A contemporary metaphor for understanding Islam
Far from the American public’s reductionist conception of it, which emphasizes its sociopolitical aspects and obscures its status as a blueprint for self-becoming, Islam is a religion which is based on the single individual’s experience. Specifically, it instructs the adherent to introspect on his own life by viewing it from the perspective of a transcendent cosmic witness: a divine creator who will resurrect us and hold us accountable by a standard of ultimate justice.
The roots of this idea are no doubt ancient, and perhaps best captured in the striking iconography of the ancient Egyptians, who represented the final judgement as a weighing of scales. At this point, fans of the Netflix series The Midnight Gospel will recognize the image above as the latest reiteration of this archetype in popular culture.
The notion that an intentional cosmic architect underlies our lived reality is totally refuted by any scientific understanding of the universe. And yet, in what appears to be another iteration of ‘horseshoe theory’ applied not to politics but to physics, scientific discoveries appear to be turning back to this quintessential religious idea in the form of simulation theory. It isn’t uncommon for today’s leading physicists to voice their opintion that our reality may be created by a simulation. According to a form of anthropic reasoning, if humans ever develop the capability of simulating consciousness, then it becomes overwhelmingly compelling that our own consciousness is also simulated.
This simple idea appears to be the seed of a new religion — after all, in our scientific culture, won’t any serious religion take its cue from our most rigorous scientists? — but it remains a seed, and not a sapling, for one important reason. The essense of a religion is that it provides a framework by which to know how to act, given certain metaphysical presuppositions. As it stands, simulation theory doesn’t account for what to do about the possiblity that our reality is simulated. Even worse, it may be unable to make any prescriptions behind a kind of defeatism nihilism, which tells us something along the lines of: we are so far-removed from our simulators that there is nothing we could possibly know about what they want.
Tentatively, and with great caution, I argue that a contemporary way of understanding Islam is by the metaphor of simulation theory. Let’s see how this might apply. The fatiha, an often-repeated chapter of the Quran which I’ve elsewhere called the ‘orienting verses’, cannot help but be percieved as crude to the modern reader. Its last verse encourages the adherent to strive for the path of those whom God has “bestowed favor, not of those with whom he is angry, nor of those who are lost”.
Such an anthropomorphized conception of God is extremely unpalatable to contemporary audiences, who can only tolerate the vaguest kind of spiritualism and shuns any idea of a ‘personal relationship’ with God. And yet, using the lens of simulation theory, it becomes only natural to suppose that God can be pleased or angry with us. If we suggest that the Hermeticist rule of “as above so below” applies to a simulated universe — that something about how we simulate realities applies to the way we ourselves our simulated — then it becomes straightforward that, given our time-honored propensity for establishing justice, there are certain life-outcomes which are worthy of praise or worthy of scorn. In short: since we would likely create our simulations with a purpose, and have a clear sense of wrong-doing towards that purpose, then the same can be said about our own simulated reality.
Where should we get our cue about who is rightly-guided towards this divine — to use our metaphor, simulated — purpose? Here, a slight departure from orthodox Islam may be warranted. A strict reading of the Quran says that the social edicts revealed to Mohammad in the 7th century remain the eternal laws of God, a revelation which in itself comprises the standard of infinite justice. By this reading, the passage of 1,400 years carry little significance, and humanity will be judged based on their adherence to a clearly-defined, if outdated, legislation.
However, if we shift our focus from the content of the Quran and onto its form, we can view the particular features of its law as almost arbitrary, and direct our attention instead at the act of assent which characterized its followers (Muslims, literally, ‘those who submit’). What Islam introduces to the world is not so much that particular set of laws, but the idea that a person can submit himself to the standard of ultimate justice, and thereby free himself of God’s wrath.
If not the social edicts of the Quran, what should be the decisive factor which determines a person’s status in the sight of God? Simply put: their own conscience. This idea, which nicely compliments the popular Sufi saying that ‘He who knows himself, knows his Lord’, makes introspection and self-transparency the ultimate injunction of the Muslim. In the process of understanding himself, the Muslim who recites the fatiha adheres to a certain framework whereby those parts of himself which inspire guilt and unease are the objects of God’s wrath, while those parts of himself which inspire hope and pride are the objects of God’s blessing.
We find, then, that the essence of Islam is a paradigm by which to grapple with one’s own selfhood, a method by which to work through the existential concepts of finitude, guilt, and freedom, and so on, and this is a paradigm which may be well-received if we introduce the metaphor of simulation theory, which gives plausible deniability to the idea that nothing we do matters after we die.
As a final note, it may be worth it to bring up a specific quote from the Quran which provides a good opportunity to apply the metaphor of simulation, if in a somewhat funny way. In several verses the Quran recounts certain arguments made against the proliferation of Islam. To paraphrase one such verse, the enemies of Islam are reported to have said: ‘Who is this person who will make us into a new creation after we’ve become bones?’ The response which is revealed to the prophet is: ‘The same one who made you the first time’.
This exchange is a delightfully simple one, but nonetheless profound, and it may constitute the most convincing argument in favor of the general life-orientation set out in the Quran. In sticking with the metaphor of simulation, we may say that the central contention of the Muslim evangelist — that a resurrection will take place, and that it’s our duty to prepare and come to terms with it — is simply the idea that we may be ‘respawned’ into God knows what and where: that the powers that dictate the process of our becoming don’t stop with our death, and that we must be able to face our eventual rebirth with the conviction that we would deserve goodness in the face of ultimate justice.
But God knows best.