Friday, December 23, 2005

The Menaingfulness of Life

Kassim Ahmad

(Third of Four Parts)

That is the right way of looking at society and civilization. All societies and civilizations contain both good and bad ideas and practices. When the good predominate over the bad, that society and civilization grow. Once the bad predominate, and no action is taken by its members to reverse the trend, that society and civilization is destroyed, and new societies and civilizations are born to take over from where the old left off. 32 Thus, we see the old civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt giving birth to Greek, then to Roman; then the Arabs under Islamic inspiration took over, inheriting from all the then civilizations, including those of Persia, India and China. Then modern Europe took over from the Arabs around the 15th century and carried forward the flag of civilization to all parts of the world through trade and colonization. In the 20th century that civilization is facing doom again for having regressed morally and spiritually, with two world wars already past, and a new world war looming.

Will the world be destroyed, along with what we call modern civilization, as Bertrand Russell, has forecast? 33 Under the present conditions of widespread pessimism and despair, it is easy to agree with Russell. The good Alija Izetbegovic had come under the spell of that post-war pessimism before he fought the good fight for Bosnia-Herzergovina, and, let it be said, for all humanity, as the brave Iraqis and others who have stood up against the technological might of the modern-day Goliath. No! Morality and right reason cannot agree to this forecast of despair. History is our evidence. If mankind had no other destiny but to be destroyed, then it should have been destroyed a long time ago. 34 How many times in history has the fate of man hung in the balance between continuity and total destruction? The fact that man has survived the many occurrences of major floods and earthquakes, big storms and fires, widespread epidemics and diseases in antiquity and medieval times, when modern science and technology was not yet at his disposal is evidence enough of the existence of a grand divine scheme in which his great destiny is placed. Now that man has greater grasp of natural and historical laws than ever before, it is less likely that he is targeted for total annihilation.

For that matter, life on earth itself is a miracle, as science has shown. The possibility of its occurance is so minimal that explanation of its non-existence is easier than that of its emergence. 35 Therefore, it is inevitable for us to conclude that mankind has a destiny beyond and far greater than any human being or even any human generation can know. It is thus important that man should understand this and put himself at the service of this destiny, in other words, at the service of God. 36

Actually, we must understand that there exists two plans for the world: God’s Grand Design and the devil’s evil design. God’s design is to put man in His Paradise, whereas the devil’s design is to put him in Hell. These plans weave and intertwine the historical fabric of man’s life in this world. In so far as he puts himself in the service of God and carrying out God’s design, he succeeds; in so far as he fails and puts himself at the service of the devil, he suffers. Man’s successes accumulate; his sufferings are temporary, although often repetitive. Ultimately, God’s Grand Design will prevail, since the moral nature of the universe and of man is the fundamental basis of existence, as we have seen. The role of man, using his freedom, is to realize God’s Grand Design with as little pain and suffering and in as little time as possible. In a morally-bound universe, God gives man moral freedom and lets him decide his own fate.

This fundamental truth is graphically illustrated in the story of Joseph and his brothers, where his brothers planned some evil for Joseph, while God had planned good for him. The first part of the story finds Joseph thrown into dire circumstances, culminating in his being accused of molesting the beautiful wife of the Egyptian governor, in whose house he was a trusted servant, and being wrongfully imprisoned for it. The latter part of the story finds Joseph freed from imprisonment and honoured in Egypt and reunited with his old father, Jacob, and his erstwhile jealous but now-repentant brothers. 37

Here we naturally come to the question of the occurrence of miracles and of divine revelation. How do we scientifically explain miracles, miracles being defined as `supernatural’ events? How do we explain the Quran and other divine books? Is the Quran Muhammad’s composition, as some Westsern orientalists assert? If not, was Muhammad simply a passive recipient of the message? Does God intervene in natural processes? If He does, does this not make a mockery of His own law? What is law? And, finally, what is God?

All the above questions are no doubt related. We cannot try to answer some, while ignoring others that seem to us intractable. But we cannot assert the principles of rationality and science unless we try to answer them. It seems to us that we must attempt to answer them to the best of our ability. Let us take the questions of miracles and divine revelation first.

What we call `natural’ as opposed to `supernatural’ is simply what our cognizance (both sensory and rational) tell us is the order of things, or what we call the natural order. But our natural order belongs to a specific category of created beings, i.e. this material world, with its spatio-temporal dimension. Time and space exist for us, but it does not exist for God. Even for us, during sleep or during loss of consciousness, we are not aware of time and space. Time and space, therefore, are not absolute realities. They only exist under certain circumstances but do not under certain other circumstances. Once we grasp this truth, we remove the iron-clad separation between the two categories of the `natural’ and the `supernatural’. Thus, when Moses’s stick turned into a serpent, it was a case of the encapsulation of time: the matter, stick (standing for the vegetable world), turned into the being, serpent (standing for the animal world which comes into being immediately after that), without the normal intervening time.

Now, if a stick can turn into a serpent, what is there to stop just anything from happening? Can your enemy destroy you by just wishing evil for you? Can you obtain good by just wishing? In other words, is the world capricious, or is it lawful? This is a basic question. Man has had to answer this question right from the start. For to live, and go on living, the first human beings, as do all human beings, must believe that living is worthwhile. This belief, in a way, is not based on reason. It is based on an instinctive feeling, the feeling that the world is good, and behind the good world is a good and loving Creator. This basic feeling in a human being is natural to him. 38 This is the basis of the right religion of man, as this verse states:

Therefore, you shall devote yourselves to the religion of strict monotheism. Such is the natural instinct placed in the people by God. Such creation of God will never change. This is the perfect religion, but most people do not know. 39

Thus, although there is no absolute barrier between the natural and the supernatural, the universe is not capricious, but lawful, created and ruled by a lawful, rational, good and compassionate God. Therefore, the existence of evil in the world is both contingent and temporary. It is contingent upon man’s rebellion against God, and temporary upon man’s struggle against evil. Once man stops rebelling against God and fights against evil, man’s victory over evil is assured and complete. When this condition is achieved, the Hereafter comes into being with its Paradise (God’s Kingdom) and its Hell (the state of exile from God’s Kingdom).

The phenomena of revelation cannot be explained except in the context of a rational and moral universe. Neither can the prophet-messengers, among whom number the greats among them -- Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad -- be conceived as passive recipients of the revelations. Because God is Compassionate, He continuously sends messages to human communities from the earliest times to guide them. 40 Obviously, He must choose His message-bearers from among the morally-commited individuals of each community. Muhammad, whose life-history we know, is a good example of a morally-committed individual chosen to carry His final message to mankind. Thus, Muhammad’s moral and intellectual qualities rendered him suitable to receive the great message.

That does not mean, however, that with Muhammad, God stopped communicating with human beings. Such a belief would severely restrict God’s overwhelming attribute of mercy. 41 The Quran tells us in no uncertain terms that Muhammad was the last propohet. 42 That simply means that the era of prophethood, beginning with Adam, representing the earliest human communities, came to an end with Muhammad, as mankind enters the international stage and the true Age of Science, when prophets are no longer required. 43 This does not mean that at that point God stops communicating with man. 44 We are told that God is ever active and all the time intervening in the affairs of the world. 45 Only now man, having reached the stage of spiritual adulthood, has to rely more on his mind and science to continue his journey. However, he has God’s final scripture, the Grand Quran, with him to guide him on his onward journey. 46

There has been a notion that man, using his mind alone, can arrive at a correct understanding of universal laws, implying that God’s guidance is not necessary. 47 The facts, however, have not borne this out. It is now generally agreed that the 18th century so-called Age of Reason has been a failure. It had not realized the high hopes that it engendered. Rather it culminated in colonialism, wars of colonialism and peaked in the 20th century’s two terrible world wars of imperialism. The closing decades of the 20th century, in fact, witnessed a renewed interest in religion, precisely because of the spiritual and moral failures of modern Western civilization.

Reason is actually a double-edged weapon. Is it the reason of the mind, or the reason of the body? The philosophers of the so-called European Enlightenment, notably Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Thomas Malthus understood and analysed it as the reason of the body. Others, like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel concieved it as the reason of the mind. However, the former interpretation carried the day and landed Europe, and the world with it, in the clutches of its own evil works.

At this jucture, we should perhaps examine the phenomenon of what is called divine punishment. Punishment must, of course, be paired with reward. One cannot exist without the other. Since this world is part of a rational, lawful and moral universe, we can be certain that good works will be rewarded and evil works punished fully in this life as well as in the Hereafter (which stand for our infinite future life). We know that human laws are not always just and that criminals are not always apprehended and adequately punished in this world. Conversely, in this world, good works are not always, nor adequately, rewarded. Therefore, it only stands to reason to expect that both the rewards and punishments will be fully executed in the Hereafter. 48

This far is clear. But what about the so-called “natural disasters”, like earthquakes, storms, floods, fires, epidemics and diseases, which, in total, have claimed many thousands, even millions, of human lives, including those of the innocent? What about the wars, especially the two world wars? Even as we pose the question, the answer seems to emerge. The answer is: human failure to act morally and to act in obedience to God. 49

32 This historical law of the carrying forward of good ideas and practices in human society in stated in the Quran thus: “He sends down water from the sky, causing the valleys to overflow. The rapids produce abundant foam. Similarly, when they use fire to refine metals for their jewellery or equipment, foam is produced. God thus cites analogies for truth and falsehood. As for the foam, it goes to waste, while that which benefits the people stays close to the ground.” (Al-Ra`ad: 17)
33 See note 7.

34 “If God were to punish the people for their transgressions, He would have annihilated every creature on earth. But He respites them for a specific predetermined time. Once their interim ends, they cannot delay it by a single moment, nor can they hasten it.” (Al-Nahl: 61)
35 Many modern biologists who have devoted years of studies to the phenomenon of life have concluded that life is a miracle. Man cannot create life. (See A.A. Izetbegovic, Ibid., pp. 22-31.) The Quran informed us that only God can create life a long time ago: “O people, here is a parable that you must consider carefully: the idols you call upon besides God can never create a fly, even if they banded together to do so. Furthermore, if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it; weak is the pursuer and the pursued.” (Al-Hajj: 73)
36 The whole complete life of man is to be devoted to God alone is succintly summed up in this verse: “Say, ‘My prayers, my worship, my life and my death all belong to God, Lord of the universe. He has no partner. This is what I am commanded to believe and I am the first to submit.’ ” (Al-An`am: 162-63)
37 Quran, Yusuf: 4-102.
38 “Recall that your Lord summoned all the descendents of Adam and had them bear witnees for themselves: `Am I not your Lord?’ They all said, `Yes. We bear witness.’ Thus, you cannot say on the Day of Resurrection, `We were not aware of this.’ Nor can you say, `It was our parents who practised idolatory, and we simply followed in their footsteps. Will you punish us for the sins of innovators?’ We thus explain the revelations to enable them to return.” (Al-A’raf: 172-74)
39 Al-Rum: 30
40 “ To every community, a messenger. Once their messenger comes, they are judged equitably without the least injustice.” (Yunus: 47)
41 “He said, `My retribution is incurred by whomever I wish, but My mercy encompasses all things.’ ” (Al-A’raf: 156)
42 “Muhammad was not the father of any man among you. He was a messenger of God and the final prophet.” (Al-Ahzab: 40)
43 “... the Prophet of Islam seems to stand between the ancient and the modern world. In so far as the source of his revelation is concerned, he belongs to the ancient world; in so far as the spirit of his revelation is concerned, he belongs to the modern world. In him life discovers other sources of knowledge suitable to its new direction. The birth of Islam ... is the birth of the inductive intellect. In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in descovering the need of its own abolition ...” (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 126)
44 “Possessor of high ranks, the Ruler of the whole dominion, He sends inspiration, bearing His commands, to whomever he chooses from among His servants, to warn of the Day of Gathering.” (Gahfir: 15)
45 See note 27.
46 In the understanding of the Quran, of course, man needs God’s guidance. Although, the Quran is the same Quran as that used by the Prophet and his Companians, its understanding in the modern context must necessarily differ. This is what is referred to in the Quran as hikmah or wisdom, i.e. a rational interpretation of its message. Although classical tafsir has assigned the role of interpretation to the Prophet, this is not an accurate meaning of the Quranic texts. An overall understanding would assign God as the ultimate teacher of the Quran. (See Quran, Al-Rahman: 1-2; Al-Mudathir: 19 & Al-Ra`ad: 2) Read with other relevant verses, these would mean that God will expalin the meanings of His message through people whom He selects from every generation.
47 We refer to the philosophical romance by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufail (1109-1185) where the main character, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, marooned in an uninhabited island, discovered God through the sheer use of his reasoning. See The Journey of the Soul: The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan (trans. Riad Kocache), The Octagon Press, London, 1982.
48 “ That is the day when they will be completely exposed; none of them will hide anything from God. To whom belongs all kingship on that day? To God, the One, the Supreme. On that day, every soul will be paid for whatever it earned. There will be no injustice on that day. God is most efficient in reckoning.” (Quran, Ghafir: 16-17)
49 “Anything good that happens to you is from God, and anything bad that happens to you is from you.” (Quran, Al-Nisa’: 79) This verse should not be understood as meaning that there exist things outside of God’s creation. Evil is a consequence of man’s rebellion against God, in accordance with His laws. This verse alone throws abundant light on the occurance of the so-called natural disasters. Further, consider these: “Say, `Who can protect you from the calamities of the land and the sea?’ You implore Him loudly as well as secretly: `If only He saves us this time, we shall indeed be grateful.’ Say, `God saves you this time, and other times as well, then you still set up idols besides Him.’ Say, `He is able to pour upon you retribution from above you, or from beneath your feet, or He can divide you into factions and have you taste each other’s tyranny and persecution.’ Note how We explain the revelations that they may understand.” (Al-An`am: 63-65)

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