REASONING WITH GOD: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age

Chapter 9: God, Shari'ah and Beauty



EXCERPT: "...The ecstatic feeling—the feeling of balance and beauty I experienced when listening to classical music reminded me most clearly of my emotions when reading the Qur’an.  The feeling is one of elevation—of aching for a greater fulfillment of beauty, and for a perfection that can never be fully realized.  The Qur’an is like a message that aims to ignite in its audience an aching for greater fulfillment and a fuller achievement of emotional and intellectual beauty.  The Qur’an opens the door to venues of moral achievements that in their essence are conditions of beauty.  A person could hear a musical composition, and not finding much nuance or many possibilities of meaning, the listener quickly tires of what he hears.  Put differently, the most successful musical composition is that which ignites many possibilities for reaching new realms of beauty.  Similarly, Muslims who presume the Qur’an to be a closed book—a book that takes its reader to a predetermined and preset stage of beauty but that cannot transcend that stage—deny the Qur’an its richness.  It is not the compositions that sounded the prettiest that were the most impactful—rather, the most powerful compositions were those that created infinite potential for reaching the most diverse and higher plains of beauty.  Similarly, the Qur’an is not powerful because it takes all its readers to the same exact level and point of beauty.  It is powerful because it creates trajectories of beauty—each one reaching a different level and point—with infinite possibility for continuous growth. 


"There is another regard in which experiencing the beauty of classical music allowed me to gain insight into the beauty of the Qur’an.  I can approach a symphony, sonata, or concerto and listen to a comprehensive part—an allegro, menuetto, or adagio for instance.  No doubt, I might very well hear something wholesome, seemingly comprehensive, and I might even be propelled towards further possibilities of beauty.  But if I wish to understand the full nuance of a piece and achieve a fully balanced perspective, I must hear and consider the full composition from beginning to end.  I simply do not know the full potential of a violin or piano concerto unless I hear all the parts and consider the message in its totality.  The same logic is clearly applicable to the Qur’an.  Most interpreters and scholars through history have approached the Qur’an in a piecemeal fashion.  They would consider each verse or group of verses independently, or they might even focus on a full chapter at a time.  Often, however, readers would not consider the Qur’an in its totality, as a comprehensive work, and would not attempt to understand the parts in light of the whole.  Each part can express a tone, mood, melody, counter-melody, tonality, or atonality, but a fully balanced perspective does not emerge unless the text is considered as a whole and in its totality.  Only then can one truly appreciate the moral thrust of the Qur’an or start to consider the possibilities it offers or the potentialities towards beauty that it sets in motion.


"Failure to understand the Qur’an as an ethical message with a strong moral thrust led to the overly legalistic and mechanical treatments that one often finds in Islamic literature.  The Qur’an has often been treated as a road map that guides the reader to the straight and narrow path—a path with clear determinable boundaries and a specific and particular destination.  This situation I think is similar to a listener who listens to a symphony in order to discover its one and true meaning.  Instead of opening up possibilities of higher aesthetic consciousness and the potential for realizing new levels of engagement with beauty, for that listener, a symphony simply communicates a set of identifiable facts the meaning of which are predetermined.  Importantly, for that listener, every engagement with this same symphony should reach the same conclusions and realize the same set of facts.  Not only does this approach deny the symphony its richness, but the dynamic with the work of art will necessarily become despotic and authoritarian.  It is impossible for every member of the audience to reach the same conclusions about a symphony without someone assuming the power to define the only legitimate meaning and then coercing others into accepting this predetermined meaning.  The Qur’an does lead to a straight path, but it is not narrow.  It is a path towards the unbounded discovery and realization of beauty—of unbounded discovery and realization of Divinity."

"Qur'anic Ethics and Islamic law," in Journal of Islamic Ethics 1 (Brill, 2017): 7–28, for Qur'an and Ethics Conference Proceedings, organized by the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) and Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies.

EXCERPT: "...Moral absolutes or universals, like Divinity, are the compass and guiding lights of Shariʿah. The Qurʾan affirms the objective validity of moral and ethical principles as virtues inseparable from goodness, beauty, and Divinity itself. What are known as Qurʾanic laws or rulings are illustrative examples of the pursuit of moral absolutes within the bounds of moderation or reasonableness. What is moderate or reasonable is not defined by law but by contextual relationships of reciprocity and proportionality, epistemological consciousness, and social and cultural processes. Inspired by the Qurʾanic message, earlier generations of jurists created a complex system of interpretations, rulings, and adjudications that we now identify as Islamic law. In doing so, many Muslim jurists sought to fulfill the ethical teachings of God’s revelation (or akhlāq), but they did so within the bounds of their epistemological understandings and what they considered to be reasonable within the parameters of their circumstances. But the rulings or laws that were deduced by the earlier generations of jurists cannot be seen as the embodiment or as the full articulation of the moral and ethical teachings of the Qurʾan. Doing so would undermine and exhaust the moral and ethical potential of the Divine message. The very nature of the sacred trust of viceroyship that has been given to human beings to bear obligates Muslims to reengage and reconstruct the Islamic legal tradition on a foundation of the epistemological understandings of their contemporaneous moment and within the ever-evolving confines of reasonableness...."

"The epistemology of the truth in modern Islam," Philosophy and Social Criticism 41, no. 4-5 (2015): 473-86.

EXCERPT: "...Reasonableness is a virtue, but it rests on perhaps an obvious assumption. When God commands people to pursue ethical values such as justice, mercy, compassion, kindness, or faithfulness, I assume that these words have meanings.  If they did not have meaning, then God would be speaking frivolously, which is theologically impossible.  Furthermore, I assume that God knows that the only way these words will have meaning for us as human beings is through the way we use language—through the tools used in semiotics and hermeneutics.  Moreover, I assume that all Divine commands regarding doing what is good and beautiful are made with the full expectation and knowledge that the only way we human beings can make sense of semiotic communications is through what we now call epistemology—our knowledge structure and its system.  The same Creator who created the intellect also gave that intellect volition and choice.  This fact, in and of itself, sets numerous moral boundaries because creation is sacrosanct.  So, for example, the Qur’an exclaims:  “If your Lord would have willed, all people on earth, without exception, would have believed.  So would you compel people to become believers?”   In this instance, the text confirms what is accessible to a believer through rational insight, and that is, one cannot undo, by human law, what was created by God.  This belief in human volition is not a libertarian position.  A truly libertarian position would necessarily have to accept that the world is perfectly intelligible without an assumption of a Creator and Law Giver, and as a believing Muslim, this I do not concede.  But does the fact that there is Divine law mean that our rational faculties can only be used hermeneutically in interpreting revelation and nothing else?  No, I do not believe that this follows either.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: If one believes in an immutable, omnipotent, and all powerful God who is the Law Giver, then it follows that Revelation defines what is right or wrong.  In other words, there is no inherent right or wrong—something is right because God allowed it or something is wrong because God forbade it.  If so, the argument goes, if God would have willed, God could have commanded whatever God pleases—God and God alone could determine what is good or bad, and our sole role as human beings is to submit. In this argument, all right and wrong comes from the sheer will of God, and if God so willed, God could have made what is wrong right, and vice versa.  God could have ordered us to disbelief, be unjust, tell lies, and murder, and it would have been fair and good because God said so.[11] But this line of thinking is flawed because it argues the impossible.  It is akin to arguing that if God would have willed, God could have made us cockroaches, and that because of this possibility (or impossibility) such and such follows.  The fact is that as human beings, we are subject to the laws of humanity that are etched into our very being—these laws are embedded in our cognition and consciousness, and are as stable and unwavering as the laws of mathematics or the logic that defines material reality.  These are laws of rational elements that allow us to have a shared language about justice, ethics, values, happiness, misery, and beauty.    


"The Divine text repeatedly and persistently refers to ethical concepts, and invokes intuition, memory, and rational insight as means to access what is embedded and inherent in and to humanity.[12]  Does the fact that the Qur’anic text makes consistent references to ethical concepts as if they have an embedded and inherent meaning help us avoid the debate as to whether natural law preceded Divine law, or resulted from it?  I am not sure.  But I do believe that Revelation or Divine speech has to make sense, and if God spoke in a language that is entirely self-referential, this would create an insurmountable theological problem.  If I say to my son, “Be fair to your sister!” that does suppose that I am assuming my son has some understanding of fairness.  Now, I might tell my son, “Be fair to your sister, and do not monopolize the computer!”  If my son assumes that as long as he shares the computer, he is free to torment his sister as much as he wishes, it would be fair to conclude that my son is either mean spirited, or an imbecile, or both.  Moreover, if upon my death my son gives his sister the computer (which by then is quite outdated), and upon forging my last testament steals the family estate, I think it would be safe to conclude that my son has not honored my instructions to be fair to his sister.  Alas, when I told my son to be fair to his sister, and share the computer, I was counting on my son having both common sense and also a moral compass so that he would not subvert the ethical message behind the lesson I sought to impart..."

“The Place of Ethical Obligations in Islamic Law”, UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, no. 4 (2005): pp.1-40.

EXCERPT: "...Each and every human being has a moral obligation or responsibility to seek out and recognize al-sirat al-mustaqim (the righteous path) or objective ethical precepts, which are inseparable from divinity itself.  The Qur'an describes the realization or recognition of the path, which includes believing in God, as an act rising out of rational cognition or a matter of common sense.  The Qur'an describes itself as a book of remembrance (dhikr), and maintains that its most essential function is to remind people of the reality of Divinity--a reality that includes the presence of God and all that this presence implies.  The Qur'an emphasizes repeatedly that the instruments for realizing or recognizing the truth is cognition (fikr), reason ('aql), and remembrance (dhikr).  In this context, the truth is Divinity and Divinity is the truth, but, as already mentioned, recognition of Divinity necessitates the recognition of the values that attach themselves to the Divine--values such as justice, fairness, compassion, mercy, honesty, and goodness.  The Qur'an intimates that many elements of the sirat--but not the whole integrated sum of the righteous path-- is an innate part of the human mind.  As God created humans, he inspired unto them an intuitive liking for the path of righteousness.  'And so, set they force steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with natural disposition which God has instilled unto humans. . . .' [FN9] The Qur'an continuously prompts people to think, reflect and ponder as a way of reaching out towards the truth of God and His path. The necessity of such thought and reflection is affirmed by the Prophet's saying, 'Thought of one hour is better than the prayers of a whole night.' [FN10] Elements of the righteous path or, in other words, basic moral precepts are accessible to human beings through the act of diligent remembrance and reflection or even by an honest willingness to open one's heart to the reprimands of a critical intuitive conscience. [FN11] It is worth noting that it is possible that a person might seek to realize elements of the righteous path while neglecting to pursue the righteous path in its entirety. It is possible to seek to be merciful, for instance, but neglect to properly reflect upon the demands of justice. But more importantly, it is possible that a person might seek to realize moral and ethical precepts while failing to seek out the Divine. The righteous path in its fullness is woefully incomplete and inadequate without believing in God. The Qur'an does appear careful to emphasize that although many elements of the righteous path can be sought out through intuitive and rational faculties, the realization of the righteous path in its entirety and fullness needs something extra--needs an added power: it needs Divine bliss or grace. To be possessed of true wisdom (hikma), where one fully understands the balance (al-mizan) or how all the elements fall into place to form the integrated whole requires spiritual and physical exertion and moral diligence, which in turn is rewarded by an act of grace (hidaya) that allows such a fortunate soul to realize the sirat al-mustaqim in its fullness. 


"The Qur'an describes the Divine as pure and unadulterated light, and it insists that those who deny God's existence are spiritually blind.  Recognizing or believing in the Divine is as if making a decision to remove the blindfolds and if one does so, he enables himself to see the light that has been there all along unaffected by the heedlessness of the blind.  Moreover, this Divine light has qualities and attributes that exist completely unaffected by the denials of the blind or the incredulity of the obstinate.  The precepts and values of ethics and morality are what I have been describing as the qualities or attributes of the Divine.  Metaphorically, moral and ethical precepts are like luminous supernal elements within the light of God.  It is possible to seek out and recognize these luminous elements while denying that the Divine or its light exists. From a theological perspective, this means that a person who does so is partially blind--he can see particular luminous substances but does not see the full celestial light..."