Confusion Around Creation

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, about whom I had blogged previously, has been engaging with the post-modern mind since quite sometime. He tries his best to make a genuine case for Islam and Qur’an in this day and age. In this post, I have decided to revisit one of his debates with youth of Pakistan about the existence of God.

The debate is quite lengthy and Ghamidi tries to provide many arguments for the existence of Allah. The debate is in Urdu and, unfortunately, no English subtitles are available. Translating the entire debate from Urdu to English is an onerous task that I do not wish to undertake at this point in time. However, I want to discuss one of the arguments provided by Ghamidi that, in my opinion, is incorrect and weakens the systematic effort of Ghamidi to prove the existence of Allah. 

From 23:44 to 23:50 in the video, Ghamidi states that intentionality and will has, so far as per human observation, not been demonstrated to exist in matter. It’s here where I feel he is making a mistake. Intentionality and will does surely exist in us human beings, who are a form of matter itself.

From 24:24 to 24:34, Ghamidi says that if it can be demonstrated that matter creates its own self, then the entire case for religion can be withdrawn. Now that is certainly a bold claim. And I believe Ghamidi is in a very insecure position after making this claim.

The word creation is a bit problematic. What we observe in nature is usually transformation rather than creation ex nihilo. One configuration of matter and/or energy is transformed into another configuration either through natural processes or through artificial ones.

ex-nihilo
Source: toughquestionsanswered.org

While creation ex nihilo is not observed, the term creation as used in common parlance is referred to the aforementioned transformation of matter. In this sense, perhaps, Ghamidi’s argument is weakened because we see matter creating its own self in our very hands. A human being is a specific form of matter that is capable of manipulating the matter around itself including its own self. As Carl Sagan said in the intro of his famous series, Cosmos: “we are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” (3:22-3:30)

We lack complete mechanistic details but the role of the brain in the production of subjective experience is undeniable. Humans are an expression of matter just as a mountain or a tree or a river is. Whereas science may not consider a mountain or a river to be capable of having will and intentionality, humans beings, as a specific configuration of matter, are fairly capable of having intentionality and will.

To sum up, it seems incorrect to assert that matter does not create itself. While it is true that not all configurations of matter are capable of self-replication and manipulation of other forms of matter, there are certain configuration of matter, such as as human beings, that are capable of self-replication and external manipulation of matter and that have intentionality and will.

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The Spirit of Qalandar

I have a confession to make. Even though I am deeply troubled by the metaphysical claims of Islam along with the growing religious extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, I do have this strange affinity for the mystical aspect of Islam. It’s hard to talk about it in public and it’s equally difficult to rationalize it internally. Nonetheless, I find something rather intriguing about Sufism, which I cannot exactly pinpoint at this juncture of my life.

There is a particular Sufi saint, who has been an object of my fascination since 2013. His actual name is purported to be Usman Marwandi but he is more famously known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. I like to call him LSQ for short. Time and again, I find myself gravitated to this saint and end up doing some online research related to him.

As his name suggests, he was a Qalandar. Qalandars were wandering Sufi dervishes. According to one online source, Some Qalandars practiced asceticism and often used hashish, alcohol, and other intoxicants… Particular to the Qalandar genre of poetry are terms that refer to gambling, games, intoxicants and Nazar ila’l-murd – themes commonly referred to as kufriyyat or kharabat. The writings of Qalandars were not a mere celebration of libertinism, but antinomial practices of affirmation from negative action.’

lal-shabaz-qalandar
The Qalandar in contemplation and in the movement of dancing poster. © Museum of Ethnology, Munich

For the last few days, I have been venturing once again into the world of Qalandariyat. In my latest search, I came across an online article titled ‘The Holy Fool in Medieval Islam.’ Following is a passage from the online article:

As a social phenomenon, the origin of the qalandar is yet undetermined, but the concept made its entrance into Persian literature in the early eleventh century as a paragon of spiritual virtue. In contrast to mainstream Islamic mysticism, the qalandars never established a closely reasoned doctrinal scheme but their teachings was centered around a common esoteric orientation emphasizing inner contentment, tranquility of the heart and prevention of self-conceit. Notorious for their coarse behavior, the qalandars attempted to destroy all customs by committing wicked acts, not as an exit out of society, but in order to conceal the sincerity of their actions from the public view. By overturning conventions they strove to expose the hypocrisy of the established order and question its values. For the qalandar, holy foolishness was not primarily an attempt at moral instruction but an ingenious way to fight spiritual pride.

This in turn, naturally, led me to Google the term ‘Holy Fool’ which I found quite unique and equally interesting. I landed up on a book chapter titled The Holy Fool. The chapter was from a book called Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society by Michael W. Dols.

It was but natural for me to come across a description of the Qalandars, while reading this chapter. Following is what I found on Qalandars while reading the chapter:

In later centuries, some Muslims invited reproach and disapproval by behaviour that was offensive to others. This intentional transgression of social mores became the hallmark of the Qalandars, who adopted many of the teachings of the Malāmatīs. The Qalandarīya were eclectic, also being influenced by other religious traditions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. They were usually quietists and antinomians, who wandered across the Islamic world, like modern-day hippies, outraging public opinion. Although attempts were made during the Middle Ages to distinguish between the true and false Malāmatī, the Qalandars came to predominate and to usurp the term.

In Muslim India, such a Qalandar was known as a malang, who sought complete dissociation with the external world. These mendicants were remarkable for their use of narcotics, their clothing and hair-styles, their personal ornamentation, and their laxity in adhering to obligatory Islamic precepts.

It seems that Qalandars took the beliefs of Malamatis to an extreme. The logical step for me was to next understand the beliefs of Malamatis. Following is what I found in the same chapter:

According to the teaching of the Malāmatīya, a Muslim should similarly conceal his chaste inner life, thereby avoiding the danger of hypocrisy that the conventionally pious encountered. The recorded teachings of this group of mystics ‘is not a closely reasoned internally consistent system, but rather a number of tenets which centre around the basic Malāmatī doctrine that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity, including good deeds, is ostentation. … In accordance with these tenets, the Malāmatī has to struggle continuously against his desire for divine reward and for approval by man.’ Consequently, the Malāmatī did not participate in the obligatory devotional exercises or those of the sufi orders but prayed and fasted in secret. He did not dress differently from other Muslims or follow a solitary life; he adopted a despised vocation and refused a prestigious one; and he concealed his poverty, so as not to attract communal charity. The elimination of the conventional signs of piety from an individual’s life often left the impression that he was disreputable or impious and, therefore, the object of malām, blame or reproach

qalandar-painting
A painting by artist Ali Abbas depicting malangs. Courtesy: dawn.come/news/1047734

After reading all this, I believe I might have realized my fascination with the Qalandars. The reason I am sharing all these passages is to represent the kind of inner struggle I am facing as a secular human being who, thanks to the onslaught of science and philosophy, has lost faith in Islam. I am equally disturbed by the kind of hypocrisy that characterizes Muslims especially the ones living in Pakistan. They would do a lot in the name of Islam that supposedly has nothing to do with the classical understanding of Islam.

The inner struggle is either to come to terms with the vast nothingness of the cosmos or to find some semblance of sanity and meaning that is so desperately yearned for. This quest of mine can be viewed as “spiritual” by some though I would refrain from using the term spiritual to describe my searching. In some sense then, perhaps, I am a Qalandar. I am a Qalandar insofar as I ridicule outward piety and religiosity and partake in Islamically forbidden activities such as drinking alcohol and eating pork.

As I have blogged before, my apparent heresy is a function of the overt piety and extreme religiosity characteristic of Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular. I am a heretic out of contempt for what Islam has become. I am also in some way an antinomian. I reject socially established Islamic morality since it hinders personal growth and self expression. For an antinomian, faith alone is needed for salvation. For a Sufi, love of God is what truly matters. For a searching agnostic such as myself, self expression is important. It is through self-expression that the inner potential of one’s self is actualized, which, in turn, creates further possibilities of creative unfolding.

I write in the spirit of a foolish Qalandar and will continue doing so. Dama Dam Mast Qalandar!

Heretic Diaries Part 1: On Allah

The first Islamic concept I plan to write about in my inaugural post is a no-brainer. It is the concept of Allah Almighty. Allah is the Alpha and the Omega. The Awal and the Akhir. Allah is the Manifest and the Hidden. The Zahir and the Batin. Allah is a paradox to begin with. Islam speaks of Allah in contradictory terms.

My heretic thoughts lead me to believe that Allah is only a reality insofar as human beings are capable of perceiving such a reality. In other words, Allah cannot be said to exist if human consciousness does not perceive Him. But do I really perceive Allah? Perhaps, only as a concept; as a figment of my imagination. Belief in Allah appears to be a psychological fact. According to one of the verses of the Qur’an, Allah is reported to be closer to man than his jugular vein (Surah Qaf).

According to another verse of the Qur’an, those who forget Allah are in turn made to forget their own-selves by Allah (Surah Al-Hashr).

Stitching together these two verses of the Qur’an, Allah appears very similar to the elusive ‘self’ that philosophy, psychology and religions speak about in their own unique terms. Belief in Allah, thus, reduces to nothing but belief in one’s own self, whatever the self means.

allah
Allah

Furthermore, the descriptions of Allah provided in the Qur’an clearly suggest that Allah has some type of a personality, although orthodox Muslims don’t admit it. It might not be totally wrong to, therefore, think that the notion of Allah is framed in the image of human consciousness rather than the other way round. I say so because Allah is described characteristically in terms that define human consciousness. To be compassionate, to be merciful, to be the creator, to be the nurturer, to be the subduer, to be the protector; one must first of all possess consciousness. Allah is capable of all that we, as humans, are capable of, albeit to a much higher degree of perfection.

Of course, all this discourse about Allah still begs the question about Allah’s existence. If Allah within is human consciousness, shouldn’t we focus on understanding and exploring the nature of the consciousness? Why posit the existence of a complicated being, such as Allah, within ourselves? And what about the existence of Allah without? Is Nature equal to Allah or is Nature a partial expression of Allah?

Whether we like it or not, we invariably end up treading the scientific path in order to answer these questions. Science, of course, is silent about the existence of Allah. It has no interest in designing experiments and developing technologies enabling the discovery of Allah. Allah’s fate is sealed by science and there’s no progress in uncovering Allah.

However, just for the sake of argument, let’s proceed forward. If we accept the proposition that Allah exists as a psychological dimension of human existence that provides a source of strength and positivity, we are confronted with another important question. What’s the importance of Allah in 21st century? Is He needed in any way or are we to do away with His existence all together?

I think there is very little relevance of Allah for people living in post-modern, post-industrial, technologically driven Western societies. The achievements in engineering and medicine have made new gods and money seems to be the sine qua non for sustenance. Allah is an artifact of past. An ancient relic of that is of no use.

It is true that Allah is not of much use. We can discard the concept of Allah as we wish. Yet, for some odd reason, Allah continues to be the source of strength for millions of Muslims across the globe, many of whom are well educated, liberal and progressive by modern standards. A lot of Muslims need Allah and believe that everything they have is a blessing by Allah.

muslims-praying
Muslims praying

I find this quite bewildering at a personal level. But this attitude of Muslims in general reinforces my conclusion that Allah is just an inner, psychological aspect of ourselves. It’s like an invisible parent that constantly watches us, consoles us and, sometimes, confides in us.

Allah is omnipresent and omniscient not in the absolute but in the relative sense. That is we, as individual human beings, are always present and aware of our own-selves. Our soliloquies are prayers.

In my opinion, this mystical attitude makes Islam much more palatable in modern times. Of course, nothing that I have said so far proves the existence of Allah or the veracity of Qur’anic claims. It just offers a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of Islam that might have some relevance.

Allah remains a living reality for believers and nonsense for non-believers. For an agnostic such as myself, Allah is an idea that oscillates between sense and non-sense allowing room for creative interpretation and re-interpretation. Allah is continuously evolving!

Ramadan Reflections – I

The Holy Month of Ramadan is here (again). I posted the following on the EXMNA group on Facebook:

In this quintessentially spiritual month, I am but forced to reflect on the Being of beings. Here’s what I think:

Either we say God is a figment of our imagination. Or we say that God is greater than any finite human idea. If we say the latter, it still begs the question about making a definite statement about God, which, in principle, is greater than any human definition put forth. Is there any easy way out of this conundrum?

Following are some responses I got. The name are abbreviated to protect identity:

PR: Yes, there is no God

AS: Only the sith deal in absolutes.

MT: God doesn’t exist and if he does, he’s an asshole and not my God.

IWI do not know. And as a tiny being in this infinite universe I just want to survive and maybe thrive

FM: Remembering something that I read few years back that current concept of God (or lack thereof) in a rational way is a by product of the age of enlightenment and especially the British empiricism of Locke et al when we view the world with respect to sense-perception. In religious circles, this has reduced the concept of God to an anthropomorphic version. We, as atheists, have rejected him for exactly the same reason. As Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without proof, can be dismissed without proof”. Prior to the age of enlightenment, God was not necessarily viewed in an anthropomorphic view. I think it was Thomas Aquinas who said that one cannot say that God does not exist because God is beyond our definition of yes and no, he transcends that definition. To the point, that Newton and Rene’ Descartes wanted to prove God scientifically. People in pre-enlightenment era had a more transcendent view of God. Not to say there were people who questioned the existence in the literal way. I think the most easy way out is if we historically understand how the concept of anthropomorphic God has evolved overtime. If you consider God as a law of nature (i.e., beyond human consciousness), as Einstein did, then he is like a tree, wind or condom etc, you don’t have to worry that he will punish you for having sex in Ramadan.

Al-Jinn

One of the interesting myths in Islam is that of djinns. Djinns (also called Jinns or genies) are the mythological creatures found in the folklore of the people inhabiting the Arabian peninsula. For my generation, the big blue Genie in Walt Disney’s Aladin is a well-known comical representation of a member of these supernatural species.

genie

As a child, I vividly remember being fascinated by djinns. One of my childhood dreams was to meet a djinn in person. My mother’s side of the family lives in a small, rural town in northern India. Situated in that town, is our ancestral haveli (a traditional Indian mansion) that was built over 500 years ago.

I frequented our ancestral home in India as a child and heard many a spooky tales of djinns that were rumored to have dwelled in the haveli and the town. There were stories of djinns appearing in human and animal form performing supernatural acts. There was stories of helpful and vengeful djinns. As a young child, I was hooked to these djinn stories and desperately wanted to meet a djiin, any djinn during my sojourn in India.

In fact, I had an interesting encounter which, at that point my life, was about as close a meeting I got with a djinn. My relatives in India told that djinns often take the shape of indigenous animals, birds, insects and reptiles. So, if I ever come across an animal that I might be afraid of, I should politely say the following sentence to the animal 3 times: “If you are someone else, please leave.”
If the animal does not leave after I’ve asked it to leave 3 times, it probably is just an animal. If it does leave, then it is a djinn.

Equipped with this knowledge to differentiate a djinn from an animal, I wandered around the haveli and the town, looking for suspicious looking animals. One fine afternoon, as I was about to end my stroll on the haveli’s rooftop, I noticed a dog lying just in front on the staircase that lead to the ground floor. I had to get the dog out of the way in order to go down. That’s when it clicked. If the dog was a djinn, all I had to do was to ask him politely to leave. And that’s what I did. As soon as I uttered my plea the first time, the dog got up from the entrance of the staircase and left quietly. I was completely taken aback by this event. As a child, this event reinforced the existence of djinns in my mind and made my belief stronger than ever. I also narrated this incident to almost anyone I met in India, re-affirming everyone’s belief that djinns dwelled in our haveli!

It wasn’t until much later that I became skeptical of the conclusion I had drawn that afternoon, ages ago. It may have been just a random incident, a one-off event. The sample size was too small to make a statistically valid correlation between my utterance and the dog’s departure. Even if the sample size was large, correlation does not imply causation. That’s Statistics 101.

In any case, my dream of physically encountering a djinn has never materialized possibly because are there are no djinns. The ontological status of djinns is almost as questionable as that of Allah and angels.

Interestingly, the Qur’an has a whole Surah about djinns called Al-Jinn. It’s the 72nd chapter of the Qur’an and contains 28 verses in total.

According to Dr. Israr Ahmed, who was an Islamic scholar from Pakistan, the chapter consists of two parts. The first part, which starts from the first verse up till the 15th (or 17th) verse is basically a dialogue of the djinns as revealed to Prophet Muhammad by Allah. The second part, from verse 16 (or 18) to verse 28, are the direct words of God and are general statements by Allah.

In the following few paragraphs, I will try to provide a personal summary of the entire Surah based on a mashup English translation of the Qur’an by Sahih International and Muhsin Khan.

The chapter starts of by speaking about a group of djinns, who listened to the ‘amazing’ Qur’an and believed in its contents. They (the djinns) believed that the Qur’an guides to the right course and teaches about nobleness of the Lord. They decided never to associate anyone with Allah and that Allah has not taken a wife or a son. The foolish ones have been saying wrong things about Allah.
The djinns thought that men and djinns would never utter a lie against Allah. But then there were men who took shelter with the djinns thereby increasing their sins and disbelief. Such men and djinns believed that Allah will not raise anyone. This is what the first 7 verses of the chapter say.

The next two verses (8 and 9) say that when the djinns sought to reach the heavens, they found the heavens filled with powerful guards and burning flames. The djinns used to position themselves in stations to hear. But now whosoever tries to listen found a burning flame lying in wait for him.
I personally find these verses confusing. Most interpreters of the Qur’an say that the djinns positioned themselves to hear (and steal portions of) the Qur’an from the heavens. Yet the nature of what djinns aimed at hearing is never made explicit by these verses of the Qur’an.
Verse 9 is also a particularly interesting verse. The ‘burning flame’ that drives away the eavesdropping djinns has been interpreted by some people as a Qur’anic explanation of comets.

shooting_star

The actual word in the Qur’an is شِہَابً۬ا, which can be transliterated as shahab(a). As with many of my earlier posts, following is a table that provides a list of translations of the word shahab:

Translator Translation
Sahih International Burning flame
Muhsin Khan Flaming fire
Pickthall Flame
Yusuf Ali Flaming fire
Shakir Flame
Dr. Ghali Flaming (meteor)

Some Muslim apologists take great efforts in explaining how it is scientifically possible for shahab to prevent djinns from accessing the heavens. I found this article that actually defines shahab as ray lights emitted from stars such as guided pulsar gamma rays! I feel completely stumped when reading such explanations.

Anyway, coming back to the Surah, verse 10 to 17 say that the djinns do not know if evil is intended for those on earth or if the Lord wants to set them on the right path. Some djinns are righteous and some are not. The djinns are divided in their ways. The djinns are also certain that they cannot escape Allah either on earth or through flight. The djinns have heard the guidance and believe in it. And whoever believes in the Lord will fear no deprivation or burden.

Amongst the djinns are the Muslims and the unjust (Al-Qasitun). The Muslims have sought the right course whereas the unjust would be the firewood of Hell. If the unjust had remained on the straight way, Allah would have given them abundant provision so as to test them. And whoever turns away from the remembrance of Lord, Allah will severely punish them.

The last 10 verses (Verse 18 to 28) basically are proclamations from Allah about His commandments, His knowledge and the fate of those who obey or disobey Him.

This concludes the entire chapter. The Surah is not particularly illuminating about the nature of djinns for someone like myself. It takes the existence of djinns as axiomatic. This is indeed problematic for a lot of people such as myself, who have a scientific and rational outlook. Like always, Qur’an is making claims that are very difficult to accept in modern times.

Creating Heavens and Earth

A while ago, I came across an interesting though pointless debate regarding an apparent contradiction in the Qur’an about the time it took for Allah Almighty to create the heavens and the earth. That debate sent me off on a tangent to philosophically contemplate on the definition of a day.

The Qur’an is replete with verses, which state that the earth and the heavens were created in ‘six days.’ Following is a partial list of the verses that speak about this matter.

Name Chapter # Verse #
Surat Al-‘A`rāf 7 54
Surat Yūnus 10 3
Surat Hūd 11 7
Surat Al-Furqān 25 29
Surat As-Sajdah 32 4
Surat Al-Ĥadīd 57 4

The actual Arabic word in the verses listed above is سِتَّةِ اَيَّامٍ, which is transliterated as ‘sittati ‘ayyāmin’. There is no dispute amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, as far as I see, on the meaning of sittati, which means six for everyone. It is the word ayyāmin that is problematic for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Common-sense dictates that the word day probably refers to the way we define the word in an ordinary language such as English. It can be treated as the 24-hour time period that we in the 21st century are commonly accustomed to. However, I do not know if the people of pre-Islamic Arabia also defined day in the similar 24 hour format.

In my humble opinion, to truly understand the notion of time of pre-Islamic Arabia, it is imperative to know the time-measuring devices that were used by the peoples of the Arabian peninsula. What is defined as day today cannot possibly be the definition of day in Arabia at the time of the Prophet primarily because the standard definition of a second, which subsequently defines minutes, hours and days was established in 1960s. Time, as measured by a sundial, is different as measured by a modern digital watch. The discrepancy is described by the equation of time.

Furthermore, the difference between lunar and solar calendars also complicates matters. The bottom line is that notion of a day becomes terribly complicated if one deeply reflects upon it. So, what does the Qur’an mean by six days? If the six days are defined using the 24-hour format of modern times, then the Qur’anic claim appears to contradict the model of the Universe as described by contemporary science i.e., the Big Bang Theory.

Preachers like Dr. Zakir Naik, obviously have something to say about this. Following is his take on the issue:

This response of Dr. Naik is actually to another question, which is about an apparent contradiction in the Qur’an regarding the length of time for creation. In the verses I have stated before, the earth and heavens appear to be created in 6 days. But verses 9 to 12 of Surah Fussilat, Chapter 41 seem to suggest that the earth and the heavens were created in 8 days. The issue arises primarily due to an incorrect translation of a key word which causes much confusion.

The Arabic word ثُمَّ (thumma) which starts verse 11 of Surah Fussilat is translated as ‘then’ by many translators. But according to Dr. Naik, the correct translation is ‘moreover’ or ‘simultaneously.’ Yusuf Ali is the only translator who has used moreover.

creator-of-heaven-earth-3

Going into the semantics of thumma is another debate and beyond the scope of this blog-post. What I want to stress in this post is that according to Dr. Naik, the word ‘sittati ‘ayyāmin’ refers to six ‘very long periods.’

Of the six English translators I refer to on quran.com, Shakir is the only one who has translated it as ‘six periods of time’ much like Yusuf Ali is the only one who has translated ‘thumma’ as moreover.

This does raise some interesting questions. Firstly, if Qur’an is a clear book, as it claims to be, why did it choose to confuse people in the first place by using apparently contradictory descriptions in different places? Why is the clarity of Qur’an only evident to Shakir in case of translating the word ‘ayyamin’ to (long) periods of time and to Yusuf Ali in translating ‘thumma’ to moreover.

Secondly, what does this numerical division of creation-time mean in any case? What do the ‘six periods of time’ signify? Does it not sound better to say that the creation of the heavens and earth took a very long time instead of saying that it took precisely six, extremely long periods of time to create the earth and the heavens and then leave us to only speculate the exact length of these six so-called periods?

If anything, Qur’an seems to be unnecessarily obfuscating a simple fact about creation. On a personal note, I think it is rather pointless to debate whether the earth and heavens were created in 6 days or not. As scientific knowledge advances and newer theories gain credence, sly Muslims apologists will continue to offer explanations that superficially resolve the seeming contradictions in the Qur’an. However, the debate is pointless insofar as it has no direct impact in making us more ethical i.e., more compassionate and more merciful. The purpose of the Qur’an, as some argue, is to provide healing and mercy and guidance to people.

But how can people be guided if there is no clarity of thought? The pointless debate continues…