In the Name of God
I know I am not a “traditional scholar.”
I am just a kid from the suburbs of Chicago who loved reading books about religion in high school, and eventually had an experience of faith in college.
That experience of faith is due primarily to the Qur’an, which I first read in English translation, but now read in the original Arabic.
I am not a scholar of the Qur’an, by any stretch of the imagination.
I am simply someone who wants to remain faithful to the Qur’an, as it is the primary thing in this world that I can hold in my hand that makes me feel like God is not silent.
Without the Qur’an, I would feel like “God” is an artifact of human cultural evolution.
That is me, at the core.
Yes, I can see God in all things, as manifestations of God’s limitless Beauty and Majesty. But that is my “spiritual imagination” – it has no authority outside of my own subjective perception of reality. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is for the faithful rooted in pure objectivity.
So for me the Qur’an has to make sense. This is what Dr. Jonathan Brown eloquently describes as “reading scripture with charity” (Misquoting Muhammad, pp. 72-77). Much of my professional effort has been devoted to this process.
But I am running out of time.
I don’t have the time in my life these days to read multi-volume commentaries on the Qur’an across a wide-variety of ideological approaches.
I need answers.
We all do.
We all need to feel like we have a basic grasp of the world around us.
How did we get here?
Where might we be going?
Who are we?
These questions are at the root of how we choose to live.
If I believed with certainty that I am nothing more than an evolved monkey, without an eternal soul, I would live my life very differently.
But at the same time, I want to be honest about my perception of the universe. Some things one is certain must be true. Others one is certain must be false. But most things we have no actual clue about. We are all pragmatists, at the end of the day, because none of us has perfect information. We live our lives and make choices based on imperfect information.
And so I am finally writing about something that I have held in my heart ever since grad school.
One of the best teachers I had in grad school was Prof. Michael Cook. I took two seminars with him on Islamic intellectual history. The best part of his teaching was that it was completely non-ideological. He never injected his own perspective into the class – everything was designed to make us think deeply about the source material, which was almost exclusively in Arabic and written prior to European colonization.
So when he published a book entitled, “A Brief History of the Human Race,” I rushed to read it. It was a well-written take on some major themes in human history, and it had a profound effect on me because I knew it was based on a lifetime of thinking about these issues. But there was one problem: it was a completely secular perspective.
It is not that I was unfamiliar with this viewpoint – in fact, it was my worldview from growing up, as a living heir to Euro-American colonial modernity. But reading such an account at that point in my life – after converting to Islam, learning Arabic, going to grad school in Islamic Studies, studying Qur’an memorization in a madrasa, going on Hajj, etc. etc. – was a spiritual challenge. Did I really believe that all human beings were descended from Adam and Hawwa? If so, how could I account for the differences between traditional Muslim accounts of “universal history,” and contemporary secular ones?
This has been a central methodological issue I have faced over the last decade. And to be honest, for much of the time, I have avoided it. I realized years ago that I was infected with various spiritual diseases (amrad al-qulub), and so I put a premium on combating them. I also realized that my many years of privileged study obliged me to “give back” and pay the zakat on my knowledge, and so I spent six years as a Muslim chaplain at Dartmouth College and Brown University. It is only over the last two years that I have really had the space in my life to reconnect with the biggest intellectual questions that I carry around in my heart.
It is important to point out that most traditional Muslim scholars I have learned from, whether Sunni or Shi’i, do not have a problem with evolution taking place over billions of years. The Qur’anic text is sufficiently vague about the temporal unfolding of creation to square nicely with empirical studies of cosmology, geology, and biology. What traditional Muslim scholars do have a problem with is Adam.
Two of the most intelligent American-born traditional Islamic scholars have provided me with the same answer, one from Sunnism and the other from Shi’ism. In the case of Sunnism, Shaykh Nuh Keller has argued in his article, “Islam and Evolution,” that there is no possibility of interpreting the Qur’anic text in a way so as to say that the creation of Adam is metaphorical. In the case of Shi’ism, Shaykh Rizwan Arastu argues a similar perspective in his book “God’s Emissaries.” It should be noted that Arastu has a BA in Evolutionary Biology from Princeton, and that Keller studied philosophy of science at the University of Chicago. So each is aware of the intellectual challenges they face in upholding the traditional doctrine of Adam’s unique creation.
But how does one actually reconcile the two stories?
If we take Cook’s book seriously, which I think we must, he makes an argument for the development of human civilization beginning really within the last 10,000 years. He states that this happened when climatic conditions became favorable for farming, and human communities discovered that they could plant and harvest certain crops with some degree of predictability. This was a major step forward, given that for many tens of thousands of years prior (he states that there are a wide range of estimates), humans lived as hunter-gatherers. So, as the well-known story goes, farming is what made civilization possible. And it is only at a certain point in the story of civilization that we get actual recorded history, starting about 5,000 years ago. According the British Museum, the oldest writing is from southern Iraq, dated approximately 3000 BCE.
So that establishes for us a basic framework of human history:
- A long time ago (according to Cook, one estimate is 130,000 years ago), humans first appear in the archaeological record.
- Approximately 10,000 years ago, farming is developed, allowing for the gradual development of civilization.
- A milestone is reached about 5,000 years ago with the development of writing, which becomes the basis for all subsequent recorded history until 1826/7, the era of the oldest surviving photograph. This technological leap was closely followed later in the same century by devices that recorded sound and moving images, ushering in the dawn of the modern media age (of which this blog post is a tiny part of that history).
None of this seems particularly revolutionary. But when put in conversation with traditional Muslim accounts, it forces us to ask difficult questions. For example, for Adam to be the first human being, he would have had to exist a long time ago, before the current climatic era known as the Holocene. As such, he presumably faced the situation of a hunter-gatherer. If Adam knew how to farm, then one would presume that he would pass that knowledge on to subsequent generations, and we would have some evidence of farming before the Holocene. But when we look at traditional accounts of the life of Adam, we see that he began as a farmer.
Take for example this account from the famous Sunni historical text of al-Tabari:
Adam was cast down from Paradise, where both of them had freely eaten of its plenty, to where there was no longer plentiful food and drink. He was taught how to work iron, and he was commanded to plow. So he plowed, sowed, and irrigated, and when (the crop) ripened, he harvested, thrashed, winnowed, ground, kneaded, baked bread, and ate. (p. 299)
Now, for al-Tabari, this is a particularly strong account, given that such early Sunni luminaries as Sa’id b. Jubayr, Ibn al-Mubarak, and Sufyan b. Uyaynah were amongst those who had circulated this idea. But we can forgive al-Tabari for believing it, because he most likely had no idea about the timeline of history that we now take for granted. Like some contemporary Evangelical Christians and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, al-Tabari was a “young earth creationist” and believed the world was about 6,500 years old (p. 183).
Neither did al-Tabari know that the working of iron is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, perhaps emerging about 3000-4000 years ago. But this sort of archaeological perspective was obviously not Tabari’s strength, as pointed out by Cook (who is very familiar with Tabari’s scholarship). It is worth quoting Cook in full:
The formidable Muslim scholar Tabari (d. A.D. 923) has left us a massive history of the world as he knew it. Typically, all he does is quote earlier sources, but near the beginning of the work he makes a significant methodological statement in his own voice: “no knowledge of the history of men of the past and of recent men and events is attainable by whose who were not able to observe them and did not live in their time, except through information and transmission provided by informants and transmitters.”…Over most of human history, most of the time, Tabari is right. But in modern times we have started to make serious use of various kinds of nontextual evidence, sometimes to supplement the texts and sometimes to compensate for their absence. Thus in the preceding section [of Cook’s book]…the discussion was dominated by two bodies of evidence that Tabari either did not know or ignored: fossils and artifacts. In recent years, these have been joined by a third, which Tabari scarcely would have dreamt of: genetics. (pp. 9-10)
This should not be taken as an Orientalist dismissal of the value of pre-modern, non-European scholarship. That is not what Cook is saying here. Rather, he is stating that Tabari was a product of his milieu, which was early 10th century Baghdad. As inhabitants of the 21st century, we have over a millenia of new knowledge production to grapple with. As I stated in a short article published elsewhere: “Muslims cannot be proponents of a reactionary traditionalism that obscures the fact that we are part and parcel of post-Enlightenment intellectual history. We are all heirs to multiple intellectual traditions and the forms of human social life that they justify and promote, for better or for worse.” It is not like this perspective on history is unknown to contemporary Muslims in English-speaking countries. It undergirds books, movies, high school and college classes, and much more. Rather, what Cook is critiquing is the process of building history solely based on authoritative reports (naql in the Islamic terminology), for we know now that there are other ways of knowing about the past. That is something that is a significant departure from traditional Islamic historiography.
Arastu is aware of the new intellectual milieu, and in the introduction to his text, discusses some of the methodological challenges that he faced. The story begins with recognition that the Earth had been filled with plant and animal life for a long time before the appearance of our species. But since the text is primarily a religious text, and not meant for comparison with secular historical texts, there are times when he makes historically problematic statements, such as when he describes Adam’s son Cain as “a farmer.” (p. 59) Of course, it is not impossible that farming was known to earliest human beings in a limited form, and then knowledge of it was lost over tens of thousands of years. Approximately 26,500 years ago, in a period known as the “Last Glacial Maximum,” glaciers extended much farther southward than they do today. Perhaps that was when farming ended, only to re-emerge after the end of the last Ice Age. My point is not to be nit-picky; rather, I am just using the example of farming and iron-working to show who these two historical narratives – one religious and the other secular – tend to exist independently of one another. The sensitivity with which Arastu treats the issue of biology is most likely a product of his Princeton education. For myself, the issue of the emergence of human cultural forms is what central, and so I use the issue of “technology” (broadly understood) as one of the means to try to reconcile the historical narratives.
Generally speaking, in the Islamic literary genre known as “the stories of the Prophets (qasas al-anbiya),” beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad, there is no mention of the emergence of farming and the way it changed human civilization. There is no discussion of the Ice Age, and how humans adapted to it. It is a narrative with a different concern, a theological and moral one. God commands, humans disobey, and there are consequences. But by the time you reach Abraham, the stories of the Prophets enters the era of recorded history and the emergence of the earliest recorded human civilizations. It is supposed that Abraham lived in and around the time of the aforementioned development of writing in southern Iraq around 3000 BCE. Most of the Qur’anic prophets come after Abraham. According to Arastu’s text, there are only five Qur’anic prophets mentioned chronologically prior to Abraham: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Hud and Salih.
When we do this – when we try to reconcile what we know of secular history with what we can reasonably argue is based on authentic revelation – we see interesting possibilities emerge. For example, based on what I have presented so far, I think we can argue that God does not think it is important that the average human being know very much about human history. Why do I say this? First, because the Qur’an is arranged anti-historically. Unlike the Bible, which tells the human story from beginning to end, and is filled with names and places, the Qur’an avoids narrative chronology and is extremely thin on names and places. Only in the case of a single human life, that of Joseph, does the Qur’an tell a complete story. But even that account passes over Joseph’s birth and death, and instead focused on the meat of the story. It just ends with Joseph praying, praising God for always being with him through the ups and downs of life, and hoping to join the righteous in the next life. It is the story of each of us, struggling to behave righteously in the face of injustice, to see the wisdom in suffering and tribulation, to find success for us and those we love. Struggling to make our way through life and arrive at felicity in our death. Struggling to be like Joseph.
Secondly, if humans have existed for 130,000 years, and Abraham lived around 5000 years ago, then we basically know nothing about the lives of most of the prophets. As the famous narration states, there were 124,000 of them (Arastu, p. 9). So God thinks it unimportant to know much about them, other than what God has told us. This, not surprisingly, is found in a verse of Qur’an that states:
(We have sent) some Messengers We have already told you about, and some other Messengers We did not tell you about… (4.164)
We do not know all of them, and God makes it clear that God knows that we don’t know. For the stories of the Prophets are a human invention, every surviving text in Arabic emerging hundreds of years after the revelation of the Qur’an. It is our attempt to arrange the material as best we know how. This is not to say that we should not do it. Rather, it is to say that our results will always be somewhat speculative, and perhaps miss the point.
Stepping back for a moment, we might ask ourselves, “Then what is the point of studying human history as a whole?” Well, for some, it is an obsession. They want to know as much as possible about the people who went before us. The hunter-gatherers. The farmers. The capitalists who built the railroads. Whoever. It includes the positive and the negative – it is just a description of a certain type of knowledge. Ayatollah Khomeini would say that is part of the human being’s quest for the perfection of knowledge, which is one of the ways we reveal our desire to know the All-Knowing. But most people will not spend too much time thinking about history, for out there in the world there is money to be made, sex to be had, and power to be wielded. And if there is one historical truth that is definitive, it is that money/sex/power will almost always be preferred by human beings to quiet historical contemplation.
We could also ask ourselves, “why do we study prophetic history?” From an Islamic hermeneutic, it would be to seek the mercy of the One who has been unfolding this whole universe over the last 13 or so billion years. Even if we study our whole lives, what we know will be just a tiny fraction of what we don’t know. So we have to be decide what is worth knowing. Apparently, based on what we have described so far, God felt it was important for us to know about 5 Prophets out of thousands over a period of over 100,000 years. Arastu’s account of Adam up until the birth of Abraham is 130 pages – that seems like a reasonable amount for a contemporary Muslim with a good education to read and reflect upon, seeking to know what there is to know about these 5 prophets.
And if that seems random, to specify 5 Prophets out of thousands before the era of recorded history, then reflect on this passage of the Qur’an:
[he] frowned and scowled and turned away and behaved arrogantly and said, ‘This is just old sorcery, just the talk of a mortal!’ I will throw him into the scorching Fire. What will explain to you what the scorching Fire is? It spares nothing and leaves nothing; it scorches the flesh of humans; there are nineteen in charge of it––none other than angels appointed by Us to guard Hellfire- and We have made their number a test for the disbelievers. So those who have been given the Scripture will be certain and those who believe will have their faith increased: neither those who have been given the Scripture nor the believers will have any doubts, but the sick at heart and the disbelievers will say, ‘What could God mean by this description?’ God leaves whoever He will to stray and guides whoever He will- no one knows your Lord’s forces except Him- this [description] is a warning to mortals. (74.23-31)
Why 19 Angels over Hell? The simple answer is because that is what God felt important to inform us about as “a warning to mortals.” Either believe it or don’t – that’s up to you. I believe in the 5 pre-Abrahamic Prophets and the 19 Angels over Hell. Do I know what they look like. No. Do I know how they smell? No. Can I tell you much about them? No. But I believe in them because my Lord has decided it important for me to know about them. That is faith, and that is what the secular mind will never understand.
I have no problem with Cook’s overall timeline of human history – I just don’t have faith in his purely secular worldview. I have no problem with Tabari or Arastu’s presentation of prophetic history, just a desire to make it fit with whatever else I know about God and the world God created. I don’t have to read al-Tabari with charity, for my faith does not stand or fall on the correctness of al-Tabari’s views. As for Arastu, since I know him, I can always asking him directly if I have a problem with what he is saying.
That being said, Arastu’s text is a powerful read. For example, he directly addresses the issue of the Flood of Noah and states:
Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an places no timeline on Noah’s flood, neither does it indicate that the flood covered the entire earth, so we need not limit our search for geological evidence of the flood to the last 5-7 millennia, and we need not search for a global flood. (p. 107-8 [footnote 113])
It is rather remarkable to think that a Princeton graduate is the author of the latest original work on the stories of the prophets, following an over 1000-year old tradition of Muslim scholars. Yet, his text is designed to address our contemporary questions. For it is not enough to translate classical texts – one must make them relevant for the contemporary seeker.
For me, the central question is this: what is human life about? If God truly did create us, and left us here on Earth to find our way back home, then what is the point? For me, one way of articulating the answer is found in two Qur’anic verses:
Glorious is the One in whose hand is the Kingdom (of the whole universe), and He is powerful over every thing, the One who created death and life, so that He may test you as to which of you is better in his deeds. And He is the All-Mighty, the Most- Forgiving (67.1-2)
I believe that this applies whether I was a hunter-gatherer from pre-history, or a 21st century New Yorker writing on the internet about his passions. It is the context in which existence as a whole makes sense to me, and my personal existence has value. But there are moments when the possibilities of existence are revealed to be beyond anything I imagined previously. I never know when and where that might happen, and what will be the inspiration. But to close I would like to share the most amazing thing I discovered while researching this, something that has fundamentally altered my perception of what is possible. Arastu states in a footnote on the first page of the story of the creation of Adam, which I must have just not noticed when I first read the book:
Imam al-Baqir is reported to have said, “It seems you think that God only created this world and that he did not create other than you. Rather, by God! He created millions of worlds and millions of Adams, and you are simply in the last of those worlds, descended from the last of those Adams.” (p.17)
Glorious is the One in whose hand is the Kingdom! Writing out these words makes my hair stand on end. Who knows what we have yet to discover on the path of knowledge?! I used to imagine a beautiful private library in Heaven waiting for me, to motivate me to strive harder. I know now that such a hope is not enough, for I had been limiting my desire for knowledge to this universe. If there are millions of worlds and millions of Adams out there, I am going to have to start thinking a lot bigger.
Originator of Heavens and Earth, You are my protecting friend in this world in the next! Cause me to die in a state of submission to You, and join me with the righteous! (12.101)
And God knows best – wa Allahu a’lam
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