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Ghamidi says that if it can be demonstrated that matter creates its own self, then the entire case for religion can be withdrawn.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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Nitpicking the verses

Qur’an is an interesting book. It makes claims which are difficult to understand for the modern mind yet is considered by Muslims, by and large, to be the final word of God until the end of time.

One of my peculiar habits has been to read the Qur’an and reflect on it with modern sensibility. More than often, I end up going down a rabbit hole of confusion and see no easy way out of it. As a case in point, there’s a particular verse in the Qur’an which goes like this:

And all things We have created by pairs, that haply ye may reflect. (Pickthall)

The is the 49th verse of Surah Adh-Dhariyat (The winnowing winds), which is the 51st chapter of the Qur’an. Many Muslims use this verse to assert that all living things have been created in pairs. That is, there is a male and female in for all living organisms. Clearly, such is claim is not scientifically accurate. For example, there is no male or female gender in bacteria. Likewise, the New Mexico whiptail is a female-only species of lizard.

The transliteration of the actual phrase used in the Qur’an to refer to all things is ‘kulli shay-in’. Kul means all and shay-in means things. The verse from Surah Adh-Dhariyat could not just mean only living things. If the Qur’an meant all living things, it would have said  ‘kulla shay-in hayyin’ as it did in Surah Al-Anbya, Chapter 21, Verse 30. The word hayyin means living. 

As far as I see, the everything of 51:49 seems to suggest everything that possibly exists or at least everything that is present in this Universe of which we can possibly know about. It, therefore, makes me wonder how on earth are mountains created in pairs, or rivers, trees and planets, for that matter.

quran-image
Image credit: Sophie James via Getty Images

This indeed appears to be a problem for someone who thinks. Again, thinking is exhorted in Qur’an as per Verse 29 of Chapter 38, which urges us to reflect on the verses of the Qur’an.

At the same time, Qur’an declares itself to be a clear book, in Arabic, full of wisdom so that people may understand, according to Verse 2-4 of Chapter 43It seems like a quagmire. If the Qur’an is indeed a clear book, then why is there ambiguity about Verse 49 of Chapter 51, which upon reflection seems to suggest that which makes little sense?

This is just one example of the complexity and obfuscation that reflection on the verses of the Qur’an entails. Some would argue that I am unnecessarily nitpicking or that I am quoting the verses out of context. I don’t have much to say to such accusations except that Qur’an is not an easy book to understand and makes little sense in light of modern methods of thinking. As I wrote in one of my earlier posts, the onus of understanding the mind of the Allah is a bit too much for mere mortals like us. In any case, the journey of reflection on Qur’anic verses continues!

Beating-your-wife Bill (in Pakistan)

Things cannot get worse in Pakistan. End of May 2016, a 75-page bill was proposed by the Islamic Council of Pakistan allowing husbands to lightly beat’ their wives as a form of discipline.

According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, “[a] husband should be allowed to lightly beat his wife if she defies his commands and refuses to dress up as per his desires; turns down demand of intercourse without any religious excuse or does not take bath after intercourse or menstrual periods.”

It doesn’t end here. A wife can also be beaten if she ‘does not wear a hijab, if she interacts with strangers, speaks too loudly or gives others cash without her husband’s permission.’

I guess Muslim scholars in Pakistan have finally come to an understanding of Nushuz!

homer-wife-beating

It comes as no surprise that religious clerics in Pakistan have proposed this bill since the instructions to beat one’s wife are explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. What is terrifying is the thought that the state can now potentially sponsor wife-beating. It’s more than evident that this bill will only increase domestic violence in an already violent, male-dominated and male chauvinistic Pakistani society. The Pakistani constitution already suppresses the rights to religious freedom and has done little to support the rights of minorities. This will be yet another potential law in Pakistan to take it back to 6th century Arabia.

What is Nushuz?

Sometime back, my family was having a discussion about a family friend, whose daughter-in-law was treating her badly. My brother joked that the either the husband should let go of his wife or he should be firm. My dad further added jokingly that the husband should just grab his wife by her ponytail and slap her. This rather misogynistic and sexist comment reminded me of the famous Qur’anic injunction that allows a man to beat his wife for disobedience and about which I had blogged earlier.

I quickly added that if the husband is a true Muslim believer, he can surely beat his wife if she is being disobedient. To this, my dad said that the Qur’anic command is about (sexual) misconduct and cheating and does not apply to disobedience alone.

spank

The agnostic researcher in me did not quite buy this argument and quickly went back to the Qur’anic verse to find the actual Arabic word and its various translations. Due to my insufficient knowledge of Arabic, I was not able to specifically pinpoint the word but was able to locate the part of the verse that spoke about this matter and honed in on a couple of candidate words.

Still not able to decide on the Arabic word, I Googled “Arabic word disobedience” and found a website that listed 4 Arabic words as the translation of disobedience. The last word, نشوز, transliterated as Nushuz was the word I saw in Qur’an. This confirmed my belief that the actual word used in Qur’an can be translated as disobedience, which may not necessarily refer only to sexual misconduct.

I then looked at the six Qur’anic English translations of this word and the following table provides that information:

Translator Translation
Sahih International Arrogance
Muhsin Khan Ill-conduct
Pickthall Rebellion
Yusuf Ali Disloyalty and ill-conduct
Shakir Desertion
Dr. Ghali Non-compliance

As evident from from the table, all translations differ in defining Nushuz. As far as I see, the instructions are very clear in the Qur’an. And, as I’ve blogged earlier, they are utterly inhumane. Disobedience, arrogance, ill-conduct, rebellion, disloyalty, desertion and non-compliance of a wife can be addressed by beating her up. Period.

I further Googled the word Nushuz to land on a webpage, which provided a few more descriptions of this word. Haleem translated it as “high-handedness” whereas Amina Waddud and Sayyid Qutb take it to mean a “disorder between the married couple”. Lastly, Muhammad Asad translates it as “ill-will”.

We can, therefore, say that there certainly is no agreement amongst the English translators of the Qur’an as to what is the “true meaning” of Nushuz. As I’ve argued in one of my earlier posts, Qur’an has unnecessarily burdened us non-Arabs with the task of learning Arabic in order to understand and appreciate the message of Allah Almighty, which obviously flies in the face of Allah’s compassion and mercy. What more complications does the Qur’an entail?

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…

Defining Islam

In an earlier post, I talked about what I see as polarization in the Islamic world. This post is just a continuation of this rather half-baked theory. Sometime back, I came across this interesting talk show featuring many prominent Indian Muslims, discussing various aspects of being Muslim.

15 minutes into the video, the interviewer asks Dr. Zakir Naik, a renowned Muslim public speaker, about the origins of the ‘construct of the [Muslim] image’ that a lot of people of this modern generation ‘find offensive’ (such a sporting a large mane, wearing a skull-cap, etc). To this question, Dr. Zakir Naik said that ‘first we need to understand what we mean by a Muslim.’ According to Dr. Naik, a ‘Muslim is a person who submits his will to Almighty God.’ Dr. Naik further goes on to say that ‘to understand Islam, don’t look at the Muslims… go to the original scriptures.’

Islam is what is written in the Qur’an and Ahadith (Sayings and Actions of Prophet Muhammad). That’s it. Whatever Muslims believe in or however they choose to act is irrelevant. It’s like Islam is a car and Muslims are drivers. You should not judge the car itself based on the ability of the driver. In fact, it was Zakir Naik himself who has given this driver-car analogy in one of his public lectures.

Kabir Khan, the film director, on the other hand, finds Dr. Naik’s views as ‘too narrow a definition of Islam.’ Khan rejects all rituals. But Islam is a part of his culture and ethos. He is as proud a Muslim as anybody else and does not believe that he needs to wear it on his sleeve. Therefore, according to Khan, Islam is not just confined to Qur’an and Ahadith but the whole spectrum of socio-cultural values and norms fostered under the aegis of Muslim societies.

This, in my opinion, is the fundamental difference between liberal and orthodox Muslims. Whereas orthodox Muslim scholars would insist on defining Islam purely on the basis of and derivative from Islamic scriptures, liberal Muslims see scriptures as just one aspect of Islam and not the whole of it.

This is also very similar to what Ghamidi said while analyzing the works of Karen Armstrong. He says that there are two ways to do research on Islam. One approach is to gather information on how Islam is practiced in different parts of the world, what has its history been so far and what do the sacred Islamic texts say. Once one has acquired all the information, one can basically form any logical narrative and present a certain picture of Islam.

The other approach, according to Ghamidi, is to start with the most important aspect of Islam, which is the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an should be used as a base reference, as a point of departure for understanding Islam. This difference of approach, along with other factors, on how Islam is defined and subsequently practiced, sows the seeds of polarization.

In 2008, a book was published titled “Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think?”. A discussion about this book is available on YouTube.

Around 11:13 in the video, Reza Aslan says that ‘the simple answer to this question of who speaks for Islam is nobody speaks for Islam.’

The interesting point to note here is that since no one speaks for Islam, no one who claims to speak for Islam and all of Muslims should be taken seriously, according to Aslan’s statement. This condition for Muslims is, therefore, both a blessing and a bane. The good news is that there is no final, authoritative word on Islam and it’s a constantly evolving religion, with myriad beliefs and practices centered around perhaps some vague core concepts. The bad news is that lack of authority makes Islam somewhat anarchist. Anything goes, basically. The result is that on one hand, we have Al-Qaeda and ISIS and on the other we have LGBT-supporting Muslims.

The future of Islam is uncertain. However, that certain interpretations of Islam breed violence is certain. What also seems fairly certain is that violent Muslims will not compromise on their politco-religious ideology. And anyone who disagrees with them will have to face dire consequences.

I, therefore, believe that it is important to carry on critiquing the fundamentals of Islam, in a hope that more people see the problems with Islam and less people adopt the rigid, fundamentalist ideology of the extremists.