately reports what the Prophet PBUH said or did?

So far the science of hadith has largely limited itself to verifying the authenticity of hadiths by verifying the trustworthiness of each person in a hadith’s chain of narrators. If all the transmitters are trustworthy, the assumption is that the hadith is ṣaḥīḥ (“authentic” or “sound”) unless the hadith reports things that are clearly false or contradictory to other hadith narrations. The problem is that a hadith scholar’s own beliefs and biases can strongly affect whether they consider a strange and rare hadith to be authentic or not. A good example is the following hadith in Imām al-Bukhārīʾs collection:

Narrated Abu 'Amir or Abu Malik Al-Ash'ari that he heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, "From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, khazz (a type of clothing), the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful. And there will be some people who will stay near the side of a mountain and in the evening their shepherd will come to them with their sheep and ask them for something, but they will say to him, 'Return to us tomorrow.' Allah will destroy them during the night and will let the mountain fall on them, and He will transform the rest of them into monkeys and pigs and they will remain so till the Day of Resurrection."

(Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5590)

A non-scholar who reads this hadith will be greatly troubled by the implication that the use of musical instruments is a characteristic of misguided and impious Muslims. And since the hadith is authentic and present in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, they will face the difficult choice of either believing musical instruments (and hence all music) to be forbidden in Islam, or ignoring the hadith and going with the commonsense and widespread Muslim belief that music is permissible in Islam.

By introducing probability theory into the science of hadith, we gain an extremely powerful tool that enables us to judge just how seriously we should take any particular hadith. This is especially useful in the case of hadiths that seem to be contradicted by other hadiths. For example on the issue of musical instruments we have the following hadith:

Narrated Aisha:

Abu Bakr came to my house while two small Ansari girls were singing beside me the stories of the Ansar concerning the Day of Buath. And they were not singers. Abu Bakr said protestingly, "Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) !" It happened on the `Id day and Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "O Abu Bakr! There is an `Id for every nation and this is our `Id."

Sahih al-Bukhari 952

An authentic version of this hadith (Sahih Muslim 892 b) tells us that the girls were using the instrument daff (“tambourine”). So here we have the Prophet PBUH approving of the use of musical instruments in his own home, yet the other hadith implies that musical instruments are wicked and unlawful.

Probabilistic hadith criticism helps solve the dilemma of having to choose between two hadiths that are both judged authentic by hadith scholars by telling us which one is stronger.

As it happens, the hadith mentioning the Prophet’s approval of musical instruments is far more “authentic” and believable than the hadith in which he disapproves of them.

In this essay I will use these hadiths on music as an illustration of the probabilistic hadith verification method.

Gathering the hadiths approving of music

The first step in hadith verification is to gather all existing versions of a hadith and their chains and to draw a diagram representing all of its transmitters. Below is a diagram of the version of the “two singing girls” hadiths found in Sahih al-Bukhari:

The blue box is the hadith, and the gray boxes are its transmitters. The first transmitter is Aisha, may God be pleased with her, wife of the Prophet PBUH. The second transmitter is Urwa b. al-Zubayr, her nephew. The third transmitter is Urwa’s son Hisham. The the fourth transmitter is the highly respected hadith scholar Hammad b. Usama b. Zayd. The fifth transmitter is Ubayd b. Ismail, a respected hadith transmitter. This transmitter gave the hadith to Imam al-Bukhari who recorded it.

The second version of the hadith is also in Sahih al-Bukhari:

Narrated Aisha:

That once Abu Bakr came to her on the day of `Id-ul-Fitr or `Id ul Adha while the Prophet (ﷺ) was with her and there were two girl singers with her, singing songs of the Ansar about the day of Buath. Abu Bakr said twice. "Musical instrument of Satan!" But the Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Leave them Abu Bakr, for every nation has an `Id (i.e. festival) and this day is our `Id."

Sahih al-Bukhari 3931

Below is a diagram of this hadith’s chain:

You may note that the first three transmitters are the same as those of the previous hadith. So we can join their diagrams into one as follows:

Next is the chain found in Sahih Muslim 892 a:

This chain is exactly the same as the al-Bukhari’s first chain except for the last transmitter. We can therefore join it with the rest as follows:

We now therefore have three chains going back to the same hadith. Imam Muslim mentions two additional chains which we add to the diagram as follows:

We now move on to other collections that mention the same hadith. The first one is a version mentioned in Abu Uwaana’s Mustakhraj, which we add to the diagram as follows:

I have indicated the new chain in green. After further research, I was able to discover a further chain in Sahih al-Bukhari as indicated below:

Al-Bukhari mentions an alternative version of this new chain as indicated below:

The scholar Abu Uwana adds two of his own supporting chains to this version as follows:

We now have a fairly complete picture of all of the different chains of this hadith.

Adding the probabilities

To understand this section, some previous knowledge of probability theory will likely be required.

In order to start, we have to agree on an important assumption. How trustworthy is a single transmitter? This is a matter of intuition. After trying out various probabilities, I have settled on the value of 60%. This means that each trustworthy transmitter in a chain has a 60% chance of truthfully and correctly transmitting the hadith they transmit. This may seem low, but it actually works very well to represent the issues inherent in hadith transmitter verification.

According to probability theory, if you have a witness with 60% probability of truthfulness saying something, and then a second witness also with 60% probability of truthfulness comes along and says the same thing, the probability of both of them saying the truth increases, since we have two witnesses saying the same thing. We calculate this increase by multiplying the falsehood probabilities of the two persons as follows:

Person 1: 60% chance of truth = 40% chance of falsehood

Person 2: 60% chance of truth = 40% chance of falsehood

The chance of falsehood for both = 40% * 40% = 16%

The chance of truth of both = 100% - the chance of falsehood = 100% - 16% = 84%

Below is a diagram of an imaginary chain that represents these facts:

We have two people each of whom say that the Prophet PBUH said something. Each of them has a 60% probability of truthfulness and accuracy, but the two of them together have a 84% probability of truthfulness and accuracy, so the above imaginary hadith has an 84% chance of truthfulness and accuracy.

As we add more transmitters, the probability continually goes up:

Now we have four supporting witnesses, so their probability of truthfulness can be calculated as follows:

Falsehood probabilities: 40% * 40% * 40% * 40% = 2.56%

Truth probability: 100% - 2.56% = 97.44%

What this means is that if you have four Companions transmit the same hadith from the Prophet PBUH, the chance of the hadith being truly and correctly transmitted is 97.44%, which is a very high chance.

In probability theory 1 represents 100% and 0 represents 0. So another way of doing the above calculation is as follows:

0.4 * 0.4 * 0.4 * 0.4 = 0.0256

1 - 0.0256 = 0.9744

The benefits of the 60% assumption will become clear as we go through the verification process of the chains we gathered earlier. We will first deal with the top part of the diagram, which is as follows:

First, we will fill in the original 60% assumption by writing 0.6 in each bubble:

We do not add the 0.6 to the bubbles on the far right because those are written books, so they virtually have a 100% chance of reliability. What concerns us are unwritten, oral transmissions. The first step is to combine the three middle transmitters’ probabilities vertically, as follows:

Falsehood chances: (1-0.6) * (1-0.6) * (1-0.6) = 0.064

Truth chance: 1 - 0.064 = 0.936

Above, each of the three transmitters has a 100% – 60%, or 40% likelihood of falsely transmitting the hadith. But in order to get the probability of all of them falsely transmitting the hadith at the same time, we have to multiply these chances together: 40% * 40% * 40% = 6.4%. So the chance of all of them having falsely transmitted the hadith is only 6.4%, meaning that there is a 93.6% chance of them having truly and accurately transmitted this hadith.

We will call this “vertical combination”. We vertically combine all of the probabilities of the truthfulness and accuracy of the transmitters to get a single number, in this case 93.6%, which represents the authenticity of all them combined together.

We next have to do a horizontal combination. All three transmitters transmit the hadith from Hammad b. Usama, who also has a 0.6 (60%) chance of authenticity.

In the case of horizontal combination, rather than multiplying falsehood probabilities, we multiply truth probabilities. The reason is that as information passes down through a chain of transmitters each of whom have a 60% chance of authenticity, the chance of the information being correctly passed down decreases. There is more chance for error and fabrication. If you hear a Companion say that the Prophet PBUH said something, that is far more trustworthy than another person saying they heard their father say that their grandfather said that a Companion said that the Prophet PBUH said that.

So we multiply 0.93 by 0.6 to get 0.558, which means 55.8%. We now update the bubble for Hammad b. Usama to represent this new probability:

Hammad b. Usama’s probability went down from 0.6 to 0.558 because we did not hear the hadith directly from him, but from three people who claim to have heard him. Since those three people have a combined probability of 93% truthfulness and accuracy (rather than 100%), this slightly decreases the probability of the truthfulness and accuracy of the information we get from Hammad b. Usama.

We now move on to al-Bukhari’s second chain, which is as follows:

Using horizontal combination:

0.6 * 0.6 * 0.6 = 0.216

So this second chain has only a 21.6% probability of truthfulness and accuracy. The reason is that we do not have any supporting transmitters. We only have Muhammad b. al-Muthanna’s word for it that Muhammad b. Jaafar said that, and we only have Muhammad b. Jaafar’s word for it that Shu`ba said that. The deeper a chain goes back in time, the lower its probability of authenticity and accuracy becomes.

We next deal with two chains from Sahih Muslim:

Using vertical combination for the middle transmitters, we get a probability of 0.84 or 84%. Multiplying that by 0.6, we get 0.504, meaning that Abu Mu`awiyah has a 50.4% probability of authenticity.

Next we have the more interesting task of combining all the chains we examined above. We have to vertically combine the probabilities of Hammad (0.558), Shu`ba (0.216) and Abu Mu`awiyah (0.504):

Falsehood probabilities: (1-0.558) * (1-0.216) * (1-0.504) = 0.171877888

Truth probability: 1 - 0.171877888 = 0.828122112

So the probability of the truth of the information coming from these three transmitters is 82.8%.

Now we horizontally combine this with Hisham b. Urwa’s 0.6 probability, resulting in 0.496873267

We repeat these same steps for the remaining chains, as follows:

And by vertically combining the left-most probabilities (Hisham b. Urwa’s 49.68% and Muhammad b. Abd al-Rahman’s 21.04%), we get 0.602766552, so the information has a 60.27% probability of authenticity at this stage.

We next multiply this 0.602766552 by Urwa b. al-Zubayr’s 0.6 (horizontal combination), resulting in 0.361659931.

In the final step, we multiply this result by Aisha’s 0.6:

The result is 0.216995959. This means that the hadith with all of its chains has a 21.69% chance of authenticity and accuracy. This seems very low, but it is natural for a hadith that comes from a single Companion, through a single transmitter.

In my methodology, a hadith that reaches 20% or higher is ḥasan, a hadith that reaches 30% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ, a hadith that reaches 60% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ), and a hadith that reaches 85% or higher is mutawātir (“widely transmitted”, a degree above ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ).

Different scholars may prefer different probabilities for what they consider ḥasan or higher. Personally these are the numbers I have settled on that my heart is comfortable with and accepts.

The hadith disapproving of music

We now move on to Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5590, the hadith that says misguided Muslims will approve of musical instruments. Below is a diagram of the hadith’s chain:

The hadith comes from a single chain that does not branch out, meaning it is an extremely questionable chain, which I call a “precarious” chain. To calculate its probability of authenticity, we horizontally combine all the 0.6 probabilities as follows:

Probability of truth = 0.6 * 0.6 * 0.6 *0.6 *0.6 *0.6 = 0.046656

This hadith therefore has a 4.66% chance of authenticity, which is extremely low. In my methodology a hadith between 10% and 20% is munkar (strange and likely to be false), while a hadith below 10% is ḍaʿīf (“weak”, i.e. almost certainly false). As discussed in another article, there is another reason to consider this hadith false: it says misguided Muslims will consider khazz (a type of clothing) lawful. But we know 20 Companions of the Prophet PBUH wore this type of clothing, so this makes the hadith even more dubious.

The verdict

So this hadith in which the Prophet PBUH says misguided Muslims will consider musical instruments lawful has only a 4.66% chance of authenticity, while the hadith in which the Prophet PBUH approves of musical instruments has a 21.69% chance of authenticity. Thus the hadith in which the Prophet PBUH approves of musical instruments is 4.6 times stronger than the hadith in which he disapproves of them (21.69 ÷ 4.66 = 4.65).

Based on this, we can confidently say that the evidence in support of the lawfulness of musical instruments is far stronger. Therefore approval of musical instruments is a vastly better representation of the Prophet’s sunna (tradition) than disapproval of them.

Defending the assumptions

The assumption that each transmitter has a 60% chance of accurately and truthfully transmitting the information needs to be defended. This assumption makes most ṣaḥīḥ narrations get an authenticity around 30%. If we treat these numbers empirically, it would mean that most authentic narrations are more likely to be false than true. For this reason I have chosen to treat all hadiths that reach 30% or higher as ṣaḥīḥ / authentic despite the fact that empirically they fall beneath the truth threshold of 50%.

My reasoning is that by choosing these assumptions, we create an interface between the empirical research world and the classical hadith studies world. A non-Muslim scholar may choose the 30% verdict on an authentic narration as a cause for skepticism, while a Muslim scholar can continue to make use of probability theory while adopting the traditional view of considering individual, low-truth-probability hadiths as authentic.

Another reason for the 60% assumption is that it gives us a very wide range of results. Some hadiths will reach close to 100%, many others will hover between 50% and 20%. This allows for representing a scholar’s empirical intuitions about these transmitted pieces of information, while also allowing them to remain in the classical hadith criticism world if they wish by choosing lower numbers, such as 30%, to represent full authenticity.

The study of Islam works on the basis of the autonomous consensus of the researchers, a concept I have defended elsewhere.1 Therefore introducing probability theory into hadith criticism will require the involvement of many researchers until a consensus emerges on the best assumptions to be chosen. Therefore my assumptions in this article are merely preliminary suggestions intended to illustrate what a probabilistic study of hadith would look like.

Conclusion

Combining probability theory and hadith criticism can greatly help in resolving issues surrounding contradictory hadith narrations by making it clear which hadiths are superior to which ones. It would be extremely helpful if we could build a new hadith collection that shows the probability of authenticity of each hadith rather than merely saying whether it is authentic or not. But such a work would require many years of work.

There is also the issue of sub-par transmitters. While I have chosen a probability 60% for reliable transmitters, for transmitters who are mudallis, non-qawī, non-ḥujja, or considered weak by some scholars and not others, lower probabilities will have to be used where necessary.

There are also different levels of weak transmitters. Some are considered weak for ideological reasons (because they held beliefs that hadith scholars considered unacceptable), while others are considered weak because they were caught lying or fabricating hadiths. Different probabilities will have to be used for different levels of weakness.

Further applications of the probabilistic method

Below is a list of studies I have conducted on certain topics of hadith criticism where I use the methodology developed in this article:

Ikram Hawramani, “Islam and magic”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/islam-and-magic/, Apr 02, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

Ikram Hawramani, “Is ruqya part of Islam? A study of the hadiths on ruqya using probability theory”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/is-ruqya-part-of-islam-a-study-of-the-hadiths-on-ruqya-using-probability-theory/, Mar 24, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

Ikram Hawramani, “A study of “the majority of people in Hell are women” hadith”, The Hawramani Institute, http://hawramani.com/a-study-of-the-majority-of-people-in-hell-are-women-hadith/, Mar 26, 2019, retrieved April 22, 2019.

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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 [as] 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 PBUH.

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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH, 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 PBUH] 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 PBUH 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 PBUH] 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 peace be upon him) 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 PBUH 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 PBUH. 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH: "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 PBUH 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 PBUH affirms in other narrations), the Prophet PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 peace be upon him) 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 PBUH):

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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 PBUH 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 this can help us interpret the verse’s meaning better. And if it shown that women and men differ, then those differences should be taken into account.

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

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

The History of Salafism: The Making of Salafism by Henri Lauzière

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

Henri Lauzière, Northwestern University Associate Professor

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

Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī

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

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

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī

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

Muhammad Abduh

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

Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb

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

Rashid Rida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of Salafism

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

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

A comical misunderstanding

Louis Massignon

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

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

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

ʿAllāl al-Fāsī

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

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

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

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selection bias and cultural intertia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The anti-Ghazali prejudice

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

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

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

Wahhabism, Ibn Taymiyya and Salafism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Muslims invent science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Islamization of knowledge”

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

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

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

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

Theistic science and metaphysical pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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