In order to understand how materialism spread through the world, we need to understand the intellectual transformation that Europe has undergone in the past few hundred years. Though the Muslim world has been substantially affected by this way of thinking, the remedy is at hand.
The subject of this article is a momentous issue that affects all Muslims very deeply, and that has played a large part in causing the decline of Muslim civilisation, the weakness of Muslim peoples, and the political and intellectual fragmentation and disunity of the Muslim world that we are all witness to, and that we all suffer from. The momentous issue I am referring to is that of the onslaught, the attack on religion and the truths of religion that has come from certain mostly Western European interpretations of science and certain schools of philosophy, especially in the past 150 years, an interpretation of science and a way of thinking about the world that has been enforced, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, by governments all around the world over the past century, including governments in the Muslim world.
This interpretation of human knowledge and science has consistently promoted atheism, and a belief that reality is nothing more than the aggregate of existing physical beings with their physical properties, and that there is no god, no objective purpose to human life, and no afterlife. According to this widespread materialistic position, known as ‘scientism,’ only the branches of human knowledge that study the physical properties of the world and that can thus base their conclusions on empirical evidence, that is, the physical sciences of biology, chemistry and physics, can give us real, reliable knowledge about our universe and our lives. This topic is extremely relevant to me personally, because I grew up in Cambridge in England, one of the most atheistic cities in the world and the place where Darwin formulated his theory of evolution. Yet although I was born to English and American parents, I was born a Muslim, for they had by the grace of Allah, converted to Islam before I was born. Thus I grew up seeing the darkness of a society without belief in the context of the shining light of Islam and the Qur’an, and all praise is due to Allah.
In the Risale-i Nur, the Sixteenth Flash, Imam Bedi’uzzaman Sa’id Nursi says,
The greatest danger facing the people of Islam at this time is their hearts being corrupted, and belief harmed, through the misguidance that arises from science and philosophy. The sole solution for this is light; it is to expose them to light so that their hearts may be reformed and their belief saved.
In the course of this short article, by the permission of Allah Ta’ala, we will try to understand the nature of the light to which the Imam is referring, as well as the great danger of misguidance. In the course of doing so, we hope to accomplish something that is in our age extremely important for every single Muslim – to consider the historical origins of this terribly destructive view of reality and its spread to the Muslim world, and to discuss and come to understand what the principles of Islam and the Qur’an teach about the claims of these materialistic philosophies, as well as how the great Imams of the Islamic sciences responded to these claims, and especially Imam Bedi’uzzaman Sa’id Nursi. Most importantly, we will come to understand that far from being reasonable or rational, these philosophies and interpretations of science commit some of the most elementary of all logical fallacies and category mistakes, and make prejudicial assumptions that are based on something that is quite the opposite of the dispassionate employment of logic and evidence; namely, egotism and the often deliberate disregard of self-evident truths.
The method of acquiring critically verified belief, through a combination of purifying our hearts, using our reason, and rigorously contemplating and internalising the spiritual truths of the Qur’an – and especially as perfected for the needs of our times in the method taught by Imam Nursi – saves us from all the danger, because it enables us to see not only the outer, but also the inner dimension of this universe and this existence. And that this inner dimension, far from being imaginary or subjective, is in fact much more real than any merely physical description of a being, for that scientific description is limited to an account of the dimensions, physical properties and interactions of a being as it is perceived by the five senses, which without the inner, true nature of the being revealed by the Qur’an, is both meaningless and worthless. For a man connected to God, science can be a worthy tool, and a wonderful example of such a man is Imam Nursi himself, who carefully mastered all of the physical sciences, and considered them to be an important part of a complete education, as long as they were a part of a curriculum in which the Islamic sciences were also present.
But science taken as a religion in itself is madness, and spells death for what is truly human in human beings. The mode of knowing taught by the Qur’an yields inestimably more satisfaction, truth and beauty than all of science and philosophy put together, for the Author of the Qur’an is the Creator of all Being, and the sublimity of its principles and the all-embracingness of its vision of reality can thus have no peer.
There is no way to really understand the nature of the atheistic philosophy and science coming out of Europe except to understand something of its history, which means comprehending something of the history of European thought. This issue, which Imam Nursi called this ‘viper’, has had a devastating impact on Muslim societies of the past 150 years, so let us take a brief moment to understand how it arose.
Although we now rightly think of Western Europe, countries like England, France and Germany, as being some of the most secular and atheistic countries in the world, of course this was not always the case; right up until the end of the 17th century, Western Europe was one of the most religious places in the world – sometimes fanatically so. Between the 6th and the 11th centuries, the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire known as the ‘European Dark Ages,’ Europe lost contact with its cultural heritage, and due to the rise of the power of the Islamic Caliphate in the East, became militarily weak and politically disunited. During these centuries, almost no philosophical or scientific activity whatsoever took place in Europe, and even theological output was at a very basic level.
This of course was at a time when from Baghdad to Cordoba, the most profound and wide-ranging intellectual work that the world had ever seen was in process, from the translation projects of ancient Greek philosophical and scientific texts taking place at the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad, to the philosophical and medical genius of Ibn Sina, to the advanced cities complete with street lighting and public baths, and the vast research libraries that existed at the time. Indeed, during the 11th century, the greatest library in the Muslim world, that at Cordoba, housed 400,000 volumes, whereas the greatest library in Western Europe at the time had fewer than a hundred.
It was the taking of Toledo from the Muslims in 1085 and the subsequent mass translation of Arabic texts that revolutionized Western intellectual life. It was shortly after this that the Christian Europeans began to formulate a great synthesis of all of the branches of human knowledge, physical science, mathematics, logic and philosophy, which were all subordinated to what the Medieval Europeans called, ‘the Queen of the Sciences,’ that is, theology. This educational synthesis was developed and taught in the newly emergent universities of Europe, the greatest of which were Bologna in Italy, Oxford and Cambridge in England, and Paris in France. The greatest systematiser, philosopher and theologian of that age was a monk from Italy named Thomas Aquinas – but his intellectual project would have been impossible if he had not had available to him the Latin translations of the work of Ibn Sina which were produced after the conquest of Toledo, for his system is largely an imitation of Ibn Sina’s, and Ibn Sina is by far the most cited philosopher in all of his work.
Now, I have presented this very short sketch of early European intellectual history to remind us that it was not always the case that the West was atheistic and anti-religious, nor was it always obsessed with science – to the contrary, it once considered theology to be the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ and physical science was seen in comparison to be of a very minor importance. Something major, a major intellectual earthquake must thus have shaken Europe. What happened?
What took place is that some in the Christian world began to deem the philosophical and scientific texts
inherited from the Muslim world to have a dangerous potential to subvert a Christian faith that believed that God was three and that He had once become a man. Hypocrisy amongst the clergy, and abuses of power in certain sectors of the Catholic Church, let to the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century, which challenged the authority of the pope and established a new alternative form of Christianity in Europe.
Martin Luther himself, the main reformer of the Reformation, was fanatically opposed to the use of scholastic philosophy and logic, because logic seemed to contradict the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and so must be evil. In one of his books, he said, ‘no syllogistic form is valid when applied to Divine terms.’ This new Protestant spirit in Europe was marked by an individualistic spirit that rejected tradition and authority, and encouraged people to think and interpret for themselves, and to discard traditional methods for the study of theology and philosophy for other systems that were less technical and systematic and more centred on the experience of the individual.
Shortly after the rise of Protestantism in Europe, the invention of the telescope enabled scientists to make the discovery that the earth actually moved around the sun, rather than the other way round, as had been previously thought. Now, this challenged official Church dogma and scripture, and the Church punished the scientists responsible for the theories and banned their circulation. This move created a considerable backlash against the Church in the scientific and philosophical community, and seemed to demonstrate that there was an inherent antagonism and clash between reason and scientific evidence on the one hand, and religion and revelation on the other. This, combined with the effective destruction by the Protestant revolution of the philosophical system that had been seen as the ‘handmaid’ of theology, left the intellectual face of Europe radically changed by about the year 1650, with the traditional philosophy radically weakened because no longer taught in the great universities, and largely superseded in people’s interests by experimental and observational science.
Before long, a synthesis of sciences was no longer taught – different disciplines were seen as separate and almost mutually exclusive entities. As philosophy weakened and more attention was given to Science, with its results and technological products becoming steadily more and more impressive, in some circles scepticism in philosophy’s capacity to even provide real knowledge about God, this world, and the true nature of things took hold, such that when Immanuel Kant proclaimed that it was literally impossible to know for certain that God exists by means of pure reason, people were ready to believe him. Thereafter in Europe, religion became a matter merely of faith, and theology stopped being taken truly seriously as a science. Philosophy turned its attention to the mere outer layer of being, for it was now believed that it could not provide real answers about the inner nature of things and the purpose of the world – it was believed that all of those sorts of questions were impossible to answer.
The title of this article is ‘the Onslaught of Misguidance: Science and Philosophy’ – but what exactly is the nature of this attack and this onslaught, that has so changed our societies? It can best be expressed in two main propositions which the mainstream, materialistic education system now taught around the world wishes us to believe, as well as a further proposition that is an implication of these two:
1. Physical science and the scientific method are the only real sources of objective knowledge, and therefore the only reality that we can know about is physical reality.
2. The world came to be the way that it now is as a result of the confluence and interaction of inherently random, blind forces, by means of evolution through natural selection. Even human consciousness is a result simply of this blind process. Therefore, there is no evidence for the claims of religion, and so one can only have faith, but not knowledge, concerning its claims, in the same way that one can have faith in anything else even though there is no evidence for it.
Now, we as Muslims reject each of these propositions, as well as their implication, which is that because religion can have no strictly ‘physical’ evidence, there can be no valid evidence for it at all. Scientists of this school of reductionism – so called because the spiritual, moral, aesthetic and philosophical aspects of beings are ‘reduced’ to their physical constituents – believe that objects in this world somehow literally are no more than their molecular, physical makeup. The American physicist and philosopher Wolfgang Smith, an opponent of this type of reductionism, explains this fallacy as follows:
The red apple we perceive belongs to the external world – it constitutes a corporeal object … the ‘molecular’ apple, on the other hand, with which the physicist is concerned, is bereft of sensible qualities, and is consequently imperceptible. It constitutes what I call a physical object, as distinguished from a corporeal. From the point of view [of the reductionist materialists] though, the physical object is all that exists in the external world. The corporeal, thus, is conceived in effect to be ‘nothing but’ the physical. The red apple, which we know certainly exists, is thus in effect ‘reduced’ to the physical: it is identified with the ‘molecular’ apple, as conceived by the physicist.
Science as interpreted by the materialists is not thus describing objects as we perceive them, but trying to reduce all of our perception to a very narrow and limited dimension of those things, that is, their molecular structure, which tells us nothing about the true nature or meaning of things, but gives us no more than a description of their physical structure.
It is a paradoxical fact that this belief in physical reductionism is so widespread, despite the fact that there is absolute consensus amongst even mainstream modern philosophers that physical science, far from being capable of dealing with all questions, accounting for all aspects of reality, and providing the basis for all forms of objective truth, actually has to assume a great many of its first principles, and cannot possibly ‘prove’ a great many of the facts that it must however rationally accept in order to be able to operate. Logical and mathematical truths for example, cannot possibly be ‘proven’ to be objectively true by science, but science must simply assume that they are so in order for it to operate. Moral and ethical claims are the same, as are even the most basic philosophical claims that science assumes, such as that the knowledge that we have of the external world is indeed fully objective, despite being mediated by our apparently subjective human perception. Science must assume this, but it cannot possibly prove it, for it is a metaphysical fact, not a physical fact.
Now, if physical science cannot deal with these questions, and yet it is, on the account of the materialist reductionists, the only science that can yield objective truth, all moral, ethical, aesthetic and even mathematical and logical propositions must be ultimately relative and subjective – and this obviously contains a contradiction, because doubting mathematical and logical truths entails doubting the first principles by which we process the data of our senses to create theories and abstract universal laws, which thus casts doubt on the objectivity of science itself. Moreover, moral judgements, such as the judgement that mass murder is evil, are on the positivist materialist account ultimately subjective, and only true in so far as they are enforced in society as a kind of compromise for the common good. It is no surprise then to know that the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, the likes of Stalin and Mao, were positivist materialists who could easily justify their actions with their philosophical principles. It is important to note that many scientists who are atheists are actually well aware that their atheistic beliefs force them into numerous contradictions, ‘innumerable logical impossibilities’ as Imam Nursi said, but they persist in believing them nonetheless, because of the institutionalised blindness of modern academia, and because they would often prefer to conform to the prevalent zeitgeist of our times rather than to have to suffer being outcasts for the sake of the truth.
When this type of materialist philosophy began to be exported to the Muslim world, traditional scholars like Elmalili Hamdi Yazir, Seyhu’l Islam Mustafa Sabri and Bedi’uzzaman Sa’id Nursi easily debunked its obviously fallacious claims. Even after Western positivist education was enforced by the state, Imam Nursi was able, through his heroic struggle, to preserve and spread the most profound Qur’anic worldview throughout Turkey. An example of this, relevant to the claims made by materialist philosophy, was his distinction between the self-indicative (ma’na-i ismi) and trans-indicative (ma’na-i harfi) significations of entities in the world – the former being the outer description of a particular thing, and the latter the mode in which it indicates the attributes of God of which it is an individuated manifestation. For Nursi, the mistake of most modern philosophy is to admit only of the reality of the self-indicative signification, which is to imply that entities have no other meaning but to indicate themselves, and thus to ignore the significance of their participation in being. Guided by the Qur’anic revelation however, which directs us to recognise that things are not just ‘things,’ but also signs of the Divine reality underlying them, we are able to see that all being points to Divine reality – that is, all things have two faces – a face onto themselves, and a face onto God. In the Twelfth Word, Imam Nursi explains that the Qur’an looks onto all existent beings as each being ‘meaning-bearing’ letters of the ‘book of the universe,’ that point to their Creator, thus revealing the true nature and beauty of the universe. Philosophy and science, on the other hand, have become obsessed with the ‘decorations’ – that is, the outer description and workings – of things for their own sake, as well as by the relationships between different things, and have thus been totally blinded from seeing the beauty and meaning of the true, inner nature of being.
It is very important for one to realise that the Risale-i Nur is a deeply profound work which has many levels of meaning and contains allusions to the most profound theological truths. Due to the exigencies of the time in which it was necessary to keep the faith of the masses alive, despite their being forced to attend secular schools that taught an effectively materialist ideology, it was written for a popular audience. Yet careful study of the Risale shows that it contains very elevated and advanced rational principles that easily dispel the false claims of materialist philosophy. One such example appears in the second similitude of the third impossibility in Risalatu’l Tabi’a (Treatise on Nature), in which Imam Nursi responds to the claim of materialists that the universe was somehow created by the laws of nature themselves. This, says the Imam, is a manifest logical impossibility, because the laws of nature do not have material, tangible existence in themselves, but only exist in knowledge – they are inherently immaterial, metaphysical entities. Thus, belief in the laws of nature presupposes a belief in the existence of God, because otherwise the laws of nature would have nowhere in which to exist. This is because they are purely intelligible entities, and cannot on the materialist account coherently be said to exist ‘in’ physical objects. A whole book could be written about the subtle details and implications of this amazing argument, and it indicates both the depth of philosophical perception and personal genius of Imam Nursi. Risalatu’l Tabi’ah is of immense importance, because its certain principles and illuminated method conclusively refute all types of materialism, including the claims of evolution. Properly interpreted, science itself, in the form of physics, suggests that evolution is so improbable as to be literally absurd, but the certain principles of the like of Imam Nursi’s Risalatu’l Tabi’ah go even further, and show us that evolution is literally logically impossible. There is another perspective that springs from the Qur’an that also demonstrates this absurdity; in the Qur’an, we find the famous verse:
“We will show them Our signs upon the horizons and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Fussilat, 41:53)
The Qur’an teaches us that the existent beings in the world are signs and meanings, and signs and meanings simply do not come into existence through physical means – they require a transcendent cause. Things are not merely physical, but physicality is simply one of their dimensions. But one can say that the physical, aesthetic and moral aspects of things are all ultimately nothing but ‘signs’ of the attributes of the Divine.
The wonders of science have the potential to be wonderful ‘signs of the horizons,’ but modern philosophy and science have blinded themselves from that dimension, and ignored the miracle of creation. In the Qur’an we find the momentous verse:
(Ya Sin, 36:77-79)
“Has man not considered that We created him from a drop of fluid? For he is argumentative indeed; and he strikes an example for Us, forgetting his own creation, and says, ‘Who will give life to bones when they have decomposed?’ Say, ‘He Who created them in the first place will give them life again, and He has full knowledge of all creation.” (Ya Sin, 36:77-79)
Nothing could be more powerful than the conclusive proof of this extraordinary verse. The atheist, who is blind to the miracle of his own existence and has thus forgotten that he was created from nothing, deems it improbable that anything outside of the usual laws of nature could ever actually take place. What he does not realise is that every atom and every living creature is a miracle of the Divine power, and that the One Who brought about such a miracle, can indeed bring about anything.
In the course of this article, we have come to understand something of the attack that has been launched upon revelation by science and philosophy in the past 150 years, and we have seen that their attacks on religion were based on fallacious reasoning, and most importantly, upon a kind of spiritual blindness that we can all appreciate as reprehensible.
Through the mode of knowing taught by the Qur’an, which utilises all of the dimensions of man, logical, aesthetic, scientific, moral and spiritual, we come to a certainty of the critically verified faith which Imam Bedi’uzzaman Sa’id Nursi considered so important, and which is impervious to the weak attacks of modern philosophy and science. This method was taught and developed by the Imam according to the needs of our times, becoming even more relevant today, when a careful study of his works does indeed provide a complete path to this critically verified faith.