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Reconciling natural laws and ethical values

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The scientific method established by Prophet Abraham (Ibrāhīm), upon him be peace, is based upon the act of observing to discover natural patterns. Recognized patterns, in turn, lead to our formulation of scientific laws to represent our best understanding of the universe.

Because our human perspective is limited, scientific laws we derive from it address only the facts we are able to directly observe or indirectly infer; if we cannot observe it in some way, we cannot truly know it. From this realization, philosophers of science hold that science by itself can never tell us the absolute truth, even though it is an important means of uncovering truth. Our perspective is simply limited by time, place, and our tools of investigation.

To understand the true nature of our existence, which is a reflection of the universal constants underlying all things everywhere and always, our perspective has to be as inclusive of as many sources of truth as possible. Nevertheless, our perspective will always be restricted by what we can see or sense; the true nature of the universe has other dimensions that are not necessarily observable.

This fact has been stated in the Quran eloquently:

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَا تُبْصِرُونَ وَمَا لَا تُبْصِرُونَ إِنَّهُ لَقَوْلُ رَسُولٍ كَرِيمٍ وَمَا هُوَ بِقَوْلِ شَاعِرٍ ۚ قَلِيلًا مَّا تُؤْمِنُونَ وَلَا بِقَوْلِ كَاهِنٍ ۚ قَلِيلًا مَّا تَذَكَّرُونَ تَنزِيلٌ مِّن رَّبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

Nay, I swear by what you see and what you do not see. Verily, it is the saying of an honorable messenger. It is not the saying of a poet, little is your faith. Nor is it the saying of a soothsayer, little do you remember. It is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds.

Surat al-Haqq 69:38-43

In this vast collection of observable and non-observable universes, our lives are simply one local manifestation of universal laws among countless, perhaps infinite manifestations elsewhere.

We are merely an instant in the broad stretch of time, or a tiny locality in the great expanse of space. We are small parts of an ever continuing natural cycle, which preceded us and will continue after us. The question is: what are the uniform, unchanging laws that govern this cycle?

Because it is impossible to know it all based upon observation alone, key points needed to understand the nature of existence can only come through divine revelation from the Creator of existence. According to the Quran, this continuing cycle is governed by a higher order of laws, or patterns, that reach beyond our time, location, history, and everything else we can observe.

These laws are also the only constants, which can never change, as they are manifestations of the Creator’s attributes. Since Allah does not change, so do his attributes never change.

Appreciating this fact, we can understand that violation of higher order laws, both physical and ethical, will always have their negative consequences. Just as one cannot attempt to defy the law of gravity without harm, one cannot likewise violate moral imperatives without harm, either in this life or the next.

This point has been expressed in the Quran in a few short but profound verses:

وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا

By the sun and its brightness, and the moon when it follows, and the day when it shines forth, and the night when it draws cover, and the sky and He who built it, and the earth and He who spread it, and the soul and He who fashioned it and inspired its sense of wickedness and righteousness. He has succeeded who purifies his soul, and he has failed who corrupts it.

Surat al-Shams 91:1-9

This set of verses begins by drawing attention to natural patterns in the universe – the sun, moon, day, night, sky, and earth – and then transitions to its intangible ethical patterns, or what we call ‘values.’ Just as success in science is a function of understanding and mastering natural patterns, success in life is also a function of understanding and mastering ethical patterns. To violate universal ethical values is to also violate the natural laws of the universe.

Nature is inherently ordered, just as values are inherently ordered. Behavior in relation to either of them is consistent, their consequences predictable. Knowing this makes us appreciate a different set of causes and effects besides the purely physical.

Physical laws enable us to predict whether or not a poorly designed building will collapse under its own weight. Ethical laws enable us to predict, to a degree, whether or not nations built upon injustice will collapse, or whether or not individuals will be saved in the Hereafter.

The reason why it is so difficult for people to correlate ethical causes to their effects is because the effects are not immediate. A person who commits evil may not be punished for it instantaneously, but they will eventually feel the consequences if they do not repent, as Allah said:

وَسَيَعْلَمُ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا أَيَّ مُنقَلَبٍ يَنقَلِبُونَ

Those who were unjust will soon know what they will receive in return.

Surat al-Shu’ara 26:227

In the same way these laws manifest in this life, they will also manifest in the Hereafter. There might even be people and creatures on other planets, in other worlds, and in other universes, but all of whom are subject to the same universal laws and constants set by the Creator. Though an unproven assumption, some scientists call this the ‘multi-verse’! Whenever or wherever you are in existence, the laws of the universe are the same.

That all things must necessarily be reduced to universal constants is the underlying premise behind physicists’ attempts to discover the grand “theory of everything,” to reconcile the contradictions of relativity and quantum mechanics. In fact, all science assumes that nature is ordered by laws. This underlying premise applies to ethics and values all the same.

However, universal ethics and values cannot be measured objectively in the way scientists measure forces and phenomena. Our perspective of ethics is always subjective, due to its intangible nature. We know justice and compassion when we see them, though we cannot define them in quite the same way as we define a neutron star.

We can see this in the classical scholars’ definition of wisdom:

الْحِكْمَةُ فِعْلُ مَا يَنْبَغِي عَلَى الْوَجْهِ الَّذِي يَنْبَغِي فِي الْوَقْتِ الَّذِي يَنْبَغِي

Wisdom is to act in the right way, for the right reason, at the right time.

Madārij al-Sālikīn 2/449

These are qualities that cannot be defined physically, but that does not make them less real or less important. Despite this fact, intelligent people will recognize wisdom when they see it. Wisdom, like other universal values, is in our nature to recognize because we were created to value it.

Arriving at this incredible truth is to experience the deeper meaning of monotheism; it is not simply worshiping the Creator alone through rituals, but also comprehending that all objective and subjective experiences in this life are related back to the Creator in some way. The true nature of existence, then, is revealed in the reconciliation and harmonization of our objective and subjective experiences, our science and our religion.

Both scientific and religious experiences are sources of truth. Science is objective in that it deals only with tangible phenomena, religion is subjective in that it deals with the unseen realms. The secrets of religion can only be revealed by the Creator; they cannot be discovered by reason alone.

The language of the Quran is uniquely capable of facilitating the reconciliation of objective and subjective experiences in people’s minds, as Allah said:

وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ تِبْيَانًا لِّكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ

We revealed the Book to you to make clear all things, as guidance and mercy and glad tidings for those who surrender to Allah (Muslims).

Surat al-Nahl 16:89

That the Quran is a clarification of “all things” means it provides us with principles to make sense of the entire universe, both its physical and non-physical aspects. Scholars derived maxims of interpretation that allow Muslims to apply Islam to any situation, to all times and places and circumstances.

For this reason, Muslim society excelled in the natural sciences for hundreds of years, when people traveled to Baghdad to learn cutting-edge science in Arabic, while at the exact same time this society produced a rich legacy of theological, philosophical, and spiritual insight.

It can be observed that the decline in the scientific and philosophical production of Muslim societies occurred as they drifted further and further from the original language of divine revelation. The key to an Islamic revival, therefore, is a renewal of our understanding and use of the language in conjunction with our adherence to its ethical values.

Yet, faithfulness to the ethical values uncovered by divine revelation is even more important than scientific knowledge and productivity. A society that is morally developed, though scientifically lacking, has a much greater chance of survival than a scientific but corrupt society. After all, modern science has bequeathed to us the most terrible weapons imaginable, such as nuclear bombs and man-made pathogens. The only thing to stop them from wreaking havoc on the world is a critical mass of citizens whose consciences compel them to prevent their rulers from lawless destruction.

Hence, the most critical knowledge for us is moral knowledge, knowledge of universal ethical values, even though scientific knowledge is also important. This was the ‘knowledge’ bestowed to the Prophets by divine revelation, and which has sustained human societies throughout time. As the Messenger of Allah (s) said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ وَأَهْلَ السَّمَوَاتِ وَالْأَرَضِينَ حَتَّى النَّمْلَةَ فِي جُحْرِهَا وَحَتَّى الْحُوتَ لَيُصَلُّونَ عَلَى مُعَلِّمِ النَّاسِ الْخَيْرَ

Verily, Allah, his angels, the inhabitants of the heavens and the earth, even the ant in his hole and the fish, send blessings upon the one who teaches people virtue.

Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2685

In sum, the universe is a reflection of both physical and ethical (or spiritual) laws. A person who is able to successfully reconcile their objective and subjective experiences, in relation to science and religion, has achieved true knowledge. To do so, one must recognize and uphold the natural laws of the universe in the fullest sense. Key to this endeavor is the proper combination of both reason, as scientific methods, and revelation, as ethical values. Only then can we appreciate the deeper meaning of the phrase, “There is no God but Allah.”

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.