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The path to wisdom in natural law

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Wisdom, although having many definitions, is often referred to as the ability of converting knowledge and experience into insight toward better judgement. Wisdom is a distinct term that conveys a superior state of wellbeing. Different definitions of wisdom emphasize various attributes like integrity, authenticity, humility, and simplicity as means of understating and using knowledge and experience to make smarter decisions. In Islam, wisdom has such great value that Muslims are expected to continuously pursue it:

يُؤْتِي الْحِكْمَةَ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُؤْتَ الْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِيَ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He gives wisdom to whoever He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:269

Wisdom part of the accumulated heritage of humanity, as it cannot be restricted only to sayings in Islamic tradition. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was reported to have said:

الْكَلِمَةُ الْحِكْمَةُ ضَالَّةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَحَيْثُ وَجَدَهَا فَهُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا

The saying of wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.

Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2687

Wisdom has a unique meaning in Islam. It is the collective knowledge and experience that results in seeing values as natural laws. Natural laws are related to patterns that manifest themselves over and over again. They are often understood through observation and verified through experimentation.

Science, for example, is actively involved in uncovering and understanding natural physical laws in order to utilize them for the benefit of society. Values, on the other hand, are a form of natural laws that are much more subtle. It is very difficult to observe them or experiment with them. Moreover, the impact of values has a much longer distance in time between their actions and their subsequent effects. It might take an entire generation for the consequences of discarding or renewing values to be observed in a particular society.

Given the value of wisdom, how can one acquire it within the short time that we humans have in this life?

The Value of Observation

Although values are a more advanced and sophisticated form of natural laws, their understanding begins by observing the physical natural laws. Within these physical natural laws are answers to the beginning of creation, where we stand now, and to where everything is moving:

قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ بَدَأَ الْخَلْقَ ۚ ثُمَّ اللَّهُ يُنشِئُ النَّشْأَةَ الْآخِرَةَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

Say: Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation. Verily, Allah has power over all things.

Surat Al-Ankabut 29:20

Understanding the creation is a precondition to attain the wisdom in which values can be recognized as natural laws. Although this might seem logical, the adoption of values by current day Muslims seems to ignore this very fundamental point.

Values are mistakenly believed to be solely matters of faith derived from scripture which are not necessarily related to nature. This poses a major conflict: Muslims can preserve their faith as they believe in the set of values communicated by Allah, but they miss the wisdom of witnessing those values as natural laws.

This problem manifests itself when Muslims develop practices which, on the surface, seem to preserve our religious values but which fundamentally contradict other natural laws created by Allah. For example, some Muslim scholars originally forbade television based upon the traditional prohibition of making idolatrous pictures. What was meant to prevent idolatry, in fact, contradicted humanity’s nature to seek knowledge and progress. Understanding such values as existing in nature, as well as revelation, will help us develop more authentic Islamic answers to modern issues.

It is no coincidence that the two men who most impacted mankind, Ibrahim and Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them, started their journeys with observing the world around them. Ibrahim’s story of observation before receiving his revelation is well documented in the Quran, and Muhammad spent a significant part of his youth in the cave of Hira observing and contemplating the creation until he was visited by the Angel Gabriel.

The relation of values to physical laws is that values are more advanced whereas physical laws are elemental for values to exist. An analogy in this regard is the alphabet as compared to a chaptered novel. A novel is much more advanced expression than the alphabet itself, but it could not exist with the alphabet as building blocks. Likewise, values are advanced expressions of the rudimentary laws of nature.

Understanding the values of Islam in natural law is best conveyed in the story when the Meccans told Prophet Muhammad they would never accept his teachings until he displayed a miracle like other prophets. Allah then revealed the verse:

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ الَّذِينَ يَذْكُرُونَ اللَّهَ قِيَامًا وَقُعُودًا وَعَلَىٰ جُنُوبِهِمْ وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَٰذَا بَاطِلًا

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: Our Lord, you did not create all of this without purpose.

Surat Ali Imran 3:190-191

It does not require miracles to understand the values of Islam; observing the creation will suffice. The complex interplay of natural forces and phenomena points to the existence of the Almighty Creator who made the world as it is for a magnificent purpose. Hence, mankind has an essential nature and purpose which we inherit, and we ourselves do not create, to which we must conform. This natural law has been understood by philosophers and theologians for centuries across traditions and geography, as so eloquently stated by the great Aristotle:

It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. The best illustration is a doctor doctoring himself: nature is like that. It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose.

Aristotle’s Physics, part 8

Therefore, we have a duty to use our God-given power of reason to identify our nature and purpose and act accordingly.

The Challenge of Observation

However, the journey of reasoned observation has its own challenges. Observing order in the creation around us takes perseverance and courage. Perseverance is essential as natural laws are mere abstractions without concrete effects until they are discovered, understood, and implemented.

Courage is also required as one has to be comfortable with being wrong in the process of learning through observation. In fact, becoming comfortable with mistakes in order to learn through them is itself an unconventional path to wisdom that is often overlooked.

Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, emphasized the value of making mistakes as a path to learning in the famous tradition in which he said:

وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَوْ لَمْ تُذْنِبُوا لَذَهَبَ اللَّهُ بِكُمْ وَلَجَاءَ بِقَوْمٍ يُذْنِبُونَ فَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ اللَّهَ فَيَغْفِرُ لَهُمْ

By Him in whose hand is my soul, if you did not sin Allah would replace you with people who would sin and they would seek the forgiveness of Allah and He would forgive them.

Sahih Muslim 2749

Making mistakes is part of our human nature and the journey of life. Of course, we should always try to do our best in everything we do, but mistakes will happen, sometimes painful and embarrassing mistakes. The challenge is to learn from them and move on without repeating them again. In another tradition, the Prophet said:

لَا يُلْدَغُ الْمُؤْمِنُ مِنْ جُحْرٍ وَاحِدٍ مَرَّتَيْنِ

The believer is not stung twice from the same hole.

Sahih Bukhari 5782

In our lives, we will be stung by bad experiences on account of our own flaws and ignorance, yet the mistake itself is not blameworthy. What is blameworthy is repeating the same mistake again. The mistake should become a learning experience which we share so others are not stung in the same way. This is how the wisdom of humanity accumulates over generations.

Despite the importance of knowing our physical nature, this does not necessarily lead a person to religious faith as it logically should if they do not wish to accept their natural purpose. Allah said:

أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ وَأَضَلَّهُ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍ وَخَتَمَ عَلَىٰ سَمْعِهِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَجَعَلَ عَلَىٰ بَصَرِهِ غِشَاوَةً فَمَن يَهْدِيهِ مِن بَعْدِ اللَّهِ ۚ أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ

Have you seen he who has taken as his god his own desire and Allah has sent him astray with knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?

Surat Al-Jathiyah 45:23

The phrase “sent him astray with knowledge,” has two meanings: that Allah knew this person deserved to be misguided and also that he went astray despite having knowledge. In other words, his knowledge did not lead him to the right path because he was blinded by his passions. In reality, he took his desires as a god, an object of worship, making them the most important thing in his life. The temptation of unchecked desire is the primary culprit leading so many people to deny their purpose as revealed in natural law and revelation. Their knowledge did not lead to wisdom.

Wisdom and Intuition

Wisdom combines the comprehensive understanding of natural physical laws and natural value laws. When this happens, an individual is in a place to see all the events unfolding in history as following a pattern that fulfills all natural laws that Allah has created, both physical and values-based. When this is achieved, a person is at a level of understanding that he can predict future outcomes through his intuition rooted in that understanding.

As Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اتَّقُوا فِرَاسَةَ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَإِنَّهُ يَنْظُرُ بِنُورِ اللَّهِ

Beware of the insight of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allah.

Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3127

A true believer has a sharp intuition that is formed by observation, understanding, and wisdom.  He is in a better position to shape his own future than those who have not spent time and effort in the long process of learning. For this reason, Muslims have a duty to respect their elders and scholars as their wisdom might allow them to realize truths the younger generation cannot yet see.

We live in a time in which societies and cultures are changing in rapid acceleration. Coping with this change requires us to look into the future as best as we can before it unfolds. Although the future is only known by Allah, a believer who possesses wisdom might have an accurate intuition of the unfolding of future events based on current observations. Wise people know that when a culture abandons a natural value, such as upholding family ties (silat ar-rahim), it will only be a matter of time until its dire consequences afflict every level of society.

Where others might see disorder, a believer sees order in the patterns of nature and even the trends of society, as all past, current, and future events are governed by natural laws, both physical and values-based. It is only when we see this order that we will be able to shape our future, as the future will always follow patterns established and rooted in natural laws which Allah has created.

To achieve a better future for Muslims and humanity at large, let us regularly pause for a moment of observation toward attaining true wisdom.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.