Predominance of Science – Some Thoughts

As has been pointed out numerous times, Muslim scholars from the medieval and so-called “golden age” where practitioners of what we could call science today (something close to it) as well as being doctors in many of the various fields of religious studies. There is much speculation as to why the change in duality has occurred: being a person of science (i.e., dedicated to studying the natural world) and being a person of God. Many look at it as the degradation of society and the collapse of moral infrastructure; the pervasiveness of immorality. And while this may have contributed to it (though I feel this is more symptomatic than it is causal), I feel it has been the atrophy and lackadaisical attitude of religious thinkers and institutions that have been the greatest contributors if not facilitators of this modern demise. I say this because in those pre-modern times, science was mostly a way of exploiting the natural world to some benefit, and was never meant to be theology or even eschatology in and of itself. It was simply a method. But as the genius of religious thinking waned, technology, who was never born for this, was by proxy and de-facto, thrust onto stage as the ever-growing and only means of “knowing.” As religious thinking retreated, it became more and more comfortable in its own seclusion and surrendered its birthright to “tell us” and to “narrate to us.” So when I look out on the youth of today’s Ummah it is not coincidence that so many Muslims have continued to retreat to and swell the ranks of science-based programs (versus the humanities). This exodus is not only based on economic factors (though this does play an important role) but is also grounded in the stark reality that religion, as it is being articulated today, captures little of the imagination of young Muslims. In essence, religion has become boring.

I have been talking with a few colleagues for several years now for the need for a “fiqh of technology.” One of the greatest challenges facing humanity at this point is what is technology, does it have any limits, is it genuinely neutral, and to what ultimate purpose is its use? I can see no other way of answering any of these questions unless we consult religion. As technology pushes us to move faster and faster, fractures our capacity for deep and sustained thought, as its very short shelf life of usefulness makes an even greater quandary for its very long half-lives, as it increasingly wants to the thinking for us, we will increasingly run the risk of not only destroying our natural world, but may in fact be expediting our obsoleteness as Bani Adam. It is clear to me, and I have an itching intuition that it is for many others as well, that technology is not going to solve problems, or even make our lives better in and of itself, if people are not at the top of the thinking food chain. I saw the iPhone 5’s release as a prescient moment where for the first time in long while, a piece of technology truly failed to deliver on all its hype. Yes, people gathered around the block but it was almost as if a small but important balloon had been popped somewhere in the stratosphere (the Heavens?) And perhaps what troubles me the most about all of this, even with the balloon deflated, is what will replace that enthusiasm in technology’s absence? For if it is not a return to religion, I don’t even wish to imagine what awaits us around that corner.

Suggested Readings

  • The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman.
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman.
  • Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education, Neil Postman.
  • Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman.
  • The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul.

More on Time: A Khutbah

In my previous khutbah, I discussed the importance of time and time management, as well as time as an object, so that we might think about the “times” we live in. All the above falls under an even larger umbrella, and that is the umbrella of religious literacy. To know and understand time and its importance to the Muslim is to increase one’s awareness of God and increase one’s understanding of Islam and its objective with mankind, God willing.

To step back a moment for before addressing the topic of time head on, I would like to bring our attention to the role that scholarship and learning plays in developing a sense of time. We often hear new buzz words such as “tradition”, both upper and lower cases being used. It is not my desire to contest the existence of an “Islamic tradition” [though I prefer Muslim as it is not quite so atemporal/ahistoric as Islamic], rather quite the opposite. But in order for that tradition to be operational, we must examine our relationship with it. I thought it would best to examine the meaning of tradition, as it relates to Muslims, by looking at it through the prism of another scenario. Below is a quote from the 19th/20th century philosopher, John Dewey:

When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

— From John Dewey’s, Art As Experience. This speaks volumes to me on modern Muslims understanding of pre-modern law [Shari’ah].

If we were to substitute Dewey’s “art” for our “tradition”, we can begin to imagine some of the problems and challenges we are faced with, many of which are by our own hands. Indeed, “Traditional Islam” has attained the status of “classic”, from which it has become quite stagnant and “isolated” from our very own lives. No longer a means of tools by which we interpret and navigate our present reality, “Traditional Islam” has become an operational substitute, relieving us of the burden of having to act, think, and behave as responsible, God-conscious Muslims. This neologism is complete with an aesthetic appearance: one’s burden to think and act with traditional morals and values is even further removed by simply allowing us to dress “traditionally”, even when most of us have no historical relationship with such modes of dress.

Dewey’s words are even more relevant in this passage:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.

— John Dewey, from Art As Experience. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

I find Dewey’s “artistic objects” a fine substitute for our “traditional Islam” as a means of diagnosing a crippling condition I see prevalent amongst Muslims today: the operational ability for Muslims to think proactively and creatively has been “separated” from our “conditions” and “experiences”; a proverbial wall has been erected around “tradition” that has the opposite intended effect: It renders the significance of that tradition “opaque” to use. We can neither see through it, into it, nor around it. Instead of a tool to a broader means, it has been supplanted as the end. Once “remitted” to this separate realm, our primary means of acting in accordance with our reality that will both please God and make our lives easier, is “cut off” with the “materials and aims” of each and every human [read Muslim] effort, undergoing and achievement. It will be necessary to see the pitfall in this so that our aims and efforts at making responsible and intelligent uses of time are not for naught.

Key Words

  • لهو/to amuse, dally, waste time, engage in excessive pleasure.
  • غفلة/heedlessness
  • زين – تزيين/to embellish, adorn, make-believe, sham, pretense, shave/put on makeup/زينت نفسها
  • عمل و أعمال و فعل و أفعال/Actions [af’al] can have the ability to take on acts of worship but they can also but non-acts of worship whereas Deeds [a’mal] have a distinct inclination towards acts of worship as they are tied to the “intention” to do so:
  • إن بطش ربك لشديد – انه هو يبدئ ويعد و هو الغفور الودود – ذو العرش المجيد – فعال لما يريد
  • قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى
  • و هم على ما يفعلون بالمومنين شهود و ما نقموا منهم إلا أن يومنوا بالله العزيز الحميد الذي له الملك السماوات والأرض و الله على كل شيء شهيد

Time marches on, marches towards us, but how attuned are we to this fact?

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيكم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا اِسْتَمَعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسّروا النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تنصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation until you visit the graves!

In the tafsir of these verses, it can mean that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

Time is also critical to Muslim development. We have to not only be concerned about “impending doom”, but with how we spend our time preparing for that doom. As I mentioned in the khutbah, fear as it is discussed in the Qur’an, is not like Hollywood fear, where the victim of anxiety or dread is rendered immobile, but instead is meant to propel us into action. Actions that will bring about a favorable outcome on the Qiyamah. And while we must spend time learning and studying in all manner of so-called secular topics so that we can have a trade or a profession, so too we must spend time learning and knowing our religion so that we have a broad-based understanding of life’s function and role, not simply to memorize the rights and wrongs of Islam. This latter part is critical to the development of a healthy Muslim identity, something to which Muslim thinker Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas discusses in one of his works:

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

Al-Attas’ acknowledgement of the role that sacred [here I am fine with the use of “traditional” so long as it’s understood as an operational imperative, not a laundry list] knowledge plays in the development of the Muslim is crucial. But I think just as important is his observation of the “immediate bearing” such knowledge can and should have on a Muslim. I see this as particularly valuable to the convert, who did not grow up in an “Islamic environment”, and is in need of such knowledge to be immediately beneficial to their growth and development as a Muslim. Convert or otherwise, the lesson here is none of us can, as Shaykh al-Attas says, “afford to suspend [our] judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations”. In other words, time is of the essence and we must all efforts to acquire such knowledge a priority in our lives, one way or another.

Time passing and making actions seem good to them.

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By Allah, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63]

It is a real temptation to make one’s deeds and actions fair seeming. But as I noted above in the key words section, zayyana/زين – تزيين is thematically connected to the embellishment and self-delusion of deeds. Its root has much in common with the following actions: to adorn, make-believe, as well as to put on makeup, all of which are a means of deception, one way or another. We may not like to think of it [and I am not starting a fiqh war – for more on beauty and makeup, please see or listen to Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s lecture, The Fiqh of Beauty] but when we apply makeup or dress ourselves in a certain way, in part [if not in essence] we wish to imply that what’s in front of us may be better than what is really there. Likewise, in the Qur’an, those that seek to delude themselves and/or God are do so by attempting to make their deeds seem to be better than what they truly are. If left unchecked, this state of the heart can lead one to doom, as is the case of the unnamed group in s. Yusuf, verse 12:

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه قاعدا اَو قائما فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, upon his side, laying down or standing. Yet when we have removed his affliction, he proceeds upon his way as if he had never been accosted. In this manner whatever the indignant one do seems fair pleasing. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

As we can see in the two above examples from the Qur’an, zayyana/زيّن and ‘aml/عمل go hand in hand, at least in how we try to deceive God and ourselves. This is important as ‘aml/a’mal [عمل و أعمال] are almost always associated with religious practice and deeds, whereas fi’l/af’al [فعل و أفعال] can be religious or neutral.

لقد كان لكم في رسول الله إسوة حسنة لّمن كان يرجوا الله و اليوم الآخرَ و ذكر الله كثيرا

Surely in the Messenger of God is an excellent excellent example for the one that hopes to meet God, and has hope of the Final Day and remembers God abundantly. [Qur’an: 33: 21]

May God Almighty grant us success in this. Amin.

Listen to and download the audio here.

Muslim Development Course: Update

The Muslim Development Course has been rescheduled! It is due to start up again on April 4th.

The Muslim Development Course is the class I will be teaching that is part of the Quba Adult Learning Program entitled, al-Qāfilah: ‘The Knowledge Caravan’. The objective of this course is to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that it reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles found in the Qur’ān and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

This course will examine the current conditions of Muslims – most immediately of those living in the Philadelphia area (though the principles may be applied to any) – with the aim of looking critically at our current condition and how we might apply the Qur’ān and Sunnah in our lives by actively engaging in its historical realities and processes. Such topics will include, but are not limited to: the life of the Prophet [s] – a.k.a., the sīrah up to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah; the early Qur’ānic Revelation (Makkan period): the cultural context as well as its audience; pre-Islamic life in the Hijāz (the jāhiliyyah): what was pre-Islam Arabia like? How did pre-Islamic Arabs think?; the language of the Qur’ān: its history, its audience, its changes – how do we as an English speaking audience conceive of its meaning?; the socio-political order of Makkah and Madinah: what lessons are there for us today, both personal and collectively? Through engaging in a dialog with the collective of Muslim Revelation, history, thought, and language, we can better understand ourselves and, God willing, have a deeper commitment to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

The class starts April 4th. Running time is from 10:00am until 12:30pm. The class will run for four Sundays: April 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th. This session, the second session, will be held at Masjid Mujahideen, in West Philadelphia:


View Larger Map

The first cycle of this class was started on March 7th, and will is currently running until March 28th [taught by Imam Anas of the [Qubā’ Institute]. If you would like to sign up for this course, please contact the Qubā’ Institute as follows:

Phone: 215-473-8589. E-mail: adultprogram@qubainc.org. The course fee is $50 [this is less than $15 a day!]

Muslim Development Course

The objective of this course is to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that it reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles found in the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

This course will examine the current conditions of Muslims – most immediately of those living in the Philadelphia area (though the principles may be applied to any) – with the aim of looking critically at our current condition and how we might apply the Qur’an and Sunnah in our lives by actively engaging in its historical realities and processes. Such topics will include, but are not limited to: the life of the Prophet [s] – a.k.a., the sīrah up to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah; the early Qur’anic Revelation (Makkan period): the cultural context as well as its audience; pre-Islamic life in the Hijāz (the jāhiliyyah): what was pre-Islam Arabia like? How did pre-Islamic Arabs think?; the language of the Qur’an: its history, its audience, its changes – how do we as an English speaking audience conceive of its meaning?; the socio-political order of Makkah and Madinah: what lessons are there for us today, both personal and collectively? Through engaging in a dialog with the collective of Muslim Revelation, history, thought, and language, we can better understand ourselves and, God willing, have a deeper commitment to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

The class is slated to start February 21st at the Quba Instituate. If you would like to sign up for this course, you may contact the Quba Institute or stay tuned for more details.

The Relevance In Muslim Thought In Modern Times — An Exposition

Traditional Muslim Thought

What is it and why is it important to think like a Muslim? The ability to be “aware” of things and to articulate that awareness in concepts, language, and even behavior that reinforces and appeases TMT, and ultimately, Islam/God [tawhīd, Prophecy and the Return to God].

This endeavor will always involve attempts to appease certain incontrovertible truths and transcendent values found in Islam. However, Islam itself will never look the same in two difference places or two different times. And this process of Muslim thought will always demand intelligence, creativity, and courage from Muslims in their efforts to realize this goal, both individually and collectively.

When speaking about TMT, this in no way implies that:

  1. Muslims never had to do this in times past. That it is just something particular and peculiar to this term “modernity” that is causing all this hubbub.
  2. In fact, if we were to look at the past [i.e., Muslim history] and see no such examples [and we are sure to see many!] it would have more to do with the dereliction of duty on the part of those scholars of the past than the absence of the necessity in TMT in every time and space.

So – is TMT just a historical curiosity? Is it relevant in any way to the issues that Muslims face today? If so, then part of this relevance must include a tahqīqī approach. This is especially crucial in light of the recent rebranding of the word “tradition” into such catch phrases as “Traditional Muslim knowledge”.

What Does Muslim Thought Address?

TMT addresses four major things:

  1. God.
  2. The cosmos.
  3. The human soul.
  4. Interpersonal relationships.

The first three form the basis of how reality is conceived in Islam. The fourth is from perceptions obtained through studying the first three in a human interaction paradigm.

Goals of Muslim Thought

To know the reality of lā ilāha illa Allah [there is no god but God] for oneself.

The defining of roles: taqlīd and tahqīq.

Taqlīd: if one wishes to be a member of a group, then one must learn from those who are already a part of that group. Prophetic narrative. No one can better perfect a method of making ablution than that of the Prophet.

Tahqīq: the process of coming to know and own the knowing of tawhīd/la ilaha illa Allah [there is no god but God].

Tawhīd: is outside of taqlīd as “there is no compulsion in faith” لا إآراه في الدين [Q: 2: 256]. Instead, taqlīd is trying to inculcate tawhīd through free-willed, internal/intellectual means.

Muslims need to realize that TMT’s raison d’être is the transformation of the human soul, not simply a collection of textual and historical facts.

TMT allowed for a multidisciplined approach but those branches were tied to a root [tawhīd].

Establish the primacy of The Sacred. Therefore, one needs to come to know and understand what is sacred to Muslims/Islam and what is sacred [if anything at all] to modernity.

Preservation of the human being. Modernity/secularism makes vain attempts at this through language such as freedom, democracy, human rights, efficiency, etc.

Ijtihād – What’s In A Name?

The word is used so much by modernist Muslim reformers that it’s lost any context and meaning.

  • To qualify as a mujtahid, one had to master the disciplines [fiqh, etc.]. In other words, master transmitted knowledge [Qur’ān, Sunnah, etc.].
  • This bar has been set very high in traditional Sunni schools of thought.
  • If one does not attain the level of mujtahid, then one must then follow a school of ijtihād [Sunni: mostly dead masters – Shi’ism: living masters].
  • Sharī’ah, for example, can only be learned from someone who already knows it. This is problematic for orthodox, Sunni Muslims if we’re only able to learn from dead people!

Challenges Facing Muslims/TMT Today

Modern Muslim scholarship has been dominated by a non-Muslim spirit of academia in which, only to be partly humorous, one can know everything there is to know about a text except what it’s saying.

Is it possible to think as an engineer or sociologist and still think in a tawhīd-ic mind frame?

How can Muslims/Islam come to really [and in mean real as from The Real] mean anything significant if religion, in the eyes of modernity, is scarcely tolerated so long as it is restricted to ritual and morality. In modernity, religion can have nothing definitive to say about the nature of reality.

When looking at the thought processes behind certain modes of thought or ‘isms, are they/can they be infused or synthesized /re-contextualized by TMT or no? Why/not?

Modern environments are not conducive to inculcating/reinforcing an outlook on the world based on tawhīd. Modern theories of knowledge seek to compartmentalize versus bring varying knowledge disciplines into a unifying vision. This compartmentalization applies to the self as well as knowledge. This leads to a kind of cultural/social schizophrenia [see Daryoush Shayegan]

Science/Scientism: science is often said to be a sign of God but the Qur’ān asks man to think/reflect. But think/reflect on what? The Qur’an emphasizes natural phenomena. Science, however, requires one to first have scientific training as well as accept the supremacy/hegemony that scientific/tistic thought often demands of us.

Modern Muslim thought/scholarship does not challenge the status quo of modern/takthīr thought but rather sees how it can best serve, adopted and co-opt it.

Takthīr – Modernity’s New Gods

Takthīr is, if not the theological opposite of tawhīd, is its antonym in a modern context. The function of tawhīd is to see the many as relating to The One. Takthīr is wanton proliferation.

Tawhīd: to make God one, the recognition of divinity, pointing back to one ultimate source [God].

Takthīr: to make many gods. To refashion the recognition of divine presence as manifold.

Modernity lacks a solid core – a single center of purpose. TMT professes the purpose of life is to realize/worship/prepare for the return to God.

Modernity’s goals [?]: freedom, equality, evolution, progress, science, medicine, nationalism, socialism, democracy, Marxism. More innocuous versions: care, communication, consumption, development, education, information, standard of living, management, model, planning, production, project, resource, service, system, welfare.

TMT & Modernity – A Dialog

TMT may question modernity’s and Muslim reformers’ intentions. And while MR’s may wish to bid “good riddance” to TMT because of its perceived baggage, reform-minded
Muslims are oblivious to the fact that much of what they’re basing their thoughts off of are based on modes of thought that at their core are antithetical to the three crucial aspects of TMT/Islam:

  1. Tawhīd.
  2. Prophecy.
  3. The Return to God [Ma’ād].

If Muslims are to remain true to the core values that Islam is built upon, those very same values that underpin TMT’ing, then how can the adaption of the above be legitimized?