I don’t want to be a perfectionist anymore

I have been avoiding coming here for a long time. Not because I have nothing to write about, but because I have so much that I don’t even know where to start. But at the same time, many of my thoughts, memories, and ideas dissipate. The result is that my mind is back into to being its hyperactive and sleepless self.

I believe that there are two reasons for my predicament: (1) I read faster and process information faster than I write (like everyone else), and (2) I am a lazy perfectionist. I have many ideas that I want to write out in a perfectly logical manner (and thereby also have a clearer idea of what I really know or think).

But how could I possibly do that? It’s such a big project. So I delay indefinitely what I think is the most important part of the process of gaining knowledge: writing about what I learn.

Unfortunately, the more I delay, the harder it is to start writing again. Perhaps I could say that my mind is analogous to a room. And writing is analogous to tidying up the room. After months of not writing anything down, my thoughts can only be described as chaotic. And just like how it’s a headache to organize a messy room, the longer I don’t write, the harder it is to write when I actually want to write.

But from now on, I will refuse being a perfectionist. I don’t care what people think. I am writing only for my own benefit: I write to learn. So, I will come here everyday to write. Maybe I won’t finish a post everyday, but I WILL come here to write even for just 15 minutes a day. That’s the promise I make to myself.

That’s it for this post, I guess. Even though I do want to write a little bit about how the idea of “writing to learn” reminds me of the Socratic method. The act of writing forces me to examine my thoughts and pull them out in the form of a string of words, which act like a “logical machine” to organize my thoughts in a logical way. This action of “pulling out” is similar to the action that is performed in the Socratic method of questioning. The only difference is that I am the one who is questioning myself.

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Roger Penrose’s “three worlds and three deep mysteries” theory

A little more than a month ago, I was studying in the library and saw a rather big and conspicuous book on the shelf called The Book to Reality. I picked it up and started reading casually, but was soon absorbed in the content and fascinated by both the depth and breadth of the book. After a month, I am still reading the book. I haven’t gotten far (at all), but that’s not because the book is boring, but rather because of two reasons: 1) I am very ignorant about many topics discussed in the book (e.g. hyperbolic geometry), and 2) the book is so thought-provoking that I cannot get very far without stopping to think and write stuff in my notes, googling things etc.

For this post, I would like to go back to the first chapter and summarize and comment a little on a particularly thought-provoking section called “three worlds and three deep mysteries”.

In Penrose’s metaphysical framework, there are three forms of existence or “worlds”: the physical, the mental, and the Platonic mathematical, as illustrated in the figure below (extracted from p.18 of the book):

three worlds Roger PenroseGoing clockwise, the figure reads (the three mysteries):

  • A small part of the Platonic mathematical is relevant to the physical.
  • A small part of the physical induces the mental.
  • A small part of the mental is concerned with the Platonic.

Going counterclockwise, the figure reads (Penrose’s three prejudices):

  • The entire Platonic mathematical is within the scope of reason (in principle).
  • The entire mental is dependent on the physical.
  • The entire physical is governed by the Platonic.

However, since this view reflects some of Penrose’s prejudices, he has drawn another figure to accommodate different viewpoints:

three worlds modified Roger PenroseGoing clockwise, this figure reads the same as before (the mysteries remain).

Going counterclockwise, however, this figure now allows:

  • The possibility of mathematical truths inaccessible to reason (in principle)
  • The possibility of mentality not rooted in physical structures
  • The possibility of physical action beyond the scope of mathematical control

As indicated above, either view contains the same mysteries though; namely:

  • Why do mathematical laws apply to the physical world with such precision? Why are mathematical laws so beautiful?
  • How can some physical materials like human brains conjure up consciousness?
  • How is it that we can perceive mathematical truth? How could we grasp the actual meanings of “zero”, “one”, “two”, “three”, etc.?

The book is mostly concerned with the first mystery: the remarkable relationship between mathematics and the physical world. Regarding the second mystery, that of consciousness, Penrose believes that “there is little chance that any deep understanding of the nature of the mind can come about without our first learning much more about the very basis of physical reality.” (p.21) The third mystery is discussed briefly in the book in relation to the notion of mathematical proof.

What do I think of this theory? Personally, I prefer the second figure, the one that allows the different possibilities. This is mainly because I think that there is a very small number of mental conditions not rooted physical structures (mystical experiences), and that there is also a very small number physical actions beyond the scope of mathematical control (miracles). I am not sure if there may be some mathematical truths that are simply beyond human reason, though.

Obviously, I believe in the existence of mystical experiences and of miracles due to my religion. However, this viewpoint is also surprisingly compatible with the concept of Tai Chi, more commonly known as Yin Yang. I am not an expert, but the idea is that everything in the world exists in a binary harmony in the form of Yin and Yang (also see Qur’an 51:49). In Yin (dark/feminine), there is always a little bit of Yang (bright/masculine), and in Yang, there is always little bit of Yin. If you want to cut the circle in half, there is always going to be some black and some white, never just one color. So, perhaps it is the case that the vast majority of mental conditions are rooted in physical structures, but there is a very small number that are not. And perhaps it is the case that the vast majority of physical actions are within the scope of reason, but there is a very small number that are not.

Although I prefer the second figure, I agree completely with Penrose’s identification of the three the mysteries associated with this framework.

The relationship between mathematics and physics is indeed mysterious and endlessly fascinating. The physical world conforms to mathematical laws to such a high degree that I sometimes suspect that the whole physical world is just the “image” of the mathematical world, and that the whole Platonic mathematical world could eventually be shown to be completely intertwined with the physical—two sides of the same coin kind of thing. But of course, this is a very idealistic conjecture.

Regarding the second mystery, it’s really what the whole field of Philosophy of Mind is concerned with. Explaining consciousness is the “hard problem”! And indeed I thought very hard about this problem when I was taking Philosophy of Mind more than three years ago. The conclusion I reached was the same as Penrose’s: we still don’t have enough understanding of the physical world to figure it out. Specifically, I came to agree with the philosopher David Chalmers on this issue (Type F Monism).

The third mystery is not formulated very clearly in my mind, but I suppose that it’s related to epistemological questions like these: How do we know what we know? What exactly is the connection between the mental world and the Platonic mathematical world? Is logic everything? This is a very deep mystery, and in my mind perhaps the most difficult one to solve.

An additional thought: It seems that right now, we have the most chance solving the first mystery, and that in order to solve the second and the third mysteries, we still need many more big ideas and big discoveries. I just have a feeling that these mysteries are so deep that we probably still don’t know what we don’t know! (We have to account for the “unknown unknowns!) We can still think about these things to come up with the most plausible conjectures, though—an activity otherwise known as philosophy. Perhaps it’s futile to philosophize when we have so little knowledge, but I believe with the help of divine input (God’s Revelation) we can at least work out some theories about the “shadows” we are seeing.

Overall, I like Penrose’s metaphysical theory for its coherence and ease of understanding. At this stage of my life, I am concentrating on understanding the relationship between mathematics and the physical world, but I am really interested in the whole thing—how everything fits together. I will never reach that knowledge, because that Knowledge resides with God and the path towards God is infinite, as God is infinite. So I will just look up into that unseen mountain top and keep climbing, insha’Allah!

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“On the sources of knowledge and ignorance” essay by Karl Popper

I had the good fortune to encounter Karl Popper’s Conjectures & Refutations while browsing randomly in the library last week. The introduction to this book is an essay called “On the sources of knowledge and ignorance” and I have found it to be very insightful and helpful for me personally in clarifying part of my mental structure of epistemology. I will write a little about this essay and raise some questions that I hope will be answered as I read the essay again and think more deeply about these matters.

To be brief, Popper’s thesis is that both classical empiricism (represented by Bacon etc.) and classical rationalism (Descartes etc.) are mistaken in that they both depend on the idea that knowledge has to be based on an authoritative source. He thinks that there isn’t one pure and untainted source of knowledge—whether it’s observation or clear and distinct ideas—on which is based the rest of our knowledge, and this implies that we can’t establish the certainty of our knowledge positively, only negatively, through eliminating our errors. He calls this new view critical rationalism.

Popper’s view, according to himself, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I see it as a more optimistic version of Plato’s Cave: We can never truly know the reality; we are inherently limited; truth is not manifest. But this does not mean that we can never have knowledge or that sources of knowledge do not exist. There are still different sources of knowledge, it’s just that none of them has absolute authority (apparently, Popper really dislikes the notion of authority). And we can still get knowledge from these sources through critical examination—checking the data we get from them against each other and against the world through experiments and see if any theory is wrong. In this way, our knowledge evolves and gets closer and closer to the truth through a process of elimination.

The implication of this view is that knowledge doesn’t have to be justified by any authority. If I remember correctly from my epistemology course, it is generally agreed that knowledge should be true, knowable, and justified. So Popper’s epistemology seems to be one that does not require this third criterion. However, to me, it seems as if he is just making “critical examination” the new authority.

I get what he said about how observation is not enough as an authority of knowledge because a lot of our knowledge comes from unobservable sources, and reason is not enough either because a lot of times our “clear and distinct ideas” are wrong. I also understand that from the above (+ some other arguments) he concluded that no one single source has absolute authority that provides ultimate positive justification to knowledge. But then isn’t what he proposed a kind of negative justification?

I guess I am just confused about what he wrote toward the end:

“There is no criterion of truth at our disposal, and this fact supports pessimism. But we do possess criteria which, if we are lucky, may allow us to recognize error and falsity. Clarity and distinctness are not criteria of truth, but such things as obscurity or confusion may indicate error. Similarly coherence cannot establish truth, but incoherence and inconsistency do establish falsehood.” p.28

So “critical examination” seems to involve two criteria: non-incoherence and non-falsity. We can never prove a theory to be true, but if it’s not incoherent and is not proven to be false, then it would count as scientific knowledge—the best we have to describe reality. But then how do you know it’s not incoherent? How do we know it’s false? I mean, why can we trust the validity of confusion as an indication of falsity more than clear and distinct ideas as an indication of truth, for example?

With italics applied to “if we are lucky” and “may”, Popper himself seems to be implying that there is no way we can know for sure that something is false, either. But it does seem as if he believes that we have more hope in knowing something to be false than in knowing something to be true. My question is: why?

Perhaps due to this doubt, and the fact that I believe in God, I am having difficulty integrating Popper’s theory into my own existing mental structure of things. In Popper’s framework, I seem to be exactly the classic empiricist/rationalist with whom he disagrees. I believe that the ultimate source of knowledge is God in the form of nature and God’s Revelation, and in order to transform the information we gather from these sources (namely nature and revelation) into knowledge i.e. justified belief that corresponds to the reality, we need to apply, on these data, our God-given ability to reason. My current (tentative and evolving) epistemic view can be captured as follows:

  • Input (Sources): the universe (Bacon’s book of Nature), God’s Revelation
  • The Machine (me): observation + reason
  • Output (Knowledge): truths/facts, i.e. beliefs that correspond to reality

Although I see most of the reasoning behind Popper’s argument (except for the question I raised above), I am not sure how to fit it into my view. I suppose in his view, I will not necessarily get knowledge this way because my sources have no authority and my ability to observe or to reason is not fallible either. The best I can do to get knowledge is to see if the information I obtain from these sources are not internally incoherent and to verify that they are not false.

But maybe due to the fact that I have faith in God, I find that these sources and my ability to sense and reason do have authority. I may not be 100% certain that the universe exists or that Qur’an is the Word of God, and I may be even less certain about my observation and reasoning abilities, but because I have faith in God, I deem these sources sufficiently certain and my ability sufficiently reliable that they could act as an authority to justify my beliefs. So it seems that “faith in God” is what causes my view to diverge from Popper’s…

I don’t know. There’s a lot to think about.

I would like to mention, though, that I disagree with Popper that optimistic epistemology is “the basis of almost any kind of fanaticism”. Speaking for myself: even if I believe that truth is manifest to a certain degree, and I believe that falsehood does come from human beings, I do not find the fanatical urge to condemn people who do not believe in the truth (as I believe in) as weak or stupid or influenced by the devil. Why? Because 1) Everyone is at a different stage in their epistemic quest, and there is no way for me to know how much they really know or how close they are to the Truth, so I cannot judge anyone by the degree of their ignorance or lack of will to find out (and God is the Only Judge), 2) I know from the Qur’an that condemning anyone’s belief is futile and doesn’t change anything; God is the Only One that can guide us, and 3) As mentioned before, even if I feel pretty certain about some of my beliefs, I can never be 100% certain about them so fundamentally speaking there is no reason for me to look down on other people for not believing in what I believe.

This last point probably would not be raised by a true epistemological optimist. I guess I am a weaker optimist in that I agree that there is always going to be uncertainty regarding the sources of knowledge and human ability.

I will leave it here and come back and think about it at a later time, perhaps connecting these ideas with other things I am reading. But for the moment, I really have to start working on those Calculus problems!

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Abstraction, intuition, and the “monad tutorial fallacy”

In the past few weeks, I have been reading my calculus textbook and wondering which of the following is true: (1) the book is very badly written, or (2) I am dumb, or (3) all of the above. This wonderful article explains the whole phenomenon with a funny metaphor.

blog :: Brent -> [String]

While working on an article for the Monad.Reader, I’ve had the opportunity to think about how people learn and gain intuition for abstraction, and the implications for pedagogy. The heart of the matter is that people begin with the concrete, and move to the abstract. Humans are very good at pattern recognition, so this is a natural progression. By examining concrete objects in detail, one begins to notice similarities and patterns, until one comes to understand on a more abstract, intuitive level. This is why it’s such good pedagogical practice to demonstrate examples of concepts you are trying to teach. It’s particularly important to note that this process doesn’t change even when one is presented with the abstraction up front! For example, when presented with a mathematical definition for the first time, most people (me included) don’t “get it” immediately: it is only after examining some specific instances…

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Updates on my philosopher dream

Ever since I made the post “I have finally figured out what to do with my life“, I have been taking small actions toward my dream of becoming a philosopher. But at the same time, I have also been second-doubting my decision more times than I can count. You can tell how unconfident I feel by my use of the word dream and not goal to describe my desire to become a philosopher. It is simply too untenable to be a goal, especially considering the extremely competitive nature of the selection process of PhD programs/terminal MA programs as well as numerous challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps I will write a little about this toward the end.

But first, I will write about what I did over the past two months and examine how closely I have followed my original plan during the past two months. Taken from the aforementioned post (written on Dec. 8, 2014):

Here’s my immediate action plan: as a first step, find a part-time job that allows me to attend classes at a local college that offers continuing education programs for adults, and get a degree in mathematics, hopefully completing the degree in one year.

Meanwhile, read scholarly literature on philosophy and attempt to narrow my interests; study for and take the GRE exam; and, of course, prepare to apply for graduate schools (contact previous professors for recommendation letters, conduct research on which schools to apply to, create my writing samples, etc.).

So, basically, I wanted to 1) Find a part time job, 2) Begin studying mathematics at a local college. #1 hasn’t gone too well so far, although I did have the opportunity to do a 3-day software-testing gig that was a pretty interesting. As for #2, I have indeed begun taking classes at that local college, and my goal is to graduate in two years with a second bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. I had wanted to spend only a year on this project, but later realized that it was impossible. And in retrospect, even if it was administratively possible for me to get the degree in one year, I probably would have failed at my classes due to lack of time to study and understand the materials therefore still not been able to get the degree in one year. I say this with my recent renewed realization that: Math is hard! And I will have to spend a lot of time trying to understand what we study in mathematics.

This semester, I am taking “Calculus I” and a class called “Foundation of Mathematics” where we are supposed to learn how to perform mathematical proofs. To fulfill my business “gen ed” requirement (one that my previous university did not have), I am also taking “Accounting I”, which, by the way, is by far my easiest class. This was a surprising discovery because I had always imagined accounting to be difficult.

As I said, I had begun second-doubting myself not long after I decided that I wanted to be a philosopher. Over the past week or so, I’ve also had plenty of motivation to ponder over my decision to study mathematics before pursuing graduate studies in philosophy. There was a moment, for example, while I was doing my first homework assignment for calculus, where I felt like I was someone else observing a crazy person who was in fact, me. Why? Why would I do this to myself? Indeed, there was no explanation other than that I_am_crazy.

…Except that thankfully, there seems to be sufficient evidence that I am not (yet). The more I think about it, and the more I read, the more reasons I find to study mathematics. But that is topic for another post (which I hope will materialize soon).

Overall, I am satisfied with my performance over the past two months with regard to pursuing my dream. Despite my tense and sometimes sleep-deprived body and my stress- and anxiety-ridden mind, both of which the results of my choice to go back to school and study mathematics, I feel more peaceful and my soul more stable than ever before in the past two and a half years. My soul no longer feels lost or the desire to escape my current situation, or that I am wasting my life away (hey, this a zeugma): I know that what I am doing now is what I want to do the most in my life (i.e. getting closer to the truth).

Now that I know I am on the right path, at least for now, I just need to think more—a lot more—about if I really, really want to pursue that PhD.

Numerous times, I’ve googled topics on applying to philosophy grad schools and philosophy as profession: I really just wanted someone to convince me once and for all that I can become a philosopher. Unfortunately, I have found for myself far more reasons against this career choice than reasons for it. This was hardly surprising. I sort of knew it all along. But I have to say that I am nonetheless very disappointed and disillusioned by how dismal the future looks to even those who would be satisfied with just a modest career related to philosophy. So much competition. So little opportunity.

Are philosophers really that useless? Do they not add value to the human civilization by, among other things, trying to comprehend the metaphysical reality of the world? Wouldn’t knowing that reality guide us to the right course of actions in the metaphysical context, just as the knowledge of the physical world has guided and continue to guide us similarly in the physical context? Or perhaps philosophy is still too young a field for most to recognize its great potential to contribute to humanity? Perhaps we are still in the early process of building a solid foundation for philosophy and this makes philosophy currently a field that is akin to alchemy prior to chemistry?

I don’t know… I am just whining, really. I have been feeling especially tired and sad today as I thought again about all this. Through so many years of life experience and contemplation, I have finally decided on the most suitable career for me, yet it is almost impossible for me to even embark on that career…

Many pieces of advice have been floating around in my head: “You can only be a philosopher if you are either brilliant or independently wealthy.” (I am neither); “If you know for sure that you won’t become a professor of philosophy, will you still go for that PhD? If yes, then go for it.” (…); “Never go in debt for a philosophy degree.”; “Only do it if you can’t imagine yourself happy doing anything else.” (I can, in fact, imagine myself being happy doing something else); “It is almost impossible to contribute to philosophical knowledge without institutional support.” and so on and so forth, plus many depressing statistics I found related to the competitiveness of graduate programs.

But at the same time, there is a voice that’s been telling me: Be persistent! Don’t give up so easily! You will be able to discover some important truth by pursuing what you think is important! Don’t you love the truth? Isn’t philosophy what you want to do most in your life? Don’t you want to try to prove the truth of Islam through logic so that anyone with a rational mind can SEE the truth of Islam?

The question now is: Is this voice strong enough to defeat my tremendous insecurity over my own (in)ability or my fear for a life of destitution? In other words, is my intrinsic motivation strong enough to balance all the extrinsic disincentives?

This, I am still not so sure. But the best strategy for a man lost in the forest, as Descartes said, would be to walk in a line as straight as possible. You don’t know where you’ll end up, but at least you’ll end up somewhere. (Although, it is interesting to note, that it has been scientifically proven that people naturally walk in circles.) That’s what I intend to do at this moment: Just do it—go all the way.

Or maybe I should just switch to be an accounting major. 😦

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Is Islam a religion of peace or violence?

Ever since I decided to pursue the path to become a philosopher, I have been trying to find ways to fund this dream. During these weeks of frantic brainstorming, I have browsed numerous pages on taobao and Alibaba, bought craft supplies at Michael’s, and even created several gigs on Fiverr, one of which promised that I would answer any question about Islam based on the Qur’an for $5.

Although hopeful, I didn’t actually expect anyone to ask me any questions, but I received my first order after only one week! It was incredible. I probably should thank the incessant news report on “Islamic” terrorism these days. But even more should I thank the person who asked the question. He must be a very open-minded and intellectually humble individual with a strong desire for the truth to be willing to pay a Muslim to answer his questions about Islam.

One of the questions he asked was: Is Islam a religion of peace or violence? I think a lot of non-Muslims must have this question in mind (especially in the recent Islamophobic climate) so I will share my answer here for the benefit of other open-minded truth seekers. Of course, I am not saying that what I say is the truth. No one has the total truth. I am just saying that if you are curious, here is something that I have personally verified to be true.


Islam is a religion of peace, not of violence. I will support this answer using Qur’anic evidence by 1) explaining how the commonly cited “verse of the sword” does not support the claim that Islam is a religion of violence, and 2) showing how Islam encourages peace, again using support from the Qur’an.

Explaining the Verse of the Sword

The most commonly quoted verse from the Qur’an to support the claim that Islam is a religion of violence is verse 9:5 (verse 5 from chapter 9):

“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

However, if you read verses 1 through 4, you would know that the “Pagans” do not refer to just any disbeliever, but specifically those who have repeatedly failed to abide by the treaties they have made with the Muslims. Furthermore, the command in the verse above only applies after a 4-month grace period; after 4 months, if they remain aggressive and insist on fighting the believers, then the state of war is unavoidable, and in such a war, as in any others, one party may attempt to seize, kill or imprison the other party. However, the Qur’an is quick to mention that if the enemy seek protection at all, then the believer should grant them immediate protection so that they may hear the words of God (9:6). What’s more, if any of these Pagans have previously fulfilled their treaty made in the Sacred Mosque, then they are exempted (9:7). Thus it is clear, when read in the Quranic context, that verse 9:5 does not allow the wanton killing of people who choose not to believe in Islam. (You may read the entire chapter 9 here: http://quran.com/9)

Really, any other verse from the Qur’an that is said to support violence is full of nuance when examined closely. Too often, Qur’anic verses are pulled out of context to support whatever claim that one is trying to make. According to the Qur’an, the ideal relationship between believers and nonbelievers is actually one of mutual respect and non-compulsion, as captured in verse 2:256:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.”

This verse clearly expresses the Islamic attitude towards those who are not Muslims: Do not compel anyone to believe in Islam. Truth will forever be the truth; those who seek will find. It is futile to use violence to subdue anyone to the religion because forced faith is not real faith.

You may also be interested to read chapter 109 of the Qur’an, which is one of the most often recited by Muslims around the world in our prayers: “Say : O you that reject Faith! I worship not that which you worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which you have been wont to worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine.”

Basically, the most important thing in Islam is one’s direct relationship with God. Although we are encouraged to “Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious” (16:125), we are not really encouraged to get into other peoples’ problems or businesses if they don’t want us to.

Verses that Encourage Peace

Since there are so many verses in the Qur’an that encourage peace, I will list just a few from the first few chapters (there are 114 chapters in total). Please note that the parentheses in gray were added by me, and the parentheses in black are from the original translation by Yusuf Ali.

  • [2:208] O you who believe! Enter into Islam (peacefulness)* whole-heartedly; and follow not the footsteps of the evil one (Satan); for he is to you an avowed enemy.
  • [2:224] And make not God’s (name) an excuse in your oaths against doing good, or acting rightly, or making peace between persons; for God is One Who hears and knows all things.
  • [4:114] In most of their secret talks there is no good: But if one exhorts to a deed of charity or justice or conciliation (peace-making) between men, (Secrecy is permissible): To him who does this, seeking the good pleasure of God, We shall soon give a reward of the highest (value).
  • [5:15-16] O people of the Book!** There has come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that you used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There has come to you from God a (new) light and a perspicuous Book, -Wherewith God guides all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leads them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light,- guides them to a path that is straight.
  • [6:54] When those come to you who believe in Our signs, Say: “Peace be on you: Your Lord has inscribed for Himself (the rule of) mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and amend (his conduct), lo! He is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
  • [8:61] But if the enemy incline towards peace, you (also) incline towards peace, and trust in God: for He is One that hears and knows (all things).

*In Arabic, “islam” literally means “submission (to God)”, but it also shares its roots “sa-laa-maa” with the word “peace and security” in Arabic, which is “salam”.
** In the Qur’an, “People of the Book” refers to Christians and Jews.

Another very important fact is that every chapter in the Qur’an, except one (chapter 55, which starts with only “The All-Merciful”), starts with “Bismillahi rrahmani rraheem”, for which the best English translation would be: “In the name of God, The All-Merciful, The Ever-Merciful”.

In Islam, “The All-Merciful, The Ever-Merciful” are called “names” or attributes of God. There are 99 famous ones, and these two are by far the most often mentioned in the Qur’an and the most important.

According to the Qur’an, God breathed His Spirit into the human being when He made him, creating the human soul (38:72). Muslims believe therefore that our soul is the spirit of God, and we should always exemplify divine attributes in our lives to show mercy, compassion and forbearance to others.

Also, as Muslims, we greet each other everyday by saying “Assalaamu alaikum!” and “Wa alaikum assalaam!” which mean “May pace be upon you!” and “And may peace be upon you, too!” respectively. Although the Qur’an does not explicitly command Muslims to greet using these phrases, it’s a convention that has been inherited from the first generation of Muslims. (Also, they don’t have to be said in Arabic; it’s just a convention.)

As you can see, the very concept of peace permeates the life of Muslims. More importantly, mentions of peace or peace-making are pervasive in the Qur’an. Based on Qur’anic evidence, we can thus conclude that Islam is a religion of peace and not of violence.

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Does God, in the Qur’an, prohibit image-making?

With regard to recent nonstop news reports on the gun attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that drew cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I would like to discuss an important question from the Qur’anic perspective: Does God, in the Qur’an, prohibit image-making?

First of all, I’d like to clarify that I emphasize “in the Qu’ran” because of my belief that the Qur’an is the primary and the only authentic source of religious doctrines in Islam. That is to say, I am not convinced that the Hadith literature—the commonly cited secondary sources of Islamic doctrines—-has any real authority when it comes to prescribing religious rulings. My belief probably deviates from that of the majority of Muslims, but I stand firm on this position: The Qur’an is sufficient as a Guidance for Muslims.

The evidence is overwhelming. The Qur’an has been preserved perfectly whereas the Hadith literature has not. The Qur’an says God will preserve the Qu’ran, but did not say He will preserve any other texts. The Qur’an tells us in numerous places that it is fully detailed and the only “Hadith” that we should follow. It also says that any text that contains even a single contradiction cannot be from God, and the ahadith contain many contradictions.

If you would like to read more about this religious position (which, I admit, is not mainstream), here is a detailed article written by Joseph A Islam at www.quransmessage.coma brother that is much more knowledgeable than me: The Quran Stands Alone as Sole Religious Guidance

Now, back to the question: Does God, in the Qur’an, prohibit making images?

This is an important question because the terrorists killed the cartoonists on the belief that it is forbidden to make images in Islam, especially of the Prophets, and especially the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This reasoning comes from certain ahadith of the Prophet saying that image-makers will burn in hell. The logical appeal of these ahadith is this reasoning: because people are prone to worship images (especially images of the Prophets), and idolatry is the worst sin in Islam, image-makers are helping people to commit the worst sin of all. Islamic scholars then extrapolated this reasoning to make the ruling that all forms of image-making are haram (unlawful) and even used verses from the Qur’an saying that God is the Creator of the universe to justify this ruling, because only God can create.

But, if we examine only the Qur’an, we find absolutely no evidence that could support the ruling that all image-making is prohibited by God.

Let’s look first at the scholars’ primary argument in support of the unlawfulness of image-making with supposed Qur’anic evidence: “Allaah is the Only One Who has the power of giving shape to His creation and creating them in the best image. Making images implies that one is trying to match the creation of Allaah. …image-making is the exclusive preserve of Allaah. [Thus]…it is forbidden to make statues.” -Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid; Source: http://islamqa.info/en/7222

To put this into the form of an argument:

  1. God is the Only Creator—the only One who has the knowledge, power, etc. to create.
  2. Image-making such as painting and sculpting is a form of creation.
  3. Any human being that makes images is deceiving himself as to having God-like knowledge and power.
  4. Deceiving oneself to have God-like powers is blasphemous.
  5. Any action that results in blasphemy is haram (unlawful).

Therefore, any attempt to “create” or make images is haram.

For an argument to be sound, the argument has to be valid, and the premises also have to be true. The argument seems to be valid. But are the premises true?

Premise 1 is obviously true, if you are a Muslim who believes that the Qur’an is the Word of God. Premises 4 and 5 are also true. The problems lie with premises 2 and 3.

Creation means “the act or process of bringing something into existence”. By this definition, image-making is not a form of creation. What we think of as “creative” endeavors do not involve creation, after all. For example, when we paint or make a sculpture, are we bringing anything into existence that did not exist before? No. All the materials and laws of the universe remain the same. All we are doing is rearranging things and participating in the increase of entropy of the universe, as ordained by God.

In other words, by default we don’t really create anything in the real sense of the word—we can’t. Even if we make a new element, we are making it with things that already exist in the universe. “God is the Creator of all things” is a statement of a fact about the universe; nothing we do can change this.

But then why do we naturally think of painting and sculpting and other forms of image-making as acts of creation? I believe that this is but an example of our extensive use of conceptual metaphors, which refer to “the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another, for example, understanding quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. “prices are rising”).” Or understanding time in terms of money, as implied in the phrase “spending some time”. Or, understanding human micro-manipulation of the universe in terms of the creation of the universe, as in “creating a piece of artwork”.

I believe, therefore, that Premise 2 is false: image-making is not a form of creation.

What about premise 3: “Any human being that makes images is deceiving himself as to having God-like knowledge and power”? Would an artist think that? Maybe—if he or she has a particularly unclear notion of what real “creation” means, and is consciously aware of the concept of God yet does not believe in Him. But is every human being like this? Obviously not. Premise 3 is essentially an unverifiable assumption about the attitude of people engaging in image-making that cannot, therefore, be judged as undoubtedly true, and indeed seems exceedingly false.

Now, the Qur’an does say explicitly and implicitly in numerous places that worshiping idols is prohibited. Making images for people to worship is obviously prohibited as well: “And We verily gave Abraham of old his proper course, and We were aware of him, When he said to his father and his folk: What are these statues (Arabic: Thamatheel) to which ye pay devotion? “ (21:51-52)

But then, as brother Joseph Islam astutely pointed out:

If a statue in itself is unlawful (Arabic: haram), then why did Prophet Soloman (pbuh) instruct the Jinn under his control to make them as captured in the following verse?:

“They made for him what he willed: synagogues and statues (Arabic: Thamatheel), basins like wells and boilers built into the ground. Give thanks, O House of David! Few of My bondmen are thankful” (34:13)

We note from the two examples above that the same Arabic word ‘Thamatheel’ (plural of Timthal and derived from its root M-TH-L) has been utilised. Would a Prophet of God (Solomon (pbuh)) go against the teachings of the Prophets before him and make statues / images that pleased him when these were forbidden?

Furthermore, it is clear from the verse that these actions were carried under the sanction of God.

The two simple examples above should make it clear that it is not the ‘statue’ in itself which is unlawful, but its intended purpose that determines whether something becomes forbidden or remains lawful.

In other words, in the Qur’anic view, the action of making images generally is not forbidden. What is forbidden is making images that are intended to be worshipped.

I strongly recommend reading the entire (short) article here: Are statues and images unlawful (haram)?

It is undeniable that many human beings do have the tendency to worship an image when they see one. Maybe it’s human nature to find something to worship, and images and statues are just easy targets. However, God, who understands human nature the best, obviously does not deem this irrational human tendency so uncontrollable by our intellect as to prohibit all forms of image-making—we know this because there is no support from the Qur’an for this ruling. God only prohibits the act of making images that are intended to be worshipped.

I think you could say, therefore, that if a person makes an image without the intention for that image to be worshipped, but someone still ends up worshipping that image, then it’s the problem of the worshipper and not of the image-maker. This view is consistent with the rest of the Qur’an, which views intention as the most important part of an action (for example: hypocrites are repeatedly described as worse than the disbelievers).

Conclusion: There is no evidence in the Qur’an that image-making in and of itself is prohibited. The terrorists’ act of violence was based on a belief that has no basis in the Qur’an, but one emanating purely from the Hadith—the secondary sources of Islam that are held so highly as to have even more authority than the Qur’an in Islam nowadays. The Hadith literature does have its historical value, and we should still read it, but no matter what, Qur’an must be our only source of religious guidance.

Afterthoughts: The other very strong motivation behind the terrorists’ act, other than the not completely true belief as detailed above that images of Prophets are prohibited in Islam, was probably their anger at how these cartoonists ignorantly and shamelessly mocked our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). And I totally understand the source of that motivation. I am angry too. I am angry and offended every time I encounter people who have no respect for other peoples’ religions. However, if you are a Muslim or someone who is familiar with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), then you know that the Prophet himself suffered mocking that was far worse than this. And how did he treat those people who mocked him? With gentleness and kindness that we can’t even imagine! He prayed for them. So much so that Allah had to tell him not to because it’s futile (as mentioned in the Qur’an). These terrorists have learned nothing from the Qur’an, and nothing from the Prophet (saw). So far away are their actions from Islam that I have to question: Are they really Muslims? Maybe they are, only Allah SWT knows. But what they did has nothing to do with Islam.

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