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Al-Jahiz’s approach to knowledge and culture

Al-Jahiz (d. 868 CE) had an interesting approach to foreign cultures that I believe should be the modern Muslim’s approach as well (despite disagreeing with him on theology):

Jahiz was to advance the theory and practice of Adab1 by employing it as a system for the study of nature and society, a system that eschews narrow specialization in favour of a discursive, multi-faceted approach, willing to investigate all natural and social phenomena in a tolerant and sceptical spirit. Jahizian Adab is an Adab which believes in the infinitely didactic possibilities of nature, in man's need to investigate this world of reason and harmony which God has placed at his disposal and for his instruction, a world where even the 'wing of a mosquito' is enough for a lifetime of research. For Jahiz, Islam is, intellectually, a beginning and not an end. He believed that Islam had inherited world civilizations and that its true task was to carry through this legacy, to advance it by claiming as its own all the best that had ever been thought or accomplished. Just as Islam was the final and complete religious message, so its culture was to be heir to all earlier cultures. Accordingly, neither the veneration of antiquity or foreign cultures nor a conservative refusal to tolerate foreignness was acceptable but an open-mindedness which sought wisdom in all its manifestations, and whatever its sources.

Tariq Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (1994)

Does God really laugh? A study of the hadiths on God’s laughter

A review of Livnat Holtzman’s article “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.”1

There are a few hadith narrations that mention the laughter of God, which is something not mentioned in the Quran. One of the best-known hadiths mentioning God’s laughter is the following from Abū Hurayra:

So Allah will bring him near to the gate of Paradise, and when he sees what is in it, he will remain silent as long as Allah will, and then he will say, 'O Lord! Let me enter Paradise.' Allah will say, 'Didn't you promise that you would not ask Me for anything other than that? Woe to you, O son of Adam ! How treacherous you are!' On that, the man will say, 'O Lord! Do not make me the most wretched of Your creation,' and will keep on invoking Allah till Allah will laugh and when Allah will laugh because of him, then He will allow him to enter Paradise, and when he will enter Paradise, he will be addressed, 'Wish from so-and-so.' He will wish till all his wishes will be fulfilled, then Allah will say, All this (i.e. what you have wished for) and as much again therewith are for you.' " Abu Huraira added: That man will be the last of the people of Paradise to enter (Paradise).

Sahih al-Bukhari 6573

As part of my review of Livnat Holtzman’s article, I decided to do a quick survey of the major hadith collections (including the Musnad) for hadiths that mention the word yaḍḥaku (“he laughs”), I then gathered all of the hadiths that use this word in reference to God. Below is the result:

According to my probabilistic hadith verification methodology, here are the reliability indicators of the hadiths:

  • Abū Hurayra 22.7%
  • Abū Hurayra 26.5%
  • Jābir b. ʿAbdallāh 10.88%
  • Abū Razīn 5.85%
  • Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī 1.94%
  • Nuʿaym b. Hammār 4.66%

The strongest hadith is the second one at 26.5% which falls between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ in my methodology (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%).

We can then do a final step to combine all of these probabilities. Since we are combining different hadiths, each probability is first halved.

1−((1−0.227)(1−0.265)(1−0.1088)(1−0.585)(1−0.0194)(1−0.0466)) = 0.803547688

(0.227+0.265+0.1088+0.585+0.0194+0.0466)÷6 = 0.208633333

(0.803547688+0.208633333)÷2 = 0.5061

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.6% that the crux of their meaning is authentic, which is much higher than the 30% necessary for ṣaḥīḥ. So the conclusion is that the support for God’s laughter is quite strong in the hadith literature. Note that this is only a partial survey, a complete survey will likely enhance this probability upwards of 60%.

Interpreting God’s laughter

The Ashʿarite theologians considered it problematic to attribute laughter to God, so they reinterpreted God’s laughter as a reference to His mercy. The traditionalists (the major group of them being the Ḥanbalites), however, considered reinterpretation unacceptable, so they taught that God’s laughter should be interpreted literally even if we do not exactly understand its nature.

Below is a statement of creed (ʿaqīda) attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE, after whom the Ḥanbalī school is named) and mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his Hādī al-arwāḥ (The guide of souls):

We believe that God sits on His throne. However, He is not confined to limitations of space. We believe that God sees and hears and talks and laughs and is joyful.

The hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (d. 1149 CE), when asked about God’s laughter, said that it is hypocrisy and apostasy to attempt to interpret it.

The Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) criticized members of his own school for believing that God laughs until His molar “teeth” can be seen (as is narrated in a weak narration). He says that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Quran and Hadith (such as God having “hands” or laughing) were only intended to help new converts to Islam connect with God. Had God been described to them theologically as not being a body, not being in any place, having no dimension, and not moving, the new converts would have become perplexed and unable to relate to Him.

So Ibn al-Jawzī takes a path similar to the Ashʿarites in interpreting God’s laughter metaphorically, as referring to His mercy and grace.

Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of God’s laughter

The most interesting contribution of Holtzmann’s article is her discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on the issue. Whenever we see Ibn Taymiyya apply his vast intellect to a question, we can be sure to hear something original and interesting.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, it is wrong to consider laughter an imperfection in God as the theologians do. A person who laughs is more perfect than a person who cries. And a person who is capable of both love and hatred is more perfect than a person who is only capable of love. Part of perfection is to have the ability to respond to each situation in the most appropriate way possible.

Here he uses the same technique that he used to overturn Islamic theological orthodoxy and show that a God who acts in time is superior to a God who does not (see my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya). As Jon Hoover shows in his Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Ibn Taymiyya is dedicated to a juristic agenda whose first principle is to always seek to find ways to think of and describe God in the most perfect way possible.

So according to Ibn Taymiyya, while we should not attempt to exactly understand God’s laughter, we should also avoid the theological mistake of thinking that something that is imperfect in humans is imperfect when applied to God. Laughter can be a perfection for God. It is just one of the numerous ways in which His perfection becomes manifest to humans.

The Unleashed Thunderbolts of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya by Yasir Qadhi

A review of Shakh Yasir Qadhi’s paper “‘The Unleashed Thunderbolts’ of Ibn Qayyim al-Ǧawziyyah: An Introductory Essay.”1

This 2010 paper by Yasir Qadhi is a study of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s al-Ṣawāʿiq al-mursala ʿalā al-Jahmīya wa-l-Muʿaṭṭila (The Unleashed Thunderbolts against the Jahmites and the Negators [of Divine Attributes]). I will focus on Ibn al-Qayyim’s positions as transmitted by Yasir Qadhi.

Ibn al-Qayyim speaks against taʾwīl, the act of reinterpreting a statement in the Quran or hadith in a way that avoids its literal meaning, such as saying that when God refers to His “hand” in the Quran, this is actually a reference to His power. Ibn al-Qayyim says that there are only three possible reasons why a speaker would speak in a way that would require reinterpretation:

  • The speaker is not sincere and does not wish to express the clearest possible meaning.
  • The speaker is not knowledgeable about what he is saying.
  • The speaker is not eloquent and is unable to express himself clearly.

Naturally, since none of these apply to God or His Messenger PBUH, Ibn al-Qayyim’s conclusion is that there is no room for taʾwīl in Islam. But there is another possibility that he does not consider; perhaps God uses such expressions as tests and as encouragement for Muslims to look more deeply into the matter so that they can get to know God better.

They are tests in that they lead to disagreement among Muslims and in this way bring out their characters. Will they hold on to the tie of religious brotherhood and overcome their disagreements so that they can love those who disagree with them, or will they fail the test and use these disagreements as justifications for demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents? I believe Ibn al-Qayyim falls into the category of those who at least partially failed the test; his use of the phrase “Unleashed Thunderbolts” clearly implies that those who disagree with them deserve extreme divine punishment as Yasir Qadhi says.

Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to mention four “pillars of falsehood” (ṭawāghīt, sing. ṭāghūt) that he believes are the fundamental principles that are relied on by misguided Muslims (i.e. Ashʿarites, Muʿtazilites and philosophers) to destroy the foundations of religion.

The first ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210 CE) that verbal evidence do not yield certain knowledge. The theologians viewed the evidence of hadith as inherently probabilistic, since in almost all cases we can never be sure if the information was transmitted with 100% accuracy. They also viewed the process of interpreting the Quran and hadith as inherently probabilistic since we cannot always be sure that we understood the exact meaning that a verse or hadith statement is meant to convey.

Ibn al-Qayyim argues against that and says if that was really the case, life would become impossible since we could never be sure of the meaning of the statements that those around us made. Ibn al-Qayyim’s arguments as mentioned by Yasir Qadhi are all polemical and unconvincing.

The second ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that intellectual evidence takes priority over scripture when the two are in conflict. Ibn al-Qayyim relies on his mentor Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments against this principle, saying that reason and revelation can never be truly in conflict. Whenever reason and revelation appear to be in conflict, it is the deficiency of human reason that is to blame. Therefore when Aristotelian logic seems to support a truth that goes against revelation, the deficiency is in that logic.

This point is well made since the history of Islamic theology is full of theologians who believed that they had absolute logical proofs for their doctrines that were later proven to be logically invalid. Whenever we believe that we have discovered a fact that clearly goes against revelation, it may only take a decade or two before someone else shows us that the fact and revelation are actually not in conflict (as in the case of evolution).

Strangely, Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to argue that Hell is not eternal since it serves God no purpose to eternally punish a temporal creation. As I argue in my essay A Quranic Phenomenology of Atheism, the reason why eternal punishment may be necessary is that by disbelieving in God, a person stands up to the Infinite and asks Him to do His worst to them. It can be said that here Ibn al-Qayyim breaks all of his own principles: he ignores the literal meaning of the Quran and hadith, he prefers his own reason over revelation, and he breaks with the views of the Companions and the Salaf.

The third ṭāghūt is the concept of majāz (allegory) that is used by the Ashʿarites. Ashʿarites claim that the Quran uses allegorical language, for example when God refers to being “above” the Throne, this is merely an allegory rather than a reference to God having a direction of “aboveness” in space (since God is not in space). Ibn al-Qayyim strangely argues that statements such as “Zayd is a lion” are not actually allegorical because anyone with a sound mind can immediately understand the meaning that is meant by it; namely that Zayd is brave.

He argues that there is no textual indication that God’s attributes should be interpreted metaphorically. He says that it is demeaning to God’s exalted nature to suggest that attributes such as His being “above” do not have a literally meaning. He claims that all of the Companions and the Salaf agreed that these attributes should be interpreted literally.

The fourth ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that the traditions of the Prophet PBUH can only yield probabilistic knowledge. Ibn al-Qayyim’s view is that singular (āḥād) narrations (which lack multiple supporting chains) can yield certain knowledge when there is supporting evidence. I believe that Ibn al-Qayyim exaggerates the position of his opponents, since they too acted upon singular narrations despite acknowledging their probabilistic reliability. His act merely implies that his opponents are using an invalid approach to hadith–despite the fact the end result is largely the same. It is therefore merely or largely a polemical attack meant to lump together extreme rejectors of hadith with the Ashʿarites.

In his conclusion, Yasir Qadhi mentions that Ibn al-Qayyim’s attack is one of the most sophisticated ones ever launched against the Ashʿarites. He calls for reassessing common views of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya as shallow literalists. I agree that despite the failure of many of their attacks and their polemical style, they were worthy opponents of the theologians who must be taken seriously. Recent Western scholarship has continued to support this thesis, a good example being the 2010 book Ibn Taymiyya and His Times.

A Manual of Civilized Sexuality

Get it on Amazon: Paperback | Kindle

My new book A Manual of Civilized Sexuality: What Science, Feminism and Our Pornographic Culture Cannot Teach Us about the Most Important Things in Love, Romance and Intimacy is now available on Amazon.com. While this book is written for a general Western audience, the contents are extremely relevant to Muslims interested in understanding Islam’s views on sexuality.

In this book I present a framework for a morality of human sexuality that makes no reference to religion (while being fully compatible with it).

The modern world demonizes masculinity among men while promoting it among women; believing that the only truly worthy woman is one who lives up to masculine standards of behavior and achievement. I show that by adopting an evolutionary1 view and combining it with Kant’s simple moral philosophy, we gain the very best that feminism stands for (true equality of the sexes) without either sex having to abandon its natural instincts and its masculine/feminine persona. I therefore present a post-feminist view of gender relations that makes feminism irrelevant for those who live truly moral and civilized lives.

Islam tells us that it is wrong for a man to do something as seemingly innocuous as admiring a woman’s body on the street. The scholars are also agreed that watching pornography is immoral. But where does the “wrongness” in such behaviors come from? I show that this wrongness is related to our basic humanity. Any erotic enjoyment that lacks an interpersonal aspect is morally wrong and damaging to one’s own humanity; it takes away our ability to enjoy the warmth of human relationships. We are not animals and our sexuality is deeply tied to our humanity–requiring very specific rules of behavior that the Abrahamic religions get right.

From the Amazon description:

A Manual of Civilized Sexuality explores the most important issues in the modern couple’s life: from dating and romance to the morality of eroticism and intimacy, to finding spiritual meaning in life. Author Ikram Hawramani unites Kant’s beautiful and simple moral philosophy with an evolutionary understanding of masculinity and femininity, showing how both sexes can lead authentic lives tuned to their own instincts while living in Kant’s “Kingdom of Ends” where love, beauty and freedom reign. Couples who have been happily married for decades and who continue to have infinite love and consideration for each other already live in the Kingdom of Ends. This book shows you the path for getting there.

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh

Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh (published 1990) is a collection of papers written in honor of the Palestinian-American professor Farhat Jacob Ziadeh (1917-2016), founder and first chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington.

I bought this book after seeing it cited in Omar Farahat’s 2019 book The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology and finding it for sale for only $6 on Amazon.com, without looking into the book’s contributors. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that it had articles by some of the best scholars of Islamic studies in the late 20th century: Wael Hallaq, George Makdisi, his son John Makdisi, and Bernard Weiss.

The first article is by Wael Hallaq and studies the problem of inductive corroboration in Islamic legal reasoning. How many witnesses are required to prove a point beyond doubt? Hallaq studies the issue of the mutawātir report (a hadith report that is transmitted by so many people that a person can be completely sure of its authenticity). Some scholars fixed the number for establishing tawātur at five witnesses, while others chose 12, 20, 40, 70 or 313. But during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the dominant view emerged that only God knows how many witnesses would be required for tawātur.

The opposite of a mutawātir report is an āḥād (“singular”) report; a report that does not come from a sufficient number of transmitters to establish certainty. Hallaq argues that according to the jurists, an āḥād report had a probability of authenticity of less than 1 (i.e. less than 100%) but higher than 0.5 (50%). By the mere fact of a report having an unbroken chain of transmitters to the Prophet PBUH, it was considered more likely to be authentic than not. And when two singular reports support a particular point or issue, the probability increases.

In my essay Mathematical Hadith Verification: A Guide to the New Science of Probabilistic Hadith Transmitter Criticism I propose a way of formalizing these probabilities. But unlike the jurists, I treat the probability of the reliability of each transmitter independently. Each transmitter is given the benefit of the doubt by being considered as 60% likely to be truthful and accurate. But when more transmitters are added to a chain, their probabilities are combined, lowering the integrity of the information transmitted.

The second article is by Jeanette Wakin of Columbia University (d. 1998) and focuses on the views of the Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn Qudāma (d. 1223) regarding interpreting divine commands. When God tells us in the Quran to do something, does this imply permission, recommendation or obligation? In verse 5:2, God tells us, “when you leave the state of iḥrām, then hunt.” Interpreting this command as implying obligation means that every pilgrim is obligated to go hunting after they are done with the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca. But of course, it is widely known that hunting is not obligatory; so the command must only imply permission. While jurists like al-Ghazālī adopted the moderate view that divine commands cannot be interpreted as permission, recommendation or obligation unless we can find out more information about the command (for example in the Prophet’s traditions PBUH), Ibn Qudāma’s view was that all commands imply obligation unless proven otherwise, except in the case of a command that comes after a prohibition, in which case the command only implies permission (as in the hunting example above).

Bernard Weiss’s article is on the problem of objectivity in Islamic law. How can objectivity be ensured in the interpretation of the law? Do the differences among scholars on matters of law imply a lack of objectivity? Weiss argues that the jurist’s performance of ijtihād (of re-analyzing the sources of the law and reaching new decisions) is how objectivity is ensured within our human limitations. Studying revelation (the Quran and the Sunna, i.e. the Prophet’s words and actions) always has a chance of leading to new results. But in order to have practical law, we must be able to establish an end to this process, otherwise we will never reach a conclusion; we will always be suffering the uncertainty that better knowledge and understanding will lead to different results.

The process of ijtihād solves this dilemma by giving a qualified jurist the right to do his own independent research until he reaches a point when he can in all honesty say that he has done his best with what is available. At that point he can issue a ruling that will be considered objective and applicable for himself and his followers. The process of ijtihād therefore leads to a historically-limited instance of objectivity; the best objectivity that can be had within our human limitations. And when each jurist performs this through time, we get a historical series of objectivities, each presumably better than that which preceded it.

Farhat J. Ziadeh’s article is on the issue of ʿadāla (“justice” or “justness”), the quality of a witness being considered reliable and trustworthy by an Islamic court. He mentions the interesting anecdote of a man who refused to pay the voluntary separation gift that a man owes to his divorced wife. The judge who presided over the separation later refused to accept the man as a reliable witness in a different case because the man had refused to be charitable and God-fearing in the previous case. Another interesting anecdote is that al-Ḥakam I (d. 822 CE), a ruler of Umayyad Spain, was rejected as a reliable witness by a judge that he himself had appointed.

Ziadeh argues that Islam led to a transformation of the Arab ideals of virtue. In the pre-Islamic era, virtue was a warrior’s courage, a rich person’s generosity, and the dedication to keeping one’s word even at the cost of losing a loved one. But in the civilized atmosphere of the Islamic city, the virtues were those qualities that enabled the law to function properly.

The fifth article is by David F. Forte, a law professor at Cleveland State University. He tries to clarify the Islamic principles of property rights by studying how Islamic law deals with the issue of lost property. He concludes that Islamic law is more concerned with the rights of a property owner than the English common law.

George Makdisi’s article is going to be of the most interest to Western readers. He defends his thesis, that he has defended in many other places, that Islam created the concepts of professor, doctoral dissertation and academic freedom.

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

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

The West took many centuries to digest the imported Islamic concepts of professor and academic freedom. Western professors in the 13th century still lacked the academic freedom that Islamic professors had enjoyed since at least the 8th century. In Christianity, dissent among the professors was considered an evil that led to heresy. In Islam, dissent was the most important way of ensuring orthodoxy, which is why it developed a vast literature of dissent where the disagreements of the professors were recorded.

The idea of a professor freely expressing dissenting opinions had no place in Western civilization until the power of the Church weakened and the professors were able to acquire some autonomy from it.

John Makdisi’s article focuses on the possible Islamic influences on the English common law. His article is an earlier version of his famous 1999 article “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” (which can be downloaded here). He argues that the assize of novel disseisin, a crucial aspect of the development of the common law established by Henry II in the wake of the Assize of Clarendon of 1166, may have had an Islamic origin, and studies the historical context in which this Islamic influence may have been acquired.

The last four articles by William Ballantyne, Ian Edge, Ann Mayer and David Pearl respectively deal with the issue of the application and integration of the Sharia in modern Islamic states. I discuss the contents of some of these articles in my essay Solving the Problem of the Codification of the Sharia.

Why a Muslim should read or listen to the Quran for an hour every day

Assalamualaikum, from my readings I noticed that you consistently reminded us readers to at least allocate one hour a day to listen to the Quran. So, with regards to that how long have you practiced this and what changes have you felt ever since you started practising it.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

I started seriously practicing this since last Ramadan when I promised God to spend an hour every day in extra worship.

Since I started doing that, everything in my life has seemed to go more smoothly and I have enjoyed numerous new blessings that I never expected.

The greatest benefit has been the fact that it makes sinning almost impossible. It feels like God is always with me and I cannot engage in any sinful idea without feeling His strong presence. So it is a way of ensuring true submission to Him.

Another benefit is that it feels like my life is on a course managed by God. I do not care what happens tomorrow, next month or next year. God is in charge and He will ensure my good. So it has completely removed all anxiety I have had about the future.

To me therefore it seems like a Muslim who wishes to be extraordinary and who wishes to achieve the peak of spirituality should make this a daily practice that they plan to do for all of their lifetime. There is nothing better than always being in God’s presence; it takes life’s problems away, it takes away all sins, it makes life meaningful and it brings constant new blessings. Problems that seemed unsolvable to me in the past have disappeared.

Medieval Female Mystics of Islam

‘Minarets, Cairo’ by Arthur Streeton, 1897.

A review of Arezou Azad, “Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy.” (Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013) 53-88).

Andrea Cabrera

The article, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: the Quiet Legacy” was written by Arezou Azad, who is a Leverhulme Research Officer of the Oriental Studies Faculty at the University of Oxford.

In this paper, we find a brief and summarized information about a 9th century female mystic Umm ʿAlī, from Balkh.

Azad starts by mentioning the lack of reliable sources that may enable researchers to find more female mystics from the past, which can be due to some external reasons that do not outline lack of interest from women’s side, lack or preparation or possible social repression. In fact, as the article mentions, a great number of female scholars were found during the first century after the advent of Islam, then we find another peak of female presence during the 9th century, declining again until the 12th and 13th centuries, where we find once again traces of female scholars.

Umm ʿAlī, despite being a Sufi, can be considered a good example of determination and commitment toward education. Born in a wealthy family from the upper class, Umm ʿAlī is the granddaughter of a governor from the Abbasid regime in Balkh, which helped her inherit a great amount of money, enough to pay for her journey to Mecca to perform Hajj and her studies in that city for a period of 7 years.

In the paper we find two versions of Umm ʿAlī: the first one is an educated “worldly” woman who even lectures her husband, the renown Sufi scholar Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad Khidrawayh, on how to hold dinner for another famous Sufi scholar. She was manly enough to ask her husband to marry her to her teacher, in front of whom she even removed the veil from her face, provoking her husband’s jealousy.

The second version shows us a more refined and centered woman, who supported all of her husband’s views. The masculine attributes are not mentioned, nor the nominal marriage to her mentor.

Due to lack of references it is hard to conclude which version is the accurate one, for example whether she just pursuing increasing her knowledge at any cost. The article leaves the door opened for the reader to create her/her own opinion of Umm ʿAlī, but highlights her educational achievements and the great importance that female education was given in Islam, which unfortunately, has been fading away because of some un-Islamic views.

Ikram Hawramani

In her paper, University of Birmingham professor Arezou Azad studies the career of the medieval female mystic Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh.

Azad complains that it is often difficult to distinguish fact from myth in the accounts on Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801). This is the case with lives of the Sufi saints since their disciples and admirers, removed from them by generations and centuries, naturally felt a strong urge to elevate their masters to the highest spiritual stations. Therefore Sufism never developed strict criteria for telling fact from fiction when it came to information on the lives and sayings of the saints.

Azad also complains that most recent research has focused on Rābiʿa. Her paper is a contribution toward shifting the focus to other female mystics of Islam. She mentions that over the past two decades (meaning 1993-2013), studies have revealed that women exercised far more power than was previously believed. This is a welcome observation and in keeping with my contention that the historical reality of male-female relationships is that women were always equal partakers in all civilizations, despite what feminist theories of historical misogyny might suggest (of course, the existence of some misogyny has always been a fact). And based on this contention, I hope to work toward contributing a post-feminist, or what I simply call a humanist, perspective toward the study of women that assumes from the get-go that men and women are already equal in power, worth and civilization-forming ability. A study by University of Western Ontario professor Maya Shatzmiller found that “women were involved in economic life in medieval Islam to an important degree.”

Columbia University professor Richard W. Bulliet has stated that the inclusion of women in the classical biographical entries were often due to their kinship ties with the compiler. This is in keeping with Darwinian theories of kinship where humans are wont to see people of closer kinship as “more human” than people of more distant kinship. It is to have a female-excluding worldview in a masculine scholarly culture, but kinship ties make it difficult for the male writer to uphold this exclusionary view toward closely related females. While a man may have a general view toward women, this view is difficult to uphold toward women he knows personally. An aunt, for example, is automatically excluded from the female category in the mind and included in the human category instead, this making it much more likely for the male writer to treat her on human terms rather than mere female terms.

Azad mentions that the 14th century Egyptian scholar Ibn al-Ḥājj (d. 1336 CE) spoke against women sitting across men during learning sessions, considering inappropriate. But she makes the astute remark that rather than his perspective, rather than representing a widely-followed norm and prescription, actually represents the opposite. Women’s free mingling with men in mosques had become a reality and this scholar simply tried to express his disapproval of it. In my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims, I caution against viewing Islamic scholars’ statements as representations of norms since they often actually represent the opposite; they are anti-norms that they only wished to become norms. When Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) complains about various errant practices in the Baghdad of his time, while a casual reading by a past Orientalist may have led him to think of the Baghdadian culture of the time as a theocratic society controlled by scholars, the evidence actually suggests the exact opposite: scholars had little power to control their societies, showing the great freedom enjoyed by the Muslims of the time. The reality of Islamic societies is that the elite of Islam (the scholars and the devout Muslims) often as a class stand against the elite of society and the “ordinary” Muslims. The Islamic elite always pull in one direction (toward a better practice of Islam), while the rest of society often pulls in the other direction (toward slackness and freedom). In this way a dynamic equilibrium is reached that cannot in any way be honestly described as a theocracy.

However, it is true that in classical Islam there was often a partnership between the social elite and the religious elite, as Azad discusses. But I believe this does not disprove my thesis since we have numerous examples of the religious laxity of many of the social elite of classical Islam. It was, for example, an extraordinarily pious step when one of the Abbasid caliphs decided to ban alcohol drinking-houses, showing that the Caliphate’s usual policy had been one of tolerance toward such an un-Islamic aspect of their society.

In her paper, Azad focuses on the career of Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh, a female mystic and a member of the elite of Balkh’s society mentioned in a number of Sufi-oriented Iranian sources. She was taught tafsīr by Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbdallāh al-al-Tirmidhī (d. 853-4) and transmitted his book in this field. She stayed seven years in Mecca after performing the pilgrimage in order to seek knowledge. This was not unusual. Davidson College professor Jonathan Berkey mentions that out of 1075 women listed in a biographical dictionary of the fifteenth century, 411 obtained a similar education.

Umm ʿAlī’s husband was the judge and mystic Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh (probably died 854-5). Umm ʿAlī took the interesting step of proposing to her husband. Al-Ḥujwirī (d. 1077) mentions (to use Azad’s translation, the first note in brackets is mine):

When she changed her mind [about not marrying], she sent someone [with a message] to Aḥ mad: “Ask my father for my hand.” He did not respond. She sent someone [again with a message]: “Oh Aḥmad, I did not think you a man who would not follow the path of truth. Be a guide of the road; do not put obstacles on it.” Aḥmad sent someone [with a message] to ask her father for her hand.

Azad narrates an anecdote in which Umm ʿAlī “removes the veil from her face” upon meeting the famous mystic Abū Yazīd (Bāyazīd) al-Biṣtāmī (d. 874 or 877-8) Al-Ḥujwirī recounts this as “Fāṭima niqāb az rūy bar-dāsht” (Fāṭima removed the niqāb from her face) (while her husband was present). This suggests that she merely broke a social convention rather than Islamic law—she did not necessarily remove her full ḥijāb. She simply trusted the great mystic enough to break social convention and let him see her face, believing that he would not objectify her for her beauty and attractions but continue to see her as a fellow human mystic. Elsewhere it is mentioned that once when Bāyazīd comments on the henna designs she has on her hand, she decided to stop learning with him, believing that this was an unacceptable breach of etiquette—the great mystic had taken note of her external appearance. Thus rather than suggesting any laxity toward religious law, the anecdote suggests her high character and her bravery in breaking social convention due to the trust she had in the power of the mystical path upon men.

In conclusion, Azad’s study is a very welcome contribution to rejuvenating the legacy of Islam’s great women in the classical period.

On the Impossibility of 1984: Hawramani’s Theological Law of Propaganda

According to the Wikipedia article, propaganda is:

information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented. Propaganda is often associated with material prepared by governments, but activist groups, companies, religious organizations and the media can also produce propaganda.

It is the dream of perhaps all governments to produce (a) a coherent, fictive vision of reality (past, present and future) and (b) to convince the populace of the truth of this fictive worldview.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 is an exploration of an imaginary world where propaganda has been taken to its logical conclusion. The government is able to create a reality and implant it in almost every citizen’s mind through a very powerful system of propaganda and control.

Reading 1984 is naturally a depressing experience since there appears to be no realistic reason why such a world cannot eventually come about. As the science of propaganda continues to improve, especially today that it can be enhanced with extremely capable artificial intelligence, governments will continue to be able to exert better control over the minds of citizens.

George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

For an atheist who views the world as a closed system, there is no realistic reason to be optimistic about the future of propaganda. The propaganda system will continue to improve until it reaches a point of singularity where it becomes more complex than any human mind, and thus capable of exerting irresistible influence on human minds. A person can of course refer to chaos theory or quantum uncertainty to say that any system of propaganda can eventually break down due to the simple unpredictability of human thought. But this is just a possibility, and one can still fear the thought that a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to find ways of handling chaos and uncertainty.

But for a theist, things are much more hopeful. By considering this universe a simulation-like thing (as I discuss in this essay), and by considering the soul an entity that resides outside of it, we are faced with a situation where the complexity of the human can never be overcome. The human soul resides outside the simulation and is independent of it, therefore the simulation can never overcome its complexity. It would be like trying to open a locked box with a key that is inside it.

As is common with all simulations, the infrastructure upon which the simulation runs is more complex than the simulation itself. A video game is a simulation, and the world inside is far, far less complex than the computer upon which the video game operates. The soul belongs to that higher-order world of complexity, therefore it is impossible for anything within our universe to reach its level of complexity. Therefore since (a) the soul is independent of the universe and (b) the soul belongs to a higher-order reality, it follows that (c) no system of information within the universe can match it or overpower it.

Thus Hawramani’s Theological Law of Propaganda is:

No system of propaganda can ever reach the complexity of a single human intellect, therefore humanity is eternally immune from complete control by propaganda.

To put it another way, the dystopian vision of 1984 is unrealistic and impossible. All governments’ efforts at mind-control of the populace are incredibly feeble compared to the object they are dealing with: humans. Humans, by the virtue of having extra-universal souls, are not objects but subjects–subjects that look into the universe from the outside.

Thus as a theist, I can justify complete optimism about humanity’s ability to overcome propaganda.

Of course, I have an even more important reason to be optimistic: God exists, He is in charge, and He will not let any tyrant entirely corrupt His earth:

And they defeated them by God’s leave, and David killed Goliath, and God gave him sovereignty and wisdom, and taught him as He willed. Were it not for God restraining the people, some by means of others, the earth would have gone to ruin. But God is gracious towards mankind.

The Quran, verse 2:251.

An Imam was fired for believing in evolution

Some news from Twitter:

An Imam was fired for believing in evolution. I replied to the tweet with a link to my essay in which I discuss the compatibility of the Quran and evolution. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like anyone bothered to read it, so I only got a lot of self-congratulating replies from true believers in atheism.

The Atonement by William Lane Craig

I became interested in the Christian theologian William Lane Craig after reading Jacobus Erasmus’s The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, a 2018 book that reconsiders Craig’s views on this argument for God’s existence and tries to strengthen it. I was surprised by just how strong this argument is, although it does not reach the level of “proof”. A true proof is one that all rational people can accept. But no argument for God’s existence reaches this level–there is always room for some doubt, there is always a “leap of faith” necessary in order to accept the argument. As the Christian theologian recently stated on Twitter:

Alister McGrath’s statement applies very well to the The Kalām Cosmological Argument. As a faithful person who has already made the leap of faith, it further convinces me just how incredibly unwise it is to doubt God’s existence. But I admit that a dedicated atheist can question it.

I decided to embark on a journey to read most of Craig’s books starting with his newest, which was The Atonement. This is as part of my efforts to familiarize myself with Christian theology. The studying of Christianity by Muslims is sometimes framed under the unfortunate rhetoric of “knowing the enemy”. That attitude will hopefully go away as Muslims interact more with Christians and recognize the need to see Christians as fellow humans and persons doing their best to serve God as they understand Him. Of course many Christians also have a similarly unfortunate attitude toward the study of Islam. But when interacting with a non-Muslim group, the proper way is to focus on the best and most humane among them and treat them as they like to be treated, rather than focusing on the worst and using this to justify bad treatment.

The Atonement is a short defense of the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement on both theological and legal grounds. An interesting aspect of the book is the author’s use of modern legal theory. The book is a good representative of what we might call the cutting-edge of Western theological and legal thought. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement attempts to justify how the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ [as] (something Islam denies but Christianity considers foundational to its theology) leads to the salvation of Christians. How does the torture and death of an innocent person lead to forgiveness and salvation for others?

Some Christian theologians, similar to the Muslim Muʿtazilites, had the “cosmic justice machine” view of God. According to them God is forced to be just in all things, which means that He is prevented from forgiving sins unless there is a good and just reason for this forgiveness.

William Lane Craig

As a non-Muʿtazilite, I naturally find that view of God highly unsatisfactory. God has many attributes and He is not forced to act by any one of them. He is forgiving, He is just, and He is avenging. And He is free according to which attribute He should treat a particular person or group of persons. He can forgive someone even if our idea of justice requires the person to be punished, because this is the essence of forgiveness: to choose not to do some injury to someone despite the fact that they justly deserve it. My view of God as freely choosing to act according to whichever attribute He prefers is also why I reject the Sufi view that loving God is better than fearing Him (as discussed here). Loving God pleases God’s attribute of the Loving, while fearing Him pleases His attribute of the Mighty (among others). Who are we to choose whether pleasing one of His attributes is better than pleasing another? The proper, God-fearing view in my opinion is to respect all of God’s attributes equally. This means that serving God out of fear and desire is just as good as serving God out of love. Ideally, of course, we should serve God out of fear, love and desire, and out of the intellectual recognition of the fact that God is One who deserves to be worshiped, not out of fear, love or desire, but because that is something He simply deserves. The love and appreciation of all of His attributes should be the foundation of our worship of God.

According to the cosmic justice machine theory (to which Craig subscribes to some degree), therefore, the Atonement was necessary because God could not justly forgive humanity without first demanding that a sacrifice or offering should be made to Him, or demanding that a particular person be punished as a substitute and representative of humanity.

An alternative theory to that is the moral influence theory, according to which the Atonement was meant as an example to humanity rather than as an offering for sin. Other arguments are also mentioned but I will not go into the details here.

An important problem with all doctrines of Atonement is the issue of imputation. How is it rational that a particular person be held responsible for the sins of all others? Various responses to this problem are mentioned in the book. For example it is mentioned that God, as Supreme Ruler, has the right to punish a person for the sins of another. Just because we cannot easily envision how this can be just or rational does not mean that it is not.

A strong argument in favor of the imputation of humanity’s sins to Christ is the concept of vicarious liability. This legal concept refers to the fact that, for example, an employer can be punished for crimes committed by his employees. Even though he himself has committed no fault, the employee’s fault can legally fall upon the employer. Similarly, Christ can be considered the master of mankind and therefore any sins committed by his underlings can be in some way imputed to him. The fact that he accepts this responsibility and imputation willingly makes its justice even stronger.

Another defense is that God’s punishment of Christ, even though on the face of it unjust, helped prevent a greater harm, which was the destruction of all of humanity for their sins.

Defining guilt and pardon

Craig analyses the concept of guilt and rejects the definition that guilt is simply the fact of having committed a crime or sin. Guilt, instead, is a person’s liability for punishment.

According to this view, pardon is the act of taking away a person’s liability for punishment without implying that the person did not commit the crime. The commitment of the crime is acknowledged, but the act of pardon takes away all guilt. Craig says:

A person who has served his sentence has paid his debt to society, and so is now no longer guilty; that is to say, no longer liable to punishment. Similarly, a person who has been pardoned is by all accounts no longer liable to punishment for the crime he committed.

Since Craig to some degree believes in the cosmic justice machine theory, he concludes that God’s pardon of our sins could only be justly accomplished if someone was punished for them. There is a contradiction between pardon and justice that can only be resolved if the pardon only takes place when some punishment has taken place (in this case the punishment that Christ bore willingly for the sake of humanity). Thus God is powerless to pardon without punishment since that would be unjust.

As should be clear from what I said earlier, I find Craig’s final solution to the contradiction between justice and pardon unsatisfactory. My solution would be that God is free when it comes to which one of His attributes He acts according to. He can act according to His attribute of Mercy regardless of what His attribute of Justice demands. There is no contradiction here because there is no higher power forcing God to act according to one attribute and not another.

He will not be questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned.

The Quran, verse 21:23.

One argument against my view would be that it suggests that God could just as easily be cruel as He can be kind. But that argument is preempted by the following Quranic verse:

Say, “To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has prescribed for Himself mercy. He will gather you to the Day of Resurrection, in which there is no doubt. Those who lost their souls do not believe.

The Quran, verse 6:12.

God has freely chosen His attribute of Mercy as an overruling attribute, which is likely why in Islam His two major names by which we call Him are al-raḥmān al-rahīm (“The Most Mercifully Gracious”, “The Most Mercifully Compassionate”). Both names come from the RḤM root (“mercy”, “kindness”, “womb”).

Of course my solution would likely not work for a Christian since it would invalidate the commonly accepted versions of the Doctrine of the Atonement. If God could have forgiven us anyway, there would not have been a need for Christs’ suffering, or his suffering would have only served the purpose of a reminder and example to humanity.

In the last paragraph of the book, Craig states:

As mentioned earlier, it is not at all implausible that only in a world that includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. God’s wisdom, not only His love and holiness, is thus manifest in the atoning death of Christ.

In conclusion, The Atonement is a good defense of Christian doctrine and contains some ideas that Muslim thinkers can benefit from. The analyses of the concepts of guilt and pardon are especially worthy.

Advice to my younger self

“There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” (from the Quran, verse 21:87)

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

I would give myself two pieces of advice:

1. You cannot guide yourself

Even if you spend years reading the best available books, without God’s help and guidance you will never be able to achieve guidance.

Whomever God guides is the guided one. And whomever He sends astray—these are the losers.

The Quran, verse 7:178

The proper attitude toward guidance is to desperately desire it from God the way a person dying of third desires water. This was one of the most difficult lessons I have learned in life and possibly the most important one.

2. You cannot benefit yourself without God

Nothing you do can ever succeed if God does not want it to succeed. Success should first always be sought from God. All good things come from God and we have no power to do anything that benefits us except through God’s will and approval. So it is from God that we should seek all benefit.

Whatever mercy God unfolds for the people, none can withhold it. And if He withholds it, none can release it thereafter. He is the Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom.

The Quran, verse 35:2

In short, both when it comes to guidance and success, God should be our center. He should be the King from whom we desperately seek these things, knowing that nothing we do will have any benefit unless He desires it.

The lesson I have learned is therefore that I must lead a God-centered life; to throw away all my illusions that I am capable of benefiting or guiding myself.

Human and Social Development in Islam

Panoramic view of the Alhambra Complex in Garanda, Spain.

What exactly do we mean by human and social development?

This question will be answered differently if we were to ask a diverse set of people.

Even though most people may agree that human development entails having more “freedom”, “equality”, “justice”, and access to opportunities for “self-fulfillment”, “happiness”, and “flourishing”, different societies may interpret these values very differently depending on their worldview. This is because concepts of development and progress ultimately stem out of a society’s belief and value systems and are measured according to them. The worldview of a community or culture dictates how that society perceives reality and consciously or subconsciously shapes that society’s normative principles of ethics, morals, development, and progress.

Just like the right ideal can galvanize people towards progress, a wrong ideal can derail the efforts of humans and societies. The dominant secular (neoclassical economics-based) worldview has done just that through its myopic formulation of human development in terms of material wealth and by ignoring the role of spirituality or character development in defining human development. This narrow formulation of human development, accompanied by the rise of market-based capitalism and the estrangement of God from human life, has significantly damaged the human psyche and society, as well as the environment.

The Islamic worldview in contrast has principally spiritual end-goals of human development and defines life to be purposeful. The purpose of human life is clarified by God in the Quran to be “nothing except for the worship of God”1. A primary distinction between the Islamic and non-Islamic worldviews is that the former incorporates a belief in the impermanence of this worldly life (al-dunyā) and the existence of an eternal afterlife, al-ākhira. The Quran says in this regard, “And this worldly life is not but diversion and amusement. And indeed, the home of the Hereafter—that is the [eternal] life, if only they knew.”2. The real measure of human progress and actions thus is to be seen in the light of the Quranic verse, “And that to your Lord is the finality”3.

It is illuminating to see a Quranic negative example related to human development in order to understand what should not be mistaken as human development. The Quran narrates the story of Qārūn, an affluent contemporary of Prophet Moses [as],

So Qārūn came out before his people in his adornment; those who desired the worldly life said, "Oh, would that we had like what was given to Qārūn; indeed, he is one of great fortune." But those who had been given knowledge said, "Woe to you! The reward of God is better for he who believes and does righteousness; And none are granted it except the patient."

 The Quran, verses 28:79–80.

God clearly establishes through these verses the true Islamic knowledge of development by defining the belief in God and righteous actions to be better and deserving of everlasting reward. Islamic development does not conflate needs with objectives and goals. While economic well-being is a need of all people, it is not the ultimate goal of human efforts. Islamic development is not about material accumulation or the freedom to consume. It entails the development of an ethical innate character (akhlāq) through the process of the purification of human souls (tazkiya), which is manifested externally through the correspondence of human actions with divine guidelines and internally through the rectification and purification of intrinsic human character traits.  

We can therefore begin to describe the ends (i.e., objectives) of the Islamic conception of development by describing seven interrelated overlapping concepts. In contrast to the secular worldview, human development entails freeing oneself of base desires and recognizing one’s servanthood before God (ʿubūdīya) and attaining a God-consciousness that can rein in selfish indulgences and actions that are harmful for oneself and society (taqwā). By attaining a high standard of ethical character (akhlāq) through the purification of human souls (tazkiya), human beings can deserve to be the vicegerents of God on earth through their attempts to perfect their servanthood before God (ʿubūdīya). 

Although new concepts such as sustainable development and human-development have recently been proposed, the true barrier in the Islamic worldview that can check human transgressions is God-consciousness (taqwā), which literally means guarding oneself against God’s displeasure. God describes in the Quran that the most noble person before God is the one with the most taqwā. By adorning oneself with these attributes, one will be able to scale the heights of excellence (iḥsān) and civilization (ʿumrān) and achieve true felicity, happiness, and welfare in this life and in the hereafter (saʿāda).

By subscribing to these notions of development, human beings can rise above the inhumane pursuit of selfish interests and create sound and harmonious societies while also earning the pleasure of God and escaping the illusion of those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think that they are doing well in work.”4

To read more on the seven overlapping ends of Islamic development, read our paper:  “The Ends of Development in Islam: Seven Overlapping Concepts”, J. Qadir, A. Zaman, Journal of Islamic Banking and Finance, Volume 35, No 3, 2018. http://islamicbanking.asia/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/July-Sept-2018.pdf
[Longer version]: “The Islamic Worldview and Development Ideals”, J. Qadir, Journal of Islamic Banking and Finance, Volume 35, Number 1, Jan–Mar 2018, pp 33–44. https://tinyurl.com/islamicdevelopment

Birth control in Islam: A study of the hadith on coitus interruptus

A hadith found in three places in Sahih al-Bukhari suggests that birth control is not recommended in Islam:

We asked (the Prophet PBUH) about it and he said, 'There is no harm if you do not do [coitus interruptus1], for if any soul (till the Day of Resurrection) is predestined to exist, it will exist."

Sahih al-Bukhari 4138

First, this hadith does not say that birth control is bad. It merely say that there is no harm in not using birth control.

This hadith, however, is not a very high-quality one due to its meager chain of narrators. Below is a diagram of all of the chains of the authentic versions of this hadith:

This hadith has only an 11.79% chance of authenticity, which is quite low. In my mathematical hadith verification methodology (which I discuss here), a hadith that falls between 10% and 20% is munkar (strange and unlikely to be true, but not clearly false and fabricated). A munkar hadith is not strong enough to act as a basis for establishing sunna (the tradition of the Prophet PBUH). For this reason, we cannot say with certainty that a negative view of birth control is part of Islam. In this case, the commonsense view should be used that birth control is a matter of personal choice.

Speeding up grep of a 12.4 GB text file

I am working on a vocabulary-building book for SAT and GRE students. Below is a picture of the provisional cover of the book:

In order to have a wide corpus of classical texts to find word usage examples, I downloaded a massive ebook collection from the Gutenberg project and merged all of the text files into one big file that reached 12.4 gigabytes in size. I then wrote a PHP script that used the grep utility to search through about 250 billion lines of text1 to find the word usages I needed.

Here is an example of the results for the word “taciturn”:

In order to find interesting examples, I use the following regular expression:

egrep -aRh  -B 20 -A 20 "\b(she|her|hers|his|he)\b.*taciturn" merged.txt

This finds usages of the word that start with a pronoun such as “she”. This helps find usages that occur mostly in novels, rather than other types of books (the Gutenberg collection contains many non-novel files, such as encyclopedias and legal works).

My first step toward speeding up the grep was to move the file to an old SSD I have that is attached to my desktop. The SSD supports up to 200 MB/second read speeds. This was not good enough, so I eventually moved it to my main Samsung SSD which has over 500 MB/second read speeds. Below is a screenshot of the iotop utility reporting a read speed of 447 M/s while grep is running:

My first idea to speed up the grep was to use GNU parallel or xargs, both of which allow grep to make use of multiple CPU cores. This was misguided since the limiting factor in this grep was not CPU usage but disk usage. Since my SSD is being maxed out, there is no point in adding more CPU cores to the task.

Using the following grep command, it took a little over 30 seconds to finish grepping the entire file once:

Here is the output for the time command which tells how long a command takes to finish:

One of the first suggestions I found is to prefix the command with LC_ALL=C, this tells grep to avoid searching through non-ANSI-C characters.

That seemed to make the grep very slightly faster:

Just to see what happens, I next used the fmt utility to reformat the file. The file currently is made up of short lines all separated by new lines. Using fmt, I changed it to having lines of 500 characters each. This was likely going to make the grep slower since it was going to match a lot more lines since the lines were going to be longer:

But on the upside, I was going to get a lot more results. The fmt command decreased the number of lines from 246 million to only 37 million:

But actually what happened when I did the next grep was that the grep time decreased to only 23 seconds:

I guess the reason is that grep has a lot fewer lines to go through.

Unfortunately it looked like fmt had corrupted the text. Here is an example:

I think the reason was that some (or most, or all) of the text files were using Windows-style newlines rather than Unix-style ones which was perhaps confusing fmt. So I used this command to convert all Windows-style newlines into spaces:

After that operation and running fmt again on the result, grepping again seems to result in non-corrupt results:

And:

I also looked for the corrupted passage above to see how it looked now:

So it all seems fine now.

As far as I know there is no way to speed up the grep significantly further unless I get a lot of RAM and do the grep on a ramdisk, or get a much faster SSD. Just out of curiosity I decided to try out changing the fmt command to make lines of 1500 characters each to see how that affects the grep:

That didn’t actually do anything to speed up the grep further:

A study of “the majority of people in Hell are women” hadith

A famous hadith of the Prophet PBUH states:

I looked into Paradise and I saw that the most of its people were the poor; and I looked into the Fire and I saw that most of its people were women.

Sahih al-Bukhari 3241

Note that this hadith does not actually say that the majority of women in Hell are women. It may just mean that the part of Hell that the Prophet PBUH was shown contained many women. None of the versions of the hadith say “the majority of people in Hell are women”. They all mention that when the Prophet saw Hell, he saw that the majority of the people (of the part he saw) were women. It is clear that the Prophet PBUH interpreted this vision as meaning that the majority are women. But since nothing in the Quran or hadith tells us that explicitly, we may consider it to be the Prophet’s own personal conclusion from what he saw.

Various versions of this statement are to be found in all of major hadith collections. I decided to conduct a study of all existing authentic versions of this hadith to find out just how reliable they are.

Below is the version from the Companion ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn [ra]:

All of the versions come through the single transmitter Abū Rajāʾ.

Next are the versions coming from the Companion Ibn Abbas [ra]:

The strongest chain comes again through the aforementioned transmitter Abū Rajāʾ. There is however an additional chain (the top one) coming through ʿAṭāʾ b. Yasār, through Zayd b. Aslam.

Next are the other chains coming from four other Companions:

None of these latter four chains are very strong because each comes through a single transmitter, through another single transmitter, before other witnesses come along.

In order to prove a point with reasonable certainty, a hadith should come from a binary tree chain, as follows:

The current hadith falls short of this standard as follows, with the red boxes indicating missing transmitters:

Besides the missing transmitters, the hadith also has the issue of having a duplicate witness (the yellow boxes). So in reality we only have two transmitters’ words for it that the two Companions said that.

However, the four additional chains are supporting evidence in favor of the hadith and cannot be ignored. Using a hadith verification methodology I have developed that uses probability theory to combine the reliability of each transmitter and chain to reach a single number that represents the chance of the hadith being true (see my essay about it), we perform the following calculation to combine all of the probabilities:

(1-(1−0.34)×(1−0.39015)×(1−0.0207)×(1−0.1076)×(1−0.0776)×(1−0.1716)) = 0.7312

So the verdict is that this hadith has a 73.12% probability of being truly from the Prophet PBUH, which is a very high probability for a hadith. In my highly stringent verification methodology, a hadith that reaches 60% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ)

In conclusion, the Prophet PBUH almost certainly said that the majority of the people he saw in Hell were women. Whether this really means the majority are women, or whether only the part that he saw had a lot of women, we cannot say. So the hadith should not be used to imply that women are less pious or more evil than men.

Is ruqya part of Islam? A study of the hadiths on ruqya using probability theory

There are numerous narrations that mention ruqya (the use of certain words, prayers or Quran recitations as charms or spells to heal or protect a person). I decided to to conduct a search of all major hadith collections and some minor ones to find all the hadiths that mention ruqya in order to find out just how authentic they are. I then used my own mathematical method of calculating hadith authenticity which combines probability theory with the science of hadith transmitter criticism (al-jarḥ wa-l-taʿdīl). The method (see my essay about it) is useful in judging between contradictory hadith narrations because it produces a single percentage for each hadith that reflects its chance of authenticity. We can then compare the chance of the authenticity of different hadiths to find out which one is most likely to be truly from the Prophet PBUH.

Summary

The hadith against ruqya has a 64.1% chance of authenticity, which makes it ṣaḥīḥ. The hadiths that support ruqya, however, are much lower in quality, the strongest having only a 20.78% chance of authenticity. But by combining the chance of the authenticity of all the ruqya-supporting hadiths, we reach a probability of 49.69%, which means that the crux of the meaning of the hadiths is likely to be true. It is strange, however, that the most authentic hadith in support of ruqya says that it is only to be used against the evil eye and scorpion stings.

In conclusion and considering all of the hadiths together, it appears that the Prophet PBUH forbade the use of ruqya in the pre-Islamic sense of casting a spell. But he permitted the use of the recitation of the Quran as a means of hopefully bringing about healing and protection. While some Muslims think that ruqya has an almost magical power that is guaranteed to bring about results, it is probably more correct to think of it as the same as prayer. It is merely the use of God’s words in the hope of attaining His blessings.

The traditional understanding of ruqya as casting spells is therefore highly doubtful and appears to be an importation of pre-Islamic Arab beliefs into Islam. The Prophet PBUH himself appears to have strongly disliked the spell-casting aspect of ruqya, which is why the most authentic narration speaks against it and mentions it along with other pre-Islamic practices. However, he appears to have tolerated the use of Quran recitation as a substitute for pre-Islamic forms of ruqya while allowing it to be called ruqya.

I am therefore fairly confident that we should reject the understanding of ruqya as spell-casting and instead think of it as similar to prayer and no more likely than prayer to be effective.

Technical details

The hadith against ruqya

It is interesting to note that the most authentic narration on ruqya actually says good Muslims will not use it:

Verily the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Seventy thousand men of my Ummah would enter Paradise without rendering account. They (the companions of the Holy Prophet) said: Who would be those, Messenger of Allah? He (the Holy Prophet) said: They would be those who neither practise charm (ruqya), not take omens, nor do they cauterise, but they repose their trust in their Lord.

Sahih Muslim 218 b

This hadith comes to us through three Companions (ignoring unauthentic chains). I decided to gather all of its versions from the major hadith collections to find out just how strong its chains are.

Below is a diagram of the chains coming through Ibn Abbas:

The numbers indicate probability of authenticity. Thus this chain has a 24% probability of being truly from Ibn Abbas (according to my methodology).

Below are the chains from Imran b. Husayn:

This chain is stronger and has a 45.7% probability of authenticity.

The last chain is from Ibn Masud and has a 12.85% chance of authenticity.

We use the following equation to combine all of these probabilities into one probability:

probability of authenticity = 1 - (1 - probability of authenticity of first chain) × (1 - probability of authenticity of second chain) × (1 - probability of authenticity of third chain chain) and so on.

Thus:

1-((1−0.241)×(1−0.4579)×(1−0.12855)) = 0.641438499

The result is that this hadith has a 64.1% probability of authenticity. Any hadith that has a 60% probability of authenticity or higher is ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ (a degree above ṣaḥīḥ) in my methodology, so this hadith is extremely authentic.

The hadiths in favor of ruqya

Narrated Al-Aswad:

I asked `Aisha about treating poisonous stings (a snake-bite or a scorpion sting) with a Ruqya. She said, "The Prophet (ﷺ) allowed the treatment of poisonous sting with Ruqya."

Sahih al-Bukhari 5741

It was narrated that Jabir said:
“There was a family among the Ansar, called Al ‘Amr bin Hazm, who used to recite Ruqyah for the scorpion sting, but the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) forbade Ruqyah. They came to him and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! You have forbidden Ruqyah, but we recite Ruqyah against the scorpion’s sting.’ He said to them: ‘Recite it to me.’ So they recited it to him, and he said: ‘There is nothing wrong with this, this is confirmed.’”

Ibn Maja (authentic) Vol. 4, Book 31, Hadith 3515

The below diagram is the result of my search of all hadiths mentioning ruqya (click to enlarge it):

Below is a summary of the authenticity probabilities of the hadiths:

  • Aisha 10.88%
  • Aisha 7.77%
  • Aisha 15.67%
  • Aisha 7.278%
  • Anas 14.29%
  • Jabir’s uncle 1.2%
  • Abu Saeed al-Khudri 11.27%
  • Anas + Buryada + Imran 20.78%
  • Jabir + Asmaa’ b. Umays 14.89%
  • Awf b. Malik 5.8%
  • Shifaa’ b. Abdullah 3.88%

The strongest hadith is the one coming from the Companions Anas, Burayda and Imran, and it is as follows:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said: No spell (ruqya) is to be used except for the evil eye or a scorpion sting.

Sunan Abi Dawud 3884, Ibn Maja Vol. 4, Book 31, Hadith 3513, al-Tirmidhi Vol. 4, Book 2, Hadith 2057, etc.

The hadith, however, has only a 20.78% chance of authenticity, which is far below the 64.1% authenticity of the anti-ruqya hadith mentioned at the beginning.

There is one final step we can take by combining the authenticity probabilities of all the separate pro-ruqya hadiths, as follows:

1−(1−0.1088)×(1−0.077)×(1−0.1567)×(1−0.07278)×(1−0.1429)×(1−0.012)×(1−0.1127)×(1−0.2078)×(1−0.1489)×(1−0.058)×(1−0.0388) = 0.704960078

(0.1088+0.077+0.1567+0.07278+0.1429+0.012+0.1127+0.2078+0.1489+0.058+0.0388)÷11 = 0.1033

(0.704960078+0.1033)÷2 = 0.4041

Before merging the probabilities we divide each of them by two. This reflects the fact that we are combining entirely different hadiths together. It is easier to fabricate entirely new hadiths and chains than to fabricate supporting chains for the same hadith. So the probability of all the separate hadiths being true is lower than the probability of all the chains of the same hadith being true.

So the result is that there is a 40.41% chance that the crux of the meaning of the hadiths is true. In my methodology a hadith that reaches 30% or higher is ṣaḥīḥ. So the combined meaning of the hadiths together can be considered authentic.

A woman’s worth does not depend on her accomplishments

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

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incredible growth of science in the Muslim world: The scientific output of Muslim countries in 2017

See the 2018 update: Science in the Islamic world grew at the fastest rate in 2018

The scientific output of Muslim-majority countries has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, measured in the number of scientific and scholarly papers published in international journals. The top scientific publisher is Iran, followed by Turkey, followed by Malaysia:

The scientific output of the top 10 Muslim-majority population countries according to SJR (citable documents alone)

Below is the total of the scientific output of all ten countries:

The data only includes citable papers published in peer-reviewed journals included in the Scopus database (source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank).

In just ten years, these Muslim countries went from publishing 64110 papers in 2007 to 211287 papers in 2017, growing by over three times.

Below is a comparison of the Muslim total (blue) with the established scientific powers France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States:

The Muslim total has surpassed all of the European powers in quantity (not in quality, of course).

If the Muslim countries maintain their growth rate of 7.7% annually (the average rate of the past 5 years), they will surpass the United States by 2030:

It seems unlikely that that kind of growth can be sustained. The image below is more likely, which assumes an increase of 14000 papers per year (the average annual increase over the past 5 years). Accordingly, the Muslim countries will reach the level of the United States by 2042:

It should be noted that these statistics do not take account of the 200 million Muslims of India and their scientific output.

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