The Secret

(Reflections on Sheikh Yahya Rhodus’ lecture on Book 35: On Divine Unity and Reliance on God)


The Free will v Determinism debate will forever persist. It features heavily in theology, and surprisingly, neuroscience.

For monotheistic religions,  the idea of determinism is a Gordian knot, and perhaps the most paradoxical of religious paradoxes. Is it reasonable for God to judge your actions when He is controlling your actions? The Asharis circumvented this problem, to some extent, by introducing the concept of kasb. A person “acquires” his actions, or chooses his actions, and God executes them.

Many remain unconvinced by this explanation, while others avoid becoming too technical, and simply accepts God control. Hence, inshallah (if God wills) is a common mantra on the tongues of Muslims.

Yet the paradox remains, and its idea can be a source of confusion. Ghazali solves this riddle by constructing a path towards understanding God and His acts. As a believer journeys down the path, he/she reaches milestones of understanding, and one of those milestones is understanding determinism. Once one reaches this stage, he/she will be able see that all that occurs in the world is due to God.

Only an elect few have this perception. For the rest who are either not on the journey, or who have yet to reach this point, they remain puzzled and are caught in a bind. As an article of faith, they are meant to believe in determinism, but their rationality rebels against the concept. Being told that one can only understand if God inspires knowledge serves only to suffuse the concept with uncertainties, much akin to the Christian conceptualisation of the Trinity.

Sufis often speak about individuals holding divine secrets that only they know. They cannot convey those secrets as the average person would not be able to understand, which can create a very thin line between veracity and mendacity.  For issues such as determinism, the average person is left with justifiable doubts because he/she cannot be taught these “secrets”.

As a consequence, on the spiritual journey, there will be moments where articles of faith will contest with rationality and emotions. The seeker will peer through the blur seeking truth and witness obscurity.

It is a troubling position to be in, and no amount of sanctimonious persuasion (“You must believe what God has said because God has definitely said”) can fully persuade the confused. Puzzlement will reside in the soul. The confused then has two options: give up or continue journeying down the path, hoping, waiting, anticipating.

Interestingly, this was the manner in which the Prophet received revelation. Excursions to Mount Hira, and days of isolation and contemplation, eventually led to enlightenment. Before Jibreel came to the Prophet, he sat in worship, perhaps unsure as to what it would lead to. That it led to prophecy was for the Prophet unbelievable.

Likewise, the Seeker does not know what he will find at the end of the journey. But in searching for God, and clarification of confusions, there maybe a moment where the obscure becomes clear. If one believes in God, then there is no reason to doubt that enlightenment can come at any point and at any moment, provided he/she truly desires it.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of this intrusion of God, and that is why the spiritual journey is so very difficult. Rationality, emotions and dogma will contest with each other, and relying on God to resolve the struggle could be a false hope. Nevertheless, humility throughout the journey assists in negotiating these problems. There maybe things the seeker is unsure about, but he/she persists, knowing that he does not know but hoping one day he/she will.



Inspiration as Revelation

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)


The most popular purchase from the Travelling Light Series is Sheikh Hamza’s exposition of Book 1 of the Ihya. Perhaps this is because it is Sheikh Hamza, or maybe it is due to better publicity. Or most likely, is that the concept of the book strikes at the heart of the theological crisis that afflicts most Muslims in secular societies. At one point in a believer’s life, he/she will ask Why do I believe what I am meant to believe?

The question is not an easy one to answer, and so it is common to find Muslims pondering upon the truth claims of their religion. Their burden is not to have been with the Prophet in order to assess his character, or to understand Qurayshi Arabic and its linguistic style. They can only assess the truth by the literature and the characters of those who profess to live their lives according to the Sunnah.

What compounds the problem of justifying belief is the Western mind’s inherent push towards skepticism unless empirical or sensual. There is an aversion towards unjustified postulations, and that seeps into the way one approaches religion. While there are a growing number of people who submit themselves to a religion, the greater strides are being made by secularists.

So for the believer wishing to justify his belief in the absence of a Prophet, a weakness in their linguistic appreciation of the Arabic language, an anachronistic society, and the championing of secularism, he/she is confronted with a spiritual dissonance.

Ghazali’s conclusion to his own spiritual dissonance was not particularly intellectual. In his munqidh he concludes that after studying the thinking and methods of the sufis ” It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.”

In other words, Ghazali found that in practice and meditation, one could have a true insight into the divine. But this too is not satisfactory for those who have committed their lives to the exploration of the Divine. The question for them is do I keep questioning my religion, or just practice as my religion has commanded.

The answer is both…and a third element. Ghazali’s Ihya is a voluminous tome that synthesises knowledge with practice. Yet, he was aware that the third element to the understanding the Divine mysteries was inspiration from Allah – something that is bestowed from up on high and at His will.

Once again, this too is not satisfactory for the questioning mind. However, he/she ignores their own self-constituency and personality. God has created man differently and our abilities in intellect, emotions, and strength are varied. Our will guides us accordingly,  and we can refine and improve our abilities; however, some people will be naturally smarter, more emotional, stronger. Our natures vary considerably, and this nature (the fitra) was implanted by God.

Equally, it is understood that God places iman into the hearts of man, but the point at which He places iman into the hearts is not entirely clear. On the one hand, God expects that man should proclaim belief. The Quran speaks confidently about its own truth claims; yet on the other Ibrahim (AS), the people of Musa (AS) and the Disciples of Isa (AS) have requested evidence from God.

The story of the Disciples is instructive. The Quran states

” And when I inspired (Allah) to the Disciples, “Believe in Me and in My messenger Jesus.” They said, “We have believed, so bear witness that indeed we are Muslims. When the disciples said, “O Isa, Son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven? [Isa] said,” Fear Allah, if you should be believers.They said, “We wish to eat from it and let our hearts be reassured and know that you have been truthful to us and be among its witnesses.” (5:111 – 113)

These verses encapsulates the problem of belief. The Quran asserts that Allah “inspired” (Awhatu) belief in the Disciples. And yet they still questioned in order for their hearts to be reassured.  What occurred within the Disciples was a process which started with Isa’s ministry, followed by inspiration, and concluding with affirmation.

In the absence of a Prophet, affirmation in the way the Disciples requested will be difficult. However, the Quran is book of universal principles. The above verses highlight the importance of gaining knowledge of God’s commands and waiting for inspiration. For affirmation, it might not be  something tangible like a table spread. Reassurance for the heart may come from something else.

The process is evident in Ghazali. He had knowledge, he was inspired to believe, but the affirmation and reassurance came from his Sufi practice.

Today, Muslims are trying to find a pure belief without the accretions of culture. They study, and they gain knowledge, and that strengthens or weakens their belief.  However, to truly believe in God requires God to inspire that belief in a person. It then requires solidification, and that comes from practice. Knowledge is the starting point, inspiration is the middle point, and practice affirms.


To Believe or Not to Believe, that is the Question

(Reflections are taken from Sheikh Walead Mosaad’s class on Book 2 of the Ihya, “The Foundations of the Articles of Faith“.

Muslims state absolutely that Islam is the truth; unfortunately they have little time to examine the foundations of their belief.  When the Quran states that the Kaafir will go to hell, many pronounce this absolutely. At the same time, Muslims can shake their head in dismay and disgust when regarding believers of other religions, asserting these religions are patently false, but ignoring that they too only have a superficial knowledge of their religion or that these followers believe because they are following their forefathers and have not pondered over the foundations of their belief.

The irony is palpable.

The difficulty for Muslims in justifying their own beliefs is that for the masses, it is hard to argue philosophically without resorting to trite comments about the wonders of the world and the poetic marvels of the Quran. Many people who have serious, urgent questions, or are troubled by a religion’s truth claims cannot be pacified by some normative idea of what religion is

When Ghazali describes articles of faith, he provides a normative architecture, a series of conditions one has to believe in. But there is a difference between delineating articles of faith, and being persuaded by those articles of faith. To achieve this persuasion, it requires individuals with both an intellectual and a spiritual knowledge of the world, religion and God to provide a response to the question why should one believe.

In a secular age, this is challenging. In the absence of God or a messenger, it requires an intellectual and spiritual commitment to finding answers. Not everyone can or will embark on that journey. But people have to be on that journey in order to become the people the Quran describes as the ulul al-bab. They hold the keys to clarifying doubt.

However, their own starting point is doubt and the humility to know they dont have the answers and will never fully have the answers.. The seeker is a blank canvas, making little judgement on their religion or any other religion, only taking a leap of faith to assume that a creator made the world.  Thereafter, he/she practices, learns and waits for God’s illumination…just as the Prophet (Pbuh) had done.

Unfortunately, these people are few. As God and religion continue to be intellectually infantilised, our responses rely on sweeping statements and unerring certainty on preconceived notions that rest on un-examined notions of belief. Ghazali provided a list of articles, but it requires a Ghazali to preach them.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit

The Vanishing of Spiritual Knowledge

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)

The Prophet said, “Near the establishment of the Hour there will be days during which  ignorance will spread, knowledge will be taken away (vanish) and there will be much Al-Harj, and Al-Harj means killing”

There is a worry among the spiritually minded that mankind is approaching its end. Such worry is hardly new; naysayers have been predicting the end of the world since the demise of the Prophet (pbuh). But increasingly the various signs of the hour mentioned by the Prophet (pbuh) appear to be coming true such as bare-footed Bedouins competing in constructing tall buildings, people traversing great distances in short periods of time and the increase in fornication and associated diseases.

The decrease of knowledge is one of the marks of the end of time. Scholars typically interpret it to mean religious knowledge, which is surprising in that due to the internet, speed of travel, growth in literacy rates, and availability, religious knowledge is burgeoning across the world.

Other forms of knowledge have grown tremendously and has allowed mankind to develop, construct and progress. What is more is that Western society stresses the importance of knowledge, broadly guaranteeing primary and secondary education. Secular knowledge is constantly increasing, not decreasing.

There is a third type of knowledge, one that Ghazali addresses, and that is spiritual knowledge. In his time, the Persian polymath was critical of the ulama  largely based on what he saw as the secularization of religious knowledge. It was not the quantity and quality of intellectual production that bothered him as much as it was the gradual distancing of scholars from upholding the purpose of Islam itself, and that was seeking proximity to the Divine.

Attaining this spiritual knowledge is not confined to the bookish; it is in the grasps of all mankind. Knowledge of the Divine is a special kind of knowledge, one refined by worship and spiritual purification, and, for some, intellectualism. Pursuing such a course is rewarding provided the seeker believes that to be so.

In contemporary society, knowledge of the world is increasing. What is decreasing is our sense of the Divine. Spiritual knowledge is falling at such a rapid rate that today we are no longer in awe by that which should cause awe. We no longer look at the signs of God as indicators of the existence of God. Our conceptualization of the world is materialistic, seeing the world as explicable and exploitable.

In that perception, the sacredness of the world diminishes, damaging the way we behave with it. Recent protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota pipeline encapsulates the conflict between sacredness and materialism. Whereas one party sees only rocks and resources to power industry, another group saw holiness and eternity. The latter was bound to lose.

The Native American tribes have a strong a sense of the sacred in the world. Indeed, all traditional societies had a sense of the transcendent in the world, and not something that was beyond it. From the Native American to the Aborigine, God was infused in the way Man once perceived the world.

Today, we regard these ancient societies as harboring irrational beliefs. We argue that the Enlightenment woke mankind up to reason with science explaining or trying to explain the inexplicable. God was removed from the equation.

Atheists with loudspeakers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Sam Harris, and others pose rational counterarguments to religion. Their approach is persuasive for many in that they rest upon what our senses can sense. The senses are elemental to the atheist worldview.

For the believer, God is beyond the senses, residing in the area of gray that no scientist can ever hope of entering. The retort will be that man seeks to explain the unknown by interpolating God, which is true. But that is not an irrational move. It is merely another sense within us, neither rational nor concupiscent, granted to us by God.

That knowledge is what is being taken away, and we do not know the consequences of such a phenomena. Modern capitalist enlightened society is 300 years old. In that period it has witnessed the boundless potential of human ingenuity in both good and evil. We cannot note achievements such as the industrial revolution without mentioning two destructive world wars. We cannot speak of globalization without acknowledging colonialization; and we cannot praise the computerization of society without considering global warming.

No society is perfect, religious or non-religious. Each type of society has its challenges because men have egos. No law can satisfy society entirely because law is material. However, the less we see God in the world, the more our desires can be unleashed, which will entail more laws in order to control. Eventually, we will reach a tipping point where the world cannot give what we desire. Perhaps this is a dim view of the world, but the Prophet (pbuh) did not predict particularly heartwarming events to signify the end.





Seeking Knowledge

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)

There are three types of believer. Each one believes in God and the theological tenets of Islam, but have a different approach to its practice and epistemology:

  1. The Satisfied Antinomian – He does not grant much importance to following the law, but identifies himself as a Muslim.
  2. The Contented Follower – She practices the law, some are conservative, others are liberal, and accepts the Islamic theological and legal framework of a particular school. She deeply respects the scholars, classical and contemporary, and seeks knowledge as a means of knowing the law believing it is from God. They question by asking “What is…” or “How to” (e.g. What is Sheikh X’s opinion on abortion? How to distribute inheritance?)
  3. The Frustrated Seeker – They wrestle with Islamic beliefs, history and laws. Some will interpret the law in order to suit their own needs and therefore resemble the Satisfied Antinomian whereas others practice the law in order to gain proximity to God, and resemble the Contented Follower. Unlike the Contented Follower they are not sure they reach any proximity to God and feel frustrated. They seek knowledge by asking the question “Why”.

The delineations between the three are not exact, and there are overlaps as well as a spectrum within each group. But what is important to consider is that the categorisations provide an insight into how different types of believer approach seeking knowledge.

Seeking knowledge is important in Islam. Franz Rosenthal in his review of the importance of knowledge in the Islamic civilisation, Knowledge Triumphant, writes:

“There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remained untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward “knowledge” as something of supreme value for Muslim being. Ilm is Islam”.

Religious scholars exhort their congregation to search for knowledge “even from as far China” as the Prophet allegedly said. They stress the importance of gaining religious knowledge, something Ghazali classes as the highest form.

Seeking knowledge can be divided into two types. The first is to gather knowledge as established. In other words, to learn what has already been produced. For instance, Muslims are expected to learn the tenets of faith such as aqidah tahwiyyah, and follow a legal school. The second, and interdependent with the first, is to create new forms of knowledge through ones reasoning.

When it comes the second,  the first five centuries of Islam is important because scholars were creating knowledge through developing methodologies to find knowledge, pedagogies to disseminate knowledge and systems to secure knowledge.  For the Contented Follower, it is enough to follow the system.

For the Frustrated Seeker, it is not. Islamic educational systems are suffering atrophy and have been for over two centuries. Scholars emerging today are finding it difficult to uphold tradition in the face of legal monism and secularism, which impacts the Frustrated Seeker. In reaction, they will delve into the past for answers, but will not be content with the responses.

Instead they will question why and challenge tradition. Contemporary Islamic legal opinions are often too brief or too slavish. Scholars have a tendency of saying the Hanafis say this, or there is a hadith in Bukhari that says this, and hence Muslims should follow it. For contemporary questions in the Western world, they are either simplified opinions or are issued by Arab or sub-continental scholars that do not live in region. The reasoning process is sacrificed for simplicity.

The Frustrated Seeker wants to go deeper into why things are: theologically, legally, spiritually. They want to understand processes, purposes and consequences. They are not satisfied with simple obedience or absolute statements. In many respects they undertake the enterprise of the early scholars that forged the Islamic framework Muslims follow today.

Ghazali praised the early scholars. He identifies five qualities that they had: acquaintance with jurisprudence, worship, asceticism, knowledge pertaining to the next abode, and sincerity . Jurisprudence was only sufficient for this world; the latter four qualities were more important in securing the next abode.

Scholars stress that Muslims should focus on these four qualities and avoiding questioning too much. Indeed, it is reported that al-Juwayni lamented on his death bed that he wished he had the faith of the women of Nishapur, the village he was from. It was to suggest that the intellectual speculative work he had done was in vain, and really all that mattered was practice. Al Juwayni is mistaken.  For those bestowed  with a questioning disposition, their desire to explore the discomforting areas of uncertainty or challenge the certainties of scholarly opinion is not only to strengthen their own faith but to help others resolve their questions; to help them turn from the Frustrated Seeker to the Contented Follower.

For the Frustrated Seeker, seeking knowledge is a journey, a long arduous journey, the destination of which is not certain. But they persevere, hoping, like Ghazali, that they reach a state of contentment.

The Internal Regulator

(Reflections on Book 14: The Halal and Haram)

The focus of the ihya is the individual. In reading and studying it, it is hoped that the Muslim will inculcate the lessons of the ihya within. Not only does the treatise attempt to affect the actions of the reader, but also their psychology. It is not enough just to do; one must have the right outlook as to the purpose behind actions.

So the Ihya is not a book of laws to be wielded by the state as a means to regulate society. The state, as a legislature, has authority to constrain individuals through passing laws that define expectations, and enforcing them through punishment.  Law, as the legal theorist Hans Kelsen averred, is a series of rules whose consequence for contravention is punishment.

Accepting this definition for the moment, then the question for religions is “is it law, when there is no punishment”. The immediate answer is that God is the judge and will punish accordingly, but there is no certainty that he will. God’s mercy is above his wrath, as the Prophet said; and there are countless stories from the hadith of criminals pardoned by God; for instance, the genocidal prince that sought God’s mercy, or the prostitute that gave water to a dog. The crime was not so large that God could not forgive.

However, imposing western jurisprudential thinking onto Islamic legal thought has its flaws. Islamic law was never formulated in the corridors of power or from a body corporate; instead it evolved from within communities – Islamic law is bottom up, while western law is top down.

What this means is that individuals are primarily responsible for upholding the law. A body corporate is not required for its continuance or enforcement. Indeed, by assuming that Islamic laws are dependent on a legislature, it would disembody the law of purpose, permanence or meaning.

Fundamentally, Muslims are expected to inculcate the laws within themselves. There is a risk in following the law, the person alienates others. There can be great variation in how one actualises the law in their lives. Conservative individuals can be too judgmental, while liberal minded individuals ignore the sacredness of the law itself.

Ghazali recognises that people have levels of caution when following the law. The law can be broad for some; nevertheless, the law acts as an anchor to how people act. A conscious Muslim, regardless of how liberal they are, should be mindful of law and the objectives of it. Muslims might take out bank loans, but in the back of their minds they know interest is impermissible; they may have sexual relations, but they know that sex before marriage is prohibited.

Consequently, the law acts as an internal regulator for the Muslim. It cautions the individual, and even when a forbidden act is executed, it limits his/her from going further. Of course this is not a hard and fast rule, but in learning and studying, the Muslim is always growing in his religion, even if he/she does not live up to all its demands.