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[By Dr. Taufik A.Valiante
"In whatever business thou mayest be and whatever portion thou mayest
be reciting from the Qur'an and whatever deed ye (humankind) may be
doing We are Witnesses thereof when ye are deeply engrossed therein.
Nor is hidden from thy Lord (so much as) the weight of an atom on the
earth or in heaven. And not the least and not the greatest of these
things but are recorded in a clear Record." (10:61)
To paraphrase, I believe that Allah is telling us that in whatever you
are occupied, be it your occupation, when you recite the Qur'an, and
in any other work you may be doing, I [Allah] and the angels are a
witness to your actions, and even the smallest things that you do, do
not go unrecorded.
For me, the question that arises first after reading this verse is:
Why is everything so important, even something that is physically or
figuratively less than an atom's weight? Is it to increase our already
burdensome lives? Are we not all caught up in the rat race, working to
live, and barely alive enough to work or extend ourselves any further?
Is this the burden of Muslims that the other monotheistic religions
balk at, suggesting that Islam -- unlike other religions -- guarantees
nothing in the end, that our fate is always in the balance, and that
we must always be on guard? On top of all this, it is not just the
big things that Allah is aware of, but also the tiniest little things!
Well, the psychology of behavior modification is beyond the scope of
this article and beyond my area of expertise, but I feel that if Islam
is a prescription for internal and external peace, then change must
come about by active application, not benign neglect. We are told in
the Qur'an: "Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people
until they change their own condition." (13:11)
So, back to the "little things" in life. It is often said that the
most successful among us are those who set themselves small,
attainable goals. With consistent application to these attainable
goals, life then becomes a series of positive reinforcements and
ultimately we make it to the culminating point, while those who set
huge, unrealistic goals are more likely to be destined for failure.
But more on this later.
I suppose that having a slight scientific bent has given me an alternate perspective on the Qur’anic teaching that every minute thing is recorded by Allah. I believe that it is not so much to burden us with having to watching every little thing we do, but to tell us that everything we do has a significant impact on us, our families, our communities, and ultimately society as a whole. Wow! What a burden or, what an opportunity! Yes, an opportunity that derives from certain fundamental physical principals which we cannot wiggle our way out of. These principles have been captured in the term "butterfly effect," and derive from concepts fully developed in chaos theory.
Now I do not profess to be an expert in either theology or mathematics. I am, however, an optimist and the first quoted verse brings me much peace when given a certain physical context. So, what about this "butterfly effect"?
It began with Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who modeled convection currents on computers. Given the lengthy computations necessary on the
large and slow computers of his day (the early 1960s), Lorenz decided
to write down the intermediate values in his study and continue his simulation at a later time. As he recorded these values, he took the liberty of rounding some of them off to three decimal places or so. But when he later re-started the computer simulation where it had left off, he realized that as the calculations progressed, the results departed from those of an uninterrupted simulation.
The departure from the expected result was not miniscule, even though the discrepancy in starting values was. Apparently, as time passed, the departure grew exponentially! The effect became known as "sensitivity to initial conditions." Given the fact that Lorenz was modeling weather patterns, it was remarked "if the theory (chaos theory) were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever." Lorenz extended this analogy in the title of his lecture, "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?" Hence, the "butterfly effect."
There are two major concepts relevant to this piece that arise out of chaos theory and each has something to do with systems governed by a defined set of rules. Systems with defined rules, as for example a system of mathematical equations, are said to be "deterministic." Deterministic systems, even very basic ones, like simple mathematical equations, can show rather complicated behaviors, which have often been described as "seemingly random." But such behavior isn't really random: because it is being generated from a mathematical equation, it just looks very complicated.
Thus, chaos is not really that intuitive sense of disorder we have grown up associating with the word. Rather, it is at times very complicated behavior that emerges from a specific set of rules. Actually it is through rules (or, equations) that the typical behavior of a given system is manifested. If we think of weather, for example, there are a finite amount of weather patterns that can happen, simply because physical rules have to be obeyed; but we are unable to predict which one will occur, or when. We can't expect to get wholly new kinds of weather -- that would be weird and frankly, unnatural. Everything in our physical and spiritual environment follows rules, whether we like it or not, and whether we can explain it or not as we are told in the Qur'an:
"Seek they other than the religion of Allah when unto Him submitted
whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly."
As mentioned, the other important concept that arises out of chaos
theory is "sensitivity to initial conditions," which means that small
changes in variables (i.e. the values of mathematical equations) will
create profound changes in any system as it evolves over time. These
initial changes, or "perturbations," although tiny can dramatically
alter the path a system could take. In chaotic systems, this rate of
change can be quantified and is known as the lyapunov exponent. This
rate of change actually represents the distance between two paths, one
offset from the other by a small "perturbation." One can imagine that
if the paths of a system kept diverging in this exponential fashion,
the whole system would explode. Or, if the path of a system kept
contracting exponentially, the system would collapse down to a
singular point and implode. Chaotic systems that neither blow up, nor
implode, must maintain a balance between expansion and contraction. In
mathematical terms, these balanced systems contain both positive and
negative lyapunov exponents. Is it any wonder that both "the Expander"
and "the Constrictor" are among Allah's many attributes? Thus it
appears that in Islam, ethereal as well as physical systems exist in a
balance of opposing forces. (This can lead also to an in-depth
discussion of the concept of "Moderation," which is another topic in
and of itself.)
So what about the stuff we can hardly measure, the things we consider
unimportant or trivial in our daily lives? -- a smile, a simple kind
gesture, for example? What place do they have in our day-to-day
encounters? Furthermore, what about more overt and profound actions,
such as helping the needy, the orphaned, the homeless, the hungry, and
the underprivileged? It is so easy to say, "What can I do? I am just
one person, or "I can't make a difference."
Well, if it is not enough that the Qur'an tells you every little thing
counts, mathematics says the same thing! Everything does count, and
the more we begin to believe and understand this, the less disenfranchised we will feel. We should believe this because it is a reality from which we cannot escape -- it is inherent in the fact that we exist as part of a complex social system. Additionally, we are all part of a real physical system, governed by rules and equations set down by our singular Creator, Allah. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that by non-participation we effect no change. The absence of involvement is just as profound a "perturbation" in the universal system as is an active effort to do so.
So when we lament over the problem of the world's disjointed Ummah, we
should take a step back and remind ourselves that human-engineered
unity is, in and of itself, an unobtainable goal. It is, however,
easily obtained if we apply ourselves rigorously to all that the
Qur'an prescribes for us. The unity we so yearn for is the natural
endpoint, provided we follow the prescriptions set forth. If we think
social change will come about merely by ritualistic pursuits, then
read Sura Al-Maun (Alms):
"Have you considered him who calls the judgment a lie? That is the one
who treats the orphan with harshness and does not urge (others) to
feed the poor. So woe to the praying ones, who are unmindful of their
prayers, who do (good) to be seen, and withhold the necessaries of
If we haven't yet obtained the things we hope for as a community or as
a society, then we should be looking at our own individual behaviors.
It may be that when it was our time to flap our wings and change the
weather in Texas, we were sitting in our basement and complaining
about our next-door neighbors!
(Taufik A. Valiante is a neurosurgical fellow at the University of
Washington in Seattle. His interests include the study of epilepsy,
language, and memory. He obtained his BSc in physics, PhD in
neurophysiology, MD, and neurosurgical training all at the University
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