This is the first in a series of essays on Islam and religion in general, which the author wrote to his daughter many years ago, when she was a teenager studying in the UK. There are six essays in total written roughly a week apart over a period of about two months.
Surkhiyanis pleased to publish them exclusively, by special arrangement with the author, starting this week with the first essay.
One: To believe or not to believe
Your Mother has told me about your recently expressed angst about Islam and belief in general. I’d much rather talk about these things face to face. But since this is not going to be possible, at least for a couple of months, let me see what I can put across in writing.
Yes, I think we all ask ourselves the question: What if there is no Heaven? What we really mean is: What if there is no Creator? And what if the universe and all that exists in it is accidental – the result of adventitious random processes, acting without direction, on a primordial cloud of stellar matter?
Like everyone else I also asked myself this question, and, to be honest, I sometimes still do.
I was trained as an engineer. And we engineers are a curiouslot. We always want to know how things work. So, I wanted to know how everything worked: the stars, the planets, the pattern of day and night, our bodies, the brain and so on. I read profusely about all of these things trying to comprehend what science has discovered about them. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that science did not have all the answers. If anything, it showedthe limit of our knowledge, rather than the extent of it.
When I was at MIT, a friend who was taking a course in biology mentioned to me that there were no atheists at MIT’s biology department. At the time I didn’t think much of the remark. It was years later that I understood its significance. This was when I started to read extensively about the structure of the cell, and the processes involved in cell division. These are the processes that convert a newly fertilized egg in the womb to a baby. Look at this baby with its perfectly developed limbs, its soft pearly skin, and its wide-open eyes and tell me that this is the result of random, undirected processes! The biologists at MIT knew better. It’s just that they wouldn’t want you to quote them on this – it would throw their scientific qualifications in doubt.
And this is just one example. You can stand under the sky and look around you, anywhere on the planet, and His signs stare you in the face: The clear blue sky itself, the sun and the stars and the moon, the air, the clouds, the rain and the trees – the list is endless. All you have to do is use the gift of intelligence, and as a Muslim this is not an option, it is a binding obligation.
It is said that when something is very obvious, we fail to see it. Modern humans seem to do something of the sort. Civilization has created an illusion of independence. This is true especially in the West. Comfortable in their homes, with their cars and gadgets and ‘reality’ shows, never alone in their world of malls, offices, coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs, they forget that it is only a heartbeat that separates them from ‘Reality’.
The Bedouin, whose heart was to be the receptacle for the Eternal message, had no such illusions. Alone, in a timeless desert, under the night sky ablaze with stars, he had a keen, almost painful awareness of his insignificance compared to the glory and grandeur of all that surrounded him. And maybe this is why, when the Message did come, it came to this ‘simple’ folk.
Don’t be deceived by the knowing, sardonic smile of the atheist. Whether he acknowledges it or not he is a creature of God. And buried deep in his heart is an innate awareness of Him which he tries desperately to cover up. The verb in Arabic is ‘kafara’: ‘to cover up’ from which the noun ‘kafir’ – one who covers up what he knows to be true – is derived.
If you ever ‘doubt’, all you need to do is look around and think. I look at my hands as I type these wordsand marvel, absolutely marvel at their complexity: a system of blood vessels delivers and retrieves blood, which supplies energy for the muscles to move, neural networks deliver precise instructions from the brain, millions of ‘sensors’ convey a sense of touch, texture, warmth, and pain. Am I to believe that these hands have no designer and maker? Did they just ‘evolve’ accidentally? If you saw an aeroplane in the sky, and knew nothing else about it, would you argue that its ancestors crawled out on their bellies from an ancient earthly sea?
From my point of view getting past the stage of ‘to believe or not to believe’ is the easy part. What is hard is deciding what to believe, and then, what to do about it.
To be continued…
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