Sunday, June 12, 2016

Evolving our understanding of Islam

There is a growing divide among second-generation American Muslims between those that are following convention and those that are leaving the religion. An alternative, organized, middle ground approach has yet to fill that vacuum. But I see the makings of it in this group, in this gathering. And I have been pursuing it by seeking an alternative perspective through science. Reading about the journeys of people who sought to integrate science with faith has helped me to find that middle ground.

One of the most influential scientists who struggled to reconcile his research with his faith was the natural historian Charles Darwin. Darwin figured out that all life evolves through descent with modified traits. Darwin’s studies revealed to him that life is not static, nor perfectly designed. Rather, it evolves over time. It is a constant work in progress.

Similarly, we are realizing that our understanding of Islam is not meant to be static, but to evolve over time. The most viable understanding of Islam will always be that which is best suited to its context. Our current context is naturally selecting an understanding of Islam that is more adaptable, inclusive, accommodating, and flexible. That is the inevitable direction of American society. Interpretations that are uninviting and harsh doom themselves for extinction.

Back in Darwin’s day, there was no such thing as natural history, which today is the study of the history of life on Earth. In the 1800s, there was natural philosophy (math and physics) and natural theology (understanding the Creator by studying creation).

One such theologian, William Paley, used the analogy that a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, just as the complexity of nature implies the existence of a Creator. In other words, nature is so complex that it could only have been designed by an intelligent deity.
Darwin borrowed the rhetoric of Paley’s “Grand Analogy” and turned it on its head: Artificial selection led to domesticated organisms, just as natural selection led to natural organisms.
In his seminal book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin introduced ideas that where heretical at the time. The most egregious idea to Victorian Society was that organisms are not created in perfect form, but rather, that they are descended from common ancestors.

Many people assume that, in light of his views, Darwin must have been an ardent atheist. This was not so: based on his collective writings, Darwin appeared to have retained spirituality throughout his life. But Darwin struggled with the seeming contradiction of his religious views with his scientific views. He was afraid of alienating himself from his wife, Emma, who was a devout Christian. Darwin also feared that his radical views would be spurned by society. He even sent apologies to his friends and colleagues in advance of them reading his manuscript.  His writing made statements that directly challenged the Bible – for example, by saying that “things are not created in a perfect form.” Darwin was not afraid of offending the Church, per say, but he was grappling with what all of this had to do with God.

In Darwin’s view, Nature is not benevolent and ordered with everything in its place. Rather, it is a constant struggle for survival – everything vying for its place, with no room for morality. But there is a balance that arises out of that struggle.

People often have trouble reconciling this reality with their beliefs. It seems incongruous with the perception that humans are above animals. The empirical truth is that we are animals. We are biological life forms with biological functions and needs. But we also have capacities that exceed those of any other life form that has evolved thus far. Those capacities are powerful, and they are balanced by their equal potential for creation and destruction.

I’d like to discuss another parallel that may shed some light on our current challenges. In the split between American Muslims who wish to preserve a conservative practice, and those that seek a more progressive and inclusive view, I see a parallel with the transition that Americans underwent over the course of the Civil War.

In the time before the Civil War, the predominant paradigm of thought in the Western world was metaphysical. It was entirely rooted in theology, idealism, and philosophy. The Civil War shook that foundation in America. Even among upper class society, the war compromised peoples’ acceptance of a world under God’s exclusive direction.

In his book The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand chronicles the erosion of metaphysics and its replacement with pragmatism, or the use of workable ideas to tackle workable problems, as the operative paradigm in America.

The thinkers that advanced this notion, Menand says, “believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and irreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability, but on their adaptability” (p. xi-xii).

Just as America did in the wake of the Civil War, American Muslim communities are currently experiencing a novel reality. Politics in the Middle East, and the United States’ involvement in the chaos, made American Muslims feel alienated in their society. The Internet created a tremendous gap between second-generation Millennials, who grew up in the US in the 21st century, and their parents, who grew up in another country, in another era, and who desperately seek to preserve something from that bygone life.

Even with so many old ideals shattered after the Civil War, new scientific discoveries were further challenging established notions in the late 19th century. When Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, many people did not know how to react to his views in light of their long held theological perspective on their place in the world. Similarly, many American Muslims today are unsure of how to reconcile their beliefs with new advances in science.

Darwin’s theories became the foundation for the study of biology. But even Darwin’s views had to be reinterpreted over the years in light of new data. Darwin and others at the time understood that traits are heritable – that offspring resemble both parents – but no one knew anything about DNA back in the 19th century. Darwin’s explanation for the introduction of variation in traits was that the environment nebulously affects the reproductive system in a way that creates new variations of traits. This notion had no basis once we began to understand DNA and genetics.
There is an incredible tension between knowing that we cannot know everything and knowing that there must be certainty out there. But we can accept both.

One of the pragmatic ideas that arose in America after the Civil War was that even if we don’t understand something yet, we can be sure that there must be a law to explain it.
I think we can be just as pragmatic in our understanding of Islam. We can remind ourselves that we will never know everything, but be assured that Islam will always help us find answers. We submit to that reality, and put our faith in Allah. If we use our powers of observation and our capacity for pragmatism, we can ensure that a viable American variation of Islam will survive in generations of descendants to come.

The Quran frequently refers to natural phenomena, such as in this passage from Surat Ash-Shams (91, Ayat 1-6):
“I swear by the sun and its broad light/ and by the moon when it follows/ and by the day when it shows its brightness/ and by the night when it envelops/ and by the sky, and the One who built it/ and by the earth, and the one who spread it.”

I think that this passage would have resonated with Darwin himself. The language in his book, On the Origin of Species, reflects the same kind of reverence for nature, and even an acknowledgement of a divine connection to it:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."