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Archive for the ‘Seeing’ Category

Knowledge/Belief, the Pen and Pain

Below is a summary of thoughts I shared on the MEISGS list and thereafter developed.

I start off by asking, ‘what does it mean to know?’ My position is that to know is to acknowledge and to acknowledge is to admit. Knowledge is an observation that you cannot escape from even if you desired to. I contrast that with belief/faith which is an observation that you sustain by your passion and desire.

At the heart of this distinction between knowledge and belief/faith is the former’s ability to impose itself on us despite our rejection. An example of knowledge is that ‘fire will burn my hand.’ To attempt escaping from this observation will inflict a significant level of pain and discomfort that will compel you to immediately admit and concede. That ‘fire will burn my hand’ is not dependent on my desire or passion to uphold it, but is able to assert itself during this worldly life.

Contrast that to another observation that is not of knowledge; the existence of a Fire in the Afterlife. This observation is not of knowledge as you can escape from acknowledging it if you desired to. Rather, it is a belief that you sustain by your passion and desire. The Fire of the Afterlife cannot impose itself on you in this worldly life if you do not acknowledge it.

That is how I start off.

However, to speak of an observation’s ability to impose itself or not, is to speak of a person’s susceptibility to imposition. For example, to say, “a person cannot survive for more than 5 minutes without air,” is not only to speak of the “knowledge of air’s indispensability” imposing itself, but also to speak of a person’s susceptibility to such imposition and readiness to acknowledge such observation.

To speak of a person’s susceptibility to the imposition of “knowledge” is to speak of a person’s endurance of pain. To deny the imposition of ‘a would-be knowledge’ is to endure the pain of denial. This pain can either be a result of harm inflicted by the rejection or a result of loss of pleasure that would have been attained.

To say that to know is to acknowledge and to acknowledge is to admit, is to speak of a person’s ability, capacity and resilience in denying (or willingness and readiness to accept?). Thus the borderline between knowledge and belief may shift according to each individual.

As human beings with certain features, there are observations that we are generally willing to acknowledge in order to avoid the enormous pain inflicted when denying them. The same contingency of knowledge on the avoidance of pain exists for civilizations, cultures, groups, families and individuals. You know only what you acknowledge and you acknowledge only what you are unable to deny. Thus knowledge is contingent on personal ability to endure the pain of denial.

If that is knowledge, then what is belief? Belief is what occurs when the mentioned contingency of knowledge is exposed and challenged. When a person knows something and then realizes that withdrawal of that acknowledgment will not inflict undue pain or hardship, they are left with two alternatives. Either they may reject that which they no longer acknowledge, or still accept it. To accept that which is not-imposed-on-you-by-virtue-of-your-limited-capacity-to-endure-denial, is not knowledge, but rather belief.

Belief is to impose yourself on an observation rather than an observation to impose itself on you. Thus belief is not sustained by your inability to deny it, but rather by the unwillingness to deny. Belief or faith is a form of loyalty to a truth which is sustained by the personal desire.

However, this seeming contrast between inability and unwillingness (to deny) is an illusion. For inability is due to the pain inflicted upon attempt, but so is unwillingness. To want to remain loyal to an observation is to value that observation and desire to preserve that which is valued. The prospect of losing that which is valuable is a form of pain that prevents you from letting go.

If that is the case, then what is the difference between knowledge and belief? In terms of worth and value, one cannot discern any difference. However, in day to day life, there is a difference. Knowledge, I would say, is that which is shared by the majority and goes unchallenged. Belief on the other hand, is that being challenged by the majority while its proponents resist the temptation of abandonment. Thus knowledge and belief are two terms to describe the popularity of an observation.

To say that knowledge and belief are both contingent on pain, is to say that knowledge and belief are both contingent on our humanness. One may go further upon reflecting on animal behavior, and speak of knowledge/belief being contingent on our livingness. One may say that knowledge/belief is contingent on reducing pain during life. However, I will leap and claim that it is perhaps more suitable to say that knowledge/belief is contingent on the pain of existence in general.

Knowledge/belief is an attempt to reduce the pain of our very existence.

Thus, not only is ilm (Knowledge/Belief) derived from the qalam (Pen. see 96:4), but also from alam (Pain). The relatedness of these words as well as that of wujud, wajd, waja3 and sahl, mahl and jahl are the topic of a future post inshaa Allah.

On Consensus

A paper I co-authored is coming out in the near future in which we critique the claim that Scholarly Consensus (ijma’) has been reached regarding the impermissibility of female-led mixed-gender prayers. The paper also expresses a subtle disfavor of the concept of Scholarly Consensus in general. I didn’t have space in the paper to communicate my general views on the issue, which is what I will attempt to do here.

The concept of Scholarly Consensus (ijma’) is rooted in al-Shafie’s interpretation of the verse:

“And whoever acts hostilely to the Messenger after that guidance has become manifest to him, and follows other than the way of the believers, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell. What an evil refuge!” [Quran 4:115]

This “way of the believers” (or the ‘flow of the believers’ as I will occasionally refer to it) has been restricted to what scholars of jurisprudence have articulated the ‘way’ to be. It is my belief that the intended way of the believers transcends that articulated by scholars of jurisprudence and refers to the general consciousness and overall flow of the body of believers. Such a flow is the manifestation of what we can call the normative. The normative is not established by scholars articulating rules, but by the passion, tears, sweat and blood of the believers (which include, but are not limited to scholars). The normative is the evolving reflection of what the believers collectively find as acceptable to their faith and conscious.

In the verse mentioned, Allah warns of a severe punishment for those whom go against the flow of the believers. This alludes to an inherent moral paradox which is ubiquitous within matters of faith. On the surface, this verse may be understood as a call to uphold the status quo. However, the believer may at times feel compelled by his faith in God to stand against a common practice done by the community of believers. In other words, the believer finds himself in a conflicting situation.

God tells him in the Quran not to deviate from the way of the believers. However his very faith in God and the Quran compel him to speak out and act against his brethren in faith.

This I feel, is similar to (yet radically distinct from) the type of paradox mentioned by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. The flow of believers establishes an equivalent of the “universal,” which the believer accepts by virtue of his faith. However that same faith may require of the individual to rise above the “universal.”

I therefore see consensus as an authentic aspect of faith, as is occasional dissent against consensus. This contradiction may be considered a paradox. This paradox is the climax of spiritual experience. It’s a climax in which two believers may stand face to face each believing that God demands him to kill his brother. This climax is an intense moment of tension in which each person exposes who they truly are and who their g/God really is.

The believer must therefore uphold consensus as reflected in the flow of the believers. The believer must also go against that flow when his faith in God compels him to do so. A believer should not ridicule and dismisses the elaborate and caveat-ridden system of scholarly consensus established by our Scholars, rather if compelled by his faith, must be steadfast and ardent in working against it.

The believers should work to marginalize dissenting views that disrupt their flow. Yet the dissenting believer must continue to move uphill and demand his position in the center. This tension is the meat of faith. This tension is revealing of who we are. Such exposure of ourselves is the yolk of life.

So to speak about consensus as informed by the Quran, I cannot help but speak about dissent as well. The continuous conflict and tension inherent in this understanding confirms my belief that this world is not the abode of human mutual understanding, perpetual peace and prosperity, but rather a context in which we choose to experience the tension of faith in God or run away from it. In either case the objective is to reveal yourself.

This world is not the place of answers to such paradoxes. In this world we do not learn who was “right” and who was “wrong.” Rather, in the next world we learn who was more sincere to God in his faith, and who was not.

So you ask about my true opinion regarding scholarly consensus. I respond that my faith in God and the Quran lead me to accept whatever the scholars have accepted and work to defend and uphold it. Then in the same tongue and same breath I would vow to fight against every single scholar and every believer if my faith in God compels me to do so.

You ask me about my true opinion regarding scholarly consensus.  My belief in it is derived from my belief in God. Such belief may make me a passionate defender of the normative, or its thorn.

AbdelWahab al-Messiri once referred to this position in a negative light, in which one collapses the distance separating him from the Absolute thus leading to a suspension of morality and ethics. Kierkegaard also reflects on this problema in Fear and Trembling. However the suspension of morality and ethics is explainable as long as it is seen as a derivative, not an absolute. Morality and ethics when a product of faith in God, are means to a goal; obeying God. That same goal may demand another mean which may contradict to former. Thus to suspend ethics is to seek an alternative route to the same goal.

This is key; as the very definition of “obeying God” determines if the suspension of ethics means obeying one’s desires or obeying God. This leads us to a grand question. How to you know if you are obeying God or not? Or, what does it mean to obey God? Who am I obeying when I obey God? Such answer-less questions maintain the paradoxical nature of faith, in which we act and move not knowing exactly why or to where. Such tension and lack of tangible knowledge is the substance of faith.

Let me tell what I believe faith is like. Faith is like being in a dark forest when its pitch black and you can see absolutely nothing, then running full speed without any hesitation. The continuous tension between running faster and faster while knowing that if you hit a tree you will hit it hard, and it will be painful… that tension.. that heart squeezing feeling, that immense and increasing fear, despite which you resolve to run only faster… that is the feeling of faith. Such faith can only exist in the presence of an enormous gravitating force you observe, feel and believe in.

That gravitating force would compel me to defend my brethren and protect our flow. That same gravitating force may pull so hard as to make me knock every single one of them down in the way. That is faith.

So when you ask me about my position on consensus I say God will punish those who deviate from it, and in the same breath and with the same tongue I say, yet one’s love of God may compel him to seek His wrath. Thus, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was really a sacrifice of his own self. I cannot agree with he who said that Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was stemmed from his faith in the absurd; that after complete resignation, all will be salvaged. No! His love of God and desire to submit totally to his Lord, was strong enough to have him obey regardless of the punishment awaiting the murderer. That is faith, to love God enough to accept a fall into the Fire… that is Faith.

To the believer, we have faith in God so that we may enter Paradise. However, to some believers… to the Knights of Faith, we have faith in God, even if that means being sentenced to the Fire.

Thus when we read again the verse of the Quran:

“And whoever acts hostilely to the Messenger after that guidance has become manifest to him, and follows other than the way of the believers, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell. What an evil refuge!” [Quran 4:115]

When we read this verse we acknowledge that although most of those who go against the flow of believers do so in obedience to their gods of personal desire and worldly interests, there are a few Knights of Faith whom, while trembling, would accept the evil refuge of the Fire. For their object of devotion is not Paradise, but God.

So when you ask me about my true views on consensus, I say, I am its most adamant defender, and its worst nightmare. Yet, never am I comfortable with this position. Never am I able to rest with such a conclusion. For if my object of devotion is God and not Paradise, I then remember the question, “What are you wary of when you are wary of God?” I also remember the answer, “I am wary of loosing God.” If God to me is unconditional love and endless mercy and if the Fire is not mere burning, but an expulsion from God’s love and mercy, then I do fear the Fire, and thus the paradox remains. How can I do something in the name of yearning for God’s love and mercy when I know that doing that would expel me from such an abode?

I can only hope that God would pardon me from his wrath, yet that only adds another layer of uncertainty to the equation. Now, not only am I running while fearing the trees, but while wary of losing my way and falling into the deep Abyss of Fire.

Thus the paradox remains. How can I respect the flow of believers while knowing that I might swim against it at times? In swimming to God, how can I avoid drowning?

That is why when Abraham was sacrificing his son, he was only sacrificing himself, but he believed that even if he was doomed to the Fire and expelled from God’s love and mercy, eventually.. eventually after eons of trials, torment and torture… eventually God would look upon him with love and mercy once again. Eventually he will reach his destination. Thus if I choose to reconcile my view with the one I just rejected, Abraham’s faith that all will be salvaged is not in reference to his son, but rather in reference to his relationship with God.

The trail of Abraham was not that he was going to sacrifice his son, no. the trial of Abraham was that God put him in a situation where his arrival was to be delayed and interrupted with a transit in the Fire. That was the trial… out of nowhere, the journey of life that was almost over for Abraham was extended by an afterlife transit in the Fire. Kill your beloved son Abraham! Kill him for God! Kill him, deserve the wrath of God and enter the Fire… so that eventually, after eons of pain, you will once again be God’s most beloved friend.

That is was the trial of Abraham.

So when you ask me about my view on consensus, I sigh and say… stay with the flow of believers lest you enter the evil refuge of the Fire. But know that your love of God may compel you to earn such a refuge. And hope that after eons of pain and anguish, God will look upon you and accept you once again.

I now stand fearful that the abode of the Fire will not be a transit, but rather going against the flow of believers will result in eternal punishment. If so, I fear my faith is not strong enough to forsake the reciprocity of love between me and God for a unilateral expression of love. God forgive me for I am weak. I only love you hoping that you would love me back.

I can now imagine a trial greater than the trial of Abraham. God would say to his servant, love me for eternity, but I will never love you back. God, have mercy on us, for we are weak, humble and meek!

So when you ask me about scholarly consensus and the flow of believers. I’d cry and say… O’ God have mercy upon us both, him and me!