Atheism, Western philosophy and Muslims: An Islamic reformer’s push against the tide

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Last Updated on 22nd February 2021

“He will be extremely intelligent and perceptive and will be meek of heart and will be filled with secular and spiritual knowledge.” (Part of the prophecy pertaining to the Musleh-e-Maud)

Ataul Fatir Tahir, Al Hakam

Polls and surveys continue to show the growing rise of atheism, including amongst Muslim youth.

The decline of religiosity, however, is not entirely a new phenomenon for Muslims. During the colonial era, the spread of Western atheistic philosophies, attacks on religion and raising issue with Islamic teachings took root across India.

The Promised Messiahas had warned in 1897:

Dajjal [anti-christ] in fact is none other than the people known as Christian missionaries and European philosophers. They act like the two jaws of the Promised Dajjal with which he devours people’s faith like a python. 

“First it is the common and ignorant people who get caught in the wiles of the missionaries and then those who happen to escape their clutches, being disgusted with the disgraceful and false beliefs, are caught in the net of the European philosophers. I see that the common people are more vulnerable to the lies of the clergy, whereas the intellectual ones are more susceptible to the falsehood spread by the philosophers.” (Kitab-ul-Bariyyah, Ruhani Khaza‘in, Vol. 13, pp. 252-253 [footnote])

Scores of educated Muslim youth were influenced by novel Western philosophy and its assault on religion. Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra, in his youth,witnessed this heavy influence first-hand when he travelled to Mecca in his early 20s, prior to Khilafat. 

He spoke of Muslim college students and Muslim lawyers travelling to England on the same ship he was on. While discussing religion with them, they said they had become ardent atheists, something that deeply perturbed the young Mahmudra. (Tarikh-e-Ahmadiyyat, Vol. 3, p. 410)

Throughout his 52 years of Khilafat, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra powerfully established God’s existence not only for Ahmadi Muslims but for scores of others too. He gave practical steps for establishing a strong connection with God, gaining his closeness and communion – taking one to absolute certainty. 

However, intellectually and in a unique manner, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra showed God exists while also proving how Islamic teachings and Islam’s reality trumped the anti-religious Western philosophical ideas, world views and way of living. 

The aim of this piece is not to present each argument for the existence of God which Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra put forward (as they are vast and detailed), but to show how he rebuilt confidence in Muslim youth who were drawing away from Islam, towards atheism.

One premise Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra would put forward is that if Quranic teachings are shown to be the perfect and best way of living, then there is a divine reality behind the Quran. After showing Islamic teachings as having continued to show their superiority, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra not only proved God exists, but raised the flag of Islam above all other philosophies.

In astounding ways, he continued to fulfil the following statement of the Promised Messiahas:

“I have thus been moved by God to enter this battlefield of science and academic advancement armed with a literary arsenal and also to exhibit the spiritual valour of Islam and demonstrate the marvel of its inner strength …” (Malfuzat, Vol. 1, p. 58).

Causes of modern atheism

In his speech, Hasti-e-Bari Ta‘ala (The Existence of God), delivered in 1921, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra says the rampant increase of sin in modern times caused people to move away from God; sin develops rust on spirituality, leading to atheism.

Secondly, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra explained how Western philosophy, being fundamentally atheistic, caused disbelief in God to spread. Historically, the rise of science in the West was opposed by Christian priests as new discoveries went against their theological understandings of the universe. 

For example, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra speaks about the heliocentric model of the universe Galileo presented – as it clashed with Christian theology (with the Earth at the centre and the Sun revolving around it), he was put under extreme duress and forced to publicly relinquish his discoveries, or face death. 

This created the twilight of atheism amongst scientists and researchers – they began to think. Huzoorra said:

“If proven and established facts – observable by the eyes – go against the Word of God, then God doesn’t exist because how is it possible for God’s Word and creation to be in contradiction. (Hasti-e-Bari Ta‘ala, p. 269)

The philosophers, who were already sceptical of God’s existence, grew stronger in their opposition to religion and joined forces with those making new discoveries and developing science. This led to religion losing its influence and the educated class despising Christianity. 

Every new discovery was a means of disproving the existence of God and this transpired into the writings of Western scientists, researchers and philosophers; their hostility towards Christianity and religion took them to another extreme. 

Christian priests were labelling the discoveries made to be against the Word of God, while scientists and philosophers leveraged this to mean every discovery proved that God does not exist. (Hasti-e-Bari Ta‘ala, p. 270)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maud’s analysis for the cause of modern atheism given in 1921 is astounding. Modern academics and researchers have confirmed the historical explanation Huzoorra gave in 1921. One such example is the book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by theologian and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford, Alister Mcgrath, who paints a very similar picture in his book written in 2004.

Religion and science: The Quranic solution

This predicament the world of Christianity faced between religion and science was not an issue for Islam, however. Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra explained:

“The tenth superiority Quranic teachings possess is by declaring God’s Word and His creation as extensions and counterparts of one another; it [the Quran] brought religion into the field of experience and observation, even though prior [to the Quran, religion] was declared as something supernatural.

“The Holy Quran declares the earth is God’s creation and religion is God’s Word and it is impossible for God’s creation and His Word to be in conflict. Thus, whenever an issue arises, connect God’s Word and His creation. Wherever they agree, then know it is the truth and wherever they do not, then the reality has not been disclosed to you yet. 

“This point removed the conflict between science and religion because science is God’s creation and religion His word. It impossible for God’s Word and creation not to be in harmony. And whenever the two are in conflict, then either we stumbled in understanding His word or we erred in understanding His creation; out of these, whatever error is corrected, harmony will be established again [between the two].

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“This great point enabled religion to leave the field of [mere] philosophy and enter the field of observation.” (Inqilab-e-Haqiqi, pp. 108-109)

In his book, Invitation to Ahmadiyyat, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra points out how the Promised Messiahas presented new discoveries from the Holy Quran in a time when Muslims had thought it to be redundant or had no power to uncover more truths – for Muslims, the Quran was lifeless now. 

Huzoorra said:

“The Promised Messiahas showed convincingly that modern science and philosophy cannot overawe the Holy Quran. They cannot show any contradiction between the Holy Quran and reason. Science was concerned with nature, the handiwork of God. The Quran was the Word of God. Both His handiwork and His Word are His. There can be no contradiction between the two. If ever the Word of God seems to go against facts of nature, it must be because it is not His true word, or if it is, it cannot have been properly understood. The real Word of God cannot teach anything against the facts of nature. 

“The publication of these discoveries about the Holy Quran resulted in a new conviction, a new confidence about the Holy Quran. Followers of the Promised Messiahas today are as busy as others in acquiring modern knowledge, knowledge of social sciences and philosophies. But at the same time their convictions about the beliefs and ordinances taught by the Holy Quran are as strong as they were at any time in the history of Islam.” (Invitation to Ahmadiyyat, pp. 308-309)

The discoveries made by the Promised Mesiahas will not be detailed in this article, but they are available for all to read. One example is the astounding discovery of how Surah al-Takwir describes, with immense detail, the modern era of discovery and inventions. 

The appeal of philosophy

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra in Hasti-e-Bari Ta‘ala notes a fundamental problem with the rise of anti-religious philosophical thought, the obsession around it and why people were so attracted to it. Huzoorra says:

“There is another problem with philosophical trends – they only serve as a means of mental invigoration; no action is required – therefore lots of people are drawn to it. In contrast, reflecting on religion leads to [performing] good actions; something people find difficult. 

“For example, a person who reflects on Islam and accepts its beauty and begins to advance in faith, will also have to advance in their [good] deeds. If they start with the compulsory [deeds], after further study, they will start offering supererogatory services too.”

Today, this explanation can be seen in all areas of modern society. People – including Muslims, who do not properly follow their religion – are averse to the practical side religion exhorts towards. 

“It’s too much effort”; “I like my freedom”; “Why should I share my wealth” and “I can’t give up my current habits” are common responses one hears from people who are averse to religion. It is not without reason that religious people, compared to atheists, are more likely to volunteer (www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2019/07/15/selfless-or-selfserving-the-distinctive-character-of-religious-volunteering) or even to give more charity. 

Reason, rationality and emotions

The Enlightenment period focused on rationality and reason while taking God out the picture. The Festival of Reason held after the French Revolution in Notre Dame showed how the new “god” of atheism was reason and rationality.

In an address (published in Al Fazl, 24 April 1932) Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra demonstrated how neither rationality, nor human emotions could be a means to guide mankind independently, as they often clash with each other. Huzoorra said rationality and emotions are contradictory when being used as a means of guidance. 

Even in wars, rationality and logic does not take one to success. The rational thing to do in a war is run and save one’s life – but victory lies with those who have an emotional connection and are ready to give their lives for the cause. Courage and valour do not arise from reason, it is emotion. If people don’t have a sacrificial spirit, which is generated from emotion, they will never succeed, Huzoorra said.

Then, emotion also gets the better of people at times when a rational approach is needed. For example, Huzoorra says lots of people who preach the importance of rationality and urge others to be logical and rational, will often throw all their preaching out of the window when it comes to their children, friends and family – they will commit injustices and let emotion overtake them and give bias preference to their close ones. Therefore, rationality and reason do not create a moral society. 

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra said a third medium is needed to join rationality and emotion together so they work effectively – the third medium is divine revelation which guides rationality and emotion and enables them to work harmoniously, just like a steam engine uses fire and water (two opposite elements) in an effective manner and complement each other. 

“In every dispute, a third judge is needed. In the same vein, a third judge is needed for the fight between rationality and human emotions – and that is divine revelation.”

“[Divine revelation] puts them in their proper place.”

Expounding on this, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra refers to European countries who, over time, had to come towards Islamic teachings about women’s rights, the economy and international relations. Europeans will say experience brought them to these conclusions and will ignore Islamic teachings, but the reality is that Islam taught these morals 1,400 years ago and they were forced to accept them.

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra said God Almighty’s revelation does not oppose rationality, but human intellect can err in understanding. Some people put their own intellect and philosophical ideas above the Quran and think their personal understanding is the truth. Such people, Huzoorra said, fall into error. 

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra advised that if one didn’t understand the words of God, they should ask someone who did, do the research and find out for themselves the meanings behind God’s words before jumping to false conclusions. 

Islam: The world’s natural religion

Muslim youth were questioning Islamic principles and often fell into complexities when facing Western culture and ethics. Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra would rebuild their confidence and show Islamic teachings could not be avoided by mankind. 

Addressing Indian Muslim students in London in 1924, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra said reason and world experience proved the religion of Islam to be mankind’s natural inclination.

“Islam is such a religion that if a person, without prejudice, deeply reflects [upon it], then their human nature will compel them to accept Islam. Islam has come for the entire world and it is the only universal religion. God Almighty has endowed humans with reason and the power to make decisions so that if they use these faculties, they can be guided …

“Always keep in mind, whoever makes effort with sincerity, they always attain their true purpose and despite deviating from the [right] path, can still find their way back. God Almighty has laid out this rule in the Holy Quran:

والذين‭ ‬جاهدوا‭ ‬فينا‭ ‬لنهدينهم‭ ‬سبلنا

“Meaning that those make effort toward Us, We surely open up paths towards Us … Thus, for success, effort is required and this effort should be according to what God Almighty has prescribed – and that is to use one’s God-given reason and wisdom.

“Islam’s truth is proven from reason and experience and I believe, if Islam’s true face is presented, then it will most definitely spread in Europe, Asia, Africa, America and across the entire world. This is because it has come for the whole world.” (Al Fazl, 24 October 1924, p. 6)

Huzoor’s approach to atheism was the display of how Islam not only takes one to communion with God but presents the teachings that are most beneficial for mankind too. 

If Islamic teachings are continuously proven to be true, naturally one begins to believe the author of the Quran had to be the Creator of mankind, for such a manual cannot be the word of man. 

Clash between Islamic and Western views

During a speech on the comparison between Islamic and Western outlooks, delivered on 21 August 1949 (Anwar-ul-Ulum, Vol. 21, pp. 255-260), Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra explained how the West was forced to adopt the very Islamic principles it had been jesting and dismissive of.   

After presenting Quranic verses (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.4, V.49-52) that say Islam is the most complete and beneficial ideology and way of life, Huzoorra said:

“In these verses, Allah the Almighty, in plain words, has stopped [believers] from following modern-day legislators and philosophers and has said, all your successes lie in acting upon Islam and the Quran and not by following experts of logic, philosophy, economics, science and inventors.” 

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra then describes how Islamic teachings faced clashes with Western ideals in religious, political and economical matters. However Western teachings have always been defeated by Islamic teachings. 

For example, the permissibility of divorce was laughed at by great Western philosophers and academics, Huzoorra noted. They would say permissibility to divorce creates rifts between the rights of love between a man and woman. 

However, America had begun enacting divorce laws, England, at the time, was slowly allowing divorce through legislation and Russia begun allowing divorce too. They had been compelled to follow Islam in permitting divorce. 

(Divorce permissibility laws, as we see them today in England, only materialised in 1969 through the Divorce Reform Act.)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra said divorces in America, following its new laws, would take place even over petty matters, whereas Islam had set in place various conditions for divorce (to protect the relationship and ensure divorce wouldn’t happen over petty matters). 

So, in this way, the clash between Islam and the West regarding the permissibility of divorce saw Islam’s victory.

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra explained that Islam, in plain words, prohibits drinking alcohol while recognising it has some benefits also, but says the ills of alcohol outweigh its benefits. The West raised issue with this teaching too and said Islam did not comprehend human happiness and enjoyment, therefore it was a religion that didn’t recognise human nature. 

Despite the West’s strong opposition of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol, America went on to ban alcohol and, as a result, testified to this great Islamic teaching. This proves the truth of Islam and shows Quranic teachings have a divine Being behind them. 

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra also pointed out that when Islam prohibited alcohol, it was able to ban it forever. But America was forced to repeal the Prohibition Act for alcohol after just 15 years – proving Islamic teachings to be timeless and lasting. 

Polygamy showed its wisdom in modern times too, Huzoorra noted. As this speech was delivered in 1949 and the Indian subcontinent partition had just taken place, Huzoorra said that if the Muslims in India had paid attention to preaching, they could have converted half of India to Islam. And had they used the teaching of polygamy, they could have converted the remaining half.

However, it was a shame that Muslims became afraid of Christians and Europeans regarding this matter and began saying that as polygamy was a practice of the Arabs, the Holy Prophetsa gave permission to marry four wives in those times. Had Muslims paid attention to this teaching when fights and disruption were beginning to break out in India, they could have seen a different future, Huzoorra explained. 

In other writings, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra noted how after the world wars, due to the high death toll of men, lots of European countries saw women (who greatly outnumbered men) wanting to marry even those men who already had a wife – this was published in newspapers. Again, this proved the practical reality of Islam’s teaching on polygamy. 

The prohibition of gambling in Islam was laughed at by the West and seen as unnecessary. Discussing this mockery, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra said:

“… show any country today in which laws are not being made about gambling. They cannot abandon it outrightly because they feel embarrassed letting it go suddenly; however, they are making laws that say such and such type of gambling is forbidden or such and such game is forbidden. Thus, they have come to what Islam had taught but now they consider banning gambling outrightly as their humiliation.” 

By giving confidence, through observable proof, to Muslim youth about their religion and showing the practical folly of Western atheistic philosophy, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra was able to rescue Muslims who were trapped in the net of atheistic philosophers. 

This confidence was seen in Ahmadi Muslim youth the most who excelled in their secular education and their religiosity too. They had been given practical steps by Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra – the Promised Reformer – on how to build their connection with Allah and were equipped with the intellectual proofs to forcefully push back at atheism. 

The writings of Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra regarding atheism are vast and spread over scores of lectures, writings and discussions. Reading them shows how Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra was truly endowed with deep insight of spiritual and secular matters, as promised by Allah in the prophecy of Musleh-e-Maud. 

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