Friday, March 24, 2017

Choice and the Chessboard

The title of my khutbah today is, “Choice and the Chessboard”. It is part 11 of the Iblis series.

In the last khutbah, we discussed Iblis’ spiritual blindness. Rumi calls him the “one eyed” because Iblis was unable to see the connection between God and human beings. If this were a court case, the Sufi scholar Al-Muhasibi, sums up the prosecution’s argument:

“Do you not consider Iblis? When he had learned Almighty God’s command and had testified to His divinity, he then stubbornly resisted His command after knowledge, proof, and testimony. And so Almighty God cursed him until the Day of Reckoning. He became the evil one among created beings. All hope of repentance for him was cut, forever.” –Al Muhasibi, Kitab ar-ri’aya

But to be fair, we have to consider Iblis’ defense of himself. Iblis says in the Qur’an,
“Because You (God) have led me astray, I will definitely waylay them along Your Straight Path.” Quran 7:16

Iblis claims that he is simply an instrument of God, used by God to test humans. Iblis says he is a powerless tool, subservient to God, and God controls everything, God is the source of movement, change, permanence, and no creature can resist temptation or has the strength to obey without the help of God. God orders his creature to do whatever He wills, in the same way He created them when He willed. Al-Ghazali tells a story of God creating two servants, one handsome and highly favored named Jibril, and the other ugly and hated named Iblis. Jibril is assigned the transmission of revelation, while Iblis is responsible for the seduction of mankind into evil. It’s like the king having assigned one servant the job of pouring wine into the cup, while the other servant is responsible for shoveling out the stables. The king gives the one he likes the cushier, cup-bearing job. Al-Ghazali’s moral is we are mistaken if we attribute acts to ourselves. God attributes the acts to individuals, be the action good or evil. As humans are of limited understanding, we cannot comprehend the power of God as manifested in His will (irada) and his command (amr).

This debate, the tension between God’s omnipotence and man’s free will, was a hot topic throughout the Islamic world for many centuries. A human being’s ability to act freely seemed pretty negligible next to God’s omnipotent will as shown through destiny. God will “…lead astray whomever He wills and he guides whomever He wills.” Quran 16:93. In the course of this debate, I will delve into some Islamic philosophical history.

The Mu’tazilites (circa 8th century) believed in human responsibility as an important aspect of God’s justice- they reasoned that justice requires people to be punished or rewarded for deeds performed as a result of a free moral choice. The Mu’tazilites also insisted that God is not Himself involved in the evil which He punishes people for doing. Evil is the side effect of man’s ability to choose.

 A more extreme sect of the Mu’tazilites were called the Qadarites. They went even further and demanded man’s absolute moral responsibility for his actions. They had an idea of radical freedom of will, kind of like Muslim Libertarians.  However, the Qadarite ideology never really caught on, perhaps because this kind of absolute accountability has a few traps. For example, if man through his own power determines his salvation, then this, in effect, makes man an associate of God in determining events. The event of one’s destiny, in this particular example. Putting man on the shelf with God is and was too shirk-like for the average Muslim.

By the middle of the ninth century, the Muslim intelligentsia preferred emphasizing God’s omnipotence over man’s free will. It is important to remember that there were at least two degrees of the predestination doctrine
1.   God determines the circumstances which a human is subjected to but not a person’s reactions to the given set of circumstances.
2. God determines both circumstances and the person’s reaction to the circumstances.

Most Muslim thinkers had no problem with the first doctrine, but the second one, God determines everything, was up for a lot more debate. Religious thinkers wanted to give some freedom to humans.

Al-Ash’ari and his school, were defenders of God’s absolute power and limitless freedom. He rejected all the Qadarite arguments, and even went so far was to reject causality because Al-Ash’ari didn’t like the idea that creation possesses an on-going order of its own. It should be noted that, from the historical perspective, Al-Ash’ari and his school were the 'winners' and the Mu’tazilite doctrines became unfashionable.

So how did Al-Ash’ari deal with the question of God’s involvement in humans’ sinful action? His argument sounds nearly like something we would call relativistic “post-modernism” or a nightcast of Fox News. Al-Ash’ari asserts that there is no intrinsic good or evil to actions. Something is good because God commands it, it is evil because God forbids it. For example, lying is evil because God says it is. If God someday declared that lying was good and ordered believers to lie, then humans would be expected to follow the order. By this train of thought, believing men and women learn what is good and evil by paying attention to God’s command, not by using reason to evaluate the intrinsic moral worth of a given action. This line of reasoning really troubled the Sufis. They used the Iblis story as a way to examine the effect of God’s omnipotence on spiritual life and the conflict this could bring about.

If we accept that God has complete control over the actions of man, then we soon need to accept that God’s actions cannot be understood by human laws of logic, consistency, or clarity. God’s involvement in actions which are unexpected, illogical, or baffling are known in the Islamic tradition as God’s makr, His wiliness.

“When Iblis was overwhelmed by the way he was, Gabriel and Michael, may peace be upon them!- shed tears of grief for a long time. God Most High asked them, “What is wrong with you that you shed all these tears?” They cried out in unison, “’O Lord, we are not safe from Your wiliness!”- Al-Qushayri, Ar-Risalat al-qushayriya.

God alone decides whether an action will lead the way to Him, or whether the same action will be an obstacle that bars the way to Him. Al-Hujwiri cites the example of Jesus. For some, Jesus was a guide to ma’rifa (gnosis), for others, he was a veil (in Kashf al-mahjub). But following this train of thought, Abd Allah Ansari had some pretty pointed questions for God. It is God who chose Adam to be one of the elect, and transformed Iblis into the rebellious sinner. Out of respect, like Adam, we ascribe sinful faults to ourselves, “…but, in truth, You instigated the crime.”- (from Munajat). The logical end to this question is ....was Iblis set up? Can Iblis be exonerated? Should we stop considering Iblis as the sly deceiver and instead look at him as the tragic victim in a carefully crafted shell game? The broader question is perhaps even more troubling- there may be little to no free will involved in the actions of human beings. Perhaps people are no more than pieces moving around a chessboard where the game has already been determined.

Rumi is the most outspoken critic of this fatalistic view of human destiny. He uses the Iblis story to confront these philosophical arguments head on.  From the Mathnawi:

“Learn from father Adam, O clear-browed fellow;
     Aforetime ‘O Lord,’ he said, and ‘we have sinned!’
He neither made excuse nor did he paint any lie,
     The flag of neither trickery nor pretense did he raise.
Contrary to this, Iblis raised his voice in debate:
     'I used to be red-cheeked with honor;
You have made me jaundiced.
     The color is Yours, You are my dyer;
You are the source of my crime, my misery, my scar!’
     Take care! Recite the verse: ‘O Lord, because You have led me astray!’
So you do not become a necessitarian, and weave cheap lies.
     For how long will you leap into the tree of compulsion,
And lay aside your free will,
     Embroiled in battle and controversy with God
Like that Iblis and his offspring?”

Rumi points out that people feel quite free when it becomes a question of choosing to follow their passions, particularly passions which have benefits in the near term and not so much the future, particularly, the afterlife.  21st century economists call this “hyperbolic discounting”.  As a result, people take pleasure in potentially harmful things because they enhance their lives at the moment more than what they judge to be their eventual costs or risks.

Rumi shows us the observable reality of human’s vacillating between two options. The conflict between our impulses, pulling us one way then the other, is indicative of choice. Our choices may not be infinite, they may be constrained by factors of time, place, ability, and information, but more to the point, one can choose to do wrong or not. We cannot blame others, Destiny, the government, or our own past actions, but we must be accountable to ourselves and accept the outcome. To plead “I was just following orders” or “everyone else is doing it”- the hallmarks of the banality of evil, implies there is no responsibility. And if there is no responsibility, then religious and moral imperatives do not exist. 

Even under a totalitarian regime, we can choose to do wrong or right. I’d like to illustrate this with two examples. During WW2, many governments that were invaded by the Nazis willingly cooperated with the invaders. They thought that by cooperating with the Third Reich they would be treated better. In Denmark, the people refused to go along with the Final Solution for their Jewish citizens. Of the 7800 Jews in Denmark, 7220 of them we able to escape to Sweden with the help of their non-Jewish friends. 99% were saved. In Albania even when the Nazis invaded, the Muslim Albanians protected Jews with their Besa, ancient hospitality rules which translate as "keeping a promise". Although there were only 200 Jews in Albania, by the end of the war there were over 2000 as news of Muslim protection spread.

Rumi wrote, “If in God’s opinion, both good and evil were of equal value in the test, then Iblis would possess the same countenance as the moon-faced Gabriel” (Kulliyat-i-Shams-I Tabrizi).

To conclude, if we fail to accept responsibility, if we fail to choose to do good, then we become robots following orders and seeking only our own comfort.  In this robot world, good and evil have no significance, we will no longer be human, and we will have no place of significance in the afterlife.

“O those who have believed! Be the ones who are staunch as witnesses in equity for God and let not that you detest a folk move you that you deal not justly. Be just. That is nearer to God consciousness. And be Godfearing of God. Truly God is Aware of what you do. And God has promised those who have believed and the ones who have acted in accord with morality that for them is forgiveness and a sublime compensation. And those who were ungrateful and denied Our signs, those will be the companions of Hellfire!” 5:8-10 


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