Sometimes we imagine that the problems of our age are unique, but this is not the case. Atheism is not new. At the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and even before that, at the time of previous prophets (peace be upon them all), there were people who denied the existence of God. Rebecca Slenes tells us more, based on Shaykh Faraz Rabbani’s teaching of Ghazali’s Foundations of Islamic Belief.

In one of the commentaries of the Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (Aqida Tahawiya), Siraj al-Din al-Ghaznawi, an eminent Indian scholar who migrated to Egypt, gives some examples of how the early Muslims (salaf) discussed with atheists about the existence of the Creator. Through these examples, we see the importance of translating knowledge into wisdom and insight that speaks directly to people’s realities and to their hearts.

Shaykh Faraz Rabbani reminds us that a good argument is not just sound and coherent, but it is also compelling and convincing. To be effective, one needs to have a deep understanding of the context and where people are at, coupled with a deep concern for their eternal well-being. This is the concern of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. It is the concern shown by the the salaf in these stories. We have translated two of them here.

Story of Jafar al-Sadiq

One of the great imams of Islam, Jafar al-Sadiq (may Allah be pleased with him) was the 5th descendant of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and died in the year 148.

It is related that some the atheists denied the existence of the Creator in the presence of Jafar al-Sadiq. Jafar said to him, “Have you ever seen the sea and its awesomeness?”

Here, Jafar used an example that the man would relate to. This man probably lived far away and had travelled by sea. There may have been signs of this on him. It shows us the need to be attentive to people and their backgrounds.

The man said, “Yes, I have travelled by sea and there was a storm and the ship sank and the sailors drowned. I clung onto some planks of wood, then even the planks went away from me. I was pushed away by the clashing of the waves until I reached the shore.”

Imam Jafar said: “You were initially relying on the ship, the planks, and the sailors, but when these things left you did you still hope for safety?”

The man said “Yes”.

Imam Jafar said: “From whom did you hope for safety?”

The man was silent.

Imam Jafar said: “Verily in the Creator, He is the one in which you had hope in at that moment and He is the one who saved you from drowning.” And the man accepted Islam at his hand.

There are many lessons in this story, particularly related to the sunna of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) of knowing the background of the person one is dealing with. Saidina Ali ibn Talib, inspired by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), reminds us: “address people according to their understanding.” The story is also a marvelous depiction of our fundamental belief in God that cannot be denied. In moments of great danger all people, whether they affirm belief or not, tend to cling to hope of survival. The place of this hope is none other than God. Allah often tests us by taking things away from us so that we learn to place our hope in Him alone, showing us that “all things perish, except His face” (Quran 28:88).

Story of Abu Hanifa

The founder of the Hanfi school of jurisprudence, Abu Hanifa (may Allah be pleased with him) was one of the major jurists and scholars of Islamic civilization and passed away on the year 772.

It is related that Imam Abu Hanifa was a decisive debater against atheists. They used to be on the look out for any opportunity to kill him. One day they attacked him with their swords brandished as he was sitting in the mosque. They were about to kill him.

He said to them: “Answer me on one question and then you may do as you wish”.

They said: “go ahead!”

He said: “What would you say of a man who says: ‘verily I saw a ship full of cargo in stormy sea surrounded by surging waves and turbulent winds, yet the ship is sailing straight without a sailor directing her.’ Would you say that this is possible?”

They said: “No, that is not rationally possible.”

Abu Hanifa said: “Oh, Glory be to God, if the mind cannot accept that a ship sails straight without a sailor, how can it be possible for this world with its higher and lower details and all its changing states to exist with order without a Creator?”

They all cried and repented and entered Islam.

Here Abu Hanifa spoke directly to people’s intellect, calling them to believe through reason, which is a gift from God. They had come to kill Abu Hanifa and they all became Muslim at his hands. Subhanallah! He gave them life – the life of faith – after they had tried to kill him.

The importance of wisdom and mercy in addressing people

These are just a few examples of the ways of disputation of the early Muslims. We see how Imam Jafar and Imam Abu Hanifa used simple and relevant examples that spoke to people’s minds and hearts. We should reflect on the importance of wisdom and mercy in addressing people, speaking to them in accordance to their understanding, with patience and gentleness, using logical arguments and examples that they can relate to. These stories are timeless because they speak to all those of intellect. They are beautiful in that they show us the mercy of these early Muslims; even when faced with great hostility (when their lives were in danger), they used patience and wisdom and had a deep concern for those who were rejecting God. They were not debating with the intention to prove they were right or to demonstrate their knowledge; they were doing so out of sincere concern for people and for God. This is the concern and love of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that embraces all humanity and all living creatures.

We must learn and nurture this certitude and this love in ourselves and then learn to convey it with clarity in a compelling and beautiful manner because, as our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us, “None of you believes until you wish for others of the good that which you wish for yourselves!”

This reflection is based on a SeekersHub live class by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani on Ghazali’s Foundations of Islamic Belief Explained. Translation of stories from al-Ghaznawi’s Sharh Aqida Imam al-Tahawi, p. 40-42. Listen to the recording of a clip on the SeekersHub podcast: Stormy Seas: Two Stories on Proving the Existence of God.

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"Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a similar reward"-- The Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him)