Even the “Friend of God” had doubt

At a recent iftar dinner, as soon as we introduced ourselves as doctoral students in Islamic Studies, we were bombarded with a barrage of hard-hitting questions, one after the other, for about an hour and a half: “why is homosexuality condemned in Islam? why does the Qur’an allow husbands to hit their wives? why does the Qur’an allow men to have sex with their slave women? why are Muslim women not allowed to marry non-Muslim men? why are there no female prophets? why would the Qur’an contain things that are not applicable anymore if God is all-knowing? how do we even know that the Quran is the word of God? what logical and rational proof do we have that Islam is the truth?” and so on.

Generally, when many of us have such questions and doubts, we face a communal attitude that sees such struggles as due either to waswasah (evil whisperings) from Satan that should be ignored, or to something wrong with our iman (faith). After all, our scholarly tradition has generally defined iman as “definitive belief, without any hesitation or wavering, in which the believer does not consider even the possibility of any error” (Ghazali, Iljam al-awam).

However, in reading through the Qur’an together this Ramadan, the stories of two prophets have struck us as powerful examples for those of us who struggle with our faith or face uncertainty and doubt in our belief.

“…just to put my heart at rest…”

We have first the story of Ibrahim, the “friend of Allah”. As is well known, in his youth Abraham finds his community’s worship of stones distasteful, and proceeds to reflect on the cosmos around him. Through an extended process of contemplation and rational examination, he realizes that God must transcend all finite created entities, and is rather the originator of all existence (6:74-79). After arriving at rational certainty about the truth of God, Ibrahim is anointed as a prophet and messenger and is in direct communication with God. As a messenger of God, he goes on to challenge his community’s beliefs, is consequently thrown into a blazing fire, but is saved by God who miraculously cools it {21:51-70}.

And yet, despite all this – despite the rational proof, the miracles, and the direct communication with God – we find a very peculiar story in the Qur’an that shows us that there is still something in Prophet Ibrahim’s heart that feels unsettled:

“And when Abraham said, ‘My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.’ [God] said, ‘Do you not believe/have faith?’ Abraham said, ‘Yes indeed! But just to put my heart at rest.’” {2:260}

Even Abraham had doubt. Something in the Prophet Ibrahim’s heart needed to be comforted and put at rest, and he was comfortable expressing this need to God. The verse continues with God responding through another miracle to quell Ibrahim’s unsettledness.

But what about us? Here we are, in the 21st century, far removed from any direct revelation, any prophets, any miracles, any objective proofs, living in a secular and post-modern world defined by uncertainty and skepticism. Is it really so strange that we may often be unsettled in our faith? That we may have questions, objections, and skepticism about our religion? Is it so unthinkable that we may doubt as Abraham doubted despite the direct proofs, miracles, and revelation?

 “Let us see God with our own eyes!”

It may be countered: and yet, throughout the Qur’an, God criticizes and condemns those who doubt and question God and the Prophet. It is clear through such cumulative verses that questioning is not allowed in faith – as the Qur’an says, “we hear and we obey!” {2:285} (It is perhaps for this reason that we find the classical commentaries on the Qur’an going to great lengths to try and explain away Prophet Ibrahim’s story as not actually indicating any doubt on his part but something else.)

The story of Moses and his people, however, sheds light perhaps on what the Qur’an is actually condemning in such passages.

In one passage in the Quran, we find reference to how a group among the people of Musa “said [to Moses] ‘let us see God with our own eyes!’ and were struck by the thunderbolt for their wickedness” {4:153}.

And yet, in another passage, oddly enough, we find Moses himself making precisely the same request: “He said, ‘My Lord, show Yourself to me so that I may see You!’ God said, ‘You will never see me.’” {7:143} God then descends (metaphorically of course) close to the mountain and it crumbles under the weight of the Divine presence. Moses faints in witnessing this Divine majesty and power. Thus he is taught an important lesson: that it is not possible for our limited human capacities to observe God’s transcendent reality. Yet he is not rebuked or punished, his request is not deemed infidelity or hypocrisy or sin.

So why the disparity in the two situations? It seems that what is being condemned in the first scenario is not the question or request itself, but the motive and disposition behind it. The Quran’s frequent critique of those who raise questions and argue is not directed to those who do so for the purpose of understanding or knowing the truth. Rather its critique is directed at those who argue and question for the sake of avoiding their moral duties, or avoiding what they know to be true. For instance, in one passage the Qur’an criticizes those who say “shall we feed those whom, had God willed He could have fed?” {36:47} This is not asked out of genuine curiosity or philosophical inquiry. It is questioning and argumentation as an excuse for being immersed in one’s ego and selfish desires. Such examples are amply found throughout the Qur’an.

There is a clear and important difference between this form of self-serving questioning and genuine, sincere questioning that is trying to arrive at the truth, trying to “put my heart at rest,” trying to reconcile religion with what I intuitively and experientially know to be moral or true.

* * *

Returning to the example of Abrahim, we should strive to become what this prophet is described as in the Qur’an: “khalil Allah.” The close friend of God. A dear friend, someone we are in conversation with openly. An intimate relationship, in which we express what is in our hearts without fear or reservation, since God “knows the sigh before it leaves the heart” (Khaled Abou el Fadl). It is this intimate relationship that made Ibrahim comfortable and bold enough to “argue” with God on behalf of the people of Lot due to the mercy and tenderness of his heart {11:74-75}.

We should take comfort in Prophet Ibrahim’s example, and embrace the questions and doubts we have without fear or shame. We must also work to develop communities in which we can ask such questions and be honest with our doubts, without being accused of heresy or weak iman, and without being bullied and silenced into submission. It is heart-breaking to see the spiritual violence that is done to people through such silencing tactics, as so many of us are robbed of a sense of faith and connection with God. We can be faithful even as our minds remain curious and thirsty, even as our hearts are unsettled and seeking comfort and answers. For we are lovers of God, seekers on a path. Our doubts, unsettledness, and questions then are all part of this lifelong journey towards that Ultimate Divine Reality.

Related post:
 Spiritual Crisis and the Breaking of Dawn


Spiritual Crisis and the Breaking of Dawn

We are told that, in the period before receiving revelation, when he would spend extended periods of time in spiritual seclusion in the famous cave of hira’ on the Mountain of Light, the Prophet (may the salutations of the One be upon him) was overtaken by powerful experiences of spiritual illumination, which he likened to the breaking of light at dawn. We can only imagine what these experiences were and what they were like, but the description is powerful: suddenly and intensely, the sun rises and God’s light shines forth, illuminating and eliminating all the darkness, meaninglessness, and confusion that surrounds and suffocates the soul.

Soon thereafter, as is well known, the Prophet received the first Qur’anic revelation from the angel Jibreel and was thus initiated in his role as the Prophet and Messenger of God, the blessed recipient of Divine guidance to humanity.

After first receiving revelation, in the earliest phase of his prophetic mission, we know that there was an extended period of Divine silence, in which the Prophet did not receive any revelation. It is said that during this time, the habib (our beloved) became extremely grieved, distressed, and anxious. Perhaps he had incurred Divine displeasure and been abandoned by God? Or had he been mistaken, perhaps possessed by some spirit all along? What had happened, why had Divine communication ended? One can only imagine the pain, doubt, confusion, and distress that he experienced at this time, but some reports do give us an indication of just how intensely this experience affected our beloved Prophet: one hadith, for instance, relates that he intended to throw himself off the mountain multiple times, but was intercepted by Jibreel who reassured him. (Keep in mind that there is no consensus or certainty about the details of any of these matters, as there are always multiple conflicting reports about them – even the famous story of the cave of hira’ is not the only report we have on the first Qur’anic revelation.)

It was at the end of this period of silence, we are told, that surat al-Duha was revealed to the Prophet, recalling the earlier description of his spiritual illuminations, contrasting them to the darkness he now felt himself to be in:

“By the breaking light of dawn! And by the night when it is darkest and most still! Your rabb (Nurturer and Lord) has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased.” {93:1-3}

These verses not only comforted and reassured the Prophet in his lowest moment (the darkest hours of the night), but they set forth a most beautiful and inspiring description of the spiritual state of humanity. Juxtaposing the suffocating darkness of the night with the sudden and magnificent break of dawn, these verses highlight for us the cycle inherent in our spiritual lives. For we all experience our own spiritual nights and days, the darkness and light of the soul. We have all been through moments and periods of guidance and misguidance; being lost and finding our way, only to lose it again; having clarity and then confusion, doubt and then certainty again.

These verses remind us of the natural cycle of the day, in which the darkest moment of the day comes right before the light of dawn. They seem to be speaking directly to me: In those moments, when the darkness enshrouds you and envelops you like a cloak, covering you, suffocating you, blinding your vision, making every step more and more difficult, as you walk in confusion, anxiety, and fear; in those moments, remember that darkness is nothing but the absence of Light, remember that the sun rises after the darkest hour of the night. Remember that, and do not despair, do not lose focus or perspective. Even the Prophet of God, I am reminded, found himself in a low-point, a moment of darkness, a period of confusion and doubt.

Such is the cycle of the day. But it seems I must also accept that the day too passes and the night arrives. The cycle repeats itself of course, and darkness too inevitably comes after the light. I cannot become proud, self-assured, or complacent in times of spiritual clarity and solidity, for I am not guaranteed to remain in the light without the cycle repeating itself again.

These verses and the example of the habib comfort and reassure me that my struggles with faith, my confusions and doubts, my unanswered questions and discomforts, they are all a part of the journey of faith. Faith, it seems, is not a stable constant, not something you have, but rather a lifelong journey that you traverse. The cognitive certainty and experiential connection to the Divine go and come, ebb and flow, like the cycle of night and day. Faithfulness, however, is to keep on seeking the Truth that is God (al-Haqq) with sincerity, honesty, commitment, and struggle.

The Prophet’s example is instructive here: in this lowest of moments, his doubts and confusions centered on his own self – have I done something? was I mistaken or misguided? was I wrong in my understanding or belief? It was never his faith in and commitment to God that wavered. This teaches and reminds me: I may be confused or in doubt about particular beliefs, I may struggle to understand how to make sense of certain things. But this will make me question myself, what people have told me, what tradition has determined, what inherited understandings and doctrine have been passed on to me; it cannot, however, make me lose sight of the only Reality in existence, the only Truth worth striving and living for, the only existence more Real than all the world around me and the thoughts in my feeble mind.

Finally, after having reminded us of the cycles and struggles in our journey of faith, the surah ends with a powerful call for spiritual humility and ethical responsibility:

“Did He not find you an orphan and then give you shelter? And did He not find you misguided and then guide you? And did He not find you in need, and then enrich you? Therefore, be not harsh with the orphan. Nor repel the one who asks of you. And as for the blessings of your Lord, proclaim and announce.”{93:6-11}

This reminds us that, no matter the inner turmoil and confusion that we may be facing, this cannot make us forget the moral imperative upon us in living a life of faith. We may doubt, we may not understand, but we must not allow that to become an excuse to mindlessly give in to self-deification and hedonism. For the fact that there is something that transcends us and the empirical reality around us, and the fact of our moral responsibility and accountability as human beings, are truths so deeply engrained in our God-given nature (fitra) that – even though we can of course rationally doubt and deconstruct them – we can never in reality escape their hold on us.