The other day, a Muslim teen asked me the purpose of prayer. Why should we believe in God? Why do bad things happen to good people? As it turns out, this barrage of questions only represented the tip of a big, ominous iceberg.
There are a whole host of questions like this that are festering in our community and causing many crises of faith. The unfortunate reality is that Muslims are leaving Islam due to these unanswered questions, a trend that is exacerbated by the decreasing popularity of organized religion in society at large.
So Many Questions, So Few Answers
How do we address this challenge?
As someone who grew up as an American teenager in the 90s, the questions I had then, only 15 years ago, were mere child’s play compared to the soul-swallowing issues that Muslim youth are struggling with today. Topics like gay rights, the war on terrorism, scientific proof for the existence of God, the value of modesty, the merits of sexual abstinence, human evolution, the importance of family, etc. — anything and everything is up for debate, analysis, and, ultimately, disavowal.
In sum, religion is seen as lacking any intellectual credibility. The only way to restore that credibility in the minds of the doubting masses is to address these questions head on.
Whether in the academic or professional sphere, the most effective way to address complicated, controversial questions is to take a step back and pinpoint the hidden assumptions that underlie those questions. This way, one can problematize (or undermine) the question itself and, thus, proactively address it on one’s own terms.
Traditionally, this tendency to problematize and undermine common beliefs has been associated with skepticism. In the sense I am using the term, a skeptic is someone who will pause to deconstruct and critique a thought system in order to judge its intellectual merit (not to be confused with philosophical skeptics, who question the possibility of knowledge entirely).
Oftentimes, it is religious beliefs that are the target of skeptical questioning: Why should we believe God exists? Why should we believe the Quran to be the word of God? Why should we believe Muhammad was the messenger of God? Skeptical questioning of this nature originated with atheists and opponents of religion but, over time, has spread to all corners of the globe. Nowadays, even the faithful ask themselves these questions, and, when they cannot find answers, they either abandon the religion or ignore the questions entirely.
But there is another way.
Intellectual Hypocrisy and Bill Maher
From my experience, skeptics of religion often are hypocrites in that they do not attack all thought systems equally. They save their most rabid lines of critique for religion, especially Islam, but give certain non-religious beliefs a free pass.
For example, someone like Bill Maher, a self-proclaimed liberal, has no shortage of animosity in critiquing Islam. But does he take that same critical, skeptical mindset to his evaluation of, say, liberalism? Has he spent any time on TV delving into the many different critiques and questions plaguing liberal thought? Has he dedicated any of his programming to contemplating the amount of violence and death modern liberalism has wrought?
Maher portrays himself as an objective, neutral analyst using the power of rational thought to discover the truth, but, in actuality, he is a propagandist, as detached from objectivity and rationality as the fervent Bible-thumpers he lampoons. The only difference is he proselytizes liberalism instead of Christianity.
The Muslim skeptic, then, is someone who gives such hypocrites a taste of their own medicine. Why can’t Muslims turn the tables by expressing skepticism about liberalism, the nation-state paradigm, scientism, humanism, progressivism, and the rest of the unquestioned modernist dogmas of our times?
Turning the Tables
Consider this small sample of “controversial” or “tough” questions:
- What is the scientific proof for the existence of Allah, angels, the afterlife, the soul, etc.?
- Why does Islamic Law require women to wear the hijab but not men?
- Why would an all-merciful God allow evil to exist?
- Do we have free-will to make our own choices?
- Why does Islamic Law prohibit homosexual acts?
- Why do many Muslims not accept the evolutionary theory of man’s origins?
What we often fail to realize is that these questions do not arise in a vacuum. Most of these are not questions that troubled or even arose in the minds of Muslims 30, 40, or 500 years ago. These are questions that are characteristic of our time and intellectual culture in the 15th/21st century. As such, there are complex, deeply ingrained assumptions that underlie each of them. The only reason they may seem “tough” to address is that we are blind to those assumptions and take them for granted.
The Muslim skeptic must dig out these assumptions in order to scrutinize and interrogate them. In this way, rather than resolving such “tough” questions, the Muslim skeptic aims to dissolve them.
Given the number of such questions threatening the faith of our community, there is a pressing need for such a skeptical approach.
Skepticism in Action
As a brief example, consider the question of God’s existence. Some modern Muslim commentators concede that there is no objective evidence for the existence of God, and it all boils down to a “leap of faith.” The Muslim skeptic’s approach, in contrast, would be to first investigate the word “objective.” (Yes, the concept of “objectivity” itself has a convoluted and interesting history that we cannot take for granted.) Then, the Muslim skeptic would reflect on widely accepted standards of evidence used to undermine belief in God, e.g., scientific evidence, and evaluate them for consistency. For example, if we are supposed to reject the existence of God due to an alleged lack of scientific evidence, should we also reject the existence of things like the passage of time, human consciousness, mathematical entities, etc., that similarly lack scientific or physical modalities? Clearly, most people are not extreme enough to deny such things that clearly have a reality, despite a lack of scientific evidence. And so on.
In this way, the Muslim skeptic is not afraid to question widely held, cherished beliefs, such as the authority of science, in order to unpack hidden assumptions that cloud the issue and confuse people.
To be sure, skepticism is a negative, deconstructive exercise. Its purpose is to use rational argumentation to topple false idols so that the light of Truth has a chance to shine through. One of the greatest Muslim skeptics then, in these terms, was Prophet Ibrahim who cleverly undermined the idolatry of his people, as related in the Quran (6: 75-80). By pointing to a star, the moon, and the sun, saying, “This is my lord,” Ibrahim imitated the discourse of his detractors in order to reveal the internal inconsistency of their beliefs.
Muslim intellectual history is full of Muslim skeptics who employed all manner of rational stratagem to evaluate, undermine, critique, and overturn philosophies they deemed dangerous or subversive. This is a lost art Muslims today should be keen to revive, especially given that we find ourselves in an intellectual climate that has proved time and again to be hostile to our worldview. As Sayyidina `Umar once asked, rhetorically, “Are we not on the Truth?” It is time for us to start acting like it.
Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, TX. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou also studies traditional Islamic sciences part-time. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity as well as the intersection of western philosophical thought and Islamic intellectual history.