by Khalid Baig
American economist Robert
Samuelson recently made an interesting observation about the American society
in his Newsweek column: "America's glories and evils are tightly fused
together." Quoting sociologist Seymour Lipset, he asserts that America's
economic vitality and progress come from the same source as do crime, family
breakdown, inequality, and vulgarity. Freedom and individualism have fired
economic advance, yet have also inhibited social control. But why the qualities
that bring the best in a nation also should bring the worst in it? Is humanity
doomed by having its vices and virtues so intricately mixed?
Samuelson does not probe the
issue. Instead he seems to be happily resigned to it. "We are burdened as
well as blessed by our beliefs," he says. Economics, we may be reminded,
is the dismal science.
Actually the world is not doomed
by design. Samuelson comes very close to the truth but he confuses approaches
or tools with attributes. A tool that works great in one area is also being
used in another for which it was never designed. The problem lies with the user
who keeps on insisting on its use in the second area citing its success in the
first. To put matters simply, it's the free use of reason and intellect that is
behind most of America's (and West's in general) phenomenal scientific and
material progress. It's the use of the same tool in moral, and religious life
that has caused its equally phenomenal moral degeneration!
Every tool has a designated area
of application. Outside, it will fail to work. A 4 bit computer is good for
some elementary math involving whole numbers. It may multiply 2 by 20 and give
the correct answer instantly. But burdened with complex calculations involving
several decimal digits, it will give the WRONG answers. A weighing scale meant
for gold will not work for iron and vice versa. Their resolution and capacity
are inappropriate for those applications.
Same with the tools we use for
learning about the world. Our senses and intellect are wonderful things.
Science and technology are all about their use. Certainly it was free inquiry
driven by reason that led to so many of the discoveries of science. It happened
at an accelerated pace during the past four centuries and the results are everywhere
around us to be seen.
But a tool that is so great in
one area may be totally useless, even dangerous, in another. Pure Reason,
uninformed by Divine Guidance, is a defective tool for deciding purpose of life
or suggesting its values. What is Right and what is Wrong? These questions
require knowledge beyond what we can acquire by using our senses and reasoned
analysis. As a direct result, everyone's reasoning is different. That is why
philosophers have never been able to agree upon what should be the goal of
life. Happiness? Survival? Pleasure? Love? Self-fulfillment? You name it. In
addition, it is impossible for us to separate our reasoning in these matters
from our feelings. Pure or uninformed reason becomes just a tool to justify
what we desire.
Today West's problem is that it
has accepted the wrong tool for developing its moral compass. Probably the
majority of its people abhor homosexuality. They may know that it is an
abomination and evil. Yet today same-sex marriages are getting legal sanction
in the West. And they are helpless in trying to stop its advances. Why? Because
they cannot argue that it is wrong based on pure reason. It is easier to make a
case against smoking in public places, then against the worst forms of
immorality. Such is the result when pure reason becomes the accepted arbiter of
right and wrong.
There is nothing modern about
this either. Several centuries ago, Obaidullah Hasan Qirwani, a leader of the
renegade batani cult declared it foolish for a brother to marry his beautiful
sister to a total stranger, while trying to be content with a less qualified
wife -- another stranger. She would be much more suited to be wife of her own
brother, with whom she may be a lot more compatible, he argued. His argument
is, no doubt, sickening. But is there a counter argument based on pure reason?
Certainly mankind needs a
superior tool for determining the values and purpose of life. A source of
guidance that is based on certain knowledge, not conjecture. One that can
inform our desires rather than being subservient to them. This is what
Prophets, Alayhim assalam, came with. They claimed to have access to the higher
source of knowledge, the Divine Revelation. Those who accepted them used reason
and observation to verify their authenticity and character. But they accepted
Divine Revelation as a SUPERIOR source of knowledge! That is why a son can tell
"O my father! To me
has come knowledge that had not reached you. So follow me. I will guide you to
a Way that is even and straight." (Maryam, 19:43).
All this is obvious, except in
implications. We accept this is Right and that is Wrong because the Revelation
TOLD us, not because it PROVED it to us. What is wrong with riba? Gambling?
Pork? Alcohol? Revelation told us that they were wrong. Why is hijab necessary?
Allah and His Prophet, Salla-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, ordered that. What are
the rights of men and women? Those given to them by Allah and His Prophet,
Salla-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. The attribute of the Muslims is that they
"listened and followed" (Al-Baqarah, 2:285). It is not that they
listened and questioned, and argued, and investigated and then if they felt
like it, they followed. That is also THE message of Prophet Ibrahim, alayhi
assalm's, sacrifice, a defining event for Islam. For the Qur'an describes the
moment when the father and son were ready for the ultimate sacrifice by saying:
"When they surrendered" (Al-Saffat, 37:103). Literally it can also be
translated: "When they accepted Islam." For pure reason could have
raised a million questions about the command for that sacrifice.
Normally it is difficult for us
to say "I don't know." It is even more difficult for nations to admit
a weakness in their celebrated tools of inquiry. That is the dilemma of the
modern world, which sees so much wrong with itself but cannot bring itself to
admitting the problem with its basic approach. But a Muslim is the person who
has both the wisdom and the courage to surrender before the higher source of
knowledge and guidance. For him Revelation informs his reason and his reason
controls his emotions. Such is the person who is blessed, but not burdened, by
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