A TREE FALLS in the forest. Now, suppose there is no one within earshot to hear it. Does the unheard collision of that tree with the forest floor qualify as a “sound”? This is a classic philosophical question in the history of science. [i] Must “sound” be defined reciprocally, that is, in terms of a necessary coordination of an event with its perceiver(s) –in this case about a human hearer’s hearing? This kind of question has arisen out of man’s attempt to understand the parameters of his existence in this world, with himself as the final judge of truth.
By the same logic, can Deity be said to exist if He is not open to human observation? Even Moses (Musa) struggled with this limitation.
So when Moses came at Our appointed time and his Lord spoke to him, he said: My Lord, show me [Yourself], that I may look upon You. He said: You cannot [withstand this, so as to] see Me. But look upon the mountain. If it holds firm in its place, then shall you see Me. Yet when his Lord manifested Himself to the mountain, He caused it to crumble, and Moses fell down [faint, utterly] stunned. Then when he recovered [his senses], he said: Highly exalted are You [far above all]! I repent to You! And I am the foremost of the believers [in You among my people]! [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7: 143]
Can the legitimacy of the alleged “sound” be judged without a human observer to receive it though his physical sense of hearing –and consciously to register it in his mind? Now take a not-quite observer of “sound” who felt the ground tremble. He saw the tree go down but missed its attendant noise. Is he to suppose that there was no sound made by the crashing tree when he himself saw and felt the event but –due to distance– didn’t himself hear it land!
Can one excuse his rejection of God by saying, “I studied the vast night sky in search for God but I didn’t see Him”?
And so too did We show Abraham [the celestial majesty and divine authority in] the vast kingdom of the heavens and the earth, so that he would be of those [who believe in God] with certainty. So when the night spread over him, he saw a star … the moon … So when he saw the sun rising, he said: This is my Lord! This is greater [than both of them]! Then when it disappeared, he said: O my people! I am innocent of [worshipping] all that you associate [as gods with God]. I have turned my face, being ever upright [of heart], to the One who [alone] originated the heavens and the earth–and I am not of those who associate gods with God! [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:75-79]
Furthermore, the would-be observer’s perception of the sound of a falling tree may depend upon his own degree of sensitivity developed within a particular bodily sense? But barring any otic impairment, doesn’t one’s successful hearing of what should be a sound-producing event ultimately depend upon his/her degree of external physical awareness and the internal direction of his attention? To what extent is one to “read between the lines” –or bring to bear all manner of evidence, weaving it all together — so as to arrive at what to take as true or certain?
The above classic question points up a way of thinking that puts man at the center of his universe as the final arbiter in his own affairs, creating his own moral compass and his own law and order. This goes beyond the divine mandate which installs humankind as ‘vicegerent,’ or caretaker, of his earthly environment, as assigned to him in the Abrahamic faiths (that is, in the Bible and in the Quran):
Now, behold! Your Lord said to the angels: I am placing upon the earth a [human] successor [to steward it]. [Quran, Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:32]
And God prepared the man in His image; in the image of God [ii] He prepared him, a male and a female He prepared them. And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it and rule over fish of the sea and fowl of the heavens and over every living thing that is creeping upon the earth…. [Bible, Genesis 1:27-28]
If man does not perceive the “sound” of the falling tree –or perhaps he somehow measures its occurrence in keeping with the Scientific Method– then the alleged truth of the posited sound-event is thus open to skepticism by rational Western man, and the ‘correct’ characterization of the falling tree event (whether or not ‘sound’ is necessarily produced in the process) will be gauged based on whether the relevant observational data meets a meaningful verifiable standard. The proposition must stand up to the test of falsifiability.
If the event is known to have taken place, but no one was there to ‘hear’ it, then is it correct to say that ‘sound’ did not take place or that we cannot be sure whether ‘sound’ took place? In the end, nothing can be certain in this controlled way of thinking, most of all Deity, who is beyond the scope of investigative probing from the outset.
Any empirical statement will be couched in human language (which has its own limits and unknowns) and the proposition’s truth value –regardless of whether that something is widely believed– must be allied with human cognition, says Science. If multiple human observers can agree on the same observation, this gives its truth value more certainty. I do not mean to denigrate the power of the Scientific Method, but rather to deny its universality: It cannot decide questions outside the normal purview of human sensory observation and other approved means of taking quantifiable measurement.
The Quran, of course, is God-centered. It claims to speak authoritatively with the Voice of the Creator – Sustainer of all worlds of existence, to mankind in all cultures and experiences. The Quran calls its listener/reader to ponder over its claims, for him/ her to notice God’s “Signs,” since these constitute His self-proclaimed evidence. Those ‘Signs’ are everywhere around us and require us to combine the use of our physical senses and our mental powers – the empirical and the rational. Man is asked to assess the totality of his time-and-space experience in terms of these Signs, which point to the One not bound by our time-and-space dimensions.
The Quran, itself a Book of Signs, calls one to verify for himself an intricate, holistic package of eternal truth as made meaningful in the practicalities of human life. When you read the Quran –even in translation– does its Speech of God ring true? Does it call out to your innermost self?
The rise of the Scientific Method came against the background of an oppressive religious authority structure in Europe, where Church dogma and priestly power controlled the public purview and collective worldview. Truth for the common man was the province of the Church, not yet the prerogative of his own powers of critical thinking.]
Today we celebrate the achievements of Science and its allied mathematical innovations, as well as the critical thinking that has grown up with it. Need we be reminded that Muslims played a key role in this heritage! [iii] Along with questioning old assumptions, especially religious ones, has come an appetite for rejecting whatever the man-centered measure-of-all-things has not yet been able to handle intellectually. Establishing the existence of God is perhaps the most elusive to the insistent empiricist.
The ancient Greeks, whose philosophy and pre-science we celebrate, reasoned that the world had always existed –that it had not been created. There was thus no place for a Creator in this scheme of things, except perhaps in traditional language, mythology and cultic practices. Accordingly, modern intellectuals tend not to see the need for a Divine Person to have created them and their world, a Deity to be in control of it, or even any type of ‘God’ to exist at all. If our world was not created but has always existed, what could be the meaning of an origin or an Originator for it?!
Trouble is, of course, that everything in the world is dynamic, not static. All living things have a beginning of life term and an end, even when their “seed” or DNA or biochemical structure information is passed on to new individuals who continue that life in a new iteration. Some changes take years, centuries or eons, but, as is said, “The only thing that remains the same is change.” [iv]
Even scientific hypotheses can have a life span before they are displaced in favor of something else that explains more data. To rule out the existence of ‘God’ based upon the need for Him to conform to modern scientific methods is at best to say that Science is not equipped to tackle such a question: If He exists, He does so outside the reach of our sensorial world.
Atheists feel that logic and sophisticated thinking are on their side: There can be no God, they conclude. Do they require Him to show Himself as a creature within His Own Creation? (If so, then did God create Himself!) The foremost question to pose to them is, What kind of ‘God’ is it that you reject? Is it a poorly conceived, made-in-the-image-of-man sort of ‘God’ or is it a correctly understood Self-Revealed Deity, as presented uniformly throughout the Quran? Agnostics may have reservations about the ‘God’ of the atheists and suspect that there is more to the issue than how atheists present their case.
Theists will counter-argue that a sense of justice and purpose is ingrained in the human fabric of being. Man struggles to discover acceptable meaning in his existence if he does not already have it. He wants to submit himself to Truth and to align himself with Goodness. It is true, as has often been observed, that if God were not to exist, then man would have to invent him! The Quran weighs in on this innermost truth that God is the One who cannot not exist. If the Science-enamored atheist insists that this double negative is yet to be proven, how would one establish the existence of something when he admits that by its very nature that something is beyond the capability of Science to detect it? Science cannot argue from lack of observable evidence; philosophy can.
At the same time the Voice of the Quran (Allah) calls on the seeker to see the unity of all truth — the patterns of truth which the individual finds within himself, the truth which he observes and ponders:
He is the One who has created [all of] you from dust, then from a sperm-drop, then from a clinging clot. Then He brings you forth as children, that you may then reach full maturity, that you may then become elderly–though among you are those who are made to die before [this. It is thus,] so that you may all reach a preordained term [of death], and so that you may all [come to] understand [that God alone could do this]. He [alone] is the One who gives life and gives death. For when He decrees a matter, He but says to it: Be! And so it is. [Sûrat Al-Ghâfir, 40:67-68]
The atheist’s intellectual ride may indeed be heady, giving one the sense that he is in the forefront of courageous innovation, a member of an elite, avant-garde clique; but he will have to live in a “brave new world” lacking a sure-footed purpose behind his existence, ultimately inviting injustice/ wrongdoing.
It is simply hard to deny: The psychologically-healthy person with a clear conscience is “hard-wired” to believe in a Creator. The Quran addresses, from angle after angle, those prepared to think about the underlying questions of man’s existence: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
For He has made you to inherit the earth, and has raised some of you by degrees above others, so that He might try you by means of what He has bestowed upon you… [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:165]
O man! What is it that lures you away from your bountiful Sustainer, who has created you, and formed you in accordance with what you are meant to be, and shaped your nature in just proportions, having put you together in whatever form He willed [you to have]? [Sûrat Al-Infiṭâr, 82:6-8]
Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God! [Sûrat Al-Shams, 91:7-8]
Is it to be considered a weakness, as some in the West argue, to have God as a “crutch,” to need a Higher Power to “prop him up”? Maybe this is a failing in the Brave New World[v] of failed man-made utopias, but –in the Quranic paradigm– human flaws and limitations are part and parcel of man’s innate dependency on his Sustainer.
However, man is, above all else, always given to contention… [Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:54]
Verily, man is born with a restless disposition. [As a rule,] whenever misfortune touches him, he is filled with self-pity; and whenever good fortune comes to him, he selfishly withholds it [from others]. [Sûrat Al-Maʿârij, 70:19-20]
No, indeed! Most surely, man [is unmindful of his covenant with God. And thus he] does transgress, for he sees himself [as] self-sufficient. [Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:6-7]
The Voice of the Quran calls man to recognize his dependency on his Maker, to submit to His all-knowing, all-merciful guidance, and thus to be in harmony with his own innermost needs. The Quran holds the individual accountable for his intents and deeds. But at the same time the individual is to be “propped up” through a like-minded community which seeks harmony and justice, as well as truth and goodness for all mankind. Such values are to be taught, implemented and lived in a brotherly cooperative community who measure goodness and right against a common divine standard.
As for the believing men and the believing women–all [of them] are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. … [Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:71]
Should it be considered a humiliating fault on the part of an individual if he admits to seeking connection in the Presence of his Creator to guide and protect him while that individual exerts the full power of his less than ideal physical and intellectual powers to develop himself, to meet his obligations, and to enjoy a meaningful and productive life?
Is there any human who never finds himself in need of help beyond himself? Is there anyone who has never found himself in a critical danger in which he instinctively called out for help from some power beyond himself?
…whenever harm strikes you at sea, all that you [used to] call upon [in worship] vanishes [from your hearts]–except for Him [alone]. Then when He delivers you to [dry] land, you turn away [from worshipping Him alone] …. [Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:67]
In the thought world of the Quran, the Creator is always “with” each of us. True, He does not “exist” in the time/space material form that we do; nevertheless, His Presence pervades His creation. He is never absent, never unaware of our intents and deeds. That may be a strange story for those who neglect, or give up, seeking their personal origin and their responsibilities in this life –and thus fail to see their accountability and the critical importance of the choices they make. A failure to see one’s true meaning in this world is referred to in the Quran by various metaphors in which God responds to intentional human rejection of their own innate purpose. He fully cooperates with human choice.
As for those who disbelieve, it is the same to them whether you forewarn them…or you do not forewarn them…God has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing. And over their eyes, there is a veil… [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:6-7]
Now, there are those who say: We believe in God and in the [coming Judgment of the] Last Day! But they do not truly believe. They seek to deceive God and those who believe. Yet they deceive none but themselves, though they do not perceive [it]. … Their parable [is this]: … deaf, dumb, and blind— … [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2: 8-9, 18]
To conclude that one has no Originator simply because such a One cannot be perceived by empirical means is to miss the point that indeed Deity does not “exist” in a human sort of existence. If God is to be imagined as an All-Powerful version of man, then it IS correct to conclude that such a “God” in fact cannot, does not and never has existed.
Consider this proposition: A God “made in the image of” man, is logically the reciprocal of man “made in the image of” God –when understood in the sense in which this idiom has been traditionally misinterpreted. A God that can, does and always has existed must be far beyond humanity’s ability to imagine or to arrive at Him, apart from a Self-Revelation of that God.
He [alone] is God. There is no God but Him … Highly exalted is God [far] above all that they associate as gods [with Him]! He [alone] is God. The Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. … [Sûrat Al-Ḥashr,59: 23-24]
It is only reasonable to conclude that the essence of such a God is of a nature other than what we can grasp. Neither are we humans “like” God in our essential being, nor is He “like” us. We do not stand on equal ground. Created “in God’s image” has nothing to do with likeness, resemblance, sameness or equivalence of the pattern according to which man is formed. Rather, man conforms to the pattern (“image“) according to which God has shaped him. As for an “image” or “blueprint” in which God exists, we can say nothing.
It is God who has existed eternally. It is not His creation which is without beginning and has always existed. The Greek philosophers were wrong on this point.
According to the Voice of the Quran –in spite of the gaping gulf between the essence of man and that of man’s Creator– His Presence is closer to our personal being than we could have invented on our own.
For very truly, We [Allah] created man [out of earth]. Thus We know [with certainty] all that whispers within his [very] soul. For We are nearer to [each] one than [even] the jugular vein. [Sûrah Qâf, 50:16]
Truly, God is intimately “with you.”
To be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 2…
Christians interpret this phrasing to mean that human beings not only stand in for the interests of God on earth as its caretakers, but that the human being –male and female– theologically, is somehow “like” God, even potentially of the essence of Deity!
But here is another —non-theologized, and simpler— understanding of “in God’s image,” namely: according to the image that God intended for mankind to have when he ‘created,’ ‘formed’ and ‘shaped’ them. In other words, “in God’s image” is a concise way of stating (1) that God had in mind an intended form for His creature man (different from that of the angels, and from the various multitude of earthly creatures) and (2) that He followed through in bringing about that pre-planned imagined creature. Moreover, this understanding carries the implication (3) that man did not come about by happenstance. Furthermore, (4) that the complementary pair of male and female was likewise intentional, not an afterthought or developmental flaw.
[iv] “Change is the only constant in life.” or “The only constant is change.”
–Heraclitus (Greek philosopher who lived in Ephesus / modern-day Kusadasi, Turkey, 500 BCE)