Failing

Caveat: This post will have a religious flavor. Moreover, the chronology of the events is true

Wednesday, 20th November 2013

I read this longform piece What It’s Like to Fail. Though one may not agree with the choices author made but it is an inspiring uplifting story about a man trying to survive and fight against the consequences of the bad decisions he had made. One paragraph particularly stood out:

What happens when you hit bottom? I can tell you one thing: you don’t bounce back. You crawl back, fighting every step of the way. It isn’t a straight arc back up either; there are dozens of setbacks every step of the way. And the place you land isn’t anywhere near where you were when you slipped off the cliff.

It is human nature but an Ivy League education makes you more conscious of where in the corporate ladder your classmates are. It is cliched but no one measures their quality of life in strength of their relationships with friends and family. The measure of a successful person is his wealth, which school one’s kids go to, what is the job description and employer name on one’s business card, where did we go to during summer holidays etc. And yes, we do admit everyday that we are amongst top 5% or top 10% of the world and non-deservingly more blessed than 5.5 billion people (assuming world population is 6 billion) but the circle we move in comprises of top 5% of the world and we always compare ourselves to them.

Post financial crisis of 2008, amongst the 150 or so graduates of my Ivy League class, only one or two updated their job descriptions on LinkedIn with a promotion or move up the career ladder. And comparing myself to them made me depressed as my career had come to a stand still. I carried on at my dead end job because there weren’t any better jobs in the market. What I knew from school grapevine but didn’t admit to myself was that reason many of my colleagues were not updating their profiles had been made redundant by the crisis. I talked to quite a few colleagues from my earlier jobs and with the exception of one or two, all are sticking to their jobs (with or without promotion) because their current jobs is providing them temporary job security which is a huge stress relief in these fluid times.

Thursday, 21st November 2013

I called up one of my closest friend. Both of us lamented our lucks. We took a break from career, went to business school and graduated a year before the credit crisis struck. While we were studying, it was still hey days and our colleagues climbed up the corporate ladder during this time. So when we joined the workforce, unlike earlier times wherein we were supposed to get a bigger and higher role as our CV was embellished with a top university education, we had to struggle very hard to get the position we left. Though I don’t think of it this way, but from a career growth perspective, the decision to go for a higher education at an elite university appears like a mistake to my friend. I look at it totally differently. It was one of my dreams to go for an education at an elite university and with grace of God I realized that dream. I look at the decision to go to the elite university like this as founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos had said:

“When you are in the thick of things, you can get confused by small stuff,” Bezos said a few years later. “I knew when I was eighty that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time. That kind of thing just isn’t something you worry about when you’re eighty years old. At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionizing event. When I thought about it that way… it was incredibly easy to make the decision.”

For me the experience, the learning and achievement of sitting amongst the top finance leaders of the future and having studied, competed and held my own in academics with the best students of the world is a source of pride. I don’t know whether I will get to live to 80 and be able to derive same pride at that age but having realized one of my dreams is something to be truly thankful for.

I didn’t complain about my decision to go for an elite education but I did complain about how the career has come to a stop, prices for foodstuff, rent as well as kid’s tuition fees are rising etc and life isn’t exactly turning out to be how I thought it would. By life (I meant career).

Friday, 22nd November 2013

The Friday sermon at the mosque was about being thankful for what you have and comparing yourself to the ones below you and not comparing yourself for what you don’t have. Have heard such pep talk before. Then the Imam quoted following verses from the Quran. I don’t know about you but I have felt that whenever a verse is quoted from Quran, it just sinks directly into my heart and clears up a lot of things. May be it is faith. May be I am what you call a fundamentalist. Despite having read large number of books on worldly wisdom and sciences, I am still melted by Quranic verses. And the timing was perfect. It felt like that sermon was especially for me as I was feeling down.


And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe.’ ” [Ibrahim:7]

Yet we are all human and sometimes feel that God is unnecessarily punishing us or testing us. And the Imam then quoted the following verse

What would Allah do with your punishment if you are grateful and believe? And ever is Allah Appreciative and Knowing. [Nisa:147]

This reminded me of the verse that my father used to quote:

And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.

The crux of above verse being that never compare yourself or ask the Lord for what he has given others. Just keep asking Him for his bounty. He may and will bless you with a different sort of bounty.

So yes, I am in a dead end career for now. And yes, the price of goods and services are rising whereas my income is not rising proportionately at all. And yes by the standards I use to measure my life (read career), I am failing but I have achieved a lot in life, realized a lot of my dreams and more for which I am thankful to Lord and seek His mercy and graciousness to bless me with more bounty from his unlimited sources.

Sunday, 24nd November 2013

A friend shares this as his status update on Facebook:

Volume 1, Book 3, Number 73: Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud: The Prophet said, “Do not wish to be like anyone except in two cases. (The first is) A person, whom Allah has given wealth and he spends it righteously; (the second is) the one whom Allah has given wisdom (the Holy Qur’an) and he acts according to it and teaches it to others.” (Fateh-al-Bari page 177 Vol. 1)

My earlier related posts:

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Why hadiths (oral traditions of Prophet) were not written down?

The notion of prioritizing reports about the Prophet was inherently objectionable in their eyes, and a scheme to incorporate hadiths into a legal structure raised an even more fundamental objection. They thought it was wrong to write down hadiths at all. Books in their view could only befuddle belief. The assumptions that underlay that opinion are hard to know for sure – not least, because no one holding them put them in writing – but countless chroniclers attest to its existence. Abu Bakr had reportedly doubted the wisdom of writing down even the Qur’an. Human literature of a lesser sort seemed pure folly.

Such ideas feel atavistic today, and it is easy to characterize them as superstitions or to reduce them to a fear of change. The invention of the printing press once produced similarly dire predictions television sets were more recently expected to destroy the moral fibre of baby boomers; and some commentators tut-tut today about the brain-rotting potential of the internet. But though complaints are always tiresome when they turn into moral panics, the move away from an oral culture carries genuinely far-reaching consequences.

That truth was well reflected a thousand years before the advent of Islam in a fable that Plato put into the mouth of Socrates. It told how Thoth, the ibis-headed god of ancient Egypt, had invented writing and offered it up to the king of Thebes (Alexandria) as an elixir of memory and wisdom – only for the monarch to complain that it was actually a recipe for forgetfulness and stupidity. Thoth’s innovation would encourage people to remember words rather than what they signified, warned the king, and promote the delusion that knowledge could be acquired without a teacher. Socrates, who famously wrote nothing himself, knew the limits of literature. Once a story has to be structured to convey a lesson, it loses buoyancy. A text read alone is no substitute for social interaction. And attempts to describe a truth can sap energies that would otherwise be used searching for it.

Sadakat, Kadri. “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari‘a Law.”

History of Shariah : Hanafi

Abbasid coins during Al-Mu'tamid's reign

Influenced by Greek philosophers whose work had been studied for centuries in Persia, Hanafites assumed God’s rationality. They proposed that Muslims should therefore seek to discern the purpose underpinning His laws, reasoning by analogy (qiyas) where necessary, and departing from earlier understandings of the shari‘a whenever that seemed just.

The Hanafites were logical, in other words – and though the flaws of logic are familiar enough today, that gave them immense confidence in an age unfamiliar with its shortcomings. One of the earliest fruits of their research was development of the hila (pl. hiyal) – a word that literally translates as ‘escape’ or ‘loophole’ – which was as inventive as it sounds. It allowed philanthropists to create charitable trusts in violation of the literal terms of the Qur’an’s inheritance rules, and it gave would-be tax-evaders ways of dodging the zakat.

Before long, the Hanafites would be redefining the Qur’an’s prohibitions on financial speculation in order to lubricate a money economy, complete with paper cash, cheques and letters of credit, half a millennium before canonical lawyers found ways of doing the same in Europe. And their mastery of syllogistic reasoning was capable of accommodating human frailties with equal ease, as early Hanafite arguments about alcohol show.

Noting that the Qur’an disapproved specifically of ‘wine’ (khamr), jurists proposed that God clearly had no objection to fermented date juice (nabidh). Because the holy book warned Muslims against being too drunk to understand their prayers, they reasoned further that the evil of alcohol arose out of the senselessness produced by overindulgence. Intoxication could therefore be defined, they said, as an inability to differentiate between a man and woman. The route was baffling, but the destination was easily defined. If Hanafites were to be believed, Muslims could down alcohol by the jug until they became incapable of telling a slave girl from a beardless boy.

The malleability impressed many people. As Abbasid officials fumbled to balance piety and convenience, they repeatedly turned to Hanafites for help, and though Abu Hanifa himself was supposedly too God-fearing to serve as a judge, students were soon wiping away their dutiful tears and settling down to work on divans across the caliphate. There were others who were considerably more critical, however. Conservatives complained that Hanafites were more interested in expressing their opinions than clarifying God’s law.

Sadakat, Kadri. “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari‘a Law.”

The reference to Hila or Hiyal (legal tricks) require further research from my side. Currently it stands in a negative light the way author talked about it. Please share any references or readings that you can recommend on the topic.

What is the Islamic view of homosexuality?

It’s well know that Islam looks down upon homosexuality. But as time passes we hear more and more propaganda from within as well as outside Muslim communities to somehow reconcile Islamic teachings with homosexuality. Below I paste the best write up that I have read on the topic. You can click on the title of the article to go to the main website where it is posted

On Gay Pride in Islam
Sheharyar Shaikh

People should be very free with sex; they should draw the line at goats. ~ Elton John

About a week ago I received a news story of an interview of a prominent gay activist with a mission to reconcile his “gay-ness” and those of others with God’s final message of Islam. He established and now directs an organization whose objective is to empower gay Muslims. Welcome to al-Fatihah: A US-based non profit gay support organization founded in 1998 that started out as an online discussion group and now runs over ten chapters in three countries. Its founder, the 28-year old Faisal Alam, says that at the age of sixteen he began to realize that something was wrong – “something I didn’t have a word for”. Alam was attracted to his own gender. A few years later he began venting his homosexual urges at local gay clubs during his university days in Boston where he would be “Muslim by day and homosexual by night”. An engagement with a Muslim girl came to a crashing halt when she discovered “that there was something wrong with their relationship”. After a nervous breakdown in 1996, Alam started an online mailing list with a mission to “advance the cause of homosexual Muslims”. Today al-Fatihah boasts of thousands of Muslim members around the world. It has created a 12-member “scholarship committee” that has produced a booklet that challenges the “traditional interpretations” of the mainstream Muslims. For future it plans to create homosexual friendly curriculum and arrange workshops in Islamic schools and centres.

There is no secret concerning the existence of Muslim homosexuality in history. Even if in history it was mostly secret. The fact that homosexual Muslims normally kept their affairs hidden was a proof of their tacit self-admission that their orientation was not socially approved and/or divinely blessed. This is beginning to change. The contemporary homosexual activists, who often portray a flaming presence in the workplace and public arena, are now demanding their inclusion in our mosques, religious schools and centers.

And yes, we have all heard the recent arguments in support of homosexuality. Some cite animal species that engage in homosexual acts in order to prove that it is natural behaviour. However some animal species also eat their young and their own excrements. The Quranic worldview portrays angels of possessing reason but no desire; and of animals having desire but no reason. So why must humans look towards the animal kingdom for sexual guidance? Others claim that homosexual behaviour is part of one’s genetic makeup and thus should be excused. There is no concrete evidence to prove that homosexuality is congenital. If it were so, we would not see cases of identical twins, who share the same genetic makeup, exhibiting opposite sexual orientations. Furthermore, if a homosexual could justify his behaviour by referring to his genetic programming, what would prevent a committer of incest or bestiality to also justify his behaviour on similar grounds? The society would have to cater to such claimants – because hey, it’s genetic! Even if the ever-so-evasive “gay-gene” is discovered some day, the fact that homosexual behaviour must uncontrollably result from it will remain to be proven.

The homosexual groups like Iman, al-Fatihah, etc, not only want the mainstream Muslims to accept them as they are but, also, most appallingly, bring Islam and the Quran as evidence in support of their behaviour. Islam backs their homosexuality, they insist. Alam claims that “Islam has…never intruded into the bedroom of its followers” – a blatent lie. “We are fighting …1400 years of interpretation”, says Alam, laying the blame squarely on “straight, homophobic men” in charge of textual interpretation. Pervez Sharma, the gay director of the documentary “A Jihad for Love”, profiles two Turkish lesbians in his movie who he describes in an interview as “sufis”. What travesty! Is it the same sufism that goes at lengths to teach one restraint over one’s carnal desires and direct one’s love towards God? Some advocates cite “homoerotic” poetry of the Sufi tradition to lend legitimacy to an Islam-approved idea of homosexuality. Do they not know that the traditional Sufi masters used metaphors and similes to express their love for the religion and religious symbols, not clandestine homosexual relationships? Hence recurring words like “wine” stood for divine love; “the cupbearer” for the Prophet (S); “the beloved” for God/the Guide; “the lover” for the poet himself, etc. Sharma’s comment in an interview that “the Wahhabis and the Tablighis have looked down upon the Sufis” is also incorrect. While it is true that Wahhabis (properly known as the Salafis) warred against Sufi innovations, the Tabligh movement on the other hand seeks inspiration from age-old Sufi ideas and practices.

I believe that most gay activists who wear the Islam label know the right path. They know in their heart that the Quran explicitly condemns their behaviour. But instead of admitting their wrong and seeking help from God to overcome their inclinations, and we all have inclinations, they commit further sin by seeking to legitimize their behaviour in Islam. Ali Orhon, a Turkish homosexual who had a troubled marriage lasting ten months, is at least honest enough to admit that the Quran is anti-gay. “If there was any pro-gay interpretation, I would have seized on it”, he says. Yet consider Muhsin Hendricks, “the first gay Imam” from South Africa, who after graduating from a Pakistani madrasah and then coming out as gay, now counsels Muslim homosexuals in an effort to reconcile their Islam with their sexuality. “Let Allah be the judge in the end of the day” he says in an interview. But, Allah did judge, Mr. Hendrinks. The destruction of Lot’s people on account of their brazen homosexuality is mentioned over twenty times in the Quran. God’s displeasure towards Soddom is best reflected in the way they were destroyed; the land on which they dwelt was first pelted at night with “marked stones from Heaven” followed by the land being flung into midair, turned upside down and then smashed onto the ground crushing and burying everyone by sunrise (11:82, 15:74). Furthermore, God leaves the Soddomite region, in form of the non-life giving Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth surface (1,378 ft below sea level), as a warning and reminder to humanity to never repeat Soddom’s lowly and lifeless ways (37:137-138, 15:75-77). But see how Faisal Alam chooses to interpret the Soddom account. He makes the dishonest claim that Soddomites were destroyed because they were “stealing and were not hospitable to their guests”. Prophet Lot rebukes the townspeople at several Quranic instances for forsaking women in preference of men (27:55, 26:166, 7:81) – even offering his daughters for marriage (15:77). Moreover does it make sense that God of Islam would curb free heterosexual sex by enforcing stringent laws (24:2) but condone free homosexual sex? The verses clearly comment on the Soddomite involvement in consensual “filthy acts” (al-Khaba’ith) (21:74) especially during their parties and social gatherings (29:29).

Because no homosexual was ever punished by the Prophet (S) this proves, Alam reasons, that homosexuality is permitted in Islam. The Prophet (S) did not punish any homosexual because none was ever brought to him for judgement. All we have is reports of effeminate men called Mukhannathun (such as ad-Dalal, Tuways etc) in Jahili Arabia who resembled women in their gestures, manner of talk and gait owing to their natural disposition and therefore carried no blame. Only one such man is reported to have been banished by the Prophet to the suburbs of Medina for deliberately imitating women by wearing henna on his hands and feet (Sunan Abu Da’ud, Book 41, Hadith 4910).

Yet the legal efforts towards legalizing homosexuality are gaining momentum in the Islamic world, with Lebanon leading the struggle. Gay issues are freely shared in a popular weekly TV programme called “ash-Shater Yahki”. The Lebanese gay magazine “Barra” alleges 35 percent of Lebanese men to have had sex with other men. It is ironic that a nation only a short car-ride away from the Biblical region of Soddom should boast of “Acid – the first gay nightclub in the Middle East” among queer cafés, bathhouses, cinemas and bars. Who can forget the summer of 2006 when the first ever gay Arab rights conference organized by Helem, a Lebanese gay advocacy group currently active in a homosexuality legalization struggle, was held in Beirut for three straight days? But this is not to pick on Lebanon alone. The 2005-closure of a UAE nightclub for its gay night, the 2002-arrests of 52 alleged homosexuals on a pleasure boat in Cairo, reports of homosexuality occurring in religious madrasahs in Pakistan and other similar accounts disclose a disturbing trend: the Islamic World is undergoing softening attitudes towards illicit sex and sexuality, especially among its youth. “Imam” Hendricks cites only two options available for a Muslim homosexual: “leaving Islam or suicide”. We say there is, and always was, a third option: restraint and repentance – something not unfamiliar to the mainstream heterosexual Muslims of the world. But to attempt to justify homosexuality in the Quran and Hadith is not only dishonest, it also brings to question one’s status as a Muslim (Not my fatwa. Please refer to fiqh on the issue).

Indeed the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has said, “Allah has forgiven my Ummah of the whisperings of their souls so long as they do not talk about it or act accordingly.”

And for those among us who are struggling with their nafs while admitting its shortcomings, there is perhaps no better verse than the following to bring hope to their situation:

Say: “O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah. for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (az-Zumar 39:53)

Does Islam lead to hypocrisy between public and private life?

The Quran tells us: ‘Truly, those who love that scandal should be spread concerning those who believe — grievous suffering awaits them in the world and in the hereafter; for Allah knows [the truth] and you know not’ (Q.24.19)’. And again: ‘O Believers! Let not people deride other people, who may be better than themselves … neither defame one another nor insult one another with epithets; evil is the imputation of iniquity after [attainment to] faith . . . O Believers! Shun most suspicion, for indeed suspicion is in some cases a sin. And spy not [upon one another], neither backbite [one another]. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor it! So be conscious of Allah. Truly Allah is Relenting, Merciful’ (Q.49.11/12).

The past sins of men and women are indeed ‘dead flesh’, not to be picked over or discussed with prurient interest, and there are frequent references in the hadith literature to the fact that, if we wish God to overlook our sins, it is for us to conceal the sins of our neighbour, and if we are in a position to reprove him, to do so privately: ‘Never does a believer draw a veil over the nakedness of another believer without Allah drawing a veil over his nakedness on the Day of Resurrection’; and again, ‘Do not hurt those who believe, and do not impute evil to them, and do not try to uncover their nakedness [i.e. their faults); for, truly, if anyone tries to uncover his brother’s nakedness, Allah will uncover his nakedness on the Day of Judgement.’

Such counsels of concealment, discretion and delicacy are quite contrary to the contemporary Western preference for ‘bringing things into the open’ or — to use a current phrase which is expressive in this context — for ‘letting everything hang out’. Even less in tune with contemporary principles is the idea that we ought, if we can, to hide our own sins and weaknesses, in accordance with the saying: ‘Better a hundred sins in the sight of God than one in the sight of men’. In a well-authenticated hadith reported by Abu Huraira the Prophet said: ‘All my people will be kept safe except for those who publish their own wrongdoing. It is a kind of impudence for a man to commit an act of disobedience during the night and then, when Allah has concealed it for him, to tell someone in the morning that he had done this or that during the night. His Lord had concealed it in the night, yet he — in the morning — exposes what Allah had concealed !’

Our contemporaries, at least in the Anglo-Saxon sector of the world, can only see this as an inducement to hypocrisy. The cult of ‘honesty’ has now gone so far that many people believe that nothing we do matters so long as they are honest and open about it and never pretend to be better than they are; moreover, to conceal what one has done suggests that one is ashamed of oneself, and how could this be in an age in which the ‘self’ is a god —possibly the only god there is. The motive —at least on the surface — is a reaction against Victorian ‘hypocrisy’, although what was really blameworthy in the people of the nineteenth century was not their secretiveness but their self-righteousness; but, at a deeper level, however paradoxical this may seem, the passion for self-exposure betrays a desire for reassurance and for social approval. lf I confess my sin quite shamelessly – putting upon it whatever gloss I choose – and my friends do not think less of me, then all is well and I need not feel troubled.

For the Muslim, every infringement of the Law, every sin, has two quite separate aspects, in the first place, it relates to the individual’s situation vis-a-vis his Creator, whom he knows to be ever ready to forgive, provided the sinner repents and resolves to do better, if he can, in the future. Secondly, if this sin is made public, it is an encouragement to others to do likewise; and this, from the point of view of the community —the rightly-guided community — is the more serious aspect of the matter. We all know how ready most people are to copy each other and to justify what they do in terms of what others have done. A bad example held up before the public gaze is therefore a wound inflicted upon the community, undermining the Law and loosening ties of relationship. For this offence forgiveness is less likely.

There are, however, more profound reasons for protecting the ‘nakedness’ of others and for concealing our own. As was suggested earlier, few personalities are unified and all of a piece. For a man to try to cover and inhibit those elements within himself which he would like to overcome and to bring forward those which he would like to see triumphant is not ‘hypocrisy’. If he would like to be better than he is, then he deserves to be encouraged in this aim, and there is something very peculiar about the contemporary tendency to regard a person’s worst qualities as representing his ‘true’ self, although it goes hand in hand with the common belief that ugliness is in some strange way more ‘real’ than beauty and that to discover a shameful secret is to discover the truth. Perhaps a saner point of view is suggested by a story which Muslims tell about Jesus. It is said that he was walking one day with his disciples when they passed the carcass of a dog. ‘How it stinks!’ said the disciples; but Jesus said: ‘How white its teeth are!’

No one was ever damned for thinking too well of people. It is said that his fellow monks once called St Thomas Aquinas to the refectory window, crying: ‘Brother Thomas, come quickly and see a flying ox!’ He heaved his considerable bulk out of the chair and went to the window. Seeing nothing, he returned amidst mocking laughter and sat down again, saying: ‘Better to believe in a flying ox than in a lying monk!’

We are, by nature, poor judges of anyone and anything, and most factual evidence is partial if not conflicting. Ultimately, there is a simple moral choice: to believe the best or to believe the worst, to have faith or to shrink back from this leap in the dark and whimper in a corner until death takes us.

To return, however, to the question of presenting one’s best face to the world, we might consider the case of a man who is without any innate dignity of character or of natural bearing: if he attempts to appear dignified for the sake of impressing the people around him or for material gain, then he is indeed a hypocrite; but if he does so from love of the quality of dignity, its beauty and its honour, and from a desire to be more worthy of his Creator despite his own inadequacies, then what do we call him? If we could foresee the fate of souls when they come to the final Judgement we might be surprised by the verdict upon him, and in any case it is none of our business to pull away his mask and expose the raw and disfigured features in the name of some abstract notion of ‘honesty’.

The quality of personal dignity- not least dignity of deportment — was certainly highly valued in Islam in the past and, in spite of certain appearances today (due to the influence of modern Western manners), is still highly valued among more traditionally minded Muslims. This, together with what is often referred to as the ‘cult of politeness’, does indeed give rise to accusations of ‘hypocrisy’; but in so tight-knit a society good manners are essential to maintain a certain distance between people, a certain privacy.

Gai F. Eaton, “Islam and Destiny of Man”

Quran, Moonsighting and Ramadan

Every year there is a controversy right around beginning and end of Ramadan (“Ramzan” if you are a Pakistani) wherein people fight over the need to see the moon when the computer models have predicted to the second whether it will be visible on that night or not. People wonder why there is a need to see the moon when we have so much technology at our disposal.

I was reading Gai F. Eaton’s “Islam and Destiny of Man” and I came across the following passages that put the case for it so lucidly.

The Quran and the great phenomena of nature are twin manifestations of the divine act of Self-revelation. For Islam, the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the ‘signs’ of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning ‘signs’ or ‘symbols’, ayat, is the same word that is used for the ‘verses’ of the Quran. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, ‘verses’ of a sacred book. ‘Indeed Allah disdaineth not to coin the similitude of a gnat or of something even smaller than that’ (Q.2.26). Creation is one, and He who created the Quran is also He who created all the visible phenomena of nature. Both are a communication from God to man.

‘In your creation and in all the beasts scattered on the earth there are signs for people of sure faith. In the alternation of night and day and in the provision Allah sendeth down from the heavens whereby He quickeneth the earth after its death, and in the distribution of the winds, are signs for people who are intelligent’ (Q.45.4—6). And: ‘Truly in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day, and in the ships which speed through the sea with what is useful to man, and in the waters which Allah sendeth down from the heavens … and in the order of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between heaven and earth, are signs indeed for people who are intelligent’ (Q.2.164). Because: ‘He it is who hath spread the earth wide and placed in it firm mountains and running waters, and created therein two sexes of [many kinds of] plant, and causeth the night to cover the day. Truly in all this are signs for people who reflect.’ Whether we scan great distances or look within ourselves, the message is the same: ‘We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until they are assured that this is the truth. Doth not thy Lord suffice thee, since He is over all things the Witness?’ (Q.41.53).

Although signs may be found in everything that comes to us, as though a river at our doorstep carried these messages on its surface, the Quran (like other sacred books) speaks in terms of empirical experience, since it is intended to endure through the ages and cannot bind itself to the ‘scientific’ theories of any particular time. Its images are the phenomena of nature as they appear to us in our experience — the rising and setting of the sun, the domed sky above and the mountains, which are like weights set upon the earth. Scientific observations change according to the preconceptions of the observer and the instruments at his disposal, and the speculations which blinkered human minds construct on the basis of these observations change no less swiftly. But man’s experience of the visual universe does not change. The sun ‘rises’ for me today as it ‘rose’ for the man of ten thousand years ago.

Symbolism resides also in the incidents and patterns of our experience, but it is less easily found in the underside of things — the mechanism by which they are brought about. A clock is a clock. The hands moving on its face convey information. Its inner works do not tell us the time.

To be fully aware of this flood of messages requires a closeness to the natural world that is uncommon in our time, and the man who is wholly indifferent to nature is much like the man who is deaf to the Quran; not only is he separated from the world about him, but he is inevitably divided within himself. The French writer Jacques Ellul, whose book La Technique is among the most profound and perceptive critiques of the modern world published in this century, has remarked (as have many others) that the sacred has always been an experience related to nature, to the phenomena of birth, death, generation, the lunar cycles and so on. ‘Man who leaves that milieu is still imbued with the feeling and imagery derived from the sacred, but these are no longer revived and rejuvenated by experience. The city person is separated from the natural environment and, as a consequence, the sacred significations no longer have any point of contact with experience. They soon dry up for lack of support in man’s new experience with the artificial world of urban technology. The artificial, the systematized, and the rational seem incapable of giving birth to an experience of the same order.. .’

He adds that it was ‘in relation to the forest, the moon, the ocean the desert, the storm, the sun, the rain, the tree… that the sacred was ordered’, and elsewhere he defines the sacred (in relation to man) as ‘the guarantee that he is not thrust out into an illogical space and a limitless time’. The novelty of our era, he says, ‘is that man’s deepest experience is no longer with nature… Man in the presence and at the heart of the technical milieu feels the urgent need to get his bearings, to discover meaning and an origin, an authenticity in this inauthentic world.’ The outcome, he says, is ‘a sacralization of society’, as also of the ‘masters of desacralization in our modern era (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud)’, while political manifestos replaced sacred scriptures. Then blood begins to flow and the broken bodies pile up, and a new idolatry, more deadly than the old, demands human sacrifice. To save him from falling into this trap the Muslim needs the Quran, but he also needs its complement, the revelation written in natural phenomena; without this, much of the Quran is incomprehensible.

The sacred rites of Islam, in particular the five daily prayers and the month of fasting, are intimately related to the natural cycles rather than to mechanical time. The times of prayer are determined by the breaking of dawn, the rising of the sun, its coming to the zenith, its mid-decline, sunset and the close of day. And although the calendar tells us when the month of Ramadan begins and ends, it is considered essential that the dates should be established by the physical sighting of the new moon, so that the lived experience takes precedence over all scientific calculations. A computer can establish not only the minute but the exact second at which the new moon will become visible in a given locality; this counts for nothing beside the actual sighting of that slim luminous crescent on the horizon. By clinging stubbornly to the principle of ‘sighting’, the Muslims — not least those living in the West — demonstrate their awareness that the ‘signs’ of God are to be found in our experience of nature rather than in our thought processes.

Gai Eaton, “Islam and Destiny of Man”