By Jaafar Sheikh Idris.
Edited and expanded by Nadeem Haque
The question “why?” demands a rational answer. However, many people think that it is not possible to give rational answers to ideological commitments. They believe that a commitment to any theistic ideology is an irrational act. One cannot deny the fact that many people do commit themselves illogically to various ideologies and continue to hold onto them only because they find themselves to be raised up in particular communities. They accept such ideologies in just the same way as they would accept a traditional form of dress handed down to them through the generations. Other people accept certain ideologies because they bring about certain ‘benefits’, as for example, a person might be deeply committed to a nationalistic ideology simply because it may be the best way to win the support of the masses and thereby gain personal political power.
Let us analyze two commonly found views regarding ideological commitments:
The first states that a commitment to any ideology which involves some type of deity must necessarily be irrational. The premise of those who say this is that the fundamental claims of all such ideologies are beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Those who have accepted such a premise have concluded that all types of such ‘belief’ must be based on irrational and imaginary thoughts rather than on reality. The opposite view is held by people who seek to justify their ‘belief’ in certain irrational ideas by claiming that reason is limited. In fact, the followers of this ideology state that people should commit themselves to such ideas by simply having ‘faith’. The conclusion of these people is that ultimate reality must be irrational in essence and therefore incomprehensible to the human mind. They go on to say that their ideology must be accepted or ‘believed’ without reason, in order to attain some type of ‘salvation’.
This kind of argument is very difficult to accept because as human beings, we may ask: What do we have other than the usage of our minds for acquiring knowledge? If we are told to ‘believe’ in something that is irrational (i.e. beyond all reason), such as a type of being which is both mortal and immortal, we cannot possibly digest such an idea. Therefore it does not seem unnatural for us to demand that our way of thinking and living be based solely upon those concepts which can be verified as being true.
Going back to the first view regarding ideological commitments, we see that this view contends that we cannot and should not believe in that which we cannot comprehend. It is true that one cannot have an adequate mental picture of some scientific facts. For example, one cannot have an adequate mental or visual picture of the way in which bats ‘see’ by using ultrasonic waves. However, we know these concepts to be existent and true because of solid evidence based on our understanding of sound waves, logical analysis and experimentation and not because of some irrational ideas, even though we cannot have personal experiential knowledge of bat vision. In other words, in order to comprehend one does not have to actually have experience of, as this example illustrates, visual perception. Therefore, we can indeed say that we do comprehend that bat vision is based on ultrasound. We can, in other words, know of the existence and comprehend the nature of a cause through the evidence of the effects.
Now what about the concept of a singular, all-knowing entity which has created the universe? It is impossible to have any mental or visual picture of such an entity, for evidence tells us that this entity must be unlike anything in the universe because this entity must be independent of all matter, energy and motion and therefore also of time. The evidence for the existence of this single intelligence lies in the design of nature itself, which we can freely examine; hence, such an ideology must, logically speaking, be rational. If one realizes this – through confirmation – then one can proceed to answer the question: Why Islam?
One of the main problems with an atheistic ideology is that it cannot explain intelligence in the processes of the universe. Another problem is that it tends to deprive life of meaning. Furthermore, we know that human beings are naturally inclined to be honest; however, in atheism there is a denial of an ultimate originator and of anything beyond death, which creates a contradiction and leads to an inconsistency in behaviour – on the one hand a person would be inclined to be honest, and on the other to be dishonest ‘to make the most of this world’. Broadly speaking, with regard to theistic ideologies we have the revealed, the distorted and the man-made. One can easily say that a way of life communicated to humankind by the creator of this universe is preferred to man-made ideologies. If one wants to follow the advice of that which has made the universe and all that it contains, regarding what is beneficial or harmful, then it is better to refer to pristine communication from this originator, than to that communication which has been fabricated or distorted by man.
Those ideologies claiming to be based on revelations can be subjected to a number of tests, the first and most important of which is that of consistency. We must look for two types of consistency: internal and external. Internal consistency means that a statement made in a book must not contradict another statement in the same book. External consistency means that a statement made in a book must not contradict facts as we know, be they psychological, physical, chemical, historical, geographical, biological and so on. Applying these tests, consider the most important truth that all the supposedly revealed ideologies proclaim, that is, the existence and perfect attributes of God. God for all ideologies, that claim to be revealed, is supposed to be all knowing, all merciful, everlasting etc. However, some books imply that God’s knowledge is limited and imperfect by saying that, for example, God was deceived by a human. In contrast, the Quran provides the perfect concept of an all-knowing, singular originator of this universe. A book such as the Bible, that states that the heavens and the earth were made in six days and God was fatigued and had to rest on day seven, is not as reliable, in its totality, as a book such as the Quran, which speaks of the Big Bang, the expanding universe and galactical evolution and is far in advance of current science, constantly pre-empting our discoveries in nature and history.
This leads us to the next test – that of authenticity. The question that should be asked is whether the scriptures that we have today are indeed a communication from the Creator to humankind. A study of the history of Islam would show that the present Quran is exactly the same as that which was communicated over one thousand four hundred years ago. During its revelation it was committed to memory by a large number of people and also written down and organized exactly as the Prophet had instructed, to the letter, which we now possess unchanged.
Yet another test is that of comprehensiveness.
A truly comprehensive ideology, revealed to humankind by the designer of the universe, would describe the most beneficial system in all spheres of life including the political, economical, social, medical and environmental spheres.
Then there is the test of universality. Clearly, an ideology which is historically or graphically bound is not as good as that which applicable to all human beings, irrespective of the time and place of their origin.
Since truth is timeless, those belief systems that espouse that one must believe in a Saviour who appeared on earth at a particular time, or else one will be cast into hell, by not being ‘saved’, have the problem of being time-bound belief systems that are unjust or redundant. They are unjust because they differentiate on a person’s salvation prospects by ‘accident of birth’. If one were born prior to the Saviour’s appearance, then how would one know the Saviour, in order for one to be saved? Indeed, we would have a perfectly valid excuse on the Day of Judgment for our ignorance. On the other hand, if it is not necessary to believe in such a Saviour, then such a Saviour becomes redundant, at least in this respect. Therefore, timelessness must be a property for any true belief system.
This leads to uniqueness. The truth must be unique and so must that belief system based upon it. From the example of timelessness, many belief systems espouse irrationality and ask one to ‘believe’ by adopting blind faith. As a result, they cannot give a reason for their beliefs, which they say are not based on reason, and if they do try to, they contradict themselves at the very outset, by giving reasons why one cannot use reason. All such belief systems therefore suffer from the timelessness problem, that leads to the uniqueness problem, which they all share or have in common. In other words, they are all non-unique in their irrationality The result of this is that they cannot attack other belief systems at their foundation because they will be undermining themselves.
A true belief system must also possess the property of labelessness. In other words it does not depend on labels, but seeks to go to the proper methodology as described above, by going to the essence of whether our belief encompasses the above criteria and indeed whether one is following these criteria in one’s behaviour. This also goes for the label “Islam” or “Muslim”; merely using such a label does not mean that one is following the pristine rationality that these words imply, or following the peaceful and just behaviour that such a belief demands.
Finally, we can see that the true belief system must possess rationality at its core as all these tests demand. However, one can only use rationality if one is sincerely seeking the truth and not bound by vested interests. One cannot be irrational and realize the true belief system if what one is adhering to is not: Consistent, authentic, comprehensive, universal, timeless, unique, labeless and rational. In conclusion, if one uses these tests and above all, rationality, one would find the Quran unique and worthy of investigation. It is interesting to note that the Quran itself stresses the above-mentioned approach. For example, in verse 82 of chapter 4, it is said, “Will they not ponder about the Quran? If it had been from other than God, then they would have surely found in it many inconsistencies.” Since the Quran is the source of Islam, we can see that it asks us to ask not only “Why Islam?” but shows us a method of disproving the Quran itself, the Quran being the basis of Islam. When one is on a genuine quest to determine the truth, nothing is above or exempt from the scrutiny of reason and evidence. The Quranic proclamation of ratiocination remains a timeless challenge for all those who seriously seek answers to the question Why Islam?
Editor’s note :
This lecture of Dr. Idris was edited/modified by Nadeem Haque and Anees Munshi in the early 1990s, by the permission of Dr. Idris. In December 2011, Nadeem Haque made further revisions. If everyone insisted on ‘making the most of this world’, society as we know it would not exist. As a case in point, let us suppose that all those who wanted to ‘make the most of this world’ resorted to thievery. If this happened, no one would be producing the goods (growing food for instance) that the rest of us could steal. Hence it seems that ‘making the most of this world’ as system of action is doomed to failure. Could it then be a viable system of belief?