Richard Dawkins is a man whose missionary zeal and the fervour of whose evangelical atheism puzzle even other atheists. I have read articles on him in which journalists have tried to analyse him and his family history (without success) looking for clues – family traumas, neuroses, etc. – which might explain what drives his passionate crusade (I know no more appropriate term) against God. He is a man who as well as anyone else and better than many embodies some of the essential themes with which to decode the science of this epoch, which arguably began with Galileo.
My initial sortie into this arena was after being provoked somewhat by the introduction of Richard Dawkins to his book The Blind Watchmaker in which he claims that science has disproved God. In what I write here I claim no great scholarly authority or mastery, and indeed would be unable to write anything whatsoever if it had not been that Allah had brought about various events in my life which provided me with the very different materials necessary. So, far be it from me to try and prove God, since I am only engaging in this because of His providential arrangement. He is in no need of proof. Does the Real need to be proved by the Unreal?
Mr Dawkins attacks a Christian argument long realised by philosophers to be weak, the “argument from design”. In essence, that argument states that if one finds a watch on the road there is no doubt in one’s mind that the watch had a watchmaker since it is impossible for something so intricate to have come about by accident. Thus, the argument goes, if one finds an intricate cosmos, one must necessarily believe in a cosmos-maker simply because of the intricate and beautiful workmanship of the cosmos.
Mr Dawkins’ argument, which is merely the most abrasive statement of a position widely believed by scientists, is that the physical sciences and in particular those of genetics and evolutionary science successfully explain the intricacy of the cosmos thus removing the need for a cosmic maker or cosmic designer. The argument from design has a chequered history in christian Europe and the West, and Mr Dawkins’ attack on it is only the latest in a long and unfortunate story.
Given the parochialism of Western thought, that a christian proof has fallen is regarded as the death of God, rather than a localised cultural event of European and Western christian history. Of course, this confusion is compounded by the work of many Muslim authors who import christian arguments wholesale into their books without realising that they are already widely discredited and disproved in Europe and were never the basis of Muslim proof in this arena in the first place.
My first encounter with the relevant Islamic material long predates Dawkins’ book, when I was in Cairo, in our study of the most elementary works of tawhid which we were taught in preparatory classes in the Azhar. What I learnt there was later confirmed in study of the renowned work of Abdalwahid ibn ‘Ashir, may Allah be merciful to him, his poem al-Murshid al-mu’in. The basic argument of this Ash’ari teaching is that stated by him so eloquently:
“His existence has a conclusive proof: The need of everything that is in-time for a Maker.”
Note here that no account whatsoever is taken of the intricacy of the thing or things, in this case the cosmos. It is the mere fact of its existence that matters. This thought is supported by the famous question of the philosopher Leibnitz which Martin Heidegger quotes in his Introduction to Metaphysics, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” a question he regards as the very first in philosophy. It is well worth the reader stopping and reflecting on this question.1
Thus right away, the argument from design is abandoned. Indeed, in Muslim thought it simply never entered into the equation. The real issue is that something cannot come out of nothing of its own volition since it did not exist and thus had no volition. A void that had the potential for quantum fluctuations out of which matter emerges is not a real void. For a materialist, out of nothing, nothing can emerge. For Allah everything is possible.
The Shaykh proceeds:
If beings had originated by themselves, equality and preponderance would be united.
The Shaykh considers the possibility that things could somehow engender themselves, or the cosmos simply pop into being out of nothing. Quite interestingly, he considers it calmly and coolly, not as a religious intellect confronted and disturbed by rational argument. Rather he considers it rationally, and says, “If beings had originated by themselves”. Then he says that if that had been the case, two matters would have been united, and the image he uses is that of the scales. At-tasawi – equality – indicates when both pans of the scales are equal and level, and ar-rujhan – preponderance – indicates when one pan of the scales outweighs the other. And he is saying that these two cases would be united and concludes at the beginning of the next verse:
And that is impossible.
So he assigns a fifty-fifty probability to the emergence of the cosmos out of nothing, which is being generous, i.e. he is willing to consider it as merely a flip of the coin whether there is something or nothing, an equal probability of either. But then he says that the reality is that there is something, the cosmos exists, and thus it is not fifty-fifty, and these two are contradictory. The scales are not both balanced and imbalanced. The fact that the cosmos exists indicates that there is some factor which renders the chance not fifty-fifty, but one hundred to none.
So this is the crux of Muslim thinking on the proof of the creation of the universe. But what about the complexity and intricacy of the cosmos? The argument of the scholars of this science proceeds, once the impossibility of the universe simply emerging spontaneously from nothing is clear, to argue that the intricacy does not prove the existence of Allah, but demonstrates His knowledge and wisdom, in the same way that the painting can be studied for insight into the painter, or the musical composition for knowledge of the composer.
Thus the argument from design falls because it telescopes two arguments into one, which damages both, but if they are separated as Muslim scholars have done, then a new picture emerges.
There is a point though in having some sympathy with Richard Dawkins and atheist scientists. The whole history of the West is its emergence from under the dead dogmatic hand of the church, which espoused a religious doctrine that was simply absurd and insulting to the intellect, a dead hand which simply consigned its opponents to the flames. Scientists have by-and-large never shaken off the stamp of this long history of oppression, and although that battle is long over and scientists themselves have become a dogmatic and doctrinaire body labelling almost anything fresh, new and interesting as ‘heresy’, yet they earnestly rehearse the long story of christian oppression.
It would be a great mistake in this context, in reaction to scientists’ atheism to embrace the doctrines of the christians, because they are simply unacceptable to us, no matter how attractive they might appear initially. It is no use for us to wrestle with them, for example, using christian creationist arguments, since they are often simply wrong.
Let us hold close to the thread of our argument, and return to Dawkins. If he is evangelical then what is he evangelical for? What does he believe? Arguably in the middle ages, the church was simply a profession, and when priests fought heretics they were professionals defending their livelihoods. The church was big business. It may be for that reason that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is said to have remarked that there is no priesthood in Islam. So what church is Dawkins defending? Who pays him and for whom does he work? Well, this is an interesting question with a no less interesting answer. Dawkins is Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, a seat endowed by Simonyi who was a software architect within Microsoft until starting his own company in 2001.
You may not immediately see the significance of this. What, you may ask, has working for the popularisation of science got to do with a major software company, and why should it matter? Let us take this thread further back and indeed right to the beginning.
Consider Galileo, arguably the beginning point of our specifically modern view of physics, the man whose encounter with the church many modern scientists, not the least of them Richard Dawkins, relive in their imaginations. Galileo’s patrons were the Medicis, the Italian banking family that played a very major part in the renaissance2, since they also bank-rolled Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci among a host of other luminaries. The Medicis were catholics from Florence but they were usurers. Banking was recognised in christian dogma of the time as the mortal wrong action of usury, even though the Vatican engaged in it, and, in fact, founded one of the very first banks anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, in the meeting of the Vatican and the Medicis – they were at times the Pope’s own bankers and for one memorable papacy supplied the incumbent – you see the coming into existence of a new dialectic, the commercial secular worldliness that amounts to agnosticism or atheism – although taking a historical detour through protestantism – both abetting and then finally at war with the tyrannical and admittedly hypocritical catholic church.
Next stop on our tour would have to be Isaac Newton. Newton is falsely thought of by Muslims as a unitarian, and thus somehow Islam-friendly. This is not a view that makes the real significance of Newton amenable to us. Although Newton was theologically (and most importantly ‘privately’) a unitarian, he concealed this all his life, since it would simply have stopped his progress in the world. This is not a zone for personal opinion. Our ulama’ have often considered carefully when taqiyyah – dissimulation – is permissible. There are situations in which it is possible to dissimulate, i.e. not to own up to the truth, when to do so would prove life-threatening. When it comes to association of partners with Allah (shirk) at that point dissimulation and concealing one’s belief are not acceptable, and certainly not for the purposes of career advancement. Newton lived at a time when monarchs coerced their citizens into endorsing the Creed, which contains a specific statement of trinitarianism.
The prospect grows more complex in Newton’s case because he lived through the time in English history called ‘the Glorious Revolution’. This event saw a dynasty – the Stewarts – removed from the throne, and a King and Queen ensconced on it who were to prove amenable to a new force emerging from the shadows on to centre stage of history, but this new force was the same as that already encountered in the story of Galileo: banking. But now banking arrives in the form of the Bank of England, the National bank, which was in fact then and until after the second world war a private bank. This bank began the issuance of paper money, which introduces the entire modern monetarist epoch, and was the entity owed the national debt, and that was something completely new. Previously kings had their debts, which they paid off. But now the debt was national, and owed by the people from generation to generation along with the accumulated interest-generated debt.
Newton’s job in this new order, upon acceptance of which he left his scientific work entirely, was first as Warden of the Mint, and then finally its Master. It sounds very commendable in this setting because he was personally responsible for the minting of gold, silver and copper coins. But he did something very important: in 1717 he set the price of gold at £4 4s 111/2d per troy ounce. That sounds an eminently sensible thing to do, to set the price of gold, but the question is, “What was the price of the gold to be paid in?” It was to be paid in the new paper money. What Newton did was to set a price for the new specie of money, to give value to paper in terms of the old value which was universally recognised (and is in many parts of the world today, such as the Arab countries, India and most of the Muslim lands). So Newton used his eminence as a scientist to validate the modern monetary system.
Now, you see this very straight line that we can draw from Galileo through Newton right up to Dawkins: the mysterious connection between usury-capitalism and science. You can also see that Dawkins’ missionary zeal has more than doctrinal significance. Like Newton before him, he validates usury capitalism, if only by his silence on it, because if he does not defeat and disprove God, then every revealed religion we know has declared usury haram and this is a major obstacle for them. His atheism serves a very useful function indeed to some extremely practical and worldly people.
The argument is not simply a theological one, although the importance of clear tawhid as the foundation of the din is admitted by everyone. As Ibn ‘Ashir said, may Allah be merciful to him:
The first obligation on him who is given responsibility | if he has the ability to search (and reflect) is to know
Allah and the Messengers with the attributes | for which He has erected signs.
Now this is the entire point of departure for the din: recognition (ma’rifah) of Allah and His Messengers: knowledge of Allah’s attributes among which are al-ghina – absolute independence, freedom from need, and total wealth, and qudrah – power, capability, the ability to do that which He wills or leave undone whatever He wishes, e.g. He could have left the world uncreated so that there was nothing.
The entire zone of the dunya, of worldliness, revolves around the mistaken thought that such attributes might be attainable by human beings independently of the Creator. In extremes it leads to the desire for all wealth and all power. The person who knows deep in his being that his Lord is All-Wealthy and All-Powerful is not the same as this other.
Figures such as the Medicis and the mediaeval German bankers the Fuggers were vastly wealthier and had more real power than any king of their time. They ushered in the era of dominance by the power of money with political processes remaining simply as theatre to mask the true realities of power. Thus, the British Empire was really the Bank of England Empire, and the Empire’s greatest conquest, India, was a project of the East India Company which had its own armies and administration. The mantle of all of these has passed to a relatively small cabal of financiers and corporate figures.
It is thus that Dawkins has placed his knowledge at the disposal of people who do not acknowledge the wealth, power, knowledge, will and compassion of God, but seek massive wealth and power for themselves. Dawkins is ultimately a priest in a new religion, and this is something that even freethinkers have always puzzled about in him. It is the new religion of global capitalism. Opposite it is the pure teaching of tawhid embedded in the practice of of Islam, pivotal to which is the knowledge of the mu’amalat, the ordinary practices of trade and buying and selling, a relearning of which by us – as traders and men of commerce, employers and employees, shoppers, buyers and sellers, as well as our scholars – will lead to the decoding and dismantling of the capitalist killing machine. For just as the authentic grasping of tawhid is the genuine foundation of the entire din, yet strangely enough this clarity of commercial transactions in the market is itself the indispensable base without which none of the rest of the din will make any sense or be acceptable to Allah. Thus to grasp the mu’amalat is to be on the royal road to the restoration of justice.
More germane to our topic however, given the significance of the relationship between finance/commerce and science, is our question, “What would the sciences look like if they sprang from the soil of a society which had non-usurious and just commercial transactions?” If we do not answer that question here, we do know that it is the Muslims who are obliged to take a lead in creating such a society and thus in bringing about the renewal of the sciences.
1 Moreover, there is the principle of sufficient reason as formulated by Leibniz: “no fact can be real or existing and no statement true unless it has a sufficient reason why it should be thus and not otherwise” (Leibniz, 198). This principle is often stated as “everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence” or “every event has a cause.” The entire edifice of science rests on this axiomatic understanding and yet an increasingly vocal group would have us believe that the universe itself is the only exception to this rule.
2 See Strathearn, The Medicis: Godfathers of the Renaissance, in which he compellingly shows that the renaissance was very much a banking event.