Lost Enlightenment is a highly readable overview of the history of the Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia, an area that gave Islamic civilization the majority of its great philosophers and thinkers (Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Biruni, al-Ghazali) and many of its great scholars (such as the creators of five of the six “canonical” hadith collections: al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa’i, al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood, the exception being Ibn Majah who, a Persian like the rest, came from Qazvin in Western Iran).
While the book is a good source of information on Islamic civilization’s most advanced and intellectually productive area, it is marred by the writer’s secularist bias. It is often implicit in his writing that he believes the more religiously faithful a Muslim is, the less capable of rational and logical thought they are. He often spends many pages arguing that a particular thinker was actually secular and only paid lip service to Islam (Ibn Sina, Khayyam). As for the devout Muslim thinkers he covers, he often cannot hide his contempt and his belief in the person’s narrow-mindedness and falseness of conscience (as in the case of al-Ghazali).
Lost Enlightenment is also marred by various errors. The writer’s grasp of the workings of the Islamic religion and its intellectual tradition is amateurish at best (despite his merits as a historian). Starr is guilty of incredible statements like the following:
Going still further, a new governor named Nasr, ignoring the Quran’s demand that apostasy be punished by death, in 741 struck a deal with the Sogdians that abolished all punishments for those who had reverted to their former religions.
He also writes in another place:
But Ghazali branded both thinkers posthumously as heretics and therefore, according to the Quran, punishable by death.
And yet in another place:
Those who follow the philosophers were not merely heretics but, he averred apostates. The Quran quite clear states that apostates must be punished with death.
The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy anywhere in it! This is an elementary error that even an undergraduate student of Islamic studies should not make.
Starr attributes to the scientist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi a “weighty commentary” on the Quran, confusing him with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was born two centuries later.
Quranic prohibitions against depicting the human form were frequently ignored...
The Quran has nothing to say on the depiction of the human form. These elementary errors about Islam’s chief scripture betray a serious ignorance of Islam as a religion, in contradistinction to the author’s wide knowledge of Central Asian history.
Starr mentions al-Hakim al-Nisaburi as a critic and challenger of al-Bukhari who caused him to be expelled from Naishapur. This means that al-Naisburi was able to go back to the time 60 years before his birth to harass al-Bukhari. It seems that Starr confused al-Naisaburi with al-Dhuhali, who fits Starr’s descriptions. Al-Hakim al-Naisaburi was actually a champion of al-Bukhari, critical to the canonization process of al-Bukhari’s hadith collection, as is covered in detail in Jonathan Brown’s The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim. This is all the more strange since Starr quotes Brown’s book multiple times in the pages dealing with al-Naisaburi.
Finally, some nitpicks: He says that Tus is 15 miles northeast of Nishapur. It is actually 43 miles away. He also writes:
Insurgents seized Basra on the Red Sea...
Basra is 700 miles away from the Red Sea.
In summary, Starr’s Lost Enlightenment is a good historical overview of the period it covers. Readers should be aware of its biases and should read books by other scholars to get a more accurate understanding of the topics covered.
A History of the Arab Peoples is a great general introduction to the history of the Arab countries and the history of Islam. It was written by the respected British scholar Albert Hourani (of Lebanese Christian descent). While not written by a Muslim, the book’s treatment of Muslims is balanced and fair-minded.
This book does not cover the history of other important parts of the Islamic world, such as Central Asia and the countries of the Indian ocean, therefore it should not be considered a complete history of Islam.
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.
The Qur’an by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem is one of the best translations of the Quran available in English. With its many clarifying footnotes, the book is especially helpful to people new to the study of the Quran.