Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life: The Path to Moderate Islam between Pluralism, Authoritarianism, Conformity and Individualism

Mardin, Turkey

Except for a small minority of Western thinkers who understand the origins of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, today when people speak of pluralism, open-mindedness and diversity of ideas what they often mean is that we should act as if there are no objective truths; a person who offers the most ridiculous interpretations of a Quranic verse has to be taken seriously if their interpretation is pleasing to the liberal Western mindset. This type of thinking is naturally abhorrent to a person who likes to think that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is a line of thinking among certain secularized Muslims that the way forward for Islam is to treat the Quran as a product of 7th century Arabia. Its commandments were designed to deal with the context of 7th century Arabia, therefore things such as the command to wear hijab may have made perfect sense then, but does not make sense anymore today in these better times. The assumption behind this type of thinking is that God was not smart enough to realize that times would change. A God who invented this universe, who waited billions of years to give us the Quran, failed to foresee that humanity would go on developing for the next few thousands of years, so He gave us commandments that were destined to expire just a measly 1400 years later. This is a rather low opinion to have about God, and in fact such a God would not be worth believing in (which may explain the rather thin faith of the secular Muslim). An all-powerful and all-knowing Creator and Inventor of the universe would have been able to send us a Quran that would not expire, that would take account of the fact that humanity may go on developing for the next 100,000 years, and this is the only type of God I can believe in.

If we are to remain conservative Muslims who hold fast to the belief that the Quran is universal both through time and space (that it does not expire and can be followed on Mars as well as Earth), how can we respect secularist Muslims who have such a different view of the Quran? Shouldn’t we attack them as misguided fools who have not really appreciated God’s power and greatness? We could, and many do just that, but how can we do that and call ourselves enlightened and pluralist? What is pluralism but to respect those who disagree with us?

It is often 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 utter 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. Now 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 closed-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 talk about 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 these good-sounding Western 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 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 couldn’t 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”, “mullahs”, different, non-human species that deserve neither respect nor sympathy.

The two sides are incapable of seeing that both of them are part of the problem and that there is a better way. That better way is… love. 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.

I believe that 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 that 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, and 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, so 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.

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

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? (Unless you are a postmodernist, but as I explain in this blog post, postmodernism has its own objective truth that it believes in, namely that there is no objective truth.)

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. Authoritarians, whether conservative or liberal, delude themselves into thinking 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 mean time, 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 the light that gives them the right to rule over everyone that disagrees with them. This is the myth behind both Marxism and Wahhabism. They both imagine that they possess all the important truths, believe that they are so safe from falsehood that it 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 pretend 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.

Both of them offer a simplistic and naive view of reality, a “reality for dummies”, that is highly satisfactory to uncultured, authoritarian and power-hungry people.

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. Many 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 ummah. In support of the ummah, 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 ummah.

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 by another name, and it is what Wahhabism, Marxism and radical feminism all share in common.

The numerous Islamist disasters of the past century should have been sufficient to convince most Muslims that the top-down, priesthood model is dysfunctional and impracticable, and perhaps most Muslims have been convinced. The alternative to the priesthood model is the ground-up (or grassroots) model, which is the model followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide (even though they do not talk about it), and it is also the model followed by Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The ground-up model, rather than involving a minority that seeks to force its ideas on everyone else, is a model that seeks consensus with others. The Prophet did not say “I miraculously possess the truth, so do as I say or else!” as was the attitude of Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) and Ayatollah Khomeini, even though he really was God’s prophet (as we Muslims believe) and did have divine guidance. 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 couldn’t care less whether the imam believes in the theological views of al-Ashʿarī, al-Maturidī or ibn Ḥanbal.

We have a community of 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,1 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.

A shop somewhere in Morocco

Communities of Consensus

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

Authoritarians might predict that this free atmosphere will lead to a situation where 20% of the Muslims at the mosque start to think Islam is really a martial art and practice kung fu at the mosque rather than praying. Another 20% thinks Islam is about discovering the deep truths of the universe and instead of praying, they sit down and discuss philosophy. And among the various misguided sects and groups, there is a 5% minority of true Muslims whose views have been overshadowed by the corrupt majority. The authoritarian thinks the use of force, intimidation and even violence is justified to make the views of this 5% dominant over the rest.

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

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

The reason is simple: humans are not animals. They are not sheep that need to be led by priesthood as authoritarians imagine. Humans, honored by God to the point that the angels bowed down to them, prefer guidance to misguidance once educated.

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

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

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

Was Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham) merely doing his job as a political manipulator when he argued with God’s angels in order to protect a group of homosexual rapists from God’s punishment? Isn’t it 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 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.”2

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

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

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

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

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Organic Communities

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

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

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

This community has an inertia of its own. An ultra-liberal Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how gay marriage should be legalized, and a Wahhabi Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how Muslims should be obsessing about political power night and day, both 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 of a vague set of beliefs, manners and practices that most of the community shares. There are also often some hangers-on, oddballs who differ greatly from the norm but who get tolerated since they do no harm.

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 and 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 talk about 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. What they really mean when they talk about consensus is, “I and everyone who agrees with me has this opinion.” 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”.

On the much-abused concept of ijmāʿ, I tend to agree with Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal when he says: “Whoever claims consensus has lied, because people may have differed on that matter without him knowing about it.” (Transmitted by his son ʿAbdullāh in his Masāʾil). Imam Aḥmad did not entirely reject the concept, he apparently believed that it could be validly applied when speaking of the Companions of the Prophet . If all the evidence we have tells us that all of the Companions agreed on the same thing, then that is a consensus. This, however, has nothing to do with the authoritarian’s appeal to consensus, which invariably refers to the opinions of a cherry-picked group of scholars in complete disregard for vast areas of Islamic intellectual history.

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.

But that is not enough for authoritarians, who are control-freaks who cannot stand the thought that someone somewhere might be having thoughts of his or her own. They demand consensus on everything big and small, and not just that, they demand that it should exactly reflect their own beliefs and prejudices.

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 reign to dictate Islam to everyone else and manufacture consensus out of thin air on every big and small issue.

But let’s say we do as they want. Let’s give them free reign. 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 ticking off 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.

Authoritarians think they can create more unity by forcing one version of Islam on everyone. But reality has proven their thinking false again and again.

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 ummah 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, as if God’s law contains nothing useful or interesting). 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.

Of course, authoritarians can derail this process, but here I’m speaking of humans acting like mature and civilized adults. 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 terrified of their loss of power and authority that comes from letting every Muslim come to their own conclusions about Islam in complete freedom and independence. They want to control history so that things go exactly 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.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia

Respecting non-Muslims

The same pluralist framework can be extended to non-Muslims. They too are sacred, even if they are engaged in worst of sins, they are still 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 ummah to have respect and sympathy for non-Muslims when Islam’s great Patriarch, Ibrāhīm, had just such an attitude. The Quran is infinitely more authoritative than the narrow-minded and prejudiced views of these Muslims in their incapacity to see non-Muslims as fellow humans, to be loved and respected.

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. 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.

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.3

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 far superior 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 the right and just way to treat humans.


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. 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.4

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).

Islam Question & Answer: On becoming an Islamic scholar

I’m just wondering since you possess a lot of knowledge on Islam why can’t you become an Islamic scholar? There is no official authority determining who is a scholar (ʿālim) and who is not. You are a scholar when others, especially other scholars, think you are. For now I am a student of Islamic studies, and […]


Islam Question & Answer: Is Saudi Arabia an Islamic country?

Why do you call Islamic countries imaginary? KSA, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (and many more) are ideal Islamic countries with Sharia court and all. There are many reasons to doubt the extent to which Islam is followed in so-called Muslim countries. For example, in the Quran, God says that He is at war with usurers […]


Islam Question & Answer: Is “halal” nail polish really halal?

I’ve recently came across ‘halal nail polish’ that is apparently water permeable and therefore we can perform our prayers as usual. What are your thoughts on this? (Since we cannot pray with normal nail polish on) I hope you can answer my question Proper wuḍūʾ (ablution) requires that the nails should be washed. From what […]


Islam Question & Answer: Pakistan’s behind-the-times Islam

I am a Muslim woman and I don’t psychologically feel ready for marriage. But my mother who is Pakistani is telling me that what I’m doing is haram. She told me that apparently Bin-Baz said that every woman should get married regardless of their doubts. But Islam itself tells us that marriage isn’t obligatory. How […]


A Short Introduction to Usury: How to Make the Rich Richer, the Poor Poorer and Destroy the Middle Class

Download links: PDFePubMobi (Kindle)

In this short ebook I discuss the history of usury, how it works, its effects on society and how the system can be reformed. An important part of the discussion is how today automation leads to wealth inequality and wage slavery, and how through using a usury-free system and a wealth and speculation tax automation can be turned into an investment that all of society benefits from.

I discuss how through avoiding usury and following a wealth tax inspired by Islam’s zakat basic income system communities can bypass the banks and corporations and revitalize their local economies. This is something that can be done by anyone right now, without reference to the government.

The 1599 Geneva Bible Notes or Study Bible (Downloadable eBook Versions)

Page from a Geneva Bible dated 1599, but apparently (re?)printed a few decades later

Download links: PDF – Word – ePub – Mobi (kindle)

The text was sourced from Sacred Texts. It uses modern spelling and the quoted verses are apparently from the KJV (only the notes come from a Geneva commentary).

Michael Hoffman, in his Usury in Christendom: A Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Notmade a reference to the 1599 Geneva Bible Notes as a bible commentary that forbad usury. As someone who has been studying the problem of usury on and off for years, I was interested to find and download this bible commentary for my own reading. But I soon found out that the matter is not so simple and I was led on a wild goose chase to find the version Hoffman was referring to among the dozens of versions available online. The result of my research is in the introduction of the files.

Get it on

At any rate, as I mention in the introduction, it seems reasonably certain that notes are really by John Calvin and/or some of his followers. Whether the edition is more rightly to be called The 1599 Geneva Bible Notes, The 1599 Geneva Bible Translation Notes, or The 1599 Geneva Study Bible I am not sure, but I discuss them at length in the introduction. However, whether the anti-usury note on Luke 19:23 is really by the early Puritans or was added later I cannot say. The note says:

To the bankers and money changers. Usury or loaning money at interest is strictly forbidden by the Bible, (Exo_22:25-27; Deu_23:19-20). Even a rate as low as one per cent interest was disallowed, (Neh_5:11). This servant had already told two lies. First he said the master was an austere or harsh man. This is a lie for the Lord is merciful and gracious. Next he called his master a thief because he reaped where he did not sow. Finally the master said to him that why did you not add insult to injury and loan the money out at interest so you could call your master a «usurer» too! If the servant had done this, his master would have been responsible for his servant's actions and guilty of usury. (Ed.)

I cannot find any information on who this “Ed.”/editor is. A website that presents the 1587 Geneva Bible also has this note on Luke 19:23, complete with “Ed.” This might refer to the editors who came after John Calvin and updated his 1560 translation with their own improvements. It could also refer to a much later editor, but the presence of this note both in a purported 1587 edition and a 1599 edition supports the hypothesis that this note was added in the late 16th century and not later.

Hoffman’s citation actually goes to a secondary source, a book called The Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal by Ted Weiland (available for free online here). It appears that Weiland may have simply copied the note on Luke 19:23 from one of the many Christian websites that present it, rather than from a manuscript or print edition.

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Aesthetic Theory

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 forgive 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.


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 . 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


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 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 , 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

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.

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