One of the more pervasive myths of optimism held by many Muslims is that Westerners are ‘converting to Islam.’ To be sure, some Westerners have and continue to do so. However, this occurs at a far lower rate than needed for a noticeable demographic shift in religious affiliation. This is not to deny the tremendous significance and impact of Western converts, which is vast relative to the number of persons. Some extremely influential Islamic scholars have been Western converts, such as the Qur’anic translator Leopold Weiss, known as ‘Europe’s gift to Islam,’ and the British diplomat and author Gai Eaton, who became an intellectual and spiritual mentor for new Muslims for many decades. Whilst many more names of excellent, perceptive and scholarly Western converts could be produced, the list is not as exhaustive enough to suggest that a significant proportion of Western intellectuals are considering becoming Muslims.
Currently, a Muslim born in a Western country is far more likely to abandon their faith than one of his or her non-Muslim compatriots is to join it. This would remain true if as little as one in a hundred Western born Muslims abandoned their faith, as a far lower proportion of non-Muslim Westerners become and remain Muslims. Why should this be the case? In early Islamic history, large swathes of the globe converted to Islam. Following the early Arab conquests, the populations of Persia, Arabia and North Africa steadily turned to Islam over generations. The Muslim conquerors did not typically coerce or even expect the populace of the nations whose ruling class they had replaced to embrace the faith, yet the populace did so. Meanwhile, Islam in South East Asia spread, not through conquest, but through personal contact with Muslim traders and merchants. Following the brutal Mongol conquests, the Mongol conquerors who followed Shamanistic religions would themselves later convert to Islam, the religion of the conquered. However, despite the historical precedent for whole populations to embrace the faith, this is not happening in the West, even gradually. When the Muslim is forced to consider why more Westerners do not consider his worldview, common reasons may include the following:
-Western news, print media, and the entertainment industry is at best patronising towards Muslims and sometimes outright hostile.
-Most of the population of Western countries know few if any Muslims to learn from.
-There is a lack of access to (responsible) Islamic literature.
-Poor religious behaviour from Muslim individuals, making the faith appear crude, simplistic, and inordinately punitive.
-Poor secular behaviour from Muslim individuals e.g. crime, fraud or failing to significantly interact with the rest of society. The conclusion drawn is that the religion of the perpetrators is at best, useless, and at worst, complicit in their behaviour.
There is certainly truth in these realities and Muslims should strive to remedy the. However, there are many Western non-Muslims who have befriended Muslims, and would agree, for instance, that the media sometimes stigmatises Muslims and/or Islam, and that poor behaviour from followers does not reflect on the faith. These individuals may have a greater chance of becoming Muslims, but they do not usually do so. Even with the above setbacks removed (the possible exception being the lack of access to responsible literature), the Islamic faith itself does not automatically become more desirable or believable. The reason(s) why most Westerners have never seriously considered Islam goes much deeper and may lie in differences in the entire psyche of those raised in the West, compared to those raised in predominantly Muslim societies. This is not to say that Westerners are morally or intellectually depraved and thus simply cannot in principle comprehend Islam; far from it. However, there are modes of thought which are common in the West which I believe warrant critique, as there are with those common in the Muslim world.
Categorising systems of consciousness into ‘Muslim’ or ‘Western’ may seem very reductive, and indeed these categories are not entirely discrete. There are many Muslim individuals whose worldviews could arguably fit in both or neither categories; especially if they reside in ‘The West,’ which is typically considered to include North America, Europe and Australasia. Likewise, non-Muslims who are native citizens in Muslim majority countries often have more parallels in approaching culture, life, death and purpose with their Muslim counterparts than with the average Western liberal. Furthermore, some regions in the ‘Western,’ umbrella may contain cultures which seem more akin with Muslim majority nations than other Western ones. However, a more apt yet brief title for this discussion is elusive. Replacing ‘Muslim’ with ‘Eastern’ for parity is not appropriate when exploring the Islamic faith as many ‘Eastern’ countries are devoid of a significant Muslim presence. To instead refer to ‘Islamic’ minds when discussing how Muslim people think and live is equally inappropriate, as this equates the psyche of the Muslim person to the Islamic message, when the two are not necessarily equivalent, an in this authors view, often diverge. Finally, this discussion is anything but a contrast between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian,’ ways of thinking. Modern Western thought, despite being historically inextricable from Christianity, is not the equivalent of the Christian faith, nor is it usually perceived as such. On the contrary, many of the aspects of modern Western thought discussed here, despite having Christian origins, are used to attack the Christian faith. In many respects, this discussion could have been titled ‘the real reason why Westerners to not become (i.e. convert during adulthood) Muslims or Christians.
My intent is to consider and discuss how the modern human may become truly enlightened with the best aspects of the broad paradigms that I refer to as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Western,’ minds. Despite the title, I shall not greatly labour over discussions of conversions to Islam as much as document the psychological and intellectual barriers brought about by differences in thought between these two worlds. This essay argues that serious moral and intellectual defects have been manifested through both ways of thinking; though I stress that ‘Muslim’ and ‘Western’ minds, represent broad ways of thinking that are common amongst individuals of Muslim majority and Western nations respectively, not necessarily inherent values of the systems of thought which they profess.
Since the Eighth Century there has been significant cultural and intellectual transfer between the Muslim and Western world. Until the late Middle Ages, more of this probably came from the Muslim side, with the transfer of concepts including Hindu-Arabic numerals, algebra, and many innovations in philosophy, science, engineering, and agriculture. Much of this came to the West via Southern Europe, particularly the Iberian Peninsula which was under Muslim rule. From the colonial period to the present day however, more of the influence undoubtedly comes from the Western side. Western films, music, food, sports, information technology and a Western style of education is common throughout much of the Muslim world.
‘Muslim’ and ‘Western’ ways of thought may soon become far less discrete, quite probably in favour of Western thought. Much of the middle- and upper-class population of many Muslim majority countries are enamoured by Western commodities, fashions and ideas; and there are many powerful Western governments, corporations and individuals eager to proselytise both. Currently however, there remain broad differences in thought, worldview and culture between those of Western nations, and Muslim majority states, particularly regarding the following topics which I shall discuss.
- Truth and relativism
- Rights and duties
- Evil and hardship
- Individual thought and attitude to authority
- Science and philosophy
- The current role of religion and its history
- Social interaction between people
We shall examine each one of these concepts in turn and reflect on how both ways of thinking address them, and the implications this may have on the relationship of the Westerner with Islam.
- Truth and relativism
Amongst the most important questions to consider when comparing the two groups of thought, is how they address ultimate truth; what is real, and what way of life one should follow, if indeed there exists an inherently preferable one.
Many Western Christians, non-religious theists, ‘spiritual but not religious’ individuals and agnostics favour a variety of relativism; people should follow ‘what works for them.’ Some modern Christians will happily say that Islam seems to make ‘more sense,’ than Christianity, which often baffles the Muslim who wonders why the conversion to Islam is not forthcoming. The Christian may say that Islam is indeed optimal for some cultures, but Christianity is better for his or her own culture. Islam may have the more rational scripture, but perhaps Christianity has the better community. The Muslim may feel close to God by reflecting on the words of his holy book whilst the Christian may feel close to God by worshiping and singing in congregation.
Not all Westerners feel this way; evangelical protestants and militant atheists are not metaphysically tolerant of other truths, and this intolerance can extend to the conversational and political spheres. However, the former group is becoming increasingly irrelevant to public affairs (or at least unsuccessful in influencing them), even in the United States of America where strong Evangelical movements remain. It is important to acknowledge however that many evangelicals are not intolerant towards Muslims individuals and will often discuss interfaith differences with grace. When recalling theological discussions with evangelical Christians in Britain I struggle to remember a dialogue where rudeness or contempt was shown from either side. The same cannot be said for conversations with many staunch atheists who have been far likelier to show obvious contempt, emotion and anger that could be triggered at even the most innocuous mention of ‘religion.’ The narrative of many secular populists and their followers often equates to declaring that non atheistic world views, are foolish, and this is obvious, thus, there is no obligation not to abuse or caricature these views when challenging them.
Though the wrath of secular groups shifts towards Islam and Muslims, after having presided over near obliteration of Christianity in much of the West; the average person who claims to ‘hate religion’ usually has Christianity in mind as much, or more than Islam (online however, anti-Islam material from secular groups is extremely common). Despite increasingly prevalent anti-Muslim hate crimes, and thinly veiled aggression from mainstream political commentators, many still tread carefully before abusing Muslims or their beliefs. This is partly from lack of significant personal contact with Islam or Muslims, as opposed to negative ‘Christian’ experiences such as bad experiences from Sunday school, or a certain perception of Church history. Additionally, many still consider Muslims to be inseparable from certain races and cultures, which would be xenophobic or racist to attack. This latter reason for tolerance has a severe downside; with the Westerner being all but unaware that Islam is a world view which he or she could choose to embrace.
Despite the chip that resides in the shoulders of many westerners about ‘religion,’ the principle of relativism also remains common. Many Western Christians, deists and agnostics are perfectly happy to accept that other religions including Islam are potentially valid ways to either achieve salvation or at least spiritual nourishment. Even some individuals who ostensibly have a ‘problem with religion’ may be willing to accept that if Islam is practised a certain (perhaps ‘liberal’) way, the practitioner can be the better for it.
In contrast to this, practicing Muslims are likelier to tend towards absolutism. Islam, they argue, represents truth, thus if one is presented the Islamic message in a clear and convincing way, one must accept it. However, this does not mean the Muslim automatically considers followers of all other religions to be damned nor these religions entirely false constructs. The orthodox Muslim view is that all, or most religions contain truth and have divine origin. The primary Islamic scripture, the Qur’an, informs its readers that all peoples have been sent messengers proclaiming the oneness of the divine reality, and that this reality should be worshiped through contemplation, prayer and good deeds. However, to the Muslim, these paths have been contaminated over time, obscuring some of their truth. Only Islam, or at least its primary scripture, the Qur’an, will Muslims insist has not been contaminated as such.
Thus, for most Muslims, refied, formalised Islam (Islam itself simply means self-surrender to the divine, not a specific ‘religion’ or sect) is the most, or only viable, path to God. Thus, if anyone receives a responsible version of the Islamic message, they should embrace it. Within this view is a spectrum of theological acceptance, with some Muslims considering all other religions as de facto false (i.e. too contaminated to be viable at all), and others who believe that despite encountering corruption over time, other religions still retain merit.
Those on the less metaphysically pluralistic end of the spectrum are often likelier to have a more pessimistic salvific view for those of other religions, or those claiming to have none, but this is not always so. To view Islam as the sole religion fit for the human condition does not automatically entail the denial of mercy for non-Muslim persons who receive an inadequate or distorted exposure to the faith. Between a crude, anti-intellectual, almost childlike caricature of Islam promoted by some of its loudest voices, and a portrayal of Islam in media, and even school textbooks which is at best, patronising; many people fit this category. This includes many who have had considerable contact with Muslims.
What can the Muslim and western approaches to truth learn from one another? The narrative of many Westerners that all religions are essentially ‘the same’ in terms of worth, seems at face value, balanced and conducive to co-existence. However, this view is more ideological than informed; most of its advocates have not embarked on serious study of all the world religions and established a case for their essential sameness. Appealing as the idea may be, it is somewhat intellectually lazy, and does nothing to soften the hearts of hard-line secularists who may opt for hostility towards spiritual world views however pluralistic. If religions appear similar, they may simply categorise them as different versions of the same ‘untruth,’ claiming that similarities between different religions are not evidence of divine origin but simply copying from one another (even when there are no historical grounds for such copying taking place). If on the other hand, religions seem to contrast, the conclusion drawn is that at least all but one must be absurdity, so one might as well reject them all, as one has already rejected countless others. Many pop culture secular advocates take this view. A popular British once comedian raised the ‘convenience’ that one’s own religion is the only true one, and that the followers of all others will ‘go to hell.’ This characterisation despite being widely considered witty and insightful, is completely incorrect as most world religions, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, tribal and folk religions teach no such thing. Modern, mainstream Catholicism (the largest denomination of the largest world religion) does not either, nor do many interpretations of Islam.
A hard-line absolutist view of one’s own religion, though not a feature of all religions, certainly encounters challenges. People of different religions seem to derive happiness and spiritual growth from their own paths. It is difficult to prove that one particular path or denomination has been the most successful in providing this, and even if one could, it would not follow that all the others were completely invalid; at most, they would simply be somewhat less effective.
One should also appreciate that a person’s religion, or secular worldview usually corresponds to where and to whom they are born. This does not undermine whatever world view that they have (knowing the origin of a belief does not render it false), but that salvation should almost always correspond with ones parents and origin from does not appear to follow the principles of justice and mercy, which are common to most religions.
Regarding ultimate truth, universality and plurality, it seems difficult to deny that some metaphysical world views are objectively preferable than others while accepting that all or most paths contain fundamental truths. For example, the Muslim holds that it is objectively better to consider God as divine unity, as opposed to a triune divinity, or a pantheon of other deities. Even the most liberal pluralist who claims that all religions are essentially the same, considers this very universal view itself to be preferable than a contrary one. However, the pluralist, for all the difficulties of defending their view of complete sameness between religions, may well be perceptive with their more optimistic view of human salvation. A common stance amongst Muslims is that whilst one cannot declare the salvation or damnation of a given individual, it will most likely correlate with their being a Muslim or non-Muslim respectively. But how can we be sure? The very same Muslims would readily agree that Islam is a gift that is widely misused, abused, or at least underused by its recipients. Can we be sure that Muslims will not be taken to task more severely than others who did not accept Islam because it was displayed in a form that was at best inaccessible, if not also ugly and hypocritical? Perhaps we should answer with the popular slogan of many believers and non-believers alike; that God only knows.
Rights and duties
For most of their histories, Muslim, and Western nations probably viewed the concept of individual personal rights and duties in a similar way, with the former usually subservient to the latter. Compared to the needs of one’s tribe or family, personal ‘happiness’ was not especially important, and there was little point in complaining if one did not have this in abundance. However, the modern age sees a significant divergence in attitudes between residents of the Western world and those in Muslim majority countries (as well as many other developing ones). There are many reasons for this, including include the widespread adoption of liberalism in the West and the perceived independence from others for fulfilling one’s basic needs, whether family, community, nature, or divinity.
The worldview of the Muslim typically emphasises the duties incumbent upon a person, whilst the Westerner priorities the rights and wants of the individual. Both views have merit, but both, when prized at the complete expense of the other can be destructive to one’s life, and faith.
The individual autonomy and rights of persons should indeed be cherished. In many societies, individual fulfilment merits little concern next to the needs of the family or community. When considering marriages in such societies for example, the fulfilment of the participants is at best, a bonus, and by no means the objective of marriage, which primarily exists to strengthen the families involved. This concept often dismays the modern Westerner as being archaic and cruel. It is thus unsurprising that ‘historical’ films and television series usually impose a modern, liberal mentality onto the protagonists regarding ideas like marriage, who behave like an arranged marriage is an unforeseen affront to their rights as opposed to the norm.
However, the modern Western emphasis on rights arguably stretches beyond the implementation of desirable human autonomy and dignity. Rather, many Western liberals consider there to be no higher concerns in existence than the wants of an individual. The logical conclusion of this when applied to any spiritual belief system is that the concept of God represents an interloper with no right to distract the human from self-fulfilment. Hence, the secular liberal is often uncomfortable encountering any religious practice which does not confer immediate and obvious secular benefit. Religious fasting often elicits shocked, first world responses enquiring about the possibility of acute dehydration or starvation, (I must add here that some Muslims disfavour themselves and their faith by childishly complaining in front of their non-Muslim colleagues about what is at most, mild hunger and thirst stress) yet many non-religious individuals undergo equally or more gruelling forms of dietary choices for secular reasons. Other practices such as wearing a headscarf are likelier gain liberal acceptance if justified as a lifestyle choice, like an item of fashion. References to dress code that makes the wearer feel ‘close to God’ however, will elicit far more distrust and enquiries about ‘being forced to wear it,’ ‘the heat,’ or whether the wearer is being somehow masochistic. On several occasions I have witnessed the enquirer (seemingly oblivious of the irony) accusing a lady wearing Hijab of being judgemental and holier than thou, when not a single utterance that could be interpreted as such has been said!
Many liberal concerns with organised spiritual systems question ‘why does God care?’ ergo, ‘how dare God punish us?’ This question is one which many believers struggle to articulate answers for. Many play into the caricatured atheist conception of God, if not exactly white bearded, a being whose ‘judgement’ is described in very human like terms, rather like a (super) human judge pronouncing a sentence in a human like court, but perhaps cloudier. However, responsible theologians of all major faiths have always stressed the otherness of God, in contrast with the finite. God, as the creating and sustaining reality that maintains the universe has established laws of cause and effect. The consequences of our actions, often referred to as ‘rewards and punishments’ are not required to be interventions in the ‘natural’ order of things, which itself is a product of the divine. The ‘punishment’ for knowingly neglecting or breaking an Islamic principle for example, may be to become spiritually distant from the infinite sources of goodness that is God. Hence, in Islam and Christianity, the state of consciousness known as Hell is sometimes described as divine alienation, or separation from God, with metaphors of specific and relatable physical punishment illustrating the undesirability of fully cutting oneself off from the divine mercy. As the sustainer of every being and every natural law that exists, the role of God here is no more diminished than if God were to dish out the type of ‘exterior’ punishment that one might typically associate with divine retribution.
Whilst many believers are to blame for obscuring the core principles of their faith by trying to make subjective rulings about minutia into absolute, unquestionable central tenants, the secular rejection of faith on the grounds that God has ‘no place’ to care about what humans do, is not warranted either. The secularist typically objects to the idea that God ‘cares’ about one’s diet or sexual partners, but rarely, the impermissibility of murder or theft (even if he or she rejects the concept of God itself). However, if God sustains every subatomic particle in the universe, then there is no reason to believe God does ‘not care,’ about what conscious creatures do. Nonetheless, believers should give reasonable scrutiny to what tenants they are told are ‘obligatory and without debate,’ especially when they seem absent, or barely represented in any central texts. If unsure, one yardstick to begin with is simply whether a given action or idea is likely to distance oneself or make one forgetful towards the source of infinite goodness and being that is God.
The modern Muslim ultraconservative (which looks like a contradiction in terms but it is in the relatively modern age that extreme social conservatism and hyper literalism have become such a dominant view throughout the Muslim world) may insist that amongst other things; music, keeping a pet dog, mixing with the opposite sex in a ‘free’ environment and buying a house by way of mortgage is impermissible; and this is obvious. Thus, failure to abide by this represents being at best, a lazy deviant. The justification for such views will often begin with phrases such as ‘it is the opinion of the scholars,’ often worded in a purposefully archaic manner which appears to give more credence to the speaker. This method of approaching faith is extremely vulnerable to the secular caricature, and risks alienating believers and nonbelievers alike. Even assuming these ideas are as important as claimed, such bold promotion of them at the expense of the basic Islamic principles of mercy, justice and spirituality which are often conspicuously absent is the opposite of the prophetic (and common sense) model of implementing ideas.
The discussion of rights and divine interest is almost inexhaustible, but suffice to say, the Westerner is often in danger of over prioritising individual wants, while the Muslim may be in danger of undervaluing them and underestimating their potency in decision making. Regarding duties, the Muslim view is usually to give these more credence. However, I should stress that prioritising ‘duties’ over personal ‘wants’ does not always equate to moral superiority. The ‘Muslim mindset’ does not mean ‘Islamic principles,’ and the two often diverge. Unfortunately, being ‘dutiful’ to many Muslims, particularly from Asia and the Middle East usually refers to the ‘good’ of the family or kinship group, even at the expense of moral principles. One of many examples of this in practice can be seen in politics whereby a family will happily have two members join opposing parties and enjoy material or prestige gains whichever one comes out on top!
One can see how the modern Western emphasis of individual rights over duties can be detrimental to spirituality beyond the ‘non practicing’ and irrelevant; anything more can simply be discarded as an affront to ones right to self-gratification. However, the approach of many Muslims can lead to a similar outcome due to overburden and resentment due to what is at best minutia, or even, not a part of the faith at all. This can and will continue to push people away from the faith all together.
Evil and hardship
Within the Western psyche, one of the greatest barriers between God and man is the problem of evil. How can the ‘good’ God possibly allow war, suffering, disease and the death of innocents? Why did God, if he is both good and real, not create us as angels and put us straight into heaven? To many Westerners, whether believers or not, the intellectual and emotional problem of evil and suffering is often considered all but insurmountable, or at least unanswerable. Many non-believers cite evil and suffering as a central reason for their non-belief, and many Christians admit that this problem is one which only faith, but not reason, can navigate through.
The Muslim view is very different, with evil as a less significant barrier between man and God. Compared to the Westerner, Muslims often feel like they have a closer relationship with suffering. Even if this does not permeate their own lives directly, they are likelier to identify with a region where hardship is or has been more prevalent in recent history. This is probably one reason for a very different attitude towards evil and suffering which is perhaps more stoic and resilient. In both traditional Islamic philosophy and common thought, evil itself is not widely considered a challenge to God’s being. The purpose of life, whatever it may be, is not merely personal gratification. Thus, the absence of this does not count against God. Of course, many Muslims, like people from all groups live their lives as if their only purpose is base self-fulfilment, but the paradigm that life should fundamentally serve the joy of the self is less prevalent in Muslim majority societies.
Which view is more commendable? The more accepting view of many Muslims towards evil seems less conducive to distress or resentment. To believe, in times of hardship that something better will come, provides, as Karl Marx admitted, a heart to an otherwise heartless world. Even the most contemptuous ‘sceptic’ who derides faith as being a comfort blanket (which would have no bearing on its veracity even if true), struggles to find a valid objection. Even were they correct in asserting that only oblivion awaits the human after death, the one who believed in both purpose and the continuation of consciousness following death may have been more fulfilled and content in life (allegedly the only one that exists) as a result.
However, the distress caused to the Western mind by the problem of evil, has developed our body of knowledge and ideas as a result of philosophical speculation and reasoning. The problem of evil is not absent in Islamic philosophy; classical Islamic philosophers have conceived various answers to the problem of coexistence between benevolence, and horrific evil; some of which have parallels with Western philosophy. However, these are rarer and less known as the problem of evil is not widely considered a ‘problem’ as far as the reality of God is concerned. Many practicing Muslims are happy enough to say that they trust God, and anything he decrees or allows is inherently just.
Western philosophy however has extensively tackled the problem of evil in relatively modern history. Prior to the industrial age, the common view probably resembled the more stoic view many Muslims hold today. In the early to mid the twentieth century however, this problem was widely considered in Western philosophy to be a logical one against the reality, omnipotence and the benevolence of God. Evil and suffering, it was argued, is logically incompatible with both benevolence and omnipotence. These properties would make God both willing and able to create a world with good and no evil. Yet evil exists, so on this view, the benevolent ultimate reality cannot exist, any more than a round square or a married bachelor.
However, Western philosophy found, or rediscovered solutions, rationally demonstrating that God could have morally sufficient reasons to allow evil. One such reason is ‘second order’ good. Generous, kind, and heroic actions are impossible without the potential for suffering. One cannot save or comfort another unless they are in danger or distress, nor perform a heroic action without risk to oneself. The more terrible the risk, the greater the deed. Perhaps the goodness of God gives rise to a universe or universes where moral good is optimised. This requires the possibility of evil, the realisation of evil, and the perpetual temptation to do evil. By contrast, a ‘good’ universe which contains only sensual pleasure for all creatures in it, is not a morally good one.
Additionally, creatures can only develop moral goodness if they have opportunities to make and learn from bad choices. A mechanical drone delivering a food parcel is not a ‘kind’ machine, nor would a human be if they never had inclinations to do otherwise. Good actions are only such if freely chosen, and God cannot force someone to freely do good actions (to force someone to freely act is logically incoherent. God not performing a logically incoherent action has no bearing on omnipotence, as logically incoherent actions are inherently nonsensical statements). Thus, by giving humans choices, it follows that some people will make bad ones. Bad choices of course include deliberate harm, incidental harm (such as environmental damage and resource consumption) and neglect of conscious creatures in need.
A further response to the problem of evil postulates that God creates many different possible worlds. Worlds here means ‘realities’ or ‘universes,’ that could exist, not necessarily ‘planets.’ On one view, God’s goodness results in the creation of all good possible worlds; in other words, all worlds where good outweighs evil. It may be that of all these possible worlds, our world is amongst the worst; but full of woes as this world is, the good appears to outweigh the bad; most people are certainly pleased enough to be alive that they desire to continue being so.
The Western populace is poorly acquainted with this type of theological argument (including western religious studies teachers whose relative lack of subject knowledge never ceases to shock me), as opposed to the emotional argument of the problem of evil. As one atheist proselytiser argued, ‘when you walk into a children’s hospital, you simply know there is no God.’ It is interesting that despite having objections to any concept of God the atheist often trusts, almost as if it were divine, his intuition that tells him that there is ‘no God.’ Yet in the universe of true chaos and blindness why should our beliefs about what is rational have correspondence to truth at all? People of faith are often challenged or ridiculed on the grounds that their beliefs stem from ‘emotion’ (perhaps being unable to ‘face’ the void of nothingness that awaits them beyond the grave), yet many a western atheist will also base their metaphysical stance on such raw feeling, which should be recognised as such.
Appeals to atheism in the name of the cruelties suffered by the innocent, whilst emotionally compelling, hold little logical weight. If, after an untimely death, a child would encounter only bliss and joy, as many religions including Islam teach, it is hard to claim injustice as an inexhaustible amount of good logically offsets a finite amount of evil. Even if the atheist protests that consciousness after death is a fantasy (a ‘dangerous and intolerable’ one according to some populists), the position that a benevolent divine reality can logically exist in a world of evil remains coherent. Not only can finite evil be both offset by an infinitely greater magnitude of good, evil is be the only way to bring about the aforementioned second order good. It important to challenge the common Western assumption (largely using Western philosophy itself) held by believers and non-believers alike that the problem of evil is near insurmountable and only a ‘leap of faith’ can avoid it.
In many ways, the more accepting Muslim approach to evil and suffering is more helpful for the common person than the doubt and distress that many Westerners feel when experiencing, or even hearing of great hardship. Certainly, the Muslim belief in ultimate justice after the grave, greatly diminishes the emotional sting of the problem. The Qur’an comforts the believer by comparing our existence following death to waking up after a dream. All the pain, terror and suffering experienced on earth that felt so real at the time would be so blurred that those who suffered terribly will question its duration. Did we suffer for a day? Or an hour? In one Prophetic narration, a man who lived the hardest life on earth, after being momentarily dipped into paradise, will swear that he never experienced suffering in his whole existence.
However, for all the benefit that the Muslim’s ideas about the problem of evil might confer to the believer, most would struggle to find answers to convincingly reply to a proponent of the conclusion of the problem. Common responses such as ‘life is a test,’ unclarified, continue to reinforce the image that believers follow an imaginary dictator, with an amoral, arbitrary will. The religious laity need not extensively study philosophy and theology in order to defend their ideas. In some ways, through daily practice, they may already be far closer to the divine than many a sophisticated theologian. However, if surrounded by others who believe that the evil in the world renders the universe evil, amoral and Godless, the Muslim would do well to consider why evil exists yet does not invalidate one’s faith. In this respect, Western theology has offered much insight, and must receive due credit.
Individual thought and attitudes to authority
One of the most celebrated aspects of Western culture is the exaltation of individuality and freedom of thought. To be scrutinising, questioning and sceptical is tantamount to intellectual and moral excellence. Children in Western schools are favourably presented with countless narratives of individuals challenging established authority, such as civil rights activists, feminists and scientists, and Western films often celebrate the protagonists defying their institutions.
By contrast, the populace in Muslim majority countries tend to praise respect towards tradition and by implication, conformity (though interestingly, following tradition is frequently referred to in negative terms throughout the Qur’an). This is by no means restricted to matters of faith. The concept of ‘respect for the beard’ as some Muslims admit, applies to elders and in general, people in authority. A trivial but illustrative example of this would be first-generation Muslim immigrants giving undue credence to salespeople by virtue of their mature age who were at best, economical with the truth when sharing their ‘wisdom.’ This is not to say that the Muslim has a pathological aversion towards rational and open discourse, contrary to the caricature given by proselytising secularists, some of whom have Muslim backgrounds. Rather, the Muslim is often wary of what is seen as needlessly questioning ideas that have been firmly established by wiser people.
Many secularists lament that critical academic analysis in Muslim majority countries is not ‘free,’ as narratives which directly contradict Islam (or a popular interpretation of it) will be, at best, unpublished, even in relatively liberal parts of the Muslim world. The truth is somewhat less clear cut; secular and even anti-religious literature can be seen in some bookshops in some Muslim majority countries and features online to an increasing degree. However, it is undeniable that anti-religious, and anti-Islam narratives are much harder to propagate from these nations than in Western nation states. Even where such material may be technically legal, it is not widely considered to be socially acceptable.
However, the much vaunted ‘freedom’ of Western thought may too have tighter parameters than its proponents admit or realise. In much of modern science for instance, the doctrine of philosophical materialism is considered virtually sacrosanct. In short, this is the view that all that exists is unconscious matter and energy. Hence, thoughts and memories are no more than stored chemical traces which will be annihilated after death. Death is most surely the obliteration of consciousness into nonexistence, though even consciousness itself may not exist in the first place, as it is not a material phenomenon. Even if consciousness does exist, it must be explicable in material terms, perhaps due to protons moving through cellular channels. Of course, any concept of God, spirit or soul is not only mistaken but completely delusional.
This essay is not a rebuttal of philosophical materialism, but I argue here that the doctrine does not clearly correspond to reality to such a degree that only a delusional individual would question or reject it. There are certainly many phenomena that appear to at least challenge the view that all that ‘there is’ is lumps of matter. These include but are not limited to the existence of consciousness itself, the possible causal roles of consciousness in physics itself, out of body and near-death experiences and the abstract ‘laws’ of nature which do not have a spacio temporal ‘location’. However, vocally questioning this paradigm as a scientist (except in some aspects of physics, providing the language does not stray beyond the secular) or psychologist will serious hamper one’s career, and result in shunning and ridicule by much of the ‘scientific community.’
Any open and meaningful religious conviction held by a prominent western scientist will incur the wrath of ‘freethinking’ or ‘skeptical’ peers, not to mention militant anti-religionists online. An openly practicing Christian scientist in the Western world will certainly have to tread much more carefully when expressing his views in public than a scientist who proselytises his atheism. Even some non-materialistic ideas which are not necessarily ‘religious,’ such as the belief in the possibility of parapsychology, or that consciousness has a non-material component (which could survive bodily death) will incur both wrath, ridicule and immediate dismissal of not only the ideas themselves, but ones scientific credibility. Even a certain agnosticism about phenomena such as parapsychology or telepathy is considered heretical. The ‘scientific’ response to the reality of such claims is rarely true engagement but rather a blanket claim that trials which seem to demonstrate such phenomena are necessarily fraudulent. To consider their plausibility would undermine the ‘belief system which one must ostensibly adhere to in order to be a ‘credible’ scientist in the Western world; that of materialism.
Moving from science to politics; modern Western discourse, whilst more open than in some Muslim societies, is not as ‘free’ as some might suggest either. Western societies are often considered civilised because even their leaders can be ridiculed by the press, to varying degrees. However, in Western politics, where personal dignity in matters of appearance, gait and gaffes is not considered especially important, ridiculing a politician seldom harms their career and very rarely challenges the political system itself. Would politicians and the political establishment be so tolerant to ridicule if it were otherwise?
Far from being truly ‘free,’ Western politics is confused and tribal, with the populace often failing to understand where power lies. Many people will debate, joke and rant about the competence (or lack thereof) of their politicians, unaware that many mainstream politicians de facto work on behalf large, multinational corporations and primarily serve their interests. The most powerful Western ‘democracy,’ The United States of America functions as a corporate oligarchy, run by a de facto two-party system with much less difference than people imagine between them. Only individuals at the fringes of each of both parties deviate from the establishment line, and these are usually held in check by the mainstream, corporation serving aspects of their party.
Besides political freedom, acceptance towards others is a celebrated virtue in the West. However, liberal Western societal paradigms, whilst in many ways more tolerant than those seen in many Muslim nations, may not be as accepting as they claim. Throughout many Western countries is a general acceptance towards skin colour, language (if the immigrant is also fluent in the host language) and superficial cultural difference, such as cuisine. However, liberal tolerance is often found wanting when accepting other views which have bearing on how one believes one should live. What if, for example one disagrees with homosexual actions, believing sex to ideally be between spouses of the opposite sex? Even if such a person is utterly condemnatory towards any homophobic discrimination, they are unlikely to receive conversational tolerance from liberals.
Failure to use liberal terminology in other matters may also brand one as a heretic (or the modern version of the term: ‘extremist’), such as failing to self-identify as a feminist. I have conversed with people who cannot find a single specific view held which they consider or unjust towards women yet remained upset for my ‘failure’ to don the label of feminist. Of course, none of this scrutiny of the ‘freedom’ of Western discourse absolves much of the Muslim world for having tight parameters about discussing taboo subjects. Nonetheless, we should realise that it is both worlds, not just Muslim world, which have paradigms that are considered socially unacceptable to criticise.
What are the implications of these modes of thinking for the future of religious faith? Some aspects of the Western mindset towards authority have doubtless led to a rejection faith and spirituality. Adherence to a denomination of Christianity was the norm throughout the West until the mid-twentieth century, but it is no longer. The modern Northern European, or even American atheist can hardly claim to be a valiant freethinker who dares to be different. Even though most Westerners do not identify as atheists (even in the ultra-irreligious north Germanic countries the majority still hold belief in either a God or some sort of spiritual ‘life force’), it is a common view, and the momentum continues in their direction. A British Muslim or Christian will face more second guessing of their beliefs and conversational intolerance than a non-believer (the Muslim may on occasion face harsher, even criminal intolerance, though contempt towards Christian beliefs is more commonplace). By now, the social and conversational system is set up against their views, down to the language in common usage. To be ‘religious’ already carries automatic negative connotations of a type of self-righteous, simple, and easily offended piety which the believer is obliged to explain their way out of before discussing their actual views.
Does the idea that authority requires high levels of scrutiny, and that no ideas should be safe from safe from satire and ridicule, necessarily lead to irreligion? I believe the answer is no. Just as this approach has been used to attack Christian influence, the much revered ‘free thought’ could empower people to discover that many of their pro secular assumptions may be wanting. For example, contrary to popular lay belief, most wars and wartime casualties have not been remotely ‘religious’ in nature. If Western thought is indeed free and self-empowering, it should only be a matter of time before this basic truth trickles down from historical academia to the laity, or that more of the laity will independently scrutinise the often unquestioned accepted claims about ‘religious warfare.’ ‘Free’ thinking people should become free enough to learn that despite what is usually taught in schools and television documentaries, Christian scriptures and others were not universally ‘taken literally’ until science forced metaphorical interpretations, contrived to conceal their unviability either. Furthermore, reductive materialism, the status quo of many modern scientists is just one of many philosophies about the nature of reality; it need not be taken as a default stance. Finally, ‘secularism’ as it is often practiced is not necessarily neutral nor even plural. It also comes attached to the dubious premise that one should detach their narrative about life’s purpose, with how one lives one’s life. The only alternative to secularism is not a fascistic theocracy either, but a pluralistic society where people may live according to their beliefs (unless they result in directly harming others, but commonly bullied religious symbols in France, for example clearly do not do this) as being more than abstract and irrelevant ‘spiritual’ doctrines.
What then, are the implications of the often seemingly conformist ‘Muslim mindset’ and the future of faith? It is tempting to assume that the conformist mentality of many Muslims makes adherence to a spiritual world view likely. However, conformity is not inherently conducive to religious faith we usually understand it. Political, non-spiritual faiths such as communism and fascism (which are arguably ‘religions’ of sorts, as are others, such as liberalism and secular humanism, because they all postulate both a world view and principles with which to live one’s life) are, to put it mildly, conformist, as are some of least theistic societies in the world, such as some of those in the far east.
Regarding the future of Islam, a pertinent issue is the overly authoritarian attitude of many of its figures which alienates both current, and potential adherents. Strictly conformist systems of thinking make seemingly freer systems (which are accessible to almost all thanks to film and the internet) immediately appealing, as illustrated by the growing subculture of atheism in Saudi Arabia for example. The perceived dogmatism and failure of prominent Islamic figures to attempt to find spiritually and intellectually reasonable answers to enquiring or dissenting minds has made many unbelievers; many of whom initially rebelled based on legitimate grievances to which they were given no reasonable answers.
Both common Western and Muslim attitudes to authority could potentially lead one towards or away from a spiritual world view. Perhaps a healthy approach for the Westerner (and many liberal Muslims who often share much common ground) is acknowledging that whilst legitimate dissent and enquiry is important, there is nothing inherently virtuous about ‘rebelling,’ against the world view of the society one lives in. Even when one’s faith is being promoted by the ignorant, this does not make the faith ignorant. Just as a surgeon’s tools could be used by a fool or a sadist to cause suffering, so too can harm be committed under the guise of using tools intended for spiritual nourishment and fulfilment. This, however, does not render the tools themselves as evil. Just as intellectual rebellion for its own sake should not be considered inherently desirable, conformity and adherence and tradition are not in themselves virtuous either, though it is common in Muslim majority societies to act as such. The Qur’an frequently criticises this mentality, repeatedly citing in harsh terms, examples of those who blindly follow their forefathers. On the other hand, sincere questioning, is not considered a vice. In one Qur’anic parable, the angels question the wisdom of the creation of man in the first place. In another, the Prophet Abraham asks for reassurance or certainty when pondering how God can give life to the dead. In neither parable are the agents asking the questions rebuked, nor should though amongst the new generation who have genuine questions and even doubts.
Boundaries and attitudes towards proselytization
One serious difficulty in successful communication between persons from both of our intellectual cultures arises from their perspectives on proselytizing ideas to others, and the notion of personal boundaries in general. This has great implications for the future of faith, as one obvious vessel for spreading ideas, even with modern technology, is direct personal interaction.
The native of a Muslim majority country is often unaware that the mere action of sharing one’s beliefs or ideas (and not just religious ones) can easily be seen by Westerners as a significant imposition. Of course, Western countries differ in the degree to which they value personal space; in both the physical and abstract sense. Some southern European countries and regions of the Deep South in the United States may have more in common with the culture of those in Muslim majority nations regarding this; people in such places are friendlier and more gregarious but with fewer personal boundaries. Those in Northern Europe, including Scandinavia however tend to value personal boundaries the most to the extent where other cultures might consider them somewhat cold and unfriendly. Between a reservedness towards relative strangers in these latter societies and the very secular nature of the people, open discussion in ‘pro religious’ terms is often seen as taboo.
The Western hypersensitivity towards people ‘imposing their views,’ has advantages; it can at least partially contain the more obnoxious ‘know it all’ armchair politicians and metaphysicians. People with views about contentious topics must tread carefully lest their audience shut down the conversation should it sound like ‘preaching,’ which is almost universally considered a pejorative term. However, it also renders open discussion of one’s ideas difficult, especially if they relate to meaning, purpose and value.
The mentality of the native of a Muslim majority country is very different. In contrast to the Westerner, the Muslim usually has cultural origins in a society where sharing thoughts about meaning, purpose, and emotions in general, is acceptable and normal (though not always between genders, depending on the social conservatism of the country). The Muslim might well take issue with another’s ‘preaching,’ should they feel it at an affront to their own views. However, this is likelier to be based on the content than the mere imposition itself. An small example of this in practice would be a Muslim immigrant friend inviting a door to door Jehovah’s witness inside his house to sit down to a cup of tea and a chat, explaining that he could not become a Jehovas witness because he was a Muslim already. Most other residents of the United Kingdom would either have exchanged a few words at the door, or, very likely, expressed their disinterest and complained about ‘God botherers,’ however mild and unimposing the person was.
I have sympathy with the common Muslim approach. The fact that discussing ideas of meaning, value and purpose; even with close friends and family is so socially and psychologically difficult in a staunchly secular Western society seems to make little sense. However, as someone who has grown up in the West, it has been impossible (and not necessarily always desirable) to avoid its cultural norms. Thus, like the Christian or irreligious Westerner, I and others of similar backgrounds will often feel the natural surge of discomfort in the company of those making impassioned religious statements, particularly if they seem to be theologically questionable, or vulnerable to secular caricature. Some of the fault is certainly our own. There is nothing wrong, for example with an individual reminiscing over death to family or friends. To never do so is to suffer from the greatest delusion of all; one which many believe, despite being aware of its falsehood: the delusion that we will never die, at least not until a long, and predictable period of time.
However, there are other religio-cultural ways of speech amongst Muslims which the Muslim who has been raised with Western norms may be less at fault for feeling general discomfort around. One example is the practice of replacing ones words with arbitrary Arabic ones (even when the speaker is not an Arabic speaker), to appear more Islamically fluent. This is not merely individuals using common phrases like ‘Bismillah,’ meaning ‘in the name of God’ or ‘Inshallah’, meaning ‘God willing’ as part of their natural speech. For all their casual use and misuse, remembrance of the divine in the small things cannot be a bad thing. Rather I speak of individuals who arbitrarily insert words like ‘emir’ ‘fitna’ ‘qadr’ and ‘tayabb’ amongst others, to amplify the emotional content of whatever they want to say, and to increase the impression of their religious credence. One could of course argue that this is an advancement of language as there might be an Arabic word which conveys a meaning which a single word in one’s native language cannot. However, most Muslims, not being Arabic speakers have only learnt a given Arabic word as a single, direct translation into their native language in the first place, with all the simplifications and distortions that this entails. Often this practice usually involves a mistranslated, out of context understanding of the given word and comes across as the speaker attempting to be intellectually and emotionally imposing, something the Western mindset is very sensitive towards.
Anyone wishing to make faith (not just Islamic faith) accessible in Western society must understand the limits associated with direct proselytization. This is not to advocate a disingenuous ‘covert’ form of proselytising instead, but rather to live in a kind, productive, reflective and humanitarian manner that is clearly driven by ones faith and invites the questions and curiosity of others.
Science and philosophy
The perception of science, philosophy and the ‘supernatural,’ greatly differs between the common Muslim and Western Psyche. The average Westerner is likely to hold ideas which loosely follow some sort of dualism i.e. that matter is very real, but there is probably some sort of mind, spirit or even soul as well. Even in the very secular United Kingdom for example, recent surveys indicate that no more than a quarter of the populace believe that there is neither God, nor spirit nor life force. This is a significant minority, but a minority, nonetheless. Within the scientific community however, the proportion of proponents of this view increases. Many Western scientists, as a matter of principle take a solely materialist or physicalist view of the universe. On this view, the only things that really exist are blind physical processes. There is no other spirit or soul giving you consciousness. Consciousness, if it even exists is simply an epiphenomenon of physical processes. There is no magical ‘spark’ which animates you; you are simply conscious by virtue of being relatively complex; perhaps because of specific particles, like protons moving through channels in your cells. Alternatively, you might not be conscious at all! There are indeed mainstream scientists and even philosophers who claim that your consciousness is completely illusory. There is no ‘you.’ ‘You’ are being tricked into thinking you are conscious! To most people who do not have a prior commitment to materialism, this seems counterintuitive if not completely absurd. If there is anything we know, it is that we are aware. When Descartes pondered over the reality of his own existence, he realised that he must exist because if not, who else was there to do the doubting?
Of course, not all Western scientists hold a solely physicalist view, it may be that many, realising the difficulties of this type of reductive materialism, probably hold, or are open to other ideas, albeit in a closeted way. In physics, which seems less committed to reductive materialism than the other sciences, some scientists are more open minded, and some idealists of sorts remain, or have re surfaced. Idealism is the view that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Bernard d’Espagnat, a prominent French theoretical physicist best known for his work on the nature of reality, wrote a in paper titled The Quantum Theory and Reality: ‘The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.’
The same physicist also explained: ‘What quantum mechanics tells us, I believe, is surprising to say the least. It tells us that the basic components of objects – the particles, electrons, quarks etc. – cannot be thought of as self-existent.’
D’Espagnat further wrote that his research in quantum physics led him to conclude that an “ultimate reality” exists, which is not embedded in space or time. Most people are unaware that the idea that matter may be dependent on consciousness (which would seem like a step away from atheism) exists amongst mainstream physicists, but over time it may well trickle down from the lofty pinnacle of academia.
Though the average Westerner might hold some concept of soul or spirit, he or she will tend towards reductive materialism with more ‘scientific’ training. The idea that nature is fundamentally more akin to a living organism rather than a dead machine has long ceased to be considered ‘intellectual’ in the West. This was the common view before the period known as the enlightenment, which gave rise to enlightenment theism and enlightenment deism. Both views consider the universe to be akin to an inanimate machine with God as its creator (though deism generally denies that God can be known through revelation). With the removal of the vitality from nature, the step towards denying soul, spirit and even consciousness itself became viable. What followed in the centuries to come was the view that the universe and nature is a lifeless machine, with neither originator nor sustainer.
Though the education system of many Muslim majority countries has been influenced by the Western one, the Muslim mind is more accepting of the idea that consciousness or conscious agents besides humans permeate Universe. While the Muslim is typically less repulsed by narratives involving ‘the supernatural,’ it should be mentioned that many will staunchly oppose any entertaining or involving oneself in ‘supernatural endeavours’ (such as fortune telling) as this is seen to compromise the worship of the divine alone.
Before continuing however, I suggest that we challenge the pejorative connotations around the term ‘supernatural,’ connotations of phenomena that no reasonable person could commit to acknowledging. However, ‘Supernatural’ itself quite literally means ‘above the natural.’ That is to say, forces which exist outside space and time, or that which cannot be explained using the scientific method. In this respect, laws of nature are by definition supernatural, as are objective moral values, which most people, including non-believers believe exist, even without people embodying them. (most people would believe for example, that if there was a global consensus that fascism was a desirable world view, fascism would remain objectively morally wrong). Other universes too, sometimes postulated by scientists are certainly supernatural phenomena, as they ‘exist’ in dimensions outside of our own. Alternatively, we could use the term metaphysical (literally, beyond the physical) instead, which carries fewer negative connotations.
The Western attitude towards science entails a general feeling that it inherently undermines or opposes religious faith. It is true that a discovery or theory can undermine a particular doctrine; modern cosmology for example undermines a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. However, there little reason to believe that modern science undermines the general truths that most religious hold to, such as the reality of the divine, or intentionality behind the Universe. The fact that science postulates the existence of regular laws hardly refutes this. A sustainer of the universe could have logically established such laws, if ‘laws’ of science (incidentally a very personal term) are indeed real constructs.
However, advocates for science claim that science provides arguments in favour of atheism, making science perhaps the only viable tool for exploring any aspect of reality. A popular example is the argument from bad design. As one atheist apologist puts it: ‘the designer (of the universe) must have been cruel, stupid or lazy.’ Examples cited include the existence of non-coding DNA, genetic disorders, trauma associated with childbirth and inefficient enzymes in nature. At the risk of digressing, I shall reflect on this line of argument given its popularity.
From a scientific perspective alone, the argument neglects to acknowledge that many apparently useless or harmful features of organisms have useful functions. The appendix for instance may have some helpful roles in immunity, and non-coding DNA may have unrecognised benefits, such as acting as a buffer against mutations. In most cases, suboptimal traits are a trade-off with an overall benefit; the comparatively large headed human for example may be traumatic to give birth to, but the contents of the skull have helped humans dominate the world.
One could perhaps ‘tough it out’ when discussing most apparent deficiencies by arguing that they usually have a net benefit, even if that benefit is restricting the organism from being so dominant that it kills all its potential prey and starves! However, it may be simpler to consider that the concept of ‘perfect design’ is itself incoherent. Perhaps a ‘perfect’ tiger would be tireless, with stainless steel claws and carbon fibre bones; but a perfect antelope could have active camouflage and frictionless skin which a predator could never grasp. However, this scenario leads to logically incoherent answers when considering which organism would come out on top. We cannot expect animals to be infinite in power, but this expectation is the logical conclusion from the argument from poor design.
Even if the sceptic continues to insist that nature is ‘badly designed,’ the most this would achieve is to prevent one arguing for divinity on the grounds of good design, not that there is no divinity. The argument that bad design refutes the existence of the divine contains the (sometimes unspoken) premise that a God, if real and the epitome of creative intelligence, would create creatures with optimal traits. However, this premise is itself debateable- even if, for arguments sake that we agree that the idea of ‘optimal traits’ is logically coherent. It may be that more ‘second order’ good (discussed in the section on evil and hardship) would arise in a world where there are hardships borne of ‘imperfect design.’
The average Western person has little acquaintance with bespoke scientific arguments refuting or defending the concept of God, but almost certainly has what I argue is a distorted perception of science, religion and history; uncritically assuming that science and religious faith have solely had a relationship of hostility. Few are aware, for instance that the Big Bang Theory was largely the brainchild of a Catholic priest, or of the religiosity of the some of the most historically important mathematicians such as Leibniz, Gauss or Gödel; or physicists such as Kelvin and Heisenberg. As for the (I argue, historically sound) idea that medieval science really did give rise to significant progress, and developed under the watch of Islam and Catholicism; this would seem a very strange concept to the Westerner who has been taught that almost all the noteworthy thinking prior to the sixteenth Century came from Ancient Greece.
Many in the West believe or assume that religions are species of ‘failed sciences.’ In other words, people attributed divine agency to things that they could not understand, but we now know that these phenomena are simply caused by blind and changeless ‘laws of nature.’ The fact that we now understand the processes makes God unnecessary. This view however does not reflect a knowledge of traditional Christian or Islamic belief, which is that God continually sustains all being, from what one might consider miraculous, to the mundane. The fact that science has managed to make many of the processes in nature intelligible and measurable does not count against there being agency or purpose to them.
Is the approach taken by many Muslims to science any healthier than the Western one? Some Muslims are unconditionally enamoured with Western dominated modern science and are in danger of easily absorbing the non-scientific and philosophical opinions of those in the scientific community (who often deny that their ideas are philosophical). I refer here of course to philosophical materialism.
Often, however, the Muslim has a more distant relationship with the traditional sciences, than the non Muslim Westerner. Even Western Muslims, often keen scientists when in school and well represented in medicine and engineering, tend to have a small presence in other scientific disciplines such as pure biology or physics.
Underrepresentation in the sciences at an academic level deprives Muslim societies from scientists who share similar beliefs to the common person and reinforces the narrative that the sciences are not for people of faith. On the other hand, Muslims, if not theologically, scientifically and historically proficient (and very few people are reasonably versed in even two of the three disciplines), they are in real danger of losing their faith should they pursue the sciences into and beyond University level. My experience of working with scientists whilst at University has amply demonstrated that many of them have a contempt for any non-materialistic world view, and often a huge chip on their shoulder about ‘religion.’ Narratives from my otherwise very knowledgeable lecturers would include the claim that the Bible is committed to a view of ruthless exploitation of the natural world and animals; that consciousness is just meaningless word; that evolutionary scientists are being inundated by brutal assaults from waves of creationists; that medieval and renaissance scientists were regularly burnt at the stake, and much more. These narratives were imparted on us as if they were entirely obvious; making them believable to the average student without question, when in fact, they are very dubious.
Ignorant people have certainly justified vicious exploitation of nature in Biblical terms, though unsurprisingly these tend to be people with economic incentive to do so. However, many theologians and indeed common followers believe that man’s ‘dominion’ over other life is as a steward or caretaker of earth. As for the dismissed concept of consciousness, consciousness, whatever it is, is a big question. The ‘extraordinary claim’ is that it should be dismissed on principle. Regarding the alleged obstruction of science by ‘religious folk,’ this is simply false. Western scientists, even in the United States are free, and vocal in affirming evolution, and often vocal in drawing atheistic conclusions from the (in my opinion, religiously neutral) theory without backlash which would cause themselves or their careers harm. To put it mildly, they have a far easier life then a Western scientist who would endorse creationism or intelligent design. As for mass executions of ‘scientists’ at the hands of The Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Church, this is historically false. There are two plausible examples of natural philosophers (the closest equivalent of scientists) in renaissance Europe being executed, for their views, but in each case the individuals (Michael Servetus and Giordani Bruno) were executed for propagating their theological ideas, which in that time period make them considered a political liability. Horrific as this is, it fails to demonstrate that ‘religion,’ even in that specific region and period, had an antipathy to the study of the natural world.
Unless significantly exposed to influenced by the ideas discussed above, Muslims are less likely to see science and faith as inherently opposed (though perhaps paradoxically they are likelier to dismiss a scientific idea which they believe contradicts their views as being, for example ‘just a theory’), or even giving rise to ‘creative tension,’ as one English writer nicely puts it. Even should they be exposed to some of the ‘science versus religion’ narratives, they may simply draw the conclusion that historical Christianity may have was hostile towards the scientific enterprise, but Islam was not. However, Western powers are currently most dominant force in science. Ideas spread, and Muslim majority nations often have a western style education system, which could easily lead the populace in future, to draw similar metaphysical conclusions to the average Westerner.
The role of religion and history
In the Western mind, even amongst many Christians, the role of ‘religion’ is typically given the role of the historical antagonist. To demonstrate this, the Westerner will often cite the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and various modern conflicts between factions with distinct religious identities, such as those in Northern Ireland.
For the Muslim, as far as Islam is concerned, the opposite is view is common. The Muslim is likelier to believe that things were at their best when Islamic practice and belief was at its height. The perceived decline of the Muslim world (few Muslims will deny that there has been one, or at least a relative stagnation of progress), has its roots in the Mongol invasions, colonialism, and, the Muslim may argue, a lack of Islam being practiced. The Muslim may also believe that the latter problem could have facilitated the previous two.
In any case, even if some conflicts are caused or exacerbated by ‘religion,’ the Muslim is likely to consider ‘religion’ as something that everyone does, so criticising it as a source of conflict makes little sense. This would be akin to criticising the construct of nutrition because it may be contaminated, and wars are fought over it. It still remains universal and necessary. Thus, many Muslims are perplexed by the notion that some people claim to have no religion at all, arguably with good reason, depending on what one accepts as a ‘religion.’ If by religion we include all the world views which include a purpose and a narrative of human existence, this would include ideas such as Fascism, Marxism and Secular liberalism. Perhaps the apparently simple Muslim Bedouin or Shepherd who cannot comprehend the idea of one being completely without religion, is in some sense, correct.
The Muslim is also less predisposed to assume that religious institutions are inherently malignant, whereas the Westerner is more likely to. Many Muslims, while prepared to accept that many mosques and religious schools may be very myopic in their outlook on the world and teachings, will insist that in centuries past it was different, and religious institutions of the day fundamentally promoted justice and progress. The Westerner on the other hand, even if a believing Christian will often assume, in line with the view that Westerners are taught, that historically ‘The Church’ was fundamentally violent, oppressive and pathologically averse to the wellbeing of females, science and progress.
Both Western and Muslim lay people know little about their own history, let alone that of their counterparts, and what knowledge they have is usually riddled with gross misconceptions. Though some Westerners may be nostalgic about their more recent colonial history, their overall conception of Western history is still likely to be bloody, with the Middle Ages being especially gruesome and obtuse. The history that the Westerner is likely to consider to be more enlightened, are the ‘least Christian’ parts. Thus, the Westerner typically assumes that the ancient Greeks invented almost everything of significance, and that scientific thought never exceeded their standards until around the seventeenth or eighteenth century where society started to break from the shackles of ‘The Church,’ stopped burning people alive for ‘thinking for themselves’ and become more enlightened.
The Muslim, whether a traditionalist or modernist, is usually more prepared to concede the failings of modern Muslim society, but reminisce over a ‘golden age,’ throughout the medieval period when Islam and progress were considered to be at their height relative to the era. One could argue that the Muslim ‘feeling’ of their own history is somewhat rose tinted, and the Western one, blood tinted. The Muslim is, in many ways correct to believe that medieval Islam was far more tolerant and accepting than other societies, certainly more so than Europe. Many Jews who fled persecution from Europe found refuge in Muslim countries, where both Jews and Christians occupied high government and even military positions. Tolerance in the Islamic ‘Golden Age’ extended beyond these ‘People of the Book’ and even some atheists and critics of Islam were given platforms to debate and publish their literature. Science, technology and agriculture also excelled, and much of this was transferred to Europe. Great mercy and chivalry were shown by prominent Muslim leaders such as Saladin, who, during the Crusades spared the population of Jerusalem from harm after recapturing it. By contrast, King Richard upon seizing the city had massacred the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populace because he was unable to tell the difference.
However, the history of the Muslim world is not without atrocities and embarrassments. In early Islamic history, Muslim authorities enforced the ultra-rationalist Mu’tazillah doctrines onto the society, which, despite its intellectual rigour was imposed in ways that were unethical to say the least. Dissenting scholars, who held to more literalistic metaphysical beliefs were threatened and abused, increasing the credence of their ideas, many of which were arguably less philosophically rigorous and could have been challenged through open and reasonable discourse.
There have also been periods of time when the Caliphs (heads of an Islamic state) were ruthless, mad, or the helpless playthings of their own bodyguard; to be discarded or murdered when they had grown tired of their leader. Despite having initial unity following the early Arab conquests, the Muslim world would soon fracture into feuding fiefdoms. There was even some Muslim complicity in, and following the First Crusade, with some Muslim factions content to have a Crusader buffer state between their local rivals.
Despite the Islamic insistence that war is for self-defence alone (though offensive operations within an existing war are permitted), Muslim factions have also taken the role of the belligerents in past conflicts. This is less problematic for the Muslim when considering the early conquests. This was a time before defined nation states, and the Muslim conquerors largely sought to replace the ruling classes of rival states and were often welcomed by the people who by comparison thrived under Muslim rule and were not expected, let alone forced to convert to Islam.
In later conflicts however, including those of the Ottoman empire, a claim of benevolent expansion is harder to sustain. Furthermore, in contrast to the early Arab conquests, where vastly outnumbered, lesser equipped Arabs repeatedly defeated the might of the Eastern Roman, and Sassanid Empires, the outcome of numerous latter conflicts was humiliating defeat at the hands of often numerically inferior Europeans. Perhaps with less frequency than European counterparts, Muslim factions too have carried out massacres, as the Ottoman Turks did, in reprisal for Greek uprisings and massacres of their own. This was by no means anomalous behaviour for the time, but a sign that the timelessness of Islamic principle of Mercy (as well as explicit rulings regarding harming non-combatants) was conspicuously absent.
Historical misbehaviour from Muslim powers often troubles the Muslim more than current abuses of power- the further back historically, the more so. Rather than considering Muslim empires such as the Mughals and the Ottomans to be ‘Islamic,’ perhaps one should consider them to be that of people, whose common inclinations to be cruel, greedy and vengeful were often, but not always tempered by Islam. In this respect, Islam has certainly reigned in some of the worst tendencies of men and facilitated progress and tolerance relative to what was present.
Moving back to the Westerners view of his own history; this will often be considered, if not always compassionate, certainly conducive to might and progress. It features, for example Ancient Greek thought, with its plentiful ideas, the might of the Roman Empire, the developments attributed to the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Christian history however is often viewed negatively. A common belief is that latter three periods of development occurred from working against Christianity, or at least Catholicism. However, this narrative, rooted in both anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic thought (as many ideas were transferred to medieval Europe from the Islamic world) is questionable.
The centuries between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance period, often known as the Dark Ages, were not uniquely ‘dark,’ and most modern historians reject the term as being misleading and generally ahistorical. Power became less centralised following the collapse of the Western Roman empire and there was considerable migration across Europe following this. However, this period was not especially violent or unintelligent compared to the height of the Roman Republic or Empire, nor did it feature many of the ‘dark’ features often associated with the Middle Ages (often used synonymously with ‘Dark Ages’) such as the Spanish Inquisition, witch hunts, or ‘wars of religion,’ all of which happened later. Contrary to common assumption, under the watch of Catholic Christianity, combined with many ideas from the Muslim world, medieval Europe featured far more progress than almost any Westerner assumes. Many ideas and innovations which are often assumed to be later developments arose within this period, such as spectacles, mechanical clocks, gothic architecture and universities.
However, the notion that Catholicism, or Islam could have produced, facilitated or even permitted such innovations was unpalatable to the protestants, following the protestant reformation, and difficult to bear for the ‘freethinkers’ of both the Enlightenment period and the modern world. Hence, modern Western thought propagates the impression that the Ancient Greeks and Romans invented almost everything of historical importance. Following the collapse these civilisations, according to the narrative, largely thanks to ‘The Church,’ humanity took a huge backward step and little human development happened for at least eight hundred years. Humanity would only progress after this time, upon realising that there was knowledge ‘beyond the Bible.’
This Renaissance period (usually considered fifteenth and sixteenth Centuries) however was not self-evidently more enlightened than the ‘Dark Ages.’ It was in this period that the much vaunted ‘dark’ events that one usually assumes happened in the Middle Ages took place, though even these are typically misunderstood. It was not ‘The Church’ for instance that instigated the witch hunts but local government and secular elites, often during times of hardship, when scapegoats (to this day) are sought. The Renaissance was also the period of the so called ‘Wars of Religion’ following the Protestant Reformation. However, the Westerner who is likely to immediately attribute ‘religion’ as a main, or central sole source of human conflict should tread carefully and learn his or her history properly. In the Protestant reformation, one of the most dominant participants on the Protestant side was Catholic France, led its most senior cardinal. Clearly, in this case, and many others, motivation was far more explicable in terms of territory and national interest. Only those of a lazy mind would immediately claim that the word ‘religion’ can explain most wars. Whether a conflict can be declared ‘religious’ or ‘irreligious’ depends on one considers to be a ‘religion’. If capitalism, imperialism, liberalism, nationalism, fascism and communism are classed as ‘religions,’ then perhaps many wars really are religious. In this case, however, the term religion is so inclusive that one cannot avoid having a ‘religion’ of sorts, so the idea of an ‘irreligious world’ is incoherent.
However, if the requirement for a ‘religious’ war is that the conflict be caused simply by differences in metaphysical belief as opposed to resources or territorial ambitions, very few wars have been ‘religious.’ With the common Western understanding of the term ‘religion,’ i.e. an abstract set of metaphysical beliefs which includes some concept of worship, let us consider how many war time casualties have been in ‘religious’ wars. The official Encyclopaedia of Wars puts the figure at two percent or less, which should be unsurprising when one considers the bloody history of imperialism and the two world wars which were secular conflicts. However, (and this is limited to my experience) it seems that when asked to give a value, people typically predict much higher figures, often over fifty percent.
Even though the westerner typically knows little Islamic history, their assumptions are unlikely to be positive. A significant minority of Westerners have a view which logically leads to outright hostility towards the Muslim world, such as a neo-crusader narrative where ‘The West’ must defend itself from the hordes of invading Saracens. As for Western liberals, some may espouse the idea that in decades and centuries gone by, Islam was more peaceful, tolerant and enlightened than Christianity. This however is more of a representation of how brutal they believe Christian history was, than an endorsement of Islam. Other Westerners may simply assume a similar history to their perceived Christian history (with ‘religion’ being the regressive antagonist), with the unhelpful addition of more recent transgressions carried out by Muslim individuals, organisations and Muslim majority states.
The current understanding of history that the Westerner has, to put it mildly, a discouraging factor regarding considering spiritual pathways except perhaps the most nebulous and ‘nonreligious’ ones. It has turned many away from Christianity but has not endeared them to Islam. History should not be romanticised, but it should be contextualised. Many of the horrors of history, particularly ‘religious history’ are decontextualized, exaggerated and in some cases completely imagined. The perceived historical stupidity of not Greco-Romans is also almost universally exaggerated to an obscene degree. The logical conclusion of the ‘religious’ history given to the Westerner is that ‘religion’ is fundamentally a retrograde concept, and a more accurate narrative of history may allow this barrier to be traversed.
Contrary to what some Muslim optimists imagine, Westerners are not converting to Islam on masse, or even close to it. Islam in the West, whilst perhaps not haemorrhaging followers at the rate of Western Christianity (though there are some plausible claims that in some nations including United States of America this is the case), is more likely to lose followers than receive converts. I do not wish to downplay the role of situational occurrences in explaining some of this (such as the treatment of Muslims by the media and political establishment) as I have discussed in the introduction, but even without these, the looming obstacle of different paradigms regarding ideas about life, history and reality which we have discussed would remain.
Both ways of thinking inform, and are informed by the religious, or secular faith of their people. As I have discussed, both have merit, and both contain serious potential obstacles for anyone who desires to worship the divine reality in a way that is emotionally, rationally and practically fulfilling.
For the Westerner, I would hope that some examination of their own worldview and assumptions could ultimately lead them to conclude that it is at least not unreasonable to believe that there is a will, or consciousness that transcends the material and that it is rational to try to learn more of this ultimate reality, which may have given us a personal ‘face’ in the scriptures of the world religions. This reality cannot be accessed by the physical or the immediate senses, only by the mind; hence the value of prayer and good actions, which do not serve the divine in the literal sense but rather bring us closer to him.
If the Westerner is an agnostic (in the most secular of the western countries most people probably are, and I would include many self-avowed atheists here), the starting point I would advise would be in the spirit of the British philosopher Anthony Kenny, who defends the prayers of the agnostic on the grounds that “It surely is no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean, trapped in a cave, or stranded on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard or fires a signal which may never be seen.” From there, combined with the more nuanced view of history, science and faith which I have discussed, an acceptance of the divine may be kindled.
For the Muslim, it is imperative to realise that societal scrutiny is happening. Most Muslims have not felt a great sense of alarm at the near evisceration of Christianity throughout many Western countries. Some Muslims, and indeed some ‘pro Christian’ right wing commentators believe this could allow Islam to get a foothold. The opposite however is probably true as it is typically harder for an individual to traverse the bridge from irreligion (unless perhaps we are speaking of irreligious theism) to Islam, than from a monotheistic religion such as Christianity to Islam. Furthermore, if Western secularists had the will and the means to annihilate overt Christian influence within a mere few generations, what makes Muslims believe that they will not suffer the same fate? The Western establishment does not need to conduct an inquisition in order to ‘purify’ its populace into full secularity; all it needs to do is demonstrate that the way of life it promotes appears to be intellectually superior, and, for want of a better term, more enjoyable. So far, it has been very successful.
If Islam is to survive in the West, it will need to be practiced in a meaningful, spiritually and intellectually sound manner. It cannot simply be the rather pointless extension of culture that many a secularist demands, nor the puritanism that is fixated on minutia and uses the criteria of difficulty and harshness as a positive yardstick when determining how to practice the faith.
This does not mean that every Muslim must have rehearsed both philosophically, historically and theologically water tight answers for every searching question that the ‘sceptic’ could conceive of, but one should be able to at least recognise and have some reasonable counters to the reasons cited by ordinary people for people rejecting a spiritual belief system.
Both modes of thought that I have broadly described as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Western’ should be understood and scrutinised, helping remove the barriers to considering a way of life that is spiritually and intellectually fulfilling, and merciful towards others. For those practicing the Islamic faith, I hope this discussion may allow us to celebrate what is beneficial and remove some of the vulnerabilities currently attached to how our world view is practiced. I close with a section from the forty ninth chapter of the Qur’an which speaks of diversity (the use of ‘we’ is a linguistic device which emphasises the infinite magnitude of God, which is of course, divine Unity).
O humanity! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.