Dear Imam, Respected Elders, Beloved Sisters and Brothers
Today I want to share something very special with you
I want to take you on a journey of discovery.
Recently, the 2016 Noble Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to a Japanese researcher, Yoshinori Ohsumi, for his work in discovering and enlightening us about a system of self cleansing or detoxification of the cells in the human body. His work on the body’s endogenous system of autophagy, (“auto” = self and “phagy” =-eating or “self-engulfing”) as the name implies, helps to clean the body of accumulated debris which result from what it ingests or as result of its own metabolic processeses. If these are not cleared from the body it causes harm and disease. His pioneering work is envisaged to play will a central role in overcoming the growing scourge of serious diseases such as cancer, and neuro – degenerative diseases, such as senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Interestingly, his work has also led to profound insights about how we can, through manipulating our environment and our lifestyle, enhance the positive effects of this discovery. Many studies have shown that people who fast regularly for example, as it is a sunnah for us to do, can enhance this autophagous process with much benefit to our bodies.
Reflecting on this, leads one to reach out in a profound expression of love, reverence and respect for our illustrious Prophet, our Leader and our master Muhammad (SAW), for introducing us to such a beneficial and specialised form of worship such as saum or fasting.
At the same time, it should also inspire us to seek more knowledge and deeper understanding of just how magnificently Allah has Created us all.
As human beings we have been blessed with an enormous capacity for reflection, imagination and understanding.
Qur’an 41: 53
Allah, The Sublime, invites us to exercise this Divine Gift when He declares in Surah Fussilat:
We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. But is it not sufficient concerning your Lord that He is, over all things, a Witness? (Qur’an 41: 53)
Today, 1400 years since its Revelation, we are on the cusp of gaining a deeper appreciation of the Noble Truth this verse of the Qur’an seeks to affirm.
Signs, Symbols, Truth, and Personal Transformation
This verse of the Qur’an speaks about “signs” and “truth”, or ayat, and haq. It also implies that signs and truths are related; the former leads to the latter. Haq or truth in turn impacts on our consciousness and has the capacity to transform our thinking and behaviour.
The knowledge of all things is known to Allah (SWT); He is the Ultimate and Master Educator. He uses His Signs (or symbols) or ayat as His Preferred mode of communication. Those who are privileged by Him to decipher these signs and to discover the truth it occasions, must bear witness about its veracity to others. By doing so, they become shahid, those who contemplate upon and become an instrument for reflecting Divine Beauty.
In this instance the Qur’an is telling us, “look at the Signs everywhere and you will grasp the Real Truth of Who Allah is. This will bring forth for you more insight, guidance and success as there is nothing here on earth that God is not aware of.”
Allah wants us to worship Him for therein lies all good imaginable for ourselves. This requires faith and submission. Unfortunately, human beings are, by nature, sceptical, and suspicious. These are qualities that make it difficult for them to transcend their own limited capacities of hearing, vision and intellection.
It took human kind many years of reflection to realise that the earth is not flat and that it revolves around the sun; at times anyone who believed to the contrary risked being burnt at the stake. In similar vein, the idea that a human being arises from the genetic contribution of both a father and a mother was not accepted wisdom until well past medieval times. It was believed that a human being is fully formed within the father’s sperm and the mother’s womb is simply a place for the nurturing and growth of this homunculus or miniaturized human being. Today we can easily toss away such ideas as total ignorance.
Cells; a microscopic world of incredible complexity
Despite the sheer magnitude of our capacity for Intellection and Reflection, we are limited in many ways. Our eyes for example, are capable of only a very limited range of vision. We are unable to see objects very large and very far away, such as planets, stars or asteroids, nor can we visualize very small objects, such as the component parts of our bodies, known as cells. Some estimate that the human body is composed of over a 100 trillion cells.
Today we have sophisticated tools such as scanning electron microscopes which enable us to penetrate deeper within human cells, illustrating its magnificent architecture and the complex functions it performs, and what a world of discovery awaits us.
One day when my son was about 10 years old, he came home with a curious question.
“Daddy, what are genes and chromosomes and how do they work so that children often look like their parents?”
I started by informing him about the existence of human cells, how each of them have a specific function, that they live for a certain lifespan, that they give birth to new cells, that these new cells inherit the characteristics of their parent cells and that in this way character traits, functions and other complex biochemical functions continue in our bodies despite cells only having a limited lifespan. For most cells it is only a couple of days at best.
I will come back to my interaction with my son a little later, but for the moment, I trust that you understand the point I am trying to make.
Die before you die!
Old cells, having completed their functions die and new ones are born to take their place; this happens all the time in our bodies and we are not even aware of it.
What this means is that, whilst sitting in this mosque our bodies have changed; from the time we came here till we leave, a portion of our body will die and a new part of our body will be born. We are created anew every minute! Before we finally taste death one day, our bodies will have tasted death many zillions of times before.
When Allah is asking us to look for the signs of His Creation within ourselves is He not inviting us to look at how he has Created us?
It is here where I believe, we as believing doctors, scientists and cell biologists have a profound duty to explain what we see of the signs of Allah’s Creation.
By sheer coincidence, whilst I was explaining cellular structure and basic genetics to my son, we had an unexpected visitor. I have a friend, who is also a regular musalli of the mosque I frequent. He is a staunch follower of a conservative, reform movement.
Tajdid & Islah
The main aim of this movement is to spread their austere interpretation of our faith. Little tolerance is shown for those with opposing ideas and methods of how to implement tajdid and islah, or reform and renewal, of our faith or din.
I struck a bargain with my guests; they were welcome to deliver their message or invitation, provided they also afforded me the opportunity to invite them to what I have to share with them.
‘Urf or Cultural Heritage
I informed them that
- our identity as a Muslim Community in this land was forged on the anvil of political struggle, of fighting for human dignity and opposing racial discrimination.
- Our Islam is culture friendly and honours local traditions.
- It respects diversity.
- It honours all the Creation of Allah including women, children, the elderly, the invalid
- It respects the freedom Allah has given every individual to enter into Faith with conviction and without any compulsion.
- It respects the role of reason and rational deliberation as a legitimate way of trying to reach to the Truth.
My friend also brought along with him a Medical doctor practicing elsewhere.
Since we share a profession, I thought of asking this colleague something pertaining to his practice of Medicine, as it could, technically speaking, be a topic we should not have much conflict about.
He tells me
“I used to practice allopathic medicine before; now I practice homeopathic medicine; because that’s what people want these days! ”
I listened patiently as he was trying to extol the virtues of his discipline. The remedies prescribed are natural in origin, less toxic to the body and are administered in very small doses etc.
“Fine”, I said, “I grant you all of that. I do however detect three major blind spots or problem areas in how you approach care of ill individuals.
“ Firstly, tell me what does homeopathic medicine have to offer to a person who has all the signs and symptoms of an acute myocardial infarct with raised enzymes and ECG changes – can you reverse the myocardial damage? A woman with breast cancer? A gunshot wound to the head? A patient involved in a MVA with multiple system injuries? What about HIV, TB, or even Malaria? “
None, he conceded. Thus in the greater scheme of all illnesses, disabilities and infirmities put together, homeopathic medicine, he had to admit, has little to offer. It might have a smaller peripheral- or placebo role but as to where current levels of knowledge of the healing sciences stood, it still has a long way to go before it can make any real claims for its efficacy and safety in the management of many major illnesses and disabilities.
I told him
“ I see a greater danger in your attitude of trying to medicalize problems of everyday living. Instead of understanding people, caring for and supporting them, walking the extra mile to give them the insight they require to change the trajectory of their lives, you have reduced medical practice to a pill for every ill. Substituting one type of medicine, whether allopathic or pharmacological, for another product, is not going to do the trick. “
Lastly, I asked him
“What has prevented you as a person practicing medicine for many years now, having been exposed to ideas about cell biology and genetics, albeit at a very basic level in your medical school career, from pursuing this line of enquiry? Why have you not taken up the challenge, to inquire and inform yourself? Is reflection and pondering about Allah’s Creation, not something the Qur’an demands from us?”
Modern medicine has given us so many wonderful insights into how the human body functions and knowledge of this can certainly draw a person closer to His Creator. Gaining Knowledge is not a valueless affair. Acquiring Knowledge is a transformative process.”
“ I would be the first to recognise that we do not have all the answers in modern western bio medicine. Yet it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bath tub!
I told him
“Before, you came knocking on my door, I was lying on the bed with my son trying to explain to him, using a very simple analogy, what heredity and genetics is all about.”
Genetics and Heredity
- Firstly, I tried to impress upon him how small the human cell is. You cannot see it with the naked eye.
- Secondly I told him all the genetic information of our entire body is contained within our chromosomes and genes; the latter is composed of DNA, a very complex, double helix chemical. In simple terms all this genetic information is like a library of information and it has to be transferred from parent to offspring cell.
- The usage of the word “library” turned out being more than useful. It led me to tell him to think of all this information being contained within a multivolume encyclopaedia; it has 46 volumes, 23 which you inherit from your father and 23 from your mother; these are the individual books or big volumes of the encyclopaedia; give them a name; call them
- Each volume has chapters; at the last count there were something like 23 000 of them; give them a name; call them
- Each chapter I told him is several pages thick; the total number of pages in 46 volumes and 23 000 chapters is a staggering 3.5 billion pages thick; these are the chemical bases which form the ultimate structure of our DNA. Any change taking place here with just a few chemical base being misplaced will result in a mutation and the consequence of it can be disease, disability or even death! Just to imagine how this system repeats its own sparkling performance from one generation to the next and it does it so flawlessly is enough to cause us to stare in utter wonder and amazement.
Now imagine all of this genetic transfer is compressed into a subcellular structure which we cannot see with our naked eye!
Subhanallihi Rabbil Arshil Athim!
Just think about what I have just told you now! Just ponder about the magnificence of our creation and how this process repeats itself for countless times during the night and day. Can we as human beings ever give thanks enough to our Allah for what He Has Blessed us with?
Taqwa and Yakhsha
It is when you look and ponder on what Allah has Created, you stand with awe and amazement at what you discover. This leads to a change within one’s qalb, or heart or inner sense of perception. This humbles you. That is a moment when taqwa or yakhsha, a Reverential Fear and Love for Allah enters our being and enhances our ability to live a more spiritually- submissive and knowledgeable existence.
Just why is this topic of such relevance to us today? By and large, Muslims have abdicated their role in searching and developing a keener insight into Allah’s Creation. Instead of being at the forefront of scientific endeavour, many are simply satisfied with charlatan science, and failing to respond to the Qur’anic imperative to engage in tafaqqur or deeper reflection on Allah’s Creation. We’ve become consumers, beggars and borrowers of insights others have developed.
We have developed an instrumental relationship with science and technology. We use its end products such as smart phones and jet travel, yet many amongst us will quite easily parrot untruths such as the the moon landing was fake news, immunization causes harm, aids is a conspiracy, climate change is a hoax, and some prominent religious figures, even in the 20th century, believed that the earth is flat; every year we are still witnessing the ongoing saga of two ‘Ids and the endless debates about the validity of using astronomical calculations as a valid method to establish the beginning of a lunar month.
What all of these issues have in common is a poor understanding of how science derives its understanding about observable phenomena. We can’t all become scientists; that is no excuse for us to entrench ignorance about scientific matters! Like Imam Rashid used to say, “These days if you are not computer literate, you are illiterate!” I want to paraphrase that; these days if we remain ignorant about basic scientific knowledge, we are for all intents and purposes, illiterate about the World, the Cosmos and Creation and how it functions.
As a nation and as an Ummah, we must do more to create a culture of learning and enquiry to encourage our younger students to pursue careers in science and technology. It is a fardul kifayah to do so. The maths and science results of our school leavers compare dismally with many other countries. If we fail to stem this tide we will always fall short of finding answers for food, energy, water and health security; issues which are of vital concern for all of us these days.
Let us during this Jumua’ah khutbah commit ourselves to gain more insight into Allah’s Creation as a legitimate source of knowledge or ilm. Through this endeavor, we will come to appreciate, I believe, a world of immense beauty and incredible complexity. It will leave us humbled, awe-struck, and filled with gratitude.