by Hassan-uz-Zaman Shamol
[T]he first question which should rightly be asked is, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ –G. W. Leibniz
With the advent of the New Atheism movement it’s become exceedingly common to hear skeptical comments about the existence of God. It’s really hard to tell when the world became so conducive to atheist thought; maybe it was the French Enlightenment, maybe it was the by-product of a world becoming more and more materialistic and consumerist, or maybe it was a combination of these and other factors. Point is, it’s here and, by the looks of it, here to stay.
The increasing trends of skepticism and atheism have slowly, yet inevitably, crept into the (especially the young) Muslim psyche as well. No matter how much we flaunt the tensile strength of our socio-ethical boundaries, we are still part of the global demographic, and the walls can only hold out for so long before hostile concerns permeate our ranks.
One of the upshots of this can be described as follows. When we look at the Quran for guidance concerning atheism or the existence of God, many people get the impression that it’s a problem the Quran doesn’t even acknowledge, much less address. The Quran delves into issues like polytheism and the plausibility of resurrection quite a bit but almost never discusses atheism.
The Quranic lack of discussion on atheism seems to portray belief in God as an obvious and evident item of knowledge that all humans supposedly share. After all, why else would it not address it?
How is it that the Quran doesn’t address what appears to be one of the key concerns about life, the universe, and everything? Why does the Quran assume that the existence of God is something about which no question should justifiably cross a rational mind?
The answer to this problem requires a bit of perspective. According to the Quranic theory of knowledge, human beings are not born with a blank psychological slate. Rather, they are created with a certain intellectual and intuitive disposition. Traditionally, this human disposition has been called the fitrah.
Muslim scholars explain that the fitrah gives us humans a sort of extra-rational, privileged mental access to some basic truths about God. As such, humans have an inherent capacity to intuitively “detect” the existence of God, even without much rational deliberation, much like how even little kids can understand basic truths of logic.
The Quranic indifference to the question of God’s existence is easily understood with this unique, fitrah-based theory of knowledge in mind. Some modern studies in cognition seem to suggest something similar, that belief in God is hard-wired into the human psyche.
But if that is indeed so, what then about the many people, living today and in the past, who claimed to have sincere doubts about the existence of God? The answer to that lies in understanding the limitations of the fitrah.
According to a prophetic Hadith1, human beings are born with the fitrah all right, but the voice of fitrah may be silenced due to sociological factors e.g. parental influence. So a proper understanding of fitrah not only explains the Quran’s apparent indifference to God’s existence, but also why we might find atheists who seem sincere in their non-belief. Their fitrah, due to societal and other influences, has stopped working properly.
It’s true that the Quran never introduces a tightly-knit logical syllogism to prove God’s existence, but that doesn’t mean it leaves us with nothing. In fact, I personally find the Quranic view on the existence of God a fascinating study in itself.
Here again a bit of perspective may help. Modern philosophy tries to demonstrate God’s existence via arguments; the Quran does the same via ayat or signs. According to the Quran, the signs of God’s creative power, majesty, omniscience and goodness are strewn all across the universe. All one needs to do is but glance at the book of nature, and the fitrah, along with the intellect, will direct us to its author.
God says in the Quran:
And how many a sign within the heavens and the earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away. [Quran, 12:105]
For the Quran, nature is therefore a veritable steganograph, a signpost, loyally pointing the travelers to their maker’s greatness even as they are turning away. It would be very interesting to scan the Quran with a fine-toothed comb and compile such sign passages (cf. 78:6-16, 88:17-20, much of Surah 55).
In this article, we will talk about one such sign.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, reflective people all over the world believed that there was something utterly mysterious about reality. Something about the sheer existence of the world itself calls out for an explanation.
For Aristotle, it was the universal phenomenon of motion. For medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, it was change. But as most modern philosophers would agree, what really underlies this puzzlement is the ephemeral, almost fragile nature of reality, the observation that everything we see is dependent on some other thing for its existence.
It is this puzzlement about reality that philosopher C. Stephen Evans dubbed “cosmic wonder.” Emphasizing the intuitive force of this sign, he writes:
Experiences of cosmic wonder are not, of course, common in the sense that they occur to everyone every day. However, they are common in the sense that almost everyone seems to have such experiences at times. It may begin with a disquieting thought like ‘Suppose I had never been born; suppose I had never existed.’ Zen masters sometimes unsettle their disciples by asking, ‘Where were you before your father was born?’ . . . In one sense everyone knows that he or she might never have existed, but nevertheless at certain times such a thought may strike a person with almost dizzying force.”2
Now let’s think about where this sign is pointing. If all of reality is essentially dependent, ephemeral, and fragile, then beyond this surface reality there must be a deeper reality that is somehow much more robust than the things we ordinarily perceive.
Our ever-dependent world is, therefore, ultimately grounded in the action of a completely independent, necessary being. The mode of this being’s existence is such that it doesn’t need any upstream grounding, it exists by its own nature.
As such, we couldn’t naively ask of this being, What caused you to exist? It exists by itself, without having to be dependent on anything else. Essentially, that’s who God is- Al Hayyul Qayyum– the ever-living, the self-subsisting.
The Quran contains a tantalizing allusion to this sign of Cosmic Wonder:
Or were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Rather, they are not certain. [Quran, 52:35-36]
It’s not rare to see the same passage talking about the beauty, regularity, and habitability of the world all at the same time. In such cases, it’s very difficult to note where the scope of one sign ends and where that of the next begins. As such, our hermeneutics of these passages must be cautious, tentative even.
Be that as it may, the two verses do seem to encapsulate the puzzlement about reality existing on its own i.e. by nothing. If this interpretation is accurate, the Quran does seem to acknowledge that cosmic wonder is indeed a sign that can reliably point one to God’s existence.
What if Cosmic Wonder is Just a Product of the Psyche?
I’ll end this article by addressing a concern some readers may be having at this point. What if, as atheists allege, these signs of God aren’t really genuine signs, but only artifacts of the pattern-seeking human psyche?
Theistic philosophers throughout the ages have developed a number of arguments based on cosmic wonder. Despite of centuries of opposition from skeptic intellectuals, the sign of cosmic wonder has still retained much of its intuitive force. Nothing accentuates this point better than the atheist philosopher Albert Camus who, faced with the force of the cosmic wonder and the inability of his worldview to account for it, had the following to say:
This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational [world] and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.3
- The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Each child is born in a state of fitrah, then his parents make him a Jew, Christian or a Zoroastrian, the way an animal gives birth to a normal offspring. Have you noticed any that were born mutilated?” [Bukhari and Muslim]
- C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God, p. 73
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien, p. 16