A. Paxman’s perception of religious orthodoxy:

Is Islamic theology relevant in the modern world?


Every religion has some fundamental planks upon which the structure of that religion stands. Break one of these fundamental planks, the whole facade falls apart. The monotheistic Abrahamic religion, which has three distinct but inter-twinned strands, is no exception. Judaism was the first major religion advancing the theocracy of single God or monotheism and it became so appealing and enchanting over multitude of deities in paganism that the newer religion Christianity and latterly Islam borrowed the concept of monotheism and flourished.

But what is this monotheism? Monotheism is a theology of unit God that amalgamates the multitude of deities that the religion might have had. Paganism, the dominant religion in pre-Israelite region, had multitude of gods and goddesses with distinct traits and attributes. Nearly three and half thousand years ago, prophet Abraham had come across his personal God, who would come to him, gave him friendly advice, protected him from harm and in return asked for his obedience. This God came to be known as El (from which the name Israel originated). This personal God, along with many other prevalent deities, gradually faded away and became more distant and detached God. No longer God El would come to meet Abraham in person; instead he would send messages to Abraham through angels. At one point, God El demanded that Abraham sacrifice his only legitimate son, Isaac in his honour. To propitiate El, Abraham took his son, Isaac to the Temple of Jerusalem to sacrifice him. God at that point relented and asked for an animal to be sacrificed instead. That was the origin of religious tradition of animal sacrifice, which is celebrated even in Islam as the Eid al-Adha.

For Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob, the personal God gradually became detached, impersonal and communal. Jacob’s personal God, called Yahweh (God of the fathers), promised that Jacob’s descendants would inherit a mighty nation if he promised to call him Elohim – the only God – and worshipped only him. Jacob under duress decided to call him Elohim. Centuries later, Abraham’s and Jacob’s descendant Moses had his personal God, also called Yahweh, was more communal, vengeful and despotic. It is stated in Genesis that Yahweh helped Moses to escape from Egypt with Jewish followers (Egyptian slaves) by opening up the Red Sea and allowing them to escape. When the Egyptian soldiers and the Pharaohs pursuing them came into the sea bed, water closed in, drowning them all. In return of such an act of mercy, Yahweh demanded that Israelites accept him as their only God and worship no other God. He repeated the earlier promise of making Jews as his special people and the promised land. This is known as the Covenant between the people of Israel and the God, Yahweh. However, God Yahweh warned sternly, if the Jews broke the agreement, Yahweh would destroy them mercilessly. Jews accepted the covenant and that was the beginning of the monotheistic unit God in Abrahamic religions.     

This single God of the Jews, Yahweh, over the centuries changed its image and attributes. But the concept of single God and the advantages accruing thereof were extremely alluring. In Christianity, however, this God transcended into Trinity – the father, the son and the holy spirit – and Jesus Christ as the son of God descended on earth and may be resurrected after death. In Islam, prophet Muhammed came as the friend of God – Allah in Islam – and he received Allah’s divine messages through the archangel Gabriel.

In Islam, there was no attempt to reinvent God, except that he had been renamed as Allah. In order to proclaim the total ownership of the prevalent God, Islam claims that there is no God but Allah. The existence of God/Allah was taken as established and undisputed; only attempts had been made to remind the followers that Allah is definitely supreme. In Islam, rhetorical questions such as this is asked: who gives rain from the sky? – Surely it must be Allah. Allah had been assigned all sorts of qualities – He is the most powerful, the most merciful, the most beneficent. He is omnipresent, omniscient, uncaused cause, unmoved mover, eternal; He has no beginning and no end. To question about Allah is blasphemous; He must be obeyed without question.

The holy book in Islam that came into existence containing Allah’s revelation through Gabriel is Quran. Everything that is there in Quran is taken as the direct word of Allah and hence it is universal and cannot be changed or amended in eternity These are the teachings in Islam.

Quran is taken as the heart and soul of Islam and Hadith is taken as elaboration and practices of prophet Muhammad’s life. No devout Muslim should question the authenticity of Quran and Hadith and must follow them without question. Anybody who accepts and submits to the divine message of the Quran as a Muslim will go to heaven (with unimaginable luxury and fulfilment of libidinous desires for ever) and all other infidels (non-believers) (including deviant Muslims) will languish in hell fire (burning coal-pits) for eternity. However, a deviant Muslim can wipe out his sins in a number of ways including repenting to Allah incessantly, sacrificing his life for the cause of Allah, converting infidels into Islam and, if not, terminate the lives of the infidels.

Islam tells that this transient life on earth is the testing ground and the eternal life awaits human beings. So, it is up to human beings to choose either the carrot (with temporal discomfort in life here, which God deliberately places to judge the depth of devotion) or stick (which comes in after life for defying God’s message).

Rationalism is rejected, indeed despised, in Islam. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s (1058 – 1111 AD) doctrine is still adhered to in Islam in earnest. He argued that rationalism was incompatible with Islamic teaching. As God’s will is completely free and unencumbered, his wishes are supreme and cannot be compromised by human rationalism. A storm takes place because God wishes it that way to punish the sinners for their misdeeds, not as a result of any meteorological phenomenon. Rain falls not as a result of precipitation and condensation of cloud, but due to God’s will.

In the modern world of today, is such a theology of non-rationalism relevant at all? Shouldn’t the numinous authority of Yahweh/God/Allah be subservient to state authority, authority of modern day science and society? Jews and Christians have relegated religious orthodoxy to the background and embraced modern day science and culture. But Islam steadfastly refuses to let go of the 7th century theology and accept the reality of life in the modern world. Maybe Islam is so shackled to its own scriptures that it just cannot be untangled. If so, Islam is in great danger of falling victim to its own irrationality and an irrational theology does cause great disservice to its followers.

Professor Steven Weinberg (Physics Nobel Laureate in 1979) said, “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or an astronomer in a Muslim country that was worth reading”. This simple statement says it all of the state of Muslim world of today.


A Paxman is a freelance columnist