Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ruminations Continued

Another hiatus appears to have seized this blog, and by "appears to have seized" I mean I became preoccupied with a lot of other things. I didn't want it to continue into February and a lot of people have reminded me in the last week that real people do read this blog. I had some observations on the state of our world that I wanted to make in the interim, but if I don't finish what I started in the last post, I probably never will, and I did say I would continue it. That's not to say that it is intended to convince anyone of anything, or to even make a modicum of sense to anyone outside my own head.

4. Enemies

I use the term to denote those who, whether out of good intentions or outright malice, will only foster continued division and oppression in our world. I don't mean this to be exhaustive - both Muslims and non-Muslim "Westerners" tend to be arrogant enough to think that they are the only peoples who matter in the world, and that everyone else is just a spectator. This is, in some ways, part of the problem, but since I tend to spend more time thinking about the relationship between the two groups, and have a great deal more experience with it than with anything else, I'm going to talk about it here.

The problems amongst the Muslims are manifold, but are largely compounded by the fact that most of the Muslims aren't literate. Now, it is possible that a majority of them can, in fact, discern the words that are formed by letters in their native tongues (the CIA World Factbook gives Indonesia's literacy at 90.4%, which might be a comment on the Factbook), but by literacy I mean more than this, I mean an appreciation for new ideas that come to them through written materials. Misogyny and an attachment to tribal power structures are representative of an attempt by some individuals to maintain their power - no group is a better example of this than the Ibn Saud - and this tends to make understanding between the Muslim world and the West even harder. A large number of Muslims are convinced that a purely technical education is all they need to surpass the "West," but this does nothing to help them free themselves as a society, as that technical knowledge still depends on a framework of ideas that is the product of other minds.

On the other side of the coin, we have the rise in anti-Islam sentiment in the West. Groups which promote such an agenda tend to break down in two groups - Christian or Atheist. The Christian groups tend to buy into the "Clash of Civilizations" argument, spuriously ascribing the "West"'s greatness to Church teachings. They are inevitably virulent zionists, and tend to view the conflict in Palestine with a zealous unreasonableness, even the Catholics amongst them, along with viewing the Prophet Muhammad as an almost Satanic figure, referring to Islam in their literature as a "death-cult."

The Atheist groups and individuals tend to be overall less dogmatic. They see religion as the root of all conflict, and the Muslim world as the most religious portion of humanity. Consequently, they are predisposed towards hostility towards Islam. Despite streaks of liberalism, they still tend to buy into nationalistic ideologies, and believe strongly that "9/11 changed everything" and similar exceptionalist crap.

Of these two groups I'm actually coming to believe that the latter is the more dangerous of the two. Fundamentally, Christianity still compels people to behave in selfless ways, and is a pan-human movement in the same way that Islam is. It also has a rich tradition of Scriptural interpretation; the Old Testament provides all sorts of harsh punishments for people who commit offenses against tradition and ritual, but I have never heard of a Christian or Jewish man actually trying to punish someone for working on the Sabbath. There is, of course, a rationale for this way of interpreting the scripture, but I think that the result of such a process of interpretation is that Christians are better equipped, intellectually, to come to terms with Islam as a religion than atheists are, since the latter considers the entire enterprise to be, a priori, bogus.

If ethics is, as many atheists vociferously argue, an evolutionary adaptation to promote group survival, then nationalism is a ethical quality. There is no reason to be concerned for the rights of someone in the Congo if doing so would jeopardize the prosperity and Darwinian fitness of the people in one's North American social circle. Whether or not this logic will play out in full remains to be seen - North America and Europe are still societies with a powerful Christian heritage, and it will take at least another two generations before its echo dies out, if at all.

5. Interpretations

I used to be told two things about Islamic jurisprudence, and my views upon both have changed.

1) People should accept the guidance of scholars.
2) Bukhari and Muslim are sahih, and shouldn't be questioned.

The first once caused me to scoff. If I had wanted to be led by a priesthood, I'd become a Catholic. The whole beauty of Islam was that it wasn't an institutionalized, organized religion, but an enterprise that attempted to connect the individual personally and directly with God, without any man-made intermediary whatsoever. I still believe that, but I think there was a certain wisdom in the creation of a class of people who were, by convention, considered qualified to issue opinions on various pressing issues. Ultimately, moral responsibility lies with the individual, as the Qur'an makes clear. That however, doesn't diminish the value of having people whose knowledge of the history of the field is expansive, and who can apply its lessons to the present. This is important, because without it, more and more people start to believe in 2) .

The attempt to make Bukhari and Muslim seem like canonical books of Islam has been largely spearheaded by adherents of Wahhabi-Salafism, literalists whose thinking abolishes all the old schools of jurisprudence, founded only upon the Qur'an, any historical evidence of the Prophet's example (peace be upon him), and logical deduction. It is a modernist school of thought. In reality though, the hadiths in Bukhari and Muslim are themselves only statements of probability - it is highly likely that they are true, but non-acceptance of one of them does not equate to a fundamental repudiation of Islam as a whole. The issue is spelled out very well in this paper I found on IslamOnline (I don't endorse the entire thing, but its a nice overview).

That said, there must be limits to interpretive freedom. While most Muslims tend to deride the Irshad Manji types, I have gained a perhaps back-handed respect for her, since only tremendous faith could overcome that depth of contradiction. At the end of the day, there are some things which will seem relatively harmless to the liberal, irreligious mind, but which simply cannot be reconciled with Islam. Western society generally accepts (rather than merely tolerates), alcohol, fornication, and increasingly, homosexual intercourse; Islam repudiates them, regardless of the degree of empirical harm that each can be shown to cause in the secular sense. The scripture consistently views them in a negative light -the specifics may change, and specific situations may necessitate what is forbidden becoming permissible, but that doesn't change the fact that the default prescription is to forbid. Otherwise, we run the risk of worshiping not God, but our own desires; avoidance of this is central to the message of Islam.


I think that will be it for this two-part series; although I might make similar ruminations and observations at a later date. If you read all the way, I hope it was worth your time. I'll be back with more of my usual fare as we move into February, when I hope to be a little more regular than I was this month.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ruminations on Faith and Morality

Over the past month or so, I have been drawn into a fascination with many topics, mostly centered around morality and faith. Some strange coincidences occurred, whereby a lot of interesting material was dropped on me. I know myself well enough to be wary of attributing anything supernatural to such coincidences, which I rationally know are most likely the product of the right ingredients being present and the dice falling a certain way. Nevertheless, suspicion that the alternative hypothesis might be true hangs in my mind.

I am not a religious scholar, and not qualified to give anyone authoritative advice on that field, but given the controversy surrounding the belief system whose signs of allegiance are at times quite visible on me, I find myself forced to consider questions that, had I lived in another era and been a little more humble, I would have probably placed above my pay grade. The times we live in, though, place a special burden on the Muslims to think deeply about their faith, to seek old and new wisdom on it, and to question whatever assumption does not obviously follow from "La Ilaha Il Allah," in light of the subjective and objective evidence before them (yes, I said "subjective evidence"). That burden really falls on every human being who has the time and ability to reflect on such things, but it especially falls upon the Muslims, because today it this life, and not just the one beyond that is at stake.

I wish that I could put my thoughts on these subjects on hold, and return to them later - it would probably enable me to spend at least a fraction of the time I saved on things that I "need" to do, instead of obsessing over these questions. Unfortunately, I am not yet able to restrain myself like that.

I have come to some conclusions, which I will try to keep organized, but they span a lot of different fields of human endeavour, and I can't explain the connections between them all without making this post unreasonably long. Some of what is below may not make sense to non-Muslim readers, but I will try to keep it as accessible as possible. Some of my conclusions come from reading the Qur'an, others from certain books, and others still from Internet sources. I'm going to write free of references now, but feel free to challenge me. I hope to later expand upon some of the sources.

1. Where does morality come from?

I would argue that it comes, like everything else in the universe, from God. This should not be used as a reason for believing in God, but instead as a truth that flows from it. The existence of something called "morality," that is external to the individual, is remarkably difficult to prove. By morality, I do not simply mean community mores, or behaviour that the individual finds acceptable to his own conscience, but a guiding, universal, timeless principle that does not originate in the human mind.

Atheists tend to disagree with such a notion - most argue that morality does not exist in the way I said it did, that instead a sense of individual ethics and social mores have developed as an evolutionary adaptation, because they confer a Darwinian advantage on the communities who exhibit them. Every Atheist I have ever met or heard from has insisted that notions of a God who takes interest in human affairs, and who condemns certain individuals to Hell, and rewards others with Heaven, are all ridiculous but useful fantasies - useful because they can be used to motivate people in large societies to behave in a way that is advantageous to the propagation of the genes of that community.

(NB: Because I know a thing or two about biosciences, I accept the validity of natural selection as a factual description of how species develop and differentiate. I have to clarify this because of the preponderance of ill-informed Creationist nonsense on the Web, often posted from a religious perspective)

The problem with an Atheistic ethics, however, is that it doesn't provide people with an incentive to be truly selfless. It fails in two ways. Firstly, human beings are rational creatures, who can override a biological tendency in order to accomplish some other desired goal. So even if our tendency to abhor "injustice" might be hard-wired, a person who expects a large benefit by behaving in an unjust manner will still do so, so long as he can ignore any evolutionarily determined feelings of guilt. Everyone is capable of doing this; it does not require a psychopath. Worse still, an Atheistic ethics cannot provide a principle around which people can determine whether something right or wrong, beyond whether or not it makes them feel good. Why is murder wrong? Certainly, if everyone decided that it was not, we would have chaos in human society, and on average, a negative result, by why should that restrain the powerful individual? And why would maintenance of human society be a moral good anyways?

The counter is that ideas of karma, or Heaven and Hell, or any other supernatural retribution for evil and reward for good, are merely fantasies to prevent this from happening, and themselves rely on a crude and obvious self-interest. I think this is only true if one takes a very literal view of these ideas, and ridicules them on that basis alone. Morality can be viewed as a system, created by God, and the consequences specified in the various religious traditions are really expressions, with varying fidelity, of that system.

2. Morality, Self, and Justice

So then what is morality? As I said, it is a creation of God, like time, space, and all the laws of physics and nature. I was listening to an audio book on Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity, and one thing that struck me is that despite their mind-boggling implications for assumptions that we rely upon in our day-to-day experience, they leave the dichotomous nature of physical quantities relatively (no pun intended) untouched. Again, I am treading on ground that I have little expertise in, but even in Relativity, it is possible for every scalar quantity to be expressed in negative or positive terms, or to find the inverse of every non-scalar term.
Stephen Hawking has suggested that time can run in reverse. In quantum mechanics, the other great physics revelation of the 20th century, matter has anti-mattter, positive charge has negative charge, positive spin has negative spin, etc. Quantities that remain mysterious are gravity and energy itself, although these are all still under study.

I realize that I am waxing mystical, but could we not understand morality the same way? Could we not say that there is an inherent property of the universe, which defines good and bad action? Surah 55 (Ar-Rahman) in the Qur'an opens with acts of creation by God, including what is referred to as "the balance," instructing mankind to establish weight with justice, so as not to fall short in the balance. Can we treat justice as a fundamental quantity of the universe?

I have come to believe that all good action, all action that is just, is selfless. I don't think that selflessness by itself denotes justice, but it is a necessary component. All action that is unjust, on the other hand, is a result of selfishness although perhaps not exclusively.

Most spiritual practices - though certainly not all - that are followed by humans have some root in selflessness. This is not the case in some cults, like that of certain Pharoahs, but it is certainly true of the roots of all the Abrahamic traditions, along with many if not most others. Of the 5 pillars of Islam, one forms the basis of the entire faith, the Shahadah (testimony), and the others emphasize selflessness. Prayer is selflessness. Charity, or wealth redistribution, is selflessness. The Pilgrimage is selflessness. Fasting is selflessness. Furthermore, chastity is selflessness, jihad is selflessness, good manners are selflessness, honesty is selflessness, as is everything that the Qur'an refers to as "Righteousness."

All of the evil things, on the other hand, are selfishness.

When we act for ourselves, we tip the balance one way, which has the opposite consequence of tipping it the other way.

3. Faith is the cure, not the cause of our conflicts

Islam came to a tribal land, where a chauvanistic logic dominated. If a member of one tribe was killed by a member of another tribe, then it was considered acceptable for members of the offended tribe to kill a member of the tribe of the offender, regardless of whom exactly was killed. Vendettas were the law, and life was cheap. There were other atrocious social habits and customs. This time has become known as the Jahiliyah - The Time of Ignorance.

7th Century Arabia was not the only such society, and unfortunately, such societies still exist today. Islam took that corner of the world, abolished the people from acting upon any differences amongst them except their actions. The tribal and racial chauvanism was expunged completely, and for a while this continued.

Then the Muslims realized that they were not just an idea, but a power block, and they collectively began to behave more like an empire, or empire
s. (These are sweeping generalizations, and betray the diversity within the Muslim world that arose in the 8th-18th centuries, but I will lean on them here and risk being labeled a fan of Samuel Huntington.) They committed the same sin of the Jahiliyah - group chauvanism.

Group chauvanism is, at its heart, group selfishness. It is the belief that one group deserves, by its inherent properties, to fare better than other groups. It also has a lot in common with the aforementioned Athiest explanation of ethics. If the goal of human behaviour is merely to propagate our genes, then it makes sense to give preferential treatment to those who are closer to you, or whose success might indirectly maximize the advantage of your own genes. If we understand this as the source for the development of our ethics, then chauvanism becomes ethical.

The groups have grown somewhat in the 20th century. Europe, for instance, will probably not be at war with itself again, and France and Germany share so many interests that a war between them is unthinkable in the next century. There is immense pressure, both political and military, both from within and from without, and both overt and insidious, for the Muslims of the world to turtle up, and themselves form a chauvanistic block. It is the same as 7th Century Arabia, with tribes deciding that the blood of the other is cheap, and that a failure for "them" is a success for "us."

If we look at particular conflicts, we can see this pattern, with the most obvious, and most pertinent, being between the Israelis and the Palestinians. If we were to wave a magic wand and make them all atheists, or give them all the same religious creed, would they still be fighting? Absolutely, though perhaps with a little less fervour. Ultimately, one group felt that its rights to the land superceded those of the inhabitants. That they were different groups was a fact of history. That one needed a place where they could feel secure is difficult to argue against. That they are today locked in a seemingly endless struggle is a product of their group chauvanism, and not the particular religious beliefs or practices of the colonists or of the colonized.

A return to selflessness, however, implies that we do not desire for ourselves anything that we do not desire for others. It means that we bring ourselves to sympathize equally with those suffering who are close to us, as we do with those suffering who are far, far away. Because of the way human beings have evolved to think, this is not easy, but there is no reason why morality should always come easily to human beings.


In the event that you had the stamina, and cared enough about my musings to reach this point, rest assured that I will continue this at a later time, if God wills, and address at least 2 other issues that are linked to what is already here, and possibly correct or edit what is above as my own views on the topic change.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

For all you Godless Materialists out there:

Since I know you constitute a large percentage of my readership.

Over the last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about morality, ethics, religion, atheism, and the selfish chauvanism that seems to plague our world. I'll be posting something about all that later, but first, here's something fascinating that I heard on CBC the other day.

The Spiritual Brain, an interview between CBC's The Current and UQAM neuroscientist Mario Beauregard.

Most interesting the case of Pam Reynolds at the end of the interview, with a fairly balanced perspective on it in the Wikipedia article. Of course, it is completely unreproducible, and therefore proves nothing scientifically. That doesn't mean that the implied conclusion is untrue.

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