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This book has the primary aim of explaining the intellectual foundations of 'Islamic belief' to people familiar with the position of religious belief in Western thought. It challenges that position and provides the Islamic alternative. The secondary aim is to briefly tackle some of the misperceptions common in the West as to the teachings of Islam. If you have some concerns in this area it may be best to read the relevant section for that aim first. The final aim is to present some of the evidence which has persuaded people to become Muslims.
To discuss the position that religious belief should have in Western thought presents certain problems. Islam has a definite set of prescriptions on what is good thinking and hence the sort of thinking which leads to religious belief. It is circular to argue that you should think according to the teachings of Islam, then you will come to accept the authority of Islam and its teachings - in particular its teachings about ways in which you should think. In avoiding this the arguments are presented about the sources of knowledge and about the sins of disbelief without basing them on the authority of Islamic teachings, although in fact this can easily be done. The arguments also try to avoid being based on historical evidence or on opinions of respected people since these are inevitably selective and contentious. Instead the appeal is directly to the mind and conscience of the reader, seeking to find common ground for building a better understanding of Islam.
Surah Yusuf (108)
Say thou: "This is my way: I do invite unto Allah on evidence clear as the seeing with one's eyes I and whoever follows me: Glory to Allah! And never will I join gods with Allah!"
(Yusuf Ali Translation)
Say [O Prophet]: "This is my way: Resting upon conscious insight accessible to reason, I am calling [you all] unto God - I and they who follow me"
And [say:] "Limitless is God in His Glory; and I am not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him!"
(Muhammad Asad Translation)
The challenge of the secular consensus of the West to Islam is firstly expressed in the very foundations of human understanding. What can we know? What does it make sense to accept as true? The secular consensus is that religion is essentially something we cannot know, something we cannot accept as true.
The challenges can be stated essentially as:
Religion makes claims about reality which science has shown are factually wrong.
Faith is irrational.
Knowledge in the Western mind is considered to be discovered from only two sources: observation and reasoning analysis. All other sources are considered invalid and ignored. This, coupled with the above statements on the status of religion, amounts to a complete dismissal of any religious understanding of existence.
Claims to religious knowledge are tolerated only if they seem to depend on the dubious and hence invalid source of `spiritual' experiences. In this way the non-religious person can disregard such claims as nonsense and evade any guilt for rejecting the claims of each and every religion.
My approach in response to this is to show that the challenges set out above are factually wrong: Islamic `faith' is rational. Scientific fact and true Islam have never contradicted each other. Moreover, I intend to demonstrate that belief in Islam makes much more sense than disbelief.
However, to do this we need to examine what are the sources of knowledge: Can religion fit into a framework based solely on the two defined valid sources of knowledge commonly accepted or must we move to a new (actually older) system of thought defined by the claims of Islam and including the processes of observation and analysis?
In answering the questions posed I shall first discuss the widely accepted framework where only observation and analysis are considered valid sources of knowledge.
As a human being I am able to observe the world and universe around me and form concepts of what these objects are. By a concept I mean a mental model based on several observations and accepted statements. These concepts are how we understand sense perceptions. By reflecting on these concepts I can attempt to make them consistent with one another. Once they are all consistent I have gained an understanding of the world of my experiences.
The difficult step is in asserting that my understanding represents a more absolute thing - knowledge. Only then can I extend the understanding to interpretation and prediction of new observations and experiences. This step is a generalisation from my experience to the experience of anyone. It means asserting that my understanding of reality is universally accurate, or simply put - that it is true. It is only possible to know something that is true. When we talk about understanding reality as a whole however, we must extend our scope and say that it is only possible to know reality as a whole if such knowledge is universally true.
In science the popular picture is of a build-up of such knowledge. It is then passed on to new students as accepted fact. These are then used in building the concepts for deeper understanding. This picture of the development of knowledge however, is not accurate.
Science does not claim to provide truths but rather approximations to truths. Any scientific theory or even any scientific statement has at some point an arbitrary level of acceptance. Sometimes this level is called the postulates of the theory. The theory makes no attempt to justify these postulates but accepts them as stated. This is like what we accept as truths in forming our concepts except that in science these are explicitly acknowledged not as truths but as approximations to truths. Experiment and evidence can then test the predictions and will decide whether and when the theory needs rethinking.
In classical physics, starting with Newton, a number of assumptions were made within the descriptions. These were simply accepted as facts needing no explanation. An example is the absolute and constant flow of time in Newtonian Mechanics. With the development of the theory of relativity it was shown to be quite wrong. This meant that a previously accepted `truth' had been questioned and shown to be only an approximation to the truth. The whole of classical physics, with its accepted descriptions of reality, has received many body blows by the development of Quantum Mechanics, which comprehensively challenged the basic accepted concepts and proved to be a much more useful theory in describing reality.
Scientific understanding can only grow in areas where there is a good opportunity for gathering experimental data. The best theories are numerically very accurate such as in Quantum-Electro-Dynamics where 1 in 1000 000 000 000 accuracy is relatively easily demonstrated. The worst theories are very approximate such as in cosmology where the ultimate fate of the universe is unknown. It could be in an accelerating expansion forever, slow its expansion to reach a constant size eventually or it could collapse after expanding. So, these approximations are sometimes wide of the mark of truth. [After many years of study on this the theory has been shown to be basically flawed in a recent experiment which looked at Supernovae - the Universe is apparently expanding at an accelerating pace!]
Where we are only concerned with the quantity of something we can easily experiment with, we can rely on science to provide ever more accurate measures. These quantities, however, become increasingly inaccurate for possible experiences that are far from easy to experiment with. So, we can determine factual statements of relative quantity as true such as `the moon has less mass than the earth which has less mass than the sun'. We can also be very accurate in saying how much more or less mass one has relative to the other. However, what is being described in terms of quality is not an area in which we can rely on physics. The difficulty in this example is explaining exactly what mass is. We can apply the concept well in areas of common experience such as understanding the motion of planets and snooker balls etc., but to explain definitively what mass is, is not achieved in science. Attempts to explain the postulates of various theories go on into greater and greater depths and the true nature of reality is something that remains elusive. It is possibly something science can never find. It may be that the true nature of reality lies in an area inaccessible to experiment.
Because of this no understanding of any part of reality can really be considered as known. It is only an approximate description, which, though numerically good, may be a totally inaccurate description of the true nature of that part of reality.
Since asserting that such understanding is true or known is not acceptable, then to assert that all reality fits our understanding is to be quite wrong. The most we can do is to see if we can apply our approximate descriptions to the rest of what we perceive of reality and, if it is still numerically good, include this new larger part of reality in our theory. It seems that all perceived reality, or more accurately that part of existence we are able to discover through our repeatable observations, obeys the same physical laws. However, that it does so may be a condition for our perceiving it in the first place. To assert that reality ends where our perceptions end is completely unjustified. If we cannot see or otherwise perceive something it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
In science, and especially in physics, concepts are defined in mathematical language. In this way we might say that knowing the maths of a theory is possible. However, are mathematical statements truths? Their claim to universality is based on the definition of concepts through axioms that are `such obvious concepts' that they must be universal. However since they only describe themselves they are not in any real sense true; they do not claim to describe some universal physical existence. The role of maths is to provide abstract objects that we can use as tools in our reflections on our observations of reality. They do not of themselves provide knowledge of reality.
The use of the word `knowledge', in the sense of knowing something means it must be true, makes the idea of a framework for the sources of knowledge seem over-ambitious or at least the sources in this framework don't seem to be genuine sources. Observation and reason are not sources of `knowledge' but instead should be considered as routes to better understanding which only reach `knowledge' when pursued to their ultimate. Nevertheless I shall continue to refer to observation and reason as `the sources of knowledge' in anticipation of applying a more appropriate meaning to the word `knowledge'.
Now that this framework for the sources of knowledge has been discussed briefly it is instructive to see how to try and fit religious claims into it.
The central challenge then for the believers is to `Prove the existence of God /Allah / Jehovah'.
The concept of proof needs to be clarified.
In maths a proof of a theorem involves showing consistency with the axioms and definitions of the maths used. Such a proof cannot be of reality in the same way that maths cannot provide knowledge of reality as I just mentioned above.
In science a practical proof consists of testing hypotheses repeatedly. However, no scientific statement can claim to be proved true in an absolute and universal sense. We can only claim that in our experience the statement has not been disproved. A useful definition of a scientific claim is that it is in principle disprovable.
There are nevertheless attempts to prove Allah's existence like a maths theorem and they resort to several statements or definitions as stepping-stones. If I were to do this, I would have to assert that those statements and definitions are more universally true than the conclusion. I would then have to proceed to derive the lesser truth of the existence of something called `Allah'. This follows from the nature of syllogistic reasoning such as “all a is b”, “some b is c” implies “some c is not a”. This type of reasoning gives you always less information than what you started with. This approach can only show the `existence' of aspects of Allah. It cannot, by virtue of its limited understanding and questionable validity, demonstrate something claiming to be infinite and the ultimate in universality i.e. claiming to be `The Truth'. . It can only provide arguments in favour of the existence of Allah. It can never be a proof.
Any argument for the existence of Allah which uses the method `Given that X, Y, Z is the case it can be inferred that Allah exists." can only amount to a neat way of conceptualising some aspect of Allah through a choice of definitions and concepts.
A practical proof may be possible of facts that confirm religious claims but the way to accept religious claims is not the same way that scientists now accept their theories. They do not assert the truth of their theories. They also do not assert the universal truth of their theories. The opposite may be the popular view but it is wrong. They used to, but no longer do so. For this reason the framework must change.
Various churches have historically set themselves up as being infallible and authoritative sources of knowledge. In the last century the theories of classical physics were proclaimed as the new truths. The religion of belief in science had begun. However the scientists' foundations have now been shown to be quite wrong. The `new' physics has deflated the claims of scientists to know truths in the same way that the scientists previously deflated the claims of certain religious figures.
In conclusion, science has now retreated from its lofty position of making quasi- religious claims, providing truths and being the source for knowledge. It was a position that seemed and often claimed to imply atheism. Science now acknowledges its limits and so religion cannot seek to be derived from scientific understandings. Instead we are faced with the challenge to put science back in a religious framework, this time an Islamic one. To do so seems a gigantic task. In its broadest sense it means that all of modern knowledge would have to be re-interpreted. But this isn't the case since most of modern science fits in to an Islamic framework.
All that needs to be done is to set out the elements of the Islamic framework for knowledge by reconsidering the present, generally accepted framework.
God's laws of Nature
The idea that reality is governed by laws and order in all areas, that they do not contradict each other and that they can be understood by humans is, as mentioned earlier, the result of a now largely abandoned, God-centred world view. In this, God decrees and upholds these laws and is able to break them if He chooses. In His mercy He makes the physics of reality understandable to us and hence bestows on us such material benefits as we can gain through our new control over nature. It might be wisely remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about reality is that it can be comprehended. This order in reality is a basic belief necessary to a scientific approach. It is not in itself an obvious belief but the more we know about reality the more it seems justified.
To be scientific one has to take a very rigorous approach to reasoning. This involves reducing the idea of causes between events to the most fundamental. To be rational means to be asking of every observation the question `Why?' or `How?' In being rational we search for the truth. We can think of asking about the past causes, or future causes, or ever deeper and more fundamental descriptions of reality. In being rational we are already accepting that there is some ultimate order to reality. It is a basic teaching of Islam that the ultimate truth and source of all order is Allah. In this sense being Muslim requires the assertion that we can always ask why until we would be attempting to describe Allah in answering the question, which is asking the impossible because Allah is not like any thing in His creation. A Muslim must therefore be `super-rational', accepting the application of reason to enquire ever deeper and seeing that by doing so one must conclude the existence of Allah. This argument will be presented more fully in the next section. For now it simply illustrates that by using scientific reasoning we are assuming the unlimited scope for asking the questions `Why?' and `How?'. It is only through arbitrarily limiting the scope for these questions that we would be able to assert that the theories of modern science are absolute and universal truths and that hence God has no role. For example the assertion was made that Newton's laws of motion were a universal truth. This limited the scope of asking “how?” because the answer would be “It just is!”
Oneness of God
Science aims successfully to eliminate all but one cause in describing reality. This method embodies the idea, which now seems trivial, that whatever we can suppose rules the universe, it is one. There cannot be more than one God. Otherwise we would have found evidence of conflicting influences on the way reality is. Occasionally one cause and occasionally another would be the reason for a particular observation. This has not been found to be the case and the assumption holds good. We don't find the laws of nature changing in the way that criminal laws in modern states differ from one government to the next. The laws of nature are unchanging for billions of years over the vast extent of known existence they are always the same. - There is in this sense only one governor.
We see from this that scientific rational analysis makes assumptions that are consistent with Islamic articles of faith. So the reasoning element of science's framework fits within the Islamic framework.
What is an observation?.
If you know something of quantum mechanics you will know that this is not as straightforward as it appears at first. I will use an illustration that Feynman used to explain the basic problem.
When we look at a window we see some light that is reflected from it and we know that some light passes through it. However we do not know how any given photon (particle of light) decides whether to be reflected or to go through the glass. We even have to consider that for any photon, it has BOTH gone through the glass AND been reflected until we observe which way it went!
This is a dramatic departure from considering light and matter generally as having defined properties that we can, in principle, measure to any accuracy we like. Now the measurement itself has a critical influence on what is observed.
For this reason a restatement of the aims of scientific investigations called the Copenhagen interpretation is generally used. This states that science investigates not what is actually there as such but rather, that science investigates just the interactions between what is actually there.
Since all observations are interactions, this interpretation has introduced the problem of what exactly is an observation? This is a problem that is not well resolved. It is a crucial ingredient to our accepted framework of knowledge since it is a problem that is intimately related to the problem of `what can we know?'. If observation is to be a source of knowledge and it isn't clear what amounts to an observation, then it is also not clear what amounts to knowledge.
Some might say that what can exist is only that which we can in principle know - other things being disregarded as unnecessary (as I mentioned earlier, this position is unjustified). Consequently, this opportunity to change the boundaries of what we can know has encouraged a great deal of speculation as to what actually exists. I shall avoid such speculation. Rather, I shall restrict myself to a more natural definition of the framework of knowledge to be used. Taking these concerns on board I say that whenever we refer to what we can know in principle, we should keep in mind that we are talking about human knowledge. It is therefore always a subjective knowledge. I must consider that I can know something, in this subjective sense, if I am convinced that it is true. (I intend to use the words `knowledge' and `know' etc., in this sense from now on.) This does not contest that something I know might be objectively true but to answer that question is to delve into the speculation I have denied myself.
The process of becoming convinced is deeply lodged in our nature. It is something that we may get to know better in the future. The observations through our eyes are made real in our brains. This process, of making the observation of our eyes into something that we are convinced by, is not itself known. This general problem might lead people to the statement that the strongest assertion we can make about what we know is that we know that we perceive something as true. We cannot assert that it actually is true simply because we are convinced by our perceptions. This is however in danger of going too far. We might be tempted to go into the speculation that maybe all that really exists is in ourselves. This is going in the opposite direction to materialism where all that really exists is the material external to our self-awareness. In being natural and making a balanced judgement, we must accept our own selves and natures as really existing and our observations as really existing and therefore we must accept external reality as really existing.
A good model of world thought can be built by considering the difference between man's observation of the material world and man's self-awareness. This is done well in `Alija' Ali Izetbegovic's book "Islam between East and West".
Surah 51:Verses 20-21
On the earth are Signs for those of assured Faith
As also in your own selves: will ye not then see?
The elements of our new framework of knowledge have now been examined and compared briefly with the assumptions of the old framework. I am now in a position to describe an Islamic framework for the basis of human knowledge.
Observation and reason will convince human beings of certain things. This is in our nature. This certainty can be called knowledge in the sense that I described above. Within these limits it is possible to become convinced of the existence of Allah (i.e. we learn that something we then call Allah must exist). I will be considering two broad categories of evidence by which people become convinced. The first is through contemplating the universe in which we have been created and the second is through considering the phenomena of prophets, in particular that of the prophet Muhammad (Allah's peace and blessings be upon him) and the message he delivered - the Qur'an. Once someone is convinced of the existence of Allah, they must ask themselves what `Allah' is and what Allah does. Since knowledge of such matters is beyond our perception we must rely on the information given to the prophets of Islam. This brings in the third source of knowledge into the Islamic framework - revelation.
The sole purpose of revelation is the guidance of human beings to good morals.
For this it is necessary to explain to humanity some of what exists beyond our perceptions. The words of revelation must however be taken from human experience and perceptions. Such explanations are therefore inevitably allegorical or metaphorical.
If someone accepts Islam and becomes a Muslim that person in essence is making only one assertion. It is that s/he accepts the Qur'an as a true revelation from Allah. This is reflected in the shahada which is the declaration of faith and which is sufficient for someone to become a Muslim under Islamic law. This declaration of faith says:
I bear witness that there is no divinity except Allah and
I bear witness that Muhammad is His messenger.
This introduction of a third source for human knowledge is the only issue which separates the Western Islamic mind from the Western non-Islamic mind.
I have already indicated the closeness of the Islamic positions to the assumptions in the existing scientific approach to human knowledge.
The evidence of Allah that convinces us comes in the form of `signs'. The most direct form of sign is a clear miracle, which happens through a prophet. Other signs may be a discovery of something of reality or in nature that makes us consider the design in the universe. Others may be inside us: we realise that the belief in Allah and all that it implies fits perfectly with our human nature- it is like the key to fit the lock, unlocking our potential. .
Signs present people with facts of reality including facts of their own natures which make them think. They present challenges that say `your theory of reality needs corrections'. These corrections invariably include accepting the existence of Allah and the authenticity of his prophets.
In Islam the primary piece of evidence is the Qur'an. It is a book full of signs. It claims to be internally consistent to perfection and it claims to be consistent with external reality to perfection. It claims that no human being or any collection of human beings could write a single Surah (chapter) with such merit as those of the Qur'an. All these are testable claims. That they have remained repeatedly confirmed throughout its 1400 year existence is a demonstration of the continuing miracle of the Qur'an.
It may seem that this new, third, source of knowledge - revelation - is quite different from the knowledge we have today for science, however, this is not so.. . It is useful to compare what we actually use as the method to find knowledge. We rarely go direct to the sources outlined above (reason and observation) . Instead we use the universal expedient of the written word. We simply try to make sense of what we read. This is the most common way that people absorb and have absorbed knowledge. It is this route to knowledge which is mentioned in the first words of the revelation of the Qur'an:
Surah 96: AL ALAQ (THE GERM CELL)
(1) Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created - (2) created man out of a germ cell!
(3) Read - for thy lord is the Most Bountiful One (4) who has taught [man] the use of the pen- (5) taught man what he didn't know.
(Translation by Muhammad Asad)
This section has looked at what we know from the perspective of considering defined sources of knowledge: Observation, Reason and Revelation. This has meant that the concentration has been on definition of these sources in the same way as you might define objects. However, having looked at these 'sources' we can now more readily identify them as processes of the mind which lead to us arriving at conclusions and making decisions based on those conclusions. In the next section we consider the processes of reaching knowledge and the ways in which we can choose to do this well or badly. This lead us into a discussion of the 'sin of disbelief' in Islam and a good understanding of what it is.
'Disbelief' is something that comes from the way we think. Indeed all our 'beliefs' are the result of the way we think; the way we weigh the evidence; the way we decide on which course of action to take. Our 'beliefs' are our conclusions. Consequently the 'sin of disbelief' must be equivalent to the sin that causes disbelief i.e. 'Bad thinking'.
Even though it is fairly clear what is meant here, I am generally reluctant to use the word `belief' since it has the sense of something guessed and without foundation. The Islamic word that is most often translated into `faith' or `belief' is imân, which has quite a different connotation:
"Unlike the faith of Christians, the imân of Islam is truth given to the mind, not to man's credulity. The truths, or prepositions, of imân are not mysteries, stumbling blocks, unknowable and unreasonable but critical and rational. They have been subjected to doubt and emerged from the testing confirmed and established as true. No more pleading on their behalf is necessary. Whoever acknowledges them as true is reasonable; whoever persists in denying or doubting is unreasonable."
[Isma'il Raji al Faruqi, Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life, IIIT Publications 1992]
Indeed the Qur'an is full of prescriptions to use the mind and presents many arguments and evidences which I shall cover in due course. This is summarised in the Qur'an in verses such as these:
"Now have come to you from your Lord proofs to open your eyes: if any will see, it will be for (the good of) his own soul; if any will be blind it will be to his own (harm): I am not (here) to watch over your doings."
[The Qur'an 6:104]
Say thou: "This is my way: I do invite unto Allah on evidence clear as the seeing with one's eyes, I and whoever follows me: Glory to Allah! And never will I join gods with Allah!”
[The Qur'an 12:108]
It is also useful to note here that the word usually translated as `to disbelieve' is `kafara'. This has the literal meaning of `to cover up' the implication being that those who disbelieve are covering up something; hiding it from themselves and / or others. I will come back to this point later.
In Islam you can only be guilty of the 'sin of disbelief' if the message of Islam has been delivered to you. Bad thinking can only take hold when the evidence and arguments have been clearly presented.
. To follow on to the next stage of this explanation of the sin of disbelief we have to examine what thinking is and how we can go about reaching a workable common starting point on what constitutes good & bad thinking.
I wish I could answer this in a few simple sentences but it is not so easy. There are many factors that go into good thinking and into bad thinking. As a consequence there are many approaches to explaining it. My approach with this will be to try to establish common ground with the reader and progress from there. Different readers may well accept different levels of common ground. To facilitate this I will try to establish the most basic fundamental common ground. Where there is an easy step where the reader already accepts the conclusions of an argument I will try to add a link so that s/he may skip the relevant material and get on to the next argument.
Before I can start to justify saying that some thinking is good and some thinking is bad it is necessary to find an acceptable definition or explanation of what thinking is:
The basic sources of knowledge: observation and reason, should be considered in terms of processes of thinking: search and inference. The search is an attempt to use our faculties, such as our senses, to identify relevant information; the second is the process of reflecting on what we discover and drawing conclusions through using reasoning. I will use the verb 'to think' in a very general way. Not only is it the process of reflecting on what the senses perceive but it is also an interpreter of the senses. It is quite possible to hear but not to listen. Listening requires that the mind is engaged in interpreting the senses. For the purposes of this explanation I shall consider 'listening' to our senses, to be part of thinking. This is of course only a convenient definition, since certain aspects of listening or seeking information will necessitate action that could not easily be described as thinking.
Thinking can roughly be separated into 2 processes: searching and inferring. These processes are sometimes inextricably interlinked but it is often instructive to see how they can be separated. We search for 'certain objects' and then we make inferences from and about the objects we have found. Our preconceived ideas about what we are searching for may well influence what we find as they may also influence what we infer from those objects. As it stands this definition isn't very useful this is because thinking is essentially a process of exercising free choice. Free choice to reach conclusions and free choice to make decisions about future thinking. Whatever limits I might think I have discovered enabling me to describe thinking more narrowly I can in principle think in another way beyond and outside those limits. (e.g. if I discovered that I tend to make bad decisions because I am biased towards my own ideas, then I can change that). This is very closely related to arguments surrounding free will, which I won't go into here..
For this reason the study of thinking revolves around understanding how we ought to think. The study of thinking is probably the only academic study where the words good and bad are regularly used as descriptive terms of reality(see below). Secular academic studies such as chemistry and physics are usually considered to be studying how nature works and doesn't attribute any value to any particular aspect of it. (A possible exception is Physics where some theories are preferred by some people over others because of their aesthetic value) In the study of thinking some thinking is good and some thinking is bad. This leads to a paradox that academics get themselves into, and it is this paradox that I believe lies at the heart of the flaws of current thinking. It is the understanding that says
"It is a fundamental part of good thinking that in reality it is nonsense to talk of good and bad. Reality just is." Or - put another way- “every study should be value neutral - and that is good”. This is a lie and a self-contradiction at the heart of the 'modern' mind and I aim to replace it with the statement:
"Good and bad are determined by what is good thinking and what is bad thinking."
[Perceptive Muslim readers will recognise in this formulation a strong hint towards the hadith that says "All deeds are judged by intention." i.e. a deed is judged good because of its good intention. ]
Good thinking is often referred to as being rational thinking. Indeed the two terms are often used synonymously. Our next step is to examine the definitions that people have tried to give for 'rational thinking' and see how adequate they are.