Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Meanigfullness of Life

[Second of four parts]

Thus, it seems clear that we cannot take life to mean our brief earthly life. This earthly life, important as it is, is simply a stage in a man’s long journey to ascend to towards his Maker, and to share in His perfection and freedom. The earthly life is an important prepatory period for the coming stages of his almost immortal life. 16

At this point, it is pertinent to raise the question of time and space. Civilization, as far as we know, is about five thousand years old, and man about a million years. Is this flow of time fixed? Could it have happened faster? If it could, what are the determining factors? Since Einstein and Heisenberg, physics has answered for us that both time and space are not fixed or static; they are relative and elastic. 17 The Quran has also revealed to us this fact a long time ago. 18 So, mankind could have progressed in an all-round way in a much shorter time and with much less pain and suffering than it has taken. The conditions are that man must exert himself , first morally and spiritually and, of course, also mentally and physically to make the world safe and better for himself. The whole universe has been created for him. 19 The earth and the whole universe is both a test of his fidelity to God as well a battle-ground for the realization of his fullest potential as God’s vicegerent. 20

Let us have a brief practical look at time and space. We know of the slow development of transportation from intiquity to very recent times. First, we moved on our bare legs and carried things on poles; then we harnessed the domasticated animals, like horses, camels and dogs, and used slide cars and sleighs; we also invented the raft; then came a big invention: the wheel and the use of roads; we also harnessed the wind and invented sailing ships. All these took us from the beginning up to recent times, that is, about two hundred years ago. Then from stemships, to engines, to locomotives and to nuclear-powered ocean-liners and rocket-ships, it is pretty quick development, only around 150 years. The next 50 to 100 years will bring yet more astonishing developments. Man has not only conquered the earth; he has already begun to conquer space! All these are taking place, of course, in the Quranic phrase, “with God’s leave”, that is, in accordance with His will or His law. 21

From the earliest times, man has puzzled over the question of freedom and determination. How free and determined are we in our actions? Coupled with this question is the question of Evil. If God is all-powerful, why does evil exist? How can an all-compassionate God allow the genocide in Bosnia, for example? Of course, we cannot entertain the wrong thought of atheists and disbelievers who think that that is a conclusive argument for the non-existence of God. But we certainly have to give some satisfactory explanations for these puzzles.

That man, to some extent, has freedom of action is proved by his ability to act freely in certain circumstances. For instance, he can choose his place of residence, his work or profession, his food and clothes, his life-partner and many other things. But to a great extent, a man, especially an ordinary man, without influence and power, cannot prevent wars and diseases and cannot determine the type of government or politico-economic system that he wants for his country, however important these matters are to him personally. However, these thoughts suggest to us two creative forces that are avilable to him to render him free to decide these things. They are the combined power of men acting together and the power of science and technology.

The first creative force that man as an individual has at his disposal we already know, that is, his mind or intelligence. Using his mind to combine with other individuals to attain a like purpose through united actions, or through the fruits of scientific research, he can attain far greater freedom than if he were to act individually or by brute force. For instance, the people of the Thirteen Colonies, acting together, launched the great American Revolution against the British Empire and created the first modern republic. Through the use of his mind and scientific research, man conquered the air and is now able to fly far better than the birds. Thus, his mind, and through the rational use of his mind to discover the knowledge of laws of the universe, i.e science -- his mind and science -- these are the sources of his almost unlimited power that gives him his freedom. Freedom is, therefore, not static and not given a priori to man. He has to struggle to achieve freedom step by step. But, speaking absolutely, man is free.

This does not mean that there is no determination. Freedom and determination must not be conceived as opposites. All created things exist in pairs, as the Quran tells us. 22 For man you have woman; for matter you have spirit; for good you have evil; for tall you have short; for white you have black. This law applies to all things. The same goes for freedom and determination. God created the world according to law; therefore, He knows everything, including the falling of a leaf. 23 Yet, this law includes everything, including a man’s free action. Take the case of one’s action tomorrow. We cannot have exact knowledge of what we shall do tomorrow, however much we plan, for we may decide on doing them as we go to sleep, or early in the morning as we get up, or even cancel or modify some of them in the early part of the day, depending on circumstances. But God knows exactly what we are going to do. Therefore, looking from God’s point of view, everything has been decided for us (His decision includes allowing us to do certain things we want to do and not allowing us to do certain other things, all in His infinite wisdom); but looking from our point of view, some of our daily actions are completely free.

Such understanding of this question would exclude and reject fatalism, a bane, it is to be noted, among Muslims after the collapse the rationalist philosophy of Mu’tazilism in the third Muslim century 24 and the emergence of a compromised freedom-and-unfreedom doctrine of the Asha`arites. Again this freedom must not be conceived as chaos. It is lawful freedom, or freedom within the divine laws of justice, truth and mercy. 25

That evil, with a small `e’, exists is only obvious. But to believe in Evil (with a capital `E’) as an equal power rivalling God, as the Manichans have believed, is an error. God tells us in the Quran that He did not create men and jins, except to worship Him. 26 Thus the devil, standing for evil in the world, is to serve the purposes of God., however paradoxical this may sound. It should be remembered that we said in the beginning that the divine purpose of the whole creation is to expose falsehood and establish the truth. How is man to know the truth and the good unless there exist falsehood and evil to oppose the truth and the good? Thus are evil and falsehood exposed and defeated.

In the beginning, the whole universe submitted to God, its Creator and Ruler, but among God’s creations, out of the moral freedom granted to man, a principle of rebellion arose. Rebellion against God means evil, symbolized in the person of the rebel or the devil. This is the source of evil. By negative example, the devil, by his opposition to the moral man, exposes the immoral man and thus renders the immoral man impotent. This is the meaning of the Quranic statement that even the jinns serve God.

Therefore, God is not to blame for the existence, at times even widespread, of evil in the world. Man is to blame. Wanting freedom of action, he yet does not use his freedom to fight against evil, even as he complains when evil touches him. The widespread evil that we are seeing too obviously in the post-Cold War world (the horrendous Anglo-American-led aggression against Iraq and its consequent murderous U.N. embargo against that country, the British-sponsored Serbian genocide against Bosnia, to mention just two) is due to man’s current state of spiritual blindness and moral apathy. Even then, in the face of such extremes of cruelty, the moral man can be said to have stood up and defeated the foe, both in Iraq and Bosnia. This is proof of ever-recurrent divine protection for the moral law with which He has constructed the universe. 27 This gives us the optimism to look ahead and to work towards the future good of mankind. If we remember well, we should know that God has given us this assurance when He related us the story of creation.28

Although we said at the beginning that Izetbegovic’s book is profound, it is also frightening in several parts. One concerns the question of modern pessimism. The author, in spite of being a committed Muslim, seems a hopeless pessimist (which, however, is not borne by his courageous and unflinching struggle for Bosnia). At the end of the book, one finds this astonishing passage:

Therefore, to properly understand our position in the world means to submit to God, to find peace, not to start making a more positive effort to encompass and to overcome everything, but rather a negative effort to accept the place and the time of our birth , the place and the time that are our destiny and God’s will. Submission to God is the only human and dignified way out of the unsolvable senselessness of life, a way out without revolt, despair, nihilism or suicide. It is a heroic feeling not of a hero, but of an ordinary man who has done his duty and accepted his destiny.

Islam does not get its name from its laws, orders, or prohibitions, nor from the efforts of the body and soul it claims, but from something that encompasses and surmounts all that: from a moment of cognition, from the strength of the soul to face the times, from the readiness to endure everything that an existence can offer, from the truth of submission to God. 29

Ironically, the author seems to equate civilization with man’s increasing feeling of hopelessness. He states:

Comfort is the outward, and absurdity is the inward, image of life in civilization. Dialectically expressed: the more comfort and abundance, the more the feeling of emptiness and despair. On the contrary, primitive societies can be poor and affected by sharp social differences, but all that we know about them indicate a life coloured by strong and rich feelings. Folklore -- the “literature of primitive society” -- can show, in its specific way, the extraordinary living vigour of primitive man. The feelings of disaffection and hopelessness are alien to that poor society. 30

This is surely a wrong reading of civilization. The great studies of human societies and civilizations by Ibn Khaldun and A.J. Toynbee and others following in their footsteps refer to historical cycles of birth, development and decay. The birth and development is due to a great explosion of creativity on the part of the society or civilization and the decay due to that creativity’s death. Is there continuity and development? Recent studies, especially by the American historical philosopher Sorokin, point to what he calls multilinear, not unilinear, development.31 That means that human society and civilization develop, but not along a straight line; it develops along a line of concentric circles. History repeats itself, but with a difference -- with a movement upwards.

16 “O man! You are toiling towards your Lord, and you will meet Him.” (Quran, Al-Inshiqaq: 6) This verse, coupled with other verses speaking of man’s journey of life, indicates his evolution.
17 “The principle if indeterminacy seems to introduce a new kind of incalculability into nature. The uncertainties hitherto decribed might possibly be due to ignorance, and might pass into determinism again as knowledge increase. It is dangerous to build on them a philosophy of free-will. But ... the work of Schrodinger and Bohr indicates that there is an uncertainty in the nature of things. The alternative uncertainties that, if we try to calculate the position of an electron, its velocity become incalculable, and if we wish to determine its velocity its position becomes indeterminate, have been thought by some to indicate that, in the ultimate analysis, the scientific argument for determinism breaks down. But others hold that this indeterminacy merely expresses the inadequacy of our system of measurements to deal with problems outside the realm of physics.” (W.C. Dampier, A History of Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968; pp. 480-81)
18 The following verses show the relativity of time and space. “They challenge you to bring retribution, and God neever breaks His promise. A day of your Lord is like a thousand of your years.” (Al-Hajj: 47) “The angels and the inspiration ascend to Him in a day that equals fifty thousand years.” (Al-Ma’rij: 4) “Our commands are done within the blink of an eye.” (Al-Rahman: 50)
19 “Do you not see that God has committed in your service everything in the heavens and the earth, and has showered you with His blessings, obvious and hidden? Yet, some people argue about God without knowledge, guidance and an enlightening scripture.” (Luqman: 20)

20 “We have decreed death for you. Nothing can stop Us from changing your attributes and transforming you into something you do not know.” (Al-Waqi`ah: 60-61)

21 “Who can intercede with Him, except in accordance with His will?” (Al-Baqarah: 255)

22 “Glory be to the One Who created pairs of everything from the earth and from themselves as well as other things they do not even know.” (Ya Sin: 36)

23 “With Him are the keys to all secrets; none knows them except He. He knows everything on land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls without His knowledge. Nor is there a grain in the depth of the soil, be it wet or dry, that is not recorded in a clear book.” (Al-An`am: 59) “There is nothing in the heavens and the earth that is absent. Everything is in a profound record.” (Al-Naml: 75) “Everything We created is precisely measured.” (Al-Qamar: 49)

24 The Mu’tazilites, the rationalists of early Islam, upheld man’s freedom of action, and hence his responsibilty, and rejected fatalism of the later Asha`arites. Due the peculiar circumstances of that time, they lost their case to the so-called orthodox party, the Asha`arites, in the fourth and fifth centuries of Islam. However, the rationalist trend continued, through philosophers, thinkers and reformers in all Muslim countries, like Ibn Khaldun, Shah Waliullah, Muhamad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, Malek Bennabi, Ali Shari`ati, just to mention a few, up to the present time. (See Kassim Ahmad, Teori Sosial Moden Islam, Penerbit Fajar Bakti, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 1984; pp. 85-88.)

25 Justice, truth and mercy as the bases of God’s laws are stated in many Quranic verses. We give some here. “Say, `My Lord advocates justice, and to stand devoted to Him at every place of worship. You shall devote your worship absolutely to Him alone. Just as He initiated you, you will ultimately go back to Him.” (Al-A’raf: 29) “It was God’s will to establish the truth with His words and to punish the disbelievers so as to make the truth prevail and falsehood vanish, despite the disbelievers.” Al-Anfal: 7-8) “He has ordained mercy on Himself.” (Al-An`am: 12)

26 “I did not create the jins and the humans except to worship Me alone.” (Al-Dariyah: 56)

27 “Imploring Him is everyone in the heavens and the earth. Everyday He is in full control.” (Al-Rahman: 29) “His dominian encompasses the heavens and the earth, and ruling them never burdens Him.” (Al-Baqarah: 255). So the pessimists’ complaint that God is absent from the world should be turned against the passivity of men who expect good to come to them without their exertion to attain it.
28 28. In Al-Baqarah, verses 30-33 inform us of the great future in store for men, in spite of their weaknesses.
29 Izetbegovic, Op.cit., p. 226.
30 Ibid., pp. 59-60.
31 See P.A. Sorokin, Modern Historical and Social Philosophies, pp. 291-92.

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