When discussing entities of a metaphysical nature our presentations tend to be abstract, binary and devoid of real-world meaning. Often it is absurdly supposed that simply saying something stands as evidence for its existence. With the current political backdrop that frames Muslims with the lens of securitisation, many believers have come to take what they view as a muscular approach to belief – that we believe in metaphysical entities because we must, and no one shall tell us otherwise; like those who insist that we accept militant secularism, both are allergic to debate and discussion. Whilst we might comprehend the reasons behind why some Muslims take this approach, it does not mean that it is correct.
What is frequently neglected in teaching Muslims theology (aqidah) is that we are attempting to inform believers as to how they can relate to God, how they might understand Him with their limited human capabilities, and how from that knowledge there should spring a profound relationship between the created and their Creator. In a similar way, when discussing such pertinent matters with non-Muslims, we should be attempting to provide intelligent insight that convincingly sets out how God desires man to understand, and subsequently, engage with Him.
So in measuring our method against the actual objectives we should ask: why are we articulating ourselves on Islamic theology in public? If it is to express to wider society what God wants then logically it must be said in a way society best understands and engages with the message. With this in mind, the objective of any method that refuses to take into consideration societal sensibilities and the framework with which people understand and relate to things can be either out of not understanding society, or merely to say something so as to attract a following and position as a theological spokesperson. Both are problematic and in no way can such actors claim to be safeguarding orthodoxy since the results seldom provide access to the tools required for a meaningful relationship with the Most High – i.e. the purpose for such engagements. It quickly becomes evident that for such God doesn’t factor much in the equation since their misplaced machismo only serves to gain status with those around them as well as bringing Islamic theology into disrepute.
And we have never sent a messenger who did not use his own people’s language to make things clear for them.
Now there are two things to take into consideration at this juncture. God deems it extremely important that people understand what is being presented, and that it is presented in a way they can relate to. It is not simply that we use English with correct grammatical structures, but we should be expressing the true Abrahamic doctrine in a way that uses a vernacular to which people are accustomed. To this end we find Ali b. Abi Talib saying, “speak to people according to what they know, do you want God and His messenger to be rejected?” Interestingly, many preachers engender this philosophy when speaking to their own congregations unwilling to challenge the uninformed status quo, yet with wider society all belligerency becomes manifest with the imbecilic attitude “say it how it is”. Indeed there are many ways to say it how it is, so why must the most rudimentary or belligerent manner be chosen? Muslim narrates the statement of the prophetic apostle Ibn Mas’ud, “You cannot speak to people with things they (intellectually) struggle to grasp except that it will prove testing (fitnah) for some.” Whilst this statement was in reference to believers, the reasoning is equally valid for non-believers.
Now there are valid concerns around presenting beliefs in the context of modernity. For example, if we are to appropriate a scientific vernacular, and with scientific discovery in constant motion, how can we establish theological absolutes? The problem with this question lies in equating the use of a vernacular that is cognisant of scientific inquiry (or societal norms) to substantiating the validity of God’s word (the Quran) on the human venture to find out how things work (science). Rather than looking at it like this, we might view it as speaking of God and the unseen in a way that is meaningful and viable to those who have intellectually developed according to certain structures of thinking.
For some Muslim commentators, we should reject all structures. Whilst the structures may be philosophically challenged, it does not necessarily mean that theology can in no way work within these structures to make a plausible consideration that opens up listeners to later question those aspects of the structure that are fallacious. (I hope to address this elsewhere)
In ending, I offer a suggestive example to initiate thoughts on how we might conceptualise theological expressions for our world. In a recent tafsir (Quranic exegesis) lecture I touched on the concept of angels. Not only is the concept far removed from reality but many Muslims, whilst affirming their existence, tend to relegate the idea of angels to myth and folklore – a remnant of bygone eras in which people believed in all sorts of magical creatures. An undeveloped articulation would be that everyone should believe in angels because it is written, and whilst such a statement isn’t technically untrue, it doesn’t really provide philosophical justification nor allow for the human mind to meaningfully interact with the idea. This last point is extremely important because we are not simply told about angels for intellectual banter, Allah has intended the knowledge to be of some practicable purpose to human beings with a number of deeds a consequence of believing in their existence.
A significant amount of doubt stems from our inability to see or hear angels that are meant to be hurrying around the cosmos, winged creatures fulfilling God’s orders. But perhaps it becomes rather more plausible to contemporary western society when we consider that there are many things that we know to exist but are beyond human sensory perception – certain wavelengths of light (infrared, ultraviolet, etc) are not picked up by the naked eye, just as some sounds beyond the reach of the human ear (a dog whistle for instance). So keeping in mind how society articulates existence, in the hadith of A’ishah in Sahih Muslim the Prophet informs us that angels are made of light. If it is true that they are entities made up of something similar to photons, then they are beings created from the type of energy found in light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. From this an entire discussion might ensue based on the remarkable way light works (or at least what we know at the moment) and interacts with other forms of matter which makes it easier to find plausibility in the many things reported about them in revelation. Though it might stretch the human imagination is does so as much as any scientific explanation. In fact, were we to explore speaking of such metaphysical entities from a position of quantum theory which considers photons of light that attract to one another and act in a certain fashion (that is the make up of angels where light is the matter they consist of) all over the universe, I suspect we might attract serious discussion from wider society.
One of the benefits of engaging with Islamic scholarship from the medieval period is to glean a method that reflects balance and a normality with which they frequently approached topics; in our day it is sectarianism, fear and reactionary approaches that have severely impeded Islamic thought from developing into a cogent and profound school of intellectual enquiry that offers western societies with the intelligent and meaningful beliefs they deserve.