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Mar 4, 2020

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Mar 04, 2020

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Shabbir Akhtar

Oxford University

Shabbir Akhtar is an honorary research associate at St. Stephen’s House at Oxford University.

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Can an Islamic Natural Theology Explain God's Silence Today?

View of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, Peru

View of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, Peru



I

A major Medinan surah in the Qur’an takes its title from the request of Jesus’s disciples, through Jesus, to ask God to send down to them the heavenly banquet table spread with food. In it, we read an intriguing verse (5:101) inviting Muslims to ask God any questions they please while the Qur’an is still being sent down, during the Prophet’s lifetime. The complete descent of the Arabic Qur’an in 632 CE marks for Muslims the end of the age of revealed divine speech, of explicit verbal inspiration.

During these bygone ages of divine communication and guidance sent down, the natural world interacted routinely with the supernatural realm of angels and demons. Prophets, including Jesus and Muĥammad ﷺ, conducted exorcisms. Angels fought in support of Muslim armies. Moses thought he might “find guidance at the fire” (20:10) in the wilderness. Why should a natural phenomenon yield moral guidance? Apart from mystics, we moderns do not expect this in our silent universe. Moses was right to trust his instincts: God spoke to him.

Muslims believe that in His last scripture, sent through His last messenger, God has spoken decisively and terminally. He has revealed his moral and legal will for all humanity, for all times and places. God will not speak again—at least not as warner and revealer. He will, presumably, speak again on the last day, as our judge and punisher. It is an uncontested fact of history that no universal monotheism has arisen successfully after the advent of historic Muĥammadan Islam.

Humankind must now use its own independent reason, exercising it within the limits of faith, the supervisor of reason. This is the age of realization and rational reflection. We no longer need any explicit new divine guidance because the children of Adam have finally matured. They have the Qur’an and the prophetic sunnah, and along with the divinely endowed gift of their creaturely reason, they have sufficient light to light up their path through the darkness. The Qur’an is a miracle (mu¢jizah, literally “frustrater”) since it frustrates all attempts to imitate its supreme literary taste and its wise contents. It is the world’s most liturgically rehearsed scripture, seen by all Muslims as an enduring miracle: every formal human rehearsal of the Qur’an’s verses is the literal speech of God, using any believer’s voice as agent. Originally, the miracle was performed by the Prophet ﷺ, but it is a permanent miracle.

Ironically, atheists concur with Muslims that humans have indeed come of age; the infancy of our species has been terminated. We are old enough, therefore, to respect some of the better moral rules of our religious past, while discarding their allegedly divine authorship. We are old enough to make it on our own. Muslims believe, however, that we use our unaided reason to understand revelation. In the aftermath of the final scripture (i.e., the Qur’an), a place has been reserved for purely human reason—but limits have been placed on it. The faculty of reason had a more anarchic pre-Qur’anic role, which was disciplined and domesticated, and became predominantly exegetical, after the Qur’an was revealed. Disbelievers would say reason has been criminally attenuated by the birth of Islam and become ineffective because it is no longer independent and unaided.

The faculty of reason had a more anarchic pre-Qur’anic role, which was disciplined and domesticated, and became predominantly exegetical, after the Qur’an was revealed.

Believers, however, trust that it is enough for reason to understand, extract, expound, and conscientiously implement revealed verdicts and imperatives. The larger framework is buttressed by a tradition in which reason is intuitive when individually exercised but socially participatory when exerted communally—but in all cases, subordinate to the demands of revealed faith. Classical natural theology contains arguments for the existence and character of a unique and perfect creator. These contentions are based on the very existence and the actual character of what is claimed to be a created order. God used to speak to reveal His will through His servants, the prophets. Additionally, one can still sense His presence and activity through the medium of nature—which provides silent but continuing and continuous testimony to his existence, power, and wisdom. The devout can read and decipher the natural order, the open book of God’s signs.

To establish a modern natural theology, it is necessary to deny a crucial, inherited, and regrettably popular but unexamined distinction whose truth has been assumed throughout religious intellectual history: the classic distinction between revealed and natural theology, central to Christian thought and tacitly acknowledged by the classical Muslim thinkers. The dissolving of this age-old distinction will help to solve a part of the puzzle. Even without this distinction, the puzzle will partly persist—but I shall conclude this essay by couching it in uniquely Qur’anic terms that suggest a novel solution.

Note for now that natural theology is a misnomer: it is no more wholly or purely natural (relying solely on unaided human reason) than revealed theology is entirely a revelation. Natural theology contains vital elements of scripturally aided reasoning, while revealed theology invites the use of the human faculty of reason and lauds the correct use of reasoning. The Qur’an contains both types of reasoning: it contains revealed claims about God and also guides us heuristically about the style and content of a humanly developed natural theology. The Qur’an attacks human presumption, such as claims of human self-sufficiency and hubris and creaturely independence from God. It sets limits to the use of human reason in the aftermath of revelation, after the closing of the final canon. It reveals to us the correct uses and limits of unaided human reason, the correct contours of a natural theology, and the general apologetics that would help defend revealed claims about God against the secular detractors of Islam.

II

The silence of God is not always a complaint about the formal termination of the age of revelation. It can be simply any human being’s anguish: Why does not God answer prayer? Countless prayers arise from mosques, churches, and synagogues on Fridays, Sundays, and Saturdays, respectively, and yet the world remains the same on a weekly basis. Muslims fail to unite. People still starve to death. I shall address this last enigma at the end of this essay.

The silent God is not the arcane deity whose motives and intentions are mysterious and undiscoverable unless He reveals them. The expression means the deity who once spoke eloquently and then stopped regularly revealing His will. He is the God who still hears and sees all and is active in history and always has been. But He is silent in the sense that He does not raise any new prophets who might proclaim his oracles for the modern world—a world that is hardly less sinful than it was in the times of Noah! Indeed, many would say it is steeped in licentious luxury, cynicism, and hubris. God is radically inaccessible in an age of radical doubt, widespread suffering and evil, and competitive sectarian pieties all annexing Him exclusively as their patron and partisan.

The Heart of the Andes, Frederic Edwin Church, 1859

The Heart of the Andes, Frederic Edwin Church, 1859

In the past, God spoke directly with His own voice or sound, as He did with Moses. What does it mean to hear God? Can Aaron overhear God speaking or must he wait to be addressed? These are not, unlike royal protocol, questions of right procedure but rather of the coherent understanding of something outside normal experience. Muslims would concur with Jews and Christians that God remains actively involved in the world. In some sense, His voiceless communication with His human or other creatures (e.g., the bee in Qur’an 16:68) endures even after the death of His final prophet. God communicates with believers and warns and advises them, perhaps through the medium of dreams. In the past, this was certainly true. The prophet Joseph had didactic dreams, as did the pagan Egyptians (e.g., the king and Joseph’s two fellow prisoners), in which God’s will, advice, and future planning were subtly conveyed (12:4, 21, 36, 43, 100).

The God of Abraham is no idle or anemic deity. Yet He remains silent today, even in the face of widespread rejection of His message and of strident and mocking requests for His self-disclosure. We must examine the implications of this situation for our age of rage and reason. We live at a time when, in the West, many are angry at God, not merely denying His existence. Some question His right and authority to direct modern lives, adding that His silence at Auschwitz was scandalous. The God of Jacob (Israel) died in the gas chambers. And that unstable German genius Friedrich Nietzsche had famously predicted the imminent demise of the Christian God. Thus, God is silent because He is dead. He is the quiet God, for He has lost his voice, silenced by the evil and absurdity that are at the center of the human condition. Some want to put Him on trial to impugn His character—and shout “Three cheers for atheism!” (Note, it is not two cheers, which some reflective modern believers endorse.)

In Islam, such thoughts are blasphemous for a Muslim thinker, let alone a simple believer, to even entertain. Admittedly, poets, such as Muhammad Iqbal, wondered why God was no longer intervening in history—on the side of the Muslims. Iqbal answered his own complaint: the God described in the Qur’an is no unconditional ally. If the Muslims have abandoned Him, He has rightly abandoned them.1

We have located the idea of a silent God on a doctrinal and cultural map of meaning. In literary terms, it is culturally quite natural to speak in this idiom in Western languages which are no longer devotional languages. Christians and Jews have some warrant for speaking of the jealous, angry, and violent God of tribal Israel or speaking of Christian humility and love. Culturally, Muslims rarely speak of Allah speaking to them. Perhaps some Sufi elites do. It would be heretical. By contrast, Christians feel comfortable saying quite casually that God (or similar agents, such as Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit) spoke to them, sometimes to commission them to go to dangerous places in the Muslim world to preach the Gospel. This testimony about the Christian missionary vocation to the unsaved Muslim masses is heard frequently. God is also said to speak to televangelists and faith healers and even directly aid their fundraising projects. Islam discourages such presumptuous claims, whether about divine assurances of personal salvation or about God speaking directly to the “pastorpreneurs” of megachurches.

Note that one branch of theology, apophatic (negative) theology, actually counsels that we should be silent about God. We should not be too confident about God’s nature and essence, though we may sometimes speak of His will and motives. All Near Eastern monotheisms have traditions that respect such restraint. Islam has its bi lā kayf (without asking how) tradition, which discourages undue metaphysical curiosity about the divine attributes.2

III

In the face of the deadlocks and stalemates that were present in the age of revelation itself, the Qur’an invited resolution through direct divine intervention. That was an age in which God was openly active in history: the skies declared His glory, and He spoke of His moral will for His human creatures, though admittedly only through His chosen servants. The Torah teaches that Yahweh also appeared, in an epiphany at Mount Sinai, to all His chosen people when He gave them the law (see Exodus 19:16–20, 20:21).

The Islamic scripture contains an invitation to a prayer duel (mubāhalah, based on Qur’an 3:61), a method that would startle us today in our scientific secular age. This intriguing method was perhaps already in use in Arabia to decide the claims of the devotees of competing members of the pagan pantheon. After the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr, the polytheists invoked a shower of stones from heaven if the Qur’an was indeed revealed by the only true God (8:30–35; see also 48:25). The duel was used as late as in nineteenth-century British India to try to evict the Ahmadiyya sect as apostates for denying that Muĥammad ﷺ was the last messenger. The results of the duel are subject to dispute and interpretation, though not intractably so.3

The Qur’an challenges contemporaneous Christian detractors of the Prophet ﷺ—those who accused him of entertaining false doctrines about Jesus—to let God decide the matter by a spectacular display of divine power from heaven. The dishonest party is to be divinely annihilated in front of the truthful one. According to Muslim accounts, the Christians declined the offer. The Qur’an also invites the argumentative Jewish rabbis of Medina to ask God to kill them on the spot so that they can immediately join God in heaven. (If God kills you, on request, it is not suicide, the latter being immoral.) This verse is in answer to the Jewish boast that God is their friend alone, and therefore they have privileged access to the next life. The Qur’an predicts, rightly, that the Jews will decline this offer (see 62:6–8).

The God of Abraham is no idle or anemic deity. Yet He remains silent today, even in the face of widespread rejection.... We must examine the implications of this situation for our age of rage and reason.

Even in the age when God spoke and intervened, the Qur’an records that human differences will endure into the next world: you shall dispute in front of your Lord (2:113). If this was conceded in the religiously charged environments of seventh-century Arabia or first-century Palestine, how much more so today! Thus, only a postmortem eschatological verification is available for the claims of our respective faiths. The deadlocks of this world shall eventually be broken in the next one, just as the moral imbalances of this natural empirical world will finally be rectified in the supernatural transcendent one. Our situation, then, is recognized to be a source of agnosticism and doubt and a provisional and interim suspension of judgment.

The modern problem of the alleged silence of God is no mere academic puzzle that interests only specialists. Rather, it has vital consequences even though it is internal to faith because the assumptions that give birth to it and nourish it are wholly religious. The atheist can dismiss it: God is silent because there is no God.

The religious concession of a silent deity is damaging, and asymmetrically so, in our aggressively secular age. This concession implies an impressively plausible case for atheism in all ages, not only today, for it enables serious doubt about God’s existence and alleged miraculous interventions, even in the past. It may arguably be wiser to assume that the conflicting and varied human claims about the miraculous and divine in our remoter past are better explained in terms of an enlightened cultural shift in our recent human thinking rather than in terms of God’s decision to introduce at a late stage of human history a basic alteration in His ways. Given the gullibility and simple credulity of early humanity, argues the atheist, a silent God today is best explained by the atheistic hypothesis. Never forget that a zealous skeptical tradition of rejection and defiance has accompanied the birth of every faith claiming supernatural warrant. There was no shortage of Arab skeptics during the seventh-century tribal civil war that gave birth to Islam. And the Qur’an itself, through its countless annihilation narratives, amply testifies to the scale of rejection and doubt throughout history about God’s message.

One admittedly heretical hope is that perhaps God will decide to perform a dramatic and universal modern miracle to disambiguate our currently ambiguous human condition. If God were to speak to a new prophet today, He would, God forbid, violate the finality of the Qur’an and the sealing of all prophecy in Muĥammad ﷺ. However, if God were to speak and intervene in some post-Islamic but paradoxically pro-Islamic revelation in our age of universal media, including social media, then that unlikely event would place the truth of Qur’anic monotheism beyond reasonable doubt.

Even the demonstrable triumph of Islamic monotheism would not, however, necessarily settle matters. The perversity of the members of the losing party of errant monotheists and of devout secular humanists would prevent them from conceding defeat. One can still reject and disbelieve what one knows to be true. Sinful perversity is the privilege of the disbeliever, given his or her free will. Self-deception is commonplace in the relationships of secular life. Why not in the life of faith? It is a false assumption that one can have faith only when one does not know something with certainty. One can doubt what one knows to be true. And we do it all the time.

Currently, we may still contend that intelligent and equally sincere people can conscientiously continue to hold an immense range of opposed and conflicting religious and secular views. This would no longer be the case in the aftermath of a new and conclusive self-disclosure in the contemporary world. Then, those who still rejected the true faith would be able to do so only irrationally and perversely, not rationally or sincerely. They would be confirmed sinners rather than thoughtful conscientious skeptics seeking sufficient evidence before giving consent to God’s existence and will for them.

IV

Typically, the Qur’an does not appeal to the miracle—the event that occurs contra-naturally, by divine permission, exercised through the agency of a prophet in order to discountenance any disbelief. Some events are in paradoxical defiance of normal reasonable expectation (para doxan), but usually the Qur’an cites as evidence the familiar and routine sequences of external nature, events observable and accessible even to obtuse observers. The ordinary is already wonderful and miraculous. It invites us to ponder the dead earth, a sign (36:33) that fructifies only when heavenly rain falls on it (29:63, 30:24, 41:39, 43:11, 50:11), a sight all the more spectacular in the harshness of the dehydrated desert. The dead earth is resurrected annually and dons the green mantle of fertility (22:63) and delights the farmers (kuffār; 57:20). The two seas of water (sweet and bitter) are mysteriously made to flow independently of each other (25:53). The shadow could have been kept stationary, but instead the sun is made to be its pilot (25:45).

The attitude of curiosity the Qur’an encouraged and patronized helped Muslims to found the enterprise of science.... It meant that human beings would continue to see evidences of the divine presence and activity in the open book of nature.
Desert view near Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Desert view near Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

These signs are part of a continuum that ranges over innumerable phenomena in the earth and, though only partly visible to us, in the heavens above. If revealed today, the Qur’an might mention the titanic immensities of outer space as among God’s signs. Among the visible signs are the alternation of night and day, our ability to rest at night, the pleasures of taste and smell from the astonishing variety of vegetation and fruits, the winds that enable the ships to sail and also fecundate the plants (15:22). The signs are present in our very existence on this planet made into a suitable habitat.

This is a random selection, but it gives the flavor of the full dish. In this are abundant materials for a new natural theology. The distinction between natural and revealed theology is artificial: natural theologians use scripture, and scripture advises us to use our own unaided reason to establish God’s existence and power. While this distinction is valid for the Bible,4 it is invalid for the Qur’an, which is, unlike the Bible, self-described repeatedly as pure divine revelation. Moreover, the Islamic scripture announces explicitly the imminent closing of the canon of revealed prophecy (33:40). God reveals that he will be silent soon. The presence of so much revealed material that can be used by intelligent human creatures to construct a potentially developed natural theology is itself a fact of religious significance.

While the Qur’an should not be mined for concealed scientific data or theories, its verses are broadly compatible with our recent findings in empirical science. But the attitude of curiosity the Qur’an encouraged and patronized helped Muslims to found the enterprise of science. Such an enterprise was vital in the aftermath of the final revelation because it meant that human beings would continue to see evidences of the divine presence and activity in the open book of nature.

The Qur’an alerts us to the processes of nature as it directs our curiosity. It invites us to ponder the regular and reliable emergence of one thing from another, especially the growth and spurting forth of green vegetation—green being, unlike blue, a common color in nature—from an earthy dark mineral admixture (6:95, 86:12). The emission of sperm from flesh (56:58–59, 75:37) must be noted with reverent humility, a miracle pointing to our biological origins. The causally determined and thus dependable emergence of X from Y provides grounds for wonder—the chief source of philosophy, especially philosophical (rational or natural) theology—and a basis for praise and gratitude. Is not all art, whether its aim is secular or religious, in effect a form of praise?

Changes in nature can be a progression by stages or the sudden, spontaneous, and final transformation of one thing into another that differs radically from it (20:17–23, 53–55; 36:39). The sequence from human conception to final delivery of the child is carefully recorded (22:5, 23:14, 96:1–2), as are the predictable and dependable causal processes in nature. Water pours from the clouds; transforms the dead into the living; and causes different levels of easily observable transformation in plants, as attested by their differential yields of fruit and their varied colors (13:4, 35:27).

The processes by which juxtaposed fluids emerge already separated—wholesome milk flowing between the excrement and blood in the organisms of ruminants and cattle—point to a larger system of divine provision. To understand such processes through scientific knowledge should not decrease our wonder but rather amplify our sense of gratitude to the God who ordained them. This version of the design argument asks us to consider the spontaneity of mysterious processes, undirected by any human agency. Who directs the seed to grow into a flower, or a tree? The processes of human digestion and the other periodicities of the human body should evoke and discipline our comprehensive curiosity.

The providence of God, via nature and society, surrounds us from the womb to the tomb, from conception to our resurrection. The Qur’an denies only one key secular idea: the spontaneous emergence and subsequent evolution of simple animate life from indefinite inanimate complexity. This is meant to challenge and confound the obtuse and proud atheist who confidently claims to know the origins of the cosmos.

V

Many occidental philosophers of religion, inspired by the Scottish skeptic David Hume, the first seminal thinker to divorce Christian theology from philosophy, contended that the character of the known observable universe cannot be reconciled with the existence and expected activities of a metaphysically and morally perfect and peerless creator. In his subversive and therefore posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Hume noted that we know that ships and houses and other similar works of human ingenuity are produced with the cooperation of many intelligent beings, who, moreover, seek to improve their performance over time. Arguing almost a century before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution took shape, Hume makes a skeptical character, undoubtedly Hume’s mouthpiece, mock the analogical reasoning of devout believers who defend the idea that the inherent teleology (purposiveness) of nature is evidence of its having been created by a single wise and omnipotent creator. Hume suggests humorously that the cosmos we experience could be the work of a committee of gods or of a senile and incompetent old god or of a dependent deity or perhaps even “some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance.”5

We must address the skeptic who argues that there is no evidence that purpose continues to adhere to objects in the natural world—even if God did indeed, once upon a time, make them. We know only that in human action, what we do on purpose, we do for a purpose. Assuming this is true of God’s actions, too, when He created nature and human nature, then these dual realities have a purpose, whether we now recognize it or not. We need to assume that God acted purposively rather than erratically when He first created the cosmos.

The function or role of an object may be deduced by looking at the object. But how do we know that an intention, divine or otherwise, has also been fulfilled? We have ex hypothesi no access to God’s motives and intentions if our only datum is a silent nature, rather than the additional data supplied by divine self-avowal. Without revelation as evidence of intention, we can only assume that God did it on purpose for each item He created or continues to create now.

If an intelligent observer sees a twig in a forest, she wonders: What is the purpose of this twig? This question is unclear. Can we decide to give it a purpose, by human fiat? Or what is the purpose of this twig (or other similar twigs) independently of our decision to give it one? Thus, merely by looking at a twig, we cannot decide that it is endowed with a natural purpose, by God acting purposively. We know the purposes of artificial objects since this is fixed by human convention. Thus, God asks Moses: “What is that object in your right hand?” Moses replies by listing several uses and adds that the list is indefinite (20:18).

If X has a known purpose, Y, then it has a maker Z. Consider the following syllogism, valid by the logical method of modus ponens:

If anything has a purpose, it has a maker;
objects/events in external nature have a discernible purpose;
therefore, these objects/events have a maker/designer.

The first premise is conceptually true: a purpose is imposed rather than a natural purpose inhering in objects generated spontaneously—that is, without the intervention of conscious agency, whether uniquely divine or otherwise. The second premise is problematic in an age skeptical of God’s existence and therefore purposes. We cannot discern the purposeful character of natural objects unless we already believe, on other grounds, in a supernatural purpose-giver. The claim that “event X (or item X) serves a purpose Y” is compatible with any and all sense experience and is, therefore, a useless hypothesis.

In an age when God is silent, the argument from purposive design is central, indeed crucial, to the project of a natural theology. When believers discern a natural purpose, they already believe in and celebrate God as a purpose-giving agent. And they do so on other independent, allegedly revealed grounds, such as the claim that belief in God is innate to human nature. Hence, the belief in the teleological foundations of empirically observable external nature is a supplement to the belief in God as the sole creator of our inner human nature.

View of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; photo: Thomas Hirsch / Wikimedia Commons

View of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; photo: Thomas Hirsch / Wikimedia Commons

Nature appears to be merely an object of observation, but it conceals a transcendent subject, God, who does not speak audibly but whose presence can be felt through a cultivation of faith and trust, supported emotionally by the apparatus of human intuition and corroborated further by the universally recognized faculty of reason. Thus, nature contains not only a discernible scientific teleology (the purposes of objects and events) but also a moral teleology built into its fabric (on purpose and for a purpose). The vision of a deeper immanent teleology eludes the skeptic. It speaks only to the believer because it contains values—moral and spiritual, even legal—and because the Qur’an affirms the scale (al-mīzān; 55:7–9) of justice operating objectively within creation. The skeptic sees the idea of a benevolent and just supervision of the world by a silent but discernible and palpable divine presence as merely wishful thinking. The believer sees disbelief as willful perversity. The stalemate persists.

VI

Unlike its Christian rival’s key ecclesial dogmas, Islam contains no professedly paradoxical preaching. Its doctrines are largely free from paradox. However, the Qur’anic stress on the signs of God—immanent in nature and yet pointing toward a God who transcends nature—seems paradoxical though not logically incoherent in its final import. The hidden “voiceless” God is omnipresent in nature, directing us to look at humdrum realities, such as the camels and the flowing water in the oasis. Subtly concealed, He approaches us through the open book of nature. He whispers to those who turn a deaf ear. The believers see Him everywhere in both worlds; the disbelievers claim they cannot find a trace of Him anywhere. Nature, like the Sufi metaphor of the woman’s veil, serves as a subtle index of God’s ubiquitous presence in nature. God is veiled in, by, and through nature’s routine course. I am struck here by the empiricist English philosopher Francis Bacon’s starkly opposed insight into nature as a recalcitrant and secretive reality that should be forced to yield her secrets.6

A sign is enough for the wise. But what about the fool—the wise modern fool? The modern skeptic argues that nature contains imperfect and ambiguous messages, as though the clear voice of God were being intermittently silenced or drowned out by the surrounding noise and chatter, as in a radio message transmitted over a long distance or through the ocean depths. Natural events are not uniformly benevolent. Natural operations are a mixed blessing, providing grounds for gratitude and trust, no doubt, but also for disbelief and cynicism. Nature’s bounties and mercies are experienced along with natural disasters—an ambivalent stimulus to gratitude—for the sun that warms those in temperate climates also grills some nomads to death in the lonely desert. And there are hurricanes and the occasional tsunami, forces for pure destruction.

Events occurring in our shared natural world sustain incompatible interpretations. As total systems of ideological conviction, both theism and atheism contain techniques for explaining the existence and contents of the rival. Thus, regarding the ubiquitous signs of Allah, the Muslim accuses the atheist of sinful perversity, while the atheist dismisses Muslims as being juvenile victims of wishful thinking in a cruel universe. Each scheme of thought subsumes its competitor by absorbing counter-evidence, and thus deflects the opponent’s criticisms. Neither party can successfully accuse the other of irrationality without appealing to a controversial standard of rationality. Thus, one cannot offer neutral reasons for preferring one total belief system over its rival.

In our secularized age, nature can continue indefinitely to sustain equally plausible naturalistic and theistic outlooks. The signs of God no longer compel recognition: modern post-revelation theism over-determines, rather than simply determines, the shape of our experience. Some secularist is ever ready and eager to offer an adequate secular explanation for any event in nature that excites the admiration of the faithful servant of God. The believer’s interpretation of some natural wonder as declaring God’s glory is not necessarily false, but it is now only an optional extra and may be seen as an inferior alternative explanation. The disbeliever will glibly dismiss it as a superstitious remnant of a remote religious past in which gullible men and women adored and feared nature and placated it through the worship of imaginary invisible beings.

VII

What are the consequences of the moral and metaphysical ambivalence, perhaps neutrality, of contemporary perceptions of nature’s laws and regularities? Muslim thinkers need to develop a theory of the signs and categorize them.

The whole of nature as a system is now a single mysterious sign (āyah). To recruit the Qur’an’s own hermeneutical terminology of 3:7, nature is one disputed or speculative category of the class of signs properly interpreted as allegorical (mutashābihāt). This category of signs secretes analogous or allegorical meanings that convey the outer similitude of objects (2:25; 6:99, 141). Thus, God indicates an ambiguous situation capable of diverse interpretation; the situation inspires in intelligent beings an ambivalence of mood and outlook. Nature contains no legal, hence decisive and plain, tokens of the kind (muĥkamāt) also called clear signs (āyāt bayyināt; 24:1) or signs explicitly expounded (āyāt mufuśśilāt and fuśśilāt; 7:133 and 41:3, respectively). The totality of nature is a singular runic token, a cryptogram of a supernatural reality that needs to be decoded. Being only allegorical, natural signs do not compel belief or conduct. Nature hints but does not proclaim; in its totality, nature is suggestive of some transcendent presence but not coercive of it. Just as “there is no compulsion in the faith” (2:256), equally there is no compulsion by or in nature. And all the more so in our post-revelation era of apparent divine silence.

The Qur’an implicitly recognizes the need for the disambiguation of the runic symbols of created order when it acknowledges that God constantly dispatched messengers to warn His creatures, a concession that implies that the divine signs, even when buttressed by our God-given nature and conscience, did not suffice to adequately guide us. The still voice of conscience does not suffice to guide us or convict us by being a witness against us, because our consciences can be mistaken. Only metaphorically can we say that the human conscience is the voice of God, convicting us of our sinful conduct by arousing in us the inclination to repent (see 17:14; 75:2, 14).

Since nature is today a decidedly ambiguous sign, and was never by itself a decisive one, even in the age of revelation, we must now recruit our post-revelation reason to develop a convincing natural (philosophical) theology. This enterprise alone can disambiguate our ambiguous human condition, and thus refute the secular offer and convict atheism of irrationality and even of immorality. We cannot use a rational theology alone to break the deadlock. Religious competitors make conflicting doctrinal claims; and all appeal to martyrdoms and miracles as their founding credentials. Therefore, competition in virtuous living remains the sole verifiable determinant of the truth of any given faith laying claim to being wholly or solely true. This is the Qur’an’s own interim criterion of religious authenticity until God decides openly as to who among us is the best in conduct (see 5:48).

VIII

Until we can produce a convincing rational case on behalf of a silent God, the atheist is entitled to say that unprejudiced observation today sincerely fails to detect the hand of and intentions of God behind the impressive but unassertive, indeed ambiguously marvelous, phenomena of nature and human life. Thus, equally sincere and intelligent people remain ambivalent in their total temperamental outlooks on nature and human life. If God is silent today, was there ever a God who spoke? Was there, is there, a God at all?

Being only allegorical, natural signs do not compel belief or conduct. Nature hints but does not proclaim; in its totality, nature is suggestive of some transcendent presence but not coercive of it.

We noted in the opening paragraph of section II that the faithful dogma of the divine providence must today be made into a secular project of human provision on behalf of a God who has provided for all but expects His faithful worshippers to distribute it fairly to all. Similarly, God has given us the gifts of reason and intuition and armed us with the pen of faith to establish a contemporary rational theology as a preface to the revival of philosophy among the believers. That shall be our intellectual task in order to preempt the coming crisis of faith, especially among the youth who, unlike the young men of the cave (18:9–16), do not have the privilege of knowing that their supplications are being heard and granted by an actively communicative deity.

View of Corvo Island, Portugal; photo: Samuel Monteiro Domingues / Wikimedia Commons

View of Corvo Island, Portugal; photo: Samuel Monteiro Domingues / Wikimedia Commons

The perennial task of natural theology now becomes an integral part of the time-honored task of the interpretation of scripture. Both are attempts to make God’s enduringly relevant signs evident to every new generation. Every divine revelation enters history at one point, but its significance transcends that initial time and place, just as a novel set in Victorian London, for example, can still be appreciated by people in varied subsequent time periods and locales.

The orthodox Islamic perspective is that God is silent, but His ubiquitous providence and the amenities and facilities He has provided for His creation speak for Him and for His continuing powerful presence and wisdom. His signs are indications, intimations, and even muted revelations of His powerful and wise presence. The signs rationally and continuously attest to His sovereignty. He does not need to speak. If the divine signs do not convince us, neither would a God who did speak. Why? The cause of rejection is sin, not lack of evidence. The cure is faith and trust in God and His promises, not a dramatic modern miracle or even a persuasive contemporary natural theology.

Owing to my respect for reflective agnosticism and conscientious atheism, I try to explain, if not justify, to modern disbelievers, that a new Qur’an-derived natural theology would remove some of their perplexities about the current silence of God. God knows best, and perhaps the hour of reckoning is nigh (see 22:1, 54:1). Wa Allāhu a¢lam wa al-sā¢ah qarībah.

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