"I would argue that doubt is there to strengthen what you place your faith in. Answering your doubts is incumbent upon all people who desire to be free from them."
Saqlain Choudhary chronicles his journey through faith and doubt, particularly concerning the reconciliation of religion with science.
Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka.
I’d like to begin this article with a story – it goes something like this. There was a famous 12th century Islamic Scholar called Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi. He was once walking through town with his procession of young scholars following him en masse. Captivated by this unusual spectacle, an old lady stopped one of the students and asked him who the man was. He replied, ‘Don’t you know? That’s Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi. He has 70 proofs for the existence of God.’ The old lady smiled and replied, ‘He wouldn’t need 70 proofs if he didn’t have 70 doubts’. When this was relayed to Razi, he contemplated her words and told his students ‘Everyone should aspire to have the faith of old women.
Aside from the fact that this story contains both of the title words of this article, there is a lot we can glean from its message. I have always been closer to the disposition of Razi’s student rather than the old lady’s. Having a ‘scientific’ mind led me to doubt much of my religious upbringing in my late teenage years. Studying science had unconsciously led me to two conclusions about the world. The first was that particles and their interactions could explain everything, and the second was that something could only exist if it was empirically proven.
This first assumption poses a problem about the absence of free will in our lives. We’re all simply playing out a script we inherit based on where, when and to whom we’re born. Every decision a person makes and will go on to make can be reduced to the interaction of some particles in the brain. Interactions that would have always occurred. This made me ‘doubt’ the existence of a God who would therefore be creating ‘unfree’ beings and then judging them for their actions. The second assumption was an even simpler source of doubt. If God existed, why couldn’t I measure it like I measure electrons or gravity? All that entailed, not knowing whether such a God could exist was a significant burden on me. It seemed to me that if there is only one question worth answering in life, it would be about whether or not God exists; everything else was simply a temporary distraction.
So I started from first principles to assess what I could know without ‘faith’. The answer – which became quickly apparent to me – was essentially, nothing. When talking to other people, for instance, I had ‘faith’ that they were conscious. I also realised that the sentiment that science is free from ‘faith’ was also false – at the foundations of science is faith that the future will behave like the past. Moreover, I realised that scientific truth was only one kind of truth, and as God was metaphysical and not physical, it required logical, not empirical reasoning. This helped me reconcile the perceived lack of free will I saw in people. I had presumed that the world was simply material and its interactions, without ever proving it. This had been an act of ‘faith’. Yet I now understand that my very thoughts and by extension consciousness are immaterial. I had over-extended my knowledge of physics to answer metaphysical questions – truly a grave error. These ideas are by no means my own, and it seems that scholars throughout the ages have gone through a journey similar to my own. It was, at least, comforting to know I wasn’t alone – and humbling to find out I wasn’t very original either. I realised that, if faith is an inescapable fact of life, then one should decide where it is best to allocate it, and for me, this was religious faith.
One could argue that the negative connotations of ‘faith’ have become synonymous with the religious community, as if doubt and faith are mutually exclusive approaches. I would argue that doubt is there to strengthen what you place your faith in. Answering your doubts is incumbent upon all people who desire to be free from them. The Qur’an mentions this responsibility many times, one such example is “Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are those that are deaf and dumb and do not reason.” (8:22) The journey to certainty is different for every person, just like in Razi’s story. We all have our doubts which affect our faith. I think the expulsion of ‘doubt’ comes from both the application of reason (mind) and practice (soul). I have indeed read lots about rational arguments for the existence of God (I would highly recommend the Divine Reality by Hamza Tzortzis) but these arguments are merely indications. If they were entirely convincing, there would be no antithesis to refute them. What is more powerful are the practices of increasing certainty. You could say that the mind generates doubts and the soul certainty. I have found that spiritual practices, such as praying, reflection and reading the Qur’an, have done more for my condition than engaging in thought experiments. This may seem alien to many people who attend Oxford, where we place more emphasis on the mind than the soul, but I assure you that the soul gives a degree of certainty no language conjured in the mind can convey. It is something that can only be tasted, not described. My thoughts are best summarised by a quote by Allama Iqbal, the great thinker of the East; who began life as a student of Western philosophy and ended it as a Muslim mystic. He said, ‘Go beyond the path of reason because reason can only be the light that guides your path. It is not the final goal’.
I would like to end this article by saying that these are simply some of my findings, so far on my short journey. I am not trained in theology or philosophy, and I hope I have not misrepresented any ideas here. I am always happy to discuss ideas with people but I also humbly accept my lack of knowledge. May Allah be pleased with what I have written and forgive any of its shortcomings.