The Quran

The Quran and the Shape of the Earth: Is It Round or Flat?

There is some propaganda on the Internet about the Quran suggesting the earth is flat. They do not mention that respected and highly orthodox Islamic scholars like Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim all believed the earth to be round. They also refer to a fatwa by Ibn Baaz (a follower of Wahhabism, a version of Islam probably followed by less than 1% of the world’s Muslims) who said that no Muslim has the right to say that the earth is round. To anti-Islam propagandists the opinion and thinking of 99% of Muslims can be dismissed in favor of the fringe 1% since it helps validate their prejudices against Islam when they can focus only on the most negative examples of Muslims they can find.

Sheikh Yasir Qadhi writes:

I was in a discussion yesterday with a young Muslim struggling with his faith. He mentioned that he had read from sources critical to Islam that the Quran clearly contradicts known facts and represents the world-view of its time (7th century CE). And of the most blatant examples, according to him, was that the Quran clearly preaches that the world is flat. Now, I have said and firmly believe that the genre of 'scientific miracles in the Quran' that we all grew up reading is in fact a dangerous genre, because it reads in 'facts' where no such facts exist, and because it posits one's faith on a purely scientific basis (so that when 'science', which is ever-evolving, might seem to contradict the Quran, this will lead to a weakness of faith). Nonetheless, to claim that the Quran preaches that the world is flat is an outrageous claim. In fact there is unanimous consensus amongst medieval Muslim scholars to the contrary.

Ibn Hazm (d. 1064 CE), wrote over a thousand years ago in his book al-Fisal, "I do not know of a single scholar worth the title of scholar who claims other than that the earth is round. Indeed the evidences in the Quran and Sunnah are numerous to this effect" [al-Fisal, v. 2 p. 78].

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), someone who is typically accused of literalism, wrote that there is unanimous consensus of all the scholars of Islam that the world is round, and that reality and perception also proves this, for, as he writes, it is well known that the Sun sets on different peoples at different times, and does not set on the whole world at the same time. In fact, writes Ibn Taymiyya, it is truly an ignorant person who claims that the earth is not round. [Majmu al-Fatawa, v. 6, p. 586]. And there are many others scholars, such as al-Razi, who wrote on this subject, and I do not know of any medieval scholar who held another view.

It is true that most of the Quranic verses on this issue are vague; there is no strong proof one way or another. There are verses like the following which could be referring to a flat earth or they may just be using literary language to speak of God’s active and highly thoughtful and considerate involvement in the design of the earth for the specific benefit of humans:

15:19 And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.

20:53 He Who has, made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky.” With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others.

43:10 (Yea, the same that) has made for you the earth (like a carpet) spread out, and has made for you roads (and channels) therein, in order that ye may find guidance (on the way);

50:7 And the earth- We have spread it out, and set thereon mountains standing firm, and produced therein every kind of beautiful growth (in pairs)

The Quran says:

"He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He wraps the night up in the day, and wraps the day up in the night." (Surah az-Zumar 5)

The word used for “wrap” is kawwara, which is used in Arabic to refer to wrapping something around a spherical thing, such as wrapping a turban around the head. The Arabic word for ball is kura, from the same root. In Arabic all words belonging to the same root have a similar theme to them; when the Quran says the night is wrapped around the day and uses kawwara, this creates the image of darkness overcoming a spherical thing in the mind. It is extremely silly to say there is no suggestion of the earth’s roundness in this verse.

The Quran also uses daḥāhā (”he threw it in a rolling motion”) in verse 79:30  to refer to God creating earth in space. The Meccan children used to play a game with stones similar to marbles that they called al-madāḥi (from the same root as daḥāhā). The root of this word brings up the image of a stone rolling, which is again in consonance with a round earth.

In another place, 41:11, it speaks of interstellar dust gathering to form the earth. It also speaks of the expansion of the universe:

We constructed the universe through power, and We are expanding it. (Verse 51:47)

A fair-minded reader of the Quran will find in it some incredibly suggestive hints toward its truth (such as the strange mention of the expansion of the universe) while not finding anything in it that clearly and unequivocally says the earth is flat. A person who starts out by thinking the earth is flat can certainly re-interpret everything in the Quran to make it support their theory. But such a person’s opinion stands against the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, who also studied the Quran and found it to support a round earth theory.

The flat earth issue in Islam is therefore made up of a fringe group of Islamic scholars, atheists and anti-Islam propagandists saying the earth is flat, and 99% of the world’s Muslims since the Middle Ages saying the earth is round.

Suicide and self-harm in Islam

This is a sensitive but also important topic. I remember at my lowest and my worst, needing to connect myself to Allah. It was during college . I was dealing with clinical depression, I also had PTSD. I was extremely suicidal, and I had been self-harming since years. I knew little about Islam, so I searched what islam says about being suicidal, self-harm, etc to be comforted, but instead I saw verses of Quran condemning suicide& threatening with harsh punishment.

I saw ahadith mentioning how the ones who commit suicide will repetitively kill themselves in such a way in the hereafter. many Islamic websites saying it’s a sin to self-harm. On top of my struggles I was dealing with, I felt like I was carrying a heavy burden on the religious side .I tried to numb my depression and to stop my self-harm behavior and suppress my suicidal thoughts,but it got worse. I thought I was a bad person. Then it hit me, why would The Creator of heavens not understand

Since then I’ve struggled with my faith. I realize that I needed Allah’s comfort and not fear. Since its taboo, I can never speak about this. I have no sense of directions, but just guilt of so many years thinking I indulged in sinful behavior by being sick. I don’t think common people understand self-harm and the mechanism of it , Which I can understand. But Allah? It’s a dark place to be mentally ill & ive crossed many sisters who are told they don’t have enough faith and they too feel bad.

I appreciate the difficulty of your situation. The problem is that you have read a few verses of the Quran without taking the rest into consideration, which always leads to an unbalanced view of God. And you should never let other people color your understanding of Him. Regarding suicide, the Quran has only this to say:

And spend in the cause of God, and do not throw yourselves with your own hands into ruin, and be charitable. God loves the charitable.1

The Quran also says:

O you who believe! Do not consume each other’s wealth illicitly, but trade by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves, for God is Merciful towards you.2

But this second verse is actually referring to one Muslim killing another, as can be seen from the fact that first part of the verse is talking about interactions between Muslims, and from the fact that in verse 2:54, the same wording regarding killing is used to refer to a certain group of Jews killing another group, rather than their committing suicide. Another piece of evidence is that the same wording is used in the same chapter, in verse 4:66, in reference to God commanding a group of people to fight another. Interpreting 4:29 as referring to suicide is a bit far-fetched for someone who is familiar with the Quran, although the literal wording of the verse can be thought to mean that.

In Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim there is the story of a man who commits suicide but who is assumed by the Prophet to be forgiven by God, and he himself prays for him. Imam al-Nawawī, in his commentary on the narration, says that this means that God judges each case of suicide individually, deciding whether it deserves punishment or not.3

Back to the Quran, regards those who have sinned:

Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves: do not despair of God’s mercy, for God forgives all sins. He is indeed the Forgiver, the Clement.”4

It also says:

God does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives anything other than that to whomever He wills. Whoever associates anything with God has devised a monstrous sin.5

If you rely on the understanding of other people of the Quran, you get a skewed picture that reflects the person’s biases. But if you read the Quran itself, all of it, you get a balanced picture. You recognize that God is far more intelligent, kinder and wiser than any human. It is due to relying on other people’s interpretations that we end up questioning God’s wisdom and kindness. If we read the Quran itself, we see that it nearly always keeps things vague, showing us that for every rule there nearly always are exceptions, and that it is God who ultimately judges things. It is illogical to assume that God, who created humans, is less wise and kind than humans, or that His justice may contain faults.

God understands us perfectly. He does not want us to become lax in our faith, saying that He will forgive us regardless of what we do. It is for this reason that the Quran continuously reminds us to fear God. But that is only part of the picture. The Quran also continuously reminds us of God’s kindness and mercy, and the fact the He does not expect us to be super-human in our resolve and self-control:

God does not burden any soul beyond its capacity. To its credit is what it earns, and against it is what it commits. “Our Lord, do not condemn us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord, do not burden us as You have burdened those before us. Our Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear; and pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Lord and Master, so help us against the disbelieving people.”6

And do not come near the property of the orphan, except with the best intentions, until he reaches maturity. And give full weight and full measure, equitably. We do not burden any soul beyond its capacity. And when you speak, be fair, even if it concerns a close relative. And fulfill your covenant with God. All this He has enjoined upon you, so that you may take heed.7

As for those who believe and do righteous works—We never burden any soul beyond its capacity—these are the inhabitants of the Garden; abiding therein eternally.8

We never burden any soul beyond its capacity. And with Us is a record that tells the truth, and they will not be wronged.9

The wealthy shall spend according to his means; and he whose resources are restricted shall spend according to what God has given him. God never burdens a soul beyond what He has given it. God will bring ease after hardship.10

The God of the Quran is utterly just and kind. He never asks us to do the impossible, and He is always willing to forgive, and He understands us better than we understand ourselves. There is no human on earth as kind or understanding as God. God does not accept laxity in us, He always wants us to be better, for this reason He constantly commands us to strive to be better. He is not like a spoiling mother who will let us go to ruin by accepting our negative and selfish behaviors; He shows our true natures to us, like a good teacher and mentor. But He is always willing to forgive if we go back to Him with humility and submission.

If other Muslims do not understand you and quote random verses and narrations that make you feel misunderstood, this shows you the limits of human kindness and empathy rather than God. I recommend that you read the Quran many times (if you do not speak Arabic, a good translation would be Abdel Haleem’s), so that when someone quotes to you a random verse out of context you would be able to remember other verses that counterbalance it. There is no excuse for letting other people become middlemen between us and God when God has sent us the best book ever written.

Best wishes inshaAllah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no such thing as humanely striking a woman.

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

Let’s now take a look at verse 4:34:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic Violence in Islam

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic law creates this situation inside a family:

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

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

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

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

Senseless Beatings and Cultural Mores

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

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

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

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

The Arabic word that is rendered as “disloyalty” above is nushūz, which according to al-Rāzī has meaning close to “mutiny”, it is when a person acts as if they are superior to a figure of authority (as in a soldier acting in disregard of an officer’s rank).14 It literally means “to consider oneself superior”, the word can be used to describe a patch of land as being higher than another.1516

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

  • A woman refusing to engage in sexual intimacy with her husband without a valid reason.17 Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (grandfather of the more famous Ibn Rushd), in answer to a question, says that a man is not allowed to strike his wife if she refuses sexual intimacy unless she is doing it out of malice and spite and he fears she will continue to become more rebellious.18
  • Refusing to do housework. The Ḥanabalī scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīya (d. 751 AH / 1350 CE) considers it a duty, saying that the marriage contract assumes that the woman perform such services,19 while the Shāfiʿī jurist Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (d. 476 AH / c. 1083 CE) does not consider housework one of her duties.20 According to the Spanish Malikī scholar al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH / c. 1273 CE), whether housework is obligatory depends on her social class; it is not obligatory for upper class women who expect their husbands to hire servants.21
  • Refusing to join the man in his home after marriage without a valid reason.
  • Inviting someone into her marital home against her husband’s wishes.

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

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

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

The Quran does not give us a strict definition of nushūz, allowing us to make its scope wider or narrower as our reason, conscience and cultural experience demands. Any case of a woman suffering violence in a way that is clearly unjust and unreasonable can automatically be considered outside the bounds of 4:34: In a Muslim society, a woman should never have occasion to say that her husband beat her without a valid reason. If that is true, her husband should be punishable by law, as is the opinion of Ibn Ḥazm.22 Scholars, however, have historically differed greatly on whether and when a man can be held accountable for striking his wife, some going as far as practically prohibiting all violence and others giving a man carte blanche to beat his wife whenever he wants.23 But thanks to the vagueness of the concept of nushūz, we are under no strict limitation in our ability to give it a reading that fits reason and conscience. In my proposed interpretation of 4:34, if a wife was struck by a husband, it would only be justified in situations like this:

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

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

Theoretical Laws versus Real-Life Effects

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

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

The “Rule” of Husbands

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

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

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

Why Make Husbands Policemen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men are qawwamūn (keepers, protectors and authorities) over women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.24

The Quran gives two reasons:

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

The Quran’s contention, therefore, is that a family functions best when a man is the chief authority, because it is in the nature of human families that they function best when a man is the chief authority. We have on convincing scientific evidence for this at the moment, but we may have it in ten or twenty years. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a plausible reconciliation of Islam and evolution see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis) in a way that makes males different from females, and this difference justifies different roles within a relationship.

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

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

Bad Husbands

At this point a reader may wonder why there is a need for dealing with bad wives, while no similar clause exists in the Quran for dealing with bad husbands. What about a husband intent on doing harm to his family or wife?

Islam considers a man’s family an extension of himself. He is supposed to take care of it as a part of himself. This “sense of ownership” is designed to make him devoted to his wife and children, putting their interests on an equal footing to his own personal interests. In Islam, the family unit is arranged in such a way as to make it nonsensical for a man to try to damage it, for him it would be like shooting himself in the foot. This “sense of ownership” seems psychologically necessary to motivate men to feel attached to their families and to work hard for its benefit. Without it, you get selfish, irresponsible and child-like men like some of those in the West who are focused on their own individual pleasures and interests at the expense of their families.

In Islam, the family man is a ruler of his own little kingdom, attached to it and its interests. In the West, this type of attachment has broken down for many people. This is perhaps an important reason for the low fertility rates of all modern irreligious societies. Men are no longer willing to bear the great responsibility of having to care for children. For a Western man, a child represents a serious risk and responsibility who does not add any privileges or advantages to his life. He would rather enjoy intimacy with a woman without worrying about children. For a Muslim man, things are completely different. For him a child is an addition to the family unit, which itself is an extension of himself. The law forces him to take care of his wife and children, but it also grants him the privilege of being the unchallenged authority in his household. He is granted a little kingdom and is held responsible for it.

When it comes to the issue of a bad husband, the Islamic social order of having the man as the chief authority in the household means that it does not make sense for a wife to be a disciplining authority over him. If the husband is bad, she has to use alternative methods that make sense within her position in the family:

  • Asking for support from her and his family.
  • Asking for support from community leaders, such as imams.
  • Asking for the support of government agencies.
  • Threatening divorce.

Devout Muslims and Habitual Wife-beaters

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarize, verse 4:34 creates an informal police force made up of husbands. They are charged with the protection of the integrity of their families and are given the power of violence as a last resort in the carrying out of this duty. Any use of violence by a husband that falls outside of this definition can be punished by the law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interfacing With Secular Law

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

Fighting Violence Against Women

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

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

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

 

Reader Questions

Is a woman allowed to "beat" her husband if he plans on doing something terrible? (I mean beat as in to kick some sense into him, like a little slap or something...) Let's take your example of wanting to burn the house down

That is similar to the case of a citizen striking a policeman who wants to do something harmful. While her action runs contrary to 4:34, it is in accordance with other laws regarding the protection of life and property. So if her action is clearly justified, there would no reason to hold it against her, she can even be praised for doing the right thing.

In legal thinking, often numerous laws apply to the same situation all at the same time. It is up to the jurist to make sense of the complexities of the law and real life and come up with what is just and sensible. Islamic law is not made to be applied by senseless robots, but by intelligent humans who want to do what is just and right and kind in all circumstances.

Not feeling at ease when reading the Quran

Whenever I read the Quran I don't feel ease at all. Especially the verses about punishment , war etc

The Quran is written to help the faithful deal with all of this life and the afterlife’s primary issues, which includes war in this life and God’s punishments in the afterlife. Certain chapters of the Quran, such as chapter 9 (al-Tawbah) are designed to be grim because they are dealing with certain extremely difficult situations that the Muslims faced.

What you can do is find which chapters you find inspiring and enjoyable and read those. Some chapters, like Maryam/Mary, are heart-touching without being grim.

The Quran guarantees religious freedom, so why don’t Muslim scholars believe in it?

I would be very thankful if you could answer me on my following question. In Quran is written: "There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing."

But also on other places is talked about punishing or killing people who do things like for example: stopping being Muslim, having sex before marriage, being gay and so on. With punishing I mean punishing on this world, and not when we die. If we have freedom to be Muslims or not, why there is no freedom of doing some things that are against religion but don't hurt other people. I am really confused and i hope you can clear this topic for me. Thank you in advance.

Regarding the issue of religious freedom, you are right that the Quran guarantees it. The scholars, however, had to also reconcile various hadith narrations in which the Prophet Muhammad is mentioned as putting limitations on religious freedom. Another case is that of Abu Bakr in the Riddah wars; when some Arabian tribes wanted to leave Islam and stop paying the zakat, Abu Bakr did not let them but fought them until they were one again part of the Islamic state.

Out of these historical anecdotes, the scholars tried to come up with an interpretation of the religious freedom mentioned in the Quran. The interpretation they came up with was that Islam should not be forced on others, but that a Muslim should not be allowed to leave Islam. From their position of power and authority, it seemed only natural that this should be the case. Islam is God’s chosen religion, so people should be prevented from leaving it for their own good if not for anyone else’s.

That way of thinking went unchallenged until the last century or so. The new reality that Muslims found themselves in (being in a position of weakness rather than strength) forced the scholars to re-examine their interpretation of the idea of religious freedom. In the 20th century there was also a new movement to take the Quran more seriously than before. In the past, the Quran was treated as just a piece of historical evidence that stood side-by-side with hadith. In the 20th century, various new thinkers (Mustafa Mahmud, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sayyid Qutb, Said Nursi, Ahmad Moftizadeh) arose who rejected this way of thinking and considered the Quran’s teachings superior and more authoritative than hadith. And with this came a new interpretation of various issues within Islam.

Out of this atmosphere came people like Mahmud Shaltut (Grand Imam of Al-Azhar from 1958 to 1963) ruled that apostates are only punished if they try to fight the Muslims and plot against them, that mere apostasy is not punishable, and more recently Ali Gomaa (Grand Mufti of Egypt from 2003–2013), who also says that apostasy is not punishable in Islam unless the apostates try to make other Muslims leave Islam. While this is not perfect religious freedom and not perfect freedom of speech, it is an important step in the right direction. Many clerics have yet to update their thinking on this matter, but that might happen within the next 50 years.

Regarding the death penalty for things like adultery and homosexual sex, this too, like the issue of apostasy, went unchallenged until the 20th century. The Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra, one of the greatest scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, rejected execution of adulterers saying that the historical evidence could be interpreted in a different way. Abu Zahra is not a liberal modernist, he was one of the religious scholars (ulema), and his opinion is highly significant.

Ideally, there should be a constitutional law that all Muslims and non-Muslims follow (as in Malaysia, although the Malaysian system has serious issues). Islamic law would be something that all Muslims willingly choose to live under, and anyone who wants to leave Islam should have the right to do so, so that they stop being subject to Islamic law and will only be subject to constitutional law that Muslims and non-Muslims agree upon.

In summary, the things you mentioned (killing apostates, adulterers and homosexuals) are all issues that have already been solved by respected scholars. What remains is for the rest of the scholars and preachers to catch up.

What to do if you cannot read the Quran very well

I want to read the Qur'an to get hasanat but my Arabic is bad and I might read wrong and I don't understand most of what I'm reading. What can I do?

You can listen to it from beginning to end many times, in this way you will get used to its proper reading. Afterwards you can start reading along while listening to it, and in this way you reading may improve.

Some people (including many jurists) say that listening to it does not bring the same rewards as reading, but there is no clear evidence for this opinion. Personally I prefer to listen to it with the voice of Mishary al-Afasi. I use an audiobook listening android app (Listen Audiobook Player) that keeps track of my place. It also allows me to speed up the recitation, I generally listen to it at 2.5x speed since this is the most comfortable for me.

As for improving your Arabic comprehension, that requires hundreds of hours of practice. One way you could do it is by using a book of Quran that has the Arabic and the English side by side, in that way you could read one Arabic sentence, then reading the English translation, then read the next sentence. In this way your brain will pick up the meanings of the words even if you do not formally try to memorize the meanings.

What to do if the Quran (in English) does not touch your heart

I have an issue I feel bad about. Whenever I read the Qur'an i can't connect to it. At worst I haven't even had a clear feeling it's from God. Idk why. Maybe because I don't know Arabic. But whenever I watch a religious video explaining the religion i feel very connected.

You could try different translations of the Quran, some of them have a very technical style that is hard to connect to. Many people like The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics) which is not available for free online. You can also try Irving’s translation, which is free.

And if that doesn’t work, but you continue to enjoy lectures, then that is fine too. Once you have understood the religion and follow it, you are free to worship God and seek spirituality in the way that works best for you.

My favorite way to feel spiritual other than listening to the Quran is to read my collection of Ibn al-Jawzi’s sayings, which I have published as a book and which you can read here for free.

What to do if all the negative coverage of Islam and online Islam-bashing affects you

I'm from India and I see a lot of negativity towards Islam and it saddens me very much. Filthy comments made about Islam and people who practice Islam. I usually do not indulge in such arguments/comments because there is no point but it effects me. Please help Jazakallah khair

That is a promise of the Quran come true:

You will be tested through your possessions and your persons; and you will hear from those who received the Scripture before you, and from those who do not acknowledge the oneness of God, much abuse. But if you persevere and lead a righteous life—that indeed is a mark of great determination. (The Quran, verse 3:186)

The best thing to do is go on with your life like normal. It is not our job to guide people, and especially not those who say nasty things about Islam. Our job is to practice Islam, which means to stay close to God, to obey His commandments, to be kind and generous.

The Quran’s command regarding dealing with such people is to ignore them (instead of engaging them and trying to change their minds),

So turn away from them, and wait. They too are waiting. (Verse 32:30)

So avoid him who has turned away from Our remembrance, and desires nothing but the present life. That is the extent of their knowledge. Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He knows best who has accepted guidance. (Verses 53:29-30)

The servants of the Merciful are those who walk the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace.” (Verse 25:63)

When you encounter those who mockingly gossip about Our revelations, turn away from them, until they engage in another topic. (Verse 6:68)

So leave alone those who take their religion for play and pastime, and whom the worldly life has deceived. (Verse 6:70)

While some of what we hear and read can be very upsetting, this is nothing new. All of the prophets have suffered similar treatment. This is not a problem that can be solved, it is a fact of life, like bad weather. We have to accept that it exists and move on with your lives. Our focus, when dealing with non-Muslims, should be that the good and open-hearted among them should have an accurate view of Islam. As for those who dislike us, it is not our business to change them, they have already made up their minds.

The Prophet, , used to wish to have miraculous powers to be able to guide more people to Islam. The Quran’s answer was this:

Even if there were a Quran by which mountains could be set in motion, or by which the earth could be shattered, or by which the dead could be made to speak… In fact, every decision rests with God. Did the believers not give up and realize that had God willed, He would have guided all humanity? Disasters will continue to strike those who disbelieve, because of their deeds, or they fall near their homes, until God’s promise comes true. God never breaks a promise. (Verse 13:31)

The Quran teaches us that it is God who guides people. Even the Prophet could not guide people unless God willed it:

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

For these reasons, we must not think it our duty to guide people. Our duty is to practice Islam, and to present an accurate view of Islam. What people do in response is their business, we cannot control their thinking, and we cannot force them to be guided.

Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template: A Plausible Reconciliation of the Quran and the Theory of Evolution

Download PDF version [450 kilobytes]

Introduction

How can any rational person believe in religion when there is no proof for it? To put it another way, doesn’t a believer, by the mere fact of believing, prove their credulity and irrationality?

The history of religion, including that of Islam, is often thought of as a struggle between “faith” and “reason”; that a Muslim can be as much a rationalist and empiricist as an irreligious person is inadmissible for many. When it comes to a Muslim rationalist, it is assumed that there must always be a “catch”, some laxity of mind or weakness of spirit that makes them inferior rationalists or inferior Muslims. If they are devout, they may wish to be rationalists and empiricists, they may even think they are, but at the end of the day they are merely practicing self-delusion.

To today’s proud secular mind, there is always some sickness or feeblemindedness hiding beneath faith.

In this essay I will present a form of faithful rationality, inspired by highly futuristic Islamic theological ideas from over 900 years ago, that reconciles faith and reason without there being any “catch”; the world is as rational as any scientist imagines it to be, and as controlled and maintained by God as any mystic imagines it to be. The “Matrix” of the Persian philosopher and mystic Al-Ghazali (died 1111 CE), i.e. his conceptualization of the universe as something akin to a computer simulation, provides for intellectually honest rationality that in no way places chains on God’s powers, nor does it place chains on science and rationality. One can wholeheartedly believe in the entirety of the Quran in its plainest sense while retaining their independence of mind, skepticism and rationality. This may sound like rather too much for a religious person to claim, but I hope to illustrate it in the first part of this essay.

The essay goes on to use the notion of a “divine template” to reconcile the Quran’s views on creation with the theory of evolution. This notion does not come from ancient Islamic learning, it is my own creation arrived at after years of searching and speculation. There is no “catch” here either; the proposed reconciliation will make complete sense to any scientist and any lover of the Quran without requiring either to submit to the other’s authority, once they understand al-Ghazali’s Matrix.

The essay will spend some time building the groundwork for the argument on evolution that follows. Those wishing to only read the part having to do with evolution may go directly to the section “Topology: God’s Template” and read from there.

So-Called “Proofs” of God’s Existence

I do not believe that a proof for God’s existence is possible. Numerous theologians, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, inspired by Aristotle and other philosophers, have proposed theories that they claim prove that God must exist. All such proofs suffer from a fatal weakness recognized by Kant, namely that they assume the logic of this universe extends to what is outside of it. The Christian philosopher Edward Feser, in his proofs of God’s existence, mentions the metaphor of a lamp in a dark place. The lamp illuminates a small area representing the limits of human knowledge, stuck as we are within this universe. He says that even though we only have knowledge of a small area of what is potentially knowable, we can take it for granted that the dark areas also follow the same rules. In our world, something cannot come from nothing, therefore there must be a creator. We do not know what is outside our world, but according to Feser it is completely safe to assume that what applies in our world will also apply outside of it.

And that is the problem. In reality, we do not at all know with certainty whether what applies in our world also applies outside of it. It is quite a leap of faith to assume that the area outside the circle of light follows the same rules as the area inside the circle. For all that we know, the unknown dark areas might be abysses full of multi-dimensional knots that no human can ever grasp. Perhaps we are stuck in a false simulation that hides from us the true nature of reality, which may have nothing to do with what the philosophers imagine.

The proofs offered for God’s existence strongly suggest that God exists, but the problem is that a strong suggestion is not a proof. A real proof is one that, like Euclid’s proofs, can be verified by any rational human without requiring any leaps of faith. “Proofs” of God’s existence, even if they come infinitely close to a mathematical proof, are not proofs. There is always an unbridgeable gap between them and true proofs, therefore a person who calls them proofs is committing the crime of sophistry; they are trying to bridge a gap in logic through rhetoric.

My conscience recognizes the pull of Feser’s “proofs”, but my conscience also recognizes their inherent weakness and rebels against calling them “proofs”. I agree with Roger Scruton when he says:

and while none of them is wholly believable, they serve the useful purpose of showing the rumours of God’s death to be greatly exaggerated.1

I believe there can never be hard evidence that compels all rational people to believe in God. There is, however, a preponderance of soft evidence that, once recognized, experienced and accepted by a person, make it unconscionable for them to reject God. Not all humans necessarily get exposed to sufficient soft evidence to make it unconscionable for them to reject God, this is something about which I do not speculate.

In order for me, as a self-respecting human, to be able to continue believing in my religion, I must be able to re-analyze its founding text (the Quran) at any time of my choosing and reach the same conclusion about it, the same way that any re-analysis of one of Euclid’s proofs should always lead to the same conclusion, namely that the proof is correct. This should happen despite my increase in knowledge and experience as I age, despite all the secular books I read, including highly enjoyable books by atheists like Terry Pratchett. At age 15 I read the Quran and found it true. At 40 I should be able to read it again and find it true, despite the fact that I will be very much a different person by then. An atheist may imagine that as a faithful person’s intellectual horizons grow wider, it will become increasingly more difficult for them to continue believing in their faith. That would be true of a false religion. But if a religion is truly from the Creator and is based on an unadulterated text that transmits His words, then the experience should be quite the opposite. The more one learns about the Creator’s handiwork (this universe and everything in it), the more sense His words should make and the more convincing they should become.

So is Islam really that “one true” religion that all of these highly intelligent and admirable non-Muslims failed to get the memo about? It is not my goal to convince readers of Islam’s supposed truth, but this essay should shed some light on certain misconceptions that have prevented such people from taking Islam’s most important text, the Quran, seriously. My goal is the far narrower one of showing that the Quran and the theory of evolution have no difficulties with one another once we give the Quran a reading that is innocent of preconceived notions about a supposed incompatibility. I let the Quran speak for itself, and I write as someone who has read this book dozens of times in the original Arabic, besides studying translations and interpretations of it in Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic and English.

The most important reason preventing Muslims from appreciating the Quran’s compatibility with evolution is that they do not take the Quran very seriously. They treat it as a historical artifact immersed in a vast web of cultural and intellectual assumptions. The book’s meaning is dimmed by so many lenses of bias that the book rarely gets a chance to speak for itself.

The religion of Islam is not based solely on the Quran but also on the far greater literature of hadith which transmits sayings and actions from the time of Islam’s founder. If it is shown that the Quran is compatible with the theory of evolution, that does not necessarily mean that hadith is. This issue will be dealt with later in the essay.

While anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism is common among the religious, it is not true to say that this is a doctrine of the Quran. The Quran speaks of observation and proof in numerous places. Discovering this conflict between the irrationalist tendencies of some Muslims and the seemingly rationalist doctrines of the Quran, I am forced to build my own Islam based on the Quran.

It would be a mistake to consider Islam anti-rationality, anti-skepticism, anti-science or anti-evolution merely because many Muslims act as if it is. The truth is that the religion of the Quran is founded upon the commandment ‘Thou shalt question!’ The Quran continuously mocks various sections of humanity for not thinking clearly or for believing in superstition, and constantly calls its readers to think, to reason, to observe, to analyze, to question. Speaking to those Christians and Jews who claim that only Christians/Jews will enter Paradise, it asks for “proof”.2

Speaking to pagans, it asks them to show a proof for the truth of their deities.3 The question “Will you then not reason?” is used 13 times in the Quran.

The Quran claims to be reasonable, and claims to contain much to convince the ulī l-albāb (“those endowed with intelligence and wisdom”, a phrase that is used nine times in the Quran). In verse 39:21, it says:

Have you not considered how God sends down water from the sky, then He makes it flow into underground wells, then He produces with it plants of various colors, then they wither and you see them yellowing, then He turns them into debris? Surely in this is a reminder for ulī l-albāb.

To a skeptic, it will seem especially ironic that the Quran is calling wise and intelligent people to take its claim seriously that perfectly natural phenomena like rain and the growth of plants are God’s doing. There is nothing special about a book pretending that it is convincing or that reasonable people will agree with it. Most books make just such a claim.

However, as a skeptic who wants to make an accurate judgment about the Quran’s logic, I should find out what I could arrive at if I were to take the book seriously. Let’s pretend that the book is what it says it is, that it really is reasonable, that it is from an invisible but all-knowing God, and that it can be found as such by intelligent and wise people, where does this take us?

The Quran claims to contain the unadulterated words of God, claims to contain no errors, and claims to enjoy divine protection against corruption. It logically follows that the presence of a single error proves the entire book false, because it either means that God uttered a falsehood, or that he was incapable of protecting His book from corruption, both of which are equally fatal flaws in an all-powerful God.

The Rain of God

In the Quran, God takes credit for various natural phenomena that all have scientific explanations, as in the aforementioned verse 39:21. More of these instances are:

God is He who sends the winds. They stir up clouds. Then He spreads them in the sky as He wills. And He breaks them apart. Then you see rain drops issuing from their midst. Then, when He makes it fall upon whom He wills of His servants, behold, they rejoice.4

It is He who sends the wind ahead of His mercy. Then, when they have gathered up heavy clouds, We drive them to a dead land, where We make water come down, and with it We bring out all kinds of fruits. Thus We bring out the dead—perhaps you will reflect.5

Have you not seen how God propels the clouds, then brings them together, then piles them into a heap, and you see rain drops emerging from its midst? How He brings down loads of hail from the sky, striking with it whomever He wills, and diverting it from whomever He wills? The flash of its lightning almost snatches the sight away.6

We, as rational humans, are supposed to believe that God is responsible for the things described above, even though we never see God taking care of these things. This leads one to think that perhaps the universe would go on functioning like normal even if there was no God. We can carry out experiments inside sealed chambers where we can make it rain or snow, what does God have to do with any of this?

Imagine a king giving a speech in a newly conquered city, telling the listeners “I bring you food, so be thankful!” A skeptical person may go to the gates of the city early in the morning to see who it is who actually brings food. Since he never sees the king himself carrying sacks of flour into the city, he concludes that the king lied.

His mistake is that he fails to realize that it is by the king’s order that people are bringing food to his city, so when the king says he is doing it, he is right. If it wasn’t for the king, it wouldn’t be happening.

When God supposedly claims to make it rain, the fact that His hand cannot be detected in the process does not necessarily mean he is lying. If we are to really find out whether God’s claim is true, we have to investigate further. If the pharaoh of Egypt claims that he makes the sun rise, I would be skeptical and ask him to provide some very convincing evidence before I take him seriously. In all likelihood the sun would rise even if the pharaoh were to die.

So what is so special about a 14-centuries-old book out of the deserts of Arabia that I should take it seriously when it says its writer makes it rain?

Hard and Soft Evidence

Atheists demand hard evidence before they believe in books like the Quran. But such evidence is not forthcoming. The Quran itself promises that it will not be forthcoming:

Are they waiting for anything but for the angels to come to them, or for your Lord to arrive, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? On the Day when some of your Lord’s signs come (i.e. when hard evidence for God’s existence is seen), no soul will benefit from its faith unless it had believed previously, or had earned goodness through its faith. Say, “Wait, we too are waiting.”7

The above concept is repeated in multiple places in the Quran; that once a person has seen irrefutable evidence for God’s existence, their faith will no longer be of any worth, since faith will no longer be necessary.

Seeing hard evidence for God’s existence places a terrible burden on humans. This is expressed in one of the most terrifying verses of the Quran in the story of Jesus and the Apostles:

And when the disciples said, “O Jesus son of Mary, is your Lord able to bring down for us a feast from heaven?” He said, “Fear God, if you are believers.”

They said, “We wish to eat from it, so that our hearts may be reassured, and know that you have told us the truth, and be among those who witness it.”

Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.”

God said, “I will send it down to you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I will punish him with a punishment the like of which I never punish any other being.”8

In verse 115 above, the writer of the Quran claims that once the Apostles (and others present) see empirical evidence for God’s existence, this changes the very nature of their relationship with Him. They made a request and God physically revealed Himself to them by responding. If they were to deny God’s existence after that, they would deserve a singularly terrible punishment.

The purpose of this universe, in the Quranic view, is to host free-willed creatures who have the option of rejecting God’s existence–so that an act of will and a submission of the heart is needed for them to become believers in Him, and for this act of will, which they have to repeat every day of their faithful lives, they will be rewarded with Paradise. If God’s existence were ever proven, and the world did not end, this would prove the Quran false, since the Quran claims that hard evidence for God’s existence will only be shown to humanity when the world ends.

Are they waiting for God Himself to come to them in the shadows of the clouds, together with the angels, when the matter has been settled? All things are returned to God.9

Once God’s existence is empirically shown, the “matter” will be “settled”, that will be the end of the age-old argument between theism and atheism. Hard evidence would settle the matter; the point of faith is to believe in God without it. This naturally leads to the thinking that religion asks humans to abandon rationality for the sake of faith. But the truth is otherwise, since there is a second category of evidence that is ignored by atheists: soft evidence.

A verse of the Quran is called an āya in Arabic, which literally means “sign”, something on the road that points toward a direction. As for its figurative meaning, the Indian Islamic scholar Hamiduddin Farahi (1863-1930) says in his definition of āya:

That which is used as evidence toward (proving) some matter. It is not the whole of the proof, but it directs you toward the proof.10

Each verse of the Quran acts as a truth-pointer. A skeptic can read its verses without reaching any conclusion about the book’s truth or falsehood. Open a book of Quran and you will see these verses at its beginning:

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.

The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Master of the Day of Judgment.

It is You we worship, and upon You we call for help.

Guide us to the straight path.

The path of those You have blessed, not of those against whom there is anger, nor of those who are misguided.

These verses do not contain anything to launch a critique on. God is the Lord of the Worlds, He is gracious and merciful, and He is the master of the Day of Judgment. These claims are unassailable, since they do not make any scientifically testable claims. The verses might as well be saying that the universe is carried on the back of a giant turtle; we have no way of verifying their claims.

However, if the skeptic goes on to read, one thing they will find striking will be the absence of nonsense. How likely is it that a man out of 7th century Arabia could have written a page of cosmological fiction without it containing anything that insults one’s intelligence in the 21st century?

Going on to read page after page, the skeptic’s conscience is seriously challenged. Can he in good conscience say this is human-written fiction?

Personally when I read the Quran with a skeptical eye, assuming it was written by Muhammad himself, I cannot maintain my skepticism beyond a few pages without feeling like a criminal, like I’m acting against my conscience. At page 5, already impressed with the lack of anything that is obviously false or ridiculous, I may admit that there is a 1% chance that this is from God, but my skepticism makes me continue to say that Muhammad may have simply been a genius, therefore I say that it is still 99% likely that a human wrote it. The rational assumption is that any piece of text you see is human-created, extraordinary evidence is needed to prove otherwise.

At page 10, however, I am further impressed with the Quran’s quality; its way of thinking, its morality and ethics, its continued lack of nonsense, therefore I may end up saying that there is a 98% chance it is  human-written and a 2% it is not. By page 300 my conscience may force me to admit that there is a 30% chance that it is from God. By page 600 (the end of the book), I may conclude that there is a 50% chance that it is from God (the Bible can act the same way on a person. This does not contradict what I say about the Quran, since I believe parts of the Bible are also from God, therefore it is only natural that those parts should have similar effects to the Quran on the reader).

I will have many difficulties with the book, such as its taking credit for natural phenomena, but the book, its form and content, make it impossible for me to casually dismiss it. The Quran, for one who reads it with naïve eyes in the original Arabic, is a serious problem that must be addressed if one is to remain honest with himself or herself. If the Quran is true, I must do as it says. I cannot summarily dismiss, since I have acknowledged that there is a 50% chance it is from God. Therefore the Quran throws me into serious intellectual turmoil; I can neither dismiss it nor accept it…yet.

There are converts to Islam who reached this stage then remained there for years, unsure whether it would be right to make the jump into faith, yet unable to forget the Quran and go on as before. A Scottish man described his personal journey to Islam thus:

The Qur’an really shook me. It’s quite a scary book to read because it tells you so much about yourself. Some things that I found out about myself I didn’t like. So I decided to make some changes.

And I knew what the end result of this process would be: I would be a Muslim.

So I kept on reading. I read it three times, looking for the catch. But there was no catch; I was quite comfortable with everything.11

“I was quite comfortable with everything” is more than I can say. The article led to over 800 comments in which the writer was severely attacked by his fellow citizens for buying into this barbaric religion. Personally, until recently, I have never been completely comfortable with the Quran, in that there were certain things in it that I couldn’t fully justify to myself. Despite those points of discomfort, the rest of the book was a tremendous, non-dismissible challenge to me.

At some point, the evidence starts to feel overwhelming that the likelihood of the truth of the Quran is greater than the likelihood of its falsehood. Once that happens, once a person believes that there is more than a 50% chance that the Quran is truly from God, he or she starts to feel that it is something tantamount to a crime against conscience to reject the book or ignore it. And that is where faith and submission begin.

The reason I believe in the Quran is the same reason so many scientists in the late 19th and early 20th century believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution despite never actually observing evolution take place. They both get too many things right, which makes it impossible for me to casually dismiss them in good conscience.

For the Quran, I can list a few of those things, although each verse of the Quran can be thought of as one of those “things” that makes me believe in it.

  • The aesthetic experience of the Quran. It is not without reason that the Quran’s literal meaning is “The Recitation”. The Quran is meant to be experienced as a recited thing, and for a person who speaks Arabic and experiences a good recitation of it, the Quran compels them to pay attention to it and to take it seriously, like any great work of art. The opening verse of Mary (chapter 19) starts with a set of seemingly meaningless sounds: “Taa haa yaa ain saad.” In an English translation these look like a bunch of silly and unnecessary sounds. In a good Arabic recitation, however, they are a very compelling set of tones that tell the listener that a very serious symphony is about to start. They transport the listener into the atmosphere of the Temple in Jerusalem in which the story unfolds. It is not only rational arguments that have a “rightness” to them; aesthetic experiences also have rightness (the architecture of a beautiful church looks “right”, while a badly designed one looks “wrong”). There is something deeply “right” about the Quran when experienced. While the aesthetics of the Quran do not prove that it is from God, they cast very strong doubt on the possibility of a human having composed it. The soul or conscience wishes it to be from God. If it was filled with absurd nonsense, we as rational beings could dismiss the conscience’s desire. But there is nothing in it to insult the rational mind; rather, it contains much that satisfies it.
  • The Quran’s  zero-tolerance policy toward the charging of interest (also the Bible’s policy according to some editors of the Geneva Bible Notes). The evils of usury are long-term and require deep and lengthy analysis to bring them to the surface, so much so that today perhaps one among a thousand economists cannot be found who appreciates how it leads to an unsustainable economic system where an over-class of usurers (lenders, i.e. the banks) slowly take control of the economy, as has happened in the United States and Europe.
  • The fact that the Quran bans gambling. Without this ban, usury could be practiced in a different guise.
  • The zakat system, in which the poor charge an annual 2.5% interest on the uninvested and speculatively invested wealth of the rich (this system would be useless without banning usury, it takes a genius to plug that loophole, and the Quran does it).
  • The fact that in 600 pages written in the 7th century CE, it doesn’t contain a single statement that’s provably false, or that contradicts another part of itself. This is a highly unlikely achievement for a human writer, especially one from so far back in the past.
  • The moral philosophy of the Quran, where moral integrity and justice are always paramount. Killing a single innocent human is similar to killing all of humanity, which means that there can never be such a thing as a utilitarian murder. The end never justifies the means. No evil done in the name of the greater good is justified.
  • The writer is always superior to me. I have never had a similar experience with any other writer. As I grow intellectually, I am made better capable of critiquing the thinking of others. The Quran has survived this process.
  • The Quran’s non-Arabian character and the unusual restraint of the writer in not engaging in the typical rhetoric of the time. This is perhaps the greatest clue to its truth. Someone who studies Arabic poetry from that period and the fabricated words of revelation of Musailamah and other “false prophets” will see that while all of the literary speech from that era has a distinctly Arabian character, full of hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, tribalism and bad logic, the Quran does not. The Quran was brought to us by an Arab from the heart of Arabia, yet it does not have an Arabian character.
  • The fact that the Quran points out various mistakes of Prophet Muhammad. It severely rebukes him for ignoring a blind man who came to him for guidance (chapter 80), cautions him not to repeat the offense of taking prisoners when he wasn’t supposed to (8:67-68), and criticizes him for accepting the excuses of a certain group of Medinans not to join a certain battle (9:43). While he could have invented these verses as an all-too-clever device to convince skeptics that the Quran came from a higher power, they do lend soft support to the Quran’s own theory of itself, that it is a message given to the Prophet, rather than something invented by him. It shows far too much imagination for that time for a prophet to criticize himself in such a severe manner.

The aesthetic experience of the Quran and its contents both strongly support its own hypothesis of itself (that it is a book from God). A person who rejects the Quran after experiencing it aesthetically and recognizing the unlikelihood of a random man from Arabia composing it is committing something that is both unconscionable and irrational. Unconscionable, because they are repressing their conscience’s response to the aesthetic pull of the book. Irrational, because they are acting against probability theory: The rational mind, once it experiences the Quran aesthetically and affirms the plausibility of its contents, recognizes that the likelihood of it being from God is greater than the likelihood of it being a man-made work by an uneducated and illiterate Arab. For such a person to dismiss the Quran is as irrational as dismissing the news that a great storm will affect the area they live in in an hour despite dozens of data points all pointing to the likelihood of such a thing taking place.

The above are not the reasons why I believe in God. They are the reasons why I believe that the Quran is from God. As for my belief in God, I consider it extremely likely that all humans already half believe in God, in some sacred and transcendent person whose eyes are on them at all times. The Quran is a vehicle for strengthening my belief in God, but it is not the only vehicle, and it is not necessarily the strongest one. For me, it feels as if to merely exist, to merely be a self-conscious subject who looks out onto the world, is a very compelling force pointing to God’s existence, making it nothing short of criminal for me to deny Him.

Describing why I believe in the Quran feels similar to describing why I’m in love with someone. I can mention a few obviously good qualities of the beloved, but every reason given for this love cannot help but feel weak and absurd, since it does not capture the real thing.

If the Quran is so compelling, one may wonder how there can be Arabic-speaking atheists who read the Quran and reject it. The reason, I would say, is that due to the lack of hard evidence, there is always room for doubt. Accepting the truth of the Quran feels like a “jump” for those who have not accepted it yet. One cannot easily dismiss the Quran in good conscience, but one is not compelled to accept it either. A person’s biases may also strongly affect the amount of charity they give to the text; the Quran mentions that God has beautified the sky with “lamps”. A person who is predisposed to think very negatively of the Quran will see in such a statement a proof for the superstitious and unscientific nature of the Quran.

As for those who have accepted the Quran as truly from God, they maintain the ability to jump the other way. They are not compelled to continue accepting it, and given sufficient impetus, they are able to rationalize abandoning it.

Back to the topic of rain, God could claim credit for making it rain for three reasons:

1. Purposeful invention

God designed and built a universe in which rain happens, for the very purpose of having it be a help toward the evolution and sustenance of the creatures that would one day come about on Earth.

2. Operating the universe.

Let’s imagine that the universe is a simulation sustained by God, what I call al-Ghazali’s “Matrix”. The word Matrix is a reference to the popular film of the same name, in which the characters famously live inside a simulated universe. The Matrix theory enabled al-Ghazali to free God from the chains that previous philosophers had tried to impose on Him. Islam’s earlier philosophical movements, inspired by Greek thought, were stuck within the Aristotelian paradigm of considering the universe all that there is, and thinking that God would have to follow the same rules and logic seen elsewhere within our reality.

I do not claim to be an expert on al-Ghazali, but the basic premise of his system is easy enough to understand.

Al-Ghazali, who was developing lines of reasoning started centuries before, was able to think “outside the box” of this universe, recognizing that there was no obvious reason why God should be stuck following the same rules as everyone else if He is truly transcendent and all-powerful. In his view, this universe is like a simulation maintained by God from the outside, who is under no obligation to follow the rules internal to the simulation. When a tree catches fire, it is not because matter decided that catching fire was a good idea at that instance of time, but because God changed the universe. Explaining this concept would have been extremely difficult in the past, but today, thanks to video games, we have a ready-made illustration. Inside a video game, if you see a tree catching fire, it is not because the atoms and molecules of the tree came in contact with a hot object that lit them. We know it is a fake, imaginary tree, and that the reason it caught fire was because the computer that runs the video game knows that when a hot object touches the tree, a fire should start. If you are stuck inside a video game, you “know” that when hot objects touch trees, the trees catch fire, and you may see this is a simple rule of nature that any scientist can verify. But if you come out of the video game, you realize that the whole thing is a set-up; the things you considered rules of nature are actually computer instructions that can be changed by a video game designer. He can change the code so that when a hot object touches a tree, it no longer catches fire.

Al-Ghazali was answering the challenge of the philosophers who, like most atheists, were incapable of thinking in five dimensions, and who could see no way of reconciling the attributes of God as taught by religion with their ideas about nature, so that they were forced to say that God had to follow certain rules dictated by nature. These philosophers could only think in the four dimensions of space and time. Al-Ghazali added a new dimension; the inside and the outside of the universe, and through a few simple examples showed that there is no conflict between nature and God. Nature is to God as the simulated world inside a video game is to the computer that runs it.

According to this theory, this universe would be a blob of inert, unmoving matter if God stopped animating it. If this theory is true (and there is no evidence that it is false), then saying that the universe would continue existing or operating normally even if there was no God would be similar to saying that the world inside a computer video game would continue to be there even if you take away the computer. It is to be so enamored by an illusion as to deny its source.

An atom, according to the Matrix theory, has no power or will to move. It is God who has to move every single thing that moves in this world. This means that in the case of rain, God has to cause steam to rise, He has to make it go where it is supposed to go in the sky, He has to bring it together into clouds, and then He has to take it to where it will eventually become rain.

He does all of these things so reliably, that we start to think of them as “natural” phenomena that just happen without needing something to make them happen. But this universe, if God decided to “let it go”, would disappear as if it had never existed, similar to turning off a computer: “God upholds the heavens and the earth, lest they cease (to exist). And were they to cease, there is none to uphold them except He. He is Most Clement, Most Forgiving.”12

3. Intervention.

While the above two points admit for the possibility of God being responsible for the phenomenon of rain in general (the way that a computer is responsible for the rain that happens inside a video game), we need something more. God seems to claim that He purposefully sends rain here and there (especially in verse 24:43 quoted above), in directions He wants, meaning not necessarily directions that only obey the laws of nature. God seems to claim that His agency goes into deciding when and where rain happens, that it is not mere chance caused by the laws of nature. The way that God could make this happen is by making it happen regardless of the laws of nature, because He has the power to do that.

This, of course, would be impossible to detect, according to His plan, since God does not want hard evidence for His existence. Even if we could build a machine that perfectly predicted rain around the world, so that any aberrations caused by God’s decisions could be seen, God could change what the machine shows.

Saying that God intentionally makes it rain here and there is to claim a miracle happens, since one is saying this rain is happening due to a supernatural phenomenon (God), not due to a natural, scientifically explicable phenomenon. To prove a miracle, an equally miraculous piece of evidence is needed. For those who have experienced the Quran and accepted it, the Quran is sufficient evidence, although the evidence is not hard, in that there is room for doubt that has to be bridged by the conscience every day. Experiencing doubt is quite natural for a believer. When this happens, they go back to the things that convinced them their beliefs are true, such as the Quran, examine it again until both their rational minds and their conscience are overwhelmed with the recognition of its truth.

The Quran claims that God, who is in charge of this simulation-like universe, is personally responsible for rain. This is similar to saying that the computer that runs the Matrix decides when it should rain and what rain should be like (while someone stuck inside the Matrix might say rain happens due to perfectly “natural” laws of the universe).

In other words, if it is true that this universe is a simulation operated by God, then it logically follows that God could take credit for making it rain.

By being outside the simulation, God, if He really exists, can make it rain while making His own role in the matter undetectable. Therefore the fact that rain can be explained scientifically does not tell us anything about God’s role in the matter; what we call “science” might be nothing but a description of how God operates the universe.

The above does not prove that religion correct in its claims regarding God’s role in nature. It, however, shows that the existence of a conflict between religion and science in this matter is illusory; we can be rational scientists inside the universe, while believing that outside the universe God is operating things, similar to being in the Matrix while acknowledging how it is run from the outside. We fully support scientific explanations, and we will not bother non-believers with supernatural explanations, since that requires that they believe in God in the first place. Since they do not, there is no point in telling them about God’s potential role in undetectably making it rain in certain times and places.

A skeptic could rightly say that saying God is undetectably involved in making it rain is like saying invisible magical fairies make it rain. The reply is that yes, it is just like that. But in our case, we have extraordinary evidence to support our thinking; the Quran with its preponderance of soft evidence in its favor, while a person who claims that invisible magical fairies make it rain has no evidence, soft or hard.

A Muslim scientist can study the weather as a purely natural system, while also believing in God’s power to direct it as He wills, so that they can thank God when a tornado avoids their neighborhood. This is like thanking the Matrix operator for letting you have an easy time of it inside the Matrix. And when thanking God for a getting the job you wanted, you do not claim that your getting the job does not have a scientific explanation, you merely admit that there is sufficient room for undetectable divine action within this universe, so that God could have made the crucial difference in whether you got the job or not while keeping Himself hidden in the matter. From a scientific point of view, this is an entirely useless point of view; whether it is true or false makes no difference to science. And that is the point; we are merely claiming that thanking God for getting a job is not irrational if one believes in God, since it is just like thanking the Matrix operator for arranging things smoothly for us inside the Matrix. One can thank God for every great and small blessing in their lives while treating the world as a perfectly scientific system; God is ever-present and ever-undetectable at the same time. One never knows if God did not make the crucial difference when something, anything, happened or did not happen.

When I write of the lack of incompatibility between the Quran’s theology and science I do not mean that we should bother the non-believers with such topics; we should only do so if they bring it up by saying or implying that this or that scientific fact or technical discovery somehow exposes the existence of shaky foundations within religion. What they say is provably false if we imagine the universe as a simulation that operates rationally inside while being divinely operated from the outside. An atheist might say:

  1. Science explains rain perfectly. 2. Therefore it is false to claim that God makes it rain.

What we say is:

  1. Science explains rain perfectly. 2. If God exists, He could be in charge of a Matrix in which He makes it rain according to scientific principles. 3. Therefore the matter at issue here is not rain, but a. whether God exists or not and b. whether this universe is like a Matrix or not.

There is no proof that God does not exist, and there is no proof that this universe is not like a Matrix, therefore any claim that scientific explanations contradict God’s existence are automatically and always false. An atheist who wants to convince me that God does not exist is completely wasting his time if he talks about scientific explanations, since I too believe in all of that. To stop wasting his time, he will have to do one of these three things:

  1. Prove to me that God does not exist. 2. Prove that the soft evidence I rely on for having faith in God (the Quran) is false. 3. Prove to me that this universe couldn’t possibly be a Matrix.

Atheists have so far failed to provide any of the above proofs. They continue to waste their time propounding science as a cure for religion, not realizing that al-Ghazali made that whole line of argument irrelevant nine centuries ago through his discovery of the fifth dimension.

Another phenomenon for which God claims direct agency is the formulation of the genetic makeup of humans during conception:

It is He who forms you in the wombs as He wills. There is no god except He, the Almighty, the Wise.13

When a father and a mother’s genes recombine, there are 64 trillion different possible combinations that could be created.14 God claims to have a hand in choosing which combination ends up actually taking place. Again, God can claim responsibility for forming our genes in the womb through the three methods mentioned earlier: Purposeful invention, operating the universe and intervening when He wants. Similar to weather events, the process of genetic recombination is so immensely complex and chaotic that God does not need to do anything to hide His hand in the matter; His interventions would be easily explainable as mere randomness, which is as it should be.

In verse 67:3 of the Quran, the writer appears to take pride in the lack of glitches in this Matrix:

He who created seven heavens in layers. You see no discrepancy in the creation of the Compassionate. Look again. Can you see any cracks?

In effect, the Quran tells us that God exists, but that we should be scientists in our dealings with nature: any glitches in the simulation (any supernatural phenomena pointing to Him) would be hard evidence of His existence, but He says there will never be hard evidence for His existence until the end times, therefore if we detect anything provably supernatural and the world does not end, that in itself could be considered a refutation of the Quran.

The doctrine of considering the universe a simulation-like thing controlled by God is known as occasionalism, and it has been unjustly criticized for promoting an anti-science and irrationalist attitude, since it teaches that things only appear to be following scientific rules when in reality they are following God’s commands. But this criticism focuses on a small area of Islamic thought and ignores its wider context. The Quran teaches that the universe is a simulation-like thing so that the laws of nature are merely byproducts of God’s choices, it also teaches that we should act rationally and expect the universe to act rationally too: for example, it tells us that if we give away too much in charity we will get poor, which as any materialist will tell you, is a true fact of nature. Occasionalism only promotes irrationality if it is surgically removed from the rest of the Quran’s teachings. The historian and Islamic scholar Ibn al-Jawzi (died 1200 CE), although not a very original thinker, uses the Quran’s rationalist advice (such as that of preparing provision for long journeys) to criticize certain lines of Sufi thought that taught that God would save and take care of His true believers without regard for the material reality around them.15

The true faithful, for example, may desist from work because God would provide for them regardless of the laws of economics. That is irrationalist because it expects God to materially intervene in this universe to take care of certain humans, and that is very much the opposite of what the Quran teaches. The Quran teaches us not to waste money (17:26), not to do physical harm to ourselves (2:195), to break our fasts if we are ill (2:184), and to perform the Hajj pilgrimage only if we have the material means to perform it (3:97) rather than setting out come what may. The Quran doesn’t teach its believers to march into fires for the greater glory of God. It teaches them to view this world as a Matrix controlled by God, a Matrix that has rational rules that must be respected.

There is, of course, ample historical evidence of Muslims acting foolishly and irrationally (although the Western imagination often greatly exaggerates this as any good Western historian of Islam will tell you), but what Muslims do within their limited historical and cultural perspectives does not necessarily have a one-to-one relationship with the Quran’s teachings, therefore we should look at the Quran itself to see what it says.

Like any scientist, I never expect to detect anything supernatural in this world. Like any mystic, I believe my life and the rest of this universe is entirely under God’s control and command. My attitude is that of the mystic-scientist; not the crackpot who thinks quantum theory proves the healing power of crystals, but the scientist who considers science, hard, rational science, to be merely a way of looking at God and His works. From this standpoint I have no desire to deny science, that would be denying an aspect of God’s handiwork. And I am not ashamed to pray to God and ask Him for His help and support, because I know that He can do anything He wants (as the Quran teaches), that He answers prayers (as the Quran teaches), while also expecting this world to continue operating under clearly-defined rational rules (as the Quran teaches).

In short, the Quran teaches that God is present but hidden. It doesn’t tell me to expect nature to work one way today and a different way tomorrow, it teaches me to expect nature to act rationally, and it teaches me that if God intervenes in my life, it will be done undetectably, through means that always have rational explanations. I will never argue with an atheist about whether it was God or the surgeon who saved my life after an accident, because both views are true at the same time, and there is no point in bothering the unspiritual about God’s role in this world. From this side of the wall that separates us from the Unseen, it was the surgeon, from the other side, it was God. This is not to discount the surgeon’s role; maybe it was their years of determination and hard work that enabled them to accomplish their task. This simulation is a system controlled by God, but humans, who have free will, are plugged into it and make changes to it, again, similar to the Matrix film. We can be credited with our choices since we have free will, but we have no power to make the Matrix behave one way or another. We choose, God changes the Matrix in response and does it so reliably that we get the illusion that we are really in charge of our bodies and can make changes to the universe. This is similar to being stuck inside a video game and thinking you can fly because the video game allows you to. In reality, it is the video game that gives you all the powers you enjoy, and it can choose to take all powers from you, so that you are stuck unable to make any movements.

Yet another place where God claims direct responsibility for physical phenomena is in His providing sustenance to humans:

Or, who originates the creation and then repeats it, and who gives you livelihood from the sky and the earth? Is there another god with God? Say, “Produce your evidence, if you are truthful.”16

And whosoever fears God, He will create for him a way out. And He will provide him with sustenance from where he does not expect.17

The second verse above implies that God has a direct hand in providing sustenance, because He says that if we fear Him, then He will provide. This is a central concept of the God-human relationship, repeated often in the Bible and the Quran. For example, in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, God informs us:

10 If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.18

In the Quran, Moses says:

“And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you give thanks, I will grant you increase; but if you are ungrateful, My punishment is severe.’”19

If God did not intervene directly in the affairs of humans, there would be no way for this contractual relationship to be maintained. If we fear God, God will provide for us. We act, God reacts by arranging the events inside the Matrix favorably for us. For God to react, He has to intervene directly, but undetectably, in our universe. Once we think of the universe as a divine simulation, then intervention will be nothing out of the ordinary. Every movement of an atom is itself a divine decision, it wouldn’t happen without God making it happen. An intervention is merely a different decision, where God, instead of operating the universe according to the laws of nature that He has laid down, He operates the universe in a certain time and place according to different laws that operate on a higher plane and override the laws of nature, such as the divine law of rewarding thankfulness. A family may live in a house that is in danger of collapsing. If nature were to take its course, the house would suddenly collapse without warning. But God can intervene, causing unsettling creaking noises to come from the house’s structure for a few days before the collapse, giving the family ample warning and preparation time for responding to the problem. It would be foolish for a believer to expect God to warn them of every threat, and I have never met an intelligent Muslim who thinks thus. But as a spiritual person, I thank God daily for all the problems He has helped me avoid or solved for me.20

Topology: God’s Template

The theory of evolution seems to claim that the creatures on Earth could have come about regardless of God. The religious think it is a God versus nature problem. This mistake is also made by atheist scientists who think that finding a scientific explanation for natural phenomena disproves God’s role. As the previous discussion showed, scientific explanations are merely man-made descriptions of the way God operates the universe, therefore the existence of scientific explanations is not merely a non-problem for religion, it is required by it . The Quran teaches that God will keep Himself hidden, therefore all that we see around us should be so natural and rational that atheists should always have the choice of remaining atheists. Humans must forever maintain the choice between faith and disbelief. The universe provides many signs that point toward God, and the various “proofs” of God’s existence strongly suggest the need for the type of God they describe, but there is always a place for doubt.

Topology refers to the physical configuration of the universe; the physical constants that govern the universe (such as the speed of light), the placement and chemical composition of the galaxies, stars and planets, and the placement of the continents, mountains, rivers and oceans on Earth.

You are probably familiar with the concept of a topographical map. This is a type of map that shows which areas have high elevation and which areas have low elevation. A country’s topography refers to those features of the country’s land that show up on a topographical map. We can say a country has a “rugged topography” if it has many hilly and mountainous areas and few areas of flat planes.

Topology, on the other hand, in the specific usage of this essay, goes beyond topography to account for the entirety of the physical configuration of an area of space. We can say this galaxy has a different topology from that one, which could mean that the arrangement of their respective stars and planets are very different. We can also say that this universe has a different topology from another universe, meaning that this universe has different physical constants, chemical compositions, and/or galactic arrangements compared to the other universe.

Topography is 3-dimensional; a topographical map extends a 2-dimensional map by adding elevation, making it 3-dimensional. On the other hand, topology is n-dimensional; it has as many or as few dimensions as one cares to name. A topological map of a galaxy could account for its 3-d appearance like a topographical map while adding temperature, the strength of gravity, the velocity of its spirals, and so on and so forth, adding as many additional factors into it as one wants. Each additional factor we add is a new “dimension”.

Topology is critical to evolution. No evolution can take place unless the topology of the universe and the relevant planet is just right for it. Very minor differences in the universe’s topology would have made life impossible to exist (if the gravitational constant had been just a tiny bit larger or smaller, for example), and very minor differences in the topology of Earth would have led to the evolution of extremely different creatures than the ones we have now, and could have made the existence of humans impossible.

Imagine if Earth was entirely an ocean planet. On such a planet, there would be no way for land animals to evolve, and therefore there would be no humans. The number of all species that would evolve on such an Earth would likely be far fewer than the 8.7 million species we have on Earth today.

The design of a planet is crucial to the types of creatures that evolve on it. And it follows that if you could design a planet with the right topology, you could create any type of creature you want. And perhaps it is for this reason that God says:

Certainly the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of humanity, but most people do not know.21

27. Are you more difficult to create, or the sky? He constructed it. 28. He raised its masses, and proportioned it. 29. And He dimmed its night, and brought out its daylight. 30. And the earth after that He spread. 31. And from it, He produced its water and its pasture. 32. And the mountains, He anchored. 33. A provision for you and for your animals.22

God might be saying that the fact the He designed our universe’s topology is a greater accomplishment than the fact that He created humans. This would make a lot of sense if the existence of humanity was nothing more than a byproduct of the universe’s design. When God created the universe, He didn’t merely create a lifeless system of stars and planets. He created a universe in whose design was embedded the program that would ultimately lead to the existence of 8.7 million species, including humans.

Topology–the way the universe is configured–is a template that God uses for creating creatures.

Imagine if Earth lacked mountains and rivers. Could humans or human-like creatures evolve on such a planet? It is unlikely, perhaps impossible. The design of the planet and the universe in which it exists decides what types of creatures can evolve on that planet, meaning that the designer of the universe can be fully credited with the creation of all the creatures that exist inside that universe if the designer had the creation of those creatures in mind to begin with.

To create apes, God can either create apes from a puff of smoke, or He can create a universe in which apes can evolve after billions of years. From His perspective, the two things are equally easy. It is just that the second choice enables Him to ultimately create humans who have the choice of denying His existence. It allows Him to retain His plausible deniability. The issue of human evolution is more complicated than the issue of the evolution of other creatures and will be dealt with specially later on.

Through the Quran’s consistent references to mountains, rivers, seas and the design of the earth and the “sky”, God explains the topological design of the universe in detail and says that this is of greater importance than the creation of humans, because He is in effect describing the template, the code, the intelligently designed machine, that led to the existence of humans.

By considering the universe’s topology a template created by God, we can credit Him with creating all the creatures on Earth without having to deny evolution. At the Big Bang, God created the universe with the exact conditions required to create life on one of the planets inside it billions of years later.

Dynamic-Kinetic Equilibrium

How can non-living matter lead to the complex biological machines that exist in all kinds of creatures? Doesn’t this go against the idea of entropy, that the universe continues to break down and become simpler over time?

It is possible if you provide 1. energy sources and 2. complexity-inducing topologies, leading to what can be called a dynamic-kinetic equilibrium, in which matter stays in a state of heightened complexity as long as certain conditions around it continue to apply.23

Both of these conditions come true on Earth, where energy is available in the form of sunlight, geothermal energy and tides, and where the topology of Earth and the universe in which it is contained create an environment in which life can not only originate, but diversify by finding niche after niche in which it can survive.

The origination of life requires that dead matter somehow join together and increase in complexity. This is somewhat like expecting a pile of rocks to join together and walk up a hill. The difference is that in the world of atoms and molecules, things join together and increase in complexity all the time, as can be seen in the highly complex organic compounds found inside meteors.24

All that’s needed is the right mixture, and usually a source of energy, and from this, extremely complex molecules can evolve. This is a fact of chemistry.

The question is, just how complex can these natural structures become? Someone who denies abiogenesis (the origination of life from non-living matter) would say that there is no way that the complexity of these randomly formed molecules could increase to the degree seen in living things, meaning that life could never evolve from non-living matter.

But someone with sufficient imagination would see that it might be possible given a large enough test chamber, ample building blocks of life, water, energy and hundreds of millions of years, and most importantly, a designer who put all of these together in just the right way to create life.

The chances of life happening by random are so small that they tend to zero. But if there is a designer who created the right universe for life to come into existence in it, then this is no longer random, it is very much planned. Therefore believers can acknowledge the possibility of abiogenesis without supporting the idea that life came about randomly. We instead can say that life came about because the designer got all the conditions right at the beginning of the universe.

Physicists say that if the Big Bang had taken place the merest fraction of a second slower or faster, the galaxies couldn’t have formed, and humanity wouldn’t have existed.25 To create humanity, what God had to do was get the conditions of the Big Bang exactly right, and 13.8 billion years later human-like creatures came into existence on one of the planets inside the universe created by the Big Bang.

The timescales involved in this, and the amount of intelligent design necessary, make it very difficult for people to imagine this actually taking place; that is, imagining God creating humans in such a complex and roundabout way.

But if you imagine the whole process taking just one second, it becomes easier to believe. Imagine a god who is holding a blob of matter in his hands. He parts his hands, the blob expands with it, and in just that second, you see a planet inside that blob of matter on which certain creatures live. Shouldn’t a god have such power? And can’t such a god claim responsibility for the existence of those creatures if the nature of the blob of matter and the way he expanded it is all that lead to the existence of those creatures, and if the way he did this was intentional, with the aim of creating those creatures?

Do the disbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were one mass, and We tore them apart? And We made from water every living thing. Will they not believe?26

We constructed the universe with [our] capability, and We are expanding it.27

The Islamic version of intelligent design (the phrase Christians use to refer to God designing humans and other creatures) can be called topological programming. When you want to create a creature or group of creatures, all that you need to do is design a universe with the right topology. In this topology is programmed the existence of those creatures, and after millions or billions of years, which, if you are God, could be no length of time at all, those creatures will evolve on the planet or planets of your choice, according to the design you put into the topology you created.

To wrap your head around this idea, think of a computer program that lets you design living creatures, but instead of letting you design the creatures directly by choosing their shape, color and anatomy, it asks you to design a universe that would lead to the type of creature you want. This computer program shows you a box where a picture of the creature would be, but currently it is blank. And it gives you various boxes where you can input various numbers. It asks you for the size of the universe, the speed of its expansion, the external shape of it, and the various physical constants that go into that universe, such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant. By making the tiniest changes to any of these variables, the creatures it shows you on the screen change immensely. Get the numbers just right, and you will get humans, among the trillions upon trillions of other possible creatures you could create. Increase the number for the gravitational constant and your humans may get smaller. Increase it beyond a point and the human disappears; the universe you are designing will no longer be able to support humans.

This is what topological programming means; designing universes with the specific aim of seeing creatures originate and evolve inside them after billions of years. A topological programmer is a designer of universes, and that is what the Creator is.

There is no difference between God creating all the creatures on earth by a single command that turns a large puff of smoke into all of them, which is the way our ancestors used to think how creation should work, and creating them by designing and sustaining a universe that would lead to their existence after billions of years. The end result is exactly the same, it is just that the second method is harder for the human brain to understand and appreciate, and it helps hide God’s role in the matter.

There is no clash between Darwin’s theory of evolution and intelligent design (except when it comes to the evolution of humans, which will be dealt with below).

The theory of evolution is merely telling us about God’s means of designing creatures, which is far cleverer than anything one tends to imagine. To design an elephant, God does not need to create an elephant from a puff of smoke. He instead brings a blob of matter and expands it, and billions of years later elephants will exist on a planet or many planets inside that expanding blob. God has the power to create a new universe full of millions of planets all of which are inhabited by elephants, merely by designing a universe with the right topology to lead to such planets and creatures.

Evolution is only a challenge to God if we cannot think outside the box of this universe. But once we see the universe as a mere simulation designed by God, evolution becomes a God-made design feature of the universe. From this view, evolution is a testament to God’s incredible power and ingenuity; He can create creatures as intelligent as humans in such a round-about way that they would be able to deny the need for a Creator, and despite their very best efforts at detecting Him, they are never able to do so.

Topological programming does not only explain evolution; it also explains the origin of life. The same way that God can program evolution into the universe’s topology, He can also program the origination of life into it and take credit for it.

There is no clear statement in the Quran saying artificial life cannot be created, and humans creating artificial life does not take away from God’s greatness. If we were to create it, we would be merely copying Him, from inside a universe that He designed and that He sustains.

The following verse seems to suggest that humans cannot create artificial life:

O people! A parable is presented, so listen to it: Those you invoke besides God will never create a fly, even if they banded together for that purpose. And if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it from it. Weak are the pursuer and the pursued.28

But this verse can actually be used as an argument for the possibility of humans creating artificial life. The second part of the verse says, “And if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it from it.”

Is it impossible to recover things stolen by flies? As a general rule, it is not impossible to catch flies and take back whatever they have stolen. What the verse might actually be saying–which is a point repeated many times throughout the Quran–is that we have no inherent power of our own; we have zero power over this universe: it is ultimately God who operates it. This means that we have no power to recover something a fly stole except when God enables us by moving the relevant atoms, photons and energy fields for us so that we can carry out our intention of recovering something the fly stole. God is telling us that it is He who is letting us have a remote control that enables us to control our bodies in this universe, a connection that can be severed by God at any moment.

By the same reasoning, we have no power to create artificial life, except when God enables us, by maintaining and operating the universe. Both of these things might be possible for us to do, if God makes them possible, and both would be impossible, if God makes them impossible. By the logic of the verse, creating artificial life might be as possible as recovering something stolen by a fly.

Still, it is possible that humans will never be able to manufacture life, as predicted by the great science fiction writer Frank Herbert in his Dune, a novel set thousands of years in the future. and that is still the sense I feel hinted at by the above verse. Perhaps there really is something special about life, and perhaps at some point God had to breathe life into Earth to jump start the process of evolution that would eventually lead to the rest of all of the creatures we see on Earth. We do not know, and it is best that we do not issue definitive statements on matters we know little about.

I believe God is great enough to program the origination of life into the universe’s topology, meaning that He can create a universe that leads to the origination of life without Him having to intervene afterwards to plant life on it. Questioning the possibility of this happening is actually questioning God’s greatness and creativity, it is saying that God is incapable of creating life using topological programming.

Why would God create life in such a roundabout way instead of creating it directly? This is not just some absurd mental gymnastics, there is a very strong reason for it. Creating life in such a way allows for the creation of the rarest species of all. No, not humans.

Atheists.

The God of the Quran wants His existence to be impossible to prove. He wants there to be the possibility of disbelieving in Him, and that requires that His own hand should be invisible from direct measurement. God wants it to be possible for humans to think that they are alone in a universe without a creator. It should be possible for humans to deny Him, ignore Him and go about their entire lives acting as if He does not exist. And that requires that nature should appear supreme and unchallenged. Evolution is just the right way of achieving this goal of maintaining God’s plausible deniability.29

Human Evolution

The Quran describes the creation of humans in detail, which causes many Muslims to automatically reject evolution, thinking that evolution goes against the Quran:

We created the human being from clay, from molded mud.

And the jinn We created before, from piercing fire.

Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am creating a human being from clay, from molded mud.’

‘When I have formed him, and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down prostrating before him.’

So the angels prostrated themselves, all together.30

We know that humans share many of their genes with chimpanzees, rats, yeast and even some viruses. Are the above verses false, or is evolution false?

The answer might be in the Quran itself, in this verse:

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.31

We know from the Quran that Jesus was a human.32

Yet the Quran says his creation was similar to that of Adam. There is an important clue in here.

How did God create Jesus? He used some clay to create a human whose genetic code was like any other human, and at a time when other humans were around.

In the same way, God could have created Adam at a time when humans or human-like creatures already existed on Earth (and existing, of course, by God’s design, who designed the topology that lead to the existence of such creatures). God already had the genetic code for humans before the creation of the universe. He embedded that code into the universe’s topology. For example, a minimum number of continents of a certain shape may be necessary on a planet for humans to exist on it. For humans to evolve on a particular planet, their genetic code has to be translated into topological features of that planet and the universe in which it is contained.

The evolution of humans or human-like creatures on Earth, and the creation of Adam from scratch (rather than from another human), are not mutually exclusive. God created Adam from dust, and he created Jesus from dust, and in the first instance, humanoids may have already existed on earth, similar to the second instance.

Adam had free will, while the human-like creatures that had evolved on Earth lacked it. The fact of God breathing “His spirit” into Adam may have been the critical differentiator that turned Adam into something more than yet another animal. Before Adam, the Earth lacked any creature that could be held responsible for its actions. Adam’s introduction into Earth was the start of the existence of responsibility. It is likely for this reason that the angels complained when God mentioned placing Adam on Earth:

“Will You place in it (i.e. on Earth) someone who will cause corruption in it and shed blood, while we declare Your praises and sanctify You?”33

The angels do not like the idea of ruining the Earth’s pristine freedom from evil, since everything on it (including the humanoids) acted according to instincts placed inside them by God’s topological programming, meaning that everything on it perfectly obeyed God’s design as accurately as the planets do in following their orbits.

Before Adam, the universe was a piece of clockwork that functioned according to God’s design and in this way celebrated His greatness. Bears still ate deer, but that was according to God’s design, so it wasn’t an evil thing. They shed blood, but they did not commit bloodshed. Placing Adam on Earth, on the other hand, meant that there would be a creature on Earth who could defy God’s design, in this way creating evil. Adam would be a loose cannon on Earth, capable of interfering with the functioning of God’s clockwork.

The reason humans could do evil on Earth, when no other creature could do it, is that by having free will, they could do “artificial” things, things that did not directly follow from the rules and the wisdom that went into the creation of the universe. They could defy the program embedded in the universe’s topology, in this way bringing about corruption.

Some atheist writers mention the simple line of reasoning–famously propounded by the French Encyclopédistes of the 18th century–that if the universe is entirely ruled by physical laws, then there would be no place for free will and responsibility because every action on it would be a derivation of the system itself.34 They usually neglect the big “if” at the beginning of that train of thought.35 The Quran says that humans have responsibility and thus freedom of choice and the capacity to do evil, therefore there is some special ingredient in humans that makes them an exception to the physical laws. The question is whether we accept the Quran’s evidence or reject it. If we accept it, then we believe human actions are free-willed. There is no scientific opposition to this, since there is no scientific proof that free will does not exist. Whether free will exists or not is an issue outside science, making it a matter of personal belief. For a Muslim, the soft evidence of the Quran and quotidian experience both strongly support the existence of free will.

We do not know the exact moment in the history of Earth when Adam was placed on it. It is possible that it was in the past 10,000 years, or it could have been 100,000 years ago. We do not know how Adam interacted with the existing humanoids, whether there was any interbreeding.36

Even if Adam and his children (humanity) share genes with various humanoid creatures that have existed, this does not necessarily mean we are directly descended from them, just that God used some of their genetic code to create Adam, the same way he used the genetic code of existing humans to create Jesus from dust.

We can assume that God already had the full genetic code of humans before the creation of the universe as mentioned, and it is for this reason that He can take full credit for the creation of humans (and all the other creatures) despite the fact that they evolved naturally. This universe is simply a seemingly automated factory that follows a program placed inside it (embedded in its topological features) by God that is designed to lead to the origination of life and ultimately humanoids. Therefore it is not that God “took” genetic code from other humanoids to place them in Adam during his creation. He already had all of the genetic code to begin with, even before the universe was created. He placed some of the code in those humanoids indirectly (using evolution driven by topology), and some in Adam directly. The code in both cases comes from God’s “library”, so to speak, one travels indirectly, hiding in the universe’s topology until, after billions of years, it is brought to life through evolution, and one travels directly, with God creating Adam from dust based on that same code. At the time of Adam’s creation, God may have already had a library full of genetic code used in previous universes for all that we know.

It is a case of starting with the recipe and building a massive universe in which the recipe can come into existence, without leaving any trace of one’s direct involvement in the process. God did not have to come look on Earth 10,000 or however many years ago to find genetic code to use for Adam. The code was already in His library.

To repeat what has already been said a number of times, none of the above is evidence for the truth of religion. It is, rather, evidence for the falsehood of the idea that there is a conflict between the religion of the Quran and science. The Quran’s theories are compatible with what the latest science tells us, and that is all that we need to know, therefore Muslims can stop denying evolution, and non-Muslims can stop using it in their critiques of Islam. They can of course continue using the hundreds of other critiques available in their arsenals.

The Problem of Hadith

As mentioned in the introduction, Islam is based on both the Quran and hadith (supposedly historical reports about the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad). While it has been shown above that the Quran and evolution are compatible, there is still the issue of whether evolution is compatible with hadith. The Quran is far more authoritative than hadith in Islam due to the fact that it supposedly transmits God’s unadulterated words directly (while hadith texts are human interpretations of what was heard or took place), and due to the fact that orders of magnitude more effort went into the preservation and transmission of the Quran compared to hadith.

If it is shown that the Quran and evolution are compatible, the discovery of hadith narrations that go against evolution do not in any way prove that Islam was meant to be an anti-evolution religion. It could simply mean that a hadith fabricated or misunderstood by someone made its way into the hadith literature.

The issue of judging the authenticity of hadith is extremely complicated and cannot be carried out by amateurs. However, we now know that Islam’s great hadith collectors rejected hadith narrations that they considered patently absurd despite the fact that these hadith narrations were transmitted by supposedly trustworthy people.37 It is up to us to decide whether a rejection of evolution, once shown to be compatible with the Quran, is patently absurd. If we decide it is, then we can actually use evolution to critique hadith: any hadith text that unequivocally contradicts the theory of evolution can be thought to be unauthentic. This is not a modern fiction designed to drag Islam kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The reliability of hadith narrations is always a matter of probabilities rather than certainty, therefore anything in the hadith literature that clearly contradicts objective reality can be discarded without being intellectually dishonest. The same does not apply to the Quran; even a single false statement in the Quran is sufficient to prove the entire book false. Hadith narrations, however, were transmitted piecemeal by thousands of people, therefore even if most are authentic, we can never know with complete certainty whether some narration truly transmits from the Prophet, transmits a highly distorted interpretation of something the Prophet said or did, or is entirely fabricated.

I write the above as something of a hadith traditionalist; I believe that it is safe to assume that any hadith judged authentic by hadith scholars is really authentic unless there is a very strong reason to doubt it. Mid-20th century Western scholarship cast doubts on the reliability of the hadith literature, with scholars such as Schacht and Crone recommending that the entire literature should be considered fabricated unless proven otherwise. More recent scholarship, such as the works of Motzki and Lucas, has uncovered empirical evidence that strongly supports the traditional Islamic views on hadith.

Unlike hadith traditionalists, rather than considering the issue of authenticity a black and white issue, I support an empirical view that works according to probabilities. One authentic narration may be 99.99% likely to be true (such as one of those known as mutawātir), another one might be 95%, and another 90% likely to be authentic. I believe Islam can greatly benefit from explicitly adopting probability theory within the science of hadith. A Muslim who discovers an “authentic” narration that is ranked 90% likely to be authentic and which supports a certain view, and another that is ranked only 70% likely to be authentic and which supports a different view will be better able to know which view to prefer. With the present system, both narrations will simply be called “authentic”, making it nearly impossible for a non-expert to judge between them.

Beyond Guided Evolution

There is a theory that tries to reconcile creationism with evolution by arguing that evolution may be real, but that it is God who guides it behind the scenes. The theory offered in this essay has no need for that type of divine guidance that assumes God has to interfere in the world. In order to create the creatures He wants, all that God needs to do is get the starting conditions right at the Big Bang, and from there everything else is taken care of. All that God needs to do is get the production system working properly. As has already been mentioned, the universe can be thought of as a factory for creating life forms. The universe’s topology acts as a template that shapes or sculpts the course of evolution, the same way that the various robots in a car factory assembly line shape and sculpt the final product.

Through designing a universe with exactly the right qualities needed for the origination and evolution of life, God can create whatever He wants without having to interfere with the process afterwards. Only a defective factory would require that God tinker with the production process after launching it. If His factory is perfect, there would be no need for further tinkering later on.

A believer who questions whether God can really and intentionally, in a single step (the Big Bang), launch a factory that billions of years later leads to various forms of life is actually questioning God’s power. If God’s power and knowledge are infinite, there is no reason to doubt that He can do this.

As for an atheist who questions whether things could be this way, their right to skepticism is not denied. The point that this essay is making is that there is a theory that can explain how God and evolution can co-exist without canceling each other out, so that atheists may stop using evolution as an argument against God, and so that the religious may start loving evolution and working on it rather than considering it a challenge to their faith.

Religious people, both Christian and Muslim, have unfortunately done a great deal of work to discredit religion in their short-sighted and badly advised defense of it. The Christian TV show host Bill O’Reilly has been the laughing stock of the internet multiple times in his ridiculous statements in support of religion. O’Reilly supports atheists by making the exact same mistake they make; he thinks that once a natural phenomenon has been explained by science, it automatically proves God’s involvement false. He thinks that nature is an independent authority separate from God and in conflict with Him.

Since God desires plausibly deniability, God’s existence must be impossible to prove, therefore there must always be scientific reasons that explain things without a need for God.

The reason that religious people feel a need for guided evolution is that they are stuck in the God-vs.-nature paradigm. Al-Ghazali’s Matrix helps us escape this paradigm; this universe is no more real than an image projected on a screen, therefore it is extremely foolish to consider this mirage a challenge to the God who invented it and upholds moment-by-moment lest it should cease to exist. Those who consider nature (and its study, meaning science) a challenge to God have not really appreciated His greatness.

The world of the Unseen, the supernatural, is by God’s design beyond human knowledge and measurement. Everything we see around us must have a logical explanation, or seem to, or there should be the hope of finding a logical explanation for it one day. There should never be anything provably supernatural. God must always maintain his own plausible deniability until the end of the world.

Do they mean to wait until the angels come to them, or for your Lord to arrive, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? On the Day when some of your Lord’s signs come, no soul will benefit from its faith unless it had believed previously, or had earned goodness through its faith. Say, ‘Wait, we too are waiting.’38

Atheists say they want to wait for hard evidence for God’s existence before they believe in the fairy tales present in scripture. The Quran tells religious people to say the same thing; that we too are waiting. The above verse can be considered a pointer to the proper religious mindset toward science. We too acknowledge, with atheists, that there is no hard evidence for God’s existence. They say they will wait for hard evidence before believing, we say we believe in the soft evidence of scripture and wait for hard evidence, and for this we will be rewarded.

Afterword

What I say here is not the final word on Islam and evolution. It is an educated but personal attempt at making sense of the issue.

I believe this essay contains sufficient substance to help a seeker after the truth to get on the right track.

Please email any corrections or suggestions for improvement (and reading recommendations) to:

contact@hawramani.com

What happened to Islamic civilization? Why did Muslims fall behind in science and technology?

I wanted your in depth opinion on a particular observation. Muslims, historically speaking, have been responsible for hundreds and thousands of scientific discoveries. What happened to us? Why are we in the stage we are?

Only 100 years ago, which is just a little more than one human lifetime, the Ottoman Empire was a sovereign Muslim nation that could stand up to any Western power. No Jewish colonizer would have dared to terrorize and massacre Palestinians when the Ottoman Empire was there to protect its citizens.

While many Muslims, including scholars, think that Muslims were always powerful, capable and thriving throughout history until modern times, this is mostly a romantic fairy tale told to console and encourage.

The Crusaders were able to take Jerusalem and other parts of the Levant from the Muslims in 1099 CE and ruled it for nearly 100 years. Where were the great Muslim powers in this time that they couldn’t take it back? The Middle East was a mix of weak and fractured “Muslim” powers, who were only Muslim in name but in general acted like any modern power, using religion to justify their actions while being under the influence and sometimes control of foreign non-Muslim powers.

The current weakness and powerlessness of Muslims is similar to their state during the Mongol invasions. Some Muslims thought the end of the world had arrived, thinking the Mongols were the promised Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj (Gog and Magog) mentioned in the Quran. The Mongols utterly destroyed the Sunni Muslim Khwarezmian Empire which controlled nearly all of Modern Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and parts of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, and which had existed for 150 years, through the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children. After that, they went on to destroy Baghdad and Damascus, although the Abbasid Empire had been in decline for centuries before the Mongols arrived.

On the other side of the Medieval world, Muslims ruled nearly half of Spain for nearly 800 years, until 1492 CE (which is also the year the Americas were discovered). Just as they threw Muslims out of Spain, Christians went on to conquer two continents, spread Christian rule all over them, and eventually built the world’s most powerful nation there.

The Myth of Continuous Power Increase

There is a myth among Muslims that since they belong to God’s chosen religion, they should have been able to establish a globally dominant power that ruled the world forever. But God doesn’t promise us that. He promises that we will be tested:

You will be tested through your possessions and your persons; and you will hear from those who received the Scripture before you, and from the idol worshipers, much abuse. But if you persevere and lead a righteous life—that indeed is a mark of great determination.1

God also threatens us with His ability to remove us from power and replace us with others if we do not follow His guidance:

131. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. We have instructed those who were given the Book before you, and you, to be conscious of God. But if you refuse—to God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God is in no need, Praiseworthy.

132. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God suffices as Manager.

133. If He wills, He can do away with you, O people, and bring others. God is Able to do that. 2

Verse 131 above mention’s God’s warning to the People of the Book. The Old Testament contains many promises by God that if His people disobey, He will abandon them to whatever that may happen to them, and that He will make others dominant over them. In the Book of Deuteronomy (part of the Old Testament, and part of the Torah), prophet Musa (Moses) says:

25 When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the Lord thy God, to provoke him to anger:

26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

27 And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you.3

The Quran, too, mentions prophet Musa saying similar things:

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

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

8. And Moses said, “Even if you are ungrateful, together with everyone on earth—God is in no need, Worthy of Praise.” 4

Our relationship with God is not one where He constantly supports us just because we say we are His nation, unlike some Muslims and many Jews think. Here is the Jewish feminist author Naomi Wolf expressing her surprise at finding out (by reading the Hebrew Bible) that unlike what many Jews think, God does not promise them never-ending support just because they are “His chosen people”:

He never says: "I will give you, ethnic Israelites, the land of Israel." Rather He says something far more radical - far more subversive -- far more Godlike in my view. He says: IF you visit those imprisoned...act mercifully to the widow and the orphan...welcome the stranger in your midst...tend the sick...do justice and love mercy ....and perform various other tasks...THEN YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE AND THIS LAND WILL BE YOUR LAND. So "my people" is not ethnic -- it is transactional. We are God's people not by birth but by a way of behaving, that is ethical, kind and just. And we STOP being "God's people" when we are not ethical, kind and just.5

She is not quite correct when she says “my people” is not ethnic. Jews are God’s chosen, but being chosen does not necessarily mean one is chosen for a good thing. Jews are God’s chosen in that He gave them many scriptures and throughout the centuries continuously sent them new prophets to guide them back to the Straight Path. He chose them for a specific test. Their being chosen is not just a privilege, it is both a privilege and a heavy burden. If they reject God despite being chosen, God sends the most terrible punishments on them, like He has done many times throughout history. Many Jews forget the burden and choose to enjoy the privilege of thinking of themselves as God’s chosen elite.

Our relationship with God is contractual. If we obey, He supports us. If we disobey, He stops supporting us and subjects us to unfriendly powers.

The story of the Jews is a good lesson for us. Many times in their history they were extremely powerful. After they left Egypt, they entered Canaan around 1446 BCE. They disobeyed God when they were about to overtake a city and live in it, so God punished them by having them wander in the desert for 40 years. They finally entered Canaan in 1406 BCE and completely conquered it by 1399 BCE. Once they become a sovereign power, they soon start to do evil, abandoning God, worshiping Baal or the Calf, practicing usury or allying themselves with irreligious foreign powers like Egypt. For this reason, as they rejected and sometimes even killed their prophets, every few generations God would send a powerful foreign power to destroy many of their cities and slaughter many of their people.

When they continued to reject God, He sent Babylon to conquer their lands and sent them into exile for 70 years. After that the Persian emperor, whose empire had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to their lands and reestablish themselves there. Their story continued the same as before, with them doing evil and being punished for it. In 70 AD, a few decades after they rejected Jesus and tried to kill him, they tried to escape the rule of the Roman empire. In return they had their city of Jerusalem utterly destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Jews killed.

The Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman victory over the Jews, among other things, still stands in Rome.

Titus, the Roman commander who was in charge of the Roman victory over the Jews, is supposed to have refused to wear a wreath after the victory, saying that he was only acting as a tool of God’s wrath over the Jews. Perhaps this was God’s punishment on them for their rejecting God’s prophet Jesus.

In Jewish history there is an important historical lesson; that just because a nation associates itself with God and claims to be His people does not mean they will always have God’s support.

Muslim nations have had a history similar to that of the Jews. Many powerful Muslim states have risen and fallen throughout history, and this process is not going to end. If we establish a caliphate like some Muslims dream about, and even if it rules the world for 1000 years, if most of the population abandons Islamic values and Islam becomes largely culture and tradition and not faith, then that caliphate too will fail. God will enable another Mongol invasion, or another invasion by the British and the French, to come and divide their caliphate and do with it as they please.

Christianity’s Place in Islamic History

Just as Islam faded in the Middle East and became little more than cultural tradition and ceremony, Christianity rose in the West. The Christians who conquered the Americas thought they were doing it for God’s sake. They read the Bible daily, they established Biblical law in their colonies, and they braved many dangers in order to establish families, villages and cities in empty and hostile lands.

God’s promise in the Quran came true for them for their deeds:

65. Had the People of the Scripture believed and been righteous, We would have remitted their sins, and admitted them into the Gardens of Bliss.

66. Had they observed/enforced the Torah, and the Gospel, and what was revealed to them from their Lord, they would have consumed amply from above them, and from beneath their feet. Among them is a moderate community, but evil is what many of them are doing.6

While it is common for many Muslims to think of Christians as nothing but heathens who should magically disappear now that Islam has come, Christians are as much God’s people as Muslims are, that is, they too have a contract with God, and if they uphold their contract with God, God will uphold His contract with them. If a Christian nation is more faithful, more eager to serve God, and more observant of God’s laws, then we shouldn’t be surprised if God gives them His full support.

This was the case in the Americas and much of Western Europe until 1900 CE. With all of the corruption present, the average person’s actions and thinking were still largely controlled by Christian ideals.

Today, things are different. The West has finally abandoned the religion that made it great. The only reason the West is great today is the momentum of the past. A Muslim may lose hope when they look at the United States and see its immense capacity to dominate and do evil throughout the world. But the United States is already past its prime. It is desperately trying to hold onto its past power, constantly threatening Russia, China and Iran, but incapable of doing anything about them as they continue to rise.

The United States has had a below-replacement fertility rate since the 1970’s. If it wasn’t for their continuous importation of immigrants, their population would have been shrinking by now. A decades-long below-replacement fertility rate is all that is needed to illustrate that a nation is failing.

It is a country’s population that gives a nation its economic, technological and military power, and once the population starts to shrink, its power will decrease, because there will be fewer people to innovate, and fewer people to consume the fruits of these innovations and in this way pay for further innovations. Today the United States can afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military spending every year, and it is this spending that enables various military companies to continue innovating. But as the American tax base and economy both shrink, with this its power to spend will shrink. America is on a trajectory to become the next Portugal, once a global superpower, now almost a complete non-entity (unless it continues to import immigrants, but this cannot go on forever).

One illustration of the continuing fall of the United States is that of the world’s top 15 skyscrapers (those higher than 350 meters) finished in the past 3 years, 10 are in China, and only one in the United States. China continues to rise, the United States continues to stagnate and fall. America’s failing economy has no need for new office buildings, hotels and restaurants, since it already has more than its shrinking economy needs.

The answer to the question of why Muslims are so powerless compared to the West these days is that Islamic history ran into Christian history. Christian power was still rising when it clashed with an Ottoman Empire that was already past its prime, so the Ottomans didn’t stand a chance.

Today, Christian powers too are past their prime, and great change is coming.

The United States is unlikely to become a Portugal any time soon, and if Islam continues to spread, it might change into a new type of superpower without becoming irrelevant.

It should be noted that while China’s rise will probably be a good thing in the short-term, as its rise to power will probably prevent further significant US excesses for the next few decades, once it is firmly established as the world’s most powerful country, it could start acting like the US, forcing every other country to either become a de facto client state or get turned into a war zone.

The Long View of History

Even if Muslims establish a new global superpower that lasts for hundreds of years, it too can eventually fail and get conquered by non-Muslim powers. Imagine if this world continues to exist for the next 100,000 years. The story of Muslims being powerful then weak then powerful again might play out fifty or a hundred times more.

We humans want safety and security. We want to establish Paradise on Earth once and for all and then go on living in it. But that is not the purpose of this world, and dreams of establishing a Paradise on Earth are naive and futile. We are taught over and over again in the Quran that this world is worthless, that it will soon be over, that none of our deeds done in this world will last. The Quranic character Dhul Qarnain shows his appreciation for God’s message when he says the following right after completing building a structure for God’s sake:

He said, “This is a mercy from my Lord. But when the promise of my Lord comes true, He will turn it into rubble, and the promise of my Lord is always true.”7

For us Muslims, it is always about the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t matter what we accomplish in this world, because nothing we do will last. Everything we think we can accomplish, if God is really all-powerful, God can accomplish it in an instant if He wants. The point is not accomplishment in itself, the point is to follow God. What matters is the record of our deeds. No matter what we build, no matter how much power we have, we could see it all destroyed tomorrow. This has happened over and over again in history, though sadly we continue to fail to learn the lesson.

Why did God let the Mongols destroy Baghdad and Damascus if our purpose was to continue to gain power, wealth and fame in this world? Why did He let the Ottoman Empire, the last truly sovereign Muslim power, be invaded and destroyed? Why did He not allow the Arab powers to defeat Israel during their multiple wars?

Because this world is a test. It is not our purpose to build Paradise on Earth. Our purpose is khilafah, literally “to be stewards”. We are stewards of the earth. Our purpose is to take care of it by enjoining good and admonishing against evil, so that humanity continues, and so that the the earth does not become entirely corrupted.

A steward takes care of a farm until the owner returns, continuing the running of the farm as best as they can. It is the owner’s business what they do with the farm. In the same way, our job in this world is to continue be God’s stewards, God’s agents for good in this world, but it is His business what He does with this world, and whether He gives us power or takes it away from us. All that we can say is, “We hear and we obey.”

We are not seekers after power. The Prophet did not seek power, it was given to him. Neither did any of the righteous Rashidun caliphs. We do not seek to establish global dominance, or to carry out global war. Our job is to be God’s stewards, to walk on the Straight Path.

Being on the Straight Path does not require gaining power, and in fact the seeking of power is directly opposed to it, for the seeking of power always requires that one abandon one’s moral integrity. This is the story of every political party that starts out with high moral ideals only to become a nest of corruption and evil.

It is God who gives us power if we deserve it, and if the time is right, for His own purposes, and as long as it pleases Him, until He takes it away from us. As for us, we must be thankful and content throughout all of this:

No, but worship God, and be among the thankful ones.8

It is God who manages history for us. We are not in charge, God is.

No calamity strikes except by God’s permission. Whoever believes in God, He guides his heart. God is Aware of everything.9

No calamity occurs on earth, or in your souls, but it is in a Book, even before We make it happen. That is easy for God. That you may not sorrow over what eludes you, nor exult over what He has given you. God does not love the proud snob.10

God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. And if God wills any hardship for a people, there is no turning it back; and apart from Him they have no protector.11

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them successors on earth, as He made those before them successors, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners. 12

Our job is to do good wherever we find ourselves, to worship God, to be kind and just, to follow His commandments as best as we can, and it is God who will establish us on Earth when He pleases:

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them stewards on Earth, as He made those before them stewards, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners.13

We can, of course, be political activists and social critics. We can constantly work toward social justice and the lifting of poverty. But instead of doing these by seeking power first, we do them without seeking power. We do what is right and just and kind toward everyone, and God, if He wishes, can give us power any time He wants.

Ibn al-Jawzi says in his Sayd al-Khaatir (“Quarry of the Mind”):

I reflected upon the envy that exists among scholars, and saw that its source is the love of the worldly life, because the scholars of the afterlife engage in love and do not envy others. What separates the two groups is that the scholars of the worldly life seek power and leadership in it, and they love to accumulate wealth and praise, while the scholars of the afterlife live in seclusion from these things, they fear them and have mercy toward those who are being tested by them.

Truly good and kind people, who fear God and take the afterlife seriously, do not seek power in my experience. Sometimes the right situation arises for a good person to rise and become powerful, as it happened with Saladin. Saladin wasn’t a revolutionary who grabbed power or a politician. He became powerful as part of his job as a military commander, and one thing led to another until he became a powerful ruler.

The writer Frank Herbert says the following in Chapterhouse: Dune, and I find them true from all that I have seen:

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological
personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the
corruptible.

Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it.

Scientific vs. Divine Explanations for Islam’s Decline: Islam, Christianity and Indo-European Genes

A mistake many people make, both religious and irreligious, is that when they discover a scientific explanation for something, they start to think that it means that thing is not from God. But it is a principle of God that He will never allow us to have direct evidence of His existence, therefore when God does something, it is always through scientific means, or He makes it appear to be that way. God will not carry out miracles that can be recorded and published on YouTube. The only time that we will have direct proof of the existence of God and the rest of the Unseen is at the end of the world. When the pagans requested that they see an angel before they believe in God, God’s reply was this:

Had We sent down an angel, the matter would have been settled, and they would not have been reprieved.14

If we ever had direct evidence of God’s existence, then there would be no need for faith in God. God does not want that to happen, therefore everything that happens to us must have logical scientific explanations. We can examine Islamic history to find out where things went wrong. But even if we discover every single cause and try to cure it, our success is not guaranteed.

The divine reason for the fall of Muslims is that they abandoned Islam in their hearts, while the scientific reason might be the demographic collapse of the Persian population after the endless flood of Turkic and Mongol attacks that devastated the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia (over 90% of Islam’s greatest scholars, thinkers and scientists came from these cities). The divine reasons precede the scientific reasons. If we disobey God, God will bring about logical and scientifically-explainable reasons for our destruction. And if we obey God, and carry out our stewardship in the best manner possible, God will inspire us toward whatever will give us success and power in this world.

Conclusion

As Muslims, our goal in life is not to acquire power, glory or supremacy in this world. Our goal is not to establish Paradise on Earth. We can appreciate technological and scientific accomplishments, and we can work toward them as part of our stewardship on Earth, but we must never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, everything we do is meant to serve God, and that a day will come when all of our worldly works will be destroyed as if they never existed.

In this world, we are stewards of a temporary farm, a farm whose Owner has promised to destroy in the end. We must never get attached to this farm, or seek its improvement or power over it as a goal in itself. We must never get attached to the idea of establishing a global power. Even if we establish one, it too can come and go like every other Muslim power in history. History will continue going in cycles, Muslims will rise to power, fall, and rise again. The only people who achieve success are those who fear God and serve Him in the best way possible. It is only the record of our deeds which lasts forever, everything else is temporary.

If Muslims are weak today, look again in 500 years, and they may be the strongest and most technologically advanced power on Earth. Look again in 1500 years, and they may again be weak,  oppressed and backward. It is God who gives and God who takes. If we are thankful and obedient, He will increase us and improve our station in life, and if we are ungrateful, He can always take it all away from us and subjugate us to others.

Note that I am not saying that Muslims should turn their backs on science and progress. I love science and technology and eager follow its news, and I look forward to Muslim societies catching up to Western ones. Last year Muslim-majority Malaysia overtook Japan in its scientific research output per capita, as the graph below shows, and that is a very hopeful sign for the growth of scientific knowledge among Muslims:

The graph shows the number of scientific research papers published by each country divided by its citizens in millions. In 2017 Malaysia produced 936 papers per million citizen, while Japan produced 892.

Other Muslim nations are shown tremendous growth in scientific research as well. Egypt today produces five times more scientific and scholarly research compared to a mere 15 years ago. Iran is on track to catch up with European countries before 2030. These are things to look forward to, but we should not lose sight of the bigger picture.

The purpose of bismillah

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The Arabs before Islam used to begin their works by naming their gods, saying “By the name of al-Laat” or “By the name of al-Uzzaa”. Other nations used to do the same. If one of them wanted to do something to please a king or ruler, they would say it is done “by the name of” that person, meaning that this deed would not be if it wasn’t for that king or ruler.

For this reason, when you say “I begin my deed with bismillah al-rahman al-raheem” (in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful), it means “I am doing it by God’s command and for His sake, and not for the sake of my ego and its pleasures.

Shaykh Ahmad Mustafa al-Maraghi, Tafseer al-Maraghi.

Patriarchy in the Quran

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Stick to posting Islamic art and quotes. Otherwise, go learn about the patriarchy and power imbalances before flaunting your misogyny everywhere. May Allah guide you.

Islam is a patriarchal religion, where men get a degree of authority over their women in their households, and with that authority comes the burden of having to provide financially for all of their female relatives, so that in a devout Muslim society no woman will ever have to work, though they can if they want to.

That authority is balanced by the fact that a woman can get a divorce any time she wants, and she is protected by all of her male relatives against any abuses by her husband, so that if her husband abuses his authority in any way, she can always leave him to find a better man. The Quran calls on men to fear God, to be kind, to be just, and to defend the weak (which includes the women and children among them) but it also gives them authority in their households.

So while in Islam we believe in the equal worth of men and women, and in equal opportunities for both, the fact that God has given men a rank over women in their households is in the Quran, and ignoring this and pretending it doesn’t exist is throwing part of the Quran away because it disagrees with your preconceived notions, because you think your inane feminist-inspired moralizing is better than God’s guidance.

The Quran, 2:85: “Is it that you believe in part of the Scripture, and disbelieve in part? What is the reward for those among you who do that but humiliation in this life? And on the Day of Resurrection, they will be assigned to the most severe torment. God is not unaware of what you do.”

The Quran, 2:228: “And women have rights similar to their obligations, according to what is fair. But men have a degree [of authority] over them. “

The Quran, 4:34: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women [qawwamoon, literally “people of authority who watch over and maintain standards…”], as God has given some of them an advantage [in rank] over others, and because they spend out of their wealth.”

If you have a problem with a patriarchal society, you are in the wrong religion.

I encourage you to learn Arabic and read the Quran to discover the wonders of a society where men are not considered worthless and disposable like in the West, but where they are respected as figures of authority, and where a woman enjoys the peace of mind that comes with having multiple God-fearing men dedicated to her welfare, knowing that she could never, ever be homeless or wanting of food and income while a devout Muslim male relative remains to her, knowing that she can marry and divorce whoever she wants, start a business, or do whatever she wants with her life as long as it doesn’t go against God’s commandments, enjoying a peaceful life among men who like her and respect her and will not let anyone abuse her.

You are free to leave patriarchy, which means all sustainable civilized societies (all societies that have an above-replacement fertility rate, i.e. that are not on the path to extinction like Japan and Western Europe), to enjoy life among some Stone Age tribe where matriarchy is the order of the day, or in the ghettos and trailer parks of America where men belong to their mothers and do not know their fathers, where non-existent fathers make a patriarchy a practical impossibility, since patriarchy means rule of the fathers.

 

Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Introduction

There is a surprising amount of confusion among the religious, even among clerics and scholars, when it comes to understanding why evil exists and why God stands aside when so much suffering happens throughout the world. Most of us express wonder when we see some horrible catastrophe happen, or when we see evil individuals, companies and institutions wield so much power. Some people even go so far as to blame God for the evil things that exist in this world, since if God had desired, He could have prevented such things from existing or happening in the first place. Others take this even further, using the existence of evil as proof of God’s non-existence. How can a good and supposedly all-powerful God stand by while so much evil happens? Where is our God?

There are good, perfectly logical explanations for these things, deep explanations that elucidate the purpose of this universe, our place in it, and our relationship with God, and through this give us perfectly good reasons for the existence of evil.

Why Evil Exists

What is the point of the existence of this world anyway? Many mistakenly think that the purpose of this world is to be a permanent residence where people judge whether God exists or not. They think that they can gauge God’s “level” of existence by the things that happen around them, so that given the right set of events, they will decide He is alive and active, and given others, they will decide He doesn’t exist, because if He existed, the world wouldn’t be the way it is.

A friend said that he once went on a trip abroad, and before he left, he asked God to protect three things that were most important to him in his life. During his trip, he lost all three, which included the dying of loved ones, and this made him decide that God doesn’t exist. He is a Buddhist now.

The above case is an example of earth-centric thinking, that considers this world a goal in itself. This is the core mistake that leads to millions of people misunderstanding, even disliking, God. That is a mistake because this world is nothing besides a testing hall where humans can freely choose to do as they like, to prove their worthiness of God’s approval or wrath. This world is not meant to be a permanent residence.

Most religions teach that an end of the world is coming. Regardless of religion, the universe is on track to become a dark, lifeless mass as the stars and galaxies die out. Everything is going to end, and what remains is the record of our deeds, kept by God. Even if we manage to create the greatest empire on earth, or write the most wonderful novel, none of our accomplishments will last.

One day the universe will shut down as if it never existed, and on that day what significance can our achievements have? This world is not meant as a permanent home of peace, but as a test. And a test requires that the possibility of failure should exist. If all humans acted according to God’s wishes, evil would not exist. But since God has given humans the freedom to disobey Him, they have the ability to do evil.

God is good, and evil is the absence of goodness, the same way that darkness is the absence of light. If God is Light, we cannot blame Him for the darkness we encounter when we turn away from Him, distance ourselves from Him, and act against His wishes.

Why didn’t God make the universe a place of wholesome goodness lacking in the possibility for evil? Because if evil could not exist, humans wouldn’t truly be free beings.

To be free, humans require the freedom to act against God along with the freedom to act for His sake. God wants to give humans perfect freedom to act and grow, so that they can be the best or the worst they want to be. Since humans have the freedom to act against God, and since to act against God is to create evil, humans have been given the freedom to create evil.

God did not make this world a perfect place because that is not its purpose. Imagine if you were a maker of creatures. If the creatures you made were controlled by their nature to do exactly what you put in them to do, they could never be truly your friends. They would be subservient robot-like machines that cannot help doing whatever you put in them to do.

But imagine if one day you wanted something more. You wanted to make creatures that could truly be your friends. The only way to have a true friend is to create a creature that can choose whether to be your friend or not. And so, you make creatures with free will, who can act according to whatever they wish, rather than according to your programming. Some of these creatures will choose to be your friends, others will ignore you, others will choose to be your enemies. They may fight among themselves, doing much evil to one another, and blaming you, their creator, for the evil they do, when in truth they should blame themselves, for they are the ones choosing to act the way they do. They have the freedom to be good, and many of them choose to be good, but some of them  choose to be evil instead.

The only thing we can blame God for is His creating us and giving us the freedom to be evil. This is a pointless blame. This is our reality and our fate, we cannot escape it. We have been thrown into this game regardless of our wishes, a game that forces us to choose to be either good or evil. We can debate the ethics of forcing people to choose between good and evil. But at the end of the day, we are forced to play this game. There is no dropping out.

Our Creator has done this to us, possibly against our will1, but we cannot get hung up over this fact, because our future holds something very important: Either eternal reward, or eternal punishment. Blaming God will not help our future. It may make us feel better now to hate God as so many do, but by making us think badly of God, this will reduce our chances of future success. The future is coming whether we want it to or not, and we have the power to make it a good or a bad future.2

Not all evil is done by humans. Droughts, floods and other natural disasters can cause much evil and suffering, and we can lose loved ones through car accidents and illnesses. Why doesn’t God prevent these things from happening if He loves us? Because, in order for the testing hall that is this world to be a true and consistent place of testing, God shouldn’t interfere with the functioning of nature3. The laws of nature should behave in such a way that makes sense even without reference to God. If we were as intelligent as we are, and yet we saw that nothing bad ever happened on earth, no car accidents, to illnesses, nothing, that everyone died in old age of natural causes, then this would be undeniable evidence of the existence of a higher power that protects humans.

God wants us to have the possibility of being atheists. It is one of God’s self-imposed rules that it should be impossible to directly detect His existence. And that requires that the functioning of this world should make perfect sense according to predictable scientific laws.

God wants us to believe in Him without seeing Him or knowing that He truly exists, because if it were possible to prove His existence, it would reduce our freedom to act against Him. God wants our universe to seem to make perfect sense without any necessity for His existence. This way we are given the freedom to discover Him and His Scriptures, and through our knowledge and conscience, we gain the ability to either follow His way or disbelieve in Him. Once we are given this knowledge, there is no turning away from the choice between good and evil.4

God wants our test to be a perfect test, in which we have perfect freedom to be good or evil. This would allow us to take credit for our actions. If God’s existence were proven, we’d be turned into slaves who cannot help but do as He says. We’d become merchants who act in our best interests by following God’s commandments. This is not what God wants. God wants us to be honored creatures who befriend Him not because we are forced to, but because we choose to. This is what gives worth to our friendship.

There is little honor in an employee acting according to his or her boss’s wishes, this is the expected behavior. While even this amount of obedience to a boss justifies reward, so that even if we had proof of God’s existence, we could still be rewarded for obeying Him5, God wants to take us beyond this boss-employee relationship. He wants to raise us to the status of honored friends, who act out of love and friendship, and out of our own efforts toward remembrance of God, rather than acting out of practical compulsion.

God wants us to be the servant who continues to love and serve his master, even though the master goes away for years, decades. What incredible honor and reward can await such a servant who faithfully loves and serves his absent master for 50 or 60 years, until he dies, even though the master never returns?6

God, by creating the possibility for the existence of true friendship between Himself and the humans He created, had to also create the possibility for the existence of true enmity between Himself and them. He wanted friends, but He knew that they couldn’t truly be called friends unless they had the option to be His enemies.

The evil done by humans on Earth is a doing of humans when they act against God, it is not a doing of God, therefore humans should be blamed, not God. And the evil done by nature is nature’s own doing, caused by the rules of physics, and God does not want to interfere with it because constant interference with nature would cause His existence to become apparent. It is necessary for disasters and accidents to be possible, as these prove to us the validity of nature’s rules, and allows the atheist the freedom to use these to prove that God doesn’t exist.

God and Nature shall always be apart, or seem to be apart, so that each one appears to function without the other. This is necessary, as this is what enables humans the freedom to choose between faith and disbelief, between good and evil. The world needs to make perfect, logical sense without having to refer to God in our thinking. It should be possible for us to believe that the world functions on its own without anything supernatural existing, this is what gives us the freedom to believe and disbelieve in God.

We need to be able to believe that the Master is absent. This is when the true nature of the servant comes through. Bad servants start to misbehave as soon as the Master looks away, and if the Master is away long enough, they entirely give up serving Him. They will start to loot His property and defile His name. But the good and honorable servant, even as he sees all of this happen, continues to have love and loyalty toward his Master. It makes no difference to him even if the Master never comes back. He keeps the remembrance of his Master in his heart, and he admonishes and encourages himself to continue to be the best servant he can be.

The world, the way it is, gives us the perfect opportunity to be this honorable and admirable servant. If evil did not exist, and if bad things did not happen, then there would have been no way for such servants of God to exist. We’d instead all be lowly and menial servants who never had a chance to disobey, and thus never had a chance to prove our loyalty toward God.

A world without evil and disaster would be a dysfunctional testing hall that cannot differentiate between the best and the worst of us. Without evil and disaster, God’s existence would be so clearly visible to us that most of us would cower in front of Him. A few people might be found who are daring enough to disobey God even in such circumstances, but the majority of people would kneel before God as they would before a great emperor, regardless of whether they had any loyalty toward Him.

A world that seems to be ruled by the cold, harsh laws of nature, and that completely hides the existence of God from our eyes, gives us the perfect opportunity to prove our loyalty to God. This world, with all of its problems, is the perfect testing hall, because of the problems it has.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

I will get around the metaphysical complexity of defining good and bad people by saying that a good person is anyone the reader thinks does not deserve to suffer, while a bad person is someone who does not deserve God’s protection.

Why good people suffer has already been mostly answered. If bad things never happened to good people, this would act as a proof of God’s existence and the invalidity of nature’s laws. If all good people lived to old age and died of natural causes, this would be easily detectable by even the simplest analysis.

There are religious people who wrongly think that if you are truly faithful, you will never suffer anything bad. When they see bad things happen to people, they try to find the reasons why the sufferers themselves are responsible for the suffering that has come upon them.

But disasters are a natural part of life, and it should affect good and bad people equally, or at least it should seem to do so. God does not want to be seen, so it should be impossible to detect miracles happening to save good people.

The suffering of good people proves that nature’s laws are real. If nothing bad ever happened to good people, but only happened to bad people, the fact would act as a proof of God’s existence, and this is what God does not want in this world. God wants us to follow Him and serve Him of our own free will, without any compulsion or strong inducement.

There would be millions, maybe billions, more believers if avoiding suffering was as simple as believing in God and serving Him. But these believers would be tantamount to fair-weather friends, who are on the bandwagon of faith only for their own immediate, short-term interest. They wouldn’t be loyal friends of God.

The world should occasionally give the faithful the impression that God has abandoned them. This is the true test of faith. Once all blessing seems to have gone from our lives, that’s when we look inside our hearts to find God again. If we weren’t true believers, if we only believed in God to ensure our own worldly good, then there would be no God in our hearts. We’d lose faith and abandon religion once we had the impression that God has abandoned us, like millions do.

But as for the truly faithful, when life gives us the impression that God has abandoned us, we continue to believe in God and to do our best to protect our faith. If our Master seems absent, it does not mean He has gone away forever. Only a dishonorable servant would start to act as if the Master is dead once He is gone away for a month or two. Those of us who truly believe in God, who love Him and want His friendship, and who have accepted to be His servants for eternity, will not abandon serving Him, regardless of what hardship and loneliness comes our way.

By the morning brightness

And [by] the night when it covers with darkness,

Your Lord has not taken leave of you, nor has He detested [you].

And the Hereafter is better for you than the first [life].

And your Lord is going to give to you, and you will be satisfied.

Did He not find you an orphan and give [you] refuge?

And He found you lost and guided [you],

And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient.
[Quran 93:1-8]

The possibility of good people suffering something horrible is nothing but an extension of these facts of life; the need for a proof of nature’s laws, the necessity for some suffering to prove one’s faith and virtue. God can inflict the greatest suffering on His most beloved servants, as He did with Abraham when He asked him to slaughter his beloved son, and as He did was Jacob in allowing him to believe, for years on end, that his most beloved son was dead, as this is how the greatest friends of God are raised to the highest ranks.

There can never be virtue without suffering. A virtuous act is one where we overcome our natural tendencies for the sake of God, and attaining virtue always has an element of suffering in it, small or great. A rich person who, out of love for God, refuses to practice usury to further enrich himself or herself, is doing a virtuous thing. Their suffering is that they watch their fellow rich men and women practice usury and see their wealth increase exponentially, while their own wealth increases slowly and is subject to far more risk.

And someone who attains virtue by working for a charitable cause, or by giving money to the poor, is also subject to a mild form of suffering (what economists would call “opportunity cost”), as they lose time and money that could have been used for something pleasurable.7

The possibility of good people suffering does not mean that blessedness in this world does not exist. As in the story of Joseph, God will allow suffering to happen, followed by periods of ease and enjoyment, followed by more suffering, until His servant is raised to the highest possible status. God will not leave his faithful servants abandoned alone to be entirely subject to the cold, harsh laws of nature, though it is necessary that it should appear so, so that God’s existence will not become apparent. The Quran says:

Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, and who is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.
[Quran 16:97]

Besides reward in the afterlife, the verse promises a good worldly life. The word used in the verse to mean “good” is tayyib, which can also be translated as “wholesome”. God will have a hand in the lives of good people, ensuring that despite the disasters they suffer, they will end up having wholesome, blessed lives. This, of course, cannot be proven, in accordance with God’s plan. But it can be seen in little things for those of us who have faith. The lives of believers seem to have more purpose. Their life stories seem better arranged and guided. This of course cannot be proven to an atheist, and it doesn’t have to be.

On the other hand, for disbelievers, people who knowingly rebel against God even though they believe in Him in their hearts, the Quran has this to say:

But whosoever turns away from My Remembrance, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment. He will say: "My Lord, why have you summoned me as a blind person when I was sighted?" He will say: "Thus did Our signs come to you, and you forgot them; that is why you have been forgotten this Day."
[Quran 20:124-126]

This verse, similar to the previous one, implies that there are worldly consequences for having (and in this case, not having) faith. Those who knowingly reject God will have a “narrowed down” life, also translated as “straitened” and “constricted”. Similar to how the lives of good people are blessed despite their hardships, the lives of evil people are constricted despite their joys and pleasures.

To put it another way, the general theme of a believer’s life is blessedness, while the general theme of a disbeliever’s life is constrictedness, a feeling of being oppressed by life. Both will enjoy periods of joy and periods of suffering, but through submitting to God, believers are blessed by God and are freed from many of the constraints of life, while disbelievers are, in general, and not very detectably, made to submit to the harshness and coldness of nature.

There will be a hidden hand of God that shields and guides the believer, while there is no such shield and guide for the disbeliever, and the world, itself a servant of God, treats them the way they like to be treated, as if God does not exist.

God could inspire us to always make the right choices in order to avoid all that is bad and to always gain what is good. But, besides making God’s existence apparent, this would reduce the value of our friendship with Him. A true friend of God is the one who keeps his faith in Him during difficulties, while a fair-weather friend of God is the one who only loves and worships God during times of peace and plenty, and whose faith is shaken whenever something bad happens to them (and plenty of such believers do exist).

The matter of ranks of God’s chosen friends in the afterlife is important, because it decides a person’s status in the afterlife for all of eternity. God does not want most of us to leave this world without having proven how good of a friend of God we are. That, in fact, is the main purpose of this world: To distinguish our ranks, from the very best of us to the very worst.

Some people die before they can prove themselves to God, for example infants. God allows this to happen because infant deaths are required by the laws of nature. And as for the poor infant, while their death is a tragedy in this life, in the afterlife God can choose to give them great reward without them having worked for it, since God’s generosity is not limited. He may also give them a higher status in the ranks of His friends than their parents as a reward for the parents, while also raising the status of the parents who kept their faith during the ordeal. A truly just God will not let an infant’s death go to waste.8

There are a thousand ways in which God can preserve eternal justice while allowing tragedies like infant deaths to happen, since this life is no more than a mere flicker compared to the eternity of the afterlife, and everything that happens here will one day be nothing more than a pale memory when a person has spent millions of years enjoying the rewards of the afterlife, close to family and friends and close to God.

Suffering is a natural part of a believer’s life. God does not ask us to stoically control our emotions, never letting any suffering show, to prove that we are faithful. Jacob was a prophet of God, and yet he cried so much after his son was believed dead that his eyes turned blind. There is no shame in sadness. God does not ask us to be super-human, but to keep faith alive in our hearts as we are subjected to life’s joys and sorrows.

Isn’t it Unkind for God to Punish His Creatures?

Think of God as Light. By staying close to Him, by following His commandments, we ensure our eternal good. No one is perfectly close to Him, each person is at some degree of distance. Eternal punishment is only for those who knowingly stray so far away from the Light that they knowingly wallow in complete darkness. Anyone who stays within the merest flicker of Light may gain God’s forgiveness and eternal reward.

Eternal punishment is necessary because that is the only way of ensuring that evil-doers don’t get away with their evil deeds. Many Jews (and Christians too) have become corrupted by the idea that they are God’s chosen children and that no matter what they do, they will eventually be forgiven. This is a highly dangerous thing to believe, because once you believe that you will never be punished eternally, then you can get away with anything. If you are an Israeli settler, who cares if you take over other people’s lands with violence. You are God’s Chosen, and you will be forgiven.

Once the idea of eternal justice is corrupted, then from that all evil follows. Even if people believe in an afterlife, if they think that there will be a limit on their punishment term, that they will burn for a thousand years and then will be freed to enjoy life for the rest of eternity, then many of them will not find it so bad to devolve utterly into sin, since they will eventually get away with it.

To preserve justice, people should not be able to get away with their crimes. During their lifetimes God gives them thousands of opportunities to repent and become better people. God believes that a human lifetime is sufficient to distinguish good people from bad, that it contains enough opportunities for humans to prove whether they deserve eternal good or eternal punishment. Every hour of every day contains opportunities for us to change, for better or for worse, and these small changes mount. There is a Light in this world and we can choose to either walk toward it or away from it every hour of every day. Every time we take a step away from it, we do it in the full knowledge that we have the chance to take a step toward it instead.

If we spend all of our lifetimes walking away from the Light by knowingly doing evil, we shouldn’t be surprised when one day we find ourselves in total darkness, hopeless of ever finding the Light again. It was our own choices that brought us here. For years and decades we had the option to turn back and walk toward the Light again, our consciences kept reminding us that we still had a chance to return to God, that God’s door was wide open to us, but instead we decided to keep walking away, chasing our shadow instead of chasing the Light.

Once a person falls into total darkness through their own choices, there will no longer be a point to extending their lives to let them come back. This is what Scripture claims, that once a person is totally surrounded by their evil deeds, they will never come back toward the Light. There is a point of no return, meaning that a person who crosses this point, even if given a lifetime of a hundred thousand years, it will not make a difference in their fate.

In fact, the Quran claims that such evil people, even if taken to the afterlife and shown all of the signs of God’s greatness, then brought back to earth, they will continue to be evil. Among some Christians there is the belief that people, no matter how bad, can be made to become good through education and reformation. The Quran, always unabashedly realistic, has a more satisfactory view, that guidance can only be had with God’s blessing, that even if someone fully understands God and believes in Him, they can still choose to be evil. The Quran goes beyond this, saying that once a person fully devolves into evil, not only will they become unreformable, but that God will actively prevent any reform, because they’ve done sufficient evil to seal their fate (as in the case of the Pharaoh of Egypt in the story of Moses).

If you could but see when they are made to stand before the Fire and will say, "Oh, would that we could be returned [to life on earth] and not deny the signs of our Lord and be among the believers."

But what they concealed before has [now] appeared to them. And even if they were returned, they would return to that which they were forbidden; and indeed, they are liars.

And they say, "There is none but our worldly life, and we will not be resurrected."

If you could but see when they will be made to stand before their Lord. He will say, "Is this not the truth?" They will say, "Yes, by our Lord." He will [then] say, "So taste the punishment because you used to disbelieve."

Truly, they have lost, those who deny the meeting with God , until when the Hour [of resurrection] comes upon them unexpectedly, they will say, "Oh, [how great is] our regret over what we neglected concerning it," while they bear their burdens on their backs. Unquestionably, evil is that which they bear.

And the worldly life is nothing but amusement and diversion; but the home of the Hereafter is best for those who fear God, so will you not reason?
[Quran 6:27-32]

The average person might be a sinner, but they do not fight against God every chance they get, and at the time of death they will likely possess enough light to be eligible for God’s forgiveness.

What are some examples of people who deserve eternal punishment? Usurers and their central bankers, who knowingly enslave millions to an evil, unnatural type of debt to enrich themselves, who orchestrate economic bubbles and bursts to reap trillions of dollars in profit while destroying the livelihoods of millions of families, and who plunge countries like the US into war after war, knowing that hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be killed, just so that they can earn their trillions financing these wars. A just God will not let these people go unpunished, and their punishment will not be something they can laugh at, it will not be a slap on the wrist like the US government gives to the usurers at Goldman Sachs every year when they are caught manipulating markets and destroying parts of the economy to enrich themselves. It will be something that will make them cry every single day for eternity.

I will not believe in a God who lets these people get away with the immense evil they do.

Conclusion

People make the mistake of considering this world their permanent home. They become attached to its blessings and disasters, and they think they can judge God based on what happens in their lives. But this world is nothing more than a tool for distinguishing God’s true friends from His fair-weather friends, and distinguishing these from His true enemies.

This world is nothing more than a preparation for the eternity of the afterlife. We would be wise not to become attached to its ups and downs, and to know that these are the days given to us by God in which we can prove ourselves to Him.

***

I originally published this essay as a short ebook on Amazon in 2015. I’ve decided to publish it for free here on my website, after thoroughly rewriting it, so that more people may (hopefully) benefit from it.