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If one asked, “What is Islam?”, I would say to read: Submission, Faith, Beauty: The Religion of Islam

If one asked, “What is the Qur’an?”, I would say to read: The Qur’an: A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem

If one asked, “Who is Muhammad?”, I would say to read: Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources

If one asked, “Is the Qur’an accurately preserved?”, I would say to read: The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation

If one asked, “Are the hadith (statements of and stories about Muhammad) accurately preserved?”, I would say to read: Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development and Special Features

If one asked, “What happens when I die?”, I would say to read: The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife

and God knows better (wa Allahu a’lam)

Time to start reading…

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Unity

On this day, trusting in the decree of Allah, I think of the unity that was lost. I think of the man who was the husband of two of the daughters of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. I think of the man who gave all of his wealth not once, but twice, for the sake of Allah. I think of Uthman, may Allah be well pleased with him. He was our Caliph, and if he were to walk this Earth today, I would leave everything behind to see him and listen to him speak. If he were to command, I would obey. But he lies buried in al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, and we remain here on the surface.

I once listened to a lecture in which the shaykh said that the question of what to do with the Muslim who does not pray was not even brought up until later generations. In the era of Uthman, it was impossible to think that someone would be a Muslim and not pray. How far we have fallen! Now we think that if someone prays all five prayers on time, they are a “practicing Muslim,” as if it were an option. We seek refuge in Allah from being deluded by the delusions of this age, ameen!

In days gone by, tens of thousands of Muslims working together changed the course of history. In our time, it is hard to get a couple dozen to sit down and figure out how to make something happen. It is as if no one feels that they owe anything to anyone else. It is as if we have forgotten what we once were. It is as if when Uthman’s sacred blood hit the pages of the Qur’an, all bets were off and it was each Muslim for himself, down to the present day.

But I will hold onto the dreams of yesterday, for they will repel the nightmares of today. If I pledge allegiance to Uthman in my heart, then perhaps Allah will save me from the trials that beset a leaderless nation.

O Possessor of All Sovereignty, it was Your decree that has deprived us of the physical company of Uthman, and we are content with Your decree.

Grant us that his memory may be alive in our hearts, that we may meet him in our dreams, and enjoy his company in gardens underneath which rivers flow.

Inspire within us knowledge like his, righteousness like his, charisma like his, and steadfastness like his.

Help us to stand steady in ranks with each other, like those who marched together under Uthman’s command.

Please send Uthman the rewards of every letter of Qur’an that I have ever recited myself, heard recited, or read from a page, for it was through him that the Qur’an reached me intact.

Forgive us our sins and magnify our good actions, O Most Merciful of Those Who Show Mercy! Which of our deeds can we hope will compare with being the faithful and kind husband of the daughters of Your Messenger! Which of our projects can we hope will equal the compilation of the Qur’an or the conquest of Tripoli, whose rewards continue to multiply over 1300 years after the fact!

We are the servants of Your servants of Your servants, Ya Allah, and we know that no matter how lost we feel sometimes, You are always with us and wishing us well. On this day, wish the whole Muslim ummah well. The Sunnis, the Shi’is, the Salafis, and the Sufis. The Rich, the Poor, the Powerful and the Weak. The Right, the Left, the Straight, and the Crooked. The Intelligent, the Dim, the Righteous, and the Evildoers. Bless them all, Ya Allah, bless them all.

I am simply one of them, one of Uthman’s subjects.

When I was a kid, I used to hang out in the science section of the library. I would pull the books off the shelf, and look at pictures of Red Giants, enormous suns much larger than our own. I remember becoming freaked out at the idea that one day our own sun would become a Red Giant and engulf Earth in a fiery apocalypse. These were the first stirrings of my imagination through the expanses of spacetime, and the concomitant challenges in conceiving of a beginning and an end to the universe.

In this episode of Cosmos, we travelled to the limits of our understanding of the universe. Beyond the Big Bang, no human mind can penetrate. Across the event horizon of a black hole lies undiscovered realities. The truth is, we are locked in our little place in spacetime. Our intellects can only travel so far, but our imaginations can take us much farther. Cosmos is about doing that – creating dazzling computer graphics about places we will never be able to visit firsthand in this life.

Most young lovers of science naturally gravitate to science fiction. It is the way the imagination takes us beyond the limits of what is actually knowable. We fantasize about distant worlds with sentient life, even though none has been detected. We project our own earthly troubles onto intergalactic empires as a way to humanize the dead cold of space. In some forms of science fiction, there is nothing but meaninglessness and despair to be found beyond our solar system, but in most, humanity is on a continual process of discovering the meanings of the vast universe. The creation of this narrative is natural in a secularized world – if we abandon the idea that the Heavens come down to us, then our only hope for purpose is that we go forth into the Heavens. It is a mythical crutch that helps the secularized mind deal with the unavoidable meaninglessness of human existence that results from describing spacetime in a purely materialistic and empirical fashion.

In college, I took an astronomy course, because I wanted to learn the real science behind my youthful readings and teenage sci-fi movie binges. It was wonderful, but it also made me realize how trapped we really are on Earth. It is only the imagination that can take us farther, and it was in college that my imagination was reignited by the Qur’an and the life story of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be blessings and peace). Of all stories on Earth, it was the one that made me feel closest to the Heavens. Astronomy was just the context – faith supplied the true narrative arc of human existence on this planet.

I admit that I don’t know enough about the imagination from an Islamic perspective. The Qur’an speaks vividly to my heart and mind. When I read passages like, “And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him…,” (6.59) I long to know more secrets of existence. But many have fleshed out the contours of a Qur’anic worldview before me, and it behooves me to learn what they have emphasized as well. Science is built on the shoulders of giants, and so are religious discourses. In that respect, I am currently reading William Chittick’s The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, which was recommended to me by a traditional Islamic scholar who studies Ibn al-Arabi in the original Arabic. More than anything I am learning these days, it is making me realize that there is still so much more I have yet to discover about Allah’s creation, and Allah as Allah has always been. la ilaha illa Allah.

In the third episode of Cosmos, it was argued that comets were seen by all pre-scientific cultures as heavenly harbingers of doom. This was the backdrop to a discussion of the partnership between Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton, and the ways in which they helped launched modern science as we know it. Undoubtedly, the intellectual contributions of Halley and Newton were profound, and gave us great insight into the workings of the Earth and the Heavens. However, the historical premise is woefully flawed, and again decidedly Euro-centric.

I cannot speak competently about all cultures of the Earth, but I can speak about Islam. At the very beginning of Islam, in the 7th century deserts of Arabia [roughly 1000 years before Newton!], it was religion, and not science, which broke the false link between the movements of objects in the sky and worldly prophecies. When the infant son of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him peace) died, a solar eclipse happened that was visible in the city of Madinah. The people of the city said to each other that it must be because the son of God’s Prophet had died (a seemingly normal conclusion for religious people!). But instead of playing to their inclination to interpret events in this fashion, Muhammad told them in no uncertain terms, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life of anyone.”

Someone I know who grew up in an atheist household told me that this is one of the stories from the biography of the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him and his family) that convinced him that Muhammad was telling the truth about God, Heaven, Angels, and so on. He said, “He is too honest to be a liar, and too rational to be crazy.” He pointed out that it would have been so easy to have used this to his advantage, or to display his ignorance, but instead he told the truth – the movements of heavenly bodies are based on patterns (sunan) in Allah’s creation [what are often described in scientific discourse as "laws"]. And these patterns have precision, such that if we can grasp them, it gives us great benefit. As the Qur’an states, “It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so that you might know the number of years and how to calculate time.” (10.5)

Islam encouraged reason-based observation of the natural world from the very beginning. Again, the Qur’an states, “We will show them Our signs in the universe and within their own beings until it will become manifest to them that it is the truth. Is it not enough about your Lord that He is witness to everything?” (41.53) As someone who grew up on science and science fiction, this element of Islam appealed to me. The signs (āyāt) of nature were the same as the verses (āyāt) of the Qur’an, and they were meant for “those who use reason.” (45.5) Allah gave us an intellect so that we might use it to properly understand ourselves and the world in which we live.

If one is truly an advocate of the scientific enterprise, then one will embrace religion as part of the process. Recently, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia single-handedly created and endowed the third richest university in the world, devoted entirely to scientific teaching and research [The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology]. If a Western businessman or politician had done so, he or she would have been hailed in the press as a champion of truth and progress. But hardly anyone knows about this monumental development, or even cares, because as Cosmos so vividly demonstrates, talking about “science” is often more about promoting a false narrative of Western universalism than it is about science qua science. The only presence of Islam in the entire episode of Cosmos was a random and completely unnecessary image of a little brown hijabi girl sitting at the edge of her hut, looking at the stars through some sort of Google Glass-type device. The obvious message, “We enlightened Westerners will save your poor daughters from your ignorant religion and culture, THROUGH SCIENCE!!!

Are you kidding me??!! Did I really just see that image??!! Oh yeah, and before that didn’t you randomly show some images of Istanbul???????!!!!! What the heck was that about??!!  Is this really happening??????!!!!!!!!!!!!

In short, the creators of Cosmos are actually doing a disservice to science in the course of trying to promote it. The grinding of their ideological axe is actually making them look close-minded and unaware of the world in which they live, and feels like preaching to the choir. And coming from people who are trying to promote intellectual enlightenment, that is just plain sad.

Disbelief (kufr): “For the nonreligious among us, the law of the conservation of energy offers the equivalent of a spiritual teddy bear, something to clutch at during those late-night moments of quiet terror, when you think of death and oblivion, the final blinding of I.” (Natalie Angier, The Canon, p. 115)

Faith (īmān): The Prophet’s wife ‘Ā’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: “The Prophet (ﷺ) used to offer prayer at night (for such a long time) that his feet used to crack. I said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Why do you do it since Allah has forgiven you your faults of the past and those to follow?’ He said, ‘Shouldn’t I love to be a thankful slave (of Allah)?’ When he became old, he prayed while sitting, but if he wanted to perform a bowing, he wound get up, recite (some other verses) and then perform the bowing.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī)

“…O people, if you are in doubt as to my religion – then I do not worship those which you worship besides Allah; but I worship Allah, who causes your death…’” (Qur’ān 10.104)

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According to the hadith literature, when Allah intends good for a person, Allah gives them a sound understanding of their religion: من يرد الله خيرا يفقهه في الدين

Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

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Some of the English meanings of this Divine speech in Arabic are: “By time, truly humanity is in a state of loss, except for those who believe and do good deeds and help one another towards Truth and help one another towards patient perseverance.” (Qur’ān 103.1-3)

Imām al-Shāfi‘ī (died in year 820 of the Western calendar, may Allah have mercy on him), who was by any account one of the greatest scholars of Islam who ever lived, taught that this short chapter of just 3 lines was sufficient for the guidance of humanity. It tells us of the sweeping story of human civilization, with all of its beauty and tragedy, and informs us that out of the billions of humans that have walked this planet, only some have succeeded in their lives. What was the basis of that success? It was having two essential sets of personal attributes, and having a relationship to others based on those attributes.

The first attribute is faith (īmān). In deference to the vast traditions of the Muslim community, I will define faith as believing in 5 things: Allah, the Messengers (rusul), the Books (kutub), the Angels (malā’ika), and the Last Day (al-yawm al-ākhir). The second attribute is doing good deeds (‘amal ṣāliḥ). Again, out of deference to the vast traditions of the Muslims, I will highlight 5 essential good deeds: Declaring one’s faith publicly (shahāda), praying (ṣalāt), fasting (ṣawm), giving charity (zakāt), and going on the pilgrimage (ḥajj). This is not to say that these are the only articles of faith, or the only good deeds, but these 10 attributes (5 of which involve beliefs, and 5 which involve actions) are the essential bedrock of the path of Islam.

But sūrah al-‘aṣr (the name of this short chapter) also says there is something else which is essential, and that is helping each other to truth and patience. Life is hard, and life is complex, and if I don’t pick you up when you are down, and you don’t pick me up when I am down, we aren’t going to make it. Sometimes, we don’t know what we need to do, and we seek guidance. Other times, we know what we need to do, but feel a weakness inside ourselves, and so we seek support to overcome our individual weaknesses. At the end of the day, we are all in the same boat – flawed human beings striving to be something better, hoping that one day we’ll reach the goal.

These moments of ṣalāt al-jumu‘ah (Friday Prayer) are precious gifts. We come together in obedience to the Prophetic call, gathering here just as people far better than us used to gather in Madina at the feet of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him and his family). We emulate them as best we can, with faith, doing good deeds, and helping each other towards the Truth, and helping each other to persevere on the path. We hope to return each week to solidify and strengthen our faith. We try to leave aside that which makes us doubt for that which makes us truly believe in the promise of Allah. In short, the Friday congregational prayer, which is one of the symbols of Islam in society, is a manifestation of the path of the successful as described in sūrah al-‘aṣr.

Just as the first attribute of the successful is faith, the first article of faith is Allah. Islam begins and Islam ends with Allah. Without Allah, there is no Islam. While there may be sociological realities to the idea of being “culturally Muslim,” in ultimate Reality, there is no such thing. Allah is the creator of all that exists. Allah is the sustainer of all that exists. There is nowhere that you can turn, nowhere that you can look, and avoid Allah:

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Some of the English meanings of this Divine speech in Arabic are, “To Allah belong the east and the west, and wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah. Truly, Allah is vast, knowing.” (Qur’ān 2.115)

Once a student went to his teacher and said, “I am going on a trip, and I fear that I will disobey Allah. Please give me something that will protect me!” The teacher responded, “Whenever you feel yourself about to sin, then go someplace where Allah cannot see you.” So when the student was on his trip, and felt an urge to disobey the Lord of the worlds, he ran to an empty room. But he knew Allah could see him. So he ran to the bathroom. But still Allah could see him. Wherever he went, he remembered that Allah could see him. So he turned to Allah, affirming that there was no refuge from Allah except in drawing closer to Allah.

Allah blesses us with the veil of forgetfulness. If we remembered Allah at all times, perhaps we would not be able to relate to anyone else. This is one of the meanings behind the famous story of Layla and Majnūn. Everywhere Majnūn looks, he sees Layla, and so the whole town thinks he is mad. But he is only mad with love, and sees the traces of his beloved wherever he looks. In truth, he is not mad – he just sees the world in a different way.

The traces of Allah are all around us. Have you ever stood at the edge of the ocean and looked out, marveling at the beauty and peace conveyed in that moment? Have you ever stood on a mountain, and looked out upon a valley, and felt that this world was far vaster than it feels in daily life? Have you ever flown on a place, and looked at the clouds stretching out into the open sky, a sign of an expansiveness we can never encompass?! At those moments, and at all moments, we are witnessing the Acts of Allah (af‘āl Allāh). No human hand can create such beauty. No human mind can bring forth something so powerful that it moves the spirit of even the most corrupted hearts. The whole universe is a sign of the One who created it and controls it.

The immensity of time and space, as we live in a universe that is approximately 13.8 billion years old and approximately 92 billion light years from one end to the other (if in fact the universe is spherical), is a drop of water within the ocean of existence. It is reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “The life of this world compared to the Hereafter is as if one of you were to put his finger in the ocean and take it out again, then compare the water that remains on his finger to the water that remains in the ocean.” This is the creation of Allah – realms of existence far beyond what we are capable of observing with the Hubble telescope.

Even our own imaginations point to the existence of Allah. Allah knows that which is, that which can be, and that which can never be. All of the worlds that we dream up in our heads are comprehended by Allah. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple – these are ultimately not the creations of human minds. They are contained in the pre-eternal and perfect knowledge of Allah. In no way, is anything, hidden from Allah, nor will there ever be.

Allah is neither male nor female, but rather creates male and female. Allah is not bound by time nor space, but rather created time and space. A universe is no bigger in relation to Allah than an ant, nor is 10 billion years longer for Allah than 10 seconds. Allah says about Himself:

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Some of the English meanings of this Divine Speech in Arabic are, “He is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you. There is nothing like the likeness of Him, and yet He is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” (Qur’ān 42.11)

We affirm His dissimilarity to all that we know, and yet we can comprehend the idea of His omniscience. But at the same time, we really can’t. For example, you are looking at me. You see me from one particular vantage point, based on your eye’s ability to see a certain spectrum of light. Now know that each one of your vantage points is known to Allah. He sees what everyone is seeing, and what I see. Now know that Allah sees all that is in this room from infinite vantage points. Now know that Allah sees all of those vantage points in all spectrums of light simultaneously, and we start to move towards spiritual bewilderment in the presence of the Divine Reality, what the Sufis call ḥayra.

Allah says of Himself:

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Some of the English meanings of this Divine Speech in Arabic are, “No vision can grasp Him, and yet He grasps all vision. He is above all comprehension, and yet acquainted with all things.” (Qur’ān 6.103) This is the reality behind the phrase Allāhu akbar (Allah is greater). Some think it is a chant, or a type of rallying cry, but in actuality it is the most succinct and profound formula for the exalted reality of the Divine in the history of religious thought. Allāhu akbar!

Allah knows, at this moment, the location of each of the particles that makes up you as a unique creation. When particle physicists look for the essential ground of matter, they keep coming up with things that are smaller and more fleeting. At one point in time, we imagined protons, neutrons and electrons to be the fundamental building blocks of cells. Now, we know that those particles are made up of even smaller particles called quarks, and they blink in and out of existence in tiny fractions of a second. Allah not only knows all that, He knows exactly where each quark is in the universe at this moment, it’s velocity, and so on.

In this room right now there are so many biological, chemical, and physical processes that no human effort, even if we spent trillions of dollars doing so, could describe this moment in all of its complexity, let alone create it or re-create it. At yet Allah creates all moments – every Friday congregation in every masjid on the face of this planet, and all moments in time and space with all of its mind-numbing complexity. As Allah, glorified and exalted, states:

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“and that is not difficult for Allah.” (Qur’ān 14.20)

This is the Creator we believe in.  When our minds rush to understand Allah, we are left bewildered. When our hearts rush to embrace Allah, they come back overflowing. Yet when we turn to Allah in our prayer, and ask the Possessor of all Might and Majesty, Allah hears and responds. As long as the tongues of human beings have speech, we will never tire of speaking of the Beauty and Majesty of Allah, the Lord of all the worlds, and yet, we will never do justice to the realities behind the words that we chose to describe Allah as best we can.

Allāhu akbar - God is greater – الله أكبر

Lā ilāha illa Allāh – There is no god but Allah - لا إله إلا الله

Whatever I have said that is true is from our Lord, and whatever I have said that is false is from my shortcomings.

In my first commentary on the TV series Cosmos, I highlighted three types of “reason” according to classical Islamic thought. One of them, ḥukm ‘ādī, is the domain of science. Human beings are able to observe the universe around them (and within them!), and describe the usual way that the world works. These judgements are considered sound, especially when they are verifiable by other observers. So, for example, people from China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa would all equally agree that children come from the sexual union of a man and a woman. No one of sound intellect denies this, because for generations upon generations human beings have observed that this is how new human beings are created.

But just because this is what we always observe does not mean that this is how it always happens. According to the creed of Islam, Jesus (upon him peace) was born without a father. This is the only time this has ever happened, as far as we know, and it does not contradict the ḥukm ‘ādī that children usually come from the sperm of a man and the egg of a woman. This is because Allah is in control of all that is. It is from Allah’s usual ways of doing thing (Allah’s sunan) that he creates new human beings through the standard reproductive process. But if Allah wants, Allah can create a new person without a father, as in the case of Jesus (upon him peace). Believing in this one exception is important, because it is a way of affirming the sovereignty of Allah over the entire cosmos.

Human beings can manipulate this process, as was so poignantly illustrated by the story of dog breeding at the opening of this episode. But this is not a challenge to Allah’s sovereignty, because everything in the cosmos is Allah’s Actions (af‘āl Allāh), including human actions. As Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 933), the author of the most widely accepted theological text in Islamic history, states, “human actions are God’s creation’s.” [The Creed of Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī, p. 74] Human beings creating dogs through the process of artificial selection is still Allah creating dogs – human beings are simply the “causes [or means]” (asbāb) by which Allah creates certain things like dogs and Iphones.

Everything that the human intellect can uncover about the history of biological life is nothing but a description of the usual way that Allah creates. For example, the development of the eye that was so beautifully described in this episode is Allah’s creation, even though it took place over billions of years. This is because Allah creates time and space, and so therefore creation happens in all moments. The creation of the eye in a single instant, and the creation of the eye over billions of years, is the same for Allah. It is only us limited human beings who have a sense of long and short time. So when Allah says, “Have We not made for them two eyes,” it is not in any way in contradiction with the development of the eyes of animals and humans in time and space, as described by evolutionary biology.

According to Islamic theologian Shaykh Nuh Keller, it is not possible to interpret the Adam (upon him peace) of the Qur’an as a metaphor for our first ancestor. Rather, he maintains that Muslims must uphold the belief in “the truth of Adam’s special creation that Allah has revealed in the Qur’an.” As I am not a scholar of Qur’anic exegesis (mufassir), I cannot comment on his claim to a singular understanding of Adam. However, what I can comment upon is that believing in Adam as a special creation (without father or mother!) does not contradict evolution. Like the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, it is simply an exception to the usual rule. And all of it is Allah’s Actions, whether described as natural selection or some other unknown cause of creation.

One of the names of Allah in the Islamic tradition is “The Cause of all causes (musabbib al-asbāb).” Our understanding of Allah is limited when we think of natural selection as some sort of rival to Allah’s creation. Rather, the causes of natural selection (gene mutation, environmental conditions, etc.) are all under the control of Allah, as is the time and space within which the development of species unfolds. Science is a window into the truth that Allah is greater than anything we can possibly imagine, because the entire universe is just one aspect of Allah’s creative ability [al-Jannah and al-Nār are also Allah's Actions!], and we marvel and are humbled by the bits of it that we have learned so far as human beings!

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