The Rights Of Nature

The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts [Allah] by His praise, but you do not understand their [way of] exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving (Quran 17:44)

According to the economist, Hernando De Soto, Western capitalism’s triumph rests upon legally enforceable and definable property rights. As such the legislative instantiation of both common and civil law frameworks throughout the world – largely a product of colonialist legacy – has made property rights a central and enforceable right. Those with property ownership, from land to chattel, can rest assured that a centralised court will protect their ownership. Only in countries with rabid corruption will this right be encroached upon; thus developing nations that find themselves in the throes of endemic poverty only has itself to blame for not enforcing property rights.

This is perhaps true; but increasingly as the world confronts rising inequality particularly in Western nations, there are questions to be asked about the moral responsibility upon those whp own property, or rather a lot of property. Every other day, leftist media laments the allocation of the world’s wealth to a smaller and smaller coteries of individuals, all of whom are likely to have acquired wealth largely through legal means.  Anti-trust rumblings about Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft are not at the heart about the legality of their wealth accumulation; rather it is about the legal monopilsation of property rights. Property rights can be a panacea at the beginning of a country’s quest for development, but it is not clear that it is beneficial in the long run.

Yet, as capitalism strives to spread property rights as a necessity, there is another type of inanimate right (i.e. non-human right) that is rarely, if ever, considered. Property rights refer to the position of man’s ownership of an aspect of nature. What we forget – some may declare it cloying – is the rights of nature.

What does this even mean?  In 1972, the legal academic, Christopher Stone asked the question  ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’.  Property rights enables man to access the courts when there has been an violation. Nature does not have that fortune, but maybe it should.  Nearly 50 years later, Stone’s question is even more pressing to answer. Climate Change, Environmental Degredation, Pollution, Deforestration, Holocene Extinction reflect man’s apathy or nonchalance to nature’s screams.

Natural rights would limit individuals and companies exploitation nature for their own ends. Rights would grant nature the ability to withstand the nonchalant encroachments often done in the quest for man’s insatiable appetite for goods. The irony is that nature does not have a voice. It requires man to be its defender.

In this there is a conflict between property rights and natures rights. De Soto views the key to capitalism as being upholding property rights. Today’s capitalism rests upon growth and growth requires extracting resources. Ergo, in growth, nature’s rights have to be trammelled upon to enable property rights.

For Muslims this equation has to change, but it is not a consideration that finds itself in more activist declarations of the righteousness of Islamic Law. Purveyors of Islamic Finance and the Halal Economy declare the moral superiority of the two as it abides by God’s law. But Muslims rarely connect Islamic law to Nature’s rights. Fulminations against the financial system or the current economy will refer to the destruction of nature, but this is contextualised as a consequent of failing to follow Islamic law on say interest. In other words, Muslims do not see nature as an independent body with its own rights

We see this clearly with the large scale consumption of meat, considered acceptable merely because it has the imprimatur of halal. The industrial production of slaughtered meat in the name of halal have made Muslims comfortable even as the extremities of the process are a reflection of the worst excesses of capitalism. Chicken with rights holds a whole new proposition to how we consume meat and more importantly how Muslims consider nature.

The protection of nature’s rights as a legal responsibility on Muslims is not regularly (if at all) discussed in the weekly jummahs, the roundtables, and seminars, and the Global this and that  conference.. This is not to say there is no original Muslim thought. The philosopher, Seyyed Hossain Nasr,  has been warning about environmental devastation and the Muslim responsibility since the late 1960s. But efforts and the Muslim investment on this issue is limited, moving more towards charity, fintech, entrepreneurship, fashion, food.

The Quran is obscure on the relationship between man and nature, but it is clear that nature is vibrant, living. Insofar as this is a reality, then is not the role of man as a God’s deputy on this earth a protector of the rights of nature?

 

The Canary In the Mine

canary in the mine

And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a vicegerent on the earth, they said: Wilt thou place therein one who cause corruption therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not. (Quran 2:30)

In 1932, the economist Lionel Robbins defined economics as  “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses”.  Since, the teaching of economics in the hegemonic western curriculum starts with the idea that resources are scarce in the world thereby affecting pricing and allocation. Choices have to be made as to how to distribute resources.

Yet the subject has always had a difficult time defining scarcity. With truly scarce resources such as art, prices can be considerably high, whereas with something like air, this is considered a non-scarce resource.  That is not difficult to understand.

Nonetheless, most resources are neither abundant nor limited; they are in fact renewable. In other words, resources will deplete but can be restored. Trees can be cut, but in the same place they can be regrown. The issue for these resources is time: how long will it take for these resources to replenish?

This consideration does not quite factor into our pricing of goods. Instead, the pricing the goods is a concatenation of demand, corporate power, supply, transportation, taxes and labour. A purchaser of a good rarely thinks that they are buying a scarce good or the time it will take for stock to replenish. They are ignored concepts.

They are also ignored concepts for businesses that deal in extracting resources such as companies working in oil, food companies, textiles, commodities, etc. Increasingly, we witness more of the earth’s resources being extracted at a rapid rate, but little consideration is being made for the replenishment of the resources.

Now, according to a recent UN report, more than one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. Thanks to decades of rampant poisoning, looting, vandalism and wholesale destruction of the planet’s forests, oceans, soils, watersheds, and air, we are facing a rapid decline in biodiversity. The four main causes for such devastation are   (1) land and sea use, including development, logging, mining and harvesting; (2) hunting and fishing for food or for trade in body parts; (3) Climate Change; (4) Pollution.

All four are a result of companies seeking to profit maximise, but with little consideration as to the long term effects of their work. Prices are  not considering the fact that in the future most resources might truly be scarce for the world’s population leading to human suffering

If biodiversity is decreasing, then surely the grim reaper has much in store for man. What is troubling is that the modern day market fails to consider the earth’s limitations. Constant, perpetual growth, as captured by GDP growth, places an unstainable benchmark for countries to pursue. Man can sell now, profit now, but what about later as the resources for these goods disappear?

Our pricing of goods does not consider this problem in adequately enough. As major corporations compete to own resources, they slowly monopolise resources, and to ensure regular high profits, they rest upon economies of scale and low employment costs to extract more at lower cost.

Unfortunately, for most of us we do not see the devastation wrought. As we eat McDonalds, we ignore the slow eradication of forest and fauna in the Amazon, razed to the ground in order to rear cows; as we eat our salmon teriyaki, we are unaware of the industrial depletion of fish stock in our seas; as we leave our lights on, we cannot begin to imagine the impact of pollution into the atmosphere caused by the burning of the fossil fuels.

The massive, industrial level extraction of the earth’s resources is a form of corruption of the earth. Today it has gone to the extreme, with the slow extinction of living things.  Preachers, explaining the introductory verse above, will focus on man’s brutality on other man; but man’s brutality is more often than not on non-human creatures. The problem is man does not realise it. Worse, the rapid convergence towards extinction means that resources will truly be scarce and without the opportunity for renewal.

The architecture of the current economy does not portray the canary in the mine. Reports from the UN and David Attenborough documentaries raise the worry. But when we go to the groceries to buy our meat, we are not truly conscious of how our actions are contributing to this unsustainable process. Pricing of goods do not convey the true problem of scarcity, and since companies are not factoring the time to replenish in their pricing, consumers are none the wiser. That ignorance is exculpatory, but it is necessary to keep this choking economic system coughing away.

From Metaphysics to Just Physics

One of the key successes of the Enlightenment was to shift the social consciousness from believing the omniscience of God to the omniscience of man. Today society has been cast under the spell of democracy in that it believes that when the people majority believes something to be correct, then it is correct.

The only thing that can challenge the beliefs of the majority is science. Science stands apart from the whims of the majority –  independent and oracular. Its emphasis on empiricism and appeals to rationality confer science and scientists the position of the high priests on Mount Olympus.

Economics has tried to define itself as science since the late 18th century. Early economists such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and David Ricardo viewed economics through the lens of politics. But their theories conveyed the notion that economics follows defined rules that can be quantified.

By the end of the 18th century, there was a dramatic shift in intellectual thought.  Metaphysics slowly lost its importance. Positivism, a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, influenced sociologists and economists alike. The so-called marginal revolution from the 1860s took the abstract concept of an individual’s utility, and determined that it could be measured. Leon Walras and William Jevons work turned economics from abstraction to quantification, and over the course of the next century, universities became obsessed with teaching economics as a science rather than political thought.

Intellectual shifts were being reflected in the real world where there was a belief that nature could be controlled. Indeed, what differentiates agrarian societies to industrial societies is the former understood they were at the mercy of nature. The industrial revolution flipped that idea completely: nature was now at the mercy of man, and if nature could be controlled, then it could be measured, carved up, and allocated.

Consequently, the 19th century saw an explosion in ingenuity and productivity as nature began to feel the impact of man’s thirst for resources. When once there was little production, now man could  produce abundantly from little.  But to achieve such a feat, man constructed machines to produce more. But those machines needed to be managed by an employee.

Thus, what followed was the employee was defined by how much he contributed to the production. Production can easily be quantified, though the monies earned. Consequently, the employee could be defined as to how much he contributed to the production. The more he contributed, the more valuable. The less he contributed, the less valuable. But now he had become a unit.

And the Capitalist exploited this condition.

19th century capitalism has put a premium on those that have the ability to produce more, and this can only be measured by the amount of money brought in. If an organisation is earning high profits, it is the CEO that is praised and deserves the elevated salaries. The employee is merely a unit in the equation.  Indeed, accountancy rules view profits as that which is left after costs, including employee salaries, are paid out.

But this perception of profits is grossly problematic, only justifiable if one assumes employees are a cost and not an investor into the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, by making an employee a unit, it dehumanises them. This was a key problem of 19th century capitalism: it could only function successfully by making an employee a cog in the machine, to work according to the dictates of a manager.

This point is explored by Caitlin Rosenthal in a recent book “Accounting for Slavery”. Rosenthal finds that American plantation owners of the 19th entury built sophisticated organizational structures, practicing scientific management that turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. For the success of their endeavour, the capitalist plantation owner viewed their slaves as units.

This changed in the 20th century with the rise of the trade unions pushing and succeeding in humanizing employees. But as Rosenthal argues, the vestiges of management practices of the 19th century find itself in management practices of the modern day company.  We do not class it as slavery as most contracted employees have legal rights and at least paid. But they are still viewed as units.

What does this ultimately mean for today’s society? As the world progresses towards adopting Artificial Intelligence, there is a real fear that a human employee will not be required to produce. This might fulfil John Maynard Keynes hope that people will dedicate more time to aesthetic pleasures such as art, philosophy, horticulture, etc. This is possible. At the same time, two centuries of the slow abstraction of the human as a unit, the allocation of capital to the few and marginalisation of metaphysics could lead to a more mechanised, dystopian future.  With the human consciousness untethered from metaphysical concerns, all that will seem real is that which is rational, which aesthetics is simply not.

It is not clear which will transpire.

The Four Main Problems of Capitalism

 

whack a mole

 

George Monbiot is actively rallying against Capitalism, encouraging society to discard capitalism before it is too late. But contritely, Monbiot admits he is not sure what an alternative system looks like. He writes “So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging”

This last point is true.  There are pockets of push back across the globe seeking to redress global capitalism: the Extinction Rebellion, Crypocurrency and even Islamic economics, amongst others, demonstrates that there are many alternative approaches. But these approaches focus on an aspect of capitalism, rather than the overall system itself.

That is a good thing.

Indeed, one has to be cautious of absolutist revolutionary ideas, of overthrowing an entire system, believing that the new system would suddenly enable some kind of utopia. Revolutions are bloody affairs, often led by disenfranchised idealists who when they succeed create some permutation of the malaise the system they have overthrown was afflicted by.

Instead, for change to be effective and long lasting, there has to be focus on changing, or rather improving, different components of a system. These components are part of the architecture of capitalism that lead to four pivotal problems of Capitalism. To address the components, one needs to understand what these components produce.

In today’s Capitalism, the four main problems are:

  1. Hoarding of Capital
  2. Oppression of Working Class
  3. Overproduction
  4. Consumerism

Hoarding of capital has resulted in greater inequality, oppression of the working class has meant low wages leading to poor standards of leaving, and overproduction is creating climate change, poor treatment of animals, and environmental devastation. All of this is fuelled by consumerism, as individuals seek a diversity in the goods they purchase, the food they eat and the clothes they wear, and they want easy, immediate, constant access. Amazon is certainly a God of Capitalism.

That fuel is unlikely to reduce significantly unless there is a huge cultural change in the way, or rather the what and when, individuals purchase goods. Notwithstanding the doubt, there have been glacial changes in consumer behaviour, which has led to changes in corporate behaviour.  The Climate Change brigade has made us more conscious of what we eat and how we travel. In the West, millennials are increasingly concerned with their own health rallying against pollution and additives in their food, focusing on exercise and consuming less meat.

In response, new businesses are entering the market attempting to serve this growing consciousness. For instance, Whole Foods, has becoming a darling for those individuals seeking organic food. But with businesses following consumer wants, this does not necessarily extinguish the aforementioned four problems. Solving the problems of Capitalism is very much like Whack-a-Mole : hit one and another one comes up. Whole Foods has been accused of poor employment practices and inhumane treatment of animals.

Thus, Capitalism creates paradoxes. Businesses need to make profits but to make profits they have to overproduce to satisfy consumer wants. Consumers want organic food, but it costs businesses much more to produce good quality food than poor quality, thus they reduce the cost of labour, while selling the produce to the rich, leaving the poorest with unhealthy substitutes in Poundland.

To avoid these paradoxes, one has to work back from the four main problems mentioned above to a component of capitalism and see how this component can be structured to avoid the problem. Components include finance, advertising, regulation, taxation, labour rights, extraction of resources, transportation, communication, etc. All these components in some way lead to the four problems. Rather than focusing on capitalism as the ideology to change, it is more practical to change a component of the system. To do this all stakeholders to the component have to be involved. That is difficult, but not impossible.

Capitalism and Its Malcontents

leonardo-vitruvian-man-b

It is very easy to impugn capitalism, but oh so difficult to suggest a solution to it. The reason for such a paradox is that the behavioural underpinnings of capitalism accord to the free will of man. The Enlightenment Period of the medieval ages unearthed the quest for man to escape the yoke of a domineering divinity or tyrannical ruler, to be replaced by the ‘renaissance man’, a man dedicated to ‘finding himself’ in religion, science, art and ultimately capital accumulation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem with criticising capitalism is that everyone has a little bit of the capitalist spirit within them. It reveals itself in something as elementary as buying more than one type or a certain type of food, attire, furniture, car, etc. Individuals will argue that purchasing toys for babies or going on holiday in Spain every year is a necessity, but it is not.

It is this inherent capitalistic spirit within all of us that pushes the capitalist (the entrepreneur, the CEO, the banker and the strategic consultant) to ensure that there is a supply of goods to feed our consumerist desire. The capitalist receives income, the individual receives his good, and everyone is happy.

But we are not. We read reports of the half of England being owned by 1% of the UK population, and people are appalled. The anti-capitalists rally in Trafalgar Square disgusted by climate change, calling out the capitalists and the governments to act before it is too late, before getting into a car pumping Co2 gases into the air in order to pick up their children from school.

Capitalism’s contradictions and paradoxes are inherent in its DNA, because it apes the human condition; is it not obvious that the human is a vessel of confusion and contradiction? Liberalism opened this Pandora’s box of spiritual tumult, and we are still figuring out what defines us whether it be nationalistic fervour, sexual preference, sexuality, occupation, money, etc.

Of course there is resistance to the depredations of capitalism. Key to the resistance is the belief that the people with power over capital cannot be trusted. From governments to banks to corporations to Silicon Valley futurists, they are all treated with a degree of contempt. But far too often the contempt can be absolutist, self-righteous and frankly, ironic. Many of the billion dollar companies that find its home in the valley — Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter — were born out of an inherent desire to change the future for the better. Now, ironically, critics are worried that these companies are an infestation of capitalism’s disease — the insatiable desire to accumulate capital at the expense of wider society.

Indeed, for the champions and activists of a more socialist system, provide the same people access to capital, and it does not take much for them to fall into the trap of chasing after capital and adopting the capitalist spirit. One only has to look at the environs and history of the Valley. Symbolically, San Francisco stands as a warning for all those pursuing a change in the capitalist system. In the 60s, it was the epicentre for the love, peace, and communal leaving. Jerry Rubin stood at the helm of American fulmination. By the noughties, the landscape has priced out those without much capital to leave it a playground for the ambitious chasing millions. Jerry Rubin invested in Apple.

Steve Jobs was a hippie before being a yuppie.

This is not to say capitalism cannot change, should not change, and will not change. But for all those wishing to destroy capitalism, it is a fool’s errand, quixotic and dissonant to the human psyche. The excesses of capitalism reflect the excess inherent in the human condition. To change that condition is a perennial struggle. Religion has been issuing the clarion call for individual change since primordial. But change requires a confluence and collaboration of different actors, and a bit more self-reflection.

Governments need to be concerned with the many, not the few, not falling upon trite economic theoretic fallacies and Randian barkings on how the freer markets means greater wealth for the many. Trickle-down economics is demonstrably slow and injurious for the billions around the world. Markets need regulation because greed is a part of the human condition.

Corporations need to divest itself away from shareholder capitalism, a concern for, once again, the few. Shareholders, as they should be, are worried about the return on their principle. But a high dividend on their shares in the short term does not mean better economic outcomes in the long run. A corporation is a mini nation: consumers are being effected by their actions, employees are being effected by their actions, the land is being effected by their actions, the climate is being effected by their actions. They create cultures within their company that drive employees into thinking in a certain way. Only focusing on profits or bonuses is disappointingly parochial especially as corporations monetise products to the ignorance of the effects the products have on society. Money is the root of all evil if one’s focus is money.

Finally, individuals – entrepreneurs, directors, and employees — have to understand they themselves are contributors to the capitalist disease. Entrepreneurs need to consider the impact of the products they create on society. Directors with millions in their bank accounts need to diversify their investments from real estate to individuals building companies. Employees buy goods and services, but fail to recognise the impact of their purchases on the world. Human action has externalities.

Governments should invest in building capitalist enterprise. Economies rest upon their creative spirit. Corporations should think about shareholders, and individuals should be given the freedom to purchase what they want. That is freedom. But the price of freedom is excess, and the only way to overcome the problems of capitalism is not to destroy the system — there really isn’t a suitable alternative — but to restrain its excesses. Each party, government, corporation and individual, has a part to play in restraint, and they should play it.

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 www.nursari.com/classes)

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.