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Milestones along the Path

The three friends, Michael, Yousef and Rajiv, met once again at a table in the meeting hall. Each of them ordered his favorite drink, then Rajiv began to speak.

Rajiv: At our last meeting, we stopped the discussion when we were talking about the qualities a true god should have and how to distinguish the true religion from fake ones?

Michael: Let me first establish a fact and then ask a question. Concrete science has achieved tremendous strides in various branches. Medicine has nowadays advanced hundreds of times from the medicine two centuries ago. Communication technology has also made tremendous strides, and we know many concrete facts about chemistry… Curricula that teach these sciences are developing very quickly to keep pace with inventions and new discoveries. It is not possible to find in the field of physical sciences today any scientist who says that the earth is, for instance, not spherical. Philosophy, on the other hand, is still discussing the issues that have been discussed for thousands of years about the existence of God Almighty, and the truth about religions, the system which is most favorable to human life, the meanings of justice, and other concepts and perceptions. If we say that science is evolving and progressing, then why can't we say that religion is evolving as well?

Yousef: For thousands of years, beliefs, perceptions and ideas have been battling and struggling, either directly or indirectly. This means that the human mind in its study of philosophy hasn't reached the level of advancement or taken the great strides that the physical sciences have because our basic human existence, and also the major humanitarian issues that preoccupy man, have not changed. Man is always looking for a comprehensive explanation of life, and on the basis of which he deals with that life... He is looking for an interpretation that brings him closer to his perception of the nature of the greater truths with which he deals, and the nature of relationships and links between these truths, asking what makes us people that have been created, that is creatures that have certain relationships with God and also with others - questions that also existed in bygone days. That is why we can benefit from our ancestors concerning these issues, just as we benefit from our contemporaries. The topics that used to be discussed are the same topics that are discussed now: topics related to the universe, life and man. And though human beings agree on many of the facts of physical science, they do not agree on most of the facts of subjects related to perceptions and intellectual concepts, a situation that will not end except with the end of mankind.

Michael: So we can say that we will never be able to reach the truth concerning such topics.

Yousef: Who said that? Otherwise, what is the benefit of discussing them? Actually, I think we can discuss these topics by carrying out subtle intellectual debates, while realizing the importance of being impartial and avoiding whims and narrow-mindedness, in order to reach the truth. He who genuinely and sincerely wants to reach the truth , and works to find it, will be guided by God Almighty. A proof of this is that despite these contradictions, there has been progress in these concepts and perceptions in different periods of history at the hands of prophets, reformers and intellectuals, and sometimes even through nations themselves. But what I mean to stress here is that confusion and contradiction are characteristics associated with philosophical or humanitarian issues. It's both an old and new problem.

But let me point out to you two important issues related to that:

The first is that progress in physical science does not necessarily mean progress in thought, perceptions and concepts, for there is no link between the two subjects. A proof of that is the similarity of material progress between, say, the U.S. and Japan, yet the two countries roots in relation to perceptions, concepts, and human and religious thought are different, which means that progression of some human societies in physical sciences does not necessarily mean that it has progressed in its philosophical ideas too.

The second issue is that truth does not gain its soundness and strength from the support or rejection of a group of people, for most humans are in error, in fact human history has recorded instances in which many people agreed on misconceptions or unethical acts, or even heinous crimes.

Rajiv: I agree with you on that, but I think that we are from different cultural roots, so each of us holds different beliefs and perceptions. Therefore we have to agree first on the grounds or arguments by which we infer the soundness or unsoundness of any particular fact.

Michael: I think that there is no way to do that except through two routes: the mind, or science... This is what we all agree upon.

Yousef: I agree in principle, but which mind do you mean? My mind is different from yours! And which science do you mean? Do you mean only experimental science?

Michael: By mind I mean intellectual axioms that no two people may differ about, or mental evidence that we all agree upon. I think that we don't disagree that we should accept scientific facts that have been proven scientifically. This is, of course, unlike scientific hypotheses, theories or experiments which haven’t amounted to facts... Don't you agree with me on that?

Yousef: I agree with you, but I also then wish to bring up another argument, which is as important as these arguments. This is the argument of human nature. And I also wish to bring up another important point concerning the authority of reason and science, which is that there is a difference between what the mind confirms as being a mistake or impossible, and what the mind finds difficult to conceive or perceive.

Rajiv: What do you mean by the argument of human nature?

Yousef: I mean the inner feelings or tendencies which are fundamental in man and which are shared by all human beings. There are natures and properties embedded in all existence, whether inanimate objects, plants, animals or humans. We say, for instance, that water has the characteristic of boiling at a hundred degrees, or that the human body should be at a temperature between 34-42 degrees Celsius to stay alive. These matters just exist in these things without them having any role in their existence.

Michael: You mean the instinct in humans and animals?

Yousef: Instincts exist in humans and animals. They are internal properties that guide them in their life, such as the instinct of predation in beasts. No one embeds in beasts the inclination or the instinct for predation, or the ability for some migratory birds and fish to find their original habitat, or maternal instinct in females. One who has an instinct might be conscious of the instinct he has, but he doesn't pay attention to how and why he has this instinct.

As for human nature and innate matters, they only exist in man. These are also issues which are inherent in man and not acquired from external factors. He knows and understands them. The difference, however, between human nature and instinct, is that an instinct is related to material matters, while nature is related to matters of humanity, such as love of knowledge, seeking truth, the desire for innovation and creativity, the tendency to like goodness and virtue, and the tendency to like beauty… Man desires these things, and demands them and is attracted to them, without the environment surrounding him playing any part in these feelings, and he doesn't acquire these matters from his upbringing or social background either. Natural matters are implanted in a human and stems from inside him, like animal instincts, but they are related to abstract moral matters. This nature in man is that which makes him attracted to what is nice and repelled by what is ugly. You don't find a human with a sound nature shunning away from a nice smell or a beautiful view, while being attracted by a bad smell or a disgusting scene.

Rajiv: But how do we define these natural matters in a way which allows us to decide whether they are natural or unnatural?

Yousef: Natural matters in humans are characterized by several traits, the most important of which are:

That they are comprehensive and general for everyone.

That they extend in time, in the sense that they don't require something in one time and require something else in another time.

They come from the innermost core of a human and his soul, and do not come from education or by acquisition, though education might strengthen and develop them.

They do not submit to the influence of ambient factors, but may be affected in certain circumstances by some factors. The purity of innate matters may change and its nature may become corrupted, similar to what happens to the human senses of hearing, sight and taste when affected by a disease, but generally they are not erased; they may weaken or fade, but not become completely canceled or removed.

Michael: I think that we agree on what was put forth, but because of this last point, I'm a bit skeptical of using human nature as one means of inference in our subject.

Rajiv: We can discuss the matter that depends on the issue of human nature at its due time. If all of us accept it, we will agree on it, but if we don't accept that issue, we'll search for another argument.

Yousef: By the way, I would like to turn your attention after our agreement to these means of inference; that some who don't know Islam might think that our agreement on these means do not agree with the religion of Islam, which is wrong.

Michael: What I know is that religion is based on the belief in a sacred text, and blind acceptance of certain issues that should not be discussed or doubted. For that reason, great battles took place in European history after scientific discoveries were found, since the church fought these discoveries and opposed any form of thinking that doid not refer to the Bible.

Yousef: What you say is true with some reservation, but it does not apply to Islam. It is true that religion is based on believing in a sacred text and absolute recognition of the soundness of certain issues, yet Islam has made the mind, thought and knowledge emanate from reflection, exploration, and experiment on the self and creation at large, which is the path to belief in God Almighty, the holy book of the Muslims, the Qur’an, and the Prophet Muhammad. Never in the history of Islam did this contradiction and conflict you're talking about between religion and science or reason arise.

Rajiv: It is very impressive that your holy book urges people to respect the mind, and also contemplation and knowledge.

Michael: I see that those in charge of the hall are indicating that it's near closing time. Let's stop at this point and complete tomorrow.

Rajiv: I'm busy tomorrow. But it would be my pleasure if you accept my invitation for a trip on the banks of the River Seine the day after tomorrow.

Michael and Yousef: Good, with pleasure.