Coping with defeat

Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State
Jonathan Laurence
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021, xxvi, 578 pp., ISBN 9780691172125

Coping with Defeat is an unusual book not just because it compares two widely different religious entities (Roman Catholicism and “Sunni Islam”), but also because it blends and blurs boundaries between academic scholarship and journalism, history and run-of-the-mill political statements published in newspapers, trendy infographics and archival research, and poorly-reproduced pictures and cartoons from newspapers with tables and charts based on  research data collected over the years. Its 113 illustrations, 27 tables, and 61 pages of notes, comprising references cited from works in its 47-page bibliography demonstrate serious engagement with existing scholarship, but only of a particular kind—the one that conceives Islam as having no inherent agency and stable and unchanging set of beliefs which have been the main kinetic force behind the emergence of its religious and administrative institutions to regulate and facilitate communal praxis. To be sure, these institutions have changed form, administrative structures, and their relationship with the state over the course of centuries, but no one has ever considered them as institutions which define Islam a la Catholic Church defining the fundamental credal positions of Christianity; rather, they are a product of the diverse social and political settings in which Muslims have lived since the beginning of Islam and their function has been to serve, regulate, and—increasingly—to control the religious practices of the community.

Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College, does not explain what he means by “Sunni Islam”, but he justifies the comparison between “Sunni Islam” and Roman Catholicism with half a sentence: they both have “traits like creeds, codes of conduct, and notions of global confessional community” (p. 10). This is a rather weak foundation for the massive structure the book erects on the basis of its “central argument that three shocks, or defeats, eroded the political ties between the last major Christian and Muslim political-religious empires—the Papal States and the Ottoman Empire—and their believers. The shocks differed in timing for Catholics and Sunnis but have had the same revolutionary effect of gradually binding religious authorities to the rule of law…. Each historical shock moved religious authorities further along the spectrum of state-religion relations—from a position of supremacy to the semi-autonomy of the contemporary state-religion bargain” (p. 12).

The central argument of the book presumes that the Ottomans were the custodians of “Sunni Islam” in a manner similar to how the Papal authority is for Roman Catholicism. It posits that there was a “spiritual-temporal fusion: the religious and political authorities were rolled into one, the pope guarding the Two Swords of Saint Peter while the caliph served as guardian of the Sword and Flag of the Prophet” (p. 19). In doing so, it makes three crucial mistakes: (i) it catapults this “spiritual-temporal fusion” to center stage of the book as a singular event in “Sunni Islam” in order to paddle its comparison with Roman Catholicism; (ii) it ignores the critical difference between political structures of the two religions; and (iii) it ignores the fact that the Ghazis (religious warriors) who established the Ottoman emirate under the leadership of Osman Ghazi (d. 1323/4) did not have religious authority comparable to the Pope; in fact, Ottoman sultans were even ambivalent in assuming the title of Caliph as they did not have Qurayshi lineage, which is considered to be a sine qua non for that title. Even when they gained greater political and military power after Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389) conquered Edirne, the claim of the Cairo-based ceremonial Abbasid Caliphs under the patronage of the Mamluk Sultanate was more credible until the end of Mamluk dynasty in 1517, because they were the custodians of the two Sacred Mosques and were thus called Servants of the two Noble Sanctuaries (Khādim al-Ḥarmayn al-Sharīfayn), a title denoting the de facto Caliph.

Coping with Defeat also loses its credibility on theological grounds. Religious and political authorities have never been “rolled into one” in Islam after the demise of the Prophet, who alone holds that distinction. After him, Abū Bakr (r. 632-34) was called Khalīfat al-Rasūl (the Successor of the Messenger), not in the sense of a Caliph, as the term was later understood, but simply as the one who succeeded the Messenger. Following him, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634-644) was given the official title of Amīr al-Muʾminīn (“the leader of the Believers”)—a title that was retained by several succeeding rulers, none of whom ever claimed to combine religious authority with their office, even as everyone acknowledged the existential necessity of a state where the believers could practice Islam in peace in accordance with the teachings of the Qurʾān and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The first four rulers after the Prophet were given the title of “Righted Guided Caliphs” retroactively.

Coping with Defeat conceives the comparison between “Sunni Islam” and Roman Catholicism in terms which set the latter as a model and forerunner for the former. “Despite its disastrous encounter with the modern state in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church arrived at a peaceful cohabitation by the turn of the new millennium” (p. 393),  “Sunni Islam”, on the other hand, is “in disarray” (p. 394), “a race for religious hegemony has ensued, posing ever more urgently the issue of Islamic temporal sovereignty” (p. 395). The triumph of modern nation state is seen as not only the logical outcome of the “three defeats” it has supposedly served to Roman Catholicism and Islam, but also a manifest destiny. This, despite the fact that many contemporary stake holders and beneficiaries of the Westphalian model, upon which the modern nation state rests, are already claiming that the world has arrived at a post-Westphalian era because of globalization which has “made the Westphalian approach anachronistic” (A. Claire Culter, “Critical reflections on the Westphalian assumptions of international law and organization: a crisis of legitimacy,” in Review of International Studies, Volume 27, Issue 2, April 2001, pp. 133-150). Others—such as Hall Gardner, Professor and Chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department at the American University of Paris, France—even question the prevalent notion that the Treaty of Münster between the Holy Roman Emperor and France, along with their respective allies and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden, along with their respective allies, signed on 24 October 1648 inaugurated a new era in European and world affairs by reifying state sovereignty as a global governing principle (IR Theory, Historical Analogy, and Major Power War, 2018, p. 117-118).

These fundamental problems notwithstanding, Coping with Defeat does have plenty of data to support the increasing state control of religious affairs in the modern period through control of mosques, Imams, and madrasas. It is the author’s stance—that increasing control of religious institutions by ministers and ministries of religious affairs and the shrinking of the independent Muslim religious leadership is redefining “Sunni Islam” itself just as Roman Catholicism was redefined—that is problematic because Muslim history proves otherwise. Islam and Muslims have lived through the glory and vainglory of five centuries of Abbasid Caliphate (132-656/750–1258), which witnessed the reign of 39 caliphs—and the only inquisition in Muslim history, the miḥna (218-233/833–848), during which scores of religious scholars, including Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ḥanbal (163-240/780–855), were imprisoned and flogged—and 625 years of the rise and fall of 37 Ottoman Sultans, some of whom were installed by the Janissaries when they were as young as 11 and six (Murad IV and Mehmed IV respectively) and none of whom ever visited the two Noble Sanctuaries which are supposed to give them their religious authority, without suffering any damage to its core beliefs because they remain securely lodged in its twin sources: the Qurʾān and the Sunnah.

“Sunni Islam” crystalized into its four legal schools and associated credal positions several centuries before the Ottomans. Its distinguishing principles of jurisprudence (aṣūl al-fiqh) and creedal positions of the Folk of the Prophetic Practice and Community (ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamāʿ) were never under the sway of caliphs and rulers; they emerged in an open-source, public discourse among scholars. While it is true that religious beliefs and practices can be influenced, even expelled, from vast swaths of the earth by force—as was done under the Soviet and Chinese communist rules and as is being done by certain modern secular rulers of Muslim majority states in North Africa who have happily taken over the colonial project of removing Islam from constitutions and lawbooks of their states—it is also true that Islam is not, will never be, defined by constitutions and lawbooks of nation states. For Muslims, Islam is simply how their Prophet defined it when asked by the Arch-angel Jibril: “Islam is to testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish prayer, to pay zakāt, to fast the month of Ramadan, and to perform the Hajj if possible.” At this fundamental level, there is not even a “Sunni” and “Shia” Islam; it is that simple. This is not to deny the validity of Sunni and Shia differences in certain matters of fiqh, creed or even the principles of interpretation of the Qur’an, nor to reduce their historical differences in political matters; it is simply to point out that these differences do not give rise to different Islams in the manner Catholicism is distinguished from Protestant Christianity and Papacy from the priesthood of all believers.

Political rulers may even force laws on a nation in contravention to the Qurʾān and the Sunnah and certain practices—even beliefs—may become corrupt for some Muslims for some time, but since the primary sources of Islam remain uncorrupted and always accessible to successive generations, they provide an ever-present path of revival of beliefs and practices in Islam. This has happened over and over in Muslim history and there is no reason to believe that it will not happen again, especially given the Prophetic foretelling about the final triumph of Islam over all other systems of belief. Yet, admittedly, this argument will not be convincing for Laurence and others who work within the framework of secular modernity built upon the progress narrative which conceives the triumph of whatever happens to Western civilization as the destiny of all civilizations and people.

Coping with Defeat is yet another product of this self-conceit and triumphalism of post-Renaissance Western attitude toward other civilizations and religions. It is a narrative full of bombast, even wit (“As the Ottoman Empire shrank, the caliphs made Islamic lemonade from European lemons… the House of Osman hoped to emulate the nineteenth-century papacy, whose last grains of earthly power were also slipping into the lower bulb of the hourglass”, p. 24). Yet, it is inconceivable that a few princes and self-appointed kings and presidents of certain countries who populate the pages of this book can be raised to the stature of Papal authority and power as held in Roman Catholicism simply by focusing microscopic attention to their stratagem for extending their rule to the religious domain, just as it is inconceivable that Islam can ever have anything similar to a Pope, dioceses, eparchies, bishops, the Holy See, the Roman Curia, and the Nicene Creed.

Center for Islamic Sciences, Canada                                                                    Muzaffar Iqbal

August 18, 2022

Education from the Qurʾānic Worldview

Qurʾānic Worldview: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543–606/1148–1209) observed in his voluminous exegesis Mafātīḥ al-ghayb (“Keys of the Unseen”) that the Qurʾān has three axial themes: the Unicity of Allah Most High (tawḥīd), Messengership and Prophethood (risāla, nubuwwa), and Resurrection (maʿād) (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:21–22). All other themes emerge from these and can be subsumed under them. All three are constantly present throughout the Qurʾān and are specifically mentioned in numerous verses.

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The absolute Oneness of Allah Most High is the central theme of Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (Q 112), which enjoins the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to proclaim: Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah, the Eternally Self-Sufficient (al-Ṣamad). He begets not, nor is begotten. And none is like Him. The sura expounds, in condensed form and chiefly by negation, Divine Unicity; it “refutes in its four verses all [forms of] disbelief (kufr) and fancies (ahwāʾ),” Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 283/896) noted. “It is named Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (“the Sura of Sincerity”) because it sweeps away all impurities foreign to the transcendence (tanzīh) of Allah, Exalted is He above all unbefitting Him” (Tustarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 112). According to the Qurʾān the Prophets are chosen human beings sent by God to guide humanity; the prophetic cycle started with the first human being, Ādam, upon him peace, and ended with the Prophet Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets (khātam al-nabiyyīn): Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets, and Allah has full knowledge of all things (Q 33:40). Resurrection brings all creation to their final destination.

The “worldview” (a term used as a calque for the German Weltanschauung) offered by the Qurʾān is anchored in the belief system which emerges from its three fundamental themes and is succinctly formulated in the five “pillars of Islam” (pronouncing and affirming the shahāda, performing the ṣalāt, paying zakāt, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and performing the Hajj once in a lifetime) and six articles of belief (belief in Allah, His Angels, His Books His Prophets and Messengers, the Day of Judgment, and His Divine Decree).

Furthermore, let us note that the Qurʾān draws its material content from three realms: the natural world, human history, and the human soul (nafs). In a broadly construed contemporary classification of knowledge, the first can be said to be the subject of natural sciences, the second that of the human sciences, and the third finds myriad expression in language and the arts.

Education: Education, taken in its general as well as more specific and organized forms, is ultimately a process of learning, as indicated by the etymology of the word (derived from the Latin educare, meaning “to bring up, rear, train, raise, support”).

Education from the Qurʾānic Perspective: The process of learning based on the Qurʾānic worldview involves a conscious effort to infuse the Qurʾānic worldview in all areas of learning; it has its own specific pedagogy. It is based on a three-fold classification of knowledge. It reorganizes content based on the Qurʾānic teachings about the natural world as well as the place of human beings in the overall cosmic design. The Qurʾānic worldview does not exist externally; it is gained incrementally through an intentional process which, for most people, often involves “unlearning” what one has absorbed and acquired through years of formal and informal education in secular institutions. At the human level, it is akin to shaping a raw diamond into a gem, or polishing a mirror until it reflects perfectly. In some cases, the heart is transformed through personal life experiences; in other cases, it is a gradual process helped by constant reflection on the message of the Qurʾān. There are also examples of remarkable transformations through encounters with spiritual masters. In the final analysis, it is a Divine gift, a blessing that no one can possess but through the mercy of the Most Merciful.

Historical Context

Before the rise of modernity, the educational system in the Muslim world was able to provide a diverse yet unified worldview to the learners. Its pedagogy treated all branches of knowledge as if they formed a hierarchically arranged continuum, the gradation being based on the nobility of the subject and its benefit to individuals and community. This system of education allowed men like al-Birūnī (who specialized in natural sciences) to compose works in areas of natural and human history, and others like al-Ghazālī (who specialized in philosophy, Kalām, and spiritual sciences) to make direct connections between the Qurʾān and natural and mathematical sciences (see his Jawāhir al-Qurʾān).

The education system in much of the Muslim world before its encounter with modernity instilled in the learners a process through which they constructed for themselves a “Qurʾānic lens” through which they saw all things. The role played by the teacher in this process was that of a guide who directed the process spiritually as well as intellectually. By necessity, the process required internalization of the message of the Qurʾān and its lived example—the life of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. Thus, the teachers themselves had to first undergo this process so that they could aid students (no one can pass on to others what they do not themselves have). All of this changed with the arrival of colonizers in most of the Muslim world and the subsequent emergence of an alien education system, giving rise to the fraught contemporary situation.

In the mid-twentieth century, the education system in almost all parts of the Muslim world was split into two categories: (i) a very large state-owned system, a colonial legacy designed to produce graduates with a thoroughly secular worldview and little knowledge of Islam; and (ii) a private, often charity-sponsored, haphazard system of madrasas, producing imams with a cursory and truncated knowledge of Islam, with almost no grounding in the Islamic tradition of learning. The present-day large Muslim minorities in the West were yet to emerge; even in countries where Muslims were present in significant numbers, such as the United Kingdom, France, and some parts of the United States and Canada, they were mostly scattered immigrant communities with certain urban mosques perhaps hosting weekend schools. There was no networking between schools and hardly any Muslim educational institutions independent of mosques.

This scenario changed over the next three decades (1950–1980) through a number of significant events, not least of which was a multi-fold increase in revenue of the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, humiliating defeats in Arab-Israel wars, and a growing public dissatisfaction with both the pro-Soviet (quasi-socialist) and pro-Western orientation of ruling cliques, these being the only “two varieties of politics” at that time in most Muslim countries. The most powerful impetus for change was, however, the emergence of a renewed commitment to Islam in the post-colonial generation. This driving force became visible on political and social planes around the turn of the Islamic century. The positive energy, idealism, and fervor that swept through the Muslim world at that time produced numerous significant events which shaped the contours of the contemporary Muslim world as well as Muslim minorities in the West: the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979); the emergence of the Afghan Jihad after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the enormous impact of a number of quasi-religious political parties and a few politically active religious scholars in some Muslim countries, most notably in Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt. Even the “paper-pusher” Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), established in 1969 as an immediate response to the desecration of al-Aqsa Mosque, gained significance in the general euphoria of that era.

These political events were augmented by several state-sponsored as well as private initiatives aimed at reviving the Islamic tradition of learning. In Iran, the entire state structure was reorganized to establish institutions of learning on an Islamic pattern; most universities remained secular, but the ḥawza ʿilmiyya gained significance and several initiatives integrated it and secular institutions of the pre-Revolution era. A new and vast publication industry emerged in the Muslim world, producing new editions of classical Islamic works (exegeses, Hadith collections, commentaries, etc.) as well as newly written works on various aspects of Islam; Hijra Council, a semi-autonomous, state-sponsored learned society initiated a massive effort aimed at publishing one hundred great books of Islamic civilization; for the first time in history, Muslims started to translate their classical heritage into Western languages; and the translations of the Qurʾān in Western language by Muslims themselves multiplied.

It was during that euphoric era that the First World Conference on Muslim Education was held at Makka al-Mukarrama (31 March–8 April 1977/12–20 Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1397) with an encompassing theme: “Basis for an Islamic Education System”. It brought together approximately 350 scholars from around the world who jointly observed: “the existing conditions in present-day educational institutions in most Muslim countries do not  truly reflect the Islamic ideal, and these institutions do not play their rightful role in the education of the younger generation in Islamic faith, thought and conduct, and there exists at present a regrettable dichotomy in education in the Muslim world; one system namely, religious education being completely divorced from the secular sciences, and secular education being equally divorced from religion, although such compartmentalization was contrary to the true Islamic concept of education and [this] made it impossible for the products of either system to represent Islam as a comprehensive and integrated vision of life.”[1] The work of the Conference was organized in different sub-committees, each charged with the task of formulating the aims and objectives of education in Islam in different disciplines. These sub-committees produced succinct statements reflecting the basic aims and objectives of their subject areas. For instance, the sub-committee on natural sciences (including applied science and technology) declared that the aim of their education was to “motivate the human intellect to ponder on the universe; to understand the nature of things and beings that are comprehensible; to discover Allah’s laws of nature and use them beneficially, and thus enable man to be the vicegerent of Allah on earth.”[2]

Following this landmark event, five more conferences were held in Pakistan (1980), Bangladesh (1981), Indonesia (1982), Egypt (1987), and South Africa (1996). These conferences did little to change ground realities, but a side result was the establishment of four International Islamic universities, one each in Islamabad, Pakistan (1980), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1983), Say, Niger (1986), and Uganda (1988) with campuses in several cities. Except for the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), which received warm endorsement and support also from several OIC countries, all other universities have been established by OIC and continue to receive funding from it.

Parallel to these developments in the Muslim world, there was a rapid increase in the number of Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America. Faced with the dilemma of educating their children in a predominantly non-Muslim milieu, the Muslim minorities in the West responded by establishing independent schools. However, most of these schools were “Muslim schools” rather than “Islamic schools”, as they only differed from the public education institutions in that their student population was Muslim. In general, a very large percentage of these schools was established by community leaders, rather than individuals or groups trained in running educational institutions. Furthermore, these schools were not based on alternate philosophies of education, they were governed by individuals with little academic qualification, and teachers working in these schools were mostly uncertified and without training in Islamic philosophy of education.

As these developments were taking place, some Muslim scholars responded to the urgent need of the community by formulating theoretical foundations for education from an Islamic perspective. Their work forms an important step in the emerging efforts to restructure education. The work of three scholars is of direct relevance: Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (1931–), who first used the phrase “Islamization of knowledge” in his 1978 book Islam and Secularism;[3] Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933–), who was one of the members of the organizing committee of the 1977 Makka Conference on Education;[4] and Ismaʿīl Raji al-Faruqi (1921–1986), who highlighted “the malaise of the Umma” and proposed “Islamization” of modern knowledge, without, however, providing any detailed methodology and relying on the central Qurʾānic concept of Tawḥīd to generally articulate a Work Plan which excluded natural sciences altogether.

Classification of Contemporary Knowledge

As already stated, the pre-modern Islamic classification of knowledge placed all branches of knowledge in a hierarchical structure. The Qurʾān and the sciences of the Qurʾān naturally occupied the highest spot. It should be noted that classical scholars deemed the principle of all sciences to be contained in the Qurʾān (as per its self-description as the compendium of knowledge (cf. Q)), not their details (unlike certain contemporary attempts to locate atoms and the Big Bang in the Book).

As an integral component of education from the Qurʾānic worldview, contemporary disciplines need to be reorganized into the above-mentioned three realms from which the Qurʾān draws its material content: sciences dealing with the study of the physical world; the human sciences, including history, sociology, anthropology, and the like; and the realm of the creative expression of what takes place within the human self, including literature, various forms of art, and other modes of expression through human languages and other, more subtle forms of expression.

Once restructured in this fashion, it will become easier to make connections between various disciplines being taught by relating them to the Qurʾānic discourse on the three realms. The subject of natural sciences, for instance, is the physical world, the Qurʾānic outlook upon which is expressly stated in numerous verses and a great deal written about it in recent decades. A short synopsis suffices here: Allah Most High created the physical world with Wisdom (ḥikma), Knowledge (ʿilm), and Truth (bil-ḥaqq, cf. Q 6:73; 10:5; 14:19; 15:85)—meaning there is nothing superfluous or  without purpose. One (though not the only) function of the order of creation is its benefit to humanity. The sun and the moon, the stars and the planet, the animals and the birds, the oceans and the rivers, the vast galaxies and constellations as well as the tiniest creature crawling in the middle of an uninhibited desert are all part of God’s creation, each with a very specific role in the overall functioning of the cosmos. And the entire cosmic order has come into existence for a specific duration: the Hour will obliterate all. When the Hour will come, the mountains will fly like carded wool and flow like heaps of sand, all that exists will vanish, and there will remain nothing but the Countenance of the Most High.

The time-bound existence of all things, brought into being by God (the originator of everything that exists) through His creative act, by the command—Kun (“Be!”)[5]—physical as well as non-physical worlds, is not only ontologically linked to the Creator; it is also existentially dependent upon God.[6] The intrinsic nexus between various levels of existence transforms the multiplicity of appearances into a unity. The ultimate foundation of their interrelatedness at the level of cosmic existence is their ontological dependence on God, who is One, sublimely Unique, absolutely Singular; like Him there is nothing (laysa ka-mithlihi shayʾ, Q 42:11). The central Qurʾānic theme of Unicity of God (tawḥīid) thus ontologically links various realms of His creation, making the realm of nature more than a collection of physical bodies, hopelessly separated from each other; rather, every created object becomes a sign (āya, pl. āyāt), pointing to a transcendent reality beyond itself. This transcendence is semantically linked to the verses of the Qurʾān, which are also called āyāt, but this elegant nexus between the world of nature and the Word of God is much more than mere semantics; it is an essential feature of the Qurʾānic metaphysics of nature which establishes an inalienable link between various levels of created things by relating them to an All-Encompassing (al-Muḥīṭ) and All-Knowing (al-ʿAlīm) God who is above and beyond all human conceptions. His transcendence can only be defined via negativa, by erasing from the mind any impurity foreign to the pure divinity (ulūhiya). It is through this intense and systematic weeding out of every description, adjective (ṣiffa), and image (ṣūra) suspected of directing our understanding (maʿrifa) or imagination (wahm) to a created object (shayʾ, pl. ashyāʾ) other than God that we can arrive at the Qurʾānic conception of the Creator. And it is through such an understanding of God that we can begin to understand how to teach sciences related to the natural world as branches of knowledge which explore processes and objects of the natural world not in isolation from each other nor as autonomous bodies and processes, but as profound mechanisms operating throughout the physical world, following Divine Commands, and maintaining the existence of things in a certain order, all the time cognizant of their ontological dependence on the Creator.

To think of mountains as filled with His remembrance and to look at the bee flying in obedience to His command and guidance is to construe the subject of these sciences in a manner distinctively different than approaching it in a secular manner. The former is like putting a Qurʾānic lens on the eyes of the heart and understanding things as they really are: ennobled, guided, created for a purpose. Thus restored to their primordial and natural status, processes and objects studied through various natural sciences are no longer severed from the metaphysical realm; rather, they are now perceived as signs (āyāt) of a transcendent Real (al-Ḥaqq), subservient to His Command. There is an irresistible urgency with which the Qurʾān draws our attention to that which lies beyond the physical realities. There is also an ennoblement that accompanies the rhythmic alteration of the day and the night[7] and the regularities in the movement of the sun, which traverses its course by the decree of the All-Knowing; and the moon—[for which God] has made stations [to traverse], till it becomes like an old [and withered] stalk of date-palm.[8] The Qurʾān asserts that commonly observable natural phenomena, such as the orderly movement of the planets, are due to the design of the Creator. It draws the attention of its reciters to the fact that the sun does not catch up to the moon and the night cannot outstrip the day; [rather] each revolve in their own orbit,[9] and asserts that this is not merely the result of certain laws of nature but are “signs” for those who reflect. In fact, the very notion of “Laws of Nature” independent of a Law-Giver is essentially a secular concept because it makes “nature” a law-giver.

Thus seen from the Qurʾānic perspective, sciences which explore various aspects of the natural world actually explore one aspect of the Qurʾānic cosmos. This cosmos is made up of both the physical as well as non-physical beings according to a grand scheme, conceived and executed by the Creator. The ultimate destination of this created cosmos is a secret that God shares with none. However, the Qurʾān insists that humans discover the modalities through which nature works. It draws attention to the regularities, beneficence, and design of various observable natural processes through concrete examples drawn from the world of nature. These processes fall in the domain of various scientific disciplines such as astronomy, physics, mathematics, geology, and botany. When studied in their proper metaphysical context, these also become means to gain knowledge of that which lies beyond them. This Qurʾānic invitation to reflect on the natural processes is repeated with such urgency that the spatiotemporal plane which contains the world of nature seems to form the very background of the Qurʾānic discourse on the metaphysical realities. These intrinsic links facilitate reclassifying contemporary knowledge on a pattern that would create a grid on which to locate various subjects and disciplines and interlock them so that one can teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, as well as sociology and history from the same over-arching epistemic framework.

Human sciences are likewise part of the same grid. History, all history, is a narration of creation, existence, and the moral response to revelation at the human plane. Human volition, limited as it is, forms an important component of the teaching methodology: God has created the humans and the jinn with a certain limited autonomy, and it is this freedom that makes them accountable (mukallaf): they have been granted the ability to choose between Truth and falsehood, between following or defying the Divine Commands and moral and ethical imperatives, but their choices have consequences. In addition to and beyond the details of battles and narrations of lives of kings and descriptive or analytic accounts of systems of governance, which normally form the bulk of curricula as if human history is merely a record of the dynamic and interactive mutual interactions of various nations, it is the collective response of people to the Divine invitation to live in accordance with His commands, following His laws. Thus seen from the Qurʾānic worldview, sciences which systematically study human response to Divine imperatives, need to be placed within the matrix of the Qurʾānic schema and subjects like history, sociology, and social studies require a major reorientation of their content matter, approaches to that content and methodologies of teaching.

Just as the teaching of science from the Qurʾānic worldview requires a fundamental shift in how the natural world is understood, in a similar manner the teaching of languages and arts from the Qurʾānic worldview needs an epistemic correction. The material content of these subjects comes from human expressions given to powerful events taking place in the inner recesses of one’s soul (nafs). The most important level from where these expressions emerge is the spiritual realm, meaning thereby the realm where one feels the combined impact of what the heart feels, what the intellect (ʿaql) thinks, and what one experiences on the psychological and emotional planes of existence. Any expression of these events—whether through poetry, drama, novel, short stories, visual arts, certain forms of music, or other modes of expression of inner joy and pain, love and compassion—is ultimately linked to the gift granted by the Creator to human beings to meaningfully share with others these events of their private lives. He created Man and taught him bayān (Q 55:3-4). Bayān (derived from the root b-y-n) literally means “the space in between two things”; that is, what separates two things so that they become clear and distinct. “Al-bayān is to make something clear, it is more specific than speech” (Rāghib, Mufradāt). Al-Tustarī explains it as knowledge of the Lawful and Unlawful (ḥalāl and ḥarām), as well as “speech” (kalām), which “pertains to the spiritual self (nafs al-rūḥ), the understanding by the intellect (fahm al-ʿaql), the discernment of the heart (faṭn al-qalam), the natural institution (dhihn al-khulq), and the knowledge of the natural self (ʿilm nafs al-ṭabʿ), which God taught to Ādam, upon him peace, and made clear to him (bayyana) to him” (Tafsīr).

There is a hierarchy of modes of expression available to man to express the inner events of the soul. Taken as a whole, this inner world, where we witness the passing of time as if it were droplets of water falling down, is the invisible common stage shared by all humanity, though events on this stage take place in the privacy of our hearts and their formal modes are specific to civilizations. For instance, drama, which traces its origin in Greek civilization, is historically absent from Islamic civilization, where poetry is the supreme form of expression. But once brought into the matrix of the Qurʾānic worldview, one can even teach Shakespeare from the perspective of sacred art. This is particularly true of his plays written after the turn of the century, which are qualitatively different from the twenty-two plays he had written by the end of the sixteenth century.[10]

In more general form, the inner events of the human soul are expressed through literary works. Literature is born in the human heart in conflict with itself. Committed to spoken or written word, it assumes a serial form, progressing by means of letters spoken in air or inscribed —all of which constantly remain under threat of dissolution, forgetting, or physical and destruction by earthquakes, fires and undiscerning hands. What survives of the literary heritage of a people serves as one source of inspiration for successive generations of writers. Thus literature acts as a bridge between succeeding generations and ensures continuity of literary traditions by linking the present with the past. At a higher level, this ability of literature to forge a link between human beings living centuries apart, in different climes and circumstances, also transcends geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries, providing humanity a common ground for sharing diverse human experiences and aspirations.

At yet another level, literature allows human beings to make use of the unique gift of articulation of their hopes and desires, joys and sorrows, feelings and thoughts—all of which we actually experience alone, in the solitary confines of a small cosmos, a universe more dazzling than the one constructed with brilliant stars and constellations. This universe is born within a perishable human body; it goes through periods of infancy, youth, and old age before passing on to another life at the moment when it is released from its narrow and ephemeral confines of flesh and bones. At this level, literature becomes a means to reach out to the vast human family of which the writer is an integral part. It serves as an invisible force capable of lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and compassion, pride and honor, pity and sacrifice inherent in the human spirit.

Islamic tradition offers its own forms of literature, poetry, and arts. It has its own sources of inspiration and its own regional diversity. In certain areas of the Muslim world, one finds a rich blend of Mesopotamian journey epic and Mediterranean epic tradition—the former an un-Virgilian tradition going back to the oldest religious epics where the ultimate aim is to find the hidden source of Grace to which the hero can submit his will and, on the other hand, the incessant quest of the Mediterranean epic tradition to build a lasting monument of man’s profound sense of loss through sequential recall and reconstruction of the tragic vision.

In a global setting, one can perceive teaching literature from a perspective that combines the dramatic encounter of the two world-traditions, offering learners a rich blend of genres and geographical settings that include vast sand deserts of north Africa, steppes of Central Asia, snow-covered plains of western Canada and majestic snow-capped mountains of the Himalayan range where the ice from prehistoric times has yet to melt.


[1]. Conference Book published by King Abdul-Aziz University, Jeddah.

[2]. King Abdul-Aziz University, Jeddah, published the proceedings of the conference in six volumes in 1979.

[3]. Kuala Lumpur: Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, 1978.

[4]. Other committee members included the late Seyyed Ali Ashraf, Dr. Zubair, and Dr. Abdullah Bin Omar Nasseef.

[5]. Q. 36:81.

[6]. The Qurʾān speaks of God as being the Sustainer (Rabb) and Owner (Mālik) of all the Worlds: Q 1:1; 2:131; 5:28; 6:45; 6:162; 7:54, 61, 67, 104, 121; 10:10, 37; 26:16, 23, 47, 77, 98, 109, 127, 145, 164, 180, 192; 27:8, 44; 28:30; 32:2; 37:87, 182; 39:75; 40:64 to 66; 41:9; 43:46; 45:36; 56:80; 59:16; 69:43; 81:29; 83:6.

[7]. Q 2:164.

[8]. Q 33:38–9.

[9]. Q 33:40.

[10]. See Martin Lings’ insightful preface to his The Sacred Art of Shakespeare: To Take Upon Us the Mystery of Things (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998).

New Muslim Evolutionists

After one hundred and seventy years of sound and fury surrounding “Darwin’s dangerous idea”,[1] one would expect everything has been said by all sides and there is no further need to write on the subject. Yet, what Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once said seems to hold true: “Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”[2] “Such people”, for Samuel Johnson, were the skeptics of his time, but in our protean world, “such people” are people of faith who are keeping the Darwin industry afloat.

This time around, the new milking project involves a small group of Muslim evolutionists who are driven by the same old existential necessity that drove their precursors in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: having accepted evolution as received, they need to save their faith from the crushing weight of a Godless universe where life has been evolving on its own for millions of years by inserting the Majestic Hand of Allah Most High in the impregnable schema of evolution. Muslim evolutionists of the previous two centuries invented ingenious ways to do the impossible, they also sought solace in precursorism and brought Muslim scholars like al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868 or 869), al-Bīrūnī (d. ca. 1050)—even Rūmī (d. 1273)—to their aid, claiming they had postulated evolutionism much before Darwin.[3]

The task of the new converts is, however, harder than their forerunners because now there are battle-hardened guards securing the house of evolution—guards who have already crushed similar Christian attempts to “smuggle God in by the back door”.[4] This, however, has not deterred the new adherents; here is how a recent attempt tries to open one such back door. First, there is a clear admission that

in the case of the story of human origins, we have such an explicit narrative, one that is deeply rooted in countless passages throughout the entire Qur’an and numerous Prophetic statements, that there is no choice other than to accept that this is what Allah intended for us to believe. The sheer quantity and diversity of nouns, adjectives, and verbs used simply makes any linguistic re-interpretation (or taʾwīl) implausible. Meanwhile, attempts to describe the entire account as symbolic or allegorical (takhyīl) may be tempting for some contemporary Muslim scientists, but it leads to logically incoherent theological ramifications and contradicts the Qur’an’s own emphasis that these accounts are literally true narratives (3:62). Developing an epistemologically sound foundation upon which both scriptural and scientific truths work in concert is a far more fruitful endeavor.[5]

And then an attempt is made to install a fancy door in the brick wall of evolution through verbal gymnastics:

Setting aside debates about their rational plausibility or probability, there is nothing in Islamic scripture that explicitly negates the concepts of abiogenesis, genetic mutation and diversification, natural selection, the existence of hominid species, or a common ancestor for all biological life on earth, excluding only the descendants of Adam. Moreover, one can certainly imagine a scenario wherein hominid species were gradually evolving on earth, and right at the point when evolutionists would predict the emergence of modern humans, God miraculously inserted the children of Adam. Let us suppose that these ‘Adamic species’ are biologically, anatomically, physiologically, and genetically indistinguishable from the would-be species one would have predicted to have emerged based on the preceding population of species in evolutionary history. They appear to occupy the exact same position on the phylogenetic tree.[6]

Just imagine, and right at the point… What a trick God played with humanity!

Let us note that their Adamic (or human) exceptionalism is no different from what certain Christian groups have already attempted.[7] Recent Muslim attempts, therefore, do not even produce a new category of theistic evolution; all that these new Muslim evolutionists are trying to do is to “Islamize” evolution, just as Christians had attempted to baptize it.

Yet, this is how it had to be; it was foretold:

Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī, Allah be pleased with him, said, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said,

“You will most certainly follow the ways of those who came before you, handspan by handspan, arm’s length by arm’s length, so much so that if they entered a lizard’s hole, you would follow them.”
We said, “O Messenger of Allah, [Do you mean] the Jews and the Christians?”
He said, “Who else?”

Bukhārī, al-Iʿtiṣām bi-l-kitāb wa-l-Sunnah (3456)
Muslim, K. al-ʿIlm, Itibāʿ sunan al-yahūd wa-l-naṣāra (2669)

The recent converts to evolution have more tools at their disposal, but no matter how sophisticated the verbal acrobatics become, “when boiled down to its scientific content…theistic evolution is no different from atheistic evolution, treating only undirected natural processes in the origin and development of life.”[8] Furthermore, such an attempt creates the same theological problems for Muslim evolutionists as it did for the Christians, because “if God purposefully created life through Darwinian means, then God’s purpose was to make it seem as though life was created without purpose. Within theistic evolution, God is a master of stealth who constantly eludes our best efforts to detect him empirically.”[9]

The claim that “there is nothing in Islamic scripture that explicitly negates the concepts of abiogenesis, genetic mutation and diversification, natural selection” is absurd, because every term in this mouthful (“abiogenesis, genetic mutation and diversification, natural selection”)—coming as it does from within the evolutionary narrative that does not leave any room for God—contradicts central teachings of the Qur’an on the origin and creation of all forms of life on earth. Would a creature arising from random natural selection know how to pray and glorify the Creator? Do you not see that Allah is glorified by whosoever is in the heavens and on the earth, and by the birds spreading their wings? Each indeed knows its prayer and its glorification, and God knows that which they do (Q 24:41). Indeed, there is no choice other than to accept that all “species” were created complete, with specific purposes and functions, within a grand scheme of creation of life on earth—a scheme that has a high degree of interrelation between all that exists: Do they not look at the camels, how they are created? (Q 88:17) Have they not seen the birds above them spreading out and folding their wings? No one holds them except the Most Merciful; Indeed, He watches over all things (Q 67:19).

Certain commonality among living beings is no argument for evolution, such commonality is necessary because all existing entities share a common living space (planet earth). But this commonality cannot be reduced to a common soup from which life evolved randomly. This cannot be done without eliminating the Creator Who fashioned, apportioned, and created all that exists and Who continues to sustain all that exists.

Theistic evolution is an oxymoron; all versions of Darwinian evolution are evolution by other names and they do not admit God. On the other hand, belief in a Creator does not admit an ad hoc universal common ancestor and random natural selection and hence “never the twain shall meet.”

II

Perhaps the new Muslim evolutionists can learn a thing or two from the bee. Writing at the dawn of the sixth Islamic century, Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī drew attention to the hexagonal structure of the beehive in a short treatise on the Qur’ān, Jawāhir al-Qurʾān (The Jewels of the Qurʾān). In the twelfth chapter, entitle “The Secrets of the Sūra of the Opening and how it comprises eight of the ten valuables of the Qur’ān” he invites the reader to

Look at the bee and the innumerable wonders of its gathering of honey and [producing] beeswax. We would like to make you cognizant of the geometry of its hive. It is built on the figure of the hexagon (al-musadass) in order that space may not be narrow for its inhabitants who crowd in one place in great numbers. Had [the individual beehive cell] been built as a circle, [these cells would not be contiguous], and there would remain space between individual cells. [Had they been built as] squares, they would be contiguous to one another, [but squares are not compatible with] the shape of the bee [itself], which is inclined to roundness, so there would remain empty space inside the hive cell. Likewise for all other shapes.

The hexagonal shape is the only geometrical shape that allows the bees to gather the maximum amount of honey inside the individual hive cells, using the least amount of bees’ wax; it is also the strongest possible structure, because individual hexagons can be contiguously added to the hive. “So consider, then, how Allah has guided the bee to the properties of this [hexagonal] shape. This is [merely one] example [from the countless examples] of the wonders of Allah’s creation and His Kindness and Mercy to His creation, for the lowest constitutes an evidence of the highest.”

By the time al-Ghazālī wrote The Jewels, which would be cherished by generations of scholars for centuries to come, the wisdom of the bee was already well-known to Muslim scientists—for whom the Qur’an was neither a Book wrapped in fine cloth and placed on the highest shelf of the home, nor a Book in which they sought to discover scientific theories of Greek scientists and philosophers; rather it was for them a Book of guidance, drawing their attention from the manifest to the hidden and from the observable signs (āyāt) to the Creator of the signs. They knew the bee had been guided through Divine revelation by the One who created it in its complete form: And thy Sustainer revealed to the bee: make for thyself dwellings in mountains and in trees, and in what [men] construct and then eat of all manner of fruit, and follow humbly the paths ordained for thee by thy Sustainer; and lo, there comes from within these [bees] a drink of many hues in which there is cure for people; verily, in this is a sign for those who reflect (Q 16: 68-69).

The new Muslim evolutionists can easily find out that hive populations range from thirty to sixty thousand bees. Of these the vast majority are worker bees, who do virtually all the work of the hive—from building the honeycomb and nursing the infant brood, to foraging for nectar, water and pollen, and storing honey. Normally, a worker bee travels eight hundred kilometers over the course of her life, wearing out her wings in a mere six weeks at the height of her frenzied nectar gathering during spring, summer, and early autumn when plants are in full nectar-laden bloom, and producing less than half a ml of honey. If a worker bee is born toward the end of summer, however, it can survive for a whole year, even over the winter months, spending most of its time inside the hive, clustered in a heat-conserving ball around the queen where the temperature is steadied by the metabolization of the bees themselves at between 33.33 and 35o C. Muslim scientists of the pre-modern era had a rough estimate, though not the exact figure, of how many kilometers bees must fly back and forth from flowers to the hive to produce a kilogram of honey—a figure that we now know to be approximately 1,075,000 kilometers.

Computer-aided models for determining optimal structures for storing the maximum amount of honey using the least amount of beeswax lead one to none other than those actually constructed by bees. Furthermore, we calculate that, for maximum strength, these hexagonal structures should connect to each other at a very precise apex angle of 70.529o—and all species of bees construct their beehives to this exact specification, all over the world.

We now know many aspects of the remarkable chemistry involved in the making of the honey—the delicious syrup in which there is cure for humanity, as the creator of the bees tells us in the Qur’an. The tiny drop of nectar sucked by the bee contains sucrose, fructose, and water. While foraging, the bee secrets invertase, a digestive enzyme, that breaks down the sucrose in the nectar into two simpler sugars, fructose and glucose. When she arrives at the hive, she is met by a younger hive bee who receives the nectar from her, accepting it into her own mouth. Relieved, the foraging bee returns to the field to seek new flowers, and if she finds a particularly rich source of nectar, she gives directions to other bees of the hive by means of a dance wherein are signals and signs telling fellow foraging bees the direction, the distance, and the angle of the sun in relation to the location of the nectar-bearing flowers. A round dance indicates a nearby food source, a waggle dance means the food is further away, the duration of the dance precisely marks the distance and the direction indicates the orientation toward the sun.

While the foraging bees are going back and forth between the hive and the flowers, the hive bee inside the hive is squeezing the nectar from her mouth into her own honey stomach and back again, adding enzymes. In the process she also exposes the nectar to air in order to evaporate its excess water, eventually reducing its water content from 80 to less than 20 percent so that airborne yeasts do not sour the nectar through fermentation.

As the hexagonal cells of the comb fill with drops of nectar, the bees inside the hive split into groups. One group fans fresh air into the hive by flapping their double sets of wings 11,400 times a minute, the other directs damp, moisture-laden air out. This coordinated fanning—the buzz of the hive—is low and mild when the bees are busy and content, higher and louder when they are threatened or agitated.

After a few days, the bees cap the fully ripened honey with a thin layer of beeswax. Perfectly sealed, it remains there until needed by the bees for food or harvested by the apiarist.

All of these details have become common scientific knowledge in our time, yet, instead of drawing attention to the marvelous creation of the bee, this knowledge obscures—even renders His existence superfluous for the evolutionists who claim that the bee is a product of random natural selection, without being able to account for the knowledge bees have about their dwelling place. Perhaps a clever evolutionist can postulate that the bees held a global conference on the geometry of beehives! But then such a claim would necessitate proof, such as fossil record of a square or a circular beehive; no one has ever produced such a record to prove that the bees had learned the economy of their hexagonal hives after an evolutionary exploration of other shapes.

A priori commitment to evolution leads new Muslim converts to the same old blind alleys that have been traversed by previous theistic evolutionists. No matter how hard they try, evolution remains evolution by any name and it does not admit God: there is no such thing as theistic evolution; it is simply a play on words. While both sides make statements of belief, the custodians of the house of evolution do not admit that their basic claim is a statement of belief; rather, they claim it to be a scientific fact. Yet, it is a claim underwritten by science itself through an invalid syllogism:

Evolution is a scientific explanation of life forms on earth.
Science provides true explanations.
Evolution is a true explanation.

Modern science has assumed magisterial power. Believers face an uphill task. They have done everything that is reasonably possible to deflate evolutionism, but Darwin’s black box[10] has failed to blast the house of evolution because it sits on a foundation that supports all other houses of worship of a Godless modernity; those who live in this house will never allow it to fall, because thereafter they will be homeless. It is this existential struggle that does not let them believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their science!

Tired of arguing ad nauseam, the two sides have only one choice: walk away gracefully. Yet, they continue to engage in previously unimaginable spaces.


[1] The title of the 1995 book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster.

[2] James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, Project Gutenberg’s Life of Johnson, Vol. 1, by Boswell, ed. Birkbeck Hill, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8918/pg8918.txt, p. 444.

[3] See, for instance, Muzaffar Iqbal, “Darwin’s Shadow: Context and Reception in the Muslim World”, Islamic Sciences Vol. 7 (Summer 2009), No. 1, pp. 9-50; https://jis.cis-ca.org/origins.html (accessed January 25, 2022).

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Longman, 1986), p. 316.

[5] Yasir Qadhi and Nazir Khan, “Human Origins-Theological Conclusions and Empirical Limitations”, Yaqeen Institute paper in two parts (https://yaqeeninstitute.ca/read/paper/human-origins-part-1-theological-conclusions-and-empirical-limitations) and (https://yaqeeninstitute.ca/read/paper/human-origins-part-2-evolution-and-the-failures-of-naturalism), p. 11, accessed November 24, 2021, emphasis added.

[6] Ibid, p. 12; emphasis added.

[7] See the extensive 2014 survey of Christian positions on historical Adam vs. evolution at https://cdn.ymaws.com/network.asa3.org/resource/dynamic/forums/20150829_143039_10526.pdf, accessed January 25, 2022. Also see S. Joshua Swamidass, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021); and Gerald L. Hiestand (Gen. Ed.), Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology, Essays on the Historical Adam, Vol. 5.2 (2018).

[8] William Dembski, “What Every Theologian Should Know About Creation, Evolution & Design”, in Unapologetic Apologetics, eds. William Dembski & Jay Wesley Richards (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 228.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cf. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, New York: Free Press, 1996.

Why Muslims, especially Muslim teachers, should get vaccinated against precursorism

The virus called precursorism started to spread among Muslims in the nineteenth century. Islam and Muslims were accused of being anti-science, backward, lacking social and political institutions of the kind developed by Europe. In response, and in order to defend their faith, Muslims sought antecedents of European scientific discoveries, inventions—even of institutions, philosophies, and ideas—in their “Golden Age”. These early responses included claims such as it was not Darwin, but al-Bīrūnī (973–ca.1050) who first postulated Evolution, it was not Copernicus (1473–1543) but al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), who should be credited with Heliocentrism. It was not Europe that gave women the right to own property, it is Islam that first granted such rights. And the list goes on. The common element in all such claims being, “We have done it before you!”

In the mid-1980s, an extreme variant of this virus started to spread in the Middle East and the subcontinent. This variant is called precursoritis. Those infected by this variant claimed that all scientific discoveries are, in fact, mentioned in the Qur’an. They found the Big Bang, theory of relativity, electricity, trains, rockets, even space shuttles mentioned in the Qur’an. Books, articles, and pamphlets cited Qur’anic verses which “proved” the existence of modern scientific discoveries related to oceans, mountains, and deep space.

Then came the internet and the precursorism became a global virus. At present, precursorism is detectable in all parts of the Muslim world, as well as in the Muslim diaspora living in Europe and North America. The virus attacks people in all professions, but it is rampant among teachers, who can now download classroom-ready material as their instant porridge receives an unhealthy dose of microwaves in a machine invented by an American engineer. Such material is also welcomed by parents and school administrators who can proudly walk upright with a banner on their forehead reading: “we have done it before them!”

In addition to human beings, precursorism has also infected institutions, community organizations, charities, even mosques. The example below, taken from a 2022 calendar that is making rounds on social media, was produced by a religious organization.

  • The slick image next to the caption creates the illusion of Muslim inventions being behind the development of the modern plane and the text below the photograph asserts that “the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly was Abbas Ibn Firnas, who in the 9th century designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba in Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back.”
  • The text goes on to claim that “his designs would undoubtedly have been an inspiration for famed Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci’s hundreds of years later”.

Critical Analysis

  • Notice the font size of “Muslim Inventions” and “Modern World”; same font size attracts attention and subliminally reinforces the message: Muslim inventions shaped the modern world.
  • Other problems: Ibn Firnas is said to be the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly. This information about Ibn Firnas (ca 809–887) is taken from Wikipedia, but Wikipedia article on Ibn Firnas has no flying machine!
  • Wikipedia is not an authentic source; it contains fake information along with genuine and one has to know how to differentiate between the two. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia article does not mention Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Furthermore, there is no connection between a human being attaching wings to his body and an engineer designing a plane.
  • Even if some poetic license is granted for this flight of fancy, the claim that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) “would undoubtedly have been” inspired by Ibn Firnas about whom he supposedly knew through some mysterious intermediary, who conveyed to him al-Maqqari’s text, is simply absurd because Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) died before al-Maqqari (1577-1632) was even born!
  • Note also that the text starts off by mentioning Ibn Firnas (the son of Firnas), but then replaces it with Firnas (meaning the father). This shows that the person who is making such a huge claim about Muslim history is not even capable of differentiating between the father and the son and is unthinkingly copying the Wikipedia text.
The main reason for the spread of the precursorism virus

Such counterfeits are the direct result of a low self-esteem, which, in turn, is the product of colonization. Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) identified the main reason for low self-esteem and inferiority complex of the conquered nations in the twenty-third section (faṣl) of the second chapter of his insightful Muqaddima, tellingly entitled, “The conquered always want to imitate the conqueror in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and in all his other conditions and customs… The reason for this,” Ibn Khaldūn said,

is that the conquered is [already] convinced of the superiority of the one who has conquered him and to whom he is [now] subservient, either because he considers him perfect or erroneously assumes that his subservience is not the outcome of his material and physical defeat, but due to the perfection of the conqueror. Once this erroneous assumption fixes itself in the soul, it becomes a firm belief. Such a person is then drawn to the conqueror, adopts his manners and assimilates in him…The conquered can always be seen to assimilate themselves in the conquerors in the use and style of dress, mounts, and weapons—indeed, in everything… This goes to such an extent that a nation dominated by another neighboring nation will exhibit a great deal of imitative behavior…they even draw pictures on the walls [like those of the conquerors] and put them in their buildings and houses [just as the conquerors do]…. An intelligent observer concludes from this that [this imitation] is a sign of dominance of the others.

Unlike fashion, science and technology cannot be imitated, hence the only recourse left for infected Muslims is to psychologically placate their self-inflicted sense of inferiority by claiming to have invented and discovered all that has been invented and discovered by their European colonizers hundreds of years before them. In their obsession, infected Muslims are not even concerned about making claims that undermine their faith. For instance, they claim that Darwin (1809–1882) took his idea of evolution from al-Jāḥiẓ (776-868), al-Bīrūnī (973-ca. 1050), or Rūmī (1207-1273)! We even have respectable scholars falling in the same trap; one such scholar claimed that Darwin knew Arabic and he took his ideas from Muslims!

The extreme variant

The extreme variant of the virus, called precursoritis, appeared in the mid-1970s when a French surgeon employed by the Saudi royalty published The Bible, the Quran and Science (1976). With this book, Maurice Bucaille became the forerunner of those who attempt to prove the veracity of the Qur’an by modern science. He played on the inferiority complex of the Saudi royalty by a double claim: “it is impossible not to admit the existence of scientific errors in the Bible…and the Quran most definitely did not contain a single proposition at variance with the most firmly established modern knowledge.”

It was not too long after the publication of Bucaille’s book that the Saudis invited Keith Leon Moore (1925- 2019), professor in the Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Surgery, University of Toronto, to the seventh annual gathering of the Saudi Medical Meeting, held in 1982 in Damman. He read a translation of Q 23:12-14, “We have created man from the essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place, then We made that drop into a clinging form, and made the form into a lump of flesh, and We made the lump into bones, and We clothed these bones with flesh, and We made him into other forms . . .” and then took out plasticine from his pocket, shaped it to resemble an embryo at 28 days, dug his teeth into it, and showed the chewed plasticine to the gathering, claiming it was an exact copy of the embryo, with his teeth marks resembling the embryo’s somites (the vertebral column and musculature).

“Allahu Akbar!” shouted the Saudis gathered around the table, the elation filled the room, the news reached the King, and led to the establishment of the “Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah”. This was in 1983. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1924–1988), Pakistani military dictator who was very close to the Saudi royalty, offered to hold the first international conference on the subject in Islamabad. Over 200 Muslim scientists and scholars gathered in Islamabad in 1987 and, among other subjects, read papers on discovering the speed of light from the verses of the Qur’an.

The Saudis published Moore’s illustrated study, Human Development as Described in the Quran and Sunnah and the field started to grow exponentially. In subsequent conferences of the Commission, precursorism has discovered numerous geological theories, quantum mechanics, infrared, sound waves, genetics, embryology, laser, electricity, and many other scientific discoveries in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

However, after 9/11, the US Treasury Department declared Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, the General Secretary of the Commission, “spiritual advisors” of Osama bin Laden—whatever that means—and designated him as “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”. He was promptly removed from his post in the Commission, but the Commission continued to hold annual conferences in various countries. Western scientists associated with the Commission started to dissociate themselves, claiming they were duped.

What’s wrong with precursorism?
  • It is simply immoral to claim credit for what one has not done, but to claim credit for Islam or in the name of Islam is even worse than individual claims.
  • There are two kinds of Muslims who make such false claims: those who make them “honestly” (that is, not knowing that they are making false claims) and those who know that they are perpetuating falsehood; the former suffer from compound ignorance (that is, they do not know that they do not know), the latter are outright dishonest; both are super spreaders of falsehood.
  • Precursorism produces scorn and lowers the esteem of Muslims in the eyes of non-Muslims. Those who show the candle to the sun cannot expect to gain respect from the onlookers.
  • It tarnishes the actual, real, and substantial contributions of Muslim scientists. It is like mixing gold with false gold; this lowers the overall value of gold that was in hand before contamination. For example, Muslim contributions to mathematics were substantial in many respects, but the producers of counterfeits have no clue of the real value of these contributions.
  • Because most of the counterfeits are related to science and technology, it leads to scientism, which is an excessive faith in science and application of scientific methods and techniques to human behavior, ethics, society, culture, even to religion.
  • Scientism leads to reductionism: all human knowledge is reducible to the methods of the natural sciences. It also creates an epistemological hierarchy wherein “science” is placed at the highest point and all other disciplines are below it.
Why should Muslim teachers be vaccinated?

All Muslims should be vaccinated against Precursorism, but Muslim teachers need to do this urgently because

  • They influence young minds who look up to them as source of authentic knowledge as well as role models. This is a sacred trust and its violation leads to spread of ignorance, rather than knowledge.
  • Sooner or later, young students who receive falsehood from their Muslim teachers find out that what they have been taught is not true; this undermines their confidence in Islamic schools, even shakes their faith. If my teachers have been teaching me falsehood in this matter, imagine what else is false in their teachings!
  • Muslim teachers should be the first to turn the tide against this wide-spread infection, because they have direct access to the future leaders of the Muslim communities. If they are able to open windows to the authentic knowledge, they will sow the seeds of a future sea-change. If they perpetuate downloaded falsehoods, they will be culprits whose name no one would like to remember. The responsibility they carry is sacred; it should not be violated.
What and where is the vaccine?

The vaccine against precursorism is authentic knowledge. Authentic knowledge is not downloadable. It is acquired. The process of acquisition of knowledge is well-known in the Islamic tradition. There are no short cuts.

Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (1732-91)

  • Stephan Reichmuth. The World of Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (1732-91): Life, Networks and Writings (Cambridge: The E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust)

An impressive study on the life and work of one of the last Muslim scholars to have lived in a world which was about to disappear in a catastrophic encounter with the Western civilization. Although marred by an unusual transliteration scheme and Teutonic English (perhaps due to the fact that author’s native language is German), typographical errors, shreds of Christology (Abū Bakr b. ʿAbdallāh al-ʿAydarūs is called the “patron saint of Aden”, 36), and occasional slips in translation of technical terms (ibāda is translated as “an obligatory act”, 313), the work is still important because of the paucity of material about this unique scholar.

Divided into five chapters and printed on glossy paper, this 2009 publication neatly fits the objectives of the Gibb Memorial Trust, a charity “founded in 1902 by the wife of a Glaswegian wine merchant to commemorate the death at the age of 45 of her son Elias John Wilkinson Gibb,” who, according to the description on the website, “devoted his life to researching the history, literature, philosophy and religion of the Turks, Persians and Arabs.”

The first chapter, “From India to Cairo: Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī’s Life and Times,” sets the stage for the entire work, describing al-Zabīdī’s life arc, his teachers, his travels, and his times. It takes the reader from his place of birth, Bilgram, India, to a chaotic Cairo at the time of his sudden death in Shaʿbān 1205/April 1791. His birth “within the first ten days of God’s month Muḥarram in 1145 [that is, between 24 June and 3 July 1732]” (2), his early years in India, and his teachers and family are masterfully researched, as is the historical situation of India at the time. He left India for the Ḥijāz nine years after the plunder of Delhi in 1152/1739 by Nādir Shah and his troops, “presumably during the season of the east-bound winds of the dry monsoon (October-April) [1162/1748-9], at an age of about sixteen” (13).

Al-Zabīdī’s departure from India took place under the shadow of the first Carnatic War (1740-48), just when the Mughal Empire was about to disintegrate and the British and French imperial designs for India were in their first stage. He was never to return to his place of birth; rather, he preferred to be known as al-Zabīdī after the ancient town of Zabīd in the fertile valley of the Tihāma, Yemen, where he spent the most important years of his life (1749-54), making frequent and extended visits to the Ḥijāz. The last and the longest of the three sections of this chapter (39-80) describes al-Zabīdī’s life in Cairo (1167/1754-1205/1791), where he established himself as a leading scholar and where he completed his celebrated works, including his lexicon, Tāj al-ʿarūs, begun around 1174/1760 and finished fourteen years later, and Itḥāf al-sāda al-muttaqīn, his extensive commentary on al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ, begun in 1190/1776 and finished in 1201/1787, just four years before his death. Reichmuth’s reconstruction of this extraordinary life remains a patchwork of information extracted from source material; it is an abstract and impersonal account which fails to shed any light on his days as they were lived. The author misconstrues erotic motifs in sufi poetry (“The strongly erotical colouring of the poetry produced by the Sufis and scholars of the Hijaz in this period appears typical for this time.” 37) and inaccurately depicts al-Zabīdī as a shrewd businessman who was as interested in promoting his works as he was in collecting pocket watches (71-73). But how did he write those marvelous, extensive works if he was so much interested in collecting wealth? What was the daily rhythm of his household? How could he pack so much into his days? Such aspects of Zabīdī’s life remain unexplored in this study.

“Zabīdī’s Writings,” the second chapter of the book, provides a useful alphabetical list of 225 works of Zabīdī “based on extant manuscripts and prints and on the different lists and references which were given by Zabīdī and others” with the claim that “it has been attempted here to go beyond what has been done thus far by Brockelmann, Šallāš, Koçak, Lārī, and others and to check and describe a large number of the available texts” (98). In addition, Reichmuth includes a list of 36 poems and 34 Ijāzāt extant in publication or manuscript form or attested as such by a previous study by Kattānī. This is, indeed, the most comprehensive list of Zabīdī’s writings to date, although further works may yet be found. No effort has been made to analyze these works in this chapter, although some general features of his works are mentioned along with remarks on the large publication enterprise which he seemed to have established in Cairo.

The lengthy third chapter, “Personal Network and Sentimental Memory: Zabīdī’s Autobiographical Lexicon (Muʿjam)” (149-222), provides a description and analysis of a unique work by Zabīdī which he himself had described as a “special lexicon mentioning those of my šayxs and fathers from whom I received the sciences and the different sorts of knowledge” (149). Colored maps and tables provide quick graphic representation of the content of the work which defies categorization as it fuses various genres. Reichmuth indicates nine established genres (154-160) which can be found in the Muʿjam, although the list is not exhaustive. He rightfully notes that the Muʿjam “is a unique document of the personal network of an eighteenth-century Islamic scholar as described by himself” (160).

Chapters four and five are the best part of the book: the former is devoted to a study of Zabīdī’s lexicon, Tāj al-ʿarūs (The Bridal Crown), the latter to Itḥāf al-sāda al-muttaqīn (The Gift of the God-Fearing Sayyids). Here Reichmuth excels in providing a deeper understanding of these works, despite the inauspicious beginning to chapter four detailing the reaction of a journalist reporting on the conference held to celebrate the publication of the new forty-volume edition of the Tāj in 2002. The chapter is organized under three broad headings, each containing several subsections. The first heading, “The Struggle for authorship: Aims and sources of the Tāj,” begins with a wonderful insight into the title of the work:

[the Bridal Crown] might be regarded as a rather bold metaphor. Zabīdī might have chosen the “Bridal Crown” (Tāj al-ʿarūs) in imitation of the famous Sufi Ibn ʿAṭāʾ [Allah] al-Sikandarī (d. 709/1309) who had used it for a collection of his sermons. The second part of the rhymed title, “from the Gems of <The Ocean>” (min jawāhir <al-Qāmūs>) comes in more smoothly. The gems (jawāhir) which he brought to light from the ocean (qāmūs) of the Arabic language include a lasting compliment to the wealth of his reference text, Fīrūzābādī (d. 817/1414), al-Qāmūs al-muḥīṭ. The “crown” may be also associated with one of the most revered Arabic dictionaries, Jawharī (d. ca. 400/1009), Tāj al-lugha wa-ṣiḥāḥ al-ʿarabiyya; another major source text of Zabīdī’s commentary. The adopted title of ‘bride’ would seem to serve as a common image of beauty and desire, like those which decorate the headings of two of his further writings.[1] In addition, a more private allusion was also quite possibly intended, as the author married shortly after he had finished the first volume of the Tāj and had launched it with a lavish ceremony in 1181/1767. If this is viewed together with Zabīdī’s strong attachment to his wife, a bond clearly evident from his elegies on her death, it becomes reasonable to infer the title as a hidden dedication to her. (227)

Reichmuth situates Tāj within the tradition of Arabic lexicons, identifies its sources, compares certain aspects of Zabīdī’s work with those of its parent lexicon (Fayrūzābādī’s al-Qāmūs al-muḥīṭ) as well as with others, such as Jawharī’s Ṣiḥāḥ, Azharī’s Tahdhīb, and Ibn Manẓūr’s Lisān, and provides statistical data which shows the comprehensiveness of Tāj, which contains 11,978 roots compared to 9,273 of Lisān and 5,618 of Ṣiḥāḥ (237). Zabīdī himself hoped that his work would supersede others: “God willing, its use will be great because of what it contains. Its content will leave no need of any other [dictionary]; rather will every work else be in need of it. […] The unification of all these sources and topics has been achieved in this collection which has no taken the position of the [major] source and those others that of [mere] branches” (237).

The second section, “The Promise of Arabic,” seems a slight digression in a chapter devoted to the study of Zabīdī’s lexicon, but Reichmuth keeps it narrowly focused as he brings out specific examples from the Tāj and explores various of Zabīdī’s linguistic concerns in six appropriately named subsections: “Arabic: a prophetic legacy in a post-caliphal age”; “Linguistic framework”; “Semantic wealth of the Arabic language”; “Majāz and language development”; “Etymology, loans and the adaptive qualities of Arabic”; and “Reclaiming the scientific potential of Arabic”. The third section of the chapter, “The Islamic World of the Tāj al-ʿArūs”, delves into the geographical and cultural landscape of the Tāj. Here Reichmuth explores Zabīdī’s sources as well as additions which he made to the repertoire of regions, cities, town, peoples and their origins, local histories, biographies of scholars, hadith scholars, poets, and Sufis. He singles out certain entries in Zabīdī’s lexicon for further elaboration (Arabia, Anṭākiya, Egypt, Constantinople, Iṣfahān, India, Maghrib and Andalus, and Sahara and Subsaharan Africa).

The chapter on the Itḥāf begins with preliminary remarks on al-Ghazālī’s magnum opus, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, and then identifies four features of al-Zabīdī’s commentary on it “as threads running th[r]ough Zabīdī’s whole oeuvre. If taken together with his crowning efforts in the fields of philology and lexicography and also with his merger of the different strands of Sufi transmission, they add up to a quite specific anthropological perspective which focuses on the dignity of the man and on his unique position in the cosmos which he has been endowed with by his Creator” (271). The four features which Reichmuth identifies are: “Fusion of Knowledge”; “Prophetic Piety and Islamic Historicism”; “Man and his Dignity as Vicegerent of God: Knowledge and Experience”; and “Theodicy and the Manifestation of God’s Wisdom in Nature and Society”. A large section is devoted to the sources and references used by Zabīdī, listing 106 works from the second through sixth centuries of Islam and nine additional works which have not been identified. The richness of material provided by al-Zabīdī in his commentary is pointed out with specific examples along with Reichmuth’s commentary. “15 different definitions of knowledge (ʿilm) are presented by Zabīdī, with statements and opinions from several theologians and philosophers like Faxr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, al-Sayyid al-Šarīf (al-Jurjānī) and al-Āmidī. He criticizes many circular definitions which presuppose a naïve congruence between knowledge and reality and which cannot distinguish between false and correct impressions and opinions” (314).

Given the paucity of studies on al-Zabīdī, this is a most welcome addition and one hopes that a second edition will correct the numerous spelling errors, remove glaring translation mistakes, and employ the services of a thorough copyeditor so that work can find its rightful place among studies of the luminaries of Islamic intellectual tradition.


[1] al-ʿArāʾis al-majluwwa and al-ʿArūs al-majliyya.

First published in Islam & Science, Vol. 9 (Winter 2011) No. 2

Western Academia and the Qur’an: Some Enduring Prejudices

In the recent flowering of literature on the Qur’an in the West, Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (EQ) stands out: it is the first and so far the only multi-volume reference work on the Qur’an in English; it is the most ambitious and extensive project Western academia has undertaken on the Qur’an; it is massive (some 2,919 pages in five volumes, with an additional 860 pages of five indices in the sixth volume); it took thirteen years to complete; and it makes the claim of providing “rigorous, academic scholarship on the Qur’an… scholarship that grows from a plurality of perspectives and presuppositions”. (EQ 1, p.ix)

As a more extensive examination of certain individual entries was undertaken in a previous review of EQ (Journal of Qur’anic Research and Studies, vol. 3, issue 5, pp.5-45); the present review will primarily explore the following aspects of EQ:

I. The fundamental premise and claims which have shaped the overall structure of this six-volume work;
II. Source material from which its content is drawn;
III. Intellectual ancestry

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For the Love of the Prophet

When he lived among men and walked in the inhospitable streets of Makkah, they called him a liar, a soothsayer, a poet, a man possessed. When he invited them to accept the Message revealed to him, they called him a forger. When he warned them of the consequences of their denial and arrogance, they taunted him: “Bring on to us that which you promise, so that we know you speak truth”. They ridiculed him, called him names, tortured those who believed in his message, and finally drove him out of the sanctified city where his ancestors had lived for centuries. Then the One Who had sent him to all humanity with a final message helped him. He was invited to an oasis between the tracts of two lava hills where people flocked to him, loved and respected him, and where he lived among men and women who held him dearer than all else, men and women who were ready to sacrifice everything they had for his sake. “May my father and mother be thy ransom, O Messenger of Allah,” they would habitually say. But he demanded nothing for himself; only fidelity to the message of the uncompromising Unicity of the One Who had shaped them in their mother’s wombs and Who had provided sustenance for their lives and Who would resurrect them on the appointed day, and ask them how they had spent their fixed duration on this earth.

This is all he asked: an uncompromising fidelity to the One Who had sent him with the Book and Wisdom to purify them and lead them to a straight path filled with light, that he may give them an inkling of the bliss that awaits those who follow it and to warn those who wish instead to follow their own caprice. That is all.

That is all he was to do in his life of sixty-three years, a life filled with intense devotion and prayers—a life whose every moment was filled with remembrance of the Supreme and All- Mighty, Who had charged him with a task so heavy that it broke his back and filled him with a humility the like of which has never been experienced by any mortal.

And one day, when he was made victorious and had returned to his beloved city to once again circumvent the House built by two of his ancestors upon the express command of the Owner of the House Who had desired to place on Earth a Sanctified abode so that men, women, and children could come from far and near seeking His pleasure, he told the multitude gathered around him that he held no grudge against them, that all their crimes of the Jahiliyyah, all their disdainful acts of torture, oppression, and insults had been forgiven.

And when he was brought back a second time to the Sanctified House and its blessed environs, he asked the multitude whether or not he had conveyed the message and when the whole congregation affirmed, he raised his finger toward the sky and said, “Be my witness, O Allah, be my witness”. Indeed, not only did he convey the message but he also lived it, literally, so that men and women and children could see what it means to live Islam.

And having conveyed His message, he chose the company of the One Who had sent him with the most Noble Message which is available to all humanity in the form of a protected Book— which cannot be destroyed or distorted—and in the form of his example which he left behind for all to see. He knew, however, that not everyone would follow it; he also knew it was not in his power to make all human beings accept the message of the One Who gave humans a choice between living a life of sanctity, uprightness, and full of consciousness of their Creator and thus enter an everlasting bliss and choosing otherwise. And that is why he said “my example is like the example of abundant rain which falls from the sky: some of it falls on soil which uses it and yields abundant produce, while some of it falls on soil which merely holds it for others and does not use it; and some of it falls on rocky terrain which neither uses it nor holds it for others to use.” Such is the nature of humankind.

And now he resides in His ever-lasting Mercy, far and above the reach of men. And little men attempt to ridicule him by drawing caricatures and cartoons and they think they can insult him while he remains above and beyond the reach of all men! And there are others to whom the love of profit is dearer than the love of the Prophet and who harvest a rich crop of dollars from the protests that follow the publication of cartoons—but what a bitter harvest they reap! And then there are those who are confounded by the uproar when the hearts of the believers are rent asunder with pain and suffering and they ask in astonishment: why all this fuss? And then there are those who silently pray in the dead of the night for these terrible times to come to an end. And then there are those who see the coming of the Hour when each soul will stand before a Just Ruler, with a record containing all deeds, a record hanging from their necks, omitting nothing, and on that day they will truly be astounded. But alas, then there will be no return, no way to come back to this temporary abode where they would wish to erase the deeds committed in the terrible recesses of their caprice.

Such is our lot. Such is our condition, at this time when time itself is drawing to an end.

February 24, 2006

OIC = O I See

They came, they spoke the lines put into their mouths, and they left. All of them, in their tailormade suits and uniforms, speaking a babble of empty words, without sound and fury, meaning nothing. More worthless than the pieces of paper on which they had been written by scribes in service. The words uttered at Putrajaya this week were recorded and simultaneously translated into three languages and they would go into the annals of history of infamy as testimonies of shame and humiliation.

The rhetoric is, of course, not new; only some of those who gathered at this new dream capital of Dr. M were new to the game. But there were many who have made OIC a career, and they spoke with the black humor of the one who knows the joke inside out. Their most crisp refrain was: “O, I see.” Anytime someone said something that needed a thoughtless response, they would say, “O I see.” And repeated ad nauseam, this phrase became the most apt symbol of a gathering that has become a laughing matter for the rest of the world, for everyone knows that these summits of the heads of states accomplish nothing but generate documents that gather dust on some old shelves, until they are dusted for the next summit to regurgitate the old material first written in the heydays of the oil-boom for the hired kings and military generals, by dreamy intellectuals who dreamt of building a new Ummah from the ashes of history but whose dreams splintered and fell in the hands of big game-planers sitting in the Western capitals.

In a wide-open field yearning for some meaningful input, it was men around a Pakistani general who first introduced numbers into speeches written in dusty old offices with the help of soon-to-be discarded typewriters. It was the clerks and section officers of Pakistan’s ministry of science and technology who provided numbers to their bosses who were told that numbers impress even the most unconvinced. So, they called for the GDP figures of the entire Ummah, which could not be computed because the hired potentates have kept no records of the billions they have been plundering. But never mind the actual numbers; one can always cook the soup with broth and stir in some fury by adding emphatic phrases (“the Muslim Ummah should” and the “Ummah must”) addressed to no one in particular and meaning nothing at all.

So, the recipe was invented. Henceforth, speeches could be written on the fly, using this magic recipe: Add a few sentences like “The GDP of the entire Ummah is roughly $1.4 trillion, while that of Japan alone is 4.5 trillion.” Then stir in some refrains for dramatic effect: “The Ummah is standing at a historic moment,” and lo and behold, the great game is on. First invented 37 years ago, this recipe has been working and the Ummah is still standing at the same historic moment as it was in 1969, when the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) was manufactured, following the arson which destroyed part of the old wooden roof and the 800-year-old pulpit brought to the sacred mosque by Salahuddin Ayubi after he defeated the Crusaders and liberated al-Quds. Summit after summit, we are told that this is a moment we can either seize and take charge of our destiny, or let others define our destiny. Indeed, we have been standing at a historical monument of regurgitated verbosity.

But times have changed since that old generation of tired old men and dreamy intellectuals ushered us into these meaningless refrains. New challenges have arisen and hence new themes must continuously be invented. The greatest of these themes is, of course, the new Islam that has been invented in the White House and that needs to be poured down the throat of 1.3 billion voiceless, unrepresented men, women and children who now comprise our Ummah. Thus, this year’s gathering at Putrajaya saw the unfurling of this new brand of Islam, an “Enlightened Moderate” Islam that “would bridge the gap between the Islam and the West.”

Among all the potentates who had gathered in Malaysia this year, it was left to the military dictator from Pakistan to elaborate this new vision of Islam that is based on a vague ideology of “Enlightened Moderation” rather than the twin sources that have so far remained the foundation of Islam: the Qurʾān and the Sunnah. But what does “Enlightened Moderation” mean? And what does it mean to bridge the gap between Islam and the West? After all, Islam is a religion, with a definite set of beliefs, one of the most important among which is the belief in the Hereafter, and the West is a geographical entity. How does one bridge the gap between a geographical entity and a faith?

But never mind details. No one is interested in such details. All one needs to win one’s bread and, for some, a glass of the forbidden drink, is to use every single platform to reiterate the falsehood of this new brand of Islam that calls for rejection of “militancy” and that reduces Jihad, one of the key concepts of the Qurʾān, to a fight against “poverty and illiteracy.” So the General spoke his lines, the potentates clapped, the journalists lauded, and the clocks kept on ticking.

That the proponents of this new brand of Islam have nothing to do with the teachings of the glorious Qurʾān and the practices of the noble Prophet of Islam can be easily inferred from their lives, policies, ideas, and, most of all, from their manifest alliance with those who are bent upon imposing their own worldview on the rest of the world through violent aggression, occupation, and oppression. One does not need to look further than the laurels heaped on these kings, generals, and self-appointed presidents by the likes of Rumsfeld and Armitage to attest to their unholy alliance. But for the skeptics, let it be pointed out that OIC came into existence in the wake of Zionist aggression and the desecration of the first Qiblah of Islam, the noble sanctuary which Allah Himself has blessed, and for the last 37 years it has done nothing to liberate that sanctified land from the ever-expanding Zionist state. Nothing, that is, in concrete terms.

It is also to be noted that, in clear contradistinction to the propagators of this new brand of moderate Islam, there is no category of moderate Muslims in the Qurʾān . The Qurʾān only mentions three categories of people: the believers, the unbelievers, and the hypocrites. Further, it says, “O you who believe, do not take the disbelievers as your allies in preference to the believers; do you want to place before God a manifest proof of your guilt?” (4:144). And if this were not enough of a proof for the hypocrisy of these propagators of a made-in-America Islam, then one should open the Noble Book of Allah and read what the revealer of Islam has said about the killing of Muslims by the Muslims and pay heed to what awaits them before they send their troops to Iraq.

If there was anything new and unique in this year’s OIC gathering, it was the appearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was supposed to remain on the sidelines but who made his way into the main session to assure us that Islam and terrorism are not linked; of course, that was the only thing left for us to discover in our religion because Putin is the ultimate authority on Islam. Never mind that, in return, the so-called representatives of the Muslim world willingly forgot about the terrible plight of their Chechnyan brethren in faith who face atrocities at a genocidal scale, atrocities that cannot be ignored by even secular organizations such as the Human Rights Commission.

So, the wheel turns and they plot and Allah plots, and indeed, Allah’s plot is the best, and in Him we trust.

Published in The News International, Pakistan, October 24, 2003

How Science Became the Burden of the Ummah

For many Muslims, modern science poses a unique challenge. At the root of this unease lies their self-consciousness of inadequate Muslim contributions to the contemporary enterprise of science. This awareness leads to a psychological response: they fall back on vague notions of a glorious past when they had the most robust enterprise of science in the world. They attempt to remedy the current science deficiency by numerous non-scientific means, including the now widespread attempts to claim that various scientific theories and facts recently discovered by modern science are already present in the Qur’an. Millions of Muslims are enthralled by speakers, websites, television anchors, and popular orators who can in some way demonstrate that modern science validates Divine authorship of the Qur’an. Albeit for the most part unacknowledged, the psychological need to see science corroborating their faith is rooted in the tacit recognition of the magisterial role of modern science—even while most of these Muslims would claim that they do not need such scientific validation and that it is only being sought for calling others to Islam and proving to non-Muslims that the Qur’an is indeed a Divine Book.

The enormous popularity of these attempts at appeasement notwithstanding, a science deficit continues to remain the burden of the Ummah, the community of believers whose distinct civilization is rightfully credited by unbiased historians of science to have once been the harbinger of a scientific tradition that existed across a large geographical area and for longer than any other scientific tradition in human history. Yet, all those achievements now appear only in history books, always as a passing reference in the progress narrative of scientific rationality and technique, and always in the past tense; the present and, by extension, the future belong to a uniquely Western scientific tradition that has a claim to universality—a claim that attempts to foreclose even the possibility of the emergence of alternate scientific traditions which could reconstruct the entire structure of science through a radical modification based on a different spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual understanding of the natural world, and which could thereby give birth to a new framework redefining the purpose, methods, and applications of science.

This magisterial power of modern science is not without reason. Modern science and its applications have radically reshaped our conception of the cosmos, restructured the physical space in which we live, and redefined the frontiers of human intervention in the natural, physiological, physical, and biological realms at a scale that was unthinkable prior to its rise. It is, however, simultaneously true that this expanding realm of modern science has brought the entire human race to a state of catastrophic disaster. The unprecedented devastation caused by the use of deadly weapons in recent wars, the destruction of the environment through aggressive projects of monumental scale, and the genetic changes in the food chain (which have already produced a now uncontrollable chain reaction affecting the health of both humans and animals) are all self-evident proofs of the powers as well as dangers inherent in modern science. Yet, no matter how acutely one is aware of such detrimental undersides to the enterprise of science, popular belief in its efficacy and beneficence remains unalterably entrenched at the level of the quotidian routines of life.

The macro- and micro-level reliance of so many basic aspects of our lives on the new scientific knowledge is evident to everyone. The way we now construct our dwelling places, produce food and other consumable commodities, communicate with each other, travel, and work are all dependent on science and technologies produced by its application. When someone’s headache disappears with a little pill as advertized, when a plane takes its passengers from point A to point B within the stipulated time, when surgical instruments successfully remove cancerous tumors, and when a person can actually see and talk to another person living on the other side of the globe through a little device that one can hold in one’s hand, he or she needs no further proof to “believe” in the efficacy and power of science.

It is this conscious or unconscious ‘surrender’ to science (in the sense of giving oneself over to its influence) coupled with the shortcomings of religious institutions and leaders to adequately respond to the challenges of a brave new world that have together eroded the belief of millions of human beings in anything that science cannot prove. Thus when members of a faith community (mostly Muslims and Christians) try to prove the scientific correctness of their Scriptures, they attempt to reassure themselves and show others that what they believe is really true as demonstrated by science. Therein lies the greatest fallacy of this approach, as scriptural content invariably suffers distortions when placed for judgment before the magisterium of science and the scientific method which, by definition, cannot have any say in matters beyond the realm of measurable quantities. For Muslims, subjecting the Qur’an to this treatment also flattens their complex tradition of hermeneutics, reducing it to a system of translation between Qur’anic imagery and the language of modern science. One of the most popular subjects of “scientific verification” of the Qur’an is that of human creation. Countless websites superimpose Qur’anic account from Q 23:13-14 on graphic images taken from embryology textbooks in order to prove that the Qur’anic descriptions of the creation of the human child “in three veils of darkness” (Q 39:6) in stages denoted by nutfa, alaqa, and mudgha (Q 23:13-14) are exactly what modern science has proven. Other attempts of this popular exercise have subjected all descriptions of the natural world to similar treatment. Attempts have been made to calculate the velocity of light from the verses of the Qur’an and enthusiasts have imported and juxtaposed on the Qur’an almost the entire range of subjects earlier used by creationist Christians.

Since the belief in the Divine authorship of the Qur’an is a sine qua non for Muslims, their attempts to attest this belief through science opens a chasm that cannot be filled with any amount of scientific reassurance, no matter how many one-to-one correspondences are found and proven by the scientific method. The Qur’an also mentions numerous details from realms which are not even acknowledged by modern science as probable, let alone possible. Thus claiming that this or that fact mentioned in the Qur’an was recently proved by modern science does nothing to prove to the skeptic the veracity of the Qur’an, because he or she can always point to the supra-scientific content of the Qur’an as a rebuttal. Besides, the Qur’an already provides specific responses to those who question its Divine origin and a wealth of exegetical literature is also available for such responses; hence to leave this material and fall back on modern science is much like showing a candle to the sun. Furthermore, the aspects of the natural and biological world mentioned in the Qur’an are not presented as facts to be verified by science, but are mentioned in the Book because of a higher reason, and that higher purpose remains beyond the reach of science and its methods. In fact, belief in that much higher purpose does not need any validation—scientific or otherwise, for it is inviolably present in every human being in the form of an innate stamp, in the very makeup of every child who comes into this world. Its denial takes away not an iota of that reality which each and every human being will invariably face.

Realism, however, dictates that one must acknowledge the fact that the contemporary world, shaped by modern science and technologies developed through its application, is a unique permutation in human history; there has been no time prior to the modern era when so many human beings lived their lives with a conscious decision to exclude the Creator from the equation of existence because “science” did not prove His existence. This triumph of the secular does not merely rest on the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers—such as Denis Diderot, Voltaire, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine—or their latter-day heirs, including all kinds of freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists; rather, it gained its most effective ally in modern science, which has been constructed on the basic premise that the natural world is a self-generated, self-governing, evolutionary cosmos.

The original restrictive nature of Holyoake’s term notwithstanding, ‘secularism’ now stands for a worldview anchored in science—a worldview from which God is excluded not only to separate state and social order from religion, but for the purpose of living a life without consciousness of His presence. Thus, secularism is, in fact, repackaged atheism. For the atheist, God is a proposition which is epistemologically illegitimate, rationally indefensible and experimentally false; the same is true for the secularist. The strongest support for secularism has come from science. Even though a very large portion of the scientific community continues to have faith in God, science as a system does not.

Of all the theories of modern science, it is the theory of evolution which has most rocked the age-old belief of humanity in a Creator; and even though many believing scientists and philosophers have found ways to “harmonize” their faith with the theory of evolution, these attempts can only be said to be successful inasmuch as they have been able to reconstruct religious beliefs to accommodate science, not the other way around. The theory of evolution is now the pillar of modern biology and one hundred and fifty years after Darwin—and numerous reconstructions later—the scientific community is by and large convinced of the veracity of the evolutionary path outlined in evolutionary theories of various kinds. This putatively proven fact has forced many religious communities and institutions to reconstruct their beliefs about the origin of humanity as well as the role of the Creator in numerous aspects of life. Those religious communities which do not have hierarchical religious institutions, or where such institutions do not have a commanding role, have adjusted their beliefs through reinterpretations of source texts written by those who subscribe to evolutionary theory and want to conform religious beliefs to evolution. In the case of Islam, this has meant metaphorical and allegorical interpretations of verses of the Qur’an which deal with realities beyond the realm of modern science: the creation of the first human being; the reality of a physical resurrection and Afterlife; the interactions of the angelic world with the human world, and the like.

Such attempts emerged in the Muslim world in the nineteenth century when Muslims first encountered modern science in a direct and effective manner through the penetrating reach of colonizers who implanted caricatures of their own scientific institutions in the colonies, reformed educational systems to produce third-rate science graduates, restructured communication and mass transit networks primarily for their own needs (and secondarily to allow the “natives” to receive some benefits of their Raj, partially in fulfillment of their mission civilisatrice). In time, there emerged modernist “re-formers” who also implanted the initial seeds of what later became a new exegetical genre, the so-called Tafsir al-ilmi, the scientific exegesis.

Such “Word of God” “Work of God” duality emerged in the Muslim world hand in hand with the mantra of “catching up,” a quasi religious-cum-political motif which urged Muslims to catch up with the West in science and technology and which has remained the rallying cry of all kinds of political, military, and intellectual leaders of the Muslim world since the nineteenth century.

This incisive entry of modern science into the traditional universe of the Qur’anic discourse took place only when that traditional universe had been rent asunder and modernist thinkers interested in justifying an agenda of “re-formation” of Muslim societies on a European model had become the most dominant voice in the Muslim world then just waking up from three centuries of siesta. Since then, this voice has not abated.

As it stands, Muslims continue to be reminded of their backwardness both by their own “re-formed” leaders as well by those who wish to “re-form” them in their own image. There is no dearth of sermons which point to their lack of participation in a global enterprise called science, their inadequate economic, educational and scientific standing (always measured against scales created by Western civilization), and, of course, of their inability to develop democracy. Western-style democracy, science, a certain kind of education, a certain kind of market economy, a certain kind of women’s empowerment—in short, all “fruits” of modernity—are, in fact, a complete package deeply anchored in fundamental shifts in the foundational structure of Western civilization. Any other civilization that “buys into this package” cannot do so without committing suicide; for no civilization can retain its spiritual foundation by eating from this fruit.

To be enthralled by modern science to such an extent so as to develop a psychological need to verify the Divine authorship of the Qur’an is not only an outward sign of a deep-rooted malaise, it is also indicative of the failure of the Muslim intellectual leadership. Confusion produced by three centuries of domination and colonization of the Muslim mind is deep; departure of the colonizers has done little to emancipate minds which have been “re-formed” on the European model and the road to freedom is further blocked by the “scientific fixation”.

This is a revised version of an article first published in Islam & Science, Volume 7, Winter 2009, No. 2