“Call upon your Lord humbly and in private – He does not like those who transgress the bounds. Do not corrupt the earth after it has been set right – call on Him fearing and hoping. The mercy of Allah is close to those who do good.” (Quran: Al-A’raf 7:55-56)
1 The Criterion of Freedom
God is The Sustainer1, yes.
Knowing (from the Qur’an) that from God’s perspective He has full knowledge of all things, we understand the He has pre-planned all things. Yes. All things have been pre-written as it were on the ‘preserved tablet’ (the al-Lawh al-Mahfooz )2
But we are not God. So we have no idea what is written apart from what Allah reveals to us. From our perspective, we have been given free will3. So we experience our freedom as it is.
But note, this freedom is not total. For instance, we have not chosen who we are prior to our being born. Not our circumstance. Nor our parents, our ethnicity, etc. There are certain restrictions on the said freedoms – but we do possess the will to alter some of the said ‘restrictions’ in our lifetime.
That is to say, to alter the laws of our lives in the course of our lives. So the poor man can alter his fortune to become a rich man. If he does, then man has willed this to be the case, striven to alter a humanly ‘once-believed inevitablility’ and through action and effort, he might achieve his dream – if being wealthy in material stuff is the dream for some. But as Muslims we would note that all this was able to take place with Allah’s permission.
So where is our freedom in that? Well, just there.
There are some who take offence at this not-so-cryptic conundrum. What bothers them is the notion that if God has already pre-planned everything, they then ask: what is the point of our freedom?
The answer is: yes what is the point of Your freedom? Good question.
The question is posed for you to answer in your lifetime before your airways tighten and your life is snuffed out – too late. Don’t avoid the question and wander the earth with eyes defiantly closed, hands deafening ears, head ostrich-like, buried in the sand. That was certainly not what was meant by “Travel through the earth and see how Allah did originate creation: so will Allah produce a later creation: for Allah has power over all things.”
(Qur’an: Al-Ankaboot 29:19-20)
“Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and mind) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.”4
(Quran Al-Hajj – 22:46)
And notice all your preconceived ideas, your personal angst when you might attempt Your own answer, if indeed you have some ‘chip on your shoulder’. You bring into the answer what you bring in with you. So why are you doing that? How astute are you in assessing and apprehending your own prejudices prior to your answer? I’d suggest a calmer (more reasonable) mind for the job.
A first-part answer (to the question about the point of our freedom) is directly posited in the Qur’an:
(Qur’an: The Winnowing Winds 51: 47-58)
So where exactly is the problem if we have no idea what He has pre-planned? All we have is hindsight, where we’d look back and try and figure out the mind of God – His plan. However this would be pure conjecture. We might be right. We might be wrong. We will be told the truth of it all in the end (Qur’an 6:159).
Two possible answers to this one: 1) the problem is to do with a fatalistic belief that since ‘everything that will be, will be’ there’s no point in man willfully trying to do anything, to change a perceived inevitable circumstance. All I’ve outlined above is nothing like this concept. In the fatalistic conception, there is the presumption ‘to actually know’ – in the present moment – the will of God. But any with a mortal mind can ‘come to know’ by scrutinising the past only. Knowing the significances of the present and future at once is the remit of an immortal mind.
2) the problem is actually not so much about freedom but really more about someone’s dislike of God or the concept of God, for whatever reason. Such a person needs to inquire as to whether they have fully understood God in the first place – by referring to Islamic explanations of Him. I would remind them that their lives will be at an end and they will be facing him soon to account for what they did in life.
Now, the second-part answer (to the question about the point of our freedom) could utilise any guidance God has provided us in the course of the history of mankind. For instance… His revelations to mankind? Surely, in there might be a Criterion – an idea as to what God intended. That seems like a valuable place to start and a useful benchmark in terms of a proposal for interpreting phenomena and what its message means for our lives – and our souls.
An important side note: I am obviously talking about the Qur’anic perspective as being the Criterion5, not withstanding the fact that God Himself calls it by this name in the Qur’an! But also, from the Qur’anic narrative, all religions were originally islam (with a small I) but since their holy books have in secular history been tampered with, what we have now is a compilation of works, where the original revelatory message is mixed up with human efforts of interpretation – into a biblos of sorts and a ‘People of the Books’. The Qur’an that we have today is still intact in the original language of the Prophet who delivered it, unlike ALL the others. That in itself is a miracle. (But then God did say in the Qur’an that He will protect the last revelation (Qur’an: Al-Hijr 15:9)). It is the overseer that enables us to see in the biblical tradition, for instance, where the truth merges with falsehood and vice-verse.
2 On Trials and Devotions
So when a calamity befalls us, yes, Allah has pre-planned this. There is no problem of the ‘Summun Bonum’ in Islam. Which is why we say that, ultimately, ‘the good and the bad come from Allah’ (al qadri khayrihi wa sharrihi minallahi ta’ala).6
But any suggestion that this might imply that Allah is bad is understanding it all upside down – i.e. a blatant error. Why? Because we know (as expounded in the Qur’an) that the point of our life is not to be fixated with the life of this world. But rather to prepare for the afterlife, using this life as a testing ground to determine who deserves, by intention and action – an exalted place in heaven. Calamities and good fortune will arise in life. That’s the whole point of life…
“And surely We shall try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to the steadfast.” (Qur’an 2:155)
“O ye who believe! Let not your wealth or your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah. And whosoever does that, then they are the losers!” (Qur’an 63:9)
“And We tested them with good (blessings) and evil (calamities) in order that they might turn back.” (Qur’an 7:168)
And so how do we deal with the trials of good fortune and misfortune? We must be patient (sabr) with the second and filled with thanks (sukr) for the first7 – remembering to praise God in the process to show our devotion to Him. Therein is the reason for reward and chastisement. And What are God’s attributes if not Love, Truth, Peace, Power, and Justice… (i.e. His Ninety Nine beautiful Names)?
We merely devote ourselves to the Unique One Who is the only One Who is worthy of our devotion – Who created time, space and existence. Who created you and me.
So who are you devoting your whole life to? No one? – That is to say, your Self? Hmm? Or your lover/spouse, perhaps; or an Ideal you read about; or Humanity… Some of these are not necessarily bad – but none of them are a sure ‘handhold that never breaks’8 as is God – in Whose security (in life, in sanity, in reality) is total. We need to refine Tawakkul (trusting in God’s plan) in our hearts.9
There is, therefore, no rest for the wicked wise. It becomes understandable to blame God for disasters if we possessed that narrow-sighted view that we were meant to be in a kind of ‘paradise on earth’. It does not follow that we ought not to try and make the world a better place. But we should not get ourselves side-tracked, quite literally, in the process and blur the difference between paradise and earth. Otherwise, in more ways than one, hell, will be the most likely outcome…
3 The Natural Laws of God and the Human Will
And so, once we realise that there are natural laws governing this earth, we ought to understand these laws are God-given. But Allah has given us power (will) that is capable of altering those (natural) laws (and yet this is with His pre-knowledge).
“Call upon your Lord humbly and in private – He does not like those who transgress the bounds. Do not corrupt the earth after it has been set right – call on Him fearing and hoping. The mercy of Allah is close to those who do good.” (Qur’an: Al-A’raf 7:55-56)
So if He knows that one day in the future we will alter His own (natural) laws, does this decrease His Majesty? No. Because He knew it would happen in the first place. Does this then make Him bad, if He enabled us to destroy ourselves? No. He told us to keep to His limits AND he gave us knowledge (revelation) to keep to the set boundaries.
So why have we decided to get ahead of ourselves and begin to alter things? Why did we decide to overstep God’s (natural) laws? The fact is because we wanted to. Simple. We decided to do what we willed. And whether consciously or not, we have opted to destroy ourselves. And some have the illogical nerve to then blame this on God. Isn’t this that ‘playing the victim’ mindset? The fact is, you have doomed yourself by a type of short-mindedness that hasn’t harmed God in the slightest (if that was such an aim!).
In terms of the laws of nature, we have been given power to get to know them10, and thereby understand them – and now we can manipulate them. And based on the above, it seems we are in fact able to alter God’s law on earth (but with his foreknowledge) using the power of our own will.
And so comes God’s real point: The revelation says: “Do not exceed the limits”. The god-given limits of the earth are those of nature. The implication is that we can exceed the laws of nature (but never exceed God).
The reason for revelation reminds us, that we have to understand God’s laws in order to manage the world – carefully – as part of man’s role as ‘Khalifah of God on earth’. That is to say, a Deputy, Vicegerent or a Caretaker of the world.11 It is not a divinely appointed king that is meant to maintain harmony on the earth for the love of God – but each and every one of us. This is the radically egalitarian message in Islam. Have we all not been divinely appointed …to live?
4 The Age of Manipulation and the Humane-(islam)-ising Principle
In terms of the laws of nature, in the past from the ancient Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks through to the Muslim ‘golden age’ then the European renaissance and the ‘Enlightenment’ – all this can be termed the Ages of Discovery. Natural laws were discovered and extrapolated.
The present age dubbed the Age of Extremes12 (or Modernity – that is, post ‘Enlightenment’) is new in that it is one where man does not merely understand nature’s law – but one where man has decided to use his will to manipulate these laws and one where man begins to alter the laws of nature itself to fashion it to his will. This is the age where Frankenstein’s macabre manifests: an Age of MANipulation13.
Now naïve Moderns, technophiles and believers in the cult of the New and the worshippers of Man are likely to be excited to see the prospect of changing the laws of nature under the auspices of man. Indeed this venture appears tempting – even exhilarating. So do we throw caution to the winds? I put it to you that we have done precisely that.
And imagine if a small group of powerful elite – multinationals and the like – decided to monopolise on this industry (of changing nature’s laws) in order to make Self-interested profits, and publicise such manoeuvrings as though it were in the public interest (of man). And then in an inquiry, years later, it turns out that an ecological or humanitarian disaster has become the result. I said ‘imagine it’ because such a thing does not happen in real life… right? Since its occurrence would be a sign that we have lost the humane in our humanity… Right?
And even if we manage to democratise our laws of manipulation, so every man can manipulate the laws of nature at the drop of a hat, will we be seriously capable to regulate the very life of existence for all? Or will we all ‘go the way of the dodo’? That bird – if we give credit where it’s due – did exit the logical way out via an unIslamic modern-mindset point of view of the world. Its demise should come as no surprise. I worry that all modern roads lead to that same cul-de-sac of extinction.
I ask again: what if our dabbling with the laws of nature threaten life’s very equilibrium? But the egoist, those headstrong, obstinate one’s, will still pursue their wants, I’m sure. Do they have control over their own Selves which ought to have been mastered first and foremost, I would have hoped. But such apparently esoteric concepts are presumably lost on them, no doubt. Such thoughts that is the bread and butter of Deen al Islam and is/was the same for the range of the other religious traditions that have off-shot from the primordial Siraat-ul Mustaqim14 have been repackaged now to a GM variety of externalities.
And are we to foster the opposing tendency? To be anti-moderns, technophobes and believers in the cult of the old (traditions of our ancestors)? No, too. This mindset might characterise the Amish, but I’m sure there are others groups that could be included. The idea here is to never move away from an understanding of a perception of a culture, but rather to stay back according to the ways of our ancestors, our fathers.
I believe ours ought to be the middle road between these two extremes. We are warned NEVER uncritically to follow the ways of our ancestors.
“And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood (ya’qiloon) nothing, nor were they guided?” (Quran 2:170)
“Ya’qiloon” derives from “aql” – which is ‘to think’. We must be ‘thinking’/ ‘reflective’ submitters (Muslims)/ believers (Mu’meens)/ lovers of excellence (Muhseens) in our worship of God.
Although this verse originally referred specifically to the pre-Islamic Arabs who were following their pagan-jahili-ancestral ways, the sentiment of uncritically15 following a tradition (regardless of its Truth) as though it were The ‘Sanctified’ Way of our fathers, can be transferred to the present day Muslim or non Muslim blissfully-blind and ignoramusly following their culture with no thought about its moral validity. No. Spell out the Truth of your culture please.
The Prophet’s (peace on him) last revelation does provide an Arab cultural reference point but this never precludes the value of the worth in whatever Truth(s) prevail in another’s culture. The idea is that the moral message inherent in the Qur’an – that Criterion – must be applied to assess any culture at any time. In there are a set of humane codes, principles, ways, in terms of how we should BE as a people but also how we should treat each other and with the world.
The humane way is based on that respect that we understand how existence has been placed into our hands and for our use – and THAT MEANS for our care. This is a very logical, commonsensical, reasonable, well balanced… and the true purpose of our role as Stewards, Guardians, Khalifahs on the Earth.
THE PROBLEMATIC: Since those that are not guided by Allah’s revealed way are apparently running the direction of the Modern world, and doing a very poor job about it if global peace was the objective – on the pan-humanitarian-ecological level. What does this mean for the Muslim charge?
To non Muslims: how have you allowed your cynicism, your insatiable, materialistic commercialism, your disenchantment of this world – that is catastroph-ising – take over the running of our planet? We will all certainly be held to account.
Humanity (Muslim and non Muslim) needs to seriously understand the Islamic message before it foregoes the wisdom contained therein, thereby losing the Last authentic revelation (the culmination and most succinct articulation of God’s word) in the history of our time – for our time. By losing it, the peril of existence is undeniable and inevitable.
Our task – Muslim and non Muslim – is to bring balance to the Age of Extremes, to re-enlighten in the darkness of Modern times, to renaissance anew: an Age of Unity, post-apocalypse must come.
An apocalypse there will be – because of the hubris of the ruling elite, who appear hell-bent with their material-megalomaniac designs. The tragi-comedy of errors is epic in all proportions! But the Muslims are convinced – just as we are convinced that in life we will one day, die – that, based on the prophecies of the Prophet16 (peace on him), we are sure that the (humble) believers in Truth, God, Mercy and Justice will prevail at the end of the cataclysm. But not without trial. Success will come through our patience, our enjoining the good and forbidding of evil17, our constancy in maintaining our unequivocal standpoint on The Truth from the error. I pray to God that this is indeed in our hearts.
We are not anti-science, but we do recognise it for what it is: a tool – and not a false god. Therein is the fallacy of the positivists. We are not anti-humanity, but we do recognise it for what it is meant to be: humane – since We, all, are not false gods ourselves either. Therein is the fallacy of the secular humanists. We are not anti-peace, but we do recognise it for what it has always been: Islam, which means ‘[the way to] peace’ – and since The Peace is ultimately God, towards Him, (Who is also The Truth), is the struggle worth fighting for.
How will our successes take place? You know what they say about belief and the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’… It will come to be, since where there’s a will, there will always be a way .
“Whatever misfortune befalls you, it is because of what your own hands have done, but He forgives much. You cannot escape anywhere on earth and you have no protector or helper other than Allah.”
(Quran: Al-Shura 42:30-31)
If you want to blame someone. We ought to blame ourselves and ask, what should we do to solve the problem we’ve created in the world. But never despair. Trust in God. And don’t sit, but Strive.
“Beware of the evil that would harm not only the wrongdoers among you: know that Allah is severe in punishment.”
(Quran: Al-Anfal 8:25)
Allowing those who are indifferent, uncaring even, to the inherent balance in life; those who are not living up to being the Vicegerents of earth we were meant to be; those that are busy hording the ‘stuff’ of this world; those who believe status is based on putting others down in order for one’s own self-esteem to be raised up – well, such people are the types that will destroy the planet. The (believing, practicing, good) ‘Submitters to God’ for the love (and fear) of God, MUST take charge – must make ‘thinking’, ‘talking’, and ‘doing’ in our efforts to take charge – because their humility and patience IS (proven to be) the Way of the Prophets.
So, kindly, please make your way.
(Any mistakes in this articulation are my own. Please forgive me for them.)
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1 Ar-Razzaq – The Sustainer, One of the Ninety Nine Names of God
Qur’an: Al Bruruj 85, The Constellations: http://www.netquran.com/english/english1.php?surahNo=85
Qur’an: Al Naba 78, The Tidings: http://quran.com/78
5 “Blessed is He who sent down the Criterion upon His Servant that he may be to the worlds a warner – (1) He to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and who has not taken a son and has not had a partner in dominion and has created each thing and determined it with [precise] determination. (2) But they have taken besides Him gods which create nothing, while they are created, and possess not for themselves any harm or benefit and possess not [power to cause] death or life or resurrection. (3) And those who disbelieve say, “This [Qur'an] is not except a falsehood he invented, and another people assisted him in it.” But they have committed an injustice and a lie. (4) And they say, “Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon.” (5) Say, [O Muúammad], “It has been revealed by He who knows [every] secret within the heavens and the earth. Indeed, He is ever Forgiving and Merciful.” (6) And they say, “What is this messenger that eats food and walks in the markets? Why was there not sent down to him an angel so he would be with him a warner? (7) Or [why is not] a treasure presented to him [from heaven], or does he [not] have a garden from which he eats?” And the wrongdoers say, “You follow not but a man affected by magic.” (8) Look how they strike for you comparisons; but they have strayed, so they cannot [find] a way. (9) Blessed is He who, if He willed, could have made for you [something] better than that – gardens beneath which rivers flow – and could make for you palaces. (10) But they have denied the Hour, and We have prepared for those who deny the Hour a Blaze. (11)” (Qur’an: al Furqan – The Criterion, 25:27)
6 http://www.islamweb.net/emainpage/index.php?page=showfatwa&Option=FatwaId&Id=163539) and see Hadith 2 from An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith Qudsi, trans Ibrahim and Davies (1998)
7 The significance of this notion I first heard from Hamza Yusuf, in a lecture of his: “Changing Our Condition” watch from.1:19:44. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=cJeVlDR5zZc#!
8 Qur’an 2:256
10 “And He taught Adam the names of all things…” (Qur’an 2:31)
11 “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” (Qur’an 2: 30)
12 Refer to the historian, Eric Hobsbawm 1995
13 The Physicist, Michio Kaku, in his book ‘Visions’ (1998), page 5, he demarcates between the Age of Discovery and the Age of Mastery. I suggest that without a proper mastery of the Self, we have in its stead, not Mastery but only Manipulation – an altogether more malevolent equivalent to its benign companion.
14 ‘The Straight Path’ – (Qur’an 1:6) a reference to the clarity of Islam in its leading to God alone.
15 Please read: “On how Identity can Mind-Lead you away from Truth”
16 ‘The Prophecies of Muhammad’ by Moustafa Zayed (2012)
17 Qur’an 9:67 and 3:110