What I really want to discuss is something I had been thinking a lot about the past week while reflecting (and reading Mulla Sadra).
Its the concept of Alastu Birabbikum Am I not your Lord from the Quran. A while ago I discussed Islamic existentialism the idea espoused by many Sufis that we were created by God, but that our consent was not asked before we were given existence.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but Alastu Birrabikum addresses that point directly. God asks man Am I not your Lord and man responds Yes you are! thus giving consent to our subsequent placement upon the earth.
Why does consent matter? Because if you can argue that humans have no existential consent, then you can argue that you are not bound to pay attention to anything else that God expects (as that would be a case of God being unjust, which is considered contradictory).
Existential Consent « Ali Eteraz
I’m about to jump off the deep end here. I don’t blog about philosophy or theology, but Ali Eteraz has touched upon something that has previously intrigued me in his discussion of the Quran’s depiction of the original covenant of Alastu Birabbikum between man and his Lord.
What intrigues me, at the risk of profound philosophical simplification and the intertwining two very disparate strands of thinking, is the parallel that can be drawn to one of the most famous ideas in liberal philosophy, John Rawls’ Original Position.
I want to apply to this Islamic original covenant, the criticisms levelled by one of Rawls’ most prominent critics, Michael Sandle who very persuasively challenged many of the assumptions imbedded in Rawl’s Original Position.
I appreciate that Sandel’s criticisms of Rawls’ theory are very particular and are aimed at precise aspects of Rawls’s theory. They will not translate into a general critique of any philosophy based on an original position. However I believe that the underpinning of Sandel’s criticism, in its logical deconstruction of the assumptions underlying Rawls’ Original Position is a valuable to understanding and deconstructing the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum
My impression is that Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I certainly do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed. I qualify that conclusion by the simple remark that I’m not well educated on Islamic theology of any stripe. That is why I phrase these as questions rather than arguments; they are inquiries.
QUESTION ONE : I CONSENT, THEREFORE I AM
My first question draws on Descartes. As the French philosopher has famously written, “I think, therefore I am”. In this context of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, one can say “I consent, therefore I am”. Which leads to the first difficulty. The self capable of consent must necessarily be created before he gives consent. This initial creation has to be without consent. In the original position of Alastu Birabbikum, we are all present without our consent.
To phrase it another way, the order of events that must have occurred for the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum as described is that mankind is created with an intellect capable of comprehending the question that is to be put to him, and of giving a meaningful response. He is then retroactively asked to consent to this initial creation and to his subsequent worldly incarnation by recognising the superiority of his Lord.
It appears to me that all creation must be without the consent of the created. This conflicts with the voluntary contractual nature that is the ethos in the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum.
I appreciate that this might be countered by arguing that the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum may be acceptable in so far as it gives retroactive consent to our creation. I have my questions centred on the nature of the consent which raise at Question 3. At this stage though, I wish to deal further with the Self that is created.
QUESTION TWO : I AM, BUT WHAT KIND OF ‘I’?
This second question, and where I explicitly draw on Sandel, is that there must be sufficient connection between the self that consents at this stage and the self that is bound by that consent in this world by the Divine law. This is what Sandel calls the antecedently individuated self.
This comprises three aspects. The first is that a sufficient number of characteristics, including those aspects of me that my values and moral framework must exist in this Self so as to give a meaningful basis on which I could exercise any consent. Otherwise it could not properly be said that I have a choice. If I have no criteria on which to make a choice, and no means of obtaining any criteria, can you really be said to have made a choice?
The second aspect is that these Selfs must be sufficiently individuated. The characteristics that are present at this stage to form my Self must be sufficiently different from your Self. A general commitment to truth and justice does not suffice. A general acceptance of God’s superiority is not sufficient. Instead we have to have very specific descriptions of our means, goals, values and social context to give a sufficient differentiation so that, at the extreme, the consent of one twin brother might be distinguished from the consent of another.
The third aspect is that it is, to some extent, clear what is not there. Nothing that you have learned in this world can be with you there. After all at the point of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, they are events that are to occur in your future. All the things that you have been taught by nurture, the things that you parents and teachers have taught you can not be with you at this point. To take that further, none of the morality or values that have been taught to you while you were in this world are with you then. Without digressing too far into the debate about nature versus nurture, it should be clear to all of us in a vast and global world, that it is easily possible for humans to have different moral codes and societal norms and that many of these norms are derived from nurture.
From my understanding, there simply isn’t enough information to answer any of these question. It may be that there exists a middle ground, where we are sufficiently individuated, sufficiently capable of existing as intellectual and moral beings and yet do so without drawing on anything worldly at all to reach this stage. It seems a tremendous intuitive leap though to accept this without having some sort of discussion to draw on.
QUESTION THREE : I’D CONSENT IF I COULD
My third question goes to the nature of the consent that we give. I think that it may be presumed that consent requires certain elements. It must be voluntary in that it is freely given. it must not be coerced from us. It must be a choice, in the meaningful sense that we can choose to consent or not consent and within reason we must understand what we are consenting to.
It’s not immediately clear that any of these elements is made out in the moment where the question of Alastu Birabbikum is asked. It may be, as the reply of “bala, shahidna” indicates, an element of overwhelming obviousness in the answer. But that does not mean it is necessary that just because there is an obvious answer, no other answers should exist or be possible.
Let me take a moment to situate ourselves back in the proper context. We find ourselves freshly created, fully functional but standing before an immensely powerful being that has created from nothing all that exists. We are sufficiently human, it must be presumed, for there to be the possibility of choice and for us to be bound by that choice. That means as part of our rational self interest is engaged in making the choice.
The first issue then becomes do we even have a choice? Is there a possibility of saying no? And what happens to those who might do so, or even what happened to those who did?
The second issue then is what did we consent to? If we recognise the superiority of our Lord, do we automatically accept that his decisions, which confine us to the not so comfortable surroundings of this world are right simply based on that authority? Would we have accepted that authority if we had known the consequences? Did we know the consequences at all?
This leads to my third issue, the one most intimately entwined with Question Two. Did we know the true nature of our questioner? Did we realise that we are being asked to submit to the will of an almighty, but also infinitely just and merciful interlocutor? Was our consent based on our surety in his justice or mercy, or was it based on our fear of his wrath and power?
I HAVE NO ANSWERS
It appears to me that there is insufficient information to answer any of these questions. It may well be that the clarity and nature of our consent was sufficient to bind us even in this world, in circumstances so different from the realm of pre-existence where this question appears to have been asked.
In my humble opinion Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed nor address what seems to me the quite clear objection of the Sufi Existentialists he mentions in his post. Rather it seems to me, that we must exist before our consent is given, and that all creation exists without consent.
But that to me, goes against both the contractarian nature of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, and against a perfectly omniscient and just Deity.