Welcome to our first conversation with Shaykh Hamza Karamali as part of the “Talk About Islam” series. My name is Osama Hassan, and I will be having monthly conversations with Shaykh Hamza Karamali around topics that we are faced with as we struggle to live as Muslims in the modern age. Shaykh Hamza is the Dean of Academics at SeekersGuidance, and is one of our senior teachers. Today’s topic is the relevance of religion in the 21st century.
Osama: Salam ‘alaykum Shaykh Hamza, It’s great to be here talking to you today.
Shaykh Hamza: Wa ‘alaykum salam Osama, it’s nice to be talking to you too. How can I be of service today?
Defining Religion and Modernity
Osama: I have a question for you: Is religion relevant in the 21st century?
Shaykh Hamza: That depends on what you mean by “religion”, “relevance”, and the “21st century”.
Osama: Well, “religion”, as I see it, could be defined as an organised system composed of a doctrine and method that serves to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being. As for the question of religion’s “relevance” in the “21st century”, it arises for me due to the staggering advancements that have been made through scientific inquiry and empirical observation after the breaking away of academic institutions from ideas like religion, mythical beings, and unseen realities.
Shaykh Hamza: Great! Let’s start with your definition of religion: “An organised system composed of a doctrine and method that serves to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being.”According to this definition, the answer to the question, “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” might be, “Yes” or it might be, “No”.
For example, the Christianity of pre-modern Europe was “an organised system composed of a doctrine and method that served to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being” and it led to bloodshed, intolerance, and a corrupt collusion between the Church and the State to oppress the general masses, keeping them poor, hungry, and weak while the officials of the Church and the State became rich, fat, and strong.
This Christianity fits the definition of religion that you gave, and if we substitute it into the question to ask, “Is the Christianity of pre-modern Europe relevant in the 21st century?” the answer is, “No”, not in the 21st century, nor in any other century!
Buddhism is also commonly classified as a “religion” and would come to most people’s minds if you asked the question, “Is Buddhism relevant in the 21st century?” If you look, for example, at the ongoing Buddhist genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the answer is again, “No.”
Strictly speaking, however, Buddhism doesn’t fit the definition of “religion” that you have given because it does not express adoration of a Divine Being. It seeks instead to break free of all attachments, even attachments to God. That suggests that we might need to re-think the definition of “religion” that you have given. Let’s come back to that thought.
Islam also fits the definition of religion that you have given. If you were to ask me, “Is Islam relevant in the 21st century?” I would say, “Absolutely!”, because it fills a moral and spiritual void that no other religious or non-religious system can fill. But that’s not because its an “organised system” that is composed of a “doctrine” and “method” that serves to express “adoration” of a Divine Being.” It’s not because it’s a “religion” in the way that you have defined religion. It’s for a different reason.
Defining religion as an “organized system of beliefs” can turn it into a political ideology because the ones who are in charge of organizing the and regulating the system of beliefs will use it to further their own political ends and to oppress and terrorize others–as I illustrated with the example of pre-modern Christianity and the example of Buddhism. Islam fits the definition of religion that you have given, but it is not a political ideology.
I think that in order to answer your question, we need to work with a different definition of religion. I also think that we need to think carefully about your question itself, as it makes a number of false assumptions that I do not agree with. We need to think carefully about the historical circumstances that lead people ask this question in the first place.
Osama: Okay, so how would you define “religion”?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the Arabic word that is most commonly translated as “religion” into English is “deen”. Traditionally, Muslim scholars have defined this word as:
وضع إلهي سائق لذوي العقول السليمة باختيارهم المحمود إلى ما هو خير لهم بالذات
(which means) Rules that come from God, which drive people of sound reason to make good choices to voluntarily do what is really and truly in their best interests.
Let’s unpack this definition.
God sent the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) to teach people “rules” that were “really and truly in their best interests”. So he taught us how to have a relationship with God, how to worship Him, and how to love Him. Then, he taught us how to live with others, and this involved teaching people how to have a happy marriage, how to cultivate sincere friendships, how to have kindness towards one neighbours, and how to build functional and happy communities.
He came to teach us these “rules” because they were “really and truly in our best interests” not only in this life, but also forever. Let me say that last part again: “… not only in this life, but forever.”
Now, if you think for a moment about the question that you are asking, “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” you will see that there is an implicit assumption in your question. You are asking about the utility of religion in this world in the 21st century. But what about our eternal lives after death? Your question assumes that religion has a limited and time-bound benefit in this world in the 21st century. But that is false. The true and lasting relevance of religion is in the after life because we only live in this world for a limited period of time, but we live after our deaths forever. The benefits that we accrue from religion in this world dwindle to nothing in the face of the everlasting benefits that it leads us to in the next world.
You asked: “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” I think that the more important question that we need to ask is, “Is religious relevant for our eternal lives after death?”
Let’s return to the definition. But let’s return with the idea in our minds that this world is not all that there is and that the value of religion isn’t merely that it gives us purpose and meaning in this life, but that it also comes to tell us to look beyond this life, to tell us that there is much more than this life, and that religion–according to the definition that I am now working with–is the only way to success in that life.
So the definition tells us that religion drives people of sound reason to make good choices that lead them to voluntarily do what is truly good for them.
Now, your definition used the word, “doctrine”. Saying that religion is “doctrine” carries the connotation that it is something that you accept and cling to despite it being irrational. But that is not what religion means to us. The definition that we are working with tells us that it is something that people of sound reason voluntarily choose to do because they see that it is something that benefits them forever. Religion is rational. The sensible thing to do is to be religious, to believe in God and the Messengers that He sent to us, and to believe in the afterlife.
The definition that we are working with also tells us that God doesn’t want to drive us to follow His rules by coercion, but He wants to us to use our reason to see that religion is really and truly in our best interests — extremely relevant to us, in other words — and then to make our own good choices to freely do what is in our own best interests.
This is important to keep in mind because, in our times, when we say that religion consist of “rules”, it leads people to imagine that religion is something that is imposed on them against their will, that it is dictatorial (or “theocratic”), like an organized system that is imposed by an infallible pope who appoints and oversees bishops who comprise a Church that is your only path to God, and which is then imposed by the State onto the masses. The Church and the State then collude to put an end to heresy and to tell the masses that they need to give money to Church officials to have a happy afterlife, and the Church officials proceed to fill their pockets with their money. This is not religion according to our definition because it is forced. This is what I meant when I said earlier that Islam is not a political ideology.
In true religion, compulsion is inconceivable because religion, or “deen”, is a set of rules that God reveals for our own benefit that He wants us to choose to follow through our own choices after coming to reasoned conclusions. If somebody goes and compels somebody to behave in a certain way then it is not religion, or “deen”, because they haven’t chosen it for themselves.
So that’s how I would define “religion”. You can see that if you understand “religion” in this way, you won’t ask the question that you have asked. You’ll ask some other question.
Is Religion Relevant?
Osama: Well, before I ask some other questions, I’d like to ask one more question to further this discussion: Why do you think people question the “relevance” of “religion” in the 21st century?
Shaykh Hamza: Because we live in a post-Enlightenment world, and the Enlightenment was a period in Western history when oppressive and corrupt religion was displaced through revolution in some places and gradual movements in other places because there was an oppressive religious state structure that wronged people by denying them property rights, trapping most people in a life of serfdom in which they were bought and sold with the land they belonged to, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few people, and religious people would use religion to become wealthy.
Allah Most High describes this historical circumstance in the Qur’an:
إن كثيرا من الأحبار والرهبان ليأكلون أموال النّاس بالباطل ويصدون عن سبيل الله
Surely, many Christian monks and Jewish Rabbis consume the wealth of people without right, and turn them away from God’s path [9:34]
This verse condemns the indulgences that Martin Luther protested against to begin the Reformation. (The Qur’an called for a Reformation, too!)
When religion is associated with this kind of reality on the ground and then people rise up against the oppression — which they should have risen up against — they do away with religion completely. They were right when they marginalised the religion that they experienced — it was false religion. But to then extend that understanding of religion to all other types of religions — all “organized systems that have a doctrine and method and seek to express adoration of a Divine Being” — to make that extension is a fallacy that logicians call a “hasty generalisation”.
One of the features of the Enlightenment is the focus on the here-and-now, on human success and material prosperity here-and-now, and forgetting about the afterlife. So the church would say: you’re a serf because it’s the decree of God and since we are the people of God, we are your only avenue to God, and in the afterlife you’ll have a good life if you pay us lots of money and make us fat (laughs).
The natural response to this type of religion is: “Forget you! Forget your religion! I want relevance and happiness in this life.”
This is where questions like, “What is the relevance of religion in the 21st century?” come from.
Osama: What I can gather from what you have said is that in the past religious leaders colluded with the state to consume the wealth of people in the name of religion. This led to an establishment of an oppressive religious hierarchy, which the people came to despise (and rightfully so). This caused them to overthrow this type of religion in the name of freedom, justice, and reason. This period in which they overthrew oppressive religion came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment.
So when we hear people question the relevance of religion, it is due to the traumatic experiences of these peoples with oppressive religion in past that causes them to question religion’s relevance in the present.
Well, if we were to agree with all of that, then the question still remains: why should one give religion another go when it has, through experience, demonstrated that it doesn’t work?
People have already had a bad experience with it, what’s your proof that your religion is actually going to work?
Shaykh Hamza: You used the terms “proof” and “experience”. Embedded in your question is the idea that when someone uses the word, “proof” they are usually looking either for a “logical proof” or an “experiential proof”.
The logical proof of the validity of a religion, in brief, is that the universe is evidence for the existence of God, and the character of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and the miracles that were manifest at his hand–which we know of with absolute certainty because they have been mass-transmitted through generations of people since his time–are evidence that he was a genuine messenger from God.
These logical proofs are unpacked in a podcast that I produce for SeekersGuidance called Why Islam is True and also in a series of courses on Islamic Theology that I teach starting with the Step 2 Umm al-Baraheen course. I’ll refer you to those resources to further investigate the logical proofs.
But people look for more than logical proofs; they look for “experiential proofs”. What is an “experiential proof”? It is finding happiness. People just want to be happy. The happiest people that I have met have been people of religion. People of religion not in the way that you defined it but in the way which corresponds with the definition that I gave. I have met many religious people who don’t have huge houses but are extremely happy.
I was once with a student of the late Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri (Allah have mercy on him), who was a spiritual guide in Damascus who taught people how to find and love Allah Most High. This student of Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman once visited me when he was suffering from pancreatic cancer — which is one of the most aggressive and dangerous kinds of cancers — while he was going through chemotherapy, an extremely unpleasant and painful treatment, and so I asked him how he was feeling.
In response to my question, he talked for about 20 minutes about how Allah Most High doesn’t need anything and hence hasn’t created the universe because He needs anything, but out of His sheer generosity, to give to us, to make us happy. At times, someone might go through something that seems unpleasant but it has only been created for his own happiness. He also told me stories of righteous people that he had met who went through extreme difficulties but were grateful to Allah Most High throughout, and saw everything as happening through the agency of the One they loved. He said all of this from the depth of his heart with complete conviction, and I saw within him a happiness that I had not seen anywhere before.
Let me give you another example. Here in Jordan, we have janitors that take care of our buildings, and these janitors come from poor countries to earn money in Jordan to send back to their families. Some of these people that I have met are among the happiest people that I have come across. They are cheerful when they talk to me, they are always talking about relying on Allah Most High, they live simple and uncomplicated lives, the things that give me worry and grief don’t seem to affect them at all!
Another example is a close friend of mine who became Muslim and left a very successful life behind him in America. He had a car, house next to the beach, all of the things that people in the 21st century believe give you happiness–entertainment, substances, living on the edge, travelling, you name it. But he wasn’t happy. So he left everything and travelled in search of happiness. He ended up in Kenya where he tried to live with the tribal folks but was instructed by them to leave because they feared that he would die of disease if he lived with them. So he left for Egypt where he became Muslim and lived as a farmer for three years. He told me that those three years were the best years of his life.
So I think that people are searching for an experiential proof of religion, and the answer is right here, so try it out and you will find it, but trying out requires sincerity, humility, gratitude, and a desire to love and worship God.
Osama: You mentioned that “it [the experiential proof] is right here so try it out”, what do you mean by that?
Shaykh Hamza: The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said that God says:
“I Am as My servant thinks of Me, and I Am with Him when he remembers Me. So if he remembers Me to himself, then I remember him to Myself, and if he makes mention of Me in a gathering of people, then I make mention of him in a better gathering of angels.”
The narration continues:
“Whoever comes close to Me by a handspan, I come close to him by an arm’s length;
Whoever comes close to Me by an arm’s length, I come close to him by a fathom; and
Whoever comes to Me walking, I come to him running.”
All of these are metaphors that express the fact that if somebody turns to God, the small steps that they take towards God, will be met by huge blessings that will come to them from God.
So “trying it out” means acknowledging that you have a Creator, and every single benefit that you enjoy in this life was granted to you by that Creator, not because of anything that you did, but because of His Generosity, and so you realize that you have fallen short of what He deserves from you, so you turn to Him in repentance, and seek to know what He has asked you to do, and you do that with sincerity towards Him.
The Way to Happiness
In order to do that, you must find other people who are trying to build such a relationship with their Maker, because you cannot do it on your own. So by keeping their company, working with them, spending time with them, being inspired by them, and making that the purpose of your life, that is what is meant by “trying it out”.
Osama: For most people who work full-time jobs, or are studying at academic institutions, taking the time out to “find” such people is asking a lot. Many people due to the struggle to make ends meet, don’t even get time to pray in the mosque, or spend proper quality time with their family members.
A point to note, however, is that when most people do find time off from their busy schedules, they usually gravitate towards entertainment, food, or other forms of pleasure to find happiness.
Is this the right approach to finding that happiness? Where does one find happy people whose sole purpose in life is to live to please their Beloved Maker?
Shaykh Hamza: So you have to take a handspan, take a step, and walk the walk.
Somebody who is caught up with life to such an extent that he doesn’t find time for himself needs a break from his lifestyle. He needs to take himself out of that environment. Everyone feels that need. Everyone takes themselves out of that lifestyle. They normally do that by taking a vacation to some tourist destination or by finding some other means of entertainment. You only have to glance at the glitz of the entertainment industry to get an idea of how much time and money people are spending on entertainment.
But entertainment is just a distraction from the underlying problem, not a solution to it.
Ibn ‘ata-Illah al-Askandari says: “The anxieties and worries that people carry in their hearts are there because they don’t have an experiential relationship with Allah.”
So if somebody is caught up and finds himself in a situation where they feel unhappy and feel something missing, then they should look at this statement of Ibn ‘ata-Illah and try it out.
“Trying out” means that instead of going out on a vacation or spending money on entertainment, you need to take time off and go and visit someone who is really and truly happy to learn how you can really and truly become happy yourself.
Unfortunately, people like this are rare now; and they’re even rarer in the West.
I live in a community here in Amman where I have a teacher, Shaykh Nuh Keller, and the reason why I live here is because here there is somebody who is like that who I can watch and learn from so that I can become like that. There are people here that visit and take time off to spend time here. There are other people as well, like Habib Umar bin Hafiz, who visits places around the world. Actually, Shaykh Nuh also visits around as well.
So we should find people who have a spiritual relationship with God, and teach people how to have a spiritual relationship with God. We need to create time in our lives to visit such people, learn from them, and listen to them. Then we can go back to other things that we need to do in our lives.
Going towards entertainment won’t give you happiness, and won’t solve your problems; it is simply a distraction.
The Spiritual Void
Osama: You mentioned the aphorism of Ibn ‘ata-Illah al-Askandari, in which he astutely points out that anxieties and worries are actually a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the absence of a real experiential and spiritual relationship with God.
To further what you have said, I find it no wonder then that we see a rise in mental health related issues, especially in the West. I was, for example, not that long ago reading an article on BBC that pointed out that there has been a stark rise in anxiety and depression related issues within high-school students in Australia. This is not a peculiar problem to Australia; based on my limited experience, I feel it is a global epidemic that is growing day-by-day. The technological advancements aren’t helping either because they are making entertainment and immediate gratification even more accessible to people thereby fuelling this spiritual void even further.
Escapism may be the real problem here; we are running away from this spiritual void that we have created within ourselves by getting rid of religion completely from our lives. That may explain why you will find that people don’t find meaning in their careers, education, family, and relationships.
What do you think is the cause of this spiritual void? Are we experiencing this void because we have replaced sound religion with amusement and entertainment?
Shaykh Hamza: The cause of this spiritual void, I feel, is not just seeking pleasure through entertainment, rather it comes from broken homes. Part of the the rules that came from God in the form of deen (religion) are rules for creating a home environment that works.
A home environment that works is one in which there is a father who works, a mother who is at home to take care of the family and the house, children who love to be at home because they feel the love between the father and mother. The home is haven for everyone in it. We need this because as we have social needs. The family structure, which is made up of husband, wife, children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, with the rules of the responsibilities that each has to the others, is extremely important to preserve.
In our times, the mother and father often both work full-time, and, since they are often not religious, the home, instead of being a haven, becomes a scene of arguments and abuse. The grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts, are busy dealing with the same problems in their own homes.
All of this is a result of people no longer being religious. Keep in mind that a religious person is not just someone who follows a series of rules. He is a person who has humility, reverence for God, sincere love and desire for the welfare of others, patience in the face of trials, responds to bad with good, and who lives his life not just for selfish desires but in order to help others. So now when you don’t have people like this and religion is taken out of the picture, then when they come together and have a marriage, then the marriage will end up in a series of fights, breaking of dishes, and various forms of abuse. Psychological, sexual, verbal, and forms of physical abuse have now become common as a result of this void.
But the rules are also important. I am a father in a local Boy Scouts troop for my children and the children of the community. In order to be officially certified as a scout leaders by the Boy Scouts of America, all adults must complete a course on “Youth Protection Training” to protect the young boys from the dangers of child abuse which is now extremely prevalent. The rules that are mentioned in the training manuals are very similar to the rules that were God revealed to us through the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). I thought to myself, if we just followed the Divine Law, then these problems would just go away.
So, for example, we have rules of khalwa (seclusion with the opposite gender). These rules stipulate that an unmarried man and woman who are not related to each other cannot be alone in a room together. Now, over a thousand years ago, the fuqaha explained that these rules also apply to a man and a young boy–for a man to be alone with a young boy is just as prohibited as for him to be alone with an unrelated woman.
We also have rules of ‘awra (concealing one’s nakedness). According to these rules, men and boys cannot reveal the area between their navel and knees to anyone else, not even another man.
So when we were doing this youth protection training with all of the fathers and children, all I had to do was to teach them these Divine Rules. We should all know these rules. We should all realize that these rules are there to protect us and our children from harm.
Now, when these rules are abandoned, then we have societies where women and children are abused, and things like pornography become common, promoting abuse even further. The effects of this psychological, physical, and sexual abuse is apparent in the people who come and are looking for happiness. Then, to search for the solution in entertainment is only going to make the situation worse. So the problem is not just in entertainment; the problem is also in not following the rules of religion. God sent us these Divine Rules not because He needs something from us but because they are in our own best interests.
It is not possible for us to attain happiness without having reverence for the rules that the Allah Most High has given us for our own benefit. We need to learn these rules of worship, buying and selling, marriage and divorce, inheritance, so that we can return to living as healthy families and communities.
Osama: So if the solution lies in following and revering the rules that God has revealed to us for our benefit, what then is the first step to realising these rules in our life?
Shaykh Hamza: What steps should one take? One should find people who are living in this way and try to keep as much of their company as possible, and one should learn the rules by which one should live one’s life. We have courses on SeekersGuidance through which you can learn most of these rules in a way that is relevant to modern life.
The technical term for living a life that is based on following these rules is taqwa. Taqwa literally means to protect yourself from harm, and the greatest harm that we can protect ourselves from is Allah Most High’s punishment in the Hellfire. We do that by doing what Allah Most High has commanded us to do and avoiding what He has commanded us to avoid. A person with taqwa he protects himself by following these rules.
People of taqwa are rare because the way in which most of us conduct our lives is based on our desires and whims. A person of taqwa, however, is somebody who does certain things, and doesn’t do other things. That’s why people of taqwa stand out in our societies, it is because they fear God, and protect themselves from harmful things by avoiding them even when everyone around them is doing them.
These things may seem very difficult and unsurmountable but they are not. We should start with small steps and make du’a (supplicate Allah Most High). Remember: go a handspan, an arm’s length, then walk, and Allah Most High will respond far beyond your expectations.
Osama: Brilliant, so what you have argued so far is that true religion is relevant, and is, indeed, a path to happiness. You have forwarded the idea that this path to true happiness cannot ever be successfully realised without following and revering the Divine Law.
Now, to learn this Divine Law, and to practise the realities that are embedded within these laws, people will have to look towards practising Muslim scholars. In our times, however, we find that many Muslims, due to their cultural and educational backgrounds, haven’t been exposed to religious people that are truly practising and religious. Often, many will look up to a religious preacher, but after a while, find out that they are not as what initially met the eye. Sometimes the issue lies with the religious person’s character or education, and sometimes it lies with the person misconceiving the true nature of the religious person. In any case, this creates trust issues and can become a barrier for people in trusting Muslim religious leadership.
What is your advice to people that struggle to build lasting, true and real relationships with pious and religious people?
Shaykh Hamza: I once heard Shaykh Nuh Keller relate a story of a man who came to Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, and started to praise him excessively. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman responded by telling him to place his trust in Allah. He told him that if you place your trust in people, then you will be disappointed, but if you place your trust in Allah, then you will never be disappointed.
It is a very difficult experience to place your trust in the hands of a person who you believe is religious, and to then end up being disappointed by them, perhaps through mistreatment, perhaps through betrayal, perhaps through a breach of trust. If that happens, the lesson to take is that we should rely on Allah, not on people.
This goes back to the hadith in which Allah Most High says, “I am as my servant thinks of me to be.”
Your relationship with other people should be for the sake of Allah, which means that your intention should be to reach closeness to Allah. You should realize that Allah has placed people around you so that you can benefit from them and use them as a means to get close to Him. The goal is not to gain the love of people; the goal is to gain the love of Allah.
(For example, ) excessive formalities with one’s teachers is wrong. We have to respect people of piety and knowledge but you we also need to have a normal human relationship with them. I remember one of my teachers, Shaykh Muhammad Shuqayr, frequently citing the hadith, “I and the people of taqwa from my ummah are free of formalities.” Now, this is not an authentic hadith, but its meaning is true. When you take a teacher, you always need to remember that he is a fallible human being who Allah Most High has created for you to take as a means to get close to Him. You show him respect, you learn from him, but he is not the goal; the goal is Allah Most High. If he falters, if he makes a mistake, if he falls short of what Allah Most High has commanded, if he gets angry at you, if he forbids you from ever attending his classes again, that does not mean that you can’t benefit from him in the future, and that also does not mean that you should forget about everything that you have benefited from him in the past. Every human being will have faults. Perfection is only for prophets. We don’t rely on people. We rely on Allah Most High.
If you read the stories of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace), great Companions like Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him), you will find that people would go up to them, disagree with them, tell them they were wrong, and at the same time realize that they were the best of the ummah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
I think that the loss of trust that you mention comes from not having a proper relationship with a religious person. The way to have such a relationship is to have humility towards them, to appreciate their knowledge and religiousness, to see that this person has something that you don’t have, and you go to that person to learn what you don’t have and use that to go towards Allah Most High, all the way remembering that we are all fallible.
Osama: Before I ask you the final question, I find it pertinent to review some of what we have discussed.
We started off by defining “religion” as the Muslims scholars have defined it. Then, we went over the proofs for the trueness of Islam as a religion. These proofs were divided into two: logical and experiential. You briefly summarised the logical proofs for us, which you go through in detail in the Islam is True series and the Umm al-Baraheen course. Then, we talked at length about the pursuit of happiness, and how the experiential proof of true religion lies in being happy.
Now, after having a good idea of what religion is. and what it is supposed to do; I ask: How is this religion relevant to us in a time wherein mankind has made staggering advancements in technology through empirical observations and scientific endeavour; has science not in the 21st century replaced religion?
Have we not realised that, in reality, there are only material realities in the world? In this post-Enlightenment and postmodern world, most people have dismissed religion and immaterial realities as mythical; what is your take on that?
Russell’s Teapot and other Analogies
Shaykh Hamza: Bertrand Russell, a 20th century atheist, represents some of what you said about mythical creatures. He has this analogy called Russell’s Teapot. He explained his analogy in the following words:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Historically, the Church’s theology integrated with Aristotelian science and it was imposed upon people as religious dogma. Then, Copernicus and Galileo scientifically challenged this religious dogma by arguing that if you use your mind and your eyes, then you will see that the Earth goes around the Sun, not the other way around, as the Church and Aristotelian science taught. The Church said that we do not want to use our mind let alone use our eyes. The general approach of Christian philosophers and theologians since (even after they accepted the conclusions of modern science and threw away Aristotelianism) has been to say that we cannot prove religion by reason but, at the same time, religion also cannot be disproven by reason so we don’t want to let go of it. So Russell came up with his Teapot analogy.
He is saying that if you want to believe in something, then you should believe in it based on clear evidence. He is arguing that a religious person who responds in the way that I just described is like someone who believes that there are tiny teapots go around the sun.
But we disagree with this type of religion. We say that everyone is obligated to use their mind and reason to establish the truths of religion. We also believe that if you were to use your mind correctly, then you would come to the conclusion that God does indeed exist, that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was genuinely God’s messenger, that there is, indeed, an afterlife, and that Islam is true.
So we don’t agree with the fact that religion is a fairytale. That’s my response to the final part of your question. As for the beginning of the question, it is based on a trajectory of emotion, thought, and history that is unique to the modern Western psyche. We should not understand the world according to this trajectory. We should understand the world according to the trajectory of prophecy from God, beginning with the Prophet Adam, going through the Prophet Moses, then the Prophet ‘Isa (or Jesus), and ending with the final Prophet Muhammad (may Allah Most High bless them all and give them peace), all of whom taught us to use our reason to discern the truth of the divine rules that they taught, so that we could freely choose to do what would benefit us forever.
The trajectory of the Western psyche is very different. According to this trajectory, masses of oppressed people in Western Europe revolted in the name of science and reason against the Church. It was through this reason-based revolt against “religion” that they found morality and freedom. They thought that by ridding themselves of religion, they would release themselves from its shackles in order to gain morality and freedom, and this is what created the modern world. This is called “modernity”. Modernity is full of hope and prind in a reason-based revolt against religion. It believes that we can now use our reason to create a Paradise on Earth. Your question reflects this hope and pride when you talk about the “staggering achievements” of technology and the replacement of religion by science.
But we no longer live in modernity. We don’t live in a modern world. We live in postmodern world. Postmodernism was born after the First and Second World Wars. To call them “World Wars” is a misnomer. They were not conflicts between all countries of the world. They were conflicts between the “modern” societies of Western Europe and America (plus Japan in WWII). We shouldn’t call them “world wars”, but “wars of modern Western states that destroyed the world”. 50 million deaths in WWI and 70 million in WWII. These are huge numbers. Think about them for a second. The population of Canada is 35 million. It’s like all of Canada being killed three times over and then a couple of million more. The “staggering achievement” of modernity is not the technology that the tiny fraction of the world’s population has the privilege of using everyday; it is the nuclear bomb that destroyed entire cities in WWII and which threatens to destroy all of us all over the world should another world war ever break out again (may Allah Most High protect us!). The technology that the Enlightenment gave birth to has enabled us to kill each other on a scale that has never been imagined in human history.
This modern violence gave birth to postmodernism, which, unlike modernism, is anti-rational, and is based on the idea that whenever human beings have power, it will always lead to oppression. We now believe that the human power of modernism leads to oppression, not panacea, as the Enlightenment promised.
We live in a postmodern world, not a modern one. Your question is full of optimism in reason and technology. That optimism is gone for anyone who has studied world history, and for anyone who follows the conflicts that continue to plague our world today. Modernism has not brought us happiness. Ask the Syrians if it has brought them happiness; ask the Rohingya if it has brought them happiness; ask the Africans if it has brought them happiness. If you are an American, if you are a Canadian (me!), if you are a European, if you are an Australian (you!), you are part of a privileged minority.
The world that modernity created is not as great as we think it is. Internally, within our privileged societies, there is a profound internal sadness, and externally, outside our societies, we have expressed this sadness by destroying countries all over the world.
This takes us back to the question that you started with, about religion being relevant in the 21st century. I would say, based on the last couple of answers, that not only is it extremely relevant, but it is absolutely necessary, necessary for our happiness, necessary for our security, necessary for the preservation of human life. But remember that even more important than its relevance and necessity in the 21st century is its relevance and necessity in our everlasting lives to come in the afterlife.
Osama: Shaykh Hamza, it has been a pleasure talking with you today. I look forward to having many more insightful conversations with you. Thank you, and al-salam ‘alaykum.
Shaykh Hamza: You are most welcome, wa ‘alaykum al-salam.
Osama Hassan is an Australian of Pakistani descent who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from Curtin University. He is currently pursuing studies in the Islamic sciences and Arabic in Amman.