One of Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy routines refers to the dress sense of fathers, particularly those of the previous generation; they have a tendency to wear clothes that were the height of fashion in the prime of their youth and attempt to stretch it well into their fifties and sixties. If we look at the history of Andalucia, Baghdad and the genius of the medieval Central Asians, we can see that the Muslim ummah seems to do likewise. We are, it appears, frozen in time in a state of perpetual nostalgia, which has affected the way we study theology, so much so that we are obsessed with the theological controversies of the Islamic golden age. Everything seems to revolve around refuting points of ancient Greek philosophy, or criticising those refuting ancient Greek philosophy. Whilst various groups like to point the finger at others for doing so, all are equally as guilty. Instead of learning from a classical scholar such as Ibn Taymiyyah and applying his methodology to today’s intellectual challenges, these groups insist on returning to his era and culture, preferring to act as if the world hasn’t moved on; mimicking Ibn Taymiyyah word for word. It is high time that we ask ourselves the following question – how can we really learn from him?
Ibn Taymiyyah’s genius lay in the way he analysed the premises that the polemicist would rely on for his attacks on Islam, so that when Islam was accused of presenting God in anthropomorphic terms, he exposed the fallacious paradigm through which the accuser had first approached Islam. Similarly, when God is described in the Qur’an as loving the ‘doers of good’ we may conclude that a literal reading of the verse entails God having a human brain which signals the release of chemical substances that are required for the emotion described as love to exist; however, it would be much simpler to approach this description through a different paradigm – God isn’t human or in any way like His creation, and so His loving the ‘doers of good’ doesn’t entail a brain, chemical substances or a physical body.
Yet those who claim to be proponents of the great Hanbali master fail in applying his principles when they respond to contemporary attacks on Islam. In today’s world, Islam isn’t attacked on the basis of God’s description in the Qur’an, but rather it is the very existence of God and the need for a religion at all that are being questioned, of which the foundations lie in materialism. Naturally, the Muslim reaction has resulted in the acceptance of a materialistic paradigm which states that empiricism is the only way to attain knowledge; this explains why the current da’wah narrative revolves around the scientific miracles of the Qur’an. Muslims have accepted the naturalist narrative, and there seems to be a staunch belief that unless there is some empirical proof for Islam, the faith is fallacious. This is, indeed, a calamity.
So what would ibn Taymiyyah have done? Instead of accepting the materialist paradigm, he would have pointed out that there are many truths that we, including the atheists, take for granted that cannot be established empirically. In fact, we cannot establish the validity of empiricism through empiricism since that would be reasoning in a circle. How do we know that our existence is real? We cannot prove empirically that this isn’t all a dream – the empirical method would be a part of the dream – so we have to assume that it isn’t, simply based on intuition. What about morality? Some truths, particularly the philosophical, moral and aesthetic, cannot be attained through the empirical method, and ibn Taymiyyah would have asserted that the problem with the atheists is that they haven’t understood this epistemological point. Empiricism doesn’t deal with every area of knowledge; it is only a tool for us to understand the material world, and since God isn’t material, empiricism is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Instead, just as we assume that the world is real and that murder is wrong, we assume the existence of God. We do not fall in the trap of accepting the materialist paradigm and try to prove Islam by using science. Similarly, we don’t accept the anthropomorphic paradigm and explain away Qur’anic verses that describe God.
The Quraysh would ask the Prophet, peace be upon him, for empirical proof; they wished to see God and the angels, and God responded by mocking this request, explaining that empirical proof of this type would negate the entire purpose of being tested on earth. When an educated Muslim realises that the so-called ‘scientific’ miracles usually consist of far-fetched attempts at re-interpreting the Qur’an with the misguided purpose of looking for something that isn’t really there, they risk losing their faith altogether as they have accepted the premise that without empirical proof, there is nothing. Indeed, there is something very wrong with our theology if we think that for the Qur’an to have value, it needs to be a science textbook.