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The Islamic stance toward Israel and its Jews

Assalamu alaikum! Brother, what do you think of Israel occupation of Palestine? Do you approve of the Israelite State standing on the land of the Palestinians?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

Israel was established by injustice and oppression, based on a Jewish-supremacist ideology that believes all Palestinians should ideally be made to leave all the “Israeli” lands.

However, in order to solve such situations, I believe that we must focus on the situation as it is today, rather than focusing on historical injustices. But the fact is that the Jewish-supremacist ideology remains. Israelis are not interested in peace or co-existence, but in constantly taking over Palestinian lands until they remain so long on those lands that the land becomes theirs by law and custom.

I know some Muslims feel despair at the power of Israel. It has one tenth the population of Egypt yet it has an economy the size of Egypt’s economy. It is the most economically and technologically advanced Middle Eastern country and the only one with nuclear weapons in Western Asia.

As I have said elsewhere, I have a historian’s view of history, thinking in terms of generations and centuries. The State of Israel has not existed even for a single human lifetime (80 years). My view is that the Israelis are playing with fire. Israel is a poetic disaster waiting to happen, and every Israeli injustice, oppression and expansion only makes this more likely. We do not have to refer to the Quran for this; the Torah contains enough terrifying promises against the Jews:

If you despise my laws, and contemn my judgments so as not to do those things which are appointed by me, and to make void my covenant:

I also will do these things to you. I will quickly visit you with poverty, and burning heat, which shall waste your eyes, and consume your lives. You shall sow your seed in vain, which shall be devoured by your enemies.

I will set my face against you, and you shall fall down before your enemies: and shall be made subject to them that hate you. You shall flee when no man pursueth you.

But if you will not yet for all this obey me: I will chastise you seven times more for your sins.

And I will break the pride of your stubbornness: and I will make to you the heaven above as iron, and the earth as brass.

Your labour shall be spent in vain: the ground shall not bring forth her increase: nor the trees yield their fruit.

If you walk contrary to me, and will not hearken to me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you for your sins.

And I will send in upon you the beasts of the field, to destroy you and your cattle, and make you few in number: and that your highways may be desolate.

And if even so you will not amend, but will walk contrary to me:

I also will walk contrary to you, and will strike you seven times for your sins.

And I will bring in upon you the sword that shall avenge my covenant. And when you shall flee into the cities, I will send the pestilence in the midst of you. And you shall be delivered into the hands of your enemies,

After I shall have broken the staff of your bread: so that ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and give it out by weight: and you shall eat, and shall not be filled,

But if you will not for all this hearken to me, but will walk against me

I will also go against you with opposite fury: and I will chastise you with seven plagues for your sins,

So that you shall eat the flesh of your sons and of your daughters.

I will destroy your high places, and break your idols. You shall fall among the ruins of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.

Insomuch that I will bring your cities to be a wilderness: and I will make your sanctuaries desolate: and will receive no more your sweet odours.

And I will destroy your land: and your enemies shall be astonished at it, when they shall be the inhabitants thereof.

And I will scatter you among the Gentiles: and I will draw out the sword after you. And your land shall be desert, and your cities destroyed.

Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths all the days of her desolation. When you shall be

In the enemy's land, she shall keep a sabbath, and rest in the sabbaths of her desolation: because she did not rest in your sabbaths, when you dwelt therein.

And as to them that shall remain of you I will send fear in their hearts in the countries of their enemies. The sound of a flying leaf shall terrify them: and they shall flee as it were from the sword. They shall fall, when no man pursueth them.

And they shall every one fall upon their brethren as fleeing from wars: none of you shall dare to resist your enemies.

You shall perish among the Gentiles: and an enemy's land shall consume you.

And if of them also some remain, they shall pine away in their iniquities, in the land of their enemies: and they shall be afflicted for the sins of their fathers, and their own.

Until they confess their iniquities, and the iniquities of their ancestors, whereby they have transgressed against me, and walked contrary unto me.

Therefore I also will walk against them, and bring them into their enemies' land until their uncircumcised mind be ashamed. Then shall they pray for their sins.

And I will remember my covenant, that I made with Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham. I will remember also the land:

Which when she shall be left by them, shall enjoy her sabbaths, being desolate for them. But they shall pray for their sins, because they rejected my judgments, and despised my laws.

And yet for all that when they were in the land of their enemies, I did not cast them off altogether. Neither did I so despise them that they should be quite consumed: and I should make void my covenant with them. For I am the Lord their God.

And I will remember my former covenant, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, in the sight of the Gentiles, to be their God. I am the Lord. These are the judgments, and precepts, and laws, which the Lord gave between him and the children of Israel, in mount Sinai, by the hand of Moses.

The Old Testament, Leviticus 26:15-45

The Quran repeats these promises and threats:

Moses said to his people, “Remember God’s blessings upon you, as He delivered you from the people of Pharaoh, who inflicted on you terrible suffering, slaughtering your sons while sparing your daughters. In that was a serious trial from your Lord.”

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

And Moses said, “Even if you are ungrateful, together with everyone on earth—God is in no need, Worthy of Praise.”

The Quran, verses 14:6-8.

The Quran also says:

And We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: You will commit evil on earth twice, and you will rise to a great height.

When the first of the two promises came true, We sent against you servants of Ours, possessing great might, and they ransacked your homes. It was a promise fulfilled.

Then We gave you back your turn against them, and supplied you with wealth and children, and made you more numerous.

If you work righteousness, you work righteousness for yourselves; and if you commit evil, you do so against yourselves. Then, when the second promise comes true, they will make your faces filled with sorrow, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy all that falls into their power.

Perhaps your Lord will have mercy on you. But if you revert, We will revert. We have made Hell a prison for the disbelievers.

The Quran, verses 17:4-8.

So the Jews, whether they like it or not, are caught in a Biblical story. The State of Israel is simply the latest “chapter” of this story–and it is not the final chapter. And all the Biblical and Quranic signs are that a terrible fate awaits them.

Among the People of the Book is he, who, if you entrust him with a heap of gold, he will give it back to you. And among them is he, who, if you entrust him with a single coin, he will not give it back to you, unless you keep after him. That is because they say, “We are under no obligation towards the gentiles [non-Jews].” They tell lies about God, and they know it.

Indeed, whoever fulfills his commitments and maintains piety—God loves the pious.

Those who exchange the covenant of God, and their vows, for a small price, will have no share in the Hereafter, and God will not speak to them, nor will He look at them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. They will have a painful punishment.

The Quran, verses 3:75-77.

So while the suffering of the Palestinians is very real and is something that I worry about, from my historian’s perspective I consider Israel a house of cards; built on the most precarious foundations. Every injustice they do toward the Palestinians is yet another call to God/Yahweh/Allah to make His threats come true.

God is patient and He is not in a hurry:

Have they not journeyed in the land, and had minds to reason with, or ears to listen with? It is not the eyes that go blind, but it is the hearts, within the chests, that go blind.

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

How many a town have I reprieved, although it was unjust? Then I seized it. To Me is the destination.

The Quran, verses 22:46-48.

From God’s perspective, the State of Israel has only existed for about an hour and 42 minutes. God is waiting until the ideal moment for His poetic justice to be expressed.

So for me as a Muslim, Israel is nothing to worry about it. God is in charge of history and He has a plan for it. What is cause for worry for me actually is the fate of the Jews of Israel; a very real tragedy is waiting to happen to them because of their own deeds and choices. I do not like to see any human suffer, and the suffering they inflict on the Palestinians will be returned to the Jews in a most horrible way some time in the future.

I wish that the Jews would follow the Torah and humbly submit to God and fear His promises. If they did this, they would start to treat the Palestinians as their equals and fellow humans rather than as animals to be scared away.

My view is that not a single Palestinian’s right will be lost; every child’s sorrow at a tree cut down, every old woman’s sorrow at the loss of her sons and daughters to Israeli injustice, will be written down and repaid.

To me the Israelis are like children playing with fire and challenging their God to do His worst to them. All we need to do is wait and see what God does. Our task is to be patient and to not let Israeli injustices make us unjust as they are; we must conduct ourselves with the best manners.

And let not the hatred of people who barred you from the Sacred Mosque incite you to aggression. And cooperate with one another in virtuous conduct and conscience, and do not cooperate with one another in sin and hostility. And fear God. God is severe in punishment.

The Quran, from verse 5:2.

While some Muslims believe that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is Muslim “unity” and political and military might, I reject this Islamist ideology. Our task is to do the best with whatever God has given us. We can support things like the BDS movement, we can work to expose Israeli crimes, and Muslim individuals in the West can work to become politicians so that they can defend the rights of the Palestinians just as Jewish politicians in the West do their utmost to defend the rights and interests of the Israelis. But the final solution will not come from some Islamist leader. It will come organically from God.

We are not powerless. In fact we have all the power we need because to God belongs all power, and God is our Lord and the Lord of the Jews. The power that will solve the problem will be God’s power and we can never predict how this power will show itself. Our task, and the task of the Palestinians, is to prove to God that we live according to the ideals of morality and that we are more deserving of His help and support than the Israelis are. And then, waiting patiently, we will see His judgment one of these days.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem will not be solved with violence, domination, schemes and hurried political plans. It will solve itself naturally, through God’s management of history.

A woman’s worth does not depend on her accomplishments

AOA, Akhi! few days ago I met an aunt of me.She and her daughters are very social and they all are well known in their fields.My father couldn't afford our studies so we sisters are just graduate.Also my father never allowed us to go out much so we are kind of staying at home type girls.But Alhamdulillah all are married and happy in their lives.My aunt said to me that the kind of life u are living,is just making u a burden on society.So does a person must be recognized by society before dying?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

In my opinion a saintly “soccer mom” who has no accomplishment beyond taking care of her family is infinitely more admirable than a selfish and greedy female CEO. A woman’s worth has nothing to do with her accomplishments and everything to do with her character. A saintly woman who carries out her duties (whatever they may be) is better than other women regardless of accomplishments.

The idea that a woman’s worth should depend on her accomplishments is a self-defeating modern superstition. It tells women they are not good enough unless they ignore their own desires and instincts and enter races with men in the corporate, political or scientific world. 

I fully support women’s participation in these things. What I do not support is acting as if a woman’s worth depends on these things. It does not. Her worth depends on her character. I would consider a woman with no accomplishments but with a good character superior to a female Nobel Prize winner with a bad character any day.

Our accomplishments are gifts from God. He created us, gave us talents and made things easy for us. Acting as if accomplishments increase our worth is the height of arrogance, it is the same as a rich person thinking their money that God has given them makes them worthier than poor people.

I see nothing wrong with a woman having no interest in accomplishments and simply wanting to take care of her family. And I see nothing wrong with another woman who likes accomplishments. Neither is worthier than the other. Both are simply carrying out their duties.

It is only ignorance and arrogance that makes a scholar or scientist think their job is more glorious than a mother who takes care of her children. To me their worth depends on their character, including how well they try to carry out their duties. If God has enabled me or some woman to be a scholar and has put scholarship in our path, it would be shameful if we do not try to be the best scholars we can be. But if God has not enabled another person to become a scholar, then it is not shameful that they are not scholars.

I firmly believe that an uneducated and illiterate shepherd who fears God more than I do is a better and worthier person than I am regardless of my accomplishments.

Your aunt’s statement that you are a burden on society is rather ignorant and arrogant. Just because God made things easy for her and not for you makes her think she is better than you. If you fear God more than her and carry out your duties just as well as her, then you are superior to her even if she gains global fame in her field.

There is no worth, honor or glory except through God. Anyone who chases these things outside of God is chasing a mirage. 

I do not want to discourage women from working in traditionally masculine fields. What I want to discourage them from is the arrogance to think that this makes them superior to other women. It does not. Whether you work with test tubes or diapers, you are a lowly servant of God and your only worth comes through Him. Anyone more pious and saintly than you is superior to you regardless of who you think you are.

And I find pious women who seek worth and honor through God to be infinitely more admirable than women who seek these things by trying to race with men in traditionally masculine fields. Of course there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to work in these fields, what is wrong is her thinking this is something to be proud of. Like I said, being proud of your accomplishments is like being proud of being rich. Both are blessings from God that you would never have had if He had not made things easy for you. Accomplishments should only increase your humility and gratitude toward God.

If anyone, man or women, thinks their accomplishments makes them superior to someone more pious than them, then they have become arrogant and misguided. If you think your fame and accomplishments make you superior to a completely unknown mother who fears God more than you and whose only accomplishment is raising healthy and happy children, then that is the height of arrogance.

So never let someone make you think you are inferior just because they are more accomplished and famous than you. It is the same as letting a rich person make you think you are inferior because you are not as rich. Seek worth an honor only through God, He should be your standard and your guide, not other people. If you are more pious than your aunt, then she has absolutely nothing to be proud of, and her self-satisfaction has only set her up for failure in attaining God’s love and pleasure.

There is, however, the danger of letting our sense of our piety make us feel arrogant and superior to others. This too is wrong. Feeling superior to others is always wrong, whether because of piety, accomplishments or wealth. You should only compare yourself to what God wants you to be, and seeing your numerous failures in being the best person you can be in God’s sight should only increase your humility and fear of God’s dissatisfaction with you.

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.

When life’s difficulties cause you to doubt God

Salaam, I feel like everything in my life seems to be going wrong. I am losing my faith in Allah and his plan for me. I am a good and genuine person, all I want is to build for my future etc, I cannot find a job although I have two good degrees, I started my own business and that is not seeing any success either. These past 3-5 years I feel like I have been tested in so many ways and I keep getting told to trust in Allah's plan. I just feel so broken, every glimmer of hope I get it's taken away

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

I have been in similar situations. The point is to show you your weakness and powerlessness in order to make you truly submit to God. True submission means there should be nothing that God does to you that would make you dislike Him or question His wisdom and mercy. When you reach this stage, you will know that no good or bad can reach you except with God’s permission. You will stop being impatient for change knowing God is already fully in charge.

You wish for change because you feel your present situation is wrong and unfit for you. It is very common for us to feel this way, but it is the wrong attitude to have. The correct attitude is to fully settle your heart to you present situation and be fully ready for it to continue this way for the foreseeable future. When you know in your heart that everything that happens to you is from God, you will stop being impatient for change. You feel like you are in a bus controlled by God and you will leave it to Him to take you where He wants.

It is very difficult to maintain such a state for long, which is why I recommend an hour of Quran-reading every day which helps maintain our awareness of God’s power and closeness. I always remind myself that nothing that happens should reduce my love for God. Accept life as it is and love God whether good or bad befalls you. This is true submission.

It is good to work to change your situation for the better. I am not saying that we should give up and do nothing. But our starting point should always be love and acceptance of God and acceptance of our situation as it is. We can work for change, but we are never guaranteed success. Everything comes from God, so we might as well attach our hearts to Him and leave it to Him to take care of our fate.

You have not achieved true submission until you fully feel in your heart that nothing that befalls you can reduce your love for God. It is a favor from God to put you in such a difficult situation that forces you to fully submit to Him in this way. Those who always have it easy never get this chance to truly submit. So consider it God’s love for you. He wants you to detach from everything so that your heart is attached to nothing but Him. And once you reach that stage, God can open all His doors to you in an instant and completely change your life.

So do not lose hope in God. Always try to be in state where nothing that befalls you can reduce your love for Him. And when you are this close to God, you will stop worrying much about your worldly failures and concerns. You will feel as if you have already achieved the greatest success and you will leave it to God to take care of your future.

Please also see my essay below:

Islam and Depression: A Survival Guide

Best wishes.

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).

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

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

This theory applies to music as well. Bach says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi

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

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

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

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

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

 

Start of Translated Paper

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

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

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

In the Name of Most, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for the first opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for the second opinion

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

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

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

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

Ibn al-Athir says in Usud al-Ghaaba:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These two narrations are clues toward two things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Al-Tabari says in his Tarikh:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer to a debate on this study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The brother said:

The main goal of those distorters of the truth who doubt that the age of Aisha at the time of her marriage was nine is to slander a legal ruling that the Quran mentions, which is the marriage of little girls that God's refers to: "And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women - if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated," which the scholars are on consensus about according to legal forms.

I say:

The matter of the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha when she was nine is a historical question. We want to know whether it took place in this way or not. What matters to us is the result of the research, not the question of the marriage of little girls and its concomitant proof-texts and legal forms, nor what the doubters desire.

The brother said:

We have not heard from a single scholar of the past that says such a thing.

Meaning one who says Aisha was born before the Revelation.

I say:

Past scholars had authentic and explicit narrations from Aisha that the Prophet engaged her when she was six and married her when she was nine. It is logical that they say that it was so. But the related evidence [[on her age]] requires collation and comparison, and since to them it was a fact of history [[that she was born after the Revelation]], they had no motivation to look further into it.

I have not found anyone who has compared Aisha’s hadith with contradicting historical evidence other than Imam al-Dhahabi, may God have mercy on him, as will be mentioned. But he did not look deeply into it.

The respected brother believes that al-Tabari mentioned the narration that mentions Aisha being born in the pre-Islamic period from Ali bin Muhammad from “one who spoke to him”, and this “one” is unknown, and al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi agree on this.

I say:

Ali bin Muhammad al-Madaa’ini is trustworthy (sadduq), died in 224 AH. Al-Tabari says regarding this narration: “Ali bin Muhammad narrated from one who spoke to him, and one whom I mentioned among his teachers, and al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi agreed with him [[they narrated the same narration]].” Then he places the text of the narration. So the narration is narrated by al-Madaa’ini from a number of his teachers, not from one unknown narrator, and the agreement of al-Waqidi and al-Kalbi strengthen it. This makes it a historical clue without doubt.

And if it is said whether this chain of narrators is sound, I say no, but this is a clue, not a piece of evidence. Evidence is the sum of clues, and in this case, by God’s grace, we have ten clues.

The respected brother mentioned the hadith of Abdullah bin Safwan from Aisha, in which there is her saying “The Messenger of God married me when I was seven and I was sent to be with him when I was nine.” He also mentioned the hadith about her wedding and her transfer to the Prophet’s home PBUH in which similar assertions are made. He mentioned a number of narrations from her that say that she said such things.

I say:

This does not add anything to what has been authentically transmitted from Aisha from her own words [[in al-Bukhari and Muslim]]. If two hadiths or three or more come from her and if we say that some delusion happened to her in her old age, then this is nothing new. What would add something would be a narration from another Companion with a sound chain that asserts the same regarding her being nine on the day of her wedding. And this is what I have not found until now.

I mentioned in the paper what has been narrated from Abdullah bin Masud that strengthens Aisha’s saying, and I demonstrated that it is an unsound and problematic narration.

The respected brother said:

Does it befit her stature that delusion should be attributed to her?

I say:

If this really happened to her, then why does it not befit her? In this there is not an accusation of deficiency in her character. She herself pointed to Abdullah bin Umar that he was deluded about some narrations and no one blamed her for that, nor did anyone say it did not befit [[Abdullah ibn Umar that he should be deluded.]]

The respected brother said:

If Aisha fell into a delusion regarding what she said, then what about her playing with toys that none other than little children play with and that adults do not play with. If her age was greater than 20, or that her age after the Tabuk Campaign was greater than 27.

Then he mentioned three narrations that he based his argument on. He mentioned the one narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

The Messenger of Allah married me when I was six years old. Then we came to Al-Madinah and settled among Banu Harith bin Khazraj. I became ill and my hair fell out, then it grew back and became abundant. My mother Umm Ruman came to me while I was on an Urjuhah with some of my friends, and called for me. I went to her, and I did not know what she wanted. She took me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house, and I was panting. When I got my breath back, she took some water and wiped my face and head, and led me into the house. There were some woman of the Ansar inside the house, and they said: 'With blessings and good fortune [[from Allah]].' [[My mother]] handed me over to them and they tidied me up. And suddenly I saw the Messenger of Allah in the morning. And she handed me over to him and I was at that time, nine years old.

He said that this cannot be a delusion, because it narrates events that clearly demonstrate her young age, it is not mere statements from her.

He also mentioned what al-Bukhari and Muslim narrated from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

I used to play with dolls in the presence of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and my friends would play with me. When the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, entered, they would hide from him and he would call them to join me and they would play with me.

He also mentioned the hadith that Abu Dawud mentions in his Sunan from Aisha that she said:

When the Messenger of Allah PBUH arrived after the expedition to Tabuk or Khaybar (the narrator is doubtful), the draught raised an end of a curtain which was hung in front of her store-room, revealing some dolls which belonged to her.

He asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Messenger of Allah PBUH laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth.

I say:

It has been narrated from Aisha that she playing on a swing the day of her wedding with her friends. It has also been narrated from her that she toys that she continued to play with with her friends after her marriage. It is as if the respected brother is saying: “If she was nine the day of her wedding, then these facts that she narrates about herself are not strange regarding a girl of nine. But if she was eighteen, then these facts would be unlikely for a girl of eighteen.

I say;

Yes, there is something strange about them, but I do not consider them extremely strange and unlikely. Perhaps this was in the early part of her married life.

It is fair for the respected brother to ask: What do we say about the hadith that Abu Dawud narrated? Did she continue to play with girls and a winged horse until the time of the Campaigns of Tabuk or Khaybar?

I say:

The Tabuk Campaign was in the month of Rajab of the 9 AH. The Khaybar Campaign was before that by two years and a half in the Muharram of year 7 AH. The age of Aisha the day of the Campaign of Tabukr was close to 26. But there is unsoundness in the chain of this hadith and it also has flaws:

As for the chain, in it there is Yahya bin Ayyub al-Ghafiqi al-Misri. This man was considered reliable by al-Ijli, Yaqoub bin Sufyan, al-Bazar and Ibrahim al-Harbi, and Ibn Hibban mentioned him in his collection of reliable narrators. Al-Bukhari said he was a truth-telling man. But Ibn Hanbal said that he had a bad memory. Ibn Saad said: He narrates strange/questionable narrations [[munkar al-hadith]]. Abu Hatim said: He tells the truth, his narrations should be written but not used in legal opinions [[la yuhtaj bihi]]. Al-Ismaili said: His narrations are not to be used in legal opinions. Abu Ahmad la-Hakim said: If he speaks from his memory, he errs. But if he speaks that which has written down, then there is no issue with that. Al-Daraqutni says: There are questions of reliability in some of his narrations.

Such a narrator, when he mentions something singular [[something that no one else has said]], his saying should be used as the basis of any argument.

As for flaws and confusion, Abu Dawud and al-Bayhaqi narrated this hadith from Said bin al-Hakam bin Abi Maryam from Yahya bin Ayyub from Ammara bin Ghuzayya from Muhammad bin Ibrahim from Abi Salama bin Abd al-Rahman from Aisha, and Ibn Hibban narrated it from Abdullah bin Wahb from Yahya bin Ayyub from Amar bin Ghuzayya from Salim bin Abi al-Nadr from Urwa from Aisha that she said:

[[The Prophet]] PBUH came in while I was playing with toys and raised the end of the curtain and asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Messenger of Allah PBUH laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth.

It is clear that Yahya bin Ayyub fell into confusion [[idtaraba]] in narrating this hadith both in its chain and its content. He was deluded into changing the names of some of the men in the chain and added to the content the story of the return from a campaign. Since he is described as having a bad memory and as there being confusion in his narrations, then this is sufficient to reject his narration.

Since the origin of the hadith is reliably transmitted in the Sahihayn in the narration of Urwa from Aisha without the extra additions, then the parts of Yahya bin Ayyub’s narration that agree with the narration in the Sahihayn are sound. It appears that he had it memorized, and that his other narration that mentions [[the Prophet’s]] coming PBUH from a campaign with changes to the chain of narrators is unsound.

I mentioned in the paper the story of the coming of Khawla bint Hakeekm to the Messenger of God PBUH after the death of Khadija and her offer to ask for women’s hand in marriage for him while he had no other wife other than Khadija. I say: The passage indicates that Khawla wanted to ask for women’s hand in marriage after the death of Khadija because he had become wifeless. It is extremely unlikely in such circumstances for her to ask for a six-year-old’s hand in marriage for him. But if she were 14 at the time, then that becomes sensible.

The respected brother said regarding me:

He concludes that it is extremely unlikely for Khawla to ask for a six-year-old's hand in marriage for the Prophet PBUH, and he summarizes the narration and does not mention its ending where Aisha explicitly mentions her age. Indeed, his conclusion also contradicts a narration from Imam Ahmad and others from Khawla bint Hakim in which it is explicitly mentioned that Aisha was nine years old.

I say:

Considering the narration far-fetched comes from the fact that it does not make sense for a man whose wife has died and who has no other wife to have a six-year-old engaged to him. [[Perhaps Dr. al-Idlibi is saying that a respected man in society, even if he were to accept a very young girl as a second wife, he would not accept her as his only wife because he would require someone mature enough to befit him.]] So take not.

As for the issue of summarizing the narration and not mentioning that it states her age, this requires a clarification.

Imam Ahmad and Ishaq bin Rahawayh narrate in their musnad books from Muhammad bin Bishr al-Abdri from Muhammad bin Amr bin Alqama from Abi Salama bin Abd al-Rahman bin Awf and Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib that they both said: When Khadija died Khawla bint Hakim, wife of Uthman bin Maz`un, came and said: “O Messenger of God, will you not marry?” and so on to the rest of the hadith. At the end of hadith there is: “Aisha said: So we came to Medina, and the Messenger of God PBUH came and entered our house. The Messenger of God PBUH transferred me to my own house when I was a girl of nine.”

This was narrated by Ibn Abi Aasim in his al-Aahaad wa-l-Mathaani and al-Tabarani in al-Kabir and al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi from two other chains from Muhammad bin Amr bin Alqama from Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib from Aisha the like of it.

The narration in the Musnad works of Ahmad and Ishaq appear in the form of a broken-chained narration [[mursal]], but the hadith is from Aisha because at the end it is said: “Aisha said: So we came to Medina, and the Messenger of God PBUH came and entered our house. The Messenger of God PBUH transferred me to my own house when I was a girl of nine.” So this hadith goes back to a narration of Aisha herself.

I emphasize that this narration does not add anything from what has reliably come from Aisha from her own words [[i.e. while it strengthens the narrative that Aisha really stated such things, it does not help disprove Dr. Idlibi’s conclusion that she suffered from a delusion at her old age.]] What would matter is a narration from a different Companion with a sound chain of narrators that corroborrates Aisha’s claim that she was nine the day of her wedding, and this is what I have not found till now.

The brother’s saying “a narration that Imam Ahmad and others have narrated from Khawla bint Hakeem” contradicts reality, because it suggests that this hadith in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad is part of the complete-chained narrations coming from Khawla bint Hakeem, but it is not so, for Khawla bint Hakeem in this hadith in the Musnad of Ahmad and other hadith books is merely a speaker [[khaatiba]]. She never said that she heard the Prophet PBUH say such things, nor did any narrators transmit such from her. The narration is from Aisha’s complete-chained hadiths and it is her own narration. [[Dr. Idlibi’s is pointing out that Khawla is not part of the chain of transmitters for this hadith. She is merely a character mentioned in a hadith by Aisha.]]

I said in my paper that the great scholars of hadith, may God have mercy on them, have said that when a hadith’s text [[matn]] contradicts facts of history that are better attested, then the hadith is rejected, because this means an error was introduced into the hadith due to the delusion of one of the narrators.

The respected brother commented on this by saying:

If historians had reliable evidence and were agreed on dating Aisha's birth, we would have been able to reject these sound narrations from her due to the possibility of delusion and forgetfulness. But when we see that the historical evidence has been criticized, and we see that the Successors, the great hadith memorizers [[huffaz]] and hadith scholars narrating that which goes against the historical evidence, then this makes us hold on to the narrations in the Sahihayn and other hadith works and we consider it unlikely that delusion and forgetfulness were factors. Among such opinions are what al-Dhahabi says: "She, meaning Asmaa', was older than Aisha by ten years or so." (Siyar A`laam al-Nubalaa', vol 2, 188) and what Ibn Hajar said: "Aisha was born after the Revelation by four or five years." (Al-Isaba, vol 8, 16).

I say:

When he says “we see that the Successors, the great hadith memorizers and hadith scholars narrating that which goes against the historical evidence”, there is in it ignorance of those narrators who narrated hadiths containing hadith-based clues that contradict Aisha’s hadith, which the brother neglected to mention.

The saying of al-Dhahabi, Ibn Hajar and others of the past and recent scholars is based on the famous narration that is in front of them with many sound chains of narrators going back to Aisha. This is not something they said after detailed research, it is merely a saying that they repeated.

Imam al-Dhahabi says in Siyar A`laam al-Nubalaa regarding Asmaa’ bint Abu Bakr that she was ten or so years older than Aisha, and this is in his biography of Asmaa’. But after a few lines he says: ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad says: “Asmaa was older than Aisha by ten years.”‘

Al-Dhahabi then said in his Siyar in his biography of Asmaa’s son Abdullah bin Zubayr: “She was older than Aisha by many years.” Then he said: ‘Ibn Abi al-Zinad says: “She was older than Aisha by ten years.”‘ Then he comments on this by saying: ‘Then according to this her age would be 91 years, but Hisham bin Urwa said: “She lived 100 years, not missing one year of this.”‘ He mentions in Tarikh al-Islam in his biography of Asmaa’ the saying of Ibn Abi al-Zinad and he writes a similar comment to this one in it.

You see that al-Dhahabi, the great scholar and historian, mentions different, contradictory, narrations as if he is unsure which ones to prefer, and he did not engage in a deep study and comparison of them.

If the historical clues I mentioned are not sufficient, then there are many clues from the books of hadith that point to Aisha being older than what the famous narration mentions, and those clues are the clues mentioned above in 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 10. It appears the respected brother has ignored them.

I repeat that clues are not evidence, but that the sum of clues can become  evidence, and if they all corroborate one another, then they can become a strong piece of evidence toward what I said.

The respected brother said regarding me:

He relies on the narration of Ibn Abi al-Zinad in determining the difference between Aisha and Asmaa's ages, disregarding what has been said about it in the literature of hadith criticism.

Then he said:

It is incorrect to rely on Ibn Abi al-Zinad's narration because of what follows: 1. Ibn Abi al-Zinad (100-174 AH) is the only narrator who determines the age difference between Asmaa' and Aisha at ten years. There is much previous evidence coming from more than one Successor, and it is well known that greater amounts of evidence surpass smaller amounts. 2. The narration that Ibn Abd al-Barr narrates from him in al-Isti`aab is not conclusive; there is doubt in it, as he says: "She was ten or so years older than Aisha" His saying "or so" agrees with the other narrations that the difference between them was ten and some years [[bid`u `ashara, meaning somewhere between 13 and 19]]. 3. Many scholars have considered Ibn Abi al-Zinad unreliable. In his biography in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (vol 6, 172) Imam Ahmad says about him: "His hadiths are confused." Ibn Ma`een says: "His hadiths are not used by hadith scholars as a basis for legal opinions." Ibn Hibban says: "Abd al-Rahman was one of those who would transmit unique narrations that were rejected and that was due to his bad memory and his frequent errors, therefore it is impermissible to use his hadiths as bases for legal opinions except in those narrations that agree with other reliable narrators." Al-Dhahabi says: "His hadiths are good [[hasan]]." It is clear from this that the hadiths that are unique to Ibn Abi al-Zinad and that contradict other reliable narrators cannot be used as bases for legal opinions.

I say:

It is impermissible to ignore a historical statement that one of the Successors of the Successors says and that is corroborated by narrations that contain many clues. The sayings of the latter-day scholars regarding determining Aisha’s age are mere transmission and copying of the famous narration’s contents.

The question now is: Is there any source on this matter other than what Aisha has said? If someone says yes and goes on to use other narrations by her, then he is corroborating a claim by itself. The actual question is whether there is any other source. His argument is begging [[dodging]] the question.

Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi al-Zinad is one of the Successors of the Successors and a teller of the truth [[sadduq]. He heard hadiths in Baghdad and transmitted them. The scholars of hadith considered the narrations he transmitted from Baghdad unsound, while they considered his narrations from Medina sound. The respected brother used Tahdhib al-Tahdhib as a reference and transmitted some opinions on considering him unsound and he ignored that which goes against those opinions. The same book mentions:

Musa ibn Salama said: I came to Medina and went to Malik bin Anas and said to him: I came to you to hear knowledge and to hear knowledge from those you tell me to. He said: "Go to Ibn Abi al-Zinad". Abu Dawud says from Ibn Ma`een: "The most authentic of transmitters from Hisham bin Urwa is Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad." Ali bin al-Madini said: "What he transmitted in Medina is authentic and that which he transmitted in Baghad was corrupted by the people of Baghdad." Yaqoub bin Shayba said: "Reliable and trustworthy, but there is weakness in some of his hadiths." Ahmad said, according to what al-Saaji related: "His hadiths are sound." Ibn Ma`een said, according to what al-Saaji related: "Abd al-Rahman bin Abi al-Zinad from his father al-A`raj from Abu Hurayra is a reliable chain." Al-Tirmidhi and al-`Ijli say [[about him]]: "Trustworthy." Al-Aajiri relates from Abu Dawud: "He was a great scholar of the Quran and a great scholar of narrations."

There is no doubt that he cannot be legally relied upon on those narrations that he uniquely narrated, but his statement as a Medinan regarding Medinan female Companions is acceptable and I see no reason to dismiss them. Abu Dawud praised him when he said “he was…a great scholar of narrations.” If he says to us: “Asmaa’ bin Abu Bakr was ten years older than Aisha,” it is unacceptable to call his statement unsound and reject it.

As for his statement that there is much previous evidence from more than one Successor, he does not mention the evidence that comes from more than one Successor.

The statement “and she was older than Aisha by ten years or so” means that the difference was ten years more or less, that perhaps the difference is more or less by a month or year. Interpreting it as meaning that it could refer to three or more years of difference is far-fetched according to linguistic usage. If the difference was seven years or thirteen years, a person will not say “the difference is ten years or so.”

Additionally, Asmaa’ died 73 years after the hijra, having reached 100 years. This means that she was born before the Revelation by 14 years. If Aisha had been born 4 years after the Revelation as the common narrative says, this would mean that Asmaa’ was 18 years older than her. Does this fit the famous narrations?

Among the important issues is that this respected brother does not differentiate between clues and evidence, so that he treats clues as if they are evidence, then refutes them by saying they do not reach the standard of evidence. If he meditates upon my words when I say that they are only clues, I believe that his statements would have been very different. If I had thought that any of those clues were strong pieces of evidence I would have called them such, but I said they are clues, and clues do not represent [[independent]] evidence.

Where is the evidence then?

The evidence is formed by the sum of the clues. The concurrence of those ten clues that all suggest Aisha was born before the Revelation and not after it by four years is the evidence that a delusion had entered into the matter.

I hope that the respected brother and gracious readers will read those ten clues calmly and with meditation. After that, it remains to each of us his or her own effort and reward, and He [[God]] is the friend of the doers of good.

Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and put not in our hearts [any] resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed You are Kind and Merciful.

Written by Salah al-Din al-Idlibi on January 6, 2018.

End of translated article

Islam and Depression: A Survival Guide

A street in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Please note that this article is not meant as a replacement for medical help, but as a supplement to it.

What does Islam have to offer someone who has been suffering depression for years and sees no end in sight to their suffering?

Depression is not sadness and cannot be cured by thinking positively as some people insultingly think. The dismissive attitude of many Muslim immigrants toward depression is due to the fact that, thanks to having very large and well-functioning families, they enjoy a very powerful protection against depression that is largely lacking in the West (for more on this see the section on loneliness and social alienation below). Depression is what it feels like to be stuck in darkness between two high walls, with no way forward and no way backward. Every bad memory of the past feels as if it happened this very moment, while the future feels as if it will contain nothing but a continuation of the present misery. Depression is not caused by thinking negative thoughts. The line of causation is in the opposite direction; it is the depression that causes the negative thoughts. A depressed person can think of a happy event that took place years ago only to remember the negative things that happened during it. The negativity of depression blankets all of their thoughts like a dark cloud.

Some forms of depression are caused by life circumstances, while others, such as bipolar depression, are caused by chemical changes in the brain that are completely outside a person’s control. Positive things happening in their lives can help them experience short episodes of happiness, but these episodes end very quickly and the depression always comes back. For this reason, such people need long-term strategies that take the reality of their situation into account.

In this essay I will describe a long-term plan for dealing with depression that first takes the spiritual side into account and then the material side. This plan is not a cure, it is designed to make depression understandable and manageable for the person who suffers it so that they may, with God’s help, slowly climb out of it.

Acceptance

When we are depressed, we feel as if we have been abandoned in this big, wide world to suffer on our own, without any purpose or wisdom behind it. Day after day passes, we suffer, and we are not better off for it. What is the point?

The first step toward dealing with depression is to realize that God could solve all of our problems and take away our depression an instant, but He is choosing not to do it. You have not been abandoned by Him, He is allowing this to happen to you and watching you suffer every second. This sounds rather cruel, why would a kind God allow this? Some people abandon religion because of this, being unable to accept that a true God would watch humanity suffer without intervening to help them.

But think about Prophet Muhammad PBUH. He was chosen by God to teach and spread His religion. Yet he had to suffer abuse and persecution in Mecca for 13 year. Why did God allow this to happen? God could have made the Prophet successful on the very first day he received the revelation. But instead he had to go through an excruciatingly painful 13-year process filled with failures and losses.

The reason for that is that the universe is designed by God to function in this way. We can call the process that the Prophet had to go through “suffering through time”. Patiently suffering through time is how a believer’s character is proven. The Prophet could have just suffered for a day or two, or a month, then he could have been granted success. But God did not lose anything by letting him suffer for 13 years, those years were necessary for him to be shaped into the person he was.

Suffering through time is how we prove, every hour of every day, that we have faith in God. It enables us to affirm, and affirm, and affirm our faith day after day and year after year until we have truly proven ourselves to God. Once we reach the stage He desires, He can then grant us the greatest success and the greatest happiness in a single day.

Your depression is not purposeless. Your depression is a matter between you and God. He is completely in charge of it and only He can put a stop to it, if and when He wants. This is not to deny that your depression may have a material cause and may be treatable with the right drugs and therapies; but it is all up to God whether you will be able to find the right people to help you and the right treatment. God’s help does not come down from the sky in the shape of angels, He helps us by arranging this world in the right way for us to be helped while hiding His own hand in the matter. God does not want us to see Him or to see any direct evidence of His existence, He wants us to always have the option of doubting His existence, because this is what enables us to prove our faith in Him. There is no point in having faith in something when you have direct evidence of its existence, it would be like having faith in the law of gravity.

When you suffer, if you turn your back on God and blame Him for not helping you, you are failing His test. The attitude He wants you to show is one of submission and acceptance, the attitude that the Prophets of the Quran all show toward God when they suffer. Your attitude should not be, “God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. You are so cruel to allow this to go on!” Your attitude should be:

God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. Forgive any sins that may have brought me here, help me correct any mistakes I have made that have brought me here, guide me and increase me in knowledge. Help me learn what I am supposed to be learning.

Depression is one of the ways that God distinguishes His faithful believers from the fair-weather believers whose faith is only strong when things are going well in their lives. Depression is an opportunity for you to transcend your human limitations, to show that you can love God and believe in Him even as He watches you suffer. This proves that you truly respect Him the way He deserves to be respected (by always thinking the best of Him) and that you have faith in His power, wisdom and love.

So be like Prophet Muhammad PBUH and the other Prophets. Do not despair, for if you do, you fail the test.

Think the best of God

It can be very difficult to think any positive thoughts about God when you feel so bad. In fact, sometimes it can be all that you can do to stop yourself from thinking very bad thoughts about Him. Those who truly fail their test are those who allow their suffering to permanently color their thinking about God. They build up a strong grudge and hatred against God for creating them, for creating this world the way it is. Some of these people end up calling themselves atheists, even though they do not really doubt God’s existence in their hearts, they just have a blinding hatred for Him.

If the best that you can do is to resist negative thoughts about God, then this is the best that you can do. God does not ask you to do more than you are able. Resist negative thoughts and constantly pray to God for His help.

Give up, surrender and learn the lesson

Depression causes you to suffer through time, sometimes for months and years, in order to prove your powerlessness to you. Depression shows you that you are not in charge. It is like a storm that throws us here and there, wherever it wants, while we are powerless to do anything about it. And that is the point. Suffering is designed to make us humble ourselves before God:

We sent messengers to communities before you, and We afflicted them with suffering and hardship, that they may humble themselves. If only, when Our calamity came upon them, they humbled themselves. But their hearts hardened, and Satan made their deeds appear good to them. (The Quran, verses 6:42-43)

The Quran also says:

But those who do not believe in the Hereafter are swerving from the path. Even if We had mercy on them, and relieved their problems, they would still blindly persist in their defiance. We have already gripped them with suffering, but they did not surrender to their Lord, nor did they humble themselves. Until, when We have opened before them a gate of intense agony, at once they will despair. (Verse 23:73-77)

The above passage describes the response of many people to depression. Rather than using the opportunity to affirm their faith in God, they despair. And if they are cured, rather than learning anything from their suffering, they again go back to ignoring God for most of them time.

Your depression is designed to help you break that cycle. God wants you to give up and surrender, to acknowledge that there is no power in this world besides Him. The Quran tells us the story of Prophet Yunus (Biblical Jonas) who also despaired of God like so many people do, but he was able to overcome his despair:

And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Like Prophet Yunus, surrender completely to God and acknowledge that He is in charge and that only He can help you.

Stop hurrying

When suffering depression, we always wish for a magic cure that will stop the pain immediately. But remember the stories of the Prophets. Prophet Yaʾqūb lamented the loss of his son Yusūf for years before God gave him back his son. God could have prevented his suffering, but He did not. Yaʾqūb did not complain to God, asking Him why He had to do that to him when He could solve all of his problems instantly. He instead accepted his fate and knew that the matter was in God’s hands and that only God knew where it would lead.

Rather than rejecting your suffering, come to terms with it by accepting it and accepting the fact that it may go on for the foreseeable future. Rather than giving God an ultimatum, saying He should cure you within the next week or month or else you will stop believing in Him, your attitude should be one of utter submission. You belong to God and it is His business what He does with you.

Imagine someone who suffers depression for 60 years, dies, then enters Paradise, where every day is as good as the happiest memories of their lives, and where they can live forever. Exchanging a mere 60 years for an eternity of complete happiness is very much worth it if we think about it.

But the deal God offers us is actually much better than that. The Quran says:

Truly, with hardship always comes ease. (94:5 and 94:6)

It also says:

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good [worldly] life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do. (16:97)

It also says:

And thus We established Yusuf in the land, to live therein wherever he wished. We touch with Our mercy whomever We will, and We never waste the reward of the righteous. But the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and observed piety. (Verses 12:56-67)

Prophet Yusuf suffered unjustly for many years, being away from his family and later being put in prison for no fault of his own. But the Quran says God rewarded him in this worldly life by granting him a very high status, while also keeping in store a greater reward in the hereafter.

Cure your soul then seek a material cure

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes...

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, “The Journey of Job”

Let us say, like in those lines above from the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, you have accepted your fate. You have faced God and said to Him in all sincerity that you are willing to take whatever He sends your way. What is there to do next?

The next step is to make it part of your daily routine to perform a certain amount of extra worship, if you are able (if not, read on for what to do). What I recommend is performing at least an hour of tahajjud and Quran-reading every night before bed (see here for more details), other times and other forms of worship might work better for some. Your goal should not be to perform this until you get a cure. Your goal should be to perform this daily for the rest of your life.

It is impossible to remain close to God, to submit to Him and to rely on Him in full sincerity unless you dedicate a part of your day, every day, to extra worship. Just a few days of skipping this extra worship is sufficient to re-attach your heart to the worldly life and to put you back in square one, lost in the worldly life and faraway from God.

It is against human nature to submit to God, to remain pure of sin, to rely on Him and to only seek refuge in Him. Human nature makes us want to be egotistic, short-sighted and selfish. We need daily work to subdue the ego and restore the balance. You cannot maintain the character and spirituality of the Prophets and saints if you do not work for it daily. As soon as you stop the work, your human nature will reassert itself. This is a struggle that we have to keep for the rest of our lives.

If you are desperate to escape your depression, then this should be your first step. Promise God to perform an extra hour of worship every day for the rest of your life if He enables you to do it, and ask Him to give you a meaningful and productive life in return. Do this and your life may completely change within the next few months.

If you are too demotivated to perform worship

Sometimes it is enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. If that is the case with you, start praying for these three things every time you think about God: ease, guidance and forgiveness. Even if you do not feel repentant, even if you cannot help but feel resentment for being in the situation you are, keep asking God for His forgiveness. Instead of turning your back on Him because of your suffering and resentment, turn to Him despite these things. Start facing Him and conversing with Him even if you do not feel like it, even if your negative thoughts make you feel as if He dislikes you and has abandoned you. Voice your thoughts to Him and complain to Him of your situation and your suffering.

Keep turning to God again and again and again even if everything makes you want to turn away from Him in anger and resentment. Do your best to think the best of Him regardless of how you feel. God is not going to ignore you. But He will not magically cure your situation either, God, in general, does not perform miracles in front of us, because that would be direct evidence for His existence. He wants to hide Himself from us so that we have the choice of having faith in Him or rejecting Him. While God will likely not suddenly fix your situation, if you keep up doing these things, He will cause small changes in your life that will accumulate over time, so that in three months, or six months, things could be very different for you.

Keep asking for God’s help and slowly, but surely, He will help you get on your feet and rebuild your life.

Start measuring time in periods of 3 months

When we are depressed, we tend to measure our suffering in minutes and hours. We feel as if our situation will continue in exactly the same way for eternity. We cannot think of any happy memories and we cannot think of anything to be optimistic about.

That is the normal depressed brain at work. What you should do is override that type of thinking by reminding yourself that change takes time, because God does not magically solve our problems for us. He helps us help ourselves, helping us so subtly that afterwards we are almost always able to take all the credit and ignore His part in it.

Start thinking of time in terms of three-month periods. Follow the advice in this essay then three months from now look back and see how things have changed. Chances are you will be in a much better state than you are now. And three months after that things will be even better. After a year passes, you may still have some depression, but God may have caused many changes in your life that enable you to feel much more purposeful and optimistic than you feel now.

Material considerations

 

Exercise

Some people claim that exercise can cure depression. You should rightly be skeptical of such claims. But it is true that exercise can greatly improve your levels of motivation. It might make you feel 30% better than you feel right now, you may still feel depressed, but this might just be enough to give you the motivation to perform tahajjud, Quran-reading and other beneficial things. I recommend performing an hour of vigorous but not too strenuous exercise on an exercise bike. You can do it while watching a video.

Loneliness and social alienation

People who grow up in larger families are less likely to be depressed. Merely having more people around you in your life can be your greatest defense against depression, even if your relationship with these people has many flaws. For some Muslim immigrants coming from the Middle East, depression sounds like a wholly alien and impenetrable thing because they have never experienced it themselves and have no idea what is like to experience it. Some of them rather insultingly talk about how it is a lack of spirituality or a possession by Satan that is causing depression. The reason these people cannot experience depression is the fact they come from societies organized in such a way that make depression almost impossible, and in this is an important clue for treating depression.

In the Middle East, it is common for a person to be surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles, siblings and other relatives who all contribute to a person’s self-esteem. The conviviality of these societies makes each person feel cared about, as if they have a very important place reserved for them by their societies. To understand the nature of this “place”, it is best compared to a king or queen’s throne. A king or queen gets treated with extreme respect and consideration regardless of who they are and what kind of personalities they have. The fact that they are king or queen, the fact that they have this “place” reserved for them by society, makes everyone treat them that way. In the same way, in a well-functioning Middle Eastern society, each person is given a “place” that ensures them love, respect and consideration regardless of their personalities. In other words, a person in such a society does not have to do anything to earn the respect and consideration of those around them. These things are automatically granted to them merely by the virtue of being born into that society.

Imagine if one day you woke up and discovered you are in a king’s palace and everyone started treating you like you are the king or queen. It will not take very long for you to believe it when everyone does that for you. In those Middle Eastern societies I am describing, a person is made to feel the same way by their relatives; they are treated as if they are lovable, as if they are important, as if they matter very much, and since everyone around them does that, a person starts to believe these things. This is probably more powerful than any anti-depressant. Each relative contributes 2% or 3% to a person’s sense of being important and lovable, and what do you know, it all adds up to such a high degree that it is made physically impossible for that person to suffer depression.

In the West, while certain people enjoy similar societies, this is the exception. In general, people in the West are socially alienated; most of the people around them do not treat them as if they have a place of great importance reserved for them. They are not surrounded on every side by people who treat them as if they are very important and very worthy of love. And because of that, people feel that they do not really have a place in society. They feel displaced, alienated.

To understand these things better, I recommend that you read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (in the 19th century at least some Western societies used to be like the Middle Eastern ones I describe). In the story, Mrs. Bennet is a rather ignorant and annoying woman and people are aware of it, yet everyone treats her as if she is an important person and as if she matters very much. It can be said that she does not “deserve” this good treatment. She has not done anything to deserve it, it is something automatically given to her by her society, and this acts as a very strong defense against her feeling lonely and depressed. It is almost as if there is a society-wide conspiracy to make her feel important and loved.

For a person to feel as if they matter and as if they are loved, it is essential that people around them constantly reaffirm these things. In the Middle East, this happens for most people on a daily basis because it is embedded within almost every social interaction. No one needs to say “I love you” because it is so strongly assumed that saying that is as ridiculous and unnecessary as saying “electricity exists”. In the West, however, a person can spend an entire day without anyone affirming their worth and importance. And if this continues day after day and week after week, so that feeling loved and cared about is a pleasant surprise rather than as common as air, then apathy and depression are the result.

Depression, in other words, is the natural result of people not constantly reassuring you, implicitly through their actions and manners, that you are loved and cared for.

According to that, the cure would be to have a large extended family that acts the way I described above. But since the type of family and society we have is out of our control, there isn’t much we can do about them. But recognizing the displacement and alienation are important contributors to depression can help you come up with strategies to use this knowledge to reduce your depression.

For example, having people around you even if you do not know them can help improve how you feel. You can confirm this by going to a coffee shop or library. You will be a lot more motivated to read something beneficial at one of these venues than you will be alone at home. Just having people around you gives you a sense of belonging that somewhat reduces your depression.

The best way to attack depression would be to increase your social connections, simply increasing the number of people you meet on a daily basis who are nice to you will greatly improve your self-esteem and diminish your depression. Many cities have clubs and meet-up groups that you can join to spend more time around other people. There are many sites like VolunteerMatch.org that help you find volunteering opportunities around you, volunteer at the charities and projects you like and the people you meet and your interactions with them can help you as much as any antidepressant can.

For an introverted person, meeting new people is always a challenge, this is something that exercise can help with because exercise reduces social anxiety. If you just ran for two miles, social anxiety would be the last thing on your mind for a while.

Try to spend less time alone and more time around other people. If you live with your parents, stay in the living room more often and spend less time in your room.

It is not always possible to do something about loneliness, and sometimes you are stuck around people who only worsen your depression. For this reason it is crucial that you constantly ask for God’s help, because He can arrange your circumstances for you and create ways for you reduce your loneliness. He can open doors for you that you did not know even existed.

Get medical help

Some types of depression are caused by your brain’s physiology. A person with bipolar II is going to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of depression and elation. Some of these people never get diagnosed because they are good hiding their depression and their periods of elation never reaches the point of mania and psychosis (as happens in bipolar I).

While medical help will likely not entirely cure you, it can improve how you feel to the point where you can feel motivated to do other things to improve your situation. If there is a drug that can reduce your depression by half, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t benefit from that. Therapy can also be very helpful, not necessarily because of any special knowledge of the therapist, but because just having someone be nice to you and treat you like you matter is very important for fighting depression.

Educate yourself

There are many people who, after reading a dozen or more books, were able to find just the right lifestyle and routine to help them keep their depression under control. Read memoirs and autobiographies by people who suffered from depression. Read any book on the topic of depression that you find interesting. These books can help point you in the right direction even if none of them give you a complete answer.

Summary: Remain with God

God can help you get into exactly the right situation you need to cure your depression. He can help you find exactly the right type of medical help that can help you, or guide you to the right advice or the right life choices. Realize that you are not in charge and that if God does not help you, nothing can. You should do everything you can to help yourself, but it is God who can make all the difference between whether your efforts will be successful or end in failure.

You should therefore prioritize the spiritual side over the material side. Take care of the state of your heart and soul, and God can take care of the rest for you by making things easy for you and guiding you in the right direction.

For more Islamic advice relevant to depression and other hardships, please check out my following essays:

 

Professor Abu Zahra: The Egyptian Islamic Scholar who Rejected the Punishment of Stoning

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898 – 1974)

Muhammad Abu Zahra was one of the foremost authorities on Islamic law in the 20th century, whose works on the various schools of Islamic law continue to be used in academia. He was a member of Al-Azhar University’s Academy of Islamic Research and a Professor of Islamic law at Cairo University. He was loved by his students for his personality that united piety, open-mindness and a great sense of humor.

In the year 1972, two years before his death, at in Islamic conference held in the city of al-Bayḍāʾ in Libya, he shook the scholarly community by declaring his informed personal opinion (ijtihād) regarding the stoning of adulterers in Islam, in which he rejected the punishment based on a number of arguments. While his arguments are not conclusive, they deserve to be taken seriously. If even there is the slightest chance that he is correct, then that should be sufficient to put a permanent suspension on this punishment, because it involves the taking of human lives, and we cannot do that if we cannot be sure whether God really commands it or not.

The reason why the majority of scholars defend the punishment is not that they like it. The historical evidence shows that Islamic judges have been extremely loathe to carry out this punishment, to the point of accepting to be banished from their cities rather than sign the order to stone someone. The reason they defend it is that it is mentioned in a number of authentic narrations. Putting these narrations into question would require rebuilding the foundations of the field of hadith studies from scratch, a task that most scholars have been unwilling to contemplate until recently, although things appear to be slowly changing with respected hadith scholars like Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Idlibī engaging in content criticism and finding it acceptable to reject “authentic” narrations even in al-Bukhari and Muslim that go contrary to empirical evidence.

While the evidence for stoning is very strong and the Companions supported it even after the Prophet’s death PBUH, the evidence that stoning adulterers was a punishment that was abrogated by the Quran (but which the Companions apparently did not realize) is as follows:

  • There is no evidence that the Prophet PBUH stoned anyone after the revelation of Surat al-Nur which prescribes lashing for adulterers.
  • The Quran says slave women will only deserve half the punishment of free women (4:25). Stoning is not a punishment that can be halved.
  • Surat al-Nur was specifically revealed regarding the case of a married woman (Aisha) being accused of adultery. Its very first verses prescribe lashes to “adulterers”. It makes little sense that this sura, revealed in the case of a married woman, would start out (and finish) by only mentioning punishments for unmarried people.
  • Verse 4:15 tells Muslims to keep “their adulterous women” in the home until they either die or “God makes for them a way”. There is no hint in the verse that this is meant only for unmarried women, and “God making a way for them” only makes sense if these women had been given the punishment of lashing then left to themselves to repent and perhaps later remarry.

We do not have conclusive proof that stoning was abrogated. But even if there is the slightest chance that it was, since it involves the taking of human lives, perhaps Muslims can abandon the punishment out of respect for the possibility that the punishment may be wrongful. Even if there is a 99% chance that stoning was to be performed by Muslims after the Prophet’s death PBUH and there is a 1% chance that stoning was abrogated and the Companions did not appreciate this abrogation, this 1% chance is perhaps sufficient to put a hold on the punishment of stoning out of fear for God.

Without further ado, below is a translated article written by a young Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the respected Egyptian scholar, on Sheikh Abu Zahra’s opinion (here is an archived link to the Arabic original taken from al-Qaradawi’s website).

Beginning of translated article

In this forum [referring to the 1972 conference], the Sheikh Abu Zahra exploded a fiqhī (jurisprudential) bomb that shook the attendants, by surprising them with his new opinion. The Sheikh, may God have mercy on him, stood up during the conference and said: “I have been keeping secret a jurisprudential opinion for the past 20 years. I had spilled the beans to Dr. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ʿĀmir, isn’t it so doctor?” The doctor [who was present] replied in the affirmative. [He continued:]

It is time for me to make it public before I meet God, glory to Him, in case He asks me why I kept my knowledge secret and did not show it to the people. This opinion is related to the issue of the stoning of married adulterers. My opinion is that stoning was a Jewish practice that the Messenger at first followed, until the practice was abrogated by the punishment of a hundred lashes in Sūrat al-Nūr. And I have three arguments for this: First, God, glory to Him, says:

"When they are married, if they commit adultery, their punishment shall be half that of free women." [The Quran, verse 4:25]

Stoning is not a punishment that can be halved, which shows that the punishment is the one mentioned in Sūrat al-Nūr [i.e. 100 lashes].

My second argument is what al-Bukhārī narrates in his Ṣaḥīḥ from ʿAbdullāh bin Awfā that he was asked whether the punishment of stoning was carried out before or after Sūrat al-Nūr was revealed, and he replied that he did not know.

My third argument: The hadith they relied on [in support of stoning], saying that it was first part of the Quran then it was abrogated while its ruling remained, is not something that a rational mind can accept. Why would a verse be abrogated but its ruling remain in force?

And the argument that it was part of a written book of Quran but a she-goat ate the page cannot be logically accepted.

When the Sheikh finished his speech, most of the attendants started to verbally assault him. Many stood up and repeated what the books of fiqh say on these arguments. But the Sheikh remained steadfast in his stance.

When the meeting broke up, I [i.e. Yusuf al-Qaradawi] said to him: “O Mawlānā [Our Master], my opinion is similar to yours, but it is more likely to be accepted.” He asked what my opinion was. I said: “It is mentioned in authentic hadith that the punishment of the unmarried is 100 lashes, while the punishment of the married is 100 lashes along with stoning.”

He said: “And what is your conclusion from this hadith?”

I said: “Your Honor knows that the Ḥanafīs say regarding the first part of the hadith that the punishment is flogging, but that banishment and exile is allowed according to the judgment of the ruler, but that it is not obligatory in all cases. In addition to this, authentic narrations have come to us regarding stoning during the Prophetic time. He carried out stoning against Jews, against Māʿiz [bin Mālik], against al-Ghāmidīya [a woman’s name], and he sent one of his Companions to investigate the laborer’s wife, telling him to carry out stoning if she confesses. It is also narrated that Umar and Ali carried out stoning after the time of the Prophet.”

The Sheikh did not agree with me. He said:

O Yusuf, is it conceivable that Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Mercy Gifted to Mankind, would stone people to death? This is Judaic law, and it fits the cruelty of Judaic culture.

[It is unclear whether this following paragraph is Abu Zahra or al-Qaradawi speaking:] Sheikh al-Zarqā [a renowned 20th century Syrian scholar] agrees with the majority, but he disagrees with them in his definition of muḥṣin [the category of adulterers that can be stoned]. They say that a muḥṣin is any person who has married at some point, even if they have divorced or their spouse has died and are currently unmarried. But al-Zarqā says a muḥṣin is one who is presently married. This is also the opinion of the Sheikh Rashid Rida which he has mentioned in his Tafsīr al-Manār.

[Al-Qaradawi speaking:] I thought for a long time about Abu Zahra’s statement that he had kept his opinion secret for twenty years. Why did he keep it secret and not mention it in a lecture, book or article? He did that out of the fear that the masses would move against him and that his character and reputation would be maligned and vilified as happened in this conference. I said to myself, “How many new opinions and ijtihāds are locked up in their owners’ hearts until it dies with them without anyone hearing of them or transmitting them?”

That is why when I spoke of the framework for modern ijtihād, I said that we should open our hearts to those who make mistakes in their ijtihāds, for in this way ijtihād is revived and flourishes. A mujtahid is a fallible human. It is their right, no, even their obligation, to perform ijtihād and to publicize their opinions. It is not obligatory on them to always be right. As long as we close our hearts to opinions that go against the majority, ijtihād will not grow and will not give its fruits.

The truth is that what some people consider to be in error might actually be the correct opinion, especially when times and places change. It appears that the violent attack that Sheikh Abu Zahra faced made him keep silent about his opinion [after the conference], so that he did not write it down. Perhaps the reason is that he did not live long after it, for he died some months later, may God’s mercy and pleasure be with him. I saw that in his book Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law he had attributed this opinion to the Khawārij and mentioned them using the same arguments that he mentioned in Libya. I believe that was before the conference [i.e. his book was published before the conference, this seems to be confirmed by WorldCat.org which lists versions of this book published in 1970 and before].

End of translated article

The Point of Marriage in Islam (and the Problem with Romantic Relationships Outside of Marriage)

An essay on the question of whether romantic relationships outside of marriage are acceptable in Islam, and if not, why. Why is marriage such a big deal in religiously conservative societies? Why can’t people just enjoy themselves without involving everyone and their mother in their private affairs?

Islamic law does not have anything strict to say on the topic of romance. As religious scholars admit, falling in love is something we cannot help. But there are ways to engage in romantic relationships that fit within Islam’s framework of ethics and morality, and there are ways that conflict with it. Islam is not made to be applied in a vacuum. It is assumed that people who embrace Islam will, generation after generation, build their own culture around it, using its morality and ethical teachings to create their own standards of manners, etiquette and appropriate behavior. We see this in all Muslim societies. They often have a vast set of standards of behavior that cannot be found in any religious text. The reason for this is simple. Human life is so complicated that there is no way to define every single detail of their lives in a religious text. Rather, Islam provides general guidelines, people fill out the specifics, except in those rare cases where specifics are given (such as in the case of dividing an inheritance). If you were brought up in a devout Muslim family, you know that your parents will likely not think very highly of your being in a romantic relationship without their knowledge. To understand why there is a good reason for this taboo on romantic relationships outside the knowledge of your family and society, we have to talk about the point of marriage.

In Islam the appropriate, safe and socially integrated way for a man and woman to be in a relationship is through marriage. In many Western societies that have lost their religious beliefs, marriage is just a formality. Many people engage in intimate relationships without seeing a need for officially marrying. That is the primitive, natural way for humans to do things. Islam (and Christianity, and Judaism, and most sophisticated cultures) add an extra layer of formality to the relationships between men and women that greatly complicate matters. What is the point of that?

The point is that the formality enables the man and woman to relate to each other as socially integrated humans. A religiously conservative husband (assuming he is a relatively well-educated and civilized man) does not just see his wife as a piece of attractive flesh that can be treated however he likes. The solemnity of marriage, the fact that it involves so many people’s approval and attention, means that he is forced to look at her and see her not just as a body, but as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. She is not detached from her society and background. She is a great deal greater than her body and her personality. And that means he is forced to respect her as a person. He is beholden to dozens of other people who will all have something to say about it if he mistreats her. Through the constant interactions with her family, he is reminded over and over again that she is more than just a body, that she is a person with an honored social status. One could say that we can have such relationships without involving our families; we do not need our families to force us to be nice and considerate toward our spouses. But the reality is that human nature always “reverts to the mean”. At the beginning of a romantic relationship we can treat the other person with the greatest consideration. But once the honeymoon is over, the couple start to take each other more and more for granted and start to do less and less for each other. This is something that has been experienced by most people, who may have at first thought they would be the exception to the rule. The point of socially integrating a romantic relationship into society is to extend the honeymoon-level of consideration to the period that comes after the honeymoon. That is the magic that social integration achieves and that is almost impossible to achieve without it.

A wife, in a religiously conservative society, is not just a random woman who signed some paperwork. She has a defined and honored social status. It is similar to the way a queen is honored and respected by the virtue of her social status, without anyone caring what her body or personality are like. Just by being queen, she gets all kinds of rights and privileges. In a similar way, marriage in a conservative, religious society forces men to treat women as if they are more than their bodies, their beauty or their personalities. You can see this at work in classical English-language novels like Pride and Prejudice, when the West was still highly religious. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the novel’s heroine, is an extremely ignorant and annoying person. But thanks to the institution of marriage, everyone around her is forced to treat her with great respect. This is respect that she does not “deserve” if we were to look at her personal qualities. That is the point of marriage; it integrates people into society, gives them a status and position, and in this way protects their honor and dignity. Today a person like Mrs. Bennet would be made fun of by her children for being stupid and ignorant. She would probably have to take antidepressants because no one will treat her like she matters. In a society like that of Pride and Prejudice or like today’s conservative Muslim societies, she will be treated like she matters, because the society’s values and the institution of marriage force everyone around her to treat her with great respect and dignity and to take her opinions seriously regardless of how ignorant or stupid she is.

That makes her feel like she is important, like there is a place for her in society. She feels appreciated and is happy with her lot in life.

Such a system has its own problems. But as a person who has experienced such societies in countries like Iran and Iraq, and their opposite in the United States, I can say that such a social system is far superior to the disintegrated societies of the West (of course, things are not bad everywhere in the West and there are still many happy families and societies). In secular societies a woman has to prove her worth to be respected and taken seriously. In a traditional society she does not need to prove anything. She is a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and since these social roles are taken very seriously, they grant her all the respect she desires without having to do anything. She is like a queen who is born into a social position without having to work for it.

Naturally, the system also provides similar benefits to men. A wife has to treat her husband, even if he is not very intelligent or attractive or interesting, as a person who matters. In a class I was attending in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a woman said that her husband had “the most boring job in the world.” It was a funny statement, but it made wonder why a woman of my society would consider it extremely vulgar for a woman to say such a thing about her husband in public. The reason, of course, is that in my society a husband is not just any random man. A wife and her husband together rule their own little private kingdom where they are honored and valued, and it would be as foolish for her to make fun of her husband as it would be for a queen to make fun of her king in public. In a religiously conservative society, a wife does not treat her husband as if he is a random male, she treats him according to the demands and duties of the offices they both hold; the offices of “husband” and “wife”. It is similar to the way a company executive treats another executive; or one government official or minister treats another. They cannot treat one another as random humans who met on the street, they have to respect the office or rank held by the other person and treat them according to that.

Marriage as Election

If you think about it deeply, in a religiously conservative society a marriage is an election. The extended families on both sides are given a proposal and study it, until they cast their votes in favor of or against the marriage taking place. This process is sometimes taken as seriously as the cardinals take the process of electing a new pope. Once the marriage is approved, the husband and wife end up wearing the “robes of honor” that signifies their new offices or ranks that society has elected to give to the two of them through its approval. In a disintegrated society “walking down the aisle” does not have that much significance (although it can still be quite affecting), while in a religiously conservative society “walking down the aisle” is quite similar to the coronation of a new king or queen and just as serious and solemn. It is how society integrates these two new people into its future. The wedding process in Islam is similar to two kingdoms coming together to agree on the formation of a new kingdom on their borders with one side providing the new king and the other the new queen.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 by William Frith (1865)

In Islam, when a man wants to marry a woman, he has to first present himself to her family. The family judges him and casts votes either in his favor or against him. A critic of Islam, on reading this, may jump to the conclusion that that means the family control’s a woman relationship. But that is just the prejudiced nonsense that we Muslims have to deal with every day. The woman, being part of the family, also casts her own votes. If she is in favor of the man, her vote may count as 50% of the necessary vote. If her mother also approves, that may add another 25% to the vote, meaning that the family as a whole is 75% in favor of the marriage. If the father disapproves, his 25% negative vote would have to stand against the 75% positive vote, meaning that he will be under pressure to justify himself, and this pressure may make him slowly change his mind in favor of the man. These percentages of course change from family to family, and if the woman has siblings, they too will cast their votes. Ideally, and in most cases, the marriage will only go forward once the man has 100% of the vote of the woman’s family, and the woman has 100% of the vote of the man’s family. This makes the formation of the marriage something that is done with the unanimous vote of both of their families.

This extra layer of complexity and formality that religious societies have (and truly primitive societies lack) helps create a society where most people feel as if they matter regardless of their personal qualities. By the mere virtue of being in that society they get a great deal of respect and honor. The society as a whole acts like an aristocracy where everyone holds some important position and has to be treated according to it.

Romance Outside of Marriage

The reason that a romantic relationship outside of marriage is not liked by religiously conservative societies is that it does not fit well within the above picture. It is perfectly fine to be in love with someone and to know that they love you back, and to work toward getting married through socially-approved methods. The problem is when two people in such a society try to bypass their society in order to enjoy the benefits that come with marriage without doing the hard work of getting the approval of their society. They want to enjoy the benefits of the office of marriage without bothering to get elected.

A man and woman who build a romantic relationship without involving their families are insulting both of their families. The pleasures of love are something granted by society to people who go through the process that society has designed for creating romantic relationships in a safe and integrated way. A religiously conservative society honors you, takes you seriously and treats you like you matter very much just because you were born into that society. You did not do any work to deserve being honored by your society the way they honor you. The honor is granted to you by the mere virtue of being born into that society. But in return for honoring you, society demands that you honor it back. The way that people take their relationship with you seriously, treating you as if you are a worthy and important human being just because you are a daughter/sister/niece and so on, you have to take your relationship with them seriously.

And that means that when it comes to a romantic relationship, you cannot act entirely on your own initiative. You can do so at first, for example you may love someone and think they love you back. You can act on this and find out if they are interested in marriage. If they are, then that is when you should involve your family. The longer you wait, the more you involve yourself romantically with them, the more insulting your actions become toward your family. Your family’s involvement and approval are necessary to integrate your relationship with your society. This ensures that the person you wish to marry will become beholden to their office and the duties that come with it. A husband cannot treat a wife in any way he likes, he has to treat her in the way that his socially-granted office requires of him. In the same way, the wife is beholden to her office. These offices force them to be nice and considerate toward one another and toward one another’s family even if they do not feel like it. They act according to their office, not according to their personal desires.

The worst cases of abuse that I have heard about in the Middle East have often involved a man taking a wife then separating her from her family, such as by moving to a different city or country. When that happens, when the woman is taken out of her social context, he no longer feels beholden to her family and society. He starts to treat her however he likes. If he is a good and kind man then she would be in no danger. But if he is not, then there is nothing forcing him to be kind and considerate. She is fully at his mercy. Even if there are laws in their country against domestic abuse, these laws rarely do anything until things get really bad, sometimes after years of abuse. Most cases of abuse will likely not involve the law, and emotional abuse, which the law largely ignores, can be just as bad as physical abuse. In a religiously conservative society, by integrating marital relationships within society, a woman gets a great amount of protection for her rights and dignity.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet cannot start beating or insulting his wife even if he feels like it, because he knows everyone around him will be seriously angry and upset with him if he does that. Any undignified treatment of his wife will bring upon him a great deal of negative consequences that have nothing to do with the law.

One of Mr. Bennet’s daughters (Lydia) tries to have a romantic relationship with a man without involving her family. Her family are naturally greatly upset and insulted by this. A modern reader might think their reaction illogical and unjustified, a silly and hysterical response to an unimportant matter. But within that religiously conservative society, they have every reason to be upset and insulted, because she is being disloyal to her society. Her action is similar to a minister making an important decision about his country without consulting the other ministers. It is also similar to an employee making an important decision about his or her company without consulting the other employees. It is a betrayal because she is making a decision that affects everyone around her without bothering to get their opinion, approval or involvement. It is also similar to your daughter deciding to sell the family car or the house without consulting anyone else.

The result of her action is that her family lose their respect for her. They continue to treat her with the basic dignity that everyone gets in that society, but her action has proven that she is either foolish, disloyal and ungrateful. She has been treated with the greatest honor all her life even though she has done nothing to deserve it, yet instead of repaying that treatment in kind by honoring her parents and relatives and helping her society continue in a healthy way, she thinks she can make a decision that affects everyone without consulting them.

Now a person may ask why marriage has to be such a serious decision (it is like selling the family car like I said). Why shouldn’t it be her own business? The reason is that marriage is a fundamental aspect of society, similar to birth and death. It is how society creates new humans and integrates them into itself. Marriage, in a conservative society, is very serious business because it has everything to do with society’s existence, survival and continuation. Selling the family car is serious business because it affects everyone’s fate and happiness in the family. Marriage is serious business for the same reason. Everyone around you wants you to marry in a way that enables them to continue having you as a beloved daughter or son. Marriage should be about you entering a higher and better stage in society while everyone continues to love and appreciate you. They want to grant you the office and all the honors and respect that come with it. But if you bypass this, if you try to create your own happiness without regard for your family, this will break apart the way everyone around you relates to you; they could in fact lose you forever, and what you did could give them as much sadness as if you had died. It is quite similar to an aristocrat betraying his or her country. They lose their honors, their place in society, and their own families can no longer relate to them.

When we are young and desirous of love, we wish to avoid the difficulties society throws before us when it comes to love and romance. We wish to find a lover and go live in the woods together without anyone interfering with our lives. The young man will treat his lover like a queen, she will treat him like a king, and everything will be happy ever after. But those who are naive enough to actually go through with such a plan almost invariably end up suffering the greatest misery. All that it takes is a month or two for the honeymoon period of the relationship to be over. When it is over, the two start to take each other more and more for granted. Neither of them sees the other in a socially integrated way; he is no longer a king but a not-too-attractive male with all kinds of annoying habits and shortcomings. She is no longer a queen but a demanding or needy female with an anxiety problem. Neither of them is capable of being the other’s “everything”. They start to miss their previous, socially integrated lives that so effortlessly granted them so much respect and honor, and they wish to get that back. They will enviously look at those who “married right” and who continue to get the love and respect of their families, while they themselves are outcasts who have the tiresome task of being everything for each other.

The problem with romantic relationships outside of marriage is that such relationships have their own gravity that pulls people away from their families and societies, unless they quickly involve their families. As most classical fiction and poetry tells us, romantic relationships make demands on us that can break apart our families and lead to much misery. So an intelligent and pious Muslim girl will avoid romantic entanglements like the plague, knowing that despite the pleasures such relationships bring they can also do the greatest harm to her long-term happiness among her family and friends. Like a good girl in a Victorian novel, she finds it far beneath her to develop a romantic relationship outside of the knowledge and approval of her family. That is something done by low-class and uncultured women, it is not something she does.

If a man falls in love with her and approaches her, if she likes him then she will refer him to her family. She can introduce the matter to her parents, who may ask to see him. If they think it is too early for marriage (maybe they want their daughter to complete her university degree first) but they approve of the man, they can perform the nikāḥ ceremony for them without performing the wedding. This would officially engage them and make it perfectly fine for them, from the point of view of Islamic law, to become romantically attached to one another and to do whatever the typical engaged Western couple do before marriage. This is how marriages work in Iran, whether among Sunni or Shia Iranians. The nikāḥ ceremony makes their engagement official. During the engagement period the man and woman are given freedom to spend time together and go out together, they are considered to be dating. But it is culturally taboo for them to become sexually intimate until after the wedding. If they do become intimate, they do not break any Islamic laws because they have performed the nikāḥ ceremony and are already married according to Islam, they are merely delaying the consummation of the marriage.

In the above way, a man and woman can safely date and get to know one another in a way that enjoys society’s approval and protection. While in the West we often have boyfriends and girlfriends treating each other with the meanest and most disrespectful and hurtful attitudes, by solemnizing the relationship before dating can take place, the couple are forced to be nice and considerate toward one another regardless of how they feel. In the West we run into many people whose self-esteem has been completely shattered because of an abusive partner’s actions toward them. This solemn dating system helps prevent that. Since their families are greatly involved, they feel beholden to everyone around them to act responsibly and respectfully. To a Muslim woman who understands the benefits of this system, it would sound like utter madness to involve herself with a man without enjoying these protections. It would be like a queen going anonymous and getting into a relationship with man on the street who, of course, can treat her with the greatest disregard and disrespect. A queen, by going through the formal, socially approved methods for getting married, ensures that her husband will continue to treat her like a queen. In the same way, a self-respecting Muslim woman demands a husband who will continue to treat her like she is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. The husband is forced to take her social status very seriously, and this ensures even if she has the most infuriating and annoying behaviors, he will tolerate her and not insult her. She, of course, is forced to have the same respectful attitude.

The above is how things work in many relationships in religiously conservative society. Of course, things do not always go perfectly and we have cases of the greatest disrespect and abuse. But the point is the nature of the average relationship in such a society compared to the average relationship in other societies. If 90% of Muslim marriages involve a husband and wife who respect each other greatly compared to 50% of secular Western marriages, then that is a great proof of the superiority of the conservative, Islamic system.

Love and Duty

Sometimes we cannot help it and fall in love with someone our families do not approve of. In such a situation, we have to balance our responsibilities toward our family and friends on the one hand, and our desire for personal fulfillment on the other. It would be highly irresponsible of us to bypass our families and let the romantic relationship take its course (even if we desire to do this with all of our hearts). We should instead try to convince our families to approve of the relationship, and if they are adamantly against it, we should patiently wait. When they see that we are refusing all other marriage opportunities, then they may slowly, after months or years, change their minds. That is the price way pay for enjoying the honors given to us by our religiously conservative societies.

We are free to ignore our families and do whatever we want. But the costs of doing this are very high and very few romantic partners deserve this sacrifice. When your family sees that you are staying loyal to them and patiently waiting for their approval, that is likely to soften their hearts, compared to if you were to try to keep a romantic relationship going out of their sight and enjoying it regardless of what they think.

It is not always easy to be patient or to make the right decisions. But it should always be our goal to mend things between us and our families and friends. We should remain loyal to them and honor them as much as we can the way they honor us. If we make the error of engaging a romantic relationship without their knowledge, we should try to tell them as soon as we can. Our desire for the pleasures of love should be counterbalanced by our knowledge that we have many decades in front of us. The honors our religiously conservative societies grant to us are extremely valuable and we should not let them go to waste, we should instead work to maintain and improve our societies.

In the United States, you have homeless people who have rich family members and relatives who do not care about them. That is what things look like when a society has disintegrated. The reason why society gets in the way of your desire for casual romantic relationships is to prevent that from happening. Our conservative Muslim societies, despite of their myriad problems, are infinitely superior to a society where things are in such a state. Romantic relationships outside of our families’ approval almost always end up damaging our relationship with our families unless things go perfectly, which they rarely do.

Romantic entanglements often force us to make a choice between our loyalty toward our families and our loyalty toward our lovers. The wise and pious thing to do is to not put ourselves in such a situation. Our religiously conservative societies are not against our enjoying ourselves. What they want is for us to do this in a way that enables to keep enjoying society’s benefits, to keep the love and respect of our families and to contribute something back to their happiness. And the way to do this is through having our relationships critiqued and approved by them. Once we have their blessing, we can enjoy ourselves as much as we want in a way that adds to their happiness and to the health of our societies rather than causing harm to them. It is, of course, sometimes a great sacrifice to put our romantic relationships at society’s mercy, letting it decide whether it can go forward or not. But in return for this show of loyalty, we continue to enjoy the great respect and honor that such a society has for us and that we did not do anything to deserve them to begin with. By continuing to respect our religiously conservative societies and holding ourselves to the high standards they demand of us, we can continue to enjoy our Pride and Prejudice-like world.

As for those who have never enjoyed living in such a world (converts, for example), through following traditional Islamic values you can be the initiator of such a world (although it can take generations for it to fully develop and flower).

I should mention that I have never actually seen a Muslim society that lived up to the high standards of good manners and ethics depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It represents an ideal that we can aim for. I should also mention that when young Muslims engage in illicit relationships, their families and societies are often partly responsible. When our children do not get the love and respect they deserve, they seek these things from others when they grow up and get the chance, and a romantic relationship, by promising them a lover that truly loves them and cares for them, can appear as a highly attractive alternative to the lowly lives they currently suffer in their families. Some families treat their children, especially their daughters, as part of their home’s furniture rather than as proper humans to be honored and respected and treated as integral parts of the family’s life. The beautiful thing about Islam is that when everyone tries to follow it as best as they can, they naturally tend toward the beautiful society depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It is when we fail at following Islam’s values, whether through disrespecting our parents or neglecting our children, that we suffer the painful consequences mentioned above.

Is Islam really pluralistic? An Islamic defense of pluralism

Mardin, Turkey

If Islamic teachings can be used to defend pluralism, that tells us something very important about the future of Islam. My views are not unique; they are similar to those of the great twentieth century Egyptian scholar Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh Drāz (1894 – 1958 CE), who defended a similar vision in many of his articles and books.1

It is sometimes the case that the idea of pluralism is used by liberals and secularists to feign an attitude of open-mindedness that in reality hides their contempt for those who disagree with them. In the name of respecting the other side, they demand respect while reserving the right to give no respect in return where it matters. Conservatives are required to respect liberals in the name of pluralism, but the liberals often are quite incapable of realizing that these means they too should be respectful toward the conservatives.

Liberals, in the name of pluralism and diversity, often belittle and demonize the “outdated mullahs” and misogynists who supposedly represent the counterpart to liberalism. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in the views of conservative scholars. But when this comes from someone who has no empathy for them, who considers them an enemy to belittle and defeat, then what we are really seeing is a narrow-minded bigot who in the name of liberalism attacks his or her enemies. He or she demands respect but gives back respect only with the utmost reluctance.

The Middle East is full of intellectuals who speak of democracy, freedom and pluralism all the time while, at one and the same time, having the most militant and authoritarian attitude toward conservatives. In the name of liberal ideals, they claim to possess the moral superiority, to enforce their views on everyone who disagrees with them. That brand of secularism, the brand of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Michel Aflaq is familiar to most conservative Middle Easterners and is recognized for what it is; totalitarian, dehumanizing ideologies that think they possess the whole of the truth and are prepared to murder innocent men, women and children to get what they want.

But that closed-mindedness of the secularists should not make us dehumanize them the way they dehumanize us. This is where many Muslim intellectuals seem to be stuck, or at least were stuck in the 20th century. Conservative intellectuals belittled liberals for watering down the religion. Liberals belittled conservatives for being living fossils. And what neither side is capable of seeing is that there is one and the same attitude underlying the thinking of both sides. Saying this would shock both sides since they think they could not be more different from one another, and each thinks it will or should one day defeat or wipe out the other. That attitude is the anti-humanist attitude, and sadly this is where many are stuck.

It is the attitude that thinks it has the right to dehumanize and belittle the inner experience of other humans. Conservative intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a liberal Muslim to where they are today. And liberal intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a conservative Muslim or an outdated mullah to be where they are today. Neither side is willing to really, truly acknowledge the humanity of the other side. Listen to a conservative and it soon comes out in his speech that he does not see liberals and secularists as really human; they are “liberals” and “secularists”, a different, non-human species that is accorded no sympathy. And listen to liberal and the exact same thing comes out; they do not see that conservatives and mullahs are really humans: they are “conservatives” and “mullahs”, different, non-human species that deserve neither respect nor sympathy.

The two sides are unable to see that both of them are part of the problem and that there is a better way. It is to see the other side as made up of people just like yourself, it is to treat them according to the Golden Rule: treat your neighbor the way you like to be treated yourself. Rather than discounting the inner experience of our fellow humans—the validity of their thinking and their right to independence of mind and conscience—we should respect these things that they possess as much as we respect them in ourselves.

What stops many from having such an attitude is that to them the very reason they disagree with the other side is their own superiority of intellect and upbringing, which supposedly enables them to see truths the other, due to their stupidity, ignorance or corruption, cannot see. If they were to relent and give up this sense of superiority, this would be an admission of equality with other side; an admission that the other side’s truths are just as good as their own truths. But to them history is a battle to be win. Admitting that there could be any validity in the thinking of the other side is an admission that the other side has some good things about them. When you are trying to win a battle, the last thing you want to do is admit the humanity of the other side. You want to reduce them to pests and cockroaches that have to be wiped out. You want to keep the morale of your soldiers high by telling them how infinitely superior in every conceivable way your side is compared to the other side, and how it is destiny, history, God Himself who will ensure that your side will wipe out the other.

This battle mentality prevents both sides from seeing that there is a new, unexplored territory that is far superior to the grounds they fight for.

Pluralism without Relativism

The problem with real pluralism, that is, the humanist attitude, is that it seems to acknowledge that there are multiple truths; the other side can reach conclusions different from ours and yet be somehow “right”. How can that be when we believe there is only one truth that we all aim for?

All of us humans work toward discovering the truth. But due to our differences in talents, knowledge, circumstances and experiences, we often differ from one another in the things we observe and the conclusions we draw from them. Even though we all seek the truth, none of us can ever acquire the whole of the truth, unless we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow miraculously avoid all of the pitfalls and limitations of human understanding. Even though the truth is one, I might know only a small amount of it. And among the truths that I think I know, 80% might actually be really true and 20% might be false for all that I know. Below is a diagram to clarify this:

There is only one truth, represented by the circle, surrounded by falsehood, a sea of darkness, on all sides. The circle does not represent all of truth but important truths that we tend to disagree with others about. The green rectangle represents a human’s efforts at discovering these truths. They end up discovering some of them, but along the way they also pickup countless biases, prejudices and false beliefs and ideas that they think are true. That is the part of the rectangle that is in the gray area.

This person can have two attitudes about themselves: they can delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint is entirely true, that their green rectangle is miraculously wholly within the light, or they can humbly acknowledge their limitations and say that they may be wrong about some things. Political authoritarians, whether conservative or liberal, think that their viewpoint entirely captures truth and avoids falsehood, or that through proper submission to their authority this can be achieved sooner or later.

Now we can add a second person’s views to the diagram, this time represented by the yellow rectangle:

Person B knows many of the real truths that Person A knows. This is represented by the area that is shared between the two rectangles inside the circle. Person B also shares some of the prejudices and false beliefs as Person A, represented by the gray area on the right, outside the circle, that is shared between the two of them. He or she also has some prejudices and false beliefs that Person A does not have, represented by the gray areas that are only in the yellow rectangle and not in the green rectangle.

But most importantly, Person B also knows much more of the truth than Person A, represented by the new light areas covered by the yellow rectangle. Person B is closer to the truth on many things than Person A is. If Person B continues on this path, if they continue studying and discovering, their rectangle may expand downwards as follows so that it captures more of the light:

In the meantime, Person A may, though reading bad sources and reaching bad conclusions from their experiences, may actually expand their rectangle into the darkness rather than into the light:

What that means is that Person A is now sure of many new “facts” that are actually falsehoods.

The horror of recognizing our inherently limited and biased viewpoints causes some people to recoil into the delusion that by defining a narrow set of criteria, they can miraculously acquire the whole of the truth, be safe from falsehood and be the possessors of a light that gives them the right to rule over over all who disagree with them. This is the myth behind both Marxism and militant Wahhabism. They both imagine that they possess all the important truths, believe that they are so safe from falsehood that it is only those who disagree with them who have prejudices and false beliefs. Wahhabis distort reality into this:

Marxists do the same:

In both ideologies, all that is outside the ideology is by definition false, evil, prejudiced, misguided. All that is inside is good, wholesome, light. Both believe that their ideology captures the whole of the truth and is free from error. No disagreement or difference with the ideology is allowed, because any disagreement is automatically considered to be in the sea of falsehood.

Pluralism and Islam

Below is a diagram that represents the reality of life; it represents many people all trying to discover the truth:

It is this picture that horrifies Wahhabis and Marxists into wanting to chop off all the bits that do not fit. How can we have any form of community or progress in a world so complex and diverse? The Wahhabi and Marxist answer is that we cannot, therefore we have to force one view on everyone. Some conservative Muslims also suffer from a similar attitude. They believe that a very strong promotion of conformity is the only way to protect the integrity of the Muslim community. Disagreement is strongly discouraged and even attacked because when an intellectual disagrees with the rest, he is weakening the embattled umma. In support of the umma, we are supposed to keep silent when our intellects and consciences would have us speak. Cowardice becomes virtue; the cowardly who do not speak the truth fit in perfectly, while the brave who speak against falsehoods are shunned and attacked for being troublemakers and threats to the umma.

The conformist assumption is that since “we” (the conformists) have the right ideas about religion and “they” do not, it is only right and just that “our” ideas should be forced on “them”. The question about who these people are who decide the truth for everyone else is not treated in detail, but it includes “me, my friends and everyone else who agrees with me.” We can call this the “top-down” approach to Islam; the idea that a minority should hold the reigns over the majority. They will be the benevolent dictators who tell everyone else what Islam should be. This is, of course, a self-elected priesthood, and it is what Wahhabism and Marxism share in common.

The numerous Islamist disasters of the past century should have been sufficient to convince most Muslims that the top-down, priesthood model is dysfunctional and impracticable, and perhaps most Muslims have been convinced. The alternative to the priesthood model is the ground-up (or grassroots) model, which is the model followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide (even though they do not talk about it), and it is also the model followed by Prophet Muhammad PBUH and his Companions. The ground-up model, rather than involving a minority that seeks to force its ideas on everyone else, is a model that seeks consensus with others. The Prophet PBUH did not say “I miraculously possess the truth, so do as I say or else!” The only person in Islamic history who could have claimed divine guidance for forcing his views on others refused to do so.

The Prophetic model was to seek to build a community through persuading other humans, while respecting their right to disagree with him, even to leave his community. His community was a consensual community in which everyone was persuaded of the truth of his message. In other words, his community functioned on the basis that humans can be persuaded of the truth without the necessity for authoritarian methods.

The experience of Muslim communities living in the West today lends the greatest support to the ground-up model. We do not have a religious authority enforcing its views on us. We do not have a morality police forcing our women to wear hijab. We listen to scholars coming from various schools of thought. People happily pray the noon prayer at one mosque and the evening prayer at another without caring much about whether the imam of the mosque follows one school or another. Most people could not care less whether the imam believes in the theological views of al-Ashʿarī, al-Maturidī or ibn Ḥanbal.

We have a community of democratic consensus in which we agree on the most important things without anyone having any authority to force his or her views on us. Any one of us could leave Islam at any time without facing any repercussions from a religious or political authority. The only way to make a member of this community do something or behave in a certain way is through persuading them. Our sheikhs do not have the power to whip men who fail to show up for the Friday prayers like the Wahhabi chief of the Shammar tribe used to do in 1840’s Arabia,2 yet our mosques are packed during those prayers.

Our community as a whole only acts communally on things upon which there is consensus (such as the obligatory nature of the Friday prayer), while leaving it to each person to act upon those things upon which there is no consensus. This freedom and lack of authority has not led to a “disintegration”, “corruption” or “decay” of our religion as conformists and authoritarians predict. Rather, it has led to a peaceful religious community that focuses on the most important things (worship and charity) while being largely free of religious strife. People eagerly read the works of classical scholars and attend lectures in which hadith narrations are explained. In an atmosphere that is free from authority, people, rather than abandoning Islam and forgetting about it, continue to hold on tightly to it.

The disagreements among the various Muslim schools of thought leads certain people to dream of the unity and political power that could be achieved if everyone agreed with everyone else. And a certain type of pathological personality takes this thinking to its extreme: unity and political power are the sole guidelines for Muslim existence; it is perfectly fine to oppress, restrict and terrorize every Muslim who disagrees with the version of Islam that Mr. Authoritarian and his friends cook up, and in this way a “unity” is achieved (that is in reality filled with hatred, fear and discontent) where no one dares to criticize the self-elected Muslim priesthood.

Communities of Consensus

Authoritarians think Islam needs political authority to keep its integrity. The experience of the Prophet PBUH and of Muslim communities throughout history shows that it does not. A community of consensus is not one where the same views are forced on everyone. It is where the Islamic and legal practices we follow are all derived from our shared agreement on them. Everyone follows Islam in their own way and according to their own conscience, but since Islam is derived from the Quran and the Sunna, their practice of Islam ends up being very similar in most regards to other people’s practice of Islam. In this way a community organically comes into being where, by the mere fact of everyone doing their best to follow Islam, they form a strong but peaceful community. There is no authority forcing its views on anyone. Everyone is treated as a respected and honored human who is doing his or her best to make sense of Islam and life.

Authoritarians might predict that this free atmosphere will lead to a situation where the community divides into many groups each of which has its own misguided interpretation of Islam, so that only a tiny minority remains who continue to hold onto the true religion.

But the question is whether that authoritarian prediction is factually accurate. Does it reflect reality? It is certainly true that there have been periods in which what are considered by most to have been misguided sects flourished, but to say that that happened because authoritarians were not there to save the day is to give preferential treatment to one explanation out of a dozen possible ones. It seems far more likely that the flourishing of misguided sects, similar to the flourishing of Marxism, came about because of authoritarianism not despite it; a small minority of authoritarians forced their corrupt views on everyone else and punished disagreement.

The ground-up model of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, the prophets before him, and mainstream Muslim communities shows the authoritarian prediction (that Islam will decay without authority) to be a fairy tale. Mosque after mosque after mosque in the West operates just like the mosques found in the East, despite our far greater freedom to change things and do whatever we like.

The reason is simple: humans are not animals. They are not sheep that need to be led by priesthood as authoritarians imagine. Humans, honored by God to the point that the angels bowed down to them, prefer to be on the side of the truth rather than falsehood once educated.

Prophet Muhammad’s attitude toward the people around him was the humanist attitude. It was to treat the people around him, Muslim and non-Muslim, as intrinsically worthy. When a person disagreed with him or even made fun of him, he did not attack and demonize them. He instead wished what is best for them. Why? An authoritarian will say the Prophet PBUH was acting like a politician, being nice, polite and forgiving not because he thought humans deserve such a treatment, but because this was the best way to manipulate them into becoming Muslim.

Authoritarians like many Wahhabis do not believe in the intrinsic worth of human life, therefore that is the only way they can explain the Prophet’s behavior and the behavior of the prophets before him; political manipulation. That is what they have reduced Islam’s beautiful moral and ethical teachings to. That is Islam according to these supposedly morally superior authoritarians who think they have the right to decide what Islam should be for everyone else.

Were the prophets nothing more than political manipulators when they were being kind to the disbelieving folk around them? Were the desperate efforts of Prophet Nūḥ (Noah) [as] to save his people from the flood by trying to persuade them to believe in God just him doing his job? Is it not more accurate to say that as a human, he had love and sympathy for these fellow humans and did not wish bad things to happen to them?

Was Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham) [as] merely doing his job as a political manipulator when he argued with God’s angels in order to protect a group of homosexual rapists from God’s punishment? Is it not far more likely that as a kindly and loving human he did not like the thought of these people suffering punishment, that he saw intrinsic worship in them despite being considered some of the worst sinners in existence? And even more importantly, God does not criticize him for arguing with His command, He praises him:

When Abraham's fear subsided, and the good news had reached him, he started pleading with Us concerning the people of Lot.

Abraham was gentle, kind, penitent.

“O Abraham, refrain from this. The command of your Lord has come; they have incurred an irreversible punishment.”3

The picture we have here is of a human who loves his fellow humans, who wishes what is best for them, and wishes to avert harm from them even when God has declared that harm should come to them. And God does not blame him for this. He praises him for having sympathy for these sinners. He dedicates an entire verse of the Quran to praising him for his sympathy.

This is the example of our Prophet Ibrāhīm [as], the father of our umma as we call him during every prayer. Rather than being an authoritarian who gloated in destroying those who disagreed with him, he tried to protect the worst sinners from God’s punishment, going so far as to make a scene arguing with God’s angels.

If that is not one of the strongest affirmations of the humanist attitude then I do not know what can be.

Since people are intrinsically worthy, since they are honored by God, since they are sacred, since God praises our desire to protect sinners, then it logically follows that persuasion rather than force should be our method in our dealings with them. Since force is prohibited, the only way to build a Muslim community is through persuasion. Each member of the Muslim community is treated as intrinsically worthy regardless of their opinions. If that was Ibrāhīm’s attitude toward the worst sinners, it is far more imperative upon us to have a similar attitude toward those who believe in God and His Prophet PBUH.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Organic Communities

My theory of the formation of Islamic communities is the complete opposite of the Islamist and authoritarian theories. When a group of people believe in God and His Messenger PBUH, they are naturally and organically inclined to form a moderate community that reflects the best teachings of Islam, without needing the services of authoritarians.

Authoritarians have an extremely low opinion of humanity, seeing most humans as something more akin to animals than humans who deserved the angels’ prostration. And their highness of their opinion of themselves is often in equal proportion to the lowness of their opinion of others. Such people exist everywhere, in all communities and religions. It is human nature to like to think highly of ourselves and lowly of those who disagree with us. Authoritarians are people immature and unscrupulous enough to take this to the extreme of turning themselves into demigods who miraculously possess the truth and who also possess the right to force this supposed truth on others.

My theory is that humans, by the mere virtue of being human, after accepting God and His Prophet PBUH, possess the right to read the Quran and hadith and other works and come to their own conclusions about them. This, rather than leading to disintegration in the community, leads to the formation of moderate communities, because all humans, once given the Quran and the Sunna, all slowly incline toward the same truth. Their humanity and their belief in God and the Prophet PBUH are what bind them into a community, not some authority that forces conformity on them.

This community has inertia of its own. An ultra-liberal Muslim who comes into the community and speaks of how gay marriage should be legalized, and a militant Wahhabi Muslim who comes into the community and speaks of how Muslims should be obsessing about political power night and day, get shunned by the community, the way an extended family shuns that annoying vegan relative who keeps lecturing everyone about his or her moral superiority. The community’s inertia is the product of human nature, the Quran, the Sunna and the opinions of respected classical and modern scholars. All of these things merge together and form a vague set of beliefs, manners and practices that most of the community shares.

Such a community has a natural inclination toward conformity, balanced by the fact that there is no authority forcing any single view on the members, so that each person differs in some ways in their views from those around them. The natural human desire to belong and fit within a community pulls the members toward conformity, while the natural human desire to have independence of mind and conscience pulls the members toward individualism. And the result is a balance between these two forces. We try to fit in as much as we can, doing our best to avoid offending others and trying to stay out of the line of sight of the community members who have a tendency to get ticked off easily. But in our private lives each person has his own favorite scholars and intellectuals. The Syrians and Egyptians at the mosque love Mohammed al-Ghazali and follow his style of Islam. The Turks love Said Nursî. The Pakistanis and Indians have their own scholars, often unknown outside of their cultures. The converts have their own style of Islam, often based in part on the thinking and ideas of high-profile converts who came before them.

Publicly, people try to fit in out of good manners. They do not voice their private religious opinions to avoid useless arguments. Privately, they enjoy freedom of intellect and conscience. And out of these two things a moderate and peaceful community is created.

Authoritarians think they can do better than the above through the use of force and manipulation tactics. In the West, since they cannot use force, their favorite tactic is appealing to authority. They attack Muslims who do not follow their versions of Islam by acting as if their opinions are the only possibly valid ones. They often speak of how there is ijmāʿ (“consensus”) that everyone should do what they say. This is often a downright lie, since there is often no consensus on even the simplest and most essential things within Islam, such as how to perform the ablution. Whenever they claim consensus on something, all it takes is a cursory look through the classical sources to find highly respected scholars who disagree with their view. Mention that to them and they will come up with some underhanded argument for why that scholar’s opinion does not count, even if they were quoting their opinion yesterday in support of a different supposed “consensus”.

There is also another consensus that I have already referred to, the organic consensus of the community. There is consensus among the members of every mainstream Muslim community on a great number of things. We believe that there is only one God and that the Quran transmits His uncorrupted words, that Muhammad was His last Messenger, that murder, stealing and adultery are wrong. A person who goes against these things can rightly be said to be outside the consensus of the community.

The Delusion of the Authoritarian Utopia

Authoritarians think that the community described is not good enough. They think that it would be so much better, people would be so much more united, if they were given free rein to dictate Islam to everyone else and manufacture consensus out of thin air on every big and small issue.

But let us say we do as they want. Let us give them free rein. What happens next? Does our love for Islam increase? Does our sense of unity increase? Do we start to love and appreciate one another more now that we have the One True version of Islam forced on all of us?

Of course not. In fact, quite the opposite happens. The culture of conformity that authoritarians promote means that the most dishonest and cowardly raise to the top. They have no firm principles of their own, so they are perfectly happy to fit in with the authoritarians to get privileges in return.

And as for the rest of the community, they continue to hold on to their own individual beliefs in private, but now they will be more careful in keeping their beliefs to themselves to avoid the attention of the authoritarians.

Rather than increasing unity, the authoritarians increase division. Some people, out of ignorance or self-interest, end up siding with the authoritarians, while others, out of conscientious difficulty with authoritarian beliefs and tactics, end up staying away from them as much as possible. The community is divided into two: the “career Muslims” who side with the authorities and derive power and privilege from this (as in Saudi’s Wahhabi ideologues and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), and the ordinary Muslims who look on with dismay, keep quiet and keep following Islam in their own way in private as much as they can.

The Issue of Islamic Law (the Sharia)

Authoritarians often act as if there is an inherent conflict between living in a democratic and pluralistic society and the application of the Sharia, the implication being that 1. anyone who feels proud to be a citizen of a liberal democratic society is betraying the umma and 2. we should submit to whatever half-baked plan they have for implementing the Sharia (which often starts with the application of the punishments prescribed in it). The truth is that there is no conflict between democracy and the Sharia unless one is an authoritarian, whether a secularist authoritarian who wishes to force secularism on everyone, or an Islamist authoritarian who wishes to force Islam on everyone.

We do not have to submit to the views of either of these two immature sides. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims can together create a constitution that applies to everyone in the country, Muslim and non-Muslim. Then, each city or state in the country should have the right to choose its own laws beyond the constitution, as is the case in the United States and many other countries. If there is a particular city or state that democratically chooses to implement the Sharia on its Muslim population, then I do not think most fair-minded and educated person would have a problem with that. And if there is a liberal city or state that does not want Sharia law, then the democratic process means that it will not get Sharia law.

Muslims, non-Muslims, conservatives and liberals can all sit down like mature humans and have an intelligent discussion on the best way to run their country that ensures the rights of everyone as much as possible. If most people’s basic assumption is that all humans are sacred and deserve protection and sympathy, then a fair and just system can be created that does not do injury to any group.

Respecting Muslims Who Disagree With Us

We can now go back to the question that this essay started with. What should be an educated and open-minded Muslim’s stance toward Muslims who disagree with them significantly?

Our stance should be the humanist, or Abrahamic, stance. They should be treated with respect and consideration regardless of their beliefs. They should not be insulted or demonized. But that does not mean that we should treat them as if their beliefs are just as valid as ours. We can point out why we disagree with them. We can politely debate them. We can politely but firmly prevent them from doing violence to our practice of Islam as discovered through the process of organic consensus. To give a dramatic example, a man who thinks he should have the right to pray naked at the mosque should be prevented from doing so. He has the right to make of Islam what he wants, and he has the right to defend his idea that prayer should be performed in nudity at the mosque, but he does not have the right to intrude upon the public manners and etiquette surrounding religion as developed through the process of organic consensus. He can start his own mosque and do that in it and see where that takes him. He does not have the right to force his religious views on others by claiming that his version of Islam is as valid as that which has been organically and democratically developed by the community over the years.

We can have a pluralistic Islamic society without becoming secularists. As long as secularism is not forced on us, our communities will naturally tend toward moderate, conservative Islam as is followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide. Human nature itself, with the help of the Quran and the Sunna, gravitates toward such an Islam.

It is not only secularists who should enjoy polite and respectful treatment. The same should apply to Muslims that we consider outdated, ignorant, or somewhat extremist and authoritarian. Whatever is wrong with them, they still deserve the same kindly attitude that Prophet Ibrāhīm had toward the People of Lūṭ (Lot). Whatever their mistakes, sins or deficiencies, they are still humans honored in the sight of God. It is not through insults and snarky attitudes that we can bring such people back to the path of moderation, it is through love, through making them feel appreciated and valued.

Authoritarians are afraid of the loss of power and authority that comes with letting every Muslim come to their own conclusions about Islam in complete freedom and independence. They want to control history so that things may go the way they want. They want, in short, to play God and determine humanity’s fate. But the burden of proof is on them to show that their thinking leads to a better and more pious Muslim community. It seems to me that it does not; it rather promotes dislike and hatred for Islam through their abuses of people’s rights and dignities.

Respecting Sectarian Muslims

Our attitude toward Muslims belonging to other sects can be the same as our attitude toward Muslims that do not perfectly fit in within our community (see above) and Christians (see below). They possess many of the truths we possess, and the fact of their humanity demands sympathy and respect.

Respecting non-Muslims

The same pluralist framework can be extended to non-Muslims. They too are sacred, even if they are engaged in what Islam considers the worst of sins; they are at least as sacred as Prophet Ibrāhīm considered the People of Lūṭ to be. Some Muslims are so distant from the Quran that they think it almost a betrayal of the umma to have respect and sympathy for non-Muslims when Islam’s great Patriarch, Ibrāhīm, had just such an attitude.

Non-Muslims too are truth-seekers. They have the right to examine the evidence that life presents to them and come to their own conclusions. This is why the Quran is adamant that religion should not be forced on people. Rather than treating non-Muslims as misguided and twisted people, we should treat them as fellow humans, sacred and deserving of protection and sympathy. They too have some view of the truth even if we assume it is a narrower vision than ours, and there should be nothing too surprising in some non-Muslims knowing some truths that some Muslims do not know.

The above diagram represents the efforts of a Muslim (green), Christian (blue) and atheist (yellow) at discovering the truth (of course, as viewed from an Islamic perspective). They all appreciate and agree on certain truths (for example, perhaps the fact that humans are sacred and should not be murdered without due cause and process). They also share some of the same false beliefs. In the diagram, the Muslim person has a better view of the truth than either. The atheist has only a small view. That is not to say that every Muslim has a superior view of the truth compared to every Christian, or that every Christian is superior to every atheist in this regard. And as already mentioned these truths are the important things in life that we sometimes disagree on. An atheist may know many facts about a field of science; that is not our concern here.

The atheist novelist Terry Pratchett (died in 2015) made many fair and occasionally unfair criticisms of religious people in his novels. But he believed in the sanctity of human life, saying that the objectification of humans is one of the greatest evils (or the root of all evil). This is an incredibly important truth, defended in the Quran in this way:

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.4

The above verse, as has been realized by interpreters, is telling us that human life has infinite worth. Regardless of how large the population becomes, killing a single human is as evil as killing all of humanity. This means that there is something special, sacred, about humans. Terry Pratchett, in recognizing this essential truth and defending it, is morally superior in this regard to any Muslim who does not believe in the sanctity of human life and justifies murder in the name of Islam.

Despite our differences with non-Muslims, they are still our brothers and sisters, since we are all Children of Adam as the Quran constantly reminds us. Our attitude toward them should be the same as the attitude of the Prophets toward humanity; and attitude of respect and sympathy, not out of a desire to manipulate them, but because this is the right and just way to treat humans.

Conclusion

Muslim unity will not come about through force, but through love and sympathy. Muslims, by the virtue of being humans, have a natural tendency toward creating communities of consensus that practice moderate, conservative Islam without the need for authority.

Authoritarians are mistaken in their belief that their services are needed to guide Islam. Empirical reality proves their views false; the world is full of highly faithful and devout Muslim communities that have no authority forcing any version of Islam on them.

Our appreciation for the sanctity of human life, our sympathy for our fellow humans, and the guidance of the Prophets should form the basis of how we relate to everyone around us. People are to be respected regardless of their beliefs, unless they try to force their beliefs on others, in which case they are to be stopped. Our communities should be tolerant toward both ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative Muslims who do not fit in very well within the moderate Islam of the community as long as they do not try to do violence to the community.

Our attitude toward non-Muslims should be one of respect and sympathy, not one of belligerence. It is true that not all non-Muslims are nice and respectful people. I do not call for naive trust in non-Muslims or for being desperate to live up to their expectations. We treat them according to what we know to be right and just, and part of that is respect and sympathy toward those who mean us no harm.

As for those who have not fought against you for your religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not prohibit you from dealing with them kindly and equitably. God loves the equitable.

But God prohibits you from befriending those who fought against you over your religion, and expelled you from your homes, and aided in your expulsion. Whoever takes them for friends—these are the wrongdoers.5

Reader Questions

Is Islam really pluralistic? I've been wondering this for a long time. If so then why does Allah speak harsh against other religions, and the ahadith too?

God’s business with humanity is one thing, our business with humanity is another. God judges humanity and deals with them according to His justice and mercy. He does not give us the right to become judges over humanity and decide who gets to live and who to die, who gets blessings and who gets punishments. The way we deal with humanity is based on the laws and ethics He defines for us, not according to what we think God thinks about certain people. You might think your neighbor is a great sinner, but you have no right to take their judgment and punishment into your own hands. If they break the law, then the law will deal with them. If they do not break the law, then it is God’s business to judge them and deal with them.

As almost any mainstream scholar will tell you, the Quran does not forbid us from living peacefully in pluralistic societies, and this is the opinion reached by the majority of Muslims. A minority of Muslims, those with authoritarian personalities, disagree and think that their version of Islam should be forced on everyone. By what right? Because they supposedly possess truths that 99% of Muslims, including the best educated and most knowledgeable among them, do not possess.

So the first step in their thinking is to dismiss, demonize and dehumanize the majority of Muslims. This enables them to claim the right to be the ones who decide what is true and what is false and to be the juries, judges and executioners over everyone else in society.

Needless to say, it is only a very small minority of often mentally disturbed people who think like that. Islam does not have a pope or priesthood, therefore no one can ever rightly claim to possess the right to define religion for others. The practice of Islam is not based on an authority that defines religion (except in a few authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, or in Shia Islam where the Grand Ayatollahs have the authority to define religion). The practice of Islam as seen throughout the world is based on organic consensus, the fact of many people all coming to the same conclusion in complete freedom of mind and conscience. No one is forcing the mainstream mosques in London to all pray in the same way, yet that is just what happens. In Christianity, we have a situation where different groups are constantly splintering off from one another. In mainstream Islam we have quite the opposite situation: we have a vast amount of diversity throughout the Islamic world, yet we are all constantly gravitating toward that organic consensus I mentioned, where we agree with other Muslims on the most important things in our religion.

That is one of the reasons why Sunni Islam is the largest religion in the world (1.5 billion, compared to 1.2 billion for Catholic Christians). Sunni Islam cannot splinter like Christianity because it is entirely made up of splinters. Each individual makes his or her own Islam through what they learn from the Quran and the Sunna. Each person, in complete freedom of mind and conscience (except in certain authoritarian cultures) examines Islam’s texts and reaches largely the same conclusions as everyone else (with some usually unimportant differences). This gives us Sunni Muslims the incredible privilege of being able to go to almost any mosque in the world and feel at home there; we know that the people of that mosque went through the same process we went through and reached largely the same conclusions, and that regardless of what mosque we go to, there are usually some people who will largely agree with our views.

Making sense of the hadith literature is like trying to solve a puzzle, there are thousands of pieces of varying authenticity (even narrations that are considered ṣaḥīḥ themselves vary greatly in their authenticity). To make sense of things, scholars have to sit down and bring together all relevant narrations on any issue and try to make a unified system out of them. And when it comes to the issue of pluralism, every mainstream scholar who has sat down to do this work has come to the same conclusion, which is that Islam is not opposed to pluralism. The exception are those who have authoritarian personalities and wish to make a case for forcing their version of Islam on everyone, so what they do is cherry pick a dozen narrations and verses of the Quran, say that those verses of the Quran that get in their way are “abrogated” so that they can ignore them, and in this way they reach the conclusion they started with, which is that they have the right to force their version of Islam on everyone else. And to explain why most scholars disagree with them, they say that most scholars are misguided or hypocrites. Since they cannot prove their case through reasoned argument, they resort to demonizing those who disagree with them.

If we study the history of Islamic societies, we will find that mainstream Muslim societies everywhere have been extremely pluralistic. Whether you look at the Abbasid Empire, Muslim Spain, India’s Malabar coast, Java or Malaysia, you will find that for most of their histories they were extremely pluralistic. People of all kinds of beliefs and leanings lived side by side together without wanting to do violence to each other. The default attitude of Muslims toward non-Muslims has been one of “live and let live.” There has always been an authoritarian minority that has desired to force everyone to become “better” Muslims and to force non-Muslims to become Muslims. Every society, Muslim and non-Muslim, has these authoritarians who think that the world would be so much better if they could force their opinions on others. But the reality of Muslim life has always been one of pluralism except for those rare but disastrous instances when religion and politics became united, so that an authoritarian person tried to force his religious views on others. We have the example of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn’s Miḥna (Inquisition) which tried to force Muʿtazilī theology on everyone. We also have the example of Ibn Abdul Wahhab who allied himself with the Saudi family and in the name of spreading “true” Islam justified the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims.

But those disasters are the exception that proves the rule. For every million Muslims who live under an authoritarian version of Islam we have 99 million who live in pluralistic Muslim societies. There is still work to be done to protect things like free speech and the rights of minorities in these societies, and there are cases of unjust persecution (or rather useless blasphemy laws). But anyone who has lived in Egypt, Iraq, Syria or Turkey knows that you run into the most atheistic and anti-religious individuals every day without anyone trying to do them harm. Almost all of the Middle East’s universities invariably have some secularist professors who show the greatest disdain for religion without anyone getting in their way or trying to harm them. The community I grew up in in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which is supposed to be 98% Muslim, is full of atheists and secularists who make anti-religion posts on Facebook on a daily basis (and get upset when no one takes them seriously) . Islam’s detractors focus on the 1% of bad cases, ignore the 99% of peaceful and pluralistic Muslim societies, then tell us that Islam promotes intolerance.

Islam’s detractors blame the problems of the Middle East on Islam, ignoring the fact that Christian Latin America suffers from almost exactly the same problems everywhere. Latin America has dysfunctional democracies, far more child marriages than the Middle East, orders of magnitude more crime than the Middle East (Brazil’s murder rate is 29, Egypt’s is 2.51), a far more serious rape problem (Brazil’s rape rate is 37, Morocco’s is somewhere between 2 and 4), and honor killings. Where is the outcry against Christianity for promoting such things? According to Islam’s detractors, Latin America’s people are humans and have human problems, while the problems of Muslim societies are invariably blamed on Islam. These detractors are in general incapable of realizing that by their type of twisted thinking Latin America’s problems could be blamed on Christianity. And when it is pointed out that Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Turkey and Malaysia are far ahead of most of Latin America’s Christian countries when it comes to scientific research and technological innovation, you will see them switch gears and explain why the good things in Muslim societies are despite Islam.

So when it comes to the issue of pluralism we have the majority of Muslim scholars and intellectuals, who have all independently come to the conclusion that there is no conflict between Islam and pluralism today, and then we have an authoritarian minority who think that Islam is anti-pluralistic, and since they do not have any convincing evidence for their opinions and know that they cannot win in a fair and open debate, they resort to personal attacks against the majority. In the pluralistic majority we have all kinds of opinions; liberals, conservatives, moderates, Salafis. What unites them all is their unwillingness to use force on others. They are all happy enough to live in relative peace and prosperity and leave matters of governance to the experts and politicians.

Who to ask?

When it comes to questions like “Is Islam pluralistic?” it is important to separate the views of the average Muslim from the views of educated Muslims who are actually familiar with the Quran and Prophetic Traditions. Uneducated Muslims might ignorantly think that it is part of their religious duty to support forcing everyone to wear hijab and making the Sharia the law of the land. Asking such people about pluralism will not lead to any useful results about the nature of Islam. It would be similar to going to the backward parts of the United States, such as West Virginia, and finding random Christians and asking them whether ideally the Christian Church should make the laws of the land and many will likely agree that this is a good idea. Or we can ask them whether the hijab should be prohibited, or whether building mosques and synagogues should be prohibited, or whether all religions besides Christianity should be prohibited, and we will probably find many who say “Yes!” to these things. It would be highly unfair to consider these opinions as representative of Christianity.

To get an accurate idea of what Christians think about these matters, we have to find educated Christians; pastors, priests, and well-educated faithful Christians (architects, doctors, others with post-graduate degrees), people who have read more than a few books in their lives. And if you ask these people about the Christian view on pluralism, then you will generally get intelligent and sophisticated answers in support of it.

We should do the same when asking Muslims about these things. I’ve never met a Muslim doctor or architect, or a Muslim with a degree in Islamic studies, who supports the authoritarian side. People capable of reading Islam’s literature and judging it for themselves almost all invariably come to the same conclusions as everyone else. Rather than asking random people on the street or listening to random keyboard jihadists on the Internet when it comes to the issue of pluralism, we should listen to well-educated and well-respected scholars and intellectuals, and it is a blindly obvious fact that throughout the Muslim world, from Malaysia to Morocco, almost all of them agree on Islam’s compatibility with pluralism. This is not because almost every Muslim who knows the Islamic tradition is corrupt or a hypocrite (as authoritarians claim). It is because when someone tries to come to terms with all of the complex and contradictory pieces of evidence that we have, we are forced to admit the limits of our knowledge and the great amount of freedom and diversity that is possible within Islam.

People like the Taliban, who were taught Wahhabism in schools founded by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, short-circuited this process of discussion and free examination of evidence and used funding and weapons provided by the CIA to take over Afghanistan. The nice Americans knew exactly what they were doing. As admitted by the mastermind of the plan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, they wanted to use these Muslims as bait (and paid them hundreds of millions of dollars annually) to make the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan, and that is just what happened. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million innocent Afghans died in this Machiavellian plan to further US interests by weakening the Soviet Union. (See America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by professor Andrew J. Bacevich).

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics

Why is this beautiful?

There is something special about beauty, as has been recognized by philosophers in the recent centuries. If someone says the above piece of architecture is ugly, I would judge them either liars or somehow morally corrupt.

When we appreciate beauty, we feel morally uplifted. This is very strange. Why should appreciating some design have any relationship with how I feel about myself?

This makes me feel like a better person.

This moral sense of beauty is wonderfully expressed by Roger Scruton in the following passage:

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this  world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But—and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists—beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.1

My point in this post is to take those thoughts slightly further using my Islamic education, especially al-Ghazali’s simulation theory.

A beautiful Gothic cathedral is a “glitch in the matrix” that creates a state of awe in your mind best expressed in the Quranic verse:

Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You!2

The state of mind tells us that while from inside the universe things may appear meaningless and random, if we could only look beyond, we would see that they have an architecture and a meaning; history has a director; God exists and watches on.

Appreciating beauty leads to a certain state of the mind. The way that taking a drug creates a certain mental state, appreciating beauty too does something to the mind, creating a special mental state. This state of mind produced feels meaningful because it points beyond the here and now, beyond the confines of space and time, beyond the individual human, in short, beyond the universe itself.

In Islam, we use the word ayah (“a sign that points toward something”) to refer to anything and everything that points to God. It might be possible to explain all beauty using the ayah concept alone (although I am not perfectly sure):

A beautiful thing is anything that points the human mind to the transcendent, i.e. to God.

The similarity between mystical experience and the experience of beauty is well-established. That, according to my theory, is because they are the same thing. The state of awe that beauty forces upon us makes us feel infinitely small, makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and larger than the universe, and most importantly, makes us feel judged by an all-seeing subject, an eye that knows us better than anyone else and is ready to accept us.

That is where the morally uplifting nature of beauty comes from. When faced with beauty, just as we are casually judging it, we suddenly become aware of an eye that looks back and judges us in return. Something suddenly goes click inside our psyche, we are transported beyond our circumstances, and we are offered a chance to become better than we are. We are on the edge of a great revelation but we do not know what is being offered or who is offering it.

For me appreciating the Quran creates the same psychological experience as appreciating beauty, natural or man-made.

This Quran, in pointing to God, is a universe that speaks. And this universe, in pointing to God, is a silent Quran.3

Many Western hippies have visited Fez, Morocco in their seeking of meaning in life. While Morocco has much beauty to offer, meaning that it helps travelers come face-to-face with the all-seeing subject that looks back at us, judges us and offers us forgiveness as we try to judge beauty, the same experience can be had for much cheaper at home by looking at the architecture of most churches and their surrounding scenery.

Moroccan pottery.

Beautiful art, whether Islamic or Christian, points to God. The experience of beauty, whether in Fez or in the English countryside, is one and the same. Both point to God and make moral demands on us, promising us salvation in return for piety.

The problem with Fez and Turkey’s many tourist attractions is that beauty is devoid of moral teaching, therefore while a lover of beauty is elevated by it and motivated to seek God, if they do not go through with this seeking (through religion or at least through the effort of direct communion with God without religion), they end up as moral failures who never reach what they seek. They admire God through beauty but are too cowardly to talk to Him face-to-face.

I have met some of these unfortunate seekers who never become finders. The fact that you can experience the moral uplift of beauty means that you are capable of contemplating God’s face and communicating with Him. But there is a next step you have to take, which is to seek moral guidance. You can experience God, but Your God can speak, so why don’t you listen to what He has to say?

Most mysticism ends in narcissism. Rumi’s poetry, Morocco’s beauty and Gothic architecture all lift us up into the stratosphere like a thousand tons of rocket fuel, but if we are content with this experience, if we seek the experience itself without bothering to listen to God, then our mysticism and spirituality becomes self-worship. We appreciate art or chant the name of God and enjoy the uplift that comes with it, but the moment God starts speaking to us we shun Him and run away, as if saying O God, give us the good feeling of being close to You, but do not make demands. You are lovely, beautiful, amazing, but stay where I put you.

The narcissistic mystic does not chase God, he chases the feeling of what it is like to be close to God. The one who chases God is eager to listen to Him, while the narcissistic mystic feels inconvenienced by His voice.

Ugliness

If beauty is that which points to God, ugliness is that which points away from Him. Beautiful architecture “traces the contours of God’s face” so to speak, helping us know what it feels like to be near Him even though we cannot see Him. Ugly architecture, on the other hand, often present us with faceless edifices that point to nothing beyond themselves, almost claiming that God does not exist and they are all that there is:

Ugliness personified: Zaha Hadid’s gigantic faceless worms (Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China)

There is nothing to relate to as a human in the above building. It is an alien, impenetrable thing that might be an alien organism capable of wiping humanity out for all that we know. Beautiful things help us come face-to-face with God and offer us salvation. Ugly things offer us nothing and tell us we are not needed. Ugly architecture offers us cruel and vacant faces, telling us life is meaningless and that there is nothing beyond. Like those dismal Soviet apartment blocks, they remind us of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of existence without God. They can be interesting to look at as technological marvels, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles below, but they are as morally uplifting as a washing machine.

The cruel, blank, inhuman faces of modern architecture.

And as a cure for the horror of experiencing looking at the above building, here is something beautiful and humane, a building that seems to whisper to us about God, almost as if it is an angel who points to God and offer us everything we could desire if we choose to be morally upright:

Religious propaganda

An important clarification has to be made here. By saying that beauty is all that points to God and that all that points to God is beautiful, I am not referring to religious propaganda, which is often ugly.

A Muslim-made billboard that quotes a verse of the Quran and talks to Christians about how Islam is better for them is not going to create any mystical experience in the hearts of the Christians who view it, because they know there is a human will behind the billboard that cannot be automatically trusted. The billboard might use a beautiful verse and a beautiful design, but the attitude behind the object makes it fall flat. Propaganda-makers pretend to possess the whole truth and refuse to acknowledge their doubts and their human weaknesses. Propaganda tries to change the course of history, it is an expression of the desire for a group of humans to make another group of humans do their bidding (I am not saying this is always bad, it can be done with good intentions, but the point is that it is not beautiful; it is not morally uplifting).

Unlike propaganda, beauty has no human will behind it and does not claim to be perfect. It does not matter who funded the above building and for what purpose. It stands on its own and humbly points to God, without pompously thinking that it knows what your beliefs should be, what you should do with your life or how history should go. It merely helps you have an experience of God while leaving it up to you to discover the truth on your own.

There is a certain class of religious art that does make truth-claims but that is not propaganda because it is aimed at members of the religious community itself; it does not seek to change them but only to reaffirm their faith and worldview. Such art is experienced by us as beautiful provided that we are members of that community because the attitude behind it no longer matters since we share the same attitude as its creators. It does not pompously claim to know the truth or try to change your way of life. It uses beautiful imagery to re-create mystical experiences you have already had in the past. The unsavory ingredient of attitude and politics is not present, so the artwork can be appreciated for itself.

Above, what might be experienced as a threatening cultural incursion by a Christian if they were to see it hung as a poster on some wall in their city is experienced by a Muslim as an apolitical reminder of many beautiful-mystical things: Ramadan, the peacefulness of small Middle Eastern towns in the desert, the Prophet’s migration to Medina PBUH. For a Muslim it points to God in numerous ways. For a Christian, if they were to see it hung in the wrong place (on a church’s wall!) it would be a direct, political attack on their way of life and independence of conscience. A beautiful thing in the wrong context can send all the wrong messages; instead of causing mystical experience it can cause discomfort and dread.

Mysticism without Sufism: A Guide to Tahajjud, Islam’s Meditation Practice

Samarkand

What does mainstream Islam offer to someone who wants a deep, meaningful and permanent connection with God? When it comes to Islamic mysticism, Sufism is often treated as its main and perhaps even only outlet. But the truth is that it is quite possible to have deep, mystical practice as a Muslim without going through Sufism. While Sufism’s organized and communal nature makes it deeply beneficial and meaningful to some people, it does not fit my temperament and way of thinking.

But in a different sense I am a Sufi. The teachings of Ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn al-Qayyim regarding developing a close relationship with God have always deeply touched me, and these are teachings derived from the lives and sayings of many early Muslim ascetics who are now considered Sufis (despite having little to do with today’s organized Sufism). Like those ascetics, I do desire a close relationship with God, as close as is humanly possible. Different people enjoy different forms of worship. For some, communal forms of worship are the most uplifting. For me, the worship I enjoy the most is reading (or listening to) the Quran. The problem, however, is that it is not easy to integrate Quran-reading into one’s daily life. It requires a great deal of willpower to arrange a specific time bracket in which you read the Quran for 30 minutes or 60 minutes every day. It can be done, and sometimes I have been able to keep it up for a week or two, but something always happens that wrecks my routine and suddenly I realize that weeks have passed by without reading any Quran.

What I have realized is that a certain physical practice is needed to integrate the Quran with my daily life. Sitting down on a couch to read the Quran every day cannot be done for any length of time (except perhaps for a very small minority of people). If you think theoretically it should be possible to do it, I challenge you to try it, and you are practically guaranteed to stop after a few days. The reason is that we humans are not disembodied intellects. We have a flesh and blood part that has its own desires, its own habits and routines, its own nature that gets in the way of the intellect. While intellectually we may desire that we should read the Quran every day for a certain amount of time, in the physical reality of human life, this desire alone is not sufficient. There is a missing ingredient; we need something to subdue the body to make it come along for the ride, every day.

As I discovered, Islam’s formal worship, the ṣalāh, is exactly what is needed to make both body and mind comply with routine, daily Quran reading. You cannot keep up daily Quran reading on the couch for any length of time, but you can keep up Quran reading indefinitely once you integrate it with the ṣalāh. Eventually I realized that the Islamic practice of tahajjud, the nightly voluntary prayer, is practically designed with these concerns in mind; it enables us to maintain daily Quran reading/listening indefinitely. Like the various rituals of Sufism that are designed to bring the seeker closer to God, tahajjud is the great Islamic mystical ritual that enables us to always remain close to God, to renew our relationship with Him daily, to get our sins forgiven (as in the Catholic confession), and to re-orient ourselves away from the worldly life’s pull and stress and toward the far simpler and blessed realm of walking with God through life.

Tahajjud for the Modern World

Sūrat al-Muzzammil (chapter 73 of the Quran), our Prophet PBUH is commanded to stay up half the night, more or less, in worship that involves reciting the Quran. This is known as qiyām al-layl (“staying up or standing at night”) and tahajjud (literally “to give up sleep”, “to keep a vigil”).  Linguistically the two terms have the same meaning, but some scholars choose to differentiate between them, reserving the word tahajjud for interrupting one’s sleep to pray, while considering qiyām al-layl to refer to praying without going to sleep at all.

The two words can be used interchangeably, however, since there is no compelling evidence in the Quran or the Sunnah to show us that the two forms of worship are distinct forms of worship. The first opinion on the meaning of tahajjud that the scholar al-Mawardi (d. 1058 CE) mentions in his commentary on the Quran is that it refers to any voluntary prayers offered at night with or without going to sleep first (his commentary on verse 17:79, at volume 3, p. 264 of the Dar al-Kutub version of his tafsir).

The tahajjud commanded in chapter 73 is generally understood, as by the Mālikī scholar Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148 CE) in his Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, to be mainly the recitation of the Quran during the ṣalāh. The Quran is central to tahajjud, but one can also perform dhikr (repeating certain phrases in praise of God) and duʿāʾ (supplication) between its units.

A modern Muslim reading Sūrat al-Muzzammil may see in it a prescription for permanent sleep deprivation. We have work lives that would be unmanageable if we were to stay up half of the night in prayer. And if you work in an intellectually demanding field (such as computer programming or academic research), your work performance will seriously suffer if you do not get the necessary eight or so hours of undisturbed sleep. The last verse of Sūrat al-Muzzammil, which says “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…”, is understood to have replaced the earlier commandment of spending half, more or less, of the night in worship.

Unfortunately for many of us “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…” completely overshadows the earlier part of the sūra, so that we think it acceptable to ignore tahajjud unless we really feel like doing it, such as during Ramadan.

I believe that any Muslim who desires a close connection with God should take tahajjud very seriously and should try to follow all of chapter 73, as much as is possible, rather than ignoring it as most of us do. While our modern lives do not permit us to randomly stay up at night without suffering negative consequences the next day, we can integrate tahajjud into our daily routine by spending half or so of our nightly free time to perform it. If the ʿishāʾ prayer is at 9 PM and you go to bed at 11 PM, you have two hours of nightly free time in which you can perform tahajjud. Half of that free time is one hour. I believe that any fair-minded reading of chapter 73 should make a Muslim feel very strongly pushed to spend that hour in tahajjud.

There is something special about tahajjud, as the Quran tells us:

And perform tahajjud during parts of the night, as an extra worship, so that your Lord may raise you to a praiseworthy position.1

The phrase “praiseworthy position” is used only once in the Quran, in the above verse. I have searched in the Quran for the best ways of worshiping and pleasing God, and I have not found anything else described in a similar way. God promises the believers rewards for their good deeds throughout the Quran, deeds like performing the obligatory prayers and paying zakat. But there is no good deed, available to almost every Muslim every day, that is praised like tahajjud. The verse above tells us that those who pray tahajjud will be raised by God to a special status, beyond the status of His ordinary believers (provided, of course, that one’s relationship with God is not marred by sinful activities). The above verse is generally considered to be directed specifically to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, but there is no reason why acting according to it will not get other believers similar rewards. The reason this verse in the Quran is because we are supposed to take it as an example to follow.

The verse above can be said to be offering to make a trade with us: Do tahajjud, God will raise your status to a praiseworthy position.

Zen Buddhists have meditation as their special mystical practice. Sufis have various forms of dhikr. Catholics have rosaries. Mainstream Muslims have tahajjud, this is the special part of our practice that we can use to connect with God and spend long hours in His presence. Tahajjud is how we comply with God’s command when he says:

And for part of the night, prostrate yourself to Him, and glorify Him long into the night.2

Think about it. Who is this command for if not for us who read the Quran and believe in it? Why should it be so easy for us to think that this command does not apply to us personally? By thinking it does not apply to us, we are telling God that we do seek that “praiseworthy status” that He promises us if we perform tahajjud (note that, technically, verse 76:26 is not a binding command but a strong recommendation, i.e. I am not claiming that 76:26 establishes a new obligatory prayer, but that, for a person who wishes to be the best believer they can be, it is almost a command, it cannot be ignored).

How to Perform Tahajjud

Tahajjud is performed in units of two rakʿāt, like the morning prayer. The number of times these units of two should be repeated is not agreed upon. Some recommend eight, others twenty, others thirty six. This is one of those areas of fiqh upon which endless argument is possible. The best opinion I have seen is that any number is permissible, starting from as few as two rakʿāt and going up to any number one can get up to.

There is another type of ṣalāh known as witr that is recommended to be performed after tahajjud. This prayer is performed in odd numbers and can be made up of just one rakʿa.3

Daytime Tahajjud

Since according to Ibn Abbas a Muslim can perform extra prayers at any time of day or night except when the sun is rising or setting, a person who does not have the time or energy to perform tahajjud at night can perform a similar act of worship during the daytime. This is not tahajjud but similar spiritual benefits can be expected from it.

Integrating the Quran with Tahajjud

The most important point of tahajjud for me, as mentioned, is that it allows me to read the Quran consistently as part of my daily routine. There a number of different ways of integrating Quran reading with tahajjud:

Reading Quran after Every Taslīma

In this method, every time you say the salām after praying the two rakʿāt, you would pick up a book of Quran and read a certain amount, let’s say two pages. Then you get up to pray another two rakʿāt. Then when you are done with that you sit down again and read some more Quran. Then get up and pray some more. And so on until an hour or more passes and you are ready to go to bed. Instead of reading it, you could listen to the Quran (perhaps using a smartphone app and headphones). This is what I do since, due to my eye sensitivity at night, I cannot use my eyes to read at that time. If I am especially tired or have pain, I pray, then sit back or lie down to listen to 10 minutes of Quran, then get up to pray two more rakʿāt, then sit or lie down again, and so on.

If you do not speak Arabic, you can use a book of Quran that has both the Arabic and a translation and use this as an opportunity to improve your Arabic.

Reading Quran Inside the Prayer

In this method, you would recite or read a the Quran once you are done with reciting al-Fātiḥa during every rakʿa. A person who has memorized the Quran would recite it from memory, while a person who has not can read it from a book, holding it while standing in prayer. Reciting the Quran in a non-Arabic language during the prayer is not permitted by the majority of scholars, therefore it should be avoided.

Integrating Dua (Supplication) with Tahajjud

The period of tahajjud is also a great time for dua (prayer or supplication). I always perform some dua during the prostrations of the prayer, but beyond that, sometimes after finishing the two rakʿāt, I sit for a few minutes to perform dua before moving on to listening to more Quran. I do not do this after every rakʿāt, usually I do it in one of the later ones in the night. My favorite prayers are the prayers mentioned in the Quran; praying for forgiveness, for guidance, for increases in knowledge and for having a wholesome life and afterlife.

Contemplating the Face of God

What is the point of reading the same book so many times in the course of the year when you could instead be doing something more “productive”, such as reading a new book or learning something? That is an intellectual’s question. The point is not intellectual benefit (although I believe there will be much intellectual benefit), the point is to spend an hour or more every day standing in the presence of God, listening to His words. What better way to connect with God?

Other meditative practices often involve speaking to God, asking of Him, or calling His name. Tahajjud, on the other hand, changes the direction of the communication from human-to-God to God-to-human during the Quran recitation, while there is human-to-God communication during the prostrations, in which we ask of Him and pray to Him and praise Him. Tahajjud is two-way communication between the human and God, and this two-way nature of it is a great cure for our inherent narcissism. When trying to perform any mystical practice our egos have this desire to make it all about me, me, me! Satan comes between us and God and wants to make us focus on chasing a spiritual “high” in which we feel connected with something transcendent without facing up to the moral demands that the transcendent makes of us. By listening to God rather than just talking and talking at Him, we are forced to quiet our minds down and truly listen to thr transcendent. The Quran, as many Christian converts to Islam have said, is a scary book in that it does not take any nonsense from the human. It looks deep inside you and sees every one of your faults and weaknesses and exposes them to you. There is no hiding from the eyes of the God of the Quran. He sees everything, He offers us forgiveness, but He requires that we be morally upright in return.

What the Quran absolutely does not accept of us is to be spiritual hippies who hold themselves to low standards by the supposed virtue of wanting to connect with the infinite. In the Quran, the Infinite talks back at you and tells you that He is not buying any of your nonsense. You are only as good as the effort and sacrifice you put into serving Him. Just because you feel “spiritual” does not mean anything to Him, how you feel changes from hour to hour and day to day. What matters to Him is your virtue, your uprightness, your truthfulness to yourself and to Him.

The point of tahajjud and the Quran we recite in it is for us to remain on the Straight Path consistently. Just a few days away from the Quran is sufficient for all kinds of laziness to grow within us; we start to hold ourselves to lower standards, we start to think that we are better people than we really are, our thankfulness for the blessings we have evaporates, we stop seeking God’s forgiveness with heartfelt sincerity because we start to feel good in ourselves as if we are sinless. We start to think that our blessings will last forever, forgetting just how easy it is to lose everything we have. Practicing tahajjud daily helps us remain mindful of our blessings and our reliance on God.

And then there is another benefit, which is the simple fact of standing mindfully in God’s presence. It is the most meaningful experience of our lives to connect with our Creator, and through listening to the sound of His words and worshiping Him standing and sitting, we stretch out our arms towards Him, striving to be with Him. And this striving places us in a different relationship with everyone and everything around us. By being with God, the Constant, the Never-Changing, we acquire a firm foothold in a world that constantly changes and that never lives up to our expectations. The cares and concerns of this world are lifted from our shoulders, to be replaced with nothing but longing and striving for Him and nothing besides Him. Our attachment to the worldly life is weakened, our greed and ambition is checked, so that we end up realizing that pleasing God and obeying Him are more important than anything this world can offer. We become the type of people who can never justify evil for a supposed greater good, because God is our only striving, everything else is ephemeral and secondary. We try to see the world the way He might see it, and act in the world the way He wishes us to act, as His servants and agents on earth, rather than as independent, evil-doing creatures following our own desires and running amok.

Trading with God

The Quran uses the metaphor of trade in a number of places to describe the human relationship with God:

Those who recite the Book of God, and perform the prayer, and spend of what We have provided for them, secretly and publicly, expect a trade that will not fail.4

And among the people is he who sells himself seeking God’s approval. God is kind towards the servants.5

It is said by some mystics, such as Augustine of Hippo and Rābiʿa, that the true mystic should seek God for His own sake alone, neither seeking His rewards nor fearing His punishments. But the Quran does not support that kind of thinking:

And do not corrupt on earth after its reformation, and pray to Him with fear and desire. God’s mercy is close to the doers of good.6

So We answered him, and gave him John. And We cured his wife for him. They used to vie in doing righteous deeds, and used to call on Us in desire and fear, and they used to humble themselves to Us.7

Their sides shun their beds, as they pray to their Lord, out of fear and desire; and from Our provisions to them, they give.8

Above, the Quran describes the appropriate state of the human in the presence of God as awe of His greatness and desire (for His forgiveness, mercy and rewards). I believe that love is something that naturally develops when we feel connected with someone or with God, and I think it a rather wasted effort to try to get beyond fear and desire in order to serve God out of love alone. Desire, fear, and love, are all ways of relating to God. It would be rather unnatural for a person to have a close relationship with God but to only serve Him out of greed for His rewards and fear of His punishments, without any love existing. I doubt that such a human can even exist. Love is a natural byproduct of relating to God through awe and desire.

To think that loving God for His own sake without fear and desire is to make an unfounded assumption about God; it is to think that God appreciates love more than fear and desire. God wants us to fear Him and desire of Him just as He wants us to love Him. He demands all of these modes of relating to Him, because all of these affirm His attributes. It is a rather wasted effort to try to shut down certain parts of our human nature (fear and desire) in preference to other parts that we have arbitrarily decided as superior (love). The balanced way, the Quranic way (which I have found to always provide the balanced approach to every form of extremism and deviance), is to relate to God in appreciation of all of His attributes, and that means to fear Him, to desire of Him, to take refuge in Him and love Him. It can in fact be argued that it is a dereliction of duty to only love God and refuse to fear Him and desire of Him.

One day when I felt really down, as if everything I had ever done had been a failure, feeling stuck in my situation and unable to progress, this thought came to me:

The worship you do is how you pay for God's services to you. If what you have been getting is lowly, maybe what you have been paying has been lowly.

Hearing that thought, everything seemed to start to make sense and I started reading the Quran in a new way. I then ran into this verse:

Remember Me and I will remember you...9

And I realized the thought that had come to me was simply the above verse rephrased. If we want God to remember us, we have to remember Him! If we want God to give us special treatment, we have to give Him special treatment. If we want to have blessed and successful lives, we have to look at ourselves and ask: What payments are we making to God for these things?

I realized that I am willing to spend hours doing work I do not like just to get money. What a great insult to God that I am not willing to spend even a single hour a day working for Him. If I truly have faith in God, then I should be willing to spend an extra hour a day worshiping Him no matter how unproductive it feels. It is, in a very small way, a sacrifice, a payment. I pay God an hour of my labor, He pays me back. How I feel about it is irrelevant, what matters is that I should sacrifice an hour (or more) of my day every day solely for God. Not because it makes me feel good, not because I learn things during it, but because God deserves to be worshiped, because throwing away an hour of my day for God’s sake alone is a way of thanking Him for His blessings and paying Him for future blessings in this life and the next. It is similar to the way the ancient Israelites used to slaughter some of their livestock then set fire to it, letting its meat “go to waste” in the fire, a sacrifice meant for God alone that they themselves did not benefit from.

And it is through tahajjud that I make that sacrifice. I do not always feel inclined to spend an hour of my evening praying and listening to the Quran. On some days I just do not feel spiritually motivated and the verses I listen to do not touch my heart. On such days what motivates me to continue is the idea of the sacrifice. Even if I do not get anything from the tahajjud, the fact that I was willing to throw away one hour of my life for God’s sake has a very important meaning, and I trust in His ability to appreciate it and reward it.

Avoidance of Sin

One of the most important benefits of tahajjud is that if I spend an hour or more of the previous night in tahajjud, today the idea of even the most minor sin becomes unthinkable. The effects of having been in God’s presence the night before linger into the present day, making it feel like a great betrayal to do anything that might possibly displease God. It is not that my “willpower” for avoiding sin is strengthened. Avoiding sin no longer requires any willpower. It becomes an automatic response, the way one avoids poison. The attractions of sinful things no longer “register” in the mind. Enjoying something sinful feels like working to demolish something I spent an hour last night trying to build, it feels as irrational as trying to destroy anything else you have worked hard to build.

Worship versus Activism

One of Satan’s main methods for making us avoid worship is his telling us that we should instead be doing something productive for God’s sake. Instead of spending an hour or more going through a book we have gone through a dozen times before, we could be learning something new, or helping people, or working to earn money so that we can give it away in charity, or working to help Islam or humanity in some way.

The problem with that thinking is that it assumes God needs favors from us. He does not. What He wants from us is piety, perfection of character and worship before any other good deeds. There is a minimum amount of daily worship necessary to keep us on the straight path. Every day we stray away from this path, because the worldly life and its attachments are constantly pushing in various directions and away from God. A Muslim activist who neglects worship in the name of activism, despite their good intentions, can slowly become corrupt and misguided in their eagerness to achieve worldly success. We see this in certain Islamist politicians who use questionable and unethical means in order to supposedly support Islam and Muslims, or in Muslim writers and journalists using biased arguments to promote Islam. God has zero need for that type of action.

Unfortunately losing our away is the easiest thing in this world if we do not hold tight to God’s guidance and remembrance. There are so many people who have fallen into sinful and scandalous things while doing religious work because their focus on their work and eagerness for success made them neglect God. We need to seek balance, and that means spending sufficient time with God daily to purify our hearts, correct our mistakes and renew our dedication to Him.

An easy way of determining whether you have been doing sufficient worship or not is to see how easy it is for you to engage in extremely minor sins. If you are a man and you run into an advertisement in the street that portrays a half-naked woman, do you wait to admire it? Is it difficult to look away from it? Does it feel like a loss or wasted opportunity to not admire it? If any of these are true, then you have not been doing sufficient worship. If you are a woman, you can come up with a different test that is more relevant to your daily experience.

Before you try to fix the world, you have to fix yourself. If you do not bother to develop and maintain a close relationship with God, then neither God nor the world have any need for your favors. God can create a million people like you in an instant, and He can solve all of the world’s problems in an instant if He wanted. What He wants from us is to strive to perfect ourselves then to go out in the world and be His agents for good. If we try to serve Him while our hearts are still corrupt and sinful, we will actually harm His cause. People will see our weaknesses and insincerity and will know that we do not have a good relationship with God.

A Traditionalist Critique of the Islamic Prohibition on Taṣwīr (Making Drawings and Statues of Humans and Animals)

A Caravan with the Pyramids and Sphinx Beyond (Joseph Austin Benwell , 1868)

To many Muslims today, it will sound patently absurd if someone were to tell them that it is a mortal sin for them to draw a cat. But some religious scholars would tell you that drawing a cat is an act of taṣwīr (the depiction of living things in paintings, sculptures and elsewhere), a sin for which God supposedly promises the severest punishment.

Mainstream Sunni Muslims today follow the opinions of popular religious scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ali Gomaa, who by and large have no issue with drawings and statues. Since neither Muslims nor their respected scholars have an issue with taṣwīr, it is largely a theoretical issue within Islamic law. There is, however, a minority of puritan Muslims, especially on the internet, who often bring up this issue, claim that a severe and even violent distaste for taṣwīr is the proper Islamic stance, and who categorically reject the opinions of mainstream scholars like al-Ghazali, al-Qaradawi and Gomaa.

This article seeks to answer the needs of Traditionalist-minded Muslims on the matter of drawings and statues. Below I translate an Arabic article I discovered a few years ago by a well-informed Traditionalist author who criticizes the supposed prohibition on taṣwīr. This article is significant because when even such a Muslim can find good reasons to doubt the prohibition on taṣwīr, this acts as supporting evidence for the mainstream Islamic practice of tolerating it. The author is an anonymous user of the Traditionalist internet forum Multaqā Ahl al-Ḥadīth (The Meeting Place of the Traditionalists) who goes by the name of al-Shaykh Muḥammad ibn Amīn.

The author’s notes are in parentheses, while translator’s notes are in square brackets. I use the word “statue” to translate timthāl, a catch-all term for all statues, sculptures, effigies, murals and other three-dimensional figures depicting humans and animals. I use the word picture, painting, image and figure mostly interchangeably, choosing one over the other depending on the context.1

Beginning of Translated Article

Ḥukm al-Ṣuwar wa-l-Tamāthīl – The Islamic Ruling Regarding Pictures and Statues

Praise be to God. There has long been a legal theoretic issue of dispute, in fact since the time of the Companions, and that issue is this: Do we enact the literal meaning of a text or do we enact its spirit? Meaning, do we apply the text in its literal and apparent sense, or do we try to understand its spirit and rationale? The Companions differed on this. You are probably aware of the hadith on the ʿaṣr prayer in the Banī Qurayẓa affair. Some of the Companion understood [the Prophet’s instructions PBUH] in their apparent form, while others tried to understand the purpose behind the instructions. The Prophet PBUH approved of the actions of both groups.

The issue [surrounding drawings and statues] is confused because there are texts mentioning instructions regarding the destruction of statues and the obliteration of pictures. Those who take these texts in their literal meaning would consider it obligatory to destroy every statue and obliterate every picture. Most of them [those who take the texts literally] consider photographic pictures permissible because they are merely the capturing of projections of light. And whoever prohibits this falls into contradiction since he is bringing together two mutually exclusive views.2

The other opinion is that the reason for the prohibition of pictures and statues was to prevent them from becoming means of shirk [assigning divine powers to other than God] or tabarruk [considering an object a source of blessings]. Forbidding statues does not require that they should be worshiped. If they are regarded with veneration by people, then this is sufficient to prohibit them in order to prevent this veneration from developing into worship. For this reason many of the ulema [scholars] consider it permissible to place pictures in debased places. It is permissible [in their opinion] for a rug to have pictures on it since it is stepped on by people, preventing the pictures from being venerated. It is also permissible to create statues without heads, since this makes them appear deficient. And it is also permissible to place a picture in a place where it cannot be viewed. It is not permissible to place a picture (photographic or drawn) on a wall, but it is permissible to place it between the pages of a book if one can be sure that the picture is not venerated (for example if it is not the picture of a sheikh or wali). The majority permitted pictures of living things that do not have rūḥ [soul or spirit], such as plants and nature. There are even those who permitted the creation of statues and pictures if it was certain that they would not be venerated. Al-Qirāfī [a Mālikī legal theorist of the seventh century of the hijra] used to make statues himself, as he mentioned in his book Sharḥ al-Maḥṣūr.

Two types of statues are mentioned in the Book of God [the Quran]: The first type are those statues that are worshiped instead of God. These are called tamāthīlaṣnām and anṣāb. It is obvious for us to say that these types of statues are prohibited for a Muslim to create or buy, since in such an act would be an aid in shirk. The second type are those statues that are not worshiped instead of God, such statues are not aṣnām or anṣāb. The Quran, in fact, mentions the creation of statues as one of the blessings that God bestowed upon Solomon [as]:

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno. 13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative.3

Here, God refers to statues as timthāl-s [statues] rather than aṣnām [idols], since they were not meant to be worshiped in God’s stead. This matter has to do with monotheism and faith and is a shared doctrine among all of the Prophets. There is no disagreement among the ulema that when it comes to the ʿaqāʾid [plural of ʿaqīda, beliefs regarding the nature of God and other matters] have not undergone change and that they have always been one and the same among the Prophets, for God says:

He prescribed for you the same religion He enjoined upon Noah, and what We inspired to you, and what We enjoined upon Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus: “You shall uphold the religion, and be not divided therein.” ...4

Many authentic hadith narrations exist that insist that the muṣawwirīn [figure-makers] are in the Hellfire, and that they will be among those who suffer the severest punishment. The reason for their punishment according to the texts of the hadith narrations is that they imitate God’s creation, and muḍāhāt [the sin the texts accuse them of] is the same as mushākala [the creation of the likeness of something], meaning that they create sculptures in the likeness of God’s creation, so that on the Day of Judgment they are told: “Bring to life what you have created!” Al-Nawawī5 says in his Commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (14/84): “They [i.e. the ulema] agreed on prohibiting all [figures] that have shadows and on the necessity of changing them.” But Ibn Ḥajar6 adds in al-Fatḥ [his commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī] (10/388): “This consensus does not include children’s toys.”

There is conclusive evidence that the Prophet PBUH used pillows and utensils that had pictures on them, but he used to remove and wipe out pictures of crosses. It is also proven that he permitted children’s toys in the form of small statues/dolls, as is narrated from the Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her. Qaḍī ʿIyāḍ7 mentions that the majority of jurists permitted buying these dolls for the training of girls in matters pertaining to childcare, which is recognized as a worthy aim in Islamic law. While his information is correct regarding the permissibility of dolls, his reasoning is incorrect, since Aisha mentions a horse that had two wings; what relationship does that have with children’s education? The correct opinion is that children’s playthings are permissible for males and females without any karāha (legal disapproval), since they [dolls] are far away from the potential for veneration. One of our teachers used to say: “Children’s wisdom is greater than that of many adults, for you never find a child worshiping the doll he or she plays with.”

But if statues are an imitation of God’s creations, or creating their likeness, then that makes them forbidden and is considered a mortal sin according to the authentic narrations on the matter. But creating a likeness of God’s creations or imitating them could be done through making sculptures of soulless things like the sun, the moon, mountains and trees, and through making girls’ dolls and similar things that the texts explicitly permit. For this reason some of the ulema say that what is intended are those who create statues or make pictures with the aim of challenging God’s power, or those who think that they have a similar power to create as God has. God shows such people their incapacity by asking them to bring life to what they create. In support of this, Ibn Ḥajar, in al-Fatḥ al-Bārī [his aforementioned commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī], regarding God’s saying in His ḥadīth qudsī: “And who is greater in injustice than one who goes in order to create a creature like My creation?” interprets “goes” here to mean “aims”. According to this, the forbidden thing here is related to the intention of the maker [of the statue, etc.], whether the product is a statue or a hand-drawing of any image. It is mentioned in the Mawsūʿa al-Fiqhīya  [The Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence, a 45-volume work by Kuwait’s Awqāf ministry including opinions from all of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, completed in 2005 after 40 years of work], in Bāb al-Taṣwīr [the chapter on figure-making]:

The majority of ulema agree that prohibiting figures does not imply a prohibition on possessing them or using them, for regarding the process of making figures of things that have souls, it is mentioned that figure-makers are cursed and that they will be punished in the Hellfire and that they will be among the most severely punished among the people, but nothing is mentioned regarding possessing pictures, and there is no accepted evidence for the existence of a reason for prohibiting the user of such figures. Despite that, there are narrations that prohibit the possession and use of pictures, but they do not mention a punishment or equivalent that imply that possessing figures is a mortal sin. For these reasons, the judgment regarding the possessor of pictures whose possession is forbidden is that they have committed a small sin... Among those who were aware of the difference between figure-making and the [mere] possession of figures were: al-Nawawī... and most of the jurists are in agreement with this.

As for narrations saying that the angels do not enter a house in which there is a figure or a dog, the likely intent are the angels of revelation and not others. For this reason Ibn Ḥibbān8 made this restricted to the Prophet PBUH, for the angels that are assigned to each individual would enter such houses, and God knows best.

The majority of the jurists have permitted the user of statues and pictures in houses if they are not placed on curtains or walls with the intent to view them with veneration, and if they are subject to debasement as in people stepping on them and so on. ʿIkrima9 says: “They used to dislike statues set up on pedestals, but they saw no issues with those which feet could step on.” ʿIkrima here is transmitting from [mentioning the opinion of] the Companions. Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn10 said: “They used to see figures that were spread out or stepped upon as different from those that were set up on pedestals.” Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr11 says in the Tamhīd (21/199): “This is the most balanced among the opinions and the most moderate in this matter and most of the ulema are in agreement with it. Whoever is fatigued with narrations [unclear meaning] will not oppose this interpretation. This is the best of what I believe about this matter. God is the helper toward the correct opinion.”

It appears that the permissibility of leaving alone figures and statues that are not venerated is the creed of the majority of the Companions, even their consensus. For they did not destroy statues and pictures in the countries of Persia, the Levant and Iraq, but they did so in India and the Arabian countries. That is because these things were not worshiped in Persia, the Levant and Egypt. They did not touch those enormous edifices and great numbers of statues which remain there to this day. Consider this anecdote:

Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ (the conqueror of Iraq and one of those promised Paradise) [ra] entered the palace of Khosrow II in al-Madāʾin [Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, near modern-day Baghdad]. In that palace there were many figures on the walls and many statues. He did not destroy any of them, in fact they remain where they are to our day. None of the Companions criticized him or anyone else for this. This is a consensus from them regarding the permissibility of letting such things remain undestroyed if they are not worshiped in God’s stead and they are not ascribed holiness. Al-Tabarī says in his Tarīkh (2/464): “When Saʿd entered al-Madāʾin and saw its desertedness, and went to Khosrow’s hall, he went on to recite: “How many gardens and fountains did they leave behind? And plantations, and splendid buildings. And comforts they used to enjoy. So it was; and We passed it on to another people.”12  He performed ṣalāt al-fatḥ [ritual prayer performed after a conquest], which is not performed communally. He performed eight rakʿāt [units of prayer, plural of rakʿa] without pausing between them, and turned the hall into a masjid [mosque or prayer hall]. In it there were statues made of gypsum, of men and horses. Neither he nor the Muslims opposed their presence and left them where they were. It is said: Saʿd completed the prayer on the day he entered it, for he wanted to take residence in it [or take it as a seat of the new government]. The first Friday in which the Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Iraq in al-Madāʾin was in the year 16 [of the hijra].” Also see the al-Dhahabi’s History of Islam (3/158).

In Khosrow’s hall there were colorful and life-sized pictures done in great detail. These pictures survive to our day. These pictures were, of course, not buried in the sand, rather, numerous companions entered this palace and stayed in it. How did they then not see the pictures which can be seen clearly to our day? Even if they were not able to destroy the pictures, they could have blotted them out through white-washing, and this does not require great expenses nor a large number of workers. It would have been easy for the ruling power to command that the walls be repainted. There is no other interpretation other than that they understood the hadith narrations regarding the destruction of figures as being specific to those which were accorded veneration or were worshiped in God’s stead. These pictures continued to be viewed, being described by historians and writers. Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī says in his Muʿjam al-Buldān [his famous geographical dictionary] (1/295): “In the hall there was Khosrow Anūshirvān picture, and that of Caesar king of Antioch, who was besieging it and fighting its people.”

The famous Abbasid poet al-Buḥturī describes them in his wonderful qaṣīda al-sīnīya [a type of ode]. He describes these pictures as having such detail that one could imagine them real, so that one would want to touch them to reassure themselves that they were mere pictures. He says in his ode:13

Sorrows attend my saddle. I direct
my stout she-camel to Madāʾin [Ctesiphon].
When you see a panel of the Battle at Antioch,
you tremble among Byzantines and Persians.
The Fates stand still, while Anūshirvān
leads the ranks onward under the banner
In a deep green robe over yellow.
It appears dyed in saffron.
The eye depicts them very much alive:
they have between them speechless signs.
My wonder about them boils till
my hand explores them with a touch.

The question here is: Why did the Companions let the pictures in Khosrow’s hall remain? Those who disagree with us are incapable of answering this. One of them says that we should only follow hadith and disregard the actions of the Companions. This is strange, for is it imaginable that the Companions would randomly follow their own inclinations? Aren’t the actions of the Companions and their sayings an interpretation and illustration of the teachings of the Prophet PBUH? We have not abandoned the Prophet’s sayings PBUH, and neither did the Companions, may God be pleased with them. Rather, they understood the texts in a way different from those who disagree with us. It is the Companions who narrated those hadith narrations to us. And it is they to whom those narrations were directed, therefore their understanding takes precedence in matters of dispute. And the ijmaʿ [consensus] of the Companions is one of the acknowledged sources of Islamic legislation. Additionally, all of the 73 groups claim to follow the Quran and the Sunnah, but the distinguishing characteristic of al-firqa al-nājiya [“the group that attains salvation”, i.e. from the hellfire]14 is that the group follows the Companions of the Prophet PBUH.

As for the claim that during all of those years they were too busy [to destroy the paintings and statues], I do not think the person saying that believes it himself, it is just that he cannot find a better argument. Was it too difficult for Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ or one of the rulers after him to command one of the slaves to repaint those walls that had pictures? As for denying that the Companions had seen the pictures, this is obstinacy and denialism, for Khosrow’s hall is the biggest building in al-Madāʾin, and the fact of the Muslims entering it is a well-known and multiply-transferred piece of information that no one denies. It was full of pictures and statues and poems were written about it. This same hall became the center of government in Iraq until the building of the city of Kūfa was finished.

The sheikh Dr. Aḥmad al-Ghāmidī answered this criticism by saying: “These pictures and statues were not worshiped aṣnām, they were rather figures depicting past events, and perhaps there was a lesson or benefit in letting them remain.” I say that it might be so, and using the fact of their not being worshiped in his reasoning is the same as what I say. He also said: “Fifth, the prohibited thing is the creation of pictures. As for the narration from Ali, may God be pleased with him, regarding the destruction of figures, it refers to three-dimensional statues.” But they weren’t pictures only; the hall of Khosrow was full of statues as is the wont of kings. Ali himself ruled Iraq and did not order the destruction of any of its statues.

The mention of Khosrow’s palace is merely an example. In reality great statues have been allowed to remain not only in Khosrow’s palaces but in [the rest of] Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and Persia. Yes, certain worshiped statues were destroyed in Sindh [a province of modern-day Pakistan] and Transoxania when the Companions discovered peoples who worshiped them, as happened in the Arabian peninsula itself. But other than these, then no. A comical event was that one contemporary caller for the destruction of statues claimed that the Pharaonic statues had been buried in the sand and were not visible during the time of the Companions! Saying the in fact they hadn’t been seen until the past two hundred years. In this saying is negligence toward the books of history, for history books are full of information regarding the familiarity of Muslims with these statues. Al-Jāḥīẓ (who was a contemporary of the imams Mālik, al-Shafiʿī and Aḥmad) enumerated the wonders of the world, saying in his Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (3/65): “The ṣanam [statue of religious significance, singular of aṣnām] of the two pyramids is Balhawīya, also called Balhunayt [?] and called Abū l-Hawl by the common people. It is said that it is placed there as a talisman so that the sand would not overcome the Giza.” Yaqūt al-Ḥamawī in his Muʿjam al-Buldān (5/401) says: “On the corner of one of them (meaning the pyramids) there is a great ṣanam that is called Bulhayt [?]. It is said that it is a talisman for the sand so that it would not overcome the area of Giza. It depicts a human head and neck, and the top of its shoulders are like that of the lion. And it is very large. It has a pleasant appearance, as if its creator had recently completed it. It is painted a red color that survives to this day despite the great length of time and the distance of the years.” Also see the words of Ibn Faḍl in Masālik al-Abṣār (1/235) and the words of al-Baghdādī in al-Ifāda (p. 96).

The number of the Companions who entered Egypt was greater than three hundred, as al-Suyūṭī confirmed in Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (1/166). The first city they besieged was ʿAin Shams [today a suburb of Cairo] as is mentioned in Ibn Kathīr’s al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya (7/98). It is filled with large statues as ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī mentioned in the sixth century [of the hijra], saying in his travelogue (p. 96): “Of that [type?] are the antiquities in ʿAin Shams. It is a small city the ruins of whose surrounding wall are visible, it appears that it was a place of worship. In it there are enormous statues carved from rock. The length of a statue is around thirty cubits, and its limbs are proportionally large. There is much writing on those rocks and figures of humans and animals of the unintelligible [ancient Egyptian] writing.” The Companions resided in al-Fusṭāṭ [today part of Cairo] and Giza, which are very close to the pyramids. It is worth mentioning that the pyramids themselves were covered in the language of the pharaohs, some of whose letters are in the shapes of birds and animals. Al-Baghdādī says about the pyramids (p. 92): “Upon those rocks there are writings in the unknown ancient pen, such that I did not find anyone in the towns of Egypt who knew of anyone who understood them. There is a great amount of these writings, such that if what is written was transmitted to pages of books, they would take up ten thousand pages.” Al-Masʿūdī mentions similar things in his history (1/361) and Ibn Taghrībirdī in al-Nujūm al-Zāhira (1/41).

Judging from all of that, the Companions who entered Egypt certainly saw the Sphinx and the pictures on the pyramids. These in addition to the statues in ʿAin Shams, about which there is no doubt that they saw them after its conquest and their entering the city. Denying that they saw them is obstinacy. These, in addition to the statues in the pharaonic cities of Memphis and others. It is more likely than not that they saw these too, due to the great number of the Companions and the length of their stay in Egypt. And it is these about which al-Baghdādī says (p. 102): “As for the statues, the greatness of their number and the enormity of their size, it is a matter that is beyond description and computation. The accuracy of their shapes, the meticulousness of their aspects and the carving upon them of natural facets is in truth a matter for wonder.” Despite that, we have not seen them [the Companions] destroy any of them. So were the Muslims incapable of destroying those statues? This is absolutely false. That is because they were able to destroy the fortress of Babylon and the walls of Nahavand in Persia, and they drilled through [the walls of] many of the fortresses they besieged, which were great fortresses that had armed guards that shot arrows at the Muslims during their drilling and destruction of them. Couldn’t they at least disfigure the faces of the statues? If this saying [that the Companions were unable to destroy the statues] is not an insult to the Companions then I do not know what is. Is it conceivable that non-Muslims were capable of building while the Muslims incapable of mere demolition? This is impossible.

To summarize, it is not permissible to hang any picture (including photographic pictures) if this has the potential of leading to veneration and the expectation of blessings from it (especially the pictures of sheikhs and leaders). But if one is safe from that (as in the case of one hanging his own picture or that of his child) then there is no issue with it. Any pictures that are in a place unlikely to be venerated, as on pillows and rugs, then there is no distaste for that. The same is true of statues. And there is no issue with children’s toys and dolls, for such things are not venerated. And if statues accomplish a benefit recognized by the Sharīʿa, such as for teaching or training (such as those used in schools for illustration and clarification), then they go from being mubāḥ [not forbidden] to mustaḥabb [recommended], they may even be wājib [strongly recommended or compulsory] in certain cases if they are a means of understanding the sciences and advancing in them. And God knows what the most correct opinion is.

End of the translated article

Translator’s Conclusion

It appears from the above discussion that one can conclude that the issue of taṣwīr is one of context. If a figure is accorded veneration for supposed metaphysical powers, it is prohibited to have it and use it. If it is not, then there is no issue with it. This means that the issue of taṣwīr is quite irrelevant to the lives of most educated Muslims, who find the idea of venerating a picture or statue absurd.

The issue is very similar to that of music (which I discuss here):

  • Neither taṣwīr nor music are mentioned in the Quran.
  • Neither are clearly and unequivocally prohibited by a command of the Prophet PBUH.
  • There is no good logical reason for prohibiting either; both have good and wholesome uses that do not cause any difficulty to the conscience or repugnance to one’s sensibilities.
  • Both of them are associated with highly sinful activities; taṣwīr with the worship of idols, music with maʾāzif (wild parties involving wine-drinking and half-dressed women), so that a Traditionalist wishing to be safe from sin would have a strong incentive to stay away from both regardless of any expected benefits.
  • The majority of the world’s Muslims refuse to take either prohibition seriously.

A new approach to the Quran’s “Wife-Beating Verse” (al-Nisa 4:34)

In der Moschee by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner (d. 1894)

In this essay, I present a plausible framework in which traditional scholarly interpretations of 4:34 can be considered correct without this becoming support for violence against women. I argue that the error has not been in understanding 4:34 but in scholarly efforts to justify it. There is a new line of justification that has so far been largely ignored and not taken to its conclusion. Verse 4:34 places a duty on men, rather than granting them a privilege, to be enforcers of social order–a heavy task that most men are not meant to enjoy. 

Among middle class Muslims wife-beating is highly taboo. Muslim men do not need to look at religious references to decide whether they should approve of wife-beating or not; they justify a highly discriminatory attitude against wife-beaters in cultural and ethical—rather than legalistic—terms. A man who thinks it is acceptable to beat women is so crude, vulgar and uncivilized that he is considered unworthy of befriending or even speaking to. He is excluded from social circles and sympathy is extended to any women unfortunate enough to be associated with him. Yet these men who consider wife-beating completely unacceptable are devout Muslim men who believe in the letter of the Quran, including verse 4:34, which appears to encourage wife-beating.

This leads to a sociological conundrum that is often naively solved by asserting that these men are abandoning parts of Islam in order to be more humane and civilized. As I will argue in this chapter, a sociologically sophisticated analysis shows that it is quite possible to accept and adopt the plain sense of verse 4:34 while remaining humane, civilized and completely opposed to domestic violence.

Islam is often called a misogynistic religion. But if one checks out traditional works of Quranic exegesis, one finds a striking phenomenon: almost every scholar who has tried to interpret verse 4:34, in which a man is given the right to strike his wife in certain circumstances, has been at pains to place restrictions on it, as Karen Bauer discovered in her study of the historical Islamic sources on this issue.1 There were no feminists in the 8th century pressuring these scholars to be politically correct. We are talking about a time when the Viking campaigns of rape and plunder against the rest of the world were just starting to take off (and would continue for the next three centuries). What was making these men of those “Dark Ages” so sensitive toward women’s rights? I would argue that it was because they were humans taught by Islam to see women as fellow humans, and a chief feature of the human psyche is empathy when this empathy is not blocked due to the dehumanization of others. They had mothers, sisters, daughters and wives and did not like the thought of these loved humans suffering oppression and injustice.

Be that as it may, an uninformed reader who picks up an ancient Islamic text expecting to read things like “beat your wives, they are your property anyway” will be highly disappointed to find the depths and nuances of the Islamic discussions of the issue. Those who study Islam closely, the most important group being Western, non-Muslim scholars of Islam, are forced, often against their expectations, to respect it more the more they learn about it.

Like the scholars of ancient times, and like Prophet Muhammad PBUH himself (as will be seen), many Muslims feel uncomfortable with verse 4:34 of the Quran. It is difficult to find a balanced and holistic interpretation that does not either defend wife-beating or that does not nullify the verse completely. This essay attempts to provide such an answer; taking the traditional meaning of the verse seriously while explaining how it fits within a modern society in which violence against women is rare and taboo (as it should be). To begin addressing the issue, the first principle we can state on this matter is this:

There is no such thing as humanely striking a woman.

Contemporary Islamic scholars who wish to defend 4:34, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often mention that there are various restrictions in Islamic law on the way a man can strike a woman, as if this somehow justifies it. It does not. What needs to be answered is why the Quran allows any form of striking at all.

Let’s now take a look at verse 4:34:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.2

The Arabic word qawwāmūn is translated as “protectors and maintainers” in English or something similar to it, and this leads to the verse sounding nonsensical. Why would the Quran go from the idea of financial support and protection for women to the idea of striking them in the same verse? The problem is that “protector and maintainer” is not exactly what qawwāmūn means. Qawwāmūn means “figures of authority who are in charge of and take care of (something)”.3 Verse 4:34 is about the issue of authority and law-enforcement within a household as I will explain, the idea of financial support and physical protection is only a subset of it.

Verse 4:34 establishes qiwāma, the gender framework within which Muslim families are meant to operate. The concept of qiwāma, along with that of wilāya (guardianship), have been a focus of concentrated feminist efforts that aim to defuse them in order to create gender equality within Islam.4 In a chapter of Men in Charge? Omaima Abou-Bakr tries to trace the way the concept of qiwāma developed in Islam. She mentions Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī by the Persian scholar Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH / 923 CE) as the “first” work of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis), going on to say:

Hence, not only did al-Tabari initiate and put into motion the hierarchal idea of moral superiority and the right to discipline (ta’dibihinna), but he also instituted the twisted logic of turning the divine assignment to provide economic support into a reason for privilege: ‘they provide because they are better, or they are better because they provide’.

The truth is that the pro-qiwāma interpretation of verse 4:34 starts not with al-Ṭabarī. It started as early as the Islamic scholar and Companion of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿAbbās [ra], in whose work of tafsīr5, authored two centuries before al-Ṭabarī, he says:

"Men are qawwāmūn over women" means umarāʾ ("commanders", "rulers", "chiefs"), she is required to obey him in that which he commands her. His obedience means that she should be well-mannered toward his household, she should watch over his property and [appreciate] the virtue of his taking care of her and striving for her sake.6

Incidentally, among other works of tafsīr predating al-Ṭabarī, also by two centuries, are the works of Mujāhid and al-Ḍaḥḥāk. Another early work of tafsīr is that of Muqātil bin Sulaymān (d. 150 AH / 767-768 CE), who predates al-Ṭabarī by a century and a half. Muqātil interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn (“having lordship and authority”), a word that is largely similar to Ibn ʿAbbās’s umarāʾ, from the word sulṭa (“authority”, “dominion”).7 Al-Ṭabarī’s understanding of qawwāmūn was not new; he was following a tafsīr tradition that had been established centuries before him. The pre-Ṭabarī Ibāḍī scholar Hūd bin Muḥakkam al-Hawwārī (died in the last decades of the third century AH), reflecting a North African tafsīr tradition, also interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn.8

Abou-Bakr goes on to conclude that al-Ṭabarī was responsible for the changes she mentions in the following passage:

Thus, the original direct meaning of qawwamun/bima faddala (financial support by the means God gave them) developed this way: 1) from descriptive to normative/from responsibility to authority; 2) introducing the noun qiyam (which paved the way to the later qiwamah) as an essentialist notion of moral superiority; 3) from the restricted meaning of providing financial support to a wider range of a generalized status of all men everywhere and at all times; and 4) from a relative, changing condition of material bounty on account of inheritance to an unconditional favouritism based on gender.

According to Abou-Bakr, an innocent and harmless verse 4:34 was over time given a patriarchal, male-centric interpretation by scholars like al-Ṭabarī. Such a narrative, if it were true, would certainly be strong support for the feminist cause. But Ibn ʿAbbās and Muqātil’s aforementioned interpretations are strong historical evidence against her thesis; the notion of qiwāma did not go from being merely about financial support among the early Muslims to something more later on through the harmful influence of tafsīr scholars; qiwāma was thought to be about authority from the time of the Companions. A second and equally serious flaw in her thesis is her considering financial support to be central to the verse’s reasoning. Verse 4:34 actually mentions financial support as the second, rather than the first, rationale for giving men authority over women (I will later discuss what this authority means, whether it can ever be fair and just, and the limitations Islam places on it). Let’s take another look at the relevant part of the verse:

Men are qawwāmūn over women as God has given some of them [i.e. males] faḍl [a preference, advantage, superiority in rank] over others [i.e. females], and because they spend out of their wealth.

The first reason for this authority is not men’s financial support of women, but a faḍl (“preference”) that God has given to men over women, as is recognized by Muqātil9. To clarify further, the verse can be rephrased as:

Men are qawwāmūn over women because 1. God has given men a faḍl over women, and 2. because men spend out of their wealth.

The superiority in rank, status or nature supposedly granted to men by God is what comes first, it is the main justification for qiwāma and has nothing to do with financial support as far as one can tell, since financial support is mentioned separately. As I will discuss below, this does not mean that men are morally superior to women, we can use the Quran to argue for the opposite. But to continue the discussion of rank, the Arabic wording of the verse can be said to go out of its way to make the separation between men’s rank and men’s financial support of women clear by using two bi-mās (“because”s) rather than one: because … and because … . It is quite unwarranted to collapse these two given reasons into one and claim that the verse is merely giving men the duty of supporting women’s welfare.

There are many hadith narrations that mention women as deficient in intellect and morality. I make no references whatsoever to those narrations in this discussion; the “preference” I refer to is the plain meaning of the Quranic verse; it is a rank granted by God, the way an army grants different ranks to different soldiers without suggesting that the lower ranks are morally inferior to the upper ranks. The concept of men having a superiority in rank over women is not unique to 4:34, it is also spelled out in verse 2:228:

Divorced women shall wait by themselves for three periods. And it is not lawful for them to conceal what God has created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. Meanwhile, their husbands have the better right to take them back, if they desire reconciliation. And women have rights similar to their obligations, according to what is fair. But men have a degree over them. God is Mighty and Wise.

Scholars, such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Rāzī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Abu Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī and Ibn al-Qayyim, mention that women are intrinsically mentally and morally inferior to men in their justification for the Quran’s special treatment of them in the matter of testimony (a man’s testimony equals two women’s, with various differences and nuances among the schools).10 A strong argument against the mental/moral inferiority thesis is that the Quran treats women as men’s equals throughout, considering them equally responsible for their actions and holding them to the same standards. If women were as irresponsible and foolish as children as some scholars suggest (such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-Jawzī and al-Rāzī, who mention that women are perma-adolescents, never maturing), it would have been only fair to treat them as children in the matter of duties and punishments, yet the Quran treats them as complete humans. Karen Bauer writes:

But if women were deficient in rationality, then why did they have spiritual responsibilities similar to men? Although the majority of exegetes simply took inequality for granted, several explained why such inequality was fair, just, and according to God’s will. Such interpretations may reveal more, however, about the worldview of the interpreters than they reveal about the Qurʾān.11

A modern work of tafsīr that criticizes the infantilization of women in classical tafsīr works is Tafsīr al-Manār by the Egyptian reformist scholars Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).12

Before we go on, we can summarize the evidence in support of the classical view of qiwāma as:

  • Classical scholarly works, such as those of Muqātil, al-Ṭabarī and al-Rāzī.
  • The opinion of the Prophet’s Companion Ibn ʿAbbās.
  • The wording of the verse, in which the primary rationale for qiwāma is given as a superiority in rank granted by God, rather than financial support.
  • The fact that the verse seems to absurdly switch from the issue of financial support to the issue of discipline if we accept the feminist interpretation that qiwāma has to do with financial support alone. But if we accept the classical view that it is about authority, then the verse makes perfect sense: The first part asserts that men are the chief authorities in their households; the middle part gives two reasons for this; the last part deals with the issue of what a man should do when this authority is challenged.

Laleh Bakhtiar’s interpretation of “and strike them” as “leave them” in her Sublime Quran is so far-fetched that it is not worth addressing. Men in Charge? does not give it a mention and assumes that “strike them/beat them” is the correct interpretation. Despite the book’s attacks on traditional qiwāma, the question of why the verse mentions striking women at all is strangely not addressed in the book as far as I could find. It is quite far-fetched to claim that a verse that allows the male to strike the female is innocent of patriarchal concepts.

Another line of attack against qiwāma has been that of claiming that Quranic verses and principles are historically localized; they applied in the Arabia of the 7th century CE, but they do not necessarily apply today. Addressing this criticism would require another essay. The belief that Quranic principles are historically localized is debatable, it is against the understanding of the vast majority of Islamic thinkers and scholars. We can localize a verse in its historical context to understand its meaning and intent, but once we have extracted these, they should be generalized to all times and places. Historical localization would allow one to nullify almost any Quranic concept they want by arguing that it only applies to a particular time and place and not to another. The common and common-sense understanding of the Quran is that while its context can help us extract its meaning, the meaning itself is universal. The default assumption regarding the meaning of any verse should be that it is designed to be applied by all humans for all time. Overwhelming evidence should be needed to prove that the meaning of a particular verse has expired or is irrelevant today. In the case of qiwāma, there is no evidence at all that it is irrelevant today. There certainly is overwhelming desire among a certain group of intellectuals to throw the concept away, but that does not constitute evidence. Working for women’s rights is a good thing, but destroying the foundations of our understanding of the Quran in the process is not.

If the Quran was written by the Prophet PBUH, then it would make sense that its meanings would expire and would be limited to the narrow context of 7th century Arabia. He was only a human and could not foresee all eventualities. But we believe the Quran is from God, it is His unchanged Words, which means that we have to treat it like a book written by an infinitely wise person who could foresee the fact that humanity would continue for the next 100,000 years (or however long). If something was supposed to only apply to one circumstance and not to others, then God would have told us so. What we believe is that the Quran was written by the Creator to be applied for all time. Saying that God was so short-sighted that He gave a universal command in His book that does not apply any longer is a great insult against the Creator of the universe. The question then becomes about the nature of God: mainstream Muslims believe that the Quran is from the same Creator who designed the laws of quantum mechanics and who watched the universe age for billions of years before humans started to walk the earth. When such a God tells us men should have a rank above their wives in their households, He is not stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia but is speaking from a billion-year perspective. Those who argue for historical localization are saying the opposite; they are saying that God was not intelligent and wise enough to see beyond 7th century Arabia. Therefore a person who argues for historical localization should first prove to us that God is not as intelligent and wise as we tend to think.

At this point, assuming that the classical interpretations of the verse are correct, we will examine how such a gender framework could be justified among civilized and self-respecting humans.

Domestic Violence in Islam

Domestic violence, as the phrase is commonly understood, is prohibited in Islam; a woman has the right to not be abused by her husband. This is the general rule; Islam does not tolerate cruelty and injustice toward anyone, whether man, woman, child or even animal. But verse 4:34 establishes an exception in the matter of authority and discipline in a household. The point of this verse is the establishment of a certain type of order within an Islamic household.

To explain how 4:34 can be implemented without this leading to domestic violence, the best analogy and the most relevant I have found is that of law enforcement. Throughout the world, the police have the right to strike a person who is about to break the law, for example a person who wants to set fire to a building. The police are required to sternly warn the person to stop their behavior, and if they do not, they have the right to intervene physically and subdue the person to prevent them from doing harm. The right of the police to strike any citizen they want given the appropriate circumstances establishes a certain type of order within society. It does not lead to a reign of terror; look at a peaceful and quiet Western town and you will find that that peace and quiet is protected by the existence of a police force that has the right to use violence when necessary.

In the West, law enforcement is the job of the police; they are given the right to use violence when necessary to carry out this job. Islam creates a second law enforcement jurisdiction that is non-existent in the West, that of the family, with the power of policing given to a husband (rather than a police force) within this internal family jurisdiction (later on I will discuss possible reasons for why this power is given to men rather than women).

Similar to the police, men are not allowed to abuse this authority. Police brutality and husband brutality can both be severely punished by the law. Verse 4:34 gives a man the authority to police his household. If his wife is about to do something highly damaging, such as trying to invite a lover into the house, he has the right to sternly warn her to stop and to use force against her if she does not.

Here, it should be stated that under Islamic law a woman should have the right to divorce any time she wants. If her husband is abusive, besides having access to agencies protecting women, she should also be able to threaten to leave him, and the police should be there to protect her rights and prevent her from being kept as a wife against her wishes. Middle Eastern countries have been notoriously bad at protecting women’s rights, this is slowly changing, and Islam can actually be used as justification for creating agencies that protect women’s rights.

Islamic law creates this situation inside a family:

  1. A husband has the right to police his household and to use violence in the extremely rare case where his wife wants to do something completely unacceptable in their culture and society.
  2. A woman has the right to leave her husband any time she wants.13
  3. A woman has the right to be free from cruel treatment and abuse, and has the right to enjoy the police’s protection from abuse.

In the vast majority of marriages (perhaps 99.99%), husbands will never have to use their right to violence, the same way that in a peaceful society the vast majority of people are never beaten by the police, despite the fact that the police have the right to strike any citizen when necessary. Islamic law, similar to Western law, creates a certain social order that does not do violence to anyone as long as no one tries to break the law. A husband’s right to act as policeman is irrelevant except in the extremely rare case when a wife, for whatever reason, 1. insults and threatens him by her actions, 2. does not listen to admonishment and 3. does not want a divorce. That is quite a ridiculous situation that very few couples will find themselves in.

A person may ask, if this verse truly applies to only 0.01% of marriages, why would the Quran have a verse about it? For the same reason that Western law has many clauses on the use of violence by the police despite the fact that only 0.01% of citizens are ever subject to police violence. The right to use violence is what matters here, not the actual use of violence. When a Western town gives the police the right to use violence, they do not do so because they like to watch the police beat people, but because they know that if the police did not have the right to use violence, they could not deal with the extremely rare cases in which violence is needed.

You cannot establish social order without giving someone the power to enforce it. A law is useless unless there is someone who can enforce it, and the enforcement of law in human society requires the power to use violence (only the power, not the actual use of violence). While Western law defines a certain legal code enforced by the police where necessary, Islamic law defines such a code, and in addition to it, defines internal family law (non-existent in the West) that husbands can enforce through violence where necessary.

Senseless Beatings and Cultural Mores

When talking about 4:34, people’s minds often jump to an imaginary or real wife who is beaten by a cruel husband. But that has nothing to do with 4:34. The violence in 4:34 is similar to police violence; if it is cruel, if it is senseless, if it is unnecessary, then that is forbidden and should be punished by law. 4:34 only justifies violence in cases where the couple’s culture considers the violence justified. The woman’s own relatives should be able to look into the case and agree that the husband’s actions were justified.

What situations could possibly justify a husband striking a wife? This is similar to asking what situations could possibly justify the police striking a citizen. If we think of good citizens being beaten by the police, we naturally find that cruel and unjustified. So to correctly answer the question, we have to think of bad citizens, those who do deserve violence according to the law worldwide. A bad citizen would be one who is mugging someone, or trying to steal a car, or trying to rape a woman. People will generally agree that police violence is justified in preventing such citizens from carrying out their intentions.

Verse 4:34 deals with the issue of bad wives, the way that Western laws allowing police violence are there to deal with the issue of bad citizens (I will address the question of bad husbands later on). In regards to good wives versus bad wives, verse 4:34 has this to say:

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

The Arabic word that is rendered as “disloyalty” above is nushūz, which according to al-Rāzī has a meaning close to “mutiny”, it is when a person acts as if they are superior to a figure of authority (as in a soldier acting in disregard of an officer’s rank).14 It literally means “to consider oneself superior”, the word can be used to describe a patch of land as being higher than another.1516 Interestingly, it is also used in the Quran in reference to a man’s misbehavior toward his wife, which provides an illustration of the fact that a husband is not an absolute authority; he too can be mutinous against the higher authority of the law if he is abusive or negligent toward his wife.17

The word nushūz is vague and does not clearly define what situations deserve a strong response and which ones do not. I believe this is in order to leave it to each family, culture and society to decide it for itself. All wives probably know what their husbands’ “deal-breakers” are, things that he would consider a severe insult and a betrayal, and these things can be different for different people. The most flagrant case of nushūz is a wife trying to have an affair. In general, nushūz is any case in which a wife acts in disregard and disrespect to the Islamic social order that the Quran wants to establish within the family. Among forms of nushūz explained in the Islamic legal literature are, many of which sound antique or somewhat irrelevant today:

  • A woman refusing to engage in sexual intimacy with her husband without a valid reason.18 Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (grandfather of the more famous Ibn Rushd), in answer to a question, says that a man is not allowed to strike his wife if she refuses sexual intimacy unless she is doing it out of malice and spite and he fears she will continue to become more rebellious.19
  • Refusing to do housework. The Ḥanabalī scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīya (d. 751 AH / 1350 CE) considers it a duty, saying that the marriage contract assumes that the woman perform such services,20 while the Shāfiʿī jurist Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (d. 476 AH / c. 1083 CE) does not consider housework one of her duties.21 According to the Spanish Malikī scholar al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH / c. 1273 CE), whether housework is obligatory depends on her social class; it is not obligatory for upper class women who expect their husbands to hire servants.22
  • Refusing to join the man in his home after marriage without a valid reason.
  • Inviting someone into her marital home against her husband’s wishes.

A technical, modern and pluralistic definition of nushūz would be:

A woman's acting in flagrant disregard of the terms implied by her marriage contract in her particular culture.

Is it acceptable for a husband to use violence against his wife for refusing him sexual intimacy, even if she is doing it maliciously, for example as a form of emotional blackmail? Most, if not all, people today will probably say violence is not justified; they should work out their issue peacefully or get a divorce. And that is the correct general principle today. What constitutes scandalous behavior that deserves a decisive response from a husband can change as humanity develops.

The Quran does not give us a strict definition of nushūz, allowing us to make its scope wider or narrower as our reason, conscience and cultural experience demands. Any case of a woman suffering violence in a way that is clearly unjust and unreasonable can automatically be considered outside the bounds of 4:34: In a Muslim society, a woman should never have occasion to say that her husband beat her without a valid reason. If that is true, her husband should be punishable by law, as is the opinion of Ibn Ḥazm.23 Scholars, however, have historically differed greatly on whether and when a man can be held accountable for striking his wife, some going as far as practically prohibiting all violence and others giving a man carte blanche to beat his wife whenever he wants.24 But thanks to the vagueness of the concept of nushūz, we are under no strict limitation in our ability to give it a reading that fits reason and conscience. In my proposed interpretation of 4:34, if a wife was struck by a husband, it would only be justified in situations like this:

I tried to cheat on my husband, he found out and sternly warned me to give up the idea. I did not. He told me I should get a divorce if I do not want to be with him anymore, but what I want is to stay married to him and enjoy the benefits that come with it while having a lover on the side. We had a fight and he physically subdued me and took my phone away from me so I would not be able to speak with my lover.

In a Western country a husband in the above situation is required to let his wife do whatever she wants, only having recourse to divorce. The police will probably laugh at him if he was to give them a call and complain that his wife wants to sleep with another man. Under Islamic law, however, a husband is given the authority to be the law-enforcer himself in such a case. This creates a situation in which there is zero tolerance for a wife acting against the terms of her marriage. She is required to either accept to live amicably and faithfully with her husband or to get a divorce. Verse 4:34 ensures that there will be no “in-between” situations where a wife is only half faithful or respectful toward a husband, for example staying with him for the sake of the children while doing whatever she wants in her private life without concern for his interests. She is either fully committed to her life with her husband or she gets a divorce. While Western law tolerates all shades of commitment from full commitment to zero commitment between a husband and wife, Islamic law allows only full commitment or divorce, and gives the husband the right of violence to ensure that this will be the state of things in his family.

Laws versus real-life

Above, I have explained the theory behind verse 4:34. But that is only half the picture. Verse 4:34 creates a certain social order, a certain type of society, that an outsider may be completely unable to imagine from the wording of the verse. The type of society it creates is one in which it is unthinkable for a woman to flagrantly act in opposition to her husband and his household (the most glaring example being that of infidelity). It is as unthinkable for her to act thus as it is for a Western citizen to think of counterfeiting money. While in the West we do not live under a police reign of terror, we know that if we were to do something that severely threatens social order, such as making counterfeit money, law-enforcement will have something to say about it. We do not need the police to strike us to not make counterfeit money. We just know that in our society, in our social order, the making of counterfeit money is totally unacceptable and will bring down violence on the person who tries it.

In the same way, in an Islamic society, a woman knows that within the social order she lives in, she cannot act flagrantly in opposition to her husband; she knows that this is totally unacceptable in her society and can bring down violence on her. If there is a need for her to oppose her husband, she has the right to argue with her husband, to demand the support of her family and his family, to demand the support of women’s agencies, to sue him in court and to threaten divorce. These things ensure that her husband cannot abuse his authority and that her rights are not neglected. What she does not have the right to is acting in a way that damages her husband and his household. She is free to get a divorce; but while she chooses to be with him, she has to act in good faith toward him.

The “Rule” of Husbands

Giving husbands the right of policing does not make them tyrannical rulers, the same way that giving the police the right of policing and striking citizens does not make them rulers in society. Husbands and the police are both subject to higher laws that restrict their powers. In an Islamic society, both the husband and wife are subject to the law and its various restrictions. They are both servants of God who are required to do their best to please Him. One of them, the husband, has the powers of the police delegated to him to deal with the extremely rare case of having to enforce internal family law. It is true that no sensible wife would act in a way that threatens her husband and his family, similar to the way that no sensible citizen would act in a way that threatens society and requires police action. But not all wives or citizens are sensible, therefore the law sees the need to give certain people the right to use violence against those rare wives or citizens that do not act sensibly.

In focusing on the extremely rare situations when violence becomes necessary, discussions of Islam and domestic violence ignore the overwhelming majority of marriages in which a husband striking his wife is considered unthinkable. It is like focusing on police brutality in a peaceful town and ignoring the 99.999% of the citizenry who live in peace and never have any dealings with the police.

A husband who habitually beats his wife is similar to a policeman who habitually beats citizens for no reason. Such a husband or policeman should be severely punished, and if they cannot stop their violence, they should be fired from their jobs (a judge should force the husband and wife to separate, and should fire the policeman).

Why Make Husbands Policemen?

Even if it is admitted that the mere right of using violence against a wife does not lead to an epidemic of domestic violence (and my experience of Muslim societies in Iran, Iraq and the United States illustrates this beyond doubt), one may doubt if giving men the authority to act as part-time policemen in their households is the best way to organize society.

The Quran’s theory is that society functions best when husbands are recognized as authorities in their households, with the power to act swiftly, decisively and even violently when their interests are seriously threatened.

The feminist (etc.) theory is that society functions best when a husband and wife have equal shares of authority in their households, somewhat similar to a country or company having two presidents.

Which theory is true? A great many scientific studies would be needed to find out beyond reasonable doubt which type of society functions best. Such studies should try to answer these questions:

  • Do women in devout Muslim households suffer more or less domestic violence compared to other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households more or less likely to suffer depression than other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households happier and more fulfilled or less compared to others?
  • Are children brought up in a devout Muslim family more or less likely to suffer trauma compared to children brought up in a non-devout Muslim family, compared to children brought up in non-Muslim families from societies of equal development and prosperity?
  • What type of society is more sustainable? Devout Muslim societies are sustainable in that families can produce enough children to replace the parents. Western societies are all failing at this; they are all slowly going extinct.

Note the keyword devout. Considering an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife representative of Islam just because he calls himself Muslim is something only a propagandist would do. Any study of the effects of the Quran’s teachings, including the teaching in verse 4:34, should focus on people who actually take the Quran’s teachings seriously.

My contention, and the Quran’s, is that a devout Muslim society will function better and will be happier than either a non-devout one or a modern, liberal and irreligious one.

Verse 4:34 explains why God considers men worthy of the authority He has given them in their households:

Men are qawwamūn (keepers, protectors and authorities) over women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.25

The Quran gives two reasons:

  • Men are inherently (i.e. genetically) suited to the role of being figures of authority in their households
  • Men are the financial maintainers of women (by Islamic law)

The Quran’s contention, therefore, is that a family functions best when a man is the chief authority, because it is in the nature of human families that they function best when a man is the chief authority. We have no convincing scientific evidence for this at the moment, but we may have it in ten or twenty years. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a plausible reconciliation of Islam and evolution see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis) in a way that makes males different from females, and this difference justifies different roles within a relationship.

This difference does not mean that a man is given the right to do whatever he wants in his family. He is subject to the law and any abuse of his powers can be punished by law.

The question of whether men are really evolutionarily suited to be the chief authorities in their families cannot be settled by argument. It requires hundreds of scientific studies. Simply thinking of the 1% of men who abuse their powers tells us nothing about the 99% who do not. You cannot judge social policy by thinking of a few glaring bad examples. You have to study all of society. You cannot judge verse 4:34 by thinking of the hundred families in a Muslim city in which the husbands are abusive and ignore the 10,000 families in which the husbands are not abusive.

Bad Husbands

The passage 4:128-130 of the Quran deals with the issue of bad husbands, and refers to them as mutinous as already mentioned:

If a woman fears mutiny or desertion from her husband, there is no fault in them if they reconcile their differences, for reconciliation is best. Souls are prone to avarice; yet if you do what is good, and practice piety—God is Cognizant of what you do.

You will not be able to treat women with equal fairness, no matter how much you desire it. But do not be so biased as to leave another suspended. If you make amends, and act righteously—God is Forgiving and Merciful.

And if they separate, God will enrich each from His abundance. God is Bounteous and Wise.

Verse 4:35 is also relevant:

If you fear a breach between the two, appoint an arbiter from his family and an arbiter from her family. If they wish to reconcile, God will bring them together. God is Knowledgeable, Expert.

The above verses are taken to mean that in the case of bad husbands, a wife should either have recourse to their families, or to government-appointed judges, who have the right to try to reconcile their differences or to enforce a divorce according to the wife’s wishes.

Wives, unlike husbands, are not law enforcers in their households. Due to the genetic differences between the sexes, it makes no sense to ask a wife to use violence against her husband when necessary; men are physically stronger than women in the overwhelming majority of cases and could do dangerous physical harm to a woman. Therefore the woman instead has recourse to a higher authority than her husband when her husband is mutinous. That higher authority is her family, his family, government-appointed judges, and women’s agencies if any are available.

A modern, civilized society will ensure that women always have easy access to this higher authority that can swiftly deal with bad husbands when necessary.

Devout Muslims and Habitual Wife-beaters

It is my contention that the more devoutly Muslim a man is, the less likely he is to be a wife-beater. There are hundreds of verses in the Quran that call him to be kind and forgiving. A single verse that allows violence in extremely rare circumstances is not going to be sufficient to wipe out the teachings of these hundreds of other verses from his mind. Any person with sufficient intelligence to understand the Quran will feel restricted by it in his ability to be mean and violent toward others, including his own wife and children, rather than feeling encouraged by it.

I have no respect for a man who beats his wife and will never befriend a man who thinks he has the God-given right to beat women when the mood strikes him. I am not unique in this regard. In the devout Muslim society I come from, a man who is known to beat his wife is considered a low-life, a person unworthy of befriending. Yet we are all Muslims who take the Quran seriously, including verse 4:34.

Verse 4:34’s main function is a defense of Islam’s “patriarchy”. It makes it impossible to give the Quran a feminist reading that sees men and women as exactly equal. It gives men higher authority in their households and goes as far as delegating some of the powers of the police to them. This is a completely anti-feminist way of organizing society, and for this reason feminists who wish to “feminize” the Quran will be forced to either ignore 4:34 or to give it far-fetched interpretations (as Laleh Bakhtiar has done).

Those who have occasion to speak of 4:34 are generally middle and upper middle class people for whom domestic violence is unthinkable (and it is that way for me too). But saying that 4:34 is unnecessary because our men and women are mature and sensible enough to act as honorable adults toward one another is like saying the police are unnecessary because we sensible people do not plan to break the law.

The police’s main function is not violence; it is the protection of social order. By using violence against the very small minority of citizens who wish to break the law, a certain type of order is created that everyone follows. The same applies to verse 4:34. By giving husbands the right of violence against the extremely small minority of wives who desire infidelity and other ways of damaging their families, a certain type of social order is created where wives and husbands are required to be 100% committed to their families.  4:34 establishes a social order in which wives are either fully committed or get divorces. 4:35 and 4:128-130 establish a social order in which husbands are either fully committed are get corrected or punished by higher authorities.

The vast majority of wives are already fully committed and do not need violence to make them so, the same way that the vast majority of citizens are fully committed to being good citizens and do not need violence to make them so. But it is foolishness to say that social order does not need a policing power to protect it. Without a violent power protecting against threats to order, social order will break down, as seen in cases where the police abandon a town (such as during a police strike), which quickly leads to looting and rioting by irresponsible citizens.

The Islamic social order that requires wives to be fully committed functions peacefully and without violence in the overwhelming majority of cases; 4:34 ensures that there is a policing power that protects this social order and can respond to those extremely rare cases where this order is threatened.

People have the right to wonder if this is the best way to create happy families and societies. Without a great number of unbiased scientific studies there can be no conclusive answer. It might seem “obvious” to someone that this is not a good way to create happy families and societies, but this is just a personal bias unless they can provide statistical data to back up their opinion. There are faithful and loyal wives among both Muslims and irreligious people, but if devout Muslim wives are on average 50% more likely to be loyal, and their families are 20% more likely to be happy and to avoid being broken up, then that is all we need to know to tell us that we should not be too quick to judge the sociological consequences of the Quran’s teachings.

As Muslims, we believe that God knows better than anyone else how families and societies should be organized, therefore even if we dislike the idea of violence against women (as perhaps all of us do), we have to believe that God knows best. Even the Prophet Muhammad PBUH had reservations about 4:34. Al-Rāzī, in his aforementioned exegesis of verse 4:34, mentions a narration from Ibn ʿAbbās in which he says that a woman came complaining to the Prophet PBUH about being struck by her husband. From the passage, it appears that the Prophet PBUH would have liked to punish the husband according to the law of qiṣāṣ, but verse 4:34 is revealed to him confirming that the husband was within his rights. The Prophet is quoted as saying “We wanted something, but God wanted another thing. And what God wants is best.”

To summarize, verse 4:34 creates an informal police force made up of husbands. They are charged with the protection of the integrity of their families and are given the power of violence as a last resort in the carrying out of this duty. Any use of violence by a husband that falls outside of this definition can be punished by the law. The vagueness of “mutiny” enables each culture to decide for itself whether a case of violence was justified or whether it was unjustified and therefore deserving of punishment by the authorities.

From the above discussion, feminist critiques like the following (from Men in Charge?, chapter 7) will be seen to be quite beside the point:

Dina, a lawyer who founded and currently leads an NGO in one of Cairo’s poorest areas, added another layer to this new understanding of qiwamah. She noted, ‘Since women and men today have equal opportunities to pursue knowledge, with women sometimes excelling more, it would be indeed irrational to expect an illiterate man to have qiwamah over a female university professor, in the sense of authority.’

It would be irrational for a female university professor to marry an illiterate man to begin with. Considering the less absurd example of a female university professor married to a male university professor, it will be seen that the man is given the authority to defend his household, an authority that he will likely never have to enforce, since his college-professor wife is likely intelligent and self-respecting enough, like most middle class wives, to not act like the immature and out-of-control person described above as a bad wife. Saying it is irrational for this male professor to have qiwāma over his wife because of his wife’s qualities is similar to saying that it is irrational for a peaceful town to have a police force. Islam gives him policing power to deal with the extremely rare cases in which it might be needed. If he is blessed with a good wife he will never have recourse to it and will be thankful for that, the way that the police force in a peaceful town never have recourse to violence against the town’s citizens. The above excerpt from Men in Charge? relies on the paralogism that:

  • Good wives do not need qiwāma and its enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in their families.
  • Therefore qiwāma-enforcement is not needed.

Qiwāma-enforcement, as has been discussed, is entirely about bad wives, therefore the fact that good wives do not need it is irrelevant. What they say is similar to:

  • Good citizens do not need law enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in society.
  • Therefore society does not need law enforcement.

If it is admitted that qiwāma-enforcement is about dealing with bad wives, a person might argue that this means that in a society of enlightened and educated individuals we can do away with qiwāma, living as if verse 4:34 does not apply to us. This is the argument of certain activists; qiwāma may have made sense in a certain time and place, but it is certainly quite out of place in modern society. This thinking relies on the assumption that there are no relevant differences between men and women that would justify giving men higher authority. The assumption is that men and women are exactly the same when it comes to everything that matters; therefore there is no sense in treating them differently.

But is that assumption true? 4:34 says that there is something intrinsic about men that justifies God giving them authority over their wives. There is some genetic/evolutionary reason why giving men authority over their wives leads to better results for everyone involved. If that is true (and we either have to assume it is true because the Quran says it is, or abandon the Quran for containing a falsehood), then giving men authority over their wives in a modern family is just as relevant as it would be in an ancient family. There are thousands of situations that come up in a modern family’s life in which the question of authority is significant. Should the wife accept that particular job? Should the son be allowed to go out with that group of friends? Should the daughter be allowed to wear that particular dress? Qiwāma allows for discussion and debate while giving the man the right of having the final word, because of a superiority in rank that God has given to him, and because he spends out his wealth to care for his family (the reasons given in 4:34). But if the husband’s opinion is absurd, his wife can appeal to higher authorities to correct him.

A feminist who appreciates everything said above may go on to say that she does not like to live with a husband who thinks he has the right of having the final word. But even in this case she is misunderstanding the purpose of 4:34. If she marries a husband as intelligent and educated as herself, he will probably be the type of person to work out all issues of authority without having to resort to saying that God has granted him the final word. It is only an extremely socially inept man who insults his wife by telling her he has authority over her. An intelligent and intellectually mature Muslim man will instead treat her like an equal, the way Prophet Muhammad PBUH appears to have treated his wife Aisha.

The final remaining feminist criticism would be her saying that she does not want to be subject to a man’s authority no matter how good of a man he is. She wants to be free and make her own way in the world without reference to a man. Islam’s answer is that she is free to not get married, but the general framework of marriage within Islam will always be the qiwāma framework, which is prescribed in the Quran and accepted by the vast majority of the world’s Muslim men and Muslim women. Rejecting qiwāma is similar to rejecting the Ramadan fast. One can come up with various logical reasons for rejecting fasting (it reduces worker productivity, for example), but since it is God who prescribes it, we have no option but to do as He says. Additionally, if 99% of women are quite happy to live under qiwāma while 1% of them dislike it, whose opinion is more authoritative? The radical feminist answer would be that any woman who refuses to agree with feminism is foolish and her opinions do not count. The humanist answer would be that as humans, their worth does not derive from how feminist they are, and if the majority of intelligent and educated Muslim women do not have a problem with qiwāma, that is very strong evidence in favor of the traditional Islamic family.

Many women can probably be convinced to dislike qiwāma in the name of women’s rights. This is similar to the way that even today it is easy to convince workers to support communism despite the horrors it led to in the 20th century. Both feminism and communism promise a specific class of people increased rights, powers, and privileges, and few humans have the wisdom to reject such things when offered to them freely. Ask any Muslim woman, especially an unmarried and college-educated one, “Do you want as much authority as your (future) husband or less authority?” and she will probably say she wants as much authority. This is similar to asking a worker, “Do you wish your boss was legally required to share much of his wealth with his employees?”, the answer will almost certainly be a “Yes!” The problem is that we cannot build a civilization based on answering the average person’s desires. Legal systems and social order have to be designed by mature people who can foresee the long-term results of their actions. Ending qiwāma might make a small minority of women happy, but what will be the long-term costs to the rest of society? If it is said that a woman should not have to sacrifice her freedom and independence for the sake of society, the answer is that actually she does. Islam asks both men and women to sacrifice many of their desires for the sake of the greater good. They are required to limit sexual partners even if this reduces their fulfillment; they are required to pray at inconvenient hours; they are required to not enjoy alcohol even though it is highly pleasurable to drink and many people are capable of enjoying it without becoming alcoholics. Pious Muslim women by and large see no problem with qiwāma because it is one of dozens of limitations God places on women supposedly for their own good and the good of those around them. A Muslim woman either has to accept that God is right in His commandments or that He is wrong and she can do better outside of them.

Interfacing With Secular Law

It should be mentioned that most legal systems do not recognize the validity of the use of violence against a wife in any circumstance except in that of physical self-defense, and even then a man may be considered guilty until proven innocent. For this reason Muslims living under such laws are required to follow those laws. By the fact of accepting to live under a secular legal system and enjoying its protection, one also accepts to abide by its limitations. Upholding the “social contract” inherent in living under a secular legal system takes precedence over applying parts of Islamic law that conflict with it. In Islam the protection of life, property and dignity are the prime purposes of the law, so a secular legal system that affords these things but prohibits applying certain branches of Islamic law is still largely in accordance with Islam.

Fighting Violence Against Women

While 4:34 teaches us that there are extremely rare cases in which violence against a wife is justified, this should not make us indifferent toward cases of domestic abuse. The Quran is opposed to injustice and cruelty, and needless to say this means that we should be opposed to injustice and cruelty toward women. How can a man carry out the “greater jihad” of working to make the world a better place if he has created a cruel and tyrannical kingdom at home? Until recently Muslim societies (and of course non-Muslim ones too) were quite apathetic toward the issue of cruelty toward women. Things seem to be improving.

An intelligent legal theorist should have no trouble seeing that giving someone policing power is bound to lead to abuse if there is no oversight, therefore the creation of agencies protecting women against abuse should be an essential part of any developed Islamic legal system. Women should enjoy all of the protections of a country’s constitution and should have recourse to the authorities if they suffer abuse on the hands of their husbands, fathers or others.

It is not contradictory to fight violence against women while defending verse 4:34. It is similar to fighting police brutality while defending the police’s right to use violence when needed.

Men in Charge or God in Charge?

Most wives in Islamic societies, like all societies, have a healthy level of skepticism toward their husband’s wisdom and authority. For Muslim wives, it is not the husbands themselves who deserve their submission except in cases where the husband is truly admirable according to the wife and the wife is has type of personality that enjoys submission. Rather, it is their social order that teaches them to respect the authority of their husbands. They do it largely out of respect for their societies and relatives, not out of respect for their husbands’ personal virtues. It is respect for the office of husband, not the husband himself.

This is a crucial point in understanding Muslim societies. A woman’s heart and soul does not have to be submissive toward her husband (it often is not) for her to live within the Islamic framework. Instead, it is her allegiance to her society and its social order that makes her respectful toward her husband’s position. She respects both the offices of wife and the husband and acts according to the demands of these offices. The husband can never hope to be the ideal husband who satisfies everything the office demands. But if he is a good husband, he will at least attempt to embody the ideals of that office. And the wife judges him accordingly: if the husband embodies the ideals of his office, she will respect him enough to try to embody the ideals of her office.

What is seen in well-educated, cosmopolitan and devout Muslim societies is not a rule of husbands, but a rule of God. It is a woman’s respect for her God-inspired social order that makes her respect her husband’s authority.

And if the belief in God declines, so does a woman’s respect for her husband’s authority. This is very strong proof for the fact that husbands are not “in charge” even in highly conservative, devout Muslim societies. It is God who is in charge. When belief in God declines, so does belief in the authority of husbands. This shows that the authority of husbands is not something the husband creates or enforces himself—most husbands could never do that. It is belief in God and social order that comes from this that creates and enforces that authority for him.

Wives in Islam are not required to be servile and submissive toward their husbands. They are required to be servile and submissive toward God, and that means they respect what the Quran tells them about the authority of their husbands. But, the more intelligent and educated they are, the more skeptical they are toward their husbands and the more independent of mind they are. This is not un-Islamic even if some scholars and preachers say it is. A woman can remain perfectly skeptical and independent while living with a husband and respecting his authority out of respect for God, not for him. If he deserves respect, then she will give him respect as well.

The same way that a Muslim is not required to give up his or her humanity to be Muslim, a Muslim woman is not required to give up her humanity to be a wife. She can be as independent-minded as any feminist while, out of love and respect for God, enjoying and respecting her position as wife and her husband’s position as husband. The husband’s own power and authority is quite irrelevant her. And since the husband has higher authorities that can correct and punish him, he is not allowed to abuse the power and authority delegated to him.

Ideally, therefore, a woman remains independent of mind while accepting the office of wife out of respect for God, her family and her society. She will love her husband if he deserves it while taking him to task for any form of demeaning treatment.

It is true that she loses some freedom when she becomes a wife. But what she gains more than makes up for it; a higher social status, increased respect from those around her, access to her husband’s wealth and society. To a devout Muslim woman, marrying a reasonably good man provides an increase in her power and position in life. It is from this point of view that Islamic marriage should be understood. She goes from being beholden to her parents and siblings to being beholden to one man who often loves her and is ready to do her bidding. It is natural that she should see this as a gain, not a loss. And it is for this reason that Muslim girls, similar to the girls in Pride and Prejudice, love the idea of marrying even when they are highly respected and adored in their own families and are free to get an education and career. Marriage for them means the start of a new stage in life in which they build something beautiful and make their important contribution to society through working on it (a family that is well-integrated into society).

Conclusion

Any treatment of a woman that is culturally inappropriate is also Islamically inappropriate, regardless of the culture we are looking at—Eastern or Western. Islam only permits violence against women in cases where it is culturally and religiously justified. If the culture considers a man’s treatment of his wife unacceptable, Islamic law provides for correction and punishment of the man.

But while the West only recognizes self-defense as the only case where violence against women may be justified, Islam extends this concept to marriage-defense. Islam does not define marriage-defense, or defense against nushūz, explicitly, enabling each culture to self-define it.

As already stated at the beginning, wife-beating is unacceptable and taboo among middle class Muslims throughout the world, as it should be. But while a naïve view will find in this an abandonment of a part of the Quran, a sophisticated view sees it as Islam applied authentically and in the best way possible. There is no need to abandon 4:34 in order to prohibit violence against women. Islam already prohibits violence against women whenever it is unjustified. Verse 4:34 merely extends the concept of self-defense to marriage-defense, allowing a man more room to do what is good for his family.

Whether 4:34 leads to increased violence against women must be studied empirically. I would argue that the more knowledgeable a man is of the Quran and Islamic law, the more he will feel restricted in his ability to do as he likes in his marriage—and that includes the way he treats his wife.

The Road to Maturity: On Dealing with Life’s Unsolvable Problems

Schale mit Blumen by Marie Egner (1940)

Every person’s life seems to contain problems that have no solution. Such problems can last for years, even decades. Among such problems are:

  • Poverty: A person’s life may be denied many joys and contain many indignities brought about by poverty.
  • Having a disabled child: An otherwise happy and wealthy couple may be force to worry and spend much of their time and energy in the care of a disabled child, without any hope of things getting much easier.
  • Having to take care of an elderly parent: There are people who spend years as part-time nurses, having to take care of a parent that cannot take care of himself/herself. The person may not be able to afford professional care, so that despite their life’s various demands, this extra demand is placed on them, sometimes for many years or a decade.
  • Illness: There are people who suffer from an illness that prevents them from enjoying the foods they like or the activities they enjoy. Some illness are uncurable and will put a damper on a person’s life for the rest of their lives.
  • Family problems: A person may have nearly everything they want, but their life may be made extremely difficult due to abuse or neglect from a spouse, meanness from family members, or having a child that constantly gets into serious trouble.

There problems are unsolvable in the sense that there are generally no quick solutions to them. We desire to live in Paradise on earth, having a peaceful and easy life that is not marred by any serious issues. We wish to live in a light-hearted comedy rather than a tragedy.

But that desire for perfect peace will never come true in this life, because that is not the purpose of this life. Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari says:

So long as you are in this world, be not surprised at the existence of sorrows.

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

God, glory to Him, created His creation to worship Him, and that is their purpose, as He says: “I have not created jinn and humans except to worship Me” [Quran 51:56]. It is clear that the perfect servitude and worship that is required of humans cannot be achieved in the Home of Bliss [Paradise], but can only be achieved in the home of affliction and trials.

Ibn al-Jawzi says:

The worldly life has been created as a place of testing. The wise person should fully habituate himself to patience.

We want to escape this world with all of its little annoyances and worries and inconveniences so that we can enter a world of perfect peace. But this desire is mistaken and can never be attained in this world. Even if we unexpectedly acquire great wealth, leave behind all of our worries, move to a different country, buy an amazing house, and find a great spouse, the excitement of all of these will wear off in a few day, and we will feel as if we are back to square one. Problems will start to haunt us again out no nowhere. The perfect spouse may end up not being so perfect. We may engage in a seemingly profitable business enterprise that brings us great fear and worry, perhaps due to choosing the wrong business partner. If the wealth is enough to make us needless of any extra work or investment, we may dedicate ourselves to making art, or writing novels or poetry, only to experience discontent and grief as people ignore or criticize our works. Meanwhile, in our new social circle we may start to be judged for all kinds of things that we dislike to be judged for, and this may make us feel inferior.

While films and novels often tell us that we can live happily ever after once we solve our problems, get rich, or escape our past lives, reality will always prove this false. This world is a place of testing. There is no escaping God’s tests, and He knows better than anyone else exactly how to test you. Even if you are the ruler of the world, God can defeat all of your plans and place you in utter misery if He wishes. There is no escape from God. Regardless of where we run to, He will always be there first, ready with the next barrage of tests designed to build us into better and worthier people.

If you suffer from a problem of inconvenience and think “This is too stupid, I shouldn’t be having to deal with this type of nonsense!”, you have actually misunderstood the test. If something makes you feel discontented, impatient, angry or unthankful toward God, then that is exactly the type of test you should be going you through. A test that does not hit you right where it hurts is not a proper test. You have to best tested for all that you have, each test should reach deep into you and tempt you to anger and ungratefulness.

The Building of Character

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

When God tests you it is never to destroy you. When He removes something in your possession it is only in order to empty your hands for an even greater gift.

God does not take sadistic pleasure in seeing us suffer. The purpose of His tests is to show us our true natures, our weaknesses and our absolute dependence on His mercy, and these things prompt us to seek to improve ourselves. People who are never shown their faults and weaknesses fail to develop. If we are unaware that a problem exists, we have no incentive to seek a solution.

Mostafa Sadeq al-Rafi’i says:

When I looked into history I found a small number of individuals whose lives mirrored the life-cycle of a grain of wheat. They were torn from their roots, then crushed, then ground in mills, then kneaded with fists, then rolled out and baked in ovens at high temperatures… just so they could provide food for others.

The best people you meet are not people who have been spared life’s troubles. They are people who been crushed again and again by life’s troubles until they have reached a state of near-perfect acceptance and humility, so that they no longer reject God’s decrees nor do they desire to escape their lives. They know God is in charge, and that He can cure them from their distress any time He wants. They look to Him for help and seek refuge only in Him. The poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who suffered for years from a painful illness and from loneliness and nostalgia, expresses this type of thinking in his famous 1962 poem Sabr Ayyub (The Patience of Job).

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes,
For You is praise, afflictions are bestowals,
And suffering is of Your bounty.
Did You not give me this darkness?
And did You not give me this dawn?
Does the ground then thank raindrops,
But get angry if the clouds do not find it?
For long months, this wound
Has been cutting my sides like a dagger.
The affliction does not calm at morning,
And nighttime does not bring death to wipe out the agony.
But if Job was to cry, he would cry,
“For You is Praise, for suffering is like drops of dew,
And wounds are presents from the Beloved,
The stacks of which I hug to my chest.
You presents are in my line of sight, they do not leave,
Your presents are accepted, bring them on!”
I hug my wounds and call out to visitors:
“Look here and be jealous,
For these are presents from my Beloved!”
And if the heat of my fever approaches fire,
I would imagine it a kiss from You fashioned from flame.
Beautiful is insomnia, as I watch over Your heaven
With my eyes, until the stars disappear
And until Your light touches the window of my home.
Beautiful is the night: The hooting of owls
And the sound of car horns from a distance
The sighs of patients, a mother retelling
Tales of her forefathers to her child.
The forests of a sleepless night; the clouds
As they veil the face of heaven
And uncover it from under the moon.
And if Job cried out, he would say:
“For You is praise, O One who hurls fate,
And O One Who, after that, decrees the cure!”

If you are tested, instead of thinking “This shouldn’t be happening to me!”, consider it an opportunity to practice patience and a call to improve yourself. We never grow if we constantly turn our backs on our problems. Growth happens when we accept that this is exactly what we should be going through, this is God’s decree for us. If God wants, He can remove our difficulty in an instant. If we feel impatient and discontented, this is a clear sign that we are not close enough to God, that we are rejecting Him. We are, in effect, telling Him “We dislike this thing that You are doing to us O God and reject Your decree for us, we know better than You what should be happening to us, and this is not it.” You will meet many religious people who are stuck in this way of thinking. Their life’s difficulties, failures and missed opportunities are present in their minds and they blame God for not providing them with a better lot.

That is the state of a spiritually stagnant person. As for the best of the believers, they walk with God through life. They know He is in charge. They know that life’s difficulties are reminders from God that they should not put their trust in this world and that they should not expect to achieve perfect peace in it. Perfect peace is only achievable in the afterlife. Abdullah, son of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, asked his father one day:

"O Father, when will we ever achieve rest?"

His father looked him in the eye and said:

"With the first step we take into Paradise."

Rather than feeling discontented with life’s unsolvable problems, accept them and tell yourself that this is the fate that has been decreed for you. If you wish for a better fate, if you wish God to raise your status and remove the various indignities you suffer in life, ask Him to raise your status. Only He can help you. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever among the workers wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, then let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want to have a better lot in life, if you want your life to be more meaningful and to contain fewer problems, then ask yourself whether you deserve it, whether you deserve to be given special treatment over the millions of people who are equally suffering. In reality, you want God to treat you as if you are special. Do you deserve such treatment? If you constantly turn your back on Him, if you only do the minimum He asks of you, if you never take refuge in Him and do not consider Him in charge, then you are giving Him no reason to treat you specially. If you want a higher status in life, become the type of person who deserves a higher status in life. Do your best to stay close to Him. You should ask Him for these five things in every prayer you pray (during prostration) (I have written my favorite Arabic prayer words that I say for these purposes):

  • To forgive your sins. Allahumma innaka affuwwun tuhibbul afwa faafu anni (O God, you are the Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness, so forgive me.)
  • To guide you and increase your knowledge and wisdom. Allahumma zidni ilman wahdini li aqraba min haza rushdan (O God, increase me in knowledge and guide me to a better state of maturity than what I currently possibly)
  • To support you: Allahummanasurni wa anta khairun nasireen (O God, support me, and You are the best of supporters.)
  • To bless your time and works: Allahumma baarik fi aamali wa awqati (O God, bless my works and my times/moments.)
  • To make things easy for you: Allahumma yasir li amree (O God, make the matters of my life easy for me.)

As Muslims, the best source of guidance we have is the Quran. Always remember the saying of the famous Pakistani poet and scholar Muhammad Iqbal:

Of the things that had a profound effect on my life is an advice I heard from my father: "My son, read the Quran as if it was sent down specifically to you."

Make the Quran your guide in life and treat as if it was sent down to you this very moment. The Quran is not meant to be a reference that we leave on the shelf. It is meant to be a guide that is present with us through life. When you suffer difficulty and discontent, always go back to the Quran and it will teach you a new lesson every time if you persevere in reading it.

Difficulties are part of the design of our universe. If we want to mature and to be raised in status, instead of rejecting God’s decrees, we must accept them, embrace them and seek refuge and support only in Him. Only He can make things easy for us, help us mature, make our lives more meaningful and raise our status. And rather than expecting to achieve perfect peace in this life, we should accept its nature (that there can be no perfect peace in it), and we should instead put our hopes for our final rest in the afterlife.

The life of this world will never live up to our expectations. We always think if only we get this or that we will be so happy! But as soon we get there, we start to feel like we are back to square one. Life’s problems continue to haunt us. And there is no escape. There are elderly people who, having always rejected God’s decrees, continue to express anger at life for throwing problems and undignities in their faces. Do not be like them. Accept the nature of this world. If you want your life to be more meaningful, if you want your difficulties to raise you rather than degrade you, ask God to raise your status, and do what is necessary to please Him and convince Him that you deserve a better lot in life.

God has not abandoned you: Regaining your sense of purpose when life feels spiritually empty, lonely and meaningless

Flowering Azaleas by Marie Egner (c. 1895)

I would appreciate some advice. I pray all my prayers on time and I read Quran daily, along with other forms of worship, but I feel so numb & empty. I feel like I have no purpose in this life, like if I died it won't even matter. I don't affect this Ummah in any way. I just work full-time, I'm single, I don't have friends, my family and relatives are not on good terms, and I have social anxiety so I hate interacting with others. I feel so useless, is there a point to my worship?

It is human nature to want to be productive and achieve things for the sake of any cause you believe in, such as Islam. But ideally, your Islam should not be in any way attached to results.

Even if you were the only remaining human on earth, you can still perfectly apply Islam in your life, achieving your mission in life and a great success in the afterlife.

Your mission is the same as the Prophet’s mission, peace be upon him. It is to read the Quran and apply it wherever you can in your life, living by its manners, principles and philosophy.

When speaking of placing humans on Earth, God said to the angels, “I am placing a steward on Earth.” What is a steward? It is someone who takes care of something, for example a farm, for the sake of its owner, until the owner comes back.

We Muslims (and faithful Christians and others) are stewards on Earth. Our job is to take care of it for the sake of its Master. And this is achieved by following God’s Straight Path. The Straight Path is a program designed to ensure two things: humanity’s long-term survival (by placing various mechanisms to ensure that humanity doesn’t die out), and humanity’s short-term moral integrity (never justifying evil in the name of the greater good, never saying “the end justifies the means”).

We stewards are God’s representatives on Earth, and an important part of our stewardship is to keep God’s remembrance alive:

"And I have chosen you so listen to what is being revealed.
"Indeed, I am God, there is no god except Me, so worship Me and establish the prayer for My remembrance. (The Quran, verses 20:13-14)

Regardless of your situation, you are always able to fully live your life as a Muslim. You do not need anyone else’s involvement, this is something between you and God.

I have lived alone twice in my life, once when I was 18 and another time when I was 27, and both are some of the worst experiences of my life. I understand the difficulty of your situation, and how purposeless and meaningless it feels.

These are the times when your faith in God is tested. Will you think bad thoughts about Him, consider Him incapable of helping you, or consider Him unkind so that He wants you to suffer?

If we are fair-weather friends of God, then we will worship Him and love Him when things are easy, and once things get truly difficult, once our patience is tested, we fail the test and prove that we are unworthy of being honored by Him.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, suffered many hardships during his career that must have seemed purposeless and needless, since God had the power to protect him at all times and to ensure the very best for him. For 13 years he and his followers had to suffer under the hands of the pagans of Mecca. Couldn’t have God made this only one year, so that the Prophet and his followers used their time more productively? Couldn’t they have used all these years of suffering better if God had enabled Islam to spread faster? What was the point of the Prophet losing his wife and his main protector in Mecca, his uncle Abu Talib, at a crucial place in his career, greatly weakening him?

What the Prophet was taught with all of these difficulties is that God is a King, and He does as He wishes with His servants. If we have truly submitted, we will accept His decrees, thinking the best of Him and continuing to love Him, praise Him and worship Him, even as we suffer knowing that He can end our suffering.

Know that God has no need of you. You cannot do God any favors. No matter how talented or capable you are, God can always create someone with exactly your talents and abilities in little time. Everything we do for God’s sake is actually a gift from Him, because it is He who taught us, guided us, and sustained us throughout all of these years so that we could do this thing in His name and claim credit for it.

Any good deed you do for God is actually a favor from Him. If you want to be productive, to serve Islam, Muslims and humanity, what you are actually asking is for God to give you the favor of being useful in His cause.

You are asking God for a great favor. Ask yourself if you deserve it. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever, among the workers, wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want the King to give you a great job the ensures you rewards in this life and the afterlife, then you must know that this job is given to those He wishes, and not to everyone. You must purify yourself, rededicate yourself to God, give up all sinful behaviors, and constantly seek His guidance and forgiveness, while remaining patient and thinking the best of Him, and in this way you will be guided to Him step by step, month after month, until you reach a place where He decides to give you a better task in life.

There are no shortcuts if you want to be a sincere and useful servant of God. You must turn yourself into the type of person who deserves God’s honor and favors, and He will give these to you.

God can change your situation in an instant, solving all of your problems, giving you immense knowledge and placing you somewhere where you can be a great and highly admired leader. God will not do this for you, because God does not perform miracles for us. If God did miracles for us, yet we sinned afterwards, this would cause us to deserve the utmost punishment from Him, as happened to Jesus’s apostles:

112. “And when the disciples said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, is your Lord able to bring down for us a feast from heaven?' He said, 'Fear God, if you are believers.'“

113. They said, “We wish to eat from it, so that our hearts may be reassured, and know that you have told us the truth, and be among those who witness it.”

114. Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.”

115. God said, “I will send it down to you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I will punish him with a punishment the like of which I never punish any other being.” (The Quran, verses 5:112-115)

They demanded a miracle from God, and God answered their prayer. But to maintain justice, it is necessary for God to hold these people who see the miracle to extremely stringent standards afterwards. Disobeying God after seeing physical evidence with your own eyes of His power is a far greater sin than disobeying God while He feels hidden from you.

It is out of His mercy that He does not do miracles for us. If He did miracles, this would be a burden that many of us couldn’t carry. On the one hand, it would cheapen our good deeds, because now we’d be doing them while having some proof of God’s existence. On the other hand, it would greatly increase our sinfulness if we disobeyed Him in anything, because we’d be committing sins while having had direct experience of Him.

What God wants, instead, is for us to go through the boring, difficult, numbing experiences of life, so that the good we do can be fully attributed to us, and so that we can be rewarded for our faith and patience. If God intervened directly in our lives, showing Himself and performing miracles, all of these things possibilities would be destroyed.

Accept your situation, knowing that God is fully capable of changing it in an instant. He wants you to be responsible for the change, so that He can reward you for it, instead of He Himself causing the change directly and taking away the chance for you to prove yourself.

Nothing you achieve in this life is going to be of any worth except the record of your deeds. Even if you build the world’s greatest mosque in His name, when the world ends, it will be destroyed and turned into nothing, as if it never existed. If you want to work for Him, then know that results only come through Him, and not through your own efforts. If He allows you to achieve any success in His name, then know that this is a favor from Him, not a favor from you to Him.

This is not to say that nothing we do for Him is of value, saying that He can accomplish anything He wants Himself. It is, rather, to realize that there are two worlds, the world of the seen and the world of the unseen. The unseen world is that which has priority. Nothing you do in the seen world is of value if the unseen part of your world is corrupt. And nothing you do in the unseen world is worthless regardless of your results in the seen world.

Becoming a chosen servant of God

If you want to become the type of servant that God favors by making him or her productive in His cause, then these are the steps you can follow to accomplish this.

1. Clean your slate

Chronic sins in your life will block God’s blessings. You cannot hope to be honored by God if part of your life is in direct contradiction to His teachings. For example, if you have usurious debt (debt upon which you pay interest, such as mortgage, car or credit card debt), then this is going to be a blocker of God’s blessings in your life. If you have cut off your relationship with a family member despite the fact that God commands love and kindness and tolerance toward them, then this will block God’s blessings.

Think of your life and find anything that could be considered a chronic sin, and fix it as soon as you can, doing your utmost to do so. God will not believe you to be sincere in wishing for His forgiveness and love if your life contains sinful parts that are insults toward Him.

The next thing to do is to ask God for His forgiveness for every great and small sin you have ever committed. Do this with every prostration of every one of your formal prayers, and do it after every formal prayer.

Equally important is to not add new sins to your record. Your goal should be to have a pristine record, clear of all sins. You cannot hope to have God’s favors if you are carrying a great burden of sins on your back.

2. Reestablish your connection with God through worship and Quran-reading

Perform tahajjud at night and read Quran between every two units. The Quran is the most important guide in our lives, because it is humanly impossible for us to remain mindful of all of our duties and concerns. Without the Quran, we end up focusing on one thing and ignoring other equally important things. We may think that being kind to our parents, or being charitable, or doing public service, or performing dhikr throughout the day, is the most important thing in life. We invariably edge toward one or a few things and lose our balance. Through daily Quran reading, we are made mindful of every possible mistake and are reminded of the dozens of things that we need to balance in life to be well-rounded and complete believers. There is no one clever maxim or teaching (“subdue the ego!”) that can replace the Quran, nothing can replace it because humans are complicated and life is complicated and to remain on track and to remain connected with God in the best way possible, we need its thousands of verses to help shape our characters and correct our errors.

For more tahajjud please see my essay: Mysticism without Sufism: A Guide to Tahajjud, Islam’s Meditation Practice

Sit down for a few minutes after every formal prayer, supplicating to God for everything you desire. Do this with all of your five prayers.

3. Be patient and do not expect results

Even if you do not see results for months, detach yourself from expecting results, knowing that God is a King, and a King does what He wills with His servants. Submit to His decree. Do your part of worship, seeking forgiveness and avoiding sins, knowing that God will do His part. If you repent, worship Him ardently and constantly pray for His help, yet see no results for a week or two, what do you know, perhaps if you are patient, results will come in a few months, when you are ready for it.

If you feel numb, uncared for and abandoned, then realize that all of us have felt like that at some point in our lives, even the Prophet, who after revealing the first few revelations, stopped receiving revelation for a period of six months to two years, after which these verses were revealed:

1. By the morning light.

2. And the night as it settles.

3. Your Lord did not abandon you, nor did He forget.

4. The Hereafter is better for you than the First.

5. And your Lord will give you, and you will be satisfied.

6. Did He not find you orphaned, and sheltered you?

7. And found you wandering, and guided you?

8. And found you in need, and enriched you?

9. Therefore, do not mistreat the orphan.

10. Nor rebuff the seeker.

11. But proclaim the blessings of your Lord. (The Quran, verses 93:1-8)

4. Read

An important help toward being patient, thinking the best of God and understanding His decrees is to read. Read Ibn al-Jawzi‘s and Ibn al-Qayyim‘s sayings. If you do not speak Arabic, read multiple translations of the Quran, especially Muhammad Abdel-Haleem’s. Read Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet if you haven’t. Read every good Islamic book you can find, especially by modern, mainstream writers.

5. Put your hopes in the afterlife

This world will never live up to your expectations, and nothing you achieve in it will last forever. It is a central spiritual teaching of the Quran to focus more on the hereafter than on the present life, as verse 4 above teaches.

Think of this world as nothing more than a waiting room. You are here for a while, waiting for the door to be opened, behind which there is a beautiful and thriving city where you can finally have peace and freedom from all stress and worry. Arriving at this city must be your goal, you must never be deluded by the cheap counterfeit goods of the worldly life, which almost always cause as much pain as the pleasure they bring.

If you at this moment feel depressed and unable to do anything for the afterlife, then wait patiently, and this in itself is worship. Imagine yourself waiting in that waiting room. Just wait, if you cannot do anything more. Wait, knowing that eventually the door will open. You do not need to do anything more than waiting, God does not burden you with more than you are able.

6. Be easy on yourself

A mistake many of us make is to rededicate ourselves to God for a short period of time, such a during Ramadan, only to burn out, feeling that we can never be the perfect saint that we hope to be.

Never push yourself beyond what you are able to carry at this moment. Continue to enjoy what you enjoy, reading novels, browsing your favorite sites, playing video games, doing whatever (non-sinful) thing you enjoy doing.

Islam does not ask you to give up the pleasures of this world, or to turn yourself into a God-worshiping robot. It asks you reform your life, to remain close to God as much as you are able, and to continue living a normal human life. God does not blame you for enjoying yourself, for taking the time off to go to the park, to listen to music, to do anything you find enjoyable and uplifting.

Be gentle with yourself and increase what you do for God only when you are able. If today you are tired and cannot perform an extra good deed that you performed yesterday, then do not do it.

Pushing yourself too hard can cause your ego to rebel, because it will feel like Islam is an enemy that wants to prevent it from enjoying life. Children and teenagers also feel this way when their parents try to push them too hard to be pious and religious.

Instead, be a gentle and kind master with yourself, respecting your own dignity and giving yourself time to do what you enjoy.

7. Rely on His guidance

Another mistake that people make is losing hope in God’s ability to guide them. They lose hope and think that they are permanently lost, thinking as if God is incapable of reaching into their lives and purifying it again. The truth that Quran teaches us is that God is with us every hour of every day, teaching us, educating us, helping us overcome challenges and grow into better humans.

Some Muslims, especially strict ones, mistakenly think that for a person to acquire guidance, a thousand things have to go exactly perfectly for them. In reality, once a person accepts the Quran as their guide, and sincerely prays to God for guidance, then their guidance is assured. God will take care of arranging for them everything necessary to help them grow and improve. The Quran speaks much of guidance (al-huda), and there would be little point in mentioning this if it was all about a human’s own efforts toward learning about God and Islam. Rather, guidance is largely about God bestowing His favor upon humans, inspiring them and helping them along the way:

God chooses to Himself whom He wills, and He guides to Himself whoever repents. (The Quran, 42:13)

He said, “I am going towards my Lord, and He will guide me.” (The Quran, verse 37:99)

No matter how lost you feel, pray to God for guidance, and He will guide you, in ways you do not expect. He will arrange for you to go through the right experiences, to hear, read and see the right things, to be able to learn and grow and mature. What you must do, above all, is repent and be sincere.

On social anxiety and loneliness

I too do not enjoy social interactions except with people I know really well. This is perfectly normal. It is not a character flaw, it is due to your genes. If you get only four hours of sleep one night, the next day nearly all of your social anxiety will be gone, because the parts of your brain that cause you social anxiety will stop doing their usual thing.

Consider social anxiety just one of life’s annoyances, similar to a person who has an accident and has to limp for the rest of their lives. It is probably never going away completely, although many things can significantly reduce it (such as gaining wealth and status). Accept social anxiety as a part of life and move on. There are people who are blind, be thankful that your problem is not as serious. It will still get in the way of enjoying a life that people would call normal, but it is not more than you can bear.

When you are in a situation where your social anxiety becomes a factor, it is like a person who has a limp being expected to move fast or run. It is not enjoyable and you’d much rather avoid it, but if you think of it as just another physical disability, then you will be able to handle it with few negative emotions. If people constantly expect you to be outgoing and comfortable socially, then the blame is on them for expecting you to act in a way you are not designed to act. Instead of trying to live up to their expectations, trying to act the way their genes make them act, instead of acting the way your genes make you act, be comfortable with yourself, accepting your limitations, finding social enjoyment in the ways you can (instead of in the ways people expect), and having hope that as you grow older, you will learn better ways of dealing with the issue.

If you feel lonely and wish for meaningful social interactions, for example with a loving spouse, then you can pray for this and let God decide when and how you will have it. Loneliness is just one of the many tests of life, and the happiness we desire from ending our loneliness is only something that God can give to us:

42. And that to your Lord is the finality.

43. And that it is He who causes laughter and weeping.

44. And that it is He who gives death and life.

45. And that it is He who created the two kinds—the male and the female.

46. From a sperm drop, when emitted.

47. And that upon Him is the next existence.

48. And that it is He who enriches and impoverishes. (The Quran 53:42-48)

It is best not place your hopes of fulfillment in this life, as already mentioned, and this includes hoping for an end to loneliness. It is better to put our ultimate hope in the afterlife and to serve God as best as we can, expecting favors and blessings only from Him, whenever He decrees these for us.

This is about the spiritual side of things. As for the material side of things, you are free to seek fulfillment, for example by trying to get married. If you take care of the spiritual side, God will give you His help and guidance as you use your intelligence and planning ability to improve your material situation.

Spiritually, seek fulfillment only through God. Wealth, a spouse, family and friends will not bring you fulfillment unless He allows it and makes it possible. In the worldly life, act like any intelligent human, spiritually, act like His servant, knowing that He is the King above all kings.

Also see:

Reconciling Islam and Darwinian Evolution: Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template

Introduction

(Download this essay as a PDF)

This essay demonstrates the relationship between Islam and science/rationality through my effort to reconcile Darwinian evolution with the Quran. I am as much a “Darwinian” as any evolutionary biologist and as much a believer in the literal meaning of the Quran as any conservative Muslim. By showing how these two seemingly clashing worldviews can be reconciled, I hope to clarify many important matters relating to the relationship of Muslims with the modern world and its scientific and rationalist ideals.

How can any rational person believe in religion when there is no proof for it? To put it another way, does not a believer, by the very fact of believing, prove their credulity and irrationality?

The history of religion, including that of Islam, is often thought of as a struggle between “faith” and “reason”; that a Muslim can be as much a rationalist and empiricist as an irreligious person is inadmissible for many. When it comes to a Muslim rationalist, it is assumed that there must always be a “catch”, some laxity of mind or weakness of spirit that makes them inferior rationalists or inferior Muslims. If they are devout, they may wish to be rationalists and empiricists, they may even think they are, but at the end of the day they are merely practicing self-delusion.

To today’s proud secular mind, there is always some sickness or feeble-mindedness hiding beneath faith.

In this essay I will present a form of faithful rationality—inspired by highly futuristic Islamic theological ideas from over 900 years ago—that reconciles faith and reason without there being any “catch”; the world is as rational as any scientist imagines it to be, and as controlled and maintained by God as any mystic imagines it to be. The “Matrix” of the Iranian philosopher and mystic Al-Ghazali (died 1111 CE)—his conceptualization of the universe as something akin to a computer simulation, provides for intellectually honest rationality that in no way places chains on God’s powers, nor does it place chains on science and rationality. One can wholeheartedly believe in the entirety of the Quran in its plainest sense while retaining their independence of mind, skepticism and rationality. This may sound like rather too much for a religious person to claim, but I hope to illustrate it in the first part of this essay.

The essay goes on to use the notion of a “divine template” to reconcile the Quran’s views on creation with the theory of evolution. This notion does not come from ancient Islamic learning; it is my own creation arrived at after years of reading and searching. There is no “catch” here either; the proposed reconciliation will make complete sense to any scientist and any lover of the Quran without requiring either to submit to the other’s authority—once they understand al-Ghazali’s Matrix.

The essay will spend some time building the groundwork for the argument on evolution that follows. Those wishing to only read the part having to do with evolution may go directly to the section “Topology: God’s Template” and read from there.

So-Called “Proofs” of God’s Existence

I do not believe that a proof for God’s existence is possible. Numerous theologians, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, inspired by Aristotle and other philosophers, have proposed theories that they claim prove that God must exist. All such proofs suffer from a fatal weakness recognized by Kant, namely that they assume the logic of this universe extends to what is outside of it

My conscience recognizes the pull of the various “proofs”, but my conscience also recognizes their inherent weakness and rebels against calling them “proofs”. I agree with Roger Scruton when he says:

and while none of them is wholly believable, they serve the useful purpose of showing the rumours of God’s death to be greatly exaggerated.1

I believe there can never be hard evidence that compels all rational people to believe in God. There is, however, a preponderance of soft evidence that, once recognized, experienced and accepted by a person, make it unconscionable for them to reject God. Not all humans necessarily get exposed to sufficient soft evidence to make it unconscionable for them to reject God; this is something about which I do not speculate.

In order for me, as a self-respecting human, to be able to continue believing in my religion, I must be able to re-analyze its founding text (the Quran) at any time of my choosing and reach the same conclusion about it—the same way that any re-analysis of one of Euclid’s proofs should always lead to the same conclusion; that the proof is correct. This should happen despite my increase in knowledge and experience as I age, despite all the secular books I read, including highly enjoyable books by atheists like Terry Pratchett. At age 15 I read the Quran and found it true. At 40 I should be able to read it again and find it true, despite the fact that I will be very much a different person by then. An atheist may imagine that as a faithful person’s intellectual horizons grow wider, it will become increasingly difficult for them to continue believing in their faith. That would be true of a false religion. But if a religion is truly from the Creator and is based on an unadulterated text that transmits His words, then the experience should be quite the opposite. The more one learns about the Creator’s handiwork (this universe and everything in it), the more sense His words should make and the more convincing they should become.

So is Islam really that “one true” religion that all of these highly intelligent and admirable non-Muslims failed to get the memo about? It is not my goal to convince readers of Islam’s supposed truth, but this essay should shed some light on certain misconceptions that have prevented such people from taking Islam’s most important text, the Quran, seriously. I believe that a religion like Christianity is truly from God and that it provides a sufficiently meaningful worldview for a person to believe in it while also believing in a scientific worldview. I do not claim that Islam possess exclusive rights to being a religion that can meet the latest scientific challenges.

My goal is to show that the Quran and the theory of evolution have no difficulties with one another once we give the Quran a reading that is innocent of preconceived notions about a supposed incompatibility. I let the Quran speak for itself, and I write as someone who has read this book dozens of times in the original Arabic, besides studying translations and interpretations of it in Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic and English.

The most important reason preventing Muslims from appreciating the Quran’s compatibility with evolution is that they do not take the Quran very seriously. They treat it as a historical artifact immersed in a vast web of cultural and intellectual assumptions. The book’s meaning is dimmed by so many lenses of bias that the book rarely gets a chance to speak for itself.

The religion of Islam is not based solely on the Quran but also on the far greater literature of hadith which transmits sayings and actions from the time of Islam’s founder. If it is shown that the Quran is compatible with the theory of evolution, this does not necessarily mean that hadith is. This issue will be dealt with later in the essay.

While anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism is common among the religious, it is not true to say that this is a doctrine of the Quran. The Quran speaks of observation and proof in numerous places. Discovering this conflict between the irrationalist tendencies of some Muslims and the seemingly rationalist doctrines of the Quran, I am forced to build my own Islam based on the Quran. It would be a mistake to consider Islam anti-rationality, anti-skepticism, anti-science or anti-evolution merely because many Muslims act as if it is.

The religion of the Quran is founded upon the commandment “Thou shalt question!” The Quran continuously mocks various sections of humanity for not thinking clearly or for believing in superstitions. It also constantly calls its readers to think, to reason, to observe, to analyze, to question. Speaking to those Christians and Jews who claim that only Christians/Jews will enter Paradise, it asks for “proof”.2 Speaking to pagans, it asks them to show a proof for the truth of their deities.3 The question “Will you then not reason?” is used 13 times in the Quran.

The Quran claims to be reasonable, and claims to contain much to convince the ulī l-albāb (“those endowed with intelligence and wisdom”, a phrase that is used nine times in the Quran). In verse 39:21, it says:

Have you not considered how God sends down water from the sky, then He makes it flow into underground wells, then He produces with it plants of various colors, then they wither and you see them yellowing, then He turns them into debris? Surely in this is a reminder for ulī l-albāb.

To a skeptic, it will seem especially ironic that the Quran is calling wise and intelligent people to take its claim seriously that perfectly natural phenomena like rain and the growth of plants are God’s doing. There is nothing special about a book pretending that it is convincing or that reasonable people will agree with it. Most books make just such a claim.

However, as a skeptic who wants to make an accurate judgment about the Quran’s logic, I should find out what I could arrive at if I were to take the book seriously. Let us pretend that the book is what it says it is, that it really is reasonable, that it is from an invisible but all-knowing God, and that it can be found as such by intelligent and wise people, where does this take us?

The Quran claims to contain the unadulterated words of God, claims to contain no errors, and claims to enjoy divine protection against corruption. It logically follows that the presence of a single error proves the entire book false, because it either means that God uttered a falsehood, or that he was incapable of protecting His book from corruption, both of which are equally fatal flaws in an all-powerful, all-knowing God.

The Rain of God

In the Quran, God takes credit for various natural phenomena that all have scientific explanations, as in the aforementioned verse 39:21. More of these instances are:

God is He who sends the winds. They stir up clouds. Then He spreads them in the sky as He wills. And He breaks them apart. Then you see rain drops issuing from their midst. Then, when He makes it fall upon whom He wills of His servants, behold, they rejoice.4

It is He who sends the wind ahead of His mercy. Then, when they have gathered up heavy clouds, We drive them to a dead land, where We make water come down, and with it We bring out all kinds of fruits. Thus We bring out the dead—perhaps you will reflect.5

Have you not seen how God propels the clouds, then brings them together, then piles them into a heap, and you see rain drops emerging from its midst? How He brings down loads of hail from the sky, striking with it whomever He wills, and diverting it from whomever He wills? The flash of its lightning almost snatches the sight away.6

We, as rational humans, are supposed to believe that God is responsible for the things described above even though we never see God taking care of these things. Since we never see God’s hand in these matters, it would be right to think that perhaps the universe would go on functioning like normal even if there was no God. We can carry out experiments inside sealed chambers where we can make it rain or snow, what does God have to do with any of this?

Imagine a king giving a speech in a newly conquered city, telling the listeners “I bring you food, so be thankful!” A skeptical person may go to the gates of the city early in the morning to see who it is who actually brings food. Since he never sees the king himself carrying sacks of flour into the city, he concludes that the king lied.

His mistake is that he fails to realize that it is by the king’s order that people are bringing food to his city, so when the king says he is doing it, he is right. If it was not for the king, it would not be happening.

When God claims to make it rain, the fact that His hand cannot be detected in the process does not necessarily mean he is lying. If we are to really find out whether God’s claim is true, we have to investigate further. If the pharaoh of Egypt claims that he makes the sun rise, I would be skeptical and ask him to provide some very convincing evidence before I take him seriously. In all likelihood the sun would rise even if the pharaoh were to die.

So what is so special about a 14-centuries-old book out of the deserts of Arabia7 that I should take it seriously when it says its writer makes it rain?

Hard and Soft Evidence

Atheists demand hard evidence before they believe in books like the Quran. But such evidence is not forthcoming. The Quran itself promises that it will not be forthcoming:

Are they waiting for anything but for the angels to come to them, or for your Lord to arrive, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? On the Day when some of your Lord’s signs come (i.e. when hard evidence for God’s existence is seen), no soul will benefit from its faith unless it had believed previously, or had earned goodness through its faith. Say, “Wait, we too are waiting.”8

The above concept is repeated in multiple places in the Quran; that once a person has seen irrefutable evidence for God’s existence their faith will no longer be of any worth—since faith will no longer be necessary.

Seeing hard evidence for God’s existence places a terrible burden on humans. This is expressed in one of the most terrifying verses of the Quran in the story of Jesus and the Apostles:

And when the disciples said, “O Jesus son of Mary, is your Lord able to bring down for us a feast from heaven?” He said, “Fear God, if you are believers.”

They said, “We wish to eat from it, so that our hearts may be reassured, and know that you have told us the truth, and be among those who witness it.”

Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.”

God said, “I will send it down to you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I will punish him with a punishment the like of which I never punish any other being.”9

In the final verse above, the writer of the Quran claims that once the Apostles (and others present) see empirical evidence for God’s existence, this changes the very nature of their relationship with Him. They made a request and God physically revealed Himself to them by responding. If they were to deny God’s existence after that, they would deserve a singularly terrible punishment.

The purpose of this universe, in the Quranic view, is to host free-willed creatures who have the option of rejecting God’s existence–so that an act of will and a submission of the heart is needed for them to become believers in Him, and for this act of will, which they have to repeat every day of their faithful lives, they will be rewarded with Paradise. If God’s existence were ever proven, and the world did not end, this would prove the Quran false, since the Quran claims that hard evidence for God’s existence will only be shown to humanity when the world ends.

Are they waiting for God Himself to come to them in the shadows of the clouds, together with the angels, when the matter has been settled? All things are returned to God.10

Once God’s existence is empirically shown, the “matter” will be “settled”, that will be the end of the age-old argument between theism and atheism. Hard evidence would settle the matter; the point of faith is to believe in God without it. This naturally leads to the thinking that religion asks humans to abandon rationality for the sake of faith. But the truth is otherwise, since there is a second category of evidence that is ignored by atheists: soft evidence.

A verse of the Quran is called an āya in Arabic, which literally means “sign”, something on the road that points toward a direction. As for its figurative meaning, the Indian Islamic scholar Hamiduddin Farahi (1863-1930) says in his definition of āya:

That which is used as evidence toward (proving) some matter. It is not the whole of the proof, but it directs you toward the proof.11

Each verse of the Quran acts as a truth-pointer. A skeptic can read many of its verses without reaching any conclusion about the book’s truth or falsehood. Open a book of Quran and you will see these verses at its beginning:

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.

The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Master of the Day of Judgment.

It is You we worship, and upon You we call for help.

Guide us to the straight path.

The path of those You have blessed, not of those against whom there is anger, nor of those who are misguided.

These verses do not contain anything to launch a critique on. God is the Lord of the Worlds, he is gracious and merciful, and he is the master of the Day of Judgment. These claims are unassailable, since they do not make any scientifically testable claims. The verses might as well be saying that the universe is carried on the back of a giant turtle; we have no way of verifying their claims.

However, if the skeptic goes on to read, one thing they will find striking will be the absence of nonsense. How likely is it that a man out of 7th century Arabia could have written a page of cosmological fiction without it containing anything that insults one’s intelligence in the 21st century?

Going on to read page after page, the skeptic’s conscience is seriously challenged. Can he in good conscience say this is human-written fiction? Personally when I read the Quran with a skeptical eye, assuming it was written by Muhammad himself, I cannot maintain my skepticism beyond a few pages without feeling like a criminal, like I am acting against my conscience. At page 5, already impressed with the lack of anything that is obviously false or ridiculous, I may admit that there is a 1% chance that this is from God, but my skepticism makes me continue to say that Muhammad may have simply been a genius, therefore I say that it is still 99% likely that a human wrote it. The rational assumption is that any piece of text you see is human-created, extraordinary evidence is needed to prove otherwise.

At page 10, however, I am further impressed with the Quran’s quality; its way of thinking, its morality and ethics, its continued lack of nonsense, therefore I may end up saying that there is a 98% chance it is  human-written and a 2% it is not. By page 300 my conscience may force me to admit that there is a 30% chance that it is from God. By page 600 (the end of the book), I may conclude that there is a 50% chance that it is from God.

I will have many difficulties with the book, such as its taking credit for natural phenomena, but the book, its form and content, make it impossible for me to casually dismiss it. The Quran, for one who reads it with naïve eyes in the original Arabic, is a serious problem that must be addressed if one is to remain honest with himself or herself. If the Quran is true, I must do as it says. I cannot summarily dismiss it, since I have acknowledged that there is a 50% chance it is from God. Therefore the Quran throws me into serious intellectual turmoil; I can neither dismiss it nor accept it…yet.

There are converts to Islam who reached this stage then remained there for years, unsure whether it would be right to make the jump into faith, yet unable to forget the Quran and go on as before. A Scottish man described his personal journey to Islam thus:

The Qur’an really shook me. It’s quite a scary book to read because it tells you so much about yourself. Some things that I found out about myself I didn’t like. So I decided to make some changes.

And I knew what the end result of this process would be: I would be a Muslim.

So I kept on reading. I read it three times, looking for the catch. But there was no catch; I was quite comfortable with everything.12

“I was quite comfortable with everything” is more than I can say (it took me many years to fully justify the entire book to myself). The article led to over 800 comments in which the writer was severely attacked by his fellow citizens for buying into this barbaric religion. Personally, until recently, I have never been completely comfortable with the Quran, in that there were certain things in it that I couldn’t fully justify to myself. Despite those points of discomfort, the rest of the book was a tremendous, non-dismissible challenge to me.

At some point, the evidence starts to feel overwhelming that the likelihood of the truth of the Quran is greater than the likelihood of its falsehood. Once that happens, once a person believes that there is more than a 50% chance that the Quran is truly from God, he or she starts to feel that it is something tantamount to a crime against conscience and rationality to reject the book or ignore it. And that is where faith and submission begin.

The reason I believe in the Quran is the same reason so many scientists in the late 19th and early 20th century believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution despite never actually observing evolution take place. They both get too many things right, which makes it impossible to casually dismiss them in good conscience.

For the Quran, I can list a few of those things, although each verse of the Quran can be thought of as one of those “things” that makes me believe in it.

  • The aesthetic experience of the Quran. It is not without reason that the Quran’s literal meaning is “The Recitation”. The Quran is meant to be experienced as a recited thing, and for a person who speaks Arabic and experiences a good recitation of it, the Quran compels them to pay attention to it and to take it seriously, like any great work of art. The opening verse of Mary (chapter 19) starts with a set of seemingly meaningless sounds: “Taa haa yaa ain saad.” In an English translation these look like a bunch of strange and possibly unnecessary sounds. In a good Arabic recitation, however, they are a very compelling set of tones that tell the listener that a very serious symphony is about to start. They transport the listener into the atmosphere of the Temple in Jerusalem in which the story unfolds. It is not only rational arguments that have a “rightness” to them; aesthetic experiences also have rightness (the architecture of a beautiful church looks “right”, while a badly designed one looks “wrong”). There is something deeply “right” about the Quran when experienced. While the aesthetics of the Quran do not prove that it is from God, they cast very strong doubt on the possibility of a human having composed it. The soul or conscience wishes it to be from God. If it was filled with absurd nonsense, we as rational beings could dismiss the conscience’s desire. But there is nothing in it to insult the rational mind; rather, it contains much that satisfies it too.
  • The Quran’s  zero-tolerance policy toward the charging of interest (also the Bible’s policy according to a minority of Christians). The evils of usury are long-term and require deep and lengthy analysis to bring them to the surface, so much so that today perhaps one among a thousand economists cannot be found who appreciates how it leads to an unsustainable economic system where an over-class of usurers (lenders, i.e. the banks) slowly take control of the economy, as has happened in the United States and Europe.
  • The fact that the Quran bans gambling. Without this ban, usury could be practiced in a different guise.
  • The zakat system, in which the poor charge an annual 2.5% interest on the uninvested and speculatively invested wealth of the rich (this system would be useless without banning usury, it takes a genius to plug that loophole, and the Quran does it).
  • The fact that in 600 pages written in the 7th century CE, it does not contain a single statement that is provably false, or that contradicts another part of itself. This is a highly unlikely achievement for a human writer, especially one from so far back in the past.
  • The moral philosophy of the Quran, where moral integrity and justice are always paramount. Killing a single innocent human is similar to killing all of humanity, which means that there can never be such a thing as a utilitarian murder. The end never justifies the means. No evil done in the name of the greater good is justified.
  • The writer is always superior to me. I have never had a similar experience with any other writer. As I grow intellectually, I am made better capable of critiquing the thinking of others. The Quran has survived this process.
  • The Quran’s non-Arabian character and the unusual restraint of the writer in not engaging in the typical rhetoric of the time. This is perhaps the greatest clue to its truth. Someone who studies Arabic poetry from that period and the fabricated words of revelation of Musailamah and other “false prophets” will see that while all of the literary speech from that era has a distinctly Arabian character, full of hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, tribalism and bad logic, the Quran does not. The Quran was brought to us by an Arab from the heart of Arabia, yet it does not have an Arabian character.
  • The fact that the Quran points out various mistakes of Prophet Muhammad. It severely rebukes him for ignoring a blind man who came to him for guidance (chapter 80), cautions him not to repeat the offense of taking prisoners when he was not supposed to (8:67-68), and criticizes him for accepting the excuses of a certain group of Medinans not to join a certain battle (9:43). While he could have invented these verses as an all-too-clever device to convince skeptics that the Quran came from a higher power, they do lend soft support to the Quran’s own theory of itself, that it is a message given to the Prophet, rather than something invented by him. It shows far too much imagination for that time for a prophet to criticize himself in such a severe manner.

The aesthetic experience of the Quran and its contents both strongly support its own theory of itself (that it is a book from God). A person who rejects the Quran after experiencing it aesthetically and recognizing the unlikelihood of a random man from Arabia composing it is committing something that is both unconscionable and irrational: unconscionable because they are repressing their conscience’s response to the aesthetic pull of the book, irrational because they are acting against probability theory. The rational mind, once it experiences the Quran aesthetically and affirms the plausibility of its contents, recognizes that the likelihood of it being from God is greater than the likelihood of it being a man-made work by an uneducated and illiterate Arab. For such a person to dismiss the Quran is as irrational as dismissing the news that a great storm will affect the area they live in in an hour despite dozens of data points all pointing to the likelihood of such a thing taking place.

The above are not the reasons why I believe in God. They are the reasons why I believe that the Quran is from God. As for my belief in God, I consider it extremely likely that all humans already half believe in God, in some sacred and transcendent person whose eyes are on them at all times. The Quran is a vehicle for strengthening my belief in God, but it is not the only vehicle, and it is not necessarily the strongest one. For me, it feels as if to merely exist, to merely be a self-conscious subject who looks out onto the world, is a very compelling force pointing to God’s existence, making it nothing short of criminal for me to deny Him.

Describing why I believe in the Quran feels similar to describing why I am in love with someone. I can mention a few obviously good qualities of the beloved, but every reason given for this love cannot help but feel weak and absurd, since it does not capture the real thing.

If the Quran is so compelling, one may wonder how there can be Arabic-speaking atheists who read the Quran and reject it. The reason, I would say, is that due to the lack of hard evidence, there is always room for doubt. Accepting the truth of the Quran feels like a “jump” for those who have not accepted it yet. One cannot easily dismiss the Quran in good conscience, but one is not compelled to accept it either. A person’s biases may also strongly affect the amount of charity they give to the text; the Quran mentions that God has beautified the sky with “lamps”. A person who is predisposed to think very negatively of the Quran will see in such a statement a proof for the superstitious and unscientific nature of the Quran, while Muslims will see it as a poetic reference to the stars.

We can now discuss the topic of rain. God could claim credit for making it rain for three reasons:

1. Purposeful invention

God designed and built a universe in which rain happens, for the very purpose of having it be a help toward the evolution and sustenance of the creatures that would one day come about on Earth.

2. Operating the universe

Let us imagine that the universe is a simulation sustained by God, what I call al-Ghazali’s “Matrix”. The word Matrix is a reference to the popular film of the same name, in which the characters famously live inside a simulated universe. The Matrix theory enabled al-Ghazali to free God from the chains that previous philosophers had tried to impose on Him. Islam’s earlier philosophical movements, inspired by Greek thought, were stuck within the Aristotelian paradigm of considering the universe all that there is, and thinking that God would have to follow the same rules and logic seen elsewhere within our reality.

Al-Ghazali, who was developing lines of reasoning started centuries before, was able to think “outside the box” of this universe, recognizing that there was no obvious reason why God should be stuck following the same rules as everyone else if he was truly transcendent and all-powerful. In his view, this universe is like a simulation maintained by God from the outside, who is under no obligation to follow the rules internal to the simulation. When a tree catches fire, it is not because matter decided that catching fire was a good idea at that instance of time, but because God changed the universe. Explaining this concept would have been extremely difficult in the past, but today, thanks to video games, we have a ready-made illustration. Inside a video game, if you see a tree catching fire, it is not because the atoms and molecules of the tree came in contact with a hot object that lit them. We know it is a fake, imaginary tree, and that the reason it caught fire was because the computer that runs the video game knows that when a hot object touches the tree, a fire should start. If you are stuck inside a video game, you “know” that when hot objects touch trees, the trees catch fire, and you may see this as a simple rule of nature that any scientist can verify. But if you come out of the video game, you realize that the whole thing is a set-up; the things you considered rules of nature are actually computer instructions that can be changed by a video game designer. He can change the code so that when a hot object touches a tree, it no longer catches fire.

Al-Ghazali was answering the challenge of the philosophers who, like most atheists, were incapable of thinking in the “fifth” dimension (in and out of the universe), and who could see no way of reconciling the attributes of God as taught by religion with their ideas about nature, so that they were forced to say that God had to follow certain rules dictated by nature. These philosophers could only think in the four dimensions of space and time. Al-Ghazali added a new dimension; the inside and the outside of the universe, and through a few simple examples showed that there is no conflict between nature and God. Nature is to God as the simulated world inside a video game is to the computer that runs it.

According to this theory, this universe would be a blob of inert, unmoving matter if God stopped animating it. If this theory is true (and there is no evidence that it is false), then saying that the universe would continue existing or operating normally even if there was no God would be similar to saying that the world inside a computer video game would continue to be there even if you take away the computer. It is to be so enamored by an illusion as to deny its source.

An atom, according to the Matrix theory, has no power or will to exist or move. It is God who has to sustain the existence of everything in this world and cause them to move when. This means that in the case of rain, God has to cause steam to rise, He has to make it go where it is supposed to go in the sky, He has to bring it together into clouds, and then He has to take it to where it will eventually become rain.

He does all of these things so reliably, that we start to think of them as “natural” phenomena that just happen without needing something to make them happen. But this universe, if God decided to “let it go”, would disappear as if it had never existed, similar to turning off a computer: “God upholds the heavens and the earth, lest they cease (to exist). And were they to cease, there is none to uphold them except He. He is Most Clement, Most Forgiving.”13

3. Intervention.

While the above two points admit for the possibility of God being responsible for the phenomenon of rain in general (the way that a computer is responsible for the rain that happens inside a video game), we need something more. God seems to claim that He purposefully sends rain here and there (especially in verse 24:43 quoted above), in directions He wants, meaning not necessarily directions that only obey the laws of nature (even if the laws nature are of his own making). God seems to claim that his agency goes into deciding when and where rain happens—that it is not mere chance caused by the laws of nature. The way that God could make this happen is by making it happen regardless of the laws of nature, because he has the power to do that.

This, of course, would be impossible to detect, according to his plan, since God does not want the discovery of hard evidence for his existence. Even if we could build a machine that perfectly predicted rain around the world, so that any aberrations caused by God’s decisions could be seen, God could change what the machine shows.

Saying that God intentionally makes it rain here and there is to claim a miracle happens, since one is saying this rain is happening due to a supernatural phenomenon (God), not due to a natural, scientifically explicable phenomenon. To prove a miracle, an equally miraculous piece of evidence is needed. For those who have experienced the Quran and accepted it, the Quran is sufficient evidence, although the evidence is not hard, in that there is room for doubt that has to be bridged by the conscience every day. Experiencing doubt is quite natural for a believer. When this happens, they go back to the things that convinced them their beliefs are true, such as the Quran, examine them again until both their rational minds and their conscience are overwhelmed with the recognition of their truth.

The Quran claims that God, who is in charge of this simulation-like universe, is personally responsible for rain. This is similar to saying that the computer that runs the Matrix decides when it should rain and what rain should be like (while someone stuck inside the Matrix might say rain happens due to perfectly “natural” laws of the universe).

In other words, if it is true that this universe is a simulation operated by God, then it logically follows that God could take credit for making it rain.

By being outside the simulation, God, if he really exists, can make it rain while making his own role in the matter undetectable. Therefore the fact that rain can be explained scientifically does not tell us anything about God’s role in the matter; what we call “science” is nothing but a description of how God operates the universe.

The above does not prove that religion correct in its claims regarding God’s role in nature. It, however, shows that the existence of a conflict between religion and science in this matter is illusory; we can be rational scientists inside the universe, while believing that outside the universe God is operating things, similar to being in the Matrix while acknowledging how it is run from the outside. We fully support scientific explanations, and we will not bother non-believers with supernatural explanations, since that requires that they believe in God in the first place. Since they do not, there is no point in telling them about God’s potential role in undetectably making it rain in certain times and places.

A skeptic could rightly say that saying God is undetectably involved in making it rain is like saying invisible magical fairies make it rain. The reply is that yes, it is just like that. But in our case, we have extraordinary evidence to support our thinking; the Quran with its preponderance of soft evidence in its favor, while a person who claims that invisible magical fairies make it rain has no evidence, soft or hard.

A Muslim scientist can study the weather as a purely natural system, while also believing in God’s power to direct it as He wills, so that they can thank God when a tornado avoids their neighborhood. This is like thanking the Matrix operator for letting you have an easy time of it inside the Matrix. And when thanking God for getting the job you wanted, you do not claim that your getting the job does not have a scientific explanation—you merely admit that there is sufficient room for undetectable divine action within this universe, so that God could have made the crucial difference in whether you got the job or not while keeping Himself hidden in the matter. From a scientific point of view, this is an entirely useless point of view; whether it is true or false makes no difference to science. And that is the point; we are merely claiming that thanking God for getting a job is not irrational if one believes in God, since it is just like thanking the Matrix operator for arranging things smoothly for us inside the Matrix. One can thank God for every great and small blessing in their lives while treating the world as a perfectly scientific system; God is ever-present and ever-undetectable at the same time. One never knows if God did not make the crucial difference when something, anything, happened or did not happen.

When I write of the lack of incompatibility between the Quran’s theology and science I do not mean that we should bother non-believers with such topics; we should only do so if they bring it up by saying or implying that this or that scientific fact or technical discovery somehow exposes the existence of shaky foundations within religion. What they say is provably false if we imagine the universe as a simulation that operates rationally inside while being divinely operated from the outside. An atheist might say: (1) science explains rain perfectly (2) therefore it is false to claim that God makes it rain.

What we say is: (1) science explains rain perfectly (2) if God exists, He could be in charge of a Matrix in which He makes it rain according to scientific principles (3) therefore the matter at issue here is not rain, but (a) whether God exists or not and (b) whether this universe is like a Matrix or not.

There is no proof that God does not exist, and there is no proof that this universe is not like a Matrix, therefore any claim that scientific explanations contradict God’s existence are automatically and always false. An atheist who wants to convince me that God does not exist is completely wasting his time if he talks about scientific explanations, since I too believe in all of that. To stop wasting his time, he will have to do one of these three things:

  1. Prove to me that God does not exist.
  2. Prove that the soft evidence I rely on for having faith in God (the Quran) is false.
  3. Prove to me that this universe could not possibly be a Matrix.

Atheists have so far failed to provide any of the above proofs. They continue to waste their time propounding science as a cure for religion, not realizing that al-Ghazali made that whole line of argument irrelevant nine centuries ago through his discovery of the “fifth dimension”.

Another phenomenon for which God claims direct agency is the formulation of the genetic makeup of humans during conception:

It is He who forms you in the wombs as He wills. There is no god except He, the Almighty, the Wise.14

When a father and a mother’s genes recombine, there are 64 trillion different possible combinations that could be created.15 God claims to have a hand in choosing which combination ends up actually taking place. Again, God can claim responsibility for forming our genes in the womb through the three methods mentioned earlier: Purposeful invention, operating the universe and intervening when he wants. Similar to weather events, the process of genetic recombination is so immensely complex and chaotic that God does not need to do anything to hide his hand in the matter; his interventions would be easily explainable as mere randomness, which is as it should be.

In verse 67:3 of the Quran, the writer appears to take pride in the lack of “glitches” in this Matrix:

He who created seven heavens in layers. You see no discrepancy in the creation of the Compassionate. Look again. Can you see any cracks?

In effect, the Quran tells us that God exists, but that we should be scientists in our dealings with nature: any glitches in the simulation (any supernatural phenomena pointing to him) would be hard evidence of his existence, but he says there will never be hard evidence for his existence until the end times, therefore if we detect anything provably supernatural and the world does not end, that in itself could be considered a refutation of the Quran.

The doctrine of considering the universe a simulation-like thing controlled by God is known as occasionalism. It has been unjustly criticized for promoting an anti-science and irrationalist attitude, since it teaches that things only appear to be following scientific rules when in reality they are following God’s commands. But this criticism focuses on a small area of Islamic thought and ignores its wider context. The Quran teaches that the universe is a simulation-like thing so that the laws of nature are merely byproducts of God’s choices, it also teaches that we should act rationally and expect the universe to act rationally too: for example, it tells us that if we give away too much in charity we will get poor, which as any materialist will tell you, is a true fact of nature. Occasionalism only promotes irrationality if it is surgically removed from the rest of the Quran’s teachings. The historian and Islamic scholar Ibn al-Jawzi (died 1200 CE), although not a very original thinker, uses the Quran’s rationalist advice (such as that of the necessity of preparing provision for long journeys) to criticize certain lines of Sufi thought that taught that God would save and take care of His true believers without regard for the material reality around them.16 Some of them, for example, desisted from work thinking that God would provide for them regardless of the laws of economics.  That is irrationalist because it expects God to materially intervene in this universe to take care of certain humans, which is opposed to what the Quran teaches. The Quran teaches us not to waste money (17:26), not to do physical harm to ourselves (2:195), to break our fasts if we are ill (2:184), and to perform the Hajj pilgrimage only if we have the material means to perform it (3:97) rather than setting out come what may. The Quran does not teach its believers to march into fires for the greater glory of God. It teaches them to view this world as a Matrix controlled by God, a Matrix that has rational rules that must be respected.

There is, of course, historical evidence of some Muslims acting irrationally (although the Western imagination often greatly exaggerates this as any good Western historian of Islam can tell you), but what Muslims do within their limited historical and cultural perspectives does not necessarily have a one-to-one relationship with the Quran’s teachings, therefore we should look at the Quran itself to see what it says.

Like any scientist, I never expect to detect anything supernatural in this world. Like any mystic, I believe my life and the rest of this universe is entirely under God’s control and command. My attitude is that of the mystic-scientist; not the crackpot who thinks quantum theory proves the healing power of crystals, but the scientist who considers science, hard, rational science, to be merely a way of looking at God and His works. From this standpoint I have no desire to deny science—this would be denying an aspect of God’s handiwork. And I am not ashamed to pray to God and ask Him for His help and support because I know that He can do anything He wants (as the Quran teaches), that He answers prayers (as the Quran teaches), while also expecting this world to continue operating under clearly-defined rational rules (as the Quran teaches).

In short, the Quran teaches that God is present but hidden. It does not tell me to expect nature to work one way today and a different way tomorrow; it teaches me to expect nature to act rationally, and it teaches me that if God intervenes in my life, it will be done undetectably, through means that always have rational explanations. I will never argue with an atheist about whether it was God or the surgeon who saved my life after an accident, because both views are true at the same time, and there is no point in bothering the unspiritual about God’s role in this world. From this side of the wall that separates us from the Unseen, it was the surgeon, from the other side, it was God. This is not to discount the surgeon’s role; maybe it was their years of determination and hard work that enabled them to accomplish their task. This simulation is a system controlled by God, but humans—who have free will—are plugged into it and make changes to it, again, similar to the Matrix film. We can be credited with our choices since we have free will, but we have no power to make the Matrix behave one way or another. We choose, God changes the Matrix in response and does it so reliably that we get the illusion that we are really in charge of our bodies and can make changes to the universe. This is similar to being stuck inside a video game and thinking you can fly because the video game allows you to. In reality, it is the video game that gives you all the powers you enjoy.

Yet another place where God claims direct responsibility for physical phenomena is in his providing sustenance to humans:

Or, who originates the creation and then repeats it, and who gives you livelihood from the sky and the earth? Is there another god with God? Say, “Produce your evidence, if you are truthful.”17

And whosoever fears God, He will create for him a way out. And He will provide him with sustenance from where he does not expect.18

The second verse above implies that God has a direct hand in providing sustenance, because he says that if we fear him, then he will provide. This is a central concept of the God-human relationship, repeated often in the Bible and the Quran. For example, in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, God informs us:

10 If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.19

In the Quran, Moses says:

“And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you give thanks, I will grant you increase; but if you are ungrateful, My punishment is severe.’”20

If God did not intervene directly in the affairs of humans, there would be no way for this contractual relationship to be maintained. If we fear God, God will provide for us. We act, God reacts by arranging the events inside the Matrix favorably for us. For God to react, He has to intervene directly, but undetectably, in our universe. Once we think of the universe as a divine simulation, then intervention will be nothing out of the ordinary. Every movement of an atom is itself a divine decision; it would not happen without God making it happen. An intervention is merely a different decision where God, instead of operating the universe according to the laws of nature that he has laid down, he operates the universe in a certain time and place according to different laws that operate on a higher plane and override the laws of nature, such as the divine law of rewarding thankfulness.

A family may live in a house that is in danger of collapsing. If nature were to take its course, the house would suddenly collapse without warning. But God can intervene, causing unsettling creaking noises to come from the house’s structure for a few days before the collapse—giving the family ample warning and preparation time for responding to the problem. It would be foolish for a believer to expect God to warn them of every threat, and I have never met an intelligent Muslim who thinks thus. But as a spiritual person, I thank God daily for all the problems He has helped me avoid or solved for me.21

Topology: God’s Template

The theory of evolution seems to claim that the creatures on Earth could have come about regardless of God. The religious think it is a God versus nature problem. This mistake is also made by atheist scientists who think that finding a scientific explanation for natural phenomena disproves God’s role. As the previous discussion showed, according to the Quranic worldview, scientific explanations are merely man-made descriptions of the way God operates the universe. Therefore the existence of scientific explanations is not merely a non-problem for religion, it is required by it. The Quran teaches that God will keep Himself hidden, therefore all that we see around us should be so natural and rational that atheists should always have the choice of remaining atheists. Humans must forever maintain the choice between faith and disbelief. The universe provides many signs that point toward God, and the various “proofs” of God’s existence strongly suggest the need for the type of God they describe, but there is always a place for doubt.

Topology refers to the physical configuration of the universe; the physical constants that govern the universe (such as the speed of light), the placement and chemical composition of the galaxies, stars and planets, and the placement of the continents, mountains, rivers and oceans on Earth.

You are probably familiar with the concept of a topographical map. This is a type of map that shows which areas have high elevation and which areas have low elevation. A country’s topography refers to those features of the country’s land that show up on a topographical map. We can say a country has a “rugged topography” if it has many hilly and mountainous areas and few areas of flat planes.

Topology, on the other hand, in the specific usage of this essay, goes beyond topography to account for the entirety of the physical configuration of an area of space. We can say this galaxy has a different topology from that one, which could mean that the arrangement of their respective stars and planets are very different. We can also say that this universe has a different topology from another universe, meaning that this universe has different physical constants, chemical compositions, and/or galactic arrangements compared to the other universe.

Topography is 3-dimensional; a topographical map extends a 2-dimensional map by adding elevation, making it 3-dimensional. On the other hand, topology is n-dimensional; it has as many or as few dimensions as one cares to name. A topological map of a galaxy could account for its 3-d appearance like a topographical map while adding temperature, the strength of gravity, the velocity of its spirals, and so on and so forth, adding as many additional factors into it as one wants. Each additional factor we add is a new “dimension”.

Topology is critical to evolution. No evolution can take place unless the topology of the universe and the relevant planet is just right for it. Very minor differences in the universe’s topology would have made life impossible to exist (if the gravitational constant had been just a tiny bit larger or smaller, for example). Very minor differences in the topology of the earth would have led to the evolution of extremely different creatures than the ones we have now, and could have made the existence of humans impossible.

Imagine if the earth was entirely an ocean planet. On such a planet, there would be no way for land animals to evolve, and therefore there would be no humans. The number of all species that would evolve on such a planet would likely be far fewer than the 8.7 million species we have on the earth today.

The design of a planet is crucial to the types of creatures that evolve on it. And it follows that if you could design a planet with the right topology, you can create any type of creature you want. And perhaps it is for this reason that God says:

Certainly the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of humanity, but most people do not know.22

27. Are you more difficult to create, or the sky? He constructed it. 28. He raised its masses, and proportioned it. 29. And He dimmed its night, and brought out its daylight. 30. And the earth after that He spread. 31. And from it, He produced its water and its pasture. 32. And the mountains, He anchored. 33. A provision for you and for your animals.23

God might be saying that the fact that he designed our universe’s topology is a greater accomplishment than the fact that he created humans. This would make a lot of sense if the existence of humanity was nothing more than a byproduct of the universe’s design. When God created the universe, He did not merely create a lifeless system of stars and planets. He created a universe in whose design was embedded the program that would ultimately lead to the existence of 8.7 million species, including humans.

Topology–the way the universe is configured–is a template that God uses for creating creatures.

Imagine if Earth lacked mountains and rivers. Could humans or human-like creatures evolve on such a planet? It is unlikely, perhaps impossible. The design of the planet and the universe in which it exists decides what types of creatures can evolve on that planet, meaning that the designer of the universe can be fully credited with the creation of all the creatures that exist inside that universe if the designer had the creation of those creatures in mind to begin with.

To create apes, God can either create apes from a puff of smoke, or he can create a universe in which apes can evolve after billions of years. From his perspective, the two things are equally easy. It is just that the second choice enables him to ultimately create humans who have the choice of denying his existence. It allows him to retain his plausible deniability. The issue of human evolution is more complicated than the issue of the evolution of other creatures and will be dealt with specifically later on.

Through the Quran’s consistent references to mountains, rivers, seas and the design of the earth and the “sky”, God explains the topological design of the universe in detail and says that this is of greater importance than the creation of humans, because he is in effect describing the template or the intelligently designed factory that led to the existence of humans.

By considering the universe’s topology a template created by God, we can credit him with creating all of the creatures on the earth without having to deny evolution. At the Big Bang, God created the universe with the exact conditions required to create life on one of the planets inside it billions of years later.

Dynamic-Kinetic Equilibrium

How can non-living matter lead to the complex biological machines that exist in all kinds of creatures? Does this not go against the idea of entropy—that the universe continues to break down and become simpler over time?

It is possible if we provide (1) energy sources and (2) complexity-inducing topologies, leading to what can be called a dynamic-kinetic equilibrium, in which matter stays in a state of heightened complexity as long as certain conditions around it continue to apply.24

Both of these conditions come true on Earth, where energy is available in the form of sunlight, geothermal energy and tides, and where the topology of the earth and the universe in which it is contained create an environment in which life can not only originate, but diversify by finding niche after niche in which it can survive.

The origination of life requires that dead matter somehow join together and increase in complexity. This is somewhat like expecting a pile of rocks to join together and walk up a hill. The difference is that in the world of atoms and molecules, things join together and increase in complexity all the time, as can be seen in the highly complex organic compounds found inside meteors.25

All that’s needed is the right mixture, and usually a source of energy, and from this, extremely complex molecules can evolve. This is a fact of chemistry.

The question is: just how complex can these natural structures become? Someone who denies abiogenesis (the origination of life from non-living matter) would say that there is no way that the complexity of these randomly formed molecules could increase to the degree seen in living things. This would mean that life could never evolve from non-living matter.

But someone with sufficient imagination would see that it might be possible given a large enough test chamber, ample building blocks of life, water, energy and hundreds of millions of years, and most importantly, a designer who put all of these together in just the right way to create life.

The chances of life happening by random are so small that they tend to zero. But if there is a designer who created the right universe for life to come into existence in it, then the origination of life would no longer be random, it would very much be planned. Therefore believers can acknowledge the possibility of abiogenesis without supporting the idea that life came about randomly. We instead can say that life came about because the designer got all the conditions right at the beginning of the universe.

Physicists say that if the Big Bang had taken place the merest fraction of a second slower or faster, the galaxies couldn’t have formed, and humanity wouldn’t have existed.26 To create humanity, what God had to do was get the conditions of the Big Bang exactly right, and 13.8 billion years later human-like creatures came into existence on one of the planets inside the universe created by the Big Bang.

The timescales involved in this, and the amount of intelligent design necessary, make it very difficult for people to imagine this actually taking place; that is, imagining God creating humans in such a complex and roundabout way.

But if you imagine the whole process taking just one second, it becomes easier to believe. Imagine a god who is holding a blob of matter in his hands. He parts his hands, the blob expands with it, and in just that second, you see a planet inside that blob of matter on which certain creatures live. Should a god not have such power? And can such a god not claim responsibility for the existence of those creatures if the nature of the blob of matter and the way he expanded it is all that lead to the existence of those creatures, and if the way he did this was intentional, with the aim of creating those creatures?

Do the disbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were one mass, and We tore them apart? And We made from water every living thing. Will they not believe?27

We constructed the universe with [our] capability, and We are expanding it.28

The Islamic version of intelligent design (the phrase Christians use to refer to God designing humans and other creatures) can be called topological programming. When you want to create a creature or group of creatures, all that you need to do is design a universe with the right topology. In this topology would be programmed the existence of those creatures, and after millions or billions of years, which, if you are God, could be no length of time at all, those creatures would evolve on the planet or planets of your choice.

To wrap your head around this idea, think of a computer program that lets you design living creatures, but instead of letting you design the creatures directly by choosing their shape, color and anatomy, it asks you to design a universe that would lead to the type of creature you want. This computer program shows you a box where a picture of the creature would be, but currently it is blank. And it gives you various boxes where you can input various numbers. It asks you for the size of the universe, the speed of its expansion, the external shape of it, and the various physical constants that go into that universe, such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant. By making the tiniest changes to any of these variables, the creatures it shows you on the screen change immensely. Get the numbers just right, and you will get humans, among the trillions upon trillions of other possible creatures you could create. Increase the number for the gravitational constant and your humans may get smaller. Increase it beyond a point and the human disappears; the universe you are designing will no longer be able to support humans.

This is what topological programming means; designing universes with the specific aim of seeing creatures originate and evolve inside them after billions of years. A topological programmer is a designer of universes, and that is what the Creator is.

There is no difference between God creating all the creatures on the earth by a single command that turns a large puff of smoke into all of them, which is the way our ancestors used to think how creation should work, and creating them by designing and sustaining a universe that would lead to their existence after billions of years. The end result is exactly the same, it is just that the second method is harder for the human brain to understand and appreciate, and it helps hide God’s role in the matter.

There is no clash between Darwin’s theory of evolution and intelligent design (except when it comes to the evolution of humans, which will be dealt with below). The theory of evolution is merely telling us about God’s means of designing creatures, which is far cleverer than anything one tends to imagine. To design an elephant, God does not need to create an elephant from a puff of smoke. He instead brings a blob of matter and expands it, and billions of years later elephants will exist on a planet or many planets inside that expanding blob. God has the power to create a new universe full of millions of planets all of which are inhabited by elephants, merely by designing a universe with the right topology to lead to such planets and creatures.

Evolution is only a challenge to God if we cannot think outside the box of this universe. But once we see the universe as a mere simulation designed by God, evolution becomes a God-made design feature of the universe. From this view, evolution is a testament to God’s incredible power and ingenuity; he can create creatures as intelligent as humans in such a round-about way that they would be able to deny the need for a Creator, and despite their very best efforts at detecting Him, they are never able to do so.

Topological programming does not only explain evolution; it also explains the origin of life. The same way that God can program evolution into the universe’s topology, He can also program the origination of life into it and take credit for it.

There is no clear statement in the Quran saying artificial life cannot be created, and humans creating artificial life does not take away from God’s greatness. If we were to create it, we would be merely copying him, from inside a universe that he designed and that he sustains.

The following verse seems to suggest that humans cannot create artificial life:

O people! A parable is presented, so listen to it: Those you invoke besides God will never create a fly, even if they banded together for that purpose. And if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it from it. Weak are the pursuer and the pursued.29

But this verse can actually be used as an argument for the possibility of humans creating artificial life. The second part of the verse says, “And if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it from it.”

Is it impossible to recover things stolen by flies? As a general rule, it is not impossible to catch flies and take back whatever they have stolen. What the verse might actually be saying–which is a point repeated many times throughout the Quran–is that we have no inherent power of our own; we have zero power over this universe: it is ultimately God who operates it. This means that we have no power to recover something a fly stole except when God enables us by moving the relevant atoms, photons and energy fields for us so that we can carry out our intention of recovering something the fly stole. God is telling us that it is he who is letting us have a remote control that enables us to control our bodies or avatars in this universe, a connection that can be severed by God at any moment.

By the same reasoning, we have no power to create artificial life, except when God enables us, by maintaining and operating the universe. Both of these things might be possible for us to do, if God makes them possible, and both would be impossible, if God makes them impossible. By the logic of the verse, creating artificial life might be as possible as recovering something stolen by a fly.

Still, it is possible that humans will never be able to manufacture life, as predicted by the great science fiction writer Frank Herbert in his Dune series, novels set thousands of years in the future. Perhaps there really is something special about life and perhaps at some point God had to breathe life into Earth to jump start the process of evolution that would eventually lead to the rest of all of the creatures we see on Earth. We do not know, and it is best that we do not issue definitive statements on matters we know little about.

I believe God is great enough to program the origination of life into the universe’s topology, meaning that he can create a universe that leads to the origination of life without him having to intervene afterwards to plant life on it. Questioning the possibility of this happening is actually questioning God’s greatness and creativity; it is saying that God is incapable of creating life using topological programming.

Why would God create life in such a roundabout way instead of creating it directly? This is not just some absurd mental gymnastics; there is a very strong reason for it. Creating life in such a way allows for the creation of the rarest species of all. No, not humans.

Atheists.

The God of the Quran wants His existence to be impossible to prove. He wants there to be the possibility of disbelieving in him, and that requires that his own hand should be invisible from direct measurement. God wants it to be possible for humans to think that they are alone in a universe without a creator. It should be possible for humans to deny him, ignore him and go about their entire lives acting as if he did not exist. And that requires that nature should appear supreme and unchallenged. Evolution is just the right way of achieving this goal of maintaining God’s plausible deniability.30

Human Evolution

The Quran describes the creation of humans in detail, which causes many Muslims to automatically reject evolution, thinking that evolution goes against the Quran:

We created the human being from clay, from molded mud.

And the jinn We created before, from piercing fire.

Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am creating a human being from clay, from molded mud.’

‘When I have formed him, and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down prostrating before him.’

So the angels prostrated themselves, all together.31

We know that humans share many of their genes with chimpanzees, rats, yeast and even some viruses. Are the above verses false, or is evolution false?

The answer might be in the Quran itself, in this verse:

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.32

We know from the Quran that Jesus was a human.33 Yet the Quran says his creation was similar to that of Adam. There is an important clue in here.

How did God create Jesus? He used some clay to create a human whose genetic code was like any other human, and at a time when other humans were around. In the same way, God could have created Adam at a time when humans or human-like creatures already existed on Earth (and existing, of course, by God’s design, who designed the topology that lead to the existence of such creatures).

God already had the genetic code for humans before the creation of the universe. He embedded that code into the universe’s topology. For example, a minimum number of continents of a certain shape may be necessary on a planet for humans to exist on it. For humans to evolve on a particular planet, their genetic code has to be translated into topological features of that planet and the universe in which it is contained.

The evolution of humans or human-like creatures on the earth, and the creation of Adam from scratch (rather than from another human), are not mutually exclusive. God created Adam from dust, and he created Jesus from dust, and in the first instance, humanoids may have already existed on earth, similar to the second instance.

Adam had free will, while the human-like creatures that had evolved on the earth lacked it. The fact of God breathing “His spirit” into Adam may have been the critical differentiator that turned Adam into something more than yet another animal. Before Adam, the earth lacked any creature that could be held responsible for its actions. Adam’s introduction into the earth was the start of the existence of responsibility. It is likely for this reason that the angels complained when God mentioned placing Adam on Earth:

“Will You place in it (i.e. on the earth) someone who will cause corruption in it and shed blood, while we declare Your praises and sanctify You?”34

The angels do not like the idea of ruining the earth’s pristine freedom from evil, since everything on it (including the humanoids) acted according to instincts placed inside them by God’s topological programming, meaning that everything on it perfectly obeyed God’s design as accurately as the planets do in following their orbits.

Before Adam, the universe was a piece of clockwork that functioned according to God’s design and in this way celebrated His greatness. Bears still ate deer, but that was according to God’s design, so that was not an evil thing. They shed blood, but they did not commit bloodshed. Placing Adam on the earth, on the other hand, meant that there would be a creature on it that could defy God’s design, in this way creating evil. Adam would be a loose cannon on the planet, capable of interfering with the functioning of God’s clockwork.

The reason humans could do evil on the planet, when no other creature could do it, is that by having free will, they could do “artificial” things, things that did not directly follow from the rules and the wisdom that went into the creation of the universe. They could defy the program embedded in the universe’s topology, in this way bringing about corruption. Everything in the universe followed from God’s authority. But Adam was an independent authority in his own right, capable of challenging God’s authority.

Some atheist writers mention the simple line of reasoning–famously propounded by the French Encyclopédistes of the 18th century–that if the universe is entirely ruled by physical laws, then there is no place for free will and responsibility because every action on it would be a derivation of the system itself35 The big “if” at the beginning of that train of thought is usually neglected.36 The Quran says that humans have responsibility and thus freedom of choice and the capacity to do evil, therefore there is some special ingredient in humans that makes them an exception to the physical laws. The question is whether we accept the Quran’s evidence or reject it. If we accept it, then we believe human actions are free-willed. There is no scientific opposition to this, since there is no scientific proof that free will does not exist. Whether free will exists or not is an issue outside science and will likely remain so, making it a matter of personal belief. For a Muslim, the soft evidence of the Quran and quotidian experience both strongly support the existence of free will.

We do not know the exact moment in the history of Earth when Adam was placed on it. It is possible that it was in the past 10,000 years, or it could have been 100,000 years ago. We do not know how Adam interacted with the existing humanoids, whether there was any interbreeding.37

Even if Adam and his children (humanity) share genes with various humanoid creatures that have existed, this does not  mean we are directly descended from them, just that God used some of their genetic code to create Adam, the same way he used the genetic code of existing humans to create Jesus from dust.

We can assume that God already had the full genetic code of humans before the creation of the universe as mentioned, and it is for this reason that he can take full credit for the creation of humans (and all the other creatures) despite the fact that they evolved naturally. This universe is simply a seemingly automated factory that follows a program placed inside it (embedded in its topological features) by God that is designed to lead to the origination of life and ultimately humanoids. Therefore it is not that God “took” genetic code from other humanoids to place them in Adam during his creation. He already had all of the genetic code to begin with, even before the universe was created. He placed some of the code in those humanoids indirectly (using evolution driven by topology), and some in Adam directly. The code in both cases comes from God’s “library”, so to speak, one travels indirectly, hiding in the universe’s topology until, after billions of years, it is brought to life through evolution, and one travels directly, with God creating Adam from dust based on that same code. At the time of Adam’s creation, God may have already had a library full of genetic code used in previous universes for all that we know.

It is a case of starting with the recipe and building a massive universe in which the recipe can come into existence, without leaving any trace of one’s direct involvement in the process. God did not have to come look on the earth 10,000 or however many years ago to find genetic code to use for Adam. The code was already in His library.

To repeat what has already been said a number of times, none of the above is evidence for the truth of religion. It is, rather, evidence for the falsehood of the idea that there is a conflict between the religion of the Quran and the science of the origination and evolution of life. The Quran’s theories are compatible with what the latest science tells us, and that is all that we need to know as Muslims. Therefore Muslims should stop denying evolution, and non-Muslims should stop using it in their critiques of Islam. They can of course continue using the hundreds of other critiques available.

The Problem of Hadith

As mentioned in the introduction, Islam is based on both the Quran and hadith (historical reports about the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad). While it has been shown above that the Quran and evolution are compatible, there is still the issue of whether evolution is compatible with hadith. The Quran is far more authoritative than hadith in Islam due to the fact that it supposedly transmits God’s unadulterated words directly (while hadith texts are human interpretations of what was heard or took place), and due to the fact that orders of magnitude more effort went into the preservation and transmission of the Quran compared to hadith.

If it is shown that the Quran and evolution are compatible, the discovery of hadith narrations that go against evolution do not in any way prove that Islam was meant to be an anti-evolution religion. It could simply mean that a hadith fabricated or misunderstood by someone made its way into the hadith literature.

The issue of judging the authenticity of hadith is extremely complicated and cannot be carried out by amateurs. However, we now know that Islam’s great hadith collectors rejected hadith narrations that they considered patently absurd despite the fact that these hadith narrations were transmitted by supposedly trustworthy people.38 It is up to us to decide whether a rejection of evolution, once shown to be compatible with the Quran, is patently absurd. If we decide it is, then we can actually use evolution to critique hadith: any hadith text that unequivocally contradicts the theory of evolution can be thought to be unauthentic. This is not a modern fiction designed to drag Islam kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The reliability of hadith narrations is always a matter of statistical probability rather than certainty, therefore anything in the hadith literature that clearly contradicts objective reality can be discarded without being intellectually dishonest. The same does not apply to the Quran; even a single false statement in the Quran is sufficient to prove the entire book false. Hadith narrations, however, were transmitted piecemeal by thousands of people, therefore even if most are authentic, we can never know with complete certainty, except when it comes to a small minority of narrations, whether some narration truly transmits from the Prophet, transmits a highly distorted interpretation of something the Prophet said or did, or is entirely fabricated.

I write the above as something of a hadith traditionalist; I believe that it is safe to assume that any hadith judged authentic by hadith scholars is really authentic unless there is a very strong reason to doubt it. Mid-20th century Western scholarship cast doubts on the reliability of the hadith literature, with scholars such as Schacht and Crone recommending that the entire literature be considered fabricated unless proven otherwise. More recent scholarship, such as the works of Motzki and Lucas, has uncovered empirical evidence that strongly supports the traditional Islamic views on hadith.

Unlike hadith traditionalists, rather than considering the issue of authenticity a black and white issue, I support an empirical view that works according to probabilities. One authentic narration may be 99.99% likely to be true (such as one of those known as mutawātir), another one might be 95%, and another 90% likely to be authentic. I believe Islam can greatly benefit from explicitly adopting probability theory within the science of hadith. A Muslim who discovers an “authentic” narration that is ranked 90% likely to be authentic and which supports a certain view, and another that is ranked only 70% likely to be authentic and which supports a different view will be better able to know which view to prefer. With the present system, both narrations will simply be called “authentic”, making it nearly impossible for a non-expert to judge between them.

Beyond Guided Evolution

There is a theory that tries to reconcile creationism with evolution by arguing that evolution may be real, but that it is God who guides it behind the scenes. The theory offered in this essay has no need for that type of divine guidance that assumes God has to interfere in the world. In order to create the creatures He wants, all that God needs to do is get the starting conditions right at the Big Bang, and from there everything else is taken care of. All that God needs to do is get the production system working properly. As has already been mentioned, the universe can be thought of as a factory for creating life forms. The universe’s topology acts as a template that shapes or sculpts the course of evolution, the same way that the various robots in a car factory assembly line shape and sculpt the final product.

Through designing a universe with exactly the right qualities needed for the origination and evolution of life, God can create whatever He wants without necessarily having to interfere with the process afterwards. Only a defective factory would require that God tinker with the production process after launching it. If His factory is perfect, there would be no need for further tinkering later on.

A believer who questions whether God can really and intentionally, in a single step (the Big Bang), launch a factory that billions of years later leads to various forms of life is actually questioning God’s power. If God’s power and knowledge are infinite, there is no reason to doubt that He can do this.

As for an atheist who questions whether things could be this way, their right to skepticism is not denied. The point that this essay is making is that there is a theory that can explain how God and evolution can co-exist without canceling each other out, so that atheists may stop using evolution as an argument against God, and so that the religious may start loving evolution and working on it rather than considering it a challenge to their faith.

Since God desires plausibly deniability, God’s existence must be impossible to prove, therefore there must always be scientific reasons that explain things without a need for God.

The reason that religious people feel a need for guided evolution is that they are stuck in the God-versus-nature paradigm. Al-Ghazali’s Matrix helps us escape this paradigm; this universe is no more real than an image projected on a screen, therefore it is silly to consider this mirage a challenge to the God who invented it and upholds it moment-by-moment lest it should cease to exist. Those who consider nature (and its study, meaning science) a challenge to God have not really appreciated His greatness.

The world of the Unseen, the supernatural, is by God’s design beyond human knowledge and measurement. Everything we see around us must have a logical explanation, or seem to, or there should be the hope of finding a logical explanation for it one day. There should never be anything provably supernatural. God must always maintain his own plausible deniability until the end of the world.

Do they mean to wait until the angels come to them, or for your Lord to arrive, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? On the Day when some of your Lord’s signs come, no soul will benefit from its faith unless it had believed previously, or had earned goodness through its faith. Say, ‘Wait, we too are waiting.’39

Atheists say they want to wait for hard evidence for God’s existence before they believe in the fairy tales present in scripture. The Quran tells religious people to say the same thing; that we too are waiting. The above verse can be considered a pointer to the proper religious mindset toward science. We too acknowledge, with atheists, that there is no hard evidence for God’s existence. They say they will wait for hard evidence before believing, we say we believe in the soft evidence of scripture and wait for hard evidence, and for this we will be rewarded.

What I say here is not the final word on Islam and evolution. It is an educated but personal attempt at making sense of the issue.

Updated April 2, 2019.

Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Introduction

There is a surprising amount of confusion among the religious, even among clerics and scholars, when it comes to understanding why evil exists and why God stands aside when so much suffering happens throughout the world. Most of us express wonder when we see some horrible catastrophe happen, or when we see evil individuals, companies and institutions wield so much power. Some people even go so far as to blame God for the evil things that exist in this world, since if God had desired, He could have prevented such things from existing or happening in the first place. Others take this even further, using the existence of evil as proof of God’s non-existence. How can a good and supposedly all-powerful God stand by while so much evil happens? Where is our God?

There are good, perfectly logical explanations for these things, deep explanations that elucidate the purpose of this universe, our place in it, and our relationship with God, and through this give us perfectly good reasons for the existence of evil.

Why Evil Exists

What is the point of the existence of this world anyway? Many mistakenly think that the purpose of this world is to be a permanent residence where people judge whether God exists or not. They think that they can gauge God’s “level” of existence by the things that happen around them, so that given the right set of events, they will decide He is alive and active, and given others, they will decide He doesn’t exist, because if He existed, the world wouldn’t be the way it is.

A friend said that he once went on a trip abroad, and before he left, he asked God to protect three things that were most important to him in his life. During his trip, he lost all three, which included the dying of loved ones, and this made him decide that God doesn’t exist. He is a Buddhist now.

The above case is an example of earth-centric thinking, that considers this world a goal in itself. This is the core mistake that leads to millions of people misunderstanding, even disliking, God. That is a mistake because this world is nothing besides a testing hall where humans can freely choose to do as they like, to prove their worthiness of God’s approval or wrath. This world is not meant to be a permanent residence.

Most religions teach that an end of the world is coming. Regardless of religion, the universe is on track to become a dark, lifeless mass as the stars and galaxies die out. Everything is going to end, and what remains is the record of our deeds, kept by God. Even if we manage to create the greatest empire on earth, or write the most wonderful novel, none of our accomplishments will last.

One day the universe will shut down as if it never existed, and on that day what significance can our achievements have? This world is not meant as a permanent home of peace, but as a test. And a test requires that the possibility of failure should exist. If all humans acted according to God’s wishes, evil would not exist. But since God has given humans the freedom to disobey Him, they have the ability to do evil.

God is good, and evil is the absence of goodness, the same way that darkness is the absence of light. If God is Light, we cannot blame Him for the darkness we encounter when we turn away from Him, distance ourselves from Him, and act against His wishes.

Why didn’t God make the universe a place of wholesome goodness lacking in the possibility for evil? Because if evil could not exist, humans wouldn’t truly be free beings.

To be free, humans require the freedom to act against God along with the freedom to act for His sake. God wants to give humans perfect freedom to act and grow, so that they can be the best or the worst they want to be. Since humans have the freedom to act against God, and since to act against God is to create evil, humans have been given the freedom to create evil.

God did not make this world a perfect place because that is not its purpose. Imagine if you were a maker of creatures. If the creatures you made were controlled by their nature to do exactly what you put in them to do, they could never be truly your friends. They would be subservient robot-like machines that cannot help doing whatever you put in them to do.

But imagine if one day you wanted something more. You wanted to make creatures that could truly be your friends. The only way to have a true friend is to create a creature that can choose whether to be your friend or not. And so, you make creatures with free will, who can act according to whatever they wish, rather than according to your programming. Some of these creatures will choose to be your friends, others will ignore you, others will choose to be your enemies. They may fight among themselves, doing much evil to one another, and blaming you, their creator, for the evil they do, when in truth they should blame themselves, for they are the ones choosing to act the way they do. They have the freedom to be good, and many of them choose to be good, but some of them  choose to be evil instead.

The only thing we can blame God for is His creating us and giving us the freedom to be evil. This is a pointless blame. This is our reality and our fate, we cannot escape it. We have been thrown into this game regardless of our wishes, a game that forces us to choose to be either good or evil. We can debate the ethics of forcing people to choose between good and evil. But at the end of the day, we are forced to play this game. There is no dropping out.

Our Creator has done this to us, possibly against our will1, but we cannot get hung up over this fact, because our future holds something very important: Either eternal reward, or eternal punishment. Blaming God will not help our future. It may make us feel better now to hate God as so many do, but by making us think badly of God, this will reduce our chances of future success. The future is coming whether we want it to or not, and we have the power to make it a good or a bad future.2

Not all evil is done by humans. Droughts, floods and other natural disasters can cause much evil and suffering, and we can lose loved ones through car accidents and illnesses. Why doesn’t God prevent these things from happening if He loves us? Because, in order for the testing hall that is this world to be a true and consistent place of testing, God shouldn’t interfere with the functioning of nature3. The laws of nature should behave in such a way that makes sense even without reference to God. If we were as intelligent as we are, and yet we saw that nothing bad ever happened on earth, no car accidents, to illnesses, nothing, that everyone died in old age of natural causes, then this would be undeniable evidence of the existence of a higher power that protects humans.

God wants us to have the possibility of being atheists. It is one of God’s self-imposed rules that it should be impossible to directly detect His existence. And that requires that the functioning of this world should make perfect sense according to predictable scientific laws.

God wants us to believe in Him without seeing Him or knowing that He truly exists, because if it were possible to prove His existence, it would reduce our freedom to act against Him. God wants our universe to seem to make perfect sense without any necessity for His existence. This way we are given the freedom to discover Him and His Scriptures, and through our knowledge and conscience, we gain the ability to either follow His way or disbelieve in Him. Once we are given this knowledge, there is no turning away from the choice between good and evil.4

God wants our test to be a perfect test, in which we have perfect freedom to be good or evil. This would allow us to take credit for our actions. If God’s existence were proven, we’d be turned into slaves who cannot help but do as He says. We’d become merchants who act in our best interests by following God’s commandments. This is not what God wants. God wants us to be honored creatures who befriend Him not because we are forced to, but because we choose to. This is what gives worth to our friendship.

There is little honor in an employee acting according to his or her boss’s wishes, this is the expected behavior. While even this amount of obedience to a boss justifies reward, so that even if we had proof of God’s existence, we could still be rewarded for obeying Him5, God wants to take us beyond this boss-employee relationship. He wants to raise us to the status of honored friends, who act out of love and friendship, and out of our own efforts toward remembrance of God, rather than acting out of practical compulsion.

God wants us to be the servant who continues to love and serve his master, even though the master goes away for years, decades. What incredible honor and reward can await such a servant who faithfully loves and serves his absent master for 50 or 60 years, until he dies, even though the master never returns?6

God, by creating the possibility for the existence of true friendship between Himself and the humans He created, had to also create the possibility for the existence of true enmity between Himself and them. He wanted friends, but He knew that they couldn’t truly be called friends unless they had the option to be His enemies.

The evil done by humans on Earth is a doing of humans when they act against God, it is not a doing of God, therefore humans should be blamed, not God. And the evil done by nature is nature’s own doing, caused by the rules of physics, and God does not want to interfere with it because constant interference with nature would cause His existence to become apparent. It is necessary for disasters and accidents to be possible, as these prove to us the validity of nature’s rules, and allows the atheist the freedom to use these to prove that God doesn’t exist.

God and Nature shall always be apart, or seem to be apart, so that each one appears to function without the other. This is necessary, as this is what enables humans the freedom to choose between faith and disbelief, between good and evil. The world needs to make perfect, logical sense without having to refer to God in our thinking. It should be possible for us to believe that the world functions on its own without anything supernatural existing, this is what gives us the freedom to believe and disbelieve in God.

We need to be able to believe that the Master is absent. This is when the true nature of the servant comes through. Bad servants start to misbehave as soon as the Master looks away, and if the Master is away long enough, they entirely give up serving Him. They will start to loot His property and defile His name. But the good and honorable servant, even as he sees all of this happen, continues to have love and loyalty toward his Master. It makes no difference to him even if the Master never comes back. He keeps the remembrance of his Master in his heart, and he admonishes and encourages himself to continue to be the best servant he can be.

The world, the way it is, gives us the perfect opportunity to be this honorable and admirable servant. If evil did not exist, and if bad things did not happen, then there would have been no way for such servants of God to exist. We’d instead all be lowly and menial servants who never had a chance to disobey, and thus never had a chance to prove our loyalty toward God.

A world without evil and disaster would be a dysfunctional testing hall that cannot differentiate between the best and the worst of us. Without evil and disaster, God’s existence would be so clearly visible to us that most of us would cower in front of Him. A few people might be found who are daring enough to disobey God even in such circumstances, but the majority of people would kneel before God as they would before a great emperor, regardless of whether they had any loyalty toward Him.

A world that seems to be ruled by the cold, harsh laws of nature, and that completely hides the existence of God from our eyes, gives us the perfect opportunity to prove our loyalty to God. This world, with all of its problems, is the perfect testing hall, because of the problems it has.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

I will get around the metaphysical complexity of defining good and bad people by saying that a good person is anyone the reader thinks does not deserve to suffer, while a bad person is someone who does not deserve God’s protection.

Why good people suffer has already been mostly answered. If bad things never happened to good people, this would act as a proof of God’s existence and the invalidity of nature’s laws. If all good people lived to old age and died of natural causes, this would be easily detectable by even the simplest analysis.

There are religious people who wrongly think that if you are truly faithful, you will never suffer anything bad. When they see bad things happen to people, they try to find the reasons why the sufferers themselves are responsible for the suffering that has come upon them.

But disasters are a natural part of life, and it should affect good and bad people equally, or at least it should seem to do so. God does not want to be seen, so it should be impossible to detect miracles happening to save good people.

The suffering of good people proves that nature’s laws are real. If nothing bad ever happened to good people, but only happened to bad people, the fact would act as a proof of God’s existence, and this is what God does not want in this world. God wants us to follow Him and serve Him of our own free will, without any compulsion or strong inducement.

There would be millions, maybe billions, more believers if avoiding suffering was as simple as believing in God and serving Him. But these believers would be tantamount to fair-weather friends, who are on the bandwagon of faith only for their own immediate, short-term interest. They wouldn’t be loyal friends of God.

The world should occasionally give the faithful the impression that God has abandoned them. This is the true test of faith. Once all blessing seems to have gone from our lives, that’s when we look inside our hearts to find God again. If we weren’t true believers, if we only believed in God to ensure our own worldly good, then there would be no God in our hearts. We’d lose faith and abandon religion once we had the impression that God has abandoned us, like millions do.

But as for the truly faithful, when life gives us the impression that God has abandoned us, we continue to believe in God and to do our best to protect our faith. If our Master seems absent, it does not mean He has gone away forever. Only a dishonorable servant would start to act as if the Master is dead once He is gone away for a month or two. Those of us who truly believe in God, who love Him and want His friendship, and who have accepted to be His servants for eternity, will not abandon serving Him, regardless of what hardship and loneliness comes our way.

By the morning brightness

And [by] the night when it covers with darkness,

Your Lord has not taken leave of you, nor has He detested [you].

And the Hereafter is better for you than the first [life].

And your Lord is going to give to you, and you will be satisfied.

Did He not find you an orphan and give [you] refuge?

And He found you lost and guided [you],

And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient.
[Quran 93:1-8]

The possibility of good people suffering something horrible is nothing but an extension of these facts of life; the need for a proof of nature’s laws, the necessity for some suffering to prove one’s faith and virtue. God can inflict the greatest suffering on His most beloved servants, as He did with Abraham when He asked him to slaughter his beloved son, and as He did was Jacob in allowing him to believe, for years on end, that his most beloved son was dead, as this is how the greatest friends of God are raised to the highest ranks.

There can never be virtue without suffering. A virtuous act is one where we overcome our natural tendencies for the sake of God, and attaining virtue always has an element of suffering in it, small or great. A rich person who, out of love for God, refuses to practice usury to further enrich himself or herself, is doing a virtuous thing. Their suffering is that they watch their fellow rich men and women practice usury and see their wealth increase exponentially, while their own wealth increases slowly and is subject to far more risk.

And someone who attains virtue by working for a charitable cause, or by giving money to the poor, is also subject to a mild form of suffering (what economists would call “opportunity cost”), as they lose time and money that could have been used for something pleasurable.7

The possibility of good people suffering does not mean that blessedness in this world does not exist. As in the story of Joseph, God will allow suffering to happen, followed by periods of ease and enjoyment, followed by more suffering, until His servant is raised to the highest possible status. God will not leave his faithful servants abandoned alone to be entirely subject to the cold, harsh laws of nature, though it is necessary that it should appear so, so that God’s existence will not become apparent. The Quran says:

Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, and who is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.
[Quran 16:97]

Besides reward in the afterlife, the verse promises a good worldly life. The word used in the verse to mean “good” is tayyib, which can also be translated as “wholesome”. God will have a hand in the lives of good people, ensuring that despite the disasters they suffer, they will end up having wholesome, blessed lives. This, of course, cannot be proven, in accordance with God’s plan. But it can be seen in little things for those of us who have faith. The lives of believers seem to have more purpose. Their life stories seem better arranged and guided. This of course cannot be proven to an atheist, and it doesn’t have to be.

On the other hand, for disbelievers, people who knowingly rebel against God even though they believe in Him in their hearts, the Quran has this to say:

But whosoever turns away from My Remembrance, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment. He will say: "My Lord, why have you summoned me as a blind person when I was sighted?" He will say: "Thus did Our signs come to you, and you forgot them; that is why you have been forgotten this Day."
[Quran 20:124-126]

This verse, similar to the previous one, implies that there are worldly consequences for having (and in this case, not having) faith. Those who knowingly reject God will have a “narrowed down” life, also translated as “straitened” and “constricted”. Similar to how the lives of good people are blessed despite their hardships, the lives of evil people are constricted despite their joys and pleasures.

To put it another way, the general theme of a believer’s life is blessedness, while the general theme of a disbeliever’s life is constrictedness, a feeling of being oppressed by life. Both will enjoy periods of joy and periods of suffering, but through submitting to God, believers are blessed by God and are freed from many of the constraints of life, while disbelievers are, in general, and not very detectably, made to submit to the harshness and coldness of nature.

There will be a hidden hand of God that shields and guides the believer, while there is no such shield and guide for the disbeliever, and the world, itself a servant of God, treats them the way they like to be treated, as if God does not exist.

God could inspire us to always make the right choices in order to avoid all that is bad and to always gain what is good. But, besides making God’s existence apparent, this would reduce the value of our friendship with Him. A true friend of God is the one who keeps his faith in Him during difficulties, while a fair-weather friend of God is the one who only loves and worships God during times of peace and plenty, and whose faith is shaken whenever something bad happens to them (and plenty of such believers do exist).

The matter of ranks of God’s chosen friends in the afterlife is important, because it decides a person’s status in the afterlife for all of eternity. God does not want most of us to leave this world without having proven how good of a friend of God we are. That, in fact, is the main purpose of this world: To distinguish our ranks, from the very best of us to the very worst.

Some people die before they can prove themselves to God, for example infants. God allows this to happen because infant deaths are required by the laws of nature. And as for the poor infant, while their death is a tragedy in this life, in the afterlife God can choose to give them great reward without them having worked for it, since God’s generosity is not limited. He may also give them a higher status in the ranks of His friends than their parents as a reward for the parents, while also raising the status of the parents who kept their faith during the ordeal. A truly just God will not let an infant’s death go to waste.8

There are a thousand ways in which God can preserve eternal justice while allowing tragedies like infant deaths to happen, since this life is no more than a mere flicker compared to the eternity of the afterlife, and everything that happens here will one day be nothing more than a pale memory when a person has spent millions of years enjoying the rewards of the afterlife, close to family and friends and close to God.

Suffering is a natural part of a believer’s life. God does not ask us to stoically control our emotions, never letting any suffering show, to prove that we are faithful. Jacob was a prophet of God, and yet he cried so much after his son was believed dead that his eyes turned blind. There is no shame in sadness. God does not ask us to be super-human, but to keep faith alive in our hearts as we are subjected to life’s joys and sorrows.

Isn’t it Unkind for God to Punish His Creatures?

Think of God as Light. By staying close to Him, by following His commandments, we ensure our eternal good. No one is perfectly close to Him, each person is at some degree of distance. Eternal punishment is only for those who knowingly stray so far away from the Light that they knowingly wallow in complete darkness. Anyone who stays within the merest flicker of Light may gain God’s forgiveness and eternal reward.

Eternal punishment is necessary because that is the only way of ensuring that evil-doers don’t get away with their evil deeds. Many Jews (and Christians too) have become corrupted by the idea that they are God’s chosen children and that no matter what they do, they will eventually be forgiven. This is a highly dangerous thing to believe, because once you believe that you will never be punished eternally, then you can get away with anything. If you are an Israeli settler, who cares if you take over other people’s lands with violence. You are God’s Chosen, and you will be forgiven.

Once the idea of eternal justice is corrupted, then from that all evil follows. Even if people believe in an afterlife, if they think that there will be a limit on their punishment term, that they will burn for a thousand years and then will be freed to enjoy life for the rest of eternity, then many of them will not find it so bad to devolve utterly into sin, since they will eventually get away with it.

To preserve justice, people should not be able to get away with their crimes. During their lifetimes God gives them thousands of opportunities to repent and become better people. God believes that a human lifetime is sufficient to distinguish good people from bad, that it contains enough opportunities for humans to prove whether they deserve eternal good or eternal punishment. Every hour of every day contains opportunities for us to change, for better or for worse, and these small changes mount. There is a Light in this world and we can choose to either walk toward it or away from it every hour of every day. Every time we take a step away from it, we do it in the full knowledge that we have the chance to take a step toward it instead.

If we spend all of our lifetimes walking away from the Light by knowingly doing evil, we shouldn’t be surprised when one day we find ourselves in total darkness, hopeless of ever finding the Light again. It was our own choices that brought us here. For years and decades we had the option to turn back and walk toward the Light again, our consciences kept reminding us that we still had a chance to return to God, that God’s door was wide open to us, but instead we decided to keep walking away, chasing our shadow instead of chasing the Light.

Once a person falls into total darkness through their own choices, there will no longer be a point to extending their lives to let them come back. This is what Scripture claims, that once a person is totally surrounded by their evil deeds, they will never come back toward the Light. There is a point of no return, meaning that a person who crosses this point, even if given a lifetime of a hundred thousand years, it will not make a difference in their fate.

In fact, the Quran claims that such evil people, even if taken to the afterlife and shown all of the signs of God’s greatness, then brought back to earth, they will continue to be evil. Among some Christians there is the belief that people, no matter how bad, can be made to become good through education and reformation. The Quran, always unabashedly realistic, has a more satisfactory view, that guidance can only be had with God’s blessing, that even if someone fully understands God and believes in Him, they can still choose to be evil. The Quran goes beyond this, saying that once a person fully devolves into evil, not only will they become unreformable, but that God will actively prevent any reform, because they’ve done sufficient evil to seal their fate (as in the case of the Pharaoh of Egypt in the story of Moses).

If you could but see when they are made to stand before the Fire and will say, "Oh, would that we could be returned [to life on earth] and not deny the signs of our Lord and be among the believers."

But what they concealed before has [now] appeared to them. And even if they were returned, they would return to that which they were forbidden; and indeed, they are liars.

And they say, "There is none but our worldly life, and we will not be resurrected."

If you could but see when they will be made to stand before their Lord. He will say, "Is this not the truth?" They will say, "Yes, by our Lord." He will [then] say, "So taste the punishment because you used to disbelieve."

Truly, they have lost, those who deny the meeting with God , until when the Hour [of resurrection] comes upon them unexpectedly, they will say, "Oh, [how great is] our regret over what we neglected concerning it," while they bear their burdens on their backs. Unquestionably, evil is that which they bear.

And the worldly life is nothing but amusement and diversion; but the home of the Hereafter is best for those who fear God, so will you not reason?
[Quran 6:27-32]

The average person might be a sinner, but they do not fight against God every chance they get, and at the time of death they will likely possess enough light to be eligible for God’s forgiveness.

What are some examples of people who deserve eternal punishment? Usurers and their central bankers, who knowingly enslave millions to an evil, unnatural type of debt to enrich themselves, who orchestrate economic bubbles and bursts to reap trillions of dollars in profit while destroying the livelihoods of millions of families, and who plunge countries like the US into war after war, knowing that hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be killed, just so that they can earn their trillions financing these wars. A just God will not let these people go unpunished, and their punishment will not be something they can laugh at, it will not be a slap on the wrist like the US government gives to the usurers at Goldman Sachs every year when they are caught manipulating markets and destroying parts of the economy to enrich themselves. It will be something that will make them cry every single day for eternity.

I will not believe in a God who lets these people get away with the immense evil they do.

Conclusion

People make the mistake of considering this world their permanent home. They become attached to its blessings and disasters, and they think they can judge God based on what happens in their lives. But this world is nothing more than a tool for distinguishing God’s true friends from His fair-weather friends, and distinguishing these from His true enemies.

This world is nothing more than a preparation for the eternity of the afterlife. We would be wise not to become attached to its ups and downs, and to know that these are the days given to us by God in which we can prove ourselves to Him.

***

I originally published this essay as a short ebook on Amazon in 2015. I’ve decided to publish it for free here on my website, after thoroughly rewriting it, so that more people may (hopefully) benefit from it.