Perhaps one of the most interesting questions which modernity poses to traditional religion has to do with divine providence amid a world which is now unimaginably more ancient than our ancestors suspected. There is no dating by numbers in the Qur’an or the Hadith, but medieval Muslims typically thought that the world was about five thousand years old. Now, whatever view we may take of Darwin, we must accept that our species is tens of thousands of years old. Recognisably human remains have been recovered, and reliably dated by radiocarbon methods, which show the antiquity of humanity – unless we are, by misunderstanding the logic of piety, to deny scientific evidence entirely. In 1997 the world’s oldest cricket bat was dug up in the county of Essex (of course). It is recognisably a bat, designed for some form of game, and is apparently 40,000 years old. Our theological question would therefore be: if Essex Man, in time out of mind, had the self-awareness and the humanity and the sophistication needed to play cricket, surely he was also a creature accountable to his Maker. In other words, the story of salvation is much, much older than we ever suspected. To claim that humanity had to wait for most of its history before learning about its source and destiny requires an intolerable interrogation of the divine justice.
Now, this antiquity of our species fits in with Islamic salvation history very elegantly. The hadith indicates that there have been 124,000 prophets. The Qur’an says, Wa-li-kulli qawmin had – ‘for every nation there has been a guide’. The existence of cricket matches in Chelmsford thirty-eight thousand years before the hijra is not a problem for us: homo religiosus existed then, just as did homo ludens, and presumably had access to a chapter of revelation which has since disappeared.
For Christianity, of course, the problem is more acute. Medieval theologians struggled with the fact that millions lived before the coming of Christ, and hence died without receiving the sacraments or accepting him as saviour. Complicated theories of post-mortem evangelisation, or of the harrowing of hell, were developed to make this challenge to the divine moral coherence less scandalous. Today, with our awareness of humanity’s antiquity, the theology is harder still: why should a loving God have waited for a million years before sending his Son to redeem humanity?
For us, as I have said, this is a non-problem. For every nation there has been a guide. And, as Surat al-Insan says, ‘Has there ever come upon man a time when he was not something remembered?’
Excerpt from Boys will be Boys: Gender identity issues by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad