The heart of Islam: Enduring Values for humanity
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
"I was a hidden treasure. I loved to be known. Therefore, I created the creation so that I would be known." The purpose of creation therefore is God's love for the knowledge of Himself realized through His central agent on earth, humanity. For a human being to know God is to fulfill the purpose of creation. Moreover, God loved to be known. Hence, the love of God and by God permeates the whole universe, and many Islamic mystics of Sufis over the ages have spoken of that love to which Dante refers at the end of the Divine Comedy when he speaks of "the love that moves the sun and the stars."
Within this global religious context, it is, of course, the Jewish and Christian traditions with which Islam has the greatest affinity. The Hebrew prophets and Christ are deeply respected by Muslims. The Virgin Mary is considered by the Quran to hold the most exalted spiritual position among women. A chapter of the Quran is named after her, and she is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam's sacred scripture. Moreover, the miraculous birth of Christ from a virgin mother is so strong among Muslims that today, in interreligious dialogs with Christians and Jews, Muslims are often left defending traditional Jewish and Christian doctrines such as the miraculous birth of Christ before modernist interpreters who would reduce them to metaphors and the sacred history of the Hebrew prophets to at best inspired stories.
The sacred figures of Judaism and Christianity are often mentioned in the Quran and even in prayers said on various occasions. The tombs of the Hebrew prophets, who are also Islamic prophets, are revered and visited in pilgrimage by Muslims to this day. …Some Muslims have occasionally criticized intellectually and also engaged military the Jews and Christians, but they have not criticized the Jewish prophets or Christ (even if certain theological differences with followers of Judaism and Christianity did exist), at least not those who have heeded the call of the Quran and understood its message. Islam sees himself as the third of the Abrahamic religions, which are bound together by countless theological, ethical, and eschatological beliefs even though they are marked by differences willed by God.
To speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition against which Islam is pitted as the "other" is an injustice to the message of Abraham and also theologically false, no matter how convenient it might be for some people. There is as much difference between Judaism and Christianity as there is between Christianity and Islam. In certain domains Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity: it has a sacred language, Hebrew, like Arabic in Islam, and it has a sacred law, the Halakhah, corresponding to the Shari´ah. Furthermore, they share an opposition to all forms of idolatry and to the creation of iconic sacred art, which would allow an image of the Divinity to be painted or sculpted. In certain other ways Islam is closer to Christianity: both emphasize the immortality of the soul, eschatological realities, and the accent on the inner life. Then there are those basic principles upon which all three religions agree: the Oneness of God, prophecy, sacred scripture, much of sacred history, and basic ethical norms such as the sanctity of life, reverence for the laws of God, humane treatment of others, honesty in all human dealings, kindness toward the neighbor, the application of justice, and so forth. Islam is an inalienable and inseparable part of the Abrahamic family of religions and considers itself to be closely linked with the two monotheistic religions that preceded it. Islam envisages itself the complement of those religions and the final expression of Abrahamic monotheism, confirming the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, but rejecting any form of exclusivism.
On the formal and popular plane, traditional Muslims have often used the category of "believer" or "faithful" for Muslims as well as followers of other religions, especially Christians and Jews. But there have been also historical periods in which the term "faithful" was reserved for Muslims and kafir, or "infidel," was used for non-Muslims, as in Ottoman Empire, where Europeans were called kuffar, infidels. The situation is, however, made even more complicated by the fact that throughout Islamic history certain Muslim groups have called other Muslim groups infidels, some even going to the extent of treating them in practice as enemies. For example, during early Islamic history the Khawarij, who opposed both the Sunnis and Shi´ites as infidels, attacked both groups physically and militarily. Later, Isma´ilis were considered kuffar by many Sunni scholars, and even in mainstream Islam over the centuries some Sunni and Twelve-Imam Shi´ite scholars have called each other kafir. In the eighteen century the Wahhabi movement, which beagn in Najd in Arabia, considered orthodox Sunnis and Shi´ites both not to be genuine Muslims, and often cast the anathema of being infidels, or what is called takfir, upon them, while many Ottoman Hanafi scholars considered the Wahhabis themselves to be kuffar.
…Today, even while some Muslims hold "infidels" responsible for the onslaught of a secularist culture from the West, they also use the same characterization for those within the Islamic world itself who, while still formally Muslim, accept and preach secularist ideas that negate the very foundations of the Islamic revelation. As a matter of fact, secularism is the common enemy of all the Abrahamic traditions, and the erosion of moral authority in secular societies that we observe today poses as many problems for Jews and Christians as it does for Muslims.
The peaceful presence in the Islamic world of various religious minorities, especially Christians, has been upset to a large extend in recent times by Western missionary activity, which has caused severe reaction not only among Muslims, but also among Hindus, Buddhists, and others. This question of Christian missionary activity (of the Western churches, not Orthodoxy) is a complicated matter requiring an extensive separate treatment, but it must be mentioned briefly here. Suffice it to say that, as far as the Islamic world is concerned, this activity was from the beginning of the modern period combined with colonialism, and many Western Christian missionaries have preached as much secularized Western culture as Christianity. Many of them have tried and still try to propagate Christianity not through the teachings of Christ alone, but mostly by the appeal of material aid such as rice and medicine, given in the name of Christina charity, but with the goal of conversion. Many or their schools have been happy if they could wean the Muslim students away from firm belief in Islam, even if they could not make them Christians. It is not accidental that some of the most virulent anti-Western secularized Arab political leaders of the past decades have been graduates of American schools in the Middle East first established by missionaries, schools where these students were religiously and culturally uprooted.
…there developed in the Sunni world in the eighteen century, first of all, the Mu´tazilite school, which favored extensive use of reason in the interpretation of the religious matters, a position to which certain strict literalist interpreters of the Quran and Sunnah, such as the Hanbalis, were opposed. In fact, the Hanbalis have remained opposed to all forms of kalam until today, as has their Wahhabi offshoot. To this day the teaching of any form of kalam is forbidden in religious universities in Saudi Arabia.
…The word "Arab" is a linguistic and not an ethnic term when used in phrase like "the Arab world." There was also much Arab migration into this world, but want made it decisively Arab was the adoption of the Arabic language from Morocco to Iraq. Even a country with such an unparalleled ancient past as Egypt became Arab and in fact remains to this day the center of Arabic culture. …
It is interesting to compare this development with the spread of Christianity into Europe. Through becoming Christian, Europe also became to some extent a part of the Abrahamic world, but remained less Semiticized that the non-Arab Muslims who embraced Islam, because through St. Paul Christianity itself had already become less "Semitic" before spreading into Europe. That is why the Christianization of Europe was not accompanied by the spread of Aramaic or some other Semitic language in the same way that Arabic spread in the Near East and Africa and also among Persians and Indians, who belonged to the same linguistic and racial stock as the Europeans. Not only were the Gospels written in Greek and not Aramaic, which Christ spoke, but also the Bible itself was translated early into Latin as the Vulgate and became linguistically severed from its origin. Latin became the closest in its role as the language of religion and learning in the West to what Arabic was in the Islamic world, with the major difference that Arabic is the sacred language of Islam as Hebrew is that of Judaism, whereas Latin is a liturgical language of Christianity along with several other liturgical languages such as Greek and Slavonic. The Arabization of what is now the Arab world and the significance of Arabic among non-Arab Muslims cannot therefore be equated with the Christianization of Europe and the role of Latin in the medieval West, although there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two worlds.
The first cultural zone in the Islamic world is the Arabic zone, which stretches from Iraq and the Persian Gulf to Mauritania and before 1492 into the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
The second zone of Islamic culture, whose people were the second ethnic group to embrace Islam and to participate with the Arabs in building classical Islamic civilization, is the Persian zone, consisting of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan (with certain cities in Uzbekistan). The dominant language of the people of all these countries is Persian, known locally by three different names, Farsi, Dari, and Tajik, all of which are the same language; the differences between them are not greater than differences between the English of Australia, England, and Texas. …The people of this zone are predominantly of the Iranian race, which is a branch of the Aryan or Indo-Iranian-European peoples, and Persian is related to the Indo-European languages as are other Iranian languages spoken in this zone, such as Kurdish, Baluchi, and Pashtu.
…it would be false to think that the Persians were always Shi´ites and the Arabs Sunnis. Shi´ism began among Arabs and in the tenth century much of the Arab east was Shi´ite, while Khorasan, a major Persian province, was the seat of Sunni thought. It is only after the establishment of the Safavids that Persia became predominantly Shi´ite and this majority increased when Afghanistan, a part of Baluchsitan, and much of Central Asia, which were predominantly Sunni, were separated from Persia, and Iran in its present form was created
The third zone of Islamic culture is that of Black Africa.
The fourth zone os Islamic culture is the Turkic zone, embracing all the people who speak one of the Altaic languages, of which the most important is Turkish, but which also include Adhari (Azeri), Chechen, Uighur, Uzbek, Kirghiz, and Turkeman. The Trurkic people, who were originally nomadic, migrated south from the Altai Mountains to conquer Central Asia from the Persians, changing its ethnic nature but remaining culturally very close to the Persian world.
The European encroachment upon the Islamic world had actually begun over two and half centuries earlier with the Portuguese and later Dutch and British domination of the Indian Ocean, which had been a major economic lifeline for Islamic civilization. There had also been European invasions of North Africa, the decisive defeat of the Ottoman navy in the Battle of Lepanto in 1517, which cut the Ottomans off from the western Mediterranean, and the defeat of the Ottomans in their siege of Vienna in 1683, which marked the beginning of the waning of their power. But none of these vents, nor the Dutch colonization of the East Indies, nor British penetration into India, moved the minds and souls of Muslims as did the conquest of Egypt. That event awakened Muslims to a challenge without precedence in their history.
The Quran states, "if God aideth you, no one shall overcome you" (3:159). In the eyes of Muslims, twelve centuries of Islamic history had demonstrated the legitimacy of their claim and the truth of their call. God had been "on their side" and aided them over all those centuries, notwithstanding the defeat of Muslims in Spain and the destruction of the Tartar kingdom by the Russians, because these were at the margins of the world of Islam and lack of internal unity was considered as the reason for these defeats. Otherwise, wherever Islam had gone, it had become victorious; even the powerful Mongols had soon embraced Islam. But these Europeans, whom Muslims had neglected for so long and considered their cultural inferiors, were now dominating the Islamic world and there was no possibility of their accepting Islam as the Turks and Mongols had. They claimed themselves to be superior and were so proud of their own culture that they showed no interest in anything else. This situation created a crisis of cosmic proportions with eschatological overtones.
Several attitudes could have been taken in face of this crisis, and in fact every one of them was adopted by one group or another. One view held that Muslims had become weak because they had strayed from the original message of the faith and had become corrupted by luxury and deviations. This was the positions of the so-called puritanical reformists, of whom the most famous, the eighteenth-century Mahammad ibn ´Abd al-Wahhab from Najd…
A second possibility was to turn to eschatological hadiths concerning the end of the world, when, it was said, oppression would reign everywhere and Muslims would become weakened and dominated by others….
The third possibility was to say, in the manner of European modernists, that the regulations of Islam were for the seventh century and times had changes; therefore religion had to be reformed and modernized. The modernists began in Egypt, the most famous of whom were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was of Persian origin, and Muhammad ´Abduh.
After World War II most Islamic countries had become politically free, except for Algeria, which gained its independence in 1962 after a war that cost a million lives, and Muslims areas within the Communist world. The general population of Muslims had expected that with political independence would come cultural, social, and economic independence as well. When the reverse occurred, that is, when with the advent of political independence Westernized classes began ruling over a deeply pious public, as can be seen in countries as different as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan, major reactions set in that can be seen throughout the Islamic world to this day.
The great majority of Muslims today still belong to the traditionalist category and must be distinguished from both secularist modernizers and "fundamentalists," as the latter term now used in the Western media. In fact, it would be the greatest error to fail to distinguish the traditionalists from the "fundamentalists" and to include anyone who wishes to preserve the traditional Islamic way of life and thought in the "fundamentalist" category. It would be as if in contemporary Catholicism one were to call Padre Pio and Mother Teresa "fundamentalists" because they insisted on preserving traditional Catholic teachings. It is essential to realize that the notion of extremism implies a center, or median, of the spectrum; phenomena are judged "extreme" according to their distance, on either side, from this designated center. Unfortunately in the Western media today, that center is usually defined as the modernizing element in Islamic society, and it is forgotten that modernism is itself one of the most fanatical, dogmatic, and extremist ideologies that history has ever seen. It seeks to destroy every other point of view and is completely intolerant toward any Weltanschauung that opposes it, whether it is that of Native Americans, whose whole world was forcibly crushed by it, or Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam ot for that matter traditional Christianity and Judaism.
…although Muslim theologians also debated among themselves whether our God-given reason can know the good without revelation, they did not develop a theory of natural law such as one finds in Thomism. Their view was closer to that of John Duns Scotus and Fransisco Suarez, who believed that the Divine Will, rather than reason, was the source of law. In any case, even in the Middle Ages there were differences between the Islamic and certain of the predominantly Catholic schools of theology concerning the philosophy of law.
From the Renaissance onward laws became more and more secularized in the west, and they came to be seen as ever-changing regulations devised and defined by society to be made and discarded as circumstances dictate. And with the rise of parliamentary democracy, these laws came to be made and abrogated by the representatives of the people. Within the context of such a background, it is easy to see why the understanding of the Islamic, and more generally the Semitic, concept of law, which is associated with the Will of God and is meant to determined society rather than be determined by it, poses such a problem for modern Westerners.
In the Islamic perspective, Divine Law is to be implemented to regulate society and the actions of its members rather than society dictating what laws should be. The injunctions of Divine Law are permanent, but the principles can also be applied to new circumstances as they arise. But the basic thesis is one of trying to make the human order conform to the Divine norm, not vice-versa. To speak of the Shari´ah as being simply the laws of the seventh century fixed in time and not relevant today would be like telling Christians that the injunctions of Christ to love one's neighbor and not commit adultery were simply laws of the Palestine of two thousand years ago and not relevant today, or telling Jews not to keep Sabbath because this is simply an outmoded practice of three thousand years ago.
God, then, is the supreme Legislator (al-Shari´). Through His Laws, before which according to Islam all men and women are equal, human life is sanctified. The Divine Law embraces every aspect of life and removes the distinction between sacred abd profane or religious and secular. Since God is the creator of all things, there is no legitimate domain of life to which His Will or His Laws do not apply. Even the most ordinary acts of life carried our according to the Shari´ah are sanctified, and persons of faith who live a life according to the Divine Law live a life immersed in grace, or what in Arabic is called barakah. Their life gains meaning, and they move through the journey of life certain that they are following a road (shar´) designated by God, a road that leads to salvation and felicity in the ultimate encounter with Him. To live according to the Shari´ah in both form and inner meaning is to live an ethical life in the fullest sense.
Other Shari´ah sources are accepted by some schools and not by others. They include qiyas, or analogy, in its juridical sense, which technically means the extension of a Shari´ite ruling or value from a known and accepted case (a?l) to a new case with the same effective cause, legally speaking. These sources also include ijma´, or consensus, which is usually considered to be the consensus on a legal matter of the legal scholars who are specialists in the Shari´ah, but which in Islamic history has also been the consensus of the whole community over a long period, as in the case of the baning the slavery and the acceptance of tobacco as being halal, that is, legally acceptable rather than forbidden. …Then there is istihsan, or equity, which differs from equity in Westren law in that in the latter equity relies on the Shari´ah; otherwise, they are similar in that both are concerned with the idea of fairness and conscience in law. Finally, in this brief account one must mention maslahah mursalah, or considerations of public interest that are harmonious with the Shari´ah and the objectives of the Lawgiver.
…There was, strictly speaking, no feudal system in Islam, and there was nothing corresponding exactly to the landed aristocracy in the West with its lords and other feudal powers, although, in certain lands such as Persia and what is today Pakistan, powerful landowners existed and in fact still exist. Nor did the peasantry play as important a role as it did in medieval European society.
One important factor present in Islamic society but absent from the Christian West was the nomadic element
In the Islamic world, nomads, who constantly threatened the cities, would invade and dominate them once decadence had set in.
As for the question of marriage itself, one cannot understand its status in Islam without first comprehending the significance of sexuality for Muslims. In classical Western Christian theology, sexuality itself is associated with original sin and accepted only as a means of procreation. To practice it in the context of the religion therefore requires that it be sanctified through the sacrament of marriage. In Islam, as in Judaism, sexuality itself is sacred and a blessing. Therefore, there is no need to a sacrament, in the Christian sense, to sanctify it. Rather, marriage in Islam is a contract drawn according to the Shari´ah to legitimize the sexual act within marriage and to protect the rights of both partners. In both Christianity and Islam, however, as in Judaism, sexual activity outside of marriage is not allowed and is considered a sin in the eyes of God.
The traditional structure of Islamic society is based not on quantitative equality, but on the reality of complementarity, although there are exceptions. In this complementarity of functions, the man is seen as the protector and provider of his family and its imam, religiously speaking. The woman is the real mistress of the household, in which the husband is like a guest. Her primary duty has been seen as that of raising of children and attending to their earliest education, as well as being the basic buttress of the family.
As was stated before, in Islam the economic responsibility for supporting the family resides with the husband, even if the wife happens to be wealthy. The Quarnic law of inheritance, according to which a male inherits twice as much as a female, must be understood in light of the husband's responsibility to support the whole family financially while the wife can do with her wealth as she wills. The famous Quaranic verse "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women" (4:34) must be understood in this economic and social context, not taken to mean that the husband controls the wife's whole life. As for the testimony of two women equaling that of one man in legal matters, this concerns cases of crime and wrongdoing and not every form of testimony, as some jurists interpreted it later.
…women's issues-their education, legal rights, participation in political affairs, and so forth-are one of the major challenges facing the Islamic world today…
…Without these religiously motivated acts of compassion and charity, the social order would collapse, since in many places in the Islamic world governments are not strong or wealthy enough to provide a minimum income to all their citizens. Consequently the welfare of the poor is left to a large extent to the mercy of private individualists and institutions, all motivated, not by some kind of secularist altruism, but by the Islamic emphasis upon the importance of compassion, charity, kindness, and mercy to those less fortunate who turn to those better off for help.
…false conception propagated by some in the West that Islam is a religion witout compassion. If an impartial observer were to visit, let us say, ten major sacred sites in ten Islamic countries and record how many times in one hour word related to compassion and mercy, the Arabic rahmah, are heard in the supplications and prayers arising from the hearts of those assembled at such sites, it would become clear how central compassion and mercy are to the Islamic understanding of God…
There are, furthermore, many levels of love natural to human beings: romantic love, love of children and parents, love of beauty in art and nature, love of knowledge, and even love of power, wealth, and fame, which, however, since they are turned toward the world, pose a danger for the soul. In the Islamic perspective, all earthly love should be in God and not separated from the love of God, and any love that excludes God and turns us away from Him is an illusion that can lead to the ruin of the soul.
…Secularized men and women, for whom the spiritual world has become unreal, limit their vision of reality to the earth and life in this world; so they naturally want to live in peace and avoid the dangers of war and strife. But this talk of peace goes on while modern society is carrying out a brutal war against the natural environment and while, within human society, competition based on greed often eclipses compassion and the sense of social responsibility.
For Muslims, the idea of living at peace while denying God is totally absurd, because only God can put the chaos and strife within the human soul in order, and when thre is no peace within, there will be no peace without.
..in the traditional Islamic perspective beauty and goodness are inseparable. In fact, in Arabic the word husn means both "beauty" and "goodness," while qubh means both "ugliness" and "evil".
…It is no accident that only in those urban settings deprived of sacred and traditional art and the harmony and beauty of nature have agnostics and atheists arisen and thrived.
After dress come the articles of the house, the so-called minor arts, such as carpets, textiles, utensils, and the like, which affect the soul much more than paintings hanging on the walls of palaces or museums do.
The famous theologian and Sufi al-Ghazzali wrote that music intensifies the passions within the soul. If the passion is directed toward God, it makes this passion more powerful and increases the fire of love for God; and if there exist passion for worldliness, it increases the soul's worldliness and tendency toward concupiscence. Islam was fully aware of this reality and limited exteriorized form of music in favor of interiorized music, which increases the love for God…
…many secularists even claim that they are the true champions of human rights as against those who accept various religious worldviews. But strangely enough, often those same champions of humanity believe that human beings are nothing more than evolved apes, who in turn evolved from lower life forms and ultimately from various compounds of molecules. If the human being is nothing but the result of "blind forces" acting upon the original cosmic soup of molecules, then is not the statement of the sacredness of human life intellectually meaningless and nothing but a hollow sentimental expression? …And if we are nothing but highly organized inanimate particles, what is the basis for claims to "human rights"? These basic questions know no geographic boundaries and are asked by thinking people everywhere. Christianity in the West has sought to answer them on the firm theological basis that "human beings were created in the image of God" and it is the immortal soul and the spark of the Spirit within men and women that constitutes the basis for human dignity, the sacredness of human life, and ultimately human rights.
If one asks if Muslims want freedom, the answer is definitely yes. But the vast majority of Muslims would add that, first of all, for them freedom does not mean freedom from God and religion; they would embrace other freedoms, provided they do not destroy their faith and what gives meaning to their lives. …What Muslims would like most of all is to be allowed the freedom to confront their own problems and find their own solutions.
…Muslims are no less intelligent than other communities, and if given the freedom, they could discern for themselves between venom and the elixir of life offered to them in their societies. What the Islamic world would like most from the more powerful West, which keeps preaching freedom, is to be given this freedom by the West itself, so that the Islamic world can respond to the challenges of the present-day world on the basis of its own inner dynamic. But most in the Islamic world realize that this wish is not going to be realized and that the west's geopolitical and economic interests in the Islamic world take precedence over the question of real freedom.
For Islamic theological thought, the presence of a powerful secularists force in the world appears as a great shock, despite the advent of modernism staring two centuries ago in many Islamic lands and after seventy years of domination of a good part of the Islamic world by officially atheistic Soviet regime. …Whatever understanding of human rights from the Islamic perspective comes to dominate the center of consciousness of the Islamic community in the future, it must take account not only of followers of other religions, a matter that is relatively easy in light of the Quranic doctrine of the universality of revelation, but also of those who do not believe in any transcendent or immanent Principle beyond the human.
… Christian speak of people being the children of God, Muslims of their being His vicegerents on earth, and both of humans being made in the "image" or "form" of God, although with different meanings of the term "image" and "form". Hindus speak of the sacrifice of the Primordial Man to create the world and Neo-Confucianism of the human being as an anthropocosmic being and bridge between Haven and earth. These view can be easily correlated, but they cannot be harmonized with the view of the human being as an aggregate of molecules brought together by chance out of the original cosmic soup.
There is not, however, a simple symmetry between East and West today. Before modern times the "Abode of Islam" was the only "other" the West knew, and the self-consciousness of western civilization during its period of maturation and its crystallization was to a large extent define by that "other". For Islam, however, there were several other civilizations, such as those of India and Chine, with which it had contact and which it saw as the "other." This factor itself contributed, through Islam's image of itself as the central world civilization, to the neglect for several centuries by Muslims of the rise of European power during the renaissance and the major intellectual and religious transformations that were taking places at that time in the West, including the rise of modern science followed by the new technology.