Religion, History, and Civilization
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
HarperCollins Publishers, 2003
The Renaissance perpetuated religious opposition to Islam, but it also began to show disdain not only for Europe's own medieval past, but also for Islamic learning, although there were some exceptions. Furthermore, the emphasis on Eurocentrism during the Renaissance and the rise of humanism caused many European thinkers of that time to consider people of their civilizations and ethnic groups, including Muslims, inferior. Although Islamic studies were still carried on during the renaissance, and in some places, such as Bologna, even within the framework of the older medieval respect for Islamic thought, in many places they were distorted by a sense of western superiority and even hubris, characteristics that were to continue into the modern period.
The Enlightenment turned against the theological assertions of Christianity and substituted rationalism for a worldview based on faith. Moreover, it further developed the idea that there was only one civilization, the Western one, and that other civilizations were significant only to the extent of their contribution to Western civilization, which the French Encyclopedists referred to as the civilization (la civilization). Obviously in such a situation Islam and its civilization could only play an inferior and secondary role.
For the Muslim mind, it is the most obvious of facts and greatest of certitudes that by ourselves we are nothing and God is everything, that we own nothing by ourselves and that all belongs to God according to the Quranic verse: "God is the rich (ghaniy) and you are the poor (fuqara)" (47:38). We are poor in our very essence; we are poor not necessarily in an economic, social, or even physical sense, but in an ontological one. Therefore, all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, for which we are indebted to Him and for whose gifts we must give thanks (shukr). Religion, or al-dan, which is inseparable from the sense of the reality of this "debt", therefore, embraces the whole of life and is inseparable from life itself.
Religion, then, must embrace the whole of life. Every human thought and action must be ultimately related to the Divine Principle, which is the source of all that is. Both the existence of the cosmic order, including the human world, and all the qualities to be found in the cosmos come from God and are therefore inseparable from His Nature and Will and Theophanies of His various Names and Qualities. Religion is there to remind forgetful human beings of this metaphysical reality and, on the more practical level, to provide concrete guidance so that men and women can live according to the Will of God and at the highest level gain, or rather regain, the knowledge of his Oneness and the manner in which all multiplicity is ultimately related to the One. Every act that individuals perform, every thought they nurture in their minds, and every object they make must be related to God, if they are to remain faithful to the true nature of things and of themselves. Religion is the reality that makes the realization of this nexus between the human world in all its aspects and God possible. Therefore, its role in human life is central. It can be said, from Islamic point of view, that religion in its most universal and essential sense is life itself.
It is religion alone that can bestow meaning on human life, because it and it alone issues directly and in an objective manner from the same Divine Source as human life itself. Religion alone can actualize the potentialities within human beings and enable them to be fully themselves. It is only with the help of Heaven that we can become what we are eternally in the Divine Presence. Religion provides that supreme knowledge which is the highest goal of the intelligence and reveals the nature of that Reality which is also supreme love and the ultimate goal of the will. Religion is the source of all ethics and values, providing the objective criteria for the worth of human actions and deeds. It is also the source of veritable knowledge of both Divine Principle and the created order in its relation to that principle as well as the bearer of those principles that constitute the science of beauty and of forms in a traditional civilization.
The name of the sacred scripture of Islam by which it has become famous, especially in the West, is the Quran, or Koran, from the Arabic al-Qur'an, which means "The Recitation." But the sacred text has many other names, each refereeing to an aspect of it. It is also know as al-Furaan, "The Discernment," for it contains the principles for the intellectual and moral discernment. Another of its well-known names is Umm al-kitab, "The Mother Book," for it is the ultimate source of all knowledge and the prototype of the "book" as container of knowledge. It is also known as al-Huda, "The Guide," for it is the supreme guide for people's journey through life. In the traditional Islamic languages, it is usually referred to as the Noble Quran (al-Qur'an al-majad or al-karam) and is treated with utmost respect as a sacred reality that surrounds and defines the life of Muslims from the cradle to the grave. The verses of Quran are the very first sounds heard by newborn child and the last the dying person hears on his or her way to the encounter with God.
In a sense, the soul of the Muslim is woven of verses and expressions drawn from the Quran. Such expressions as insha'Allah, "If God wills," al-hamdu li'Llah, "Thanks be to God," and bismi'Llah, "In the name of God," all used by Arab as well as non-Arab Muslims alike, punctuate the whole of life and determine the texture of the soul of the Muslim. Every legitimate action begins with a bismi'Llah and ends with al-hamdu li'Llah, while the attitude toward the future is always conditioned by awareness of insha'Allah, for all depends on the Divine Will. These and many other formulas drawn from the Quran determine the attitude toward the past, the present, and the future and cover the whole of life. The daily prayers that punctuate the Muslim's entire life, from the age of puberty until death, are constituted of verses and chapters from the Quran, while Islamic Law has its root in the sacred text. Likewise, all branches of knowledge that can be legitimately called Islamic have their root in the Quran, which has served over the centuries as both the fountainhead and the guiding principle for the whole of the Islamic intellectual tradition.
Not only is the Quran a book written often in the most beautiful calligraphy and read throughout one's life, but it is also a world of sacred sound heard constantly in Islamic cities and towns. Its sounds reverberate throughout the spaces within which men and women move and act in their everyday lives, and there are many who have memorized the text and recite it constantly whiteout reference to the written word. The art of chanting the Quran, which goes back to the Prophet, is the supreme acoustic sacred art of Islam and moves devout Muslims to tears whether they are Arab or Malays.
Many traditional sciences are associated with the Quran. First of all there is the art and science of recitation of the Quran, which is based on strict traditional sources that have been preserved and transmitted from generation to generation over the centuries. One cannot recite or chant the Quran in any way one wants. The very pauses and intonations are determined according to traditions going back to the Prophet. Philosophical sciences are concerned with the study of the language of the Quran, which is so significant that it has determined the characteristics of classical Arabic for the past fourteen centuries. Classical Arabic is often taught, quite rightly, as Quranic Arabic in many Western universities. The serious study of the Arabic langrage and grammar is inseparable from the philosophical study of the Quran, which gave rise historically, to a large extent, to the codification and systematization of Arabic grammar.
The great scholars of Hadath carefully examined all the chains of transmission (isnad) of each saying, drawing on many other religious sciences, to sift the authentic sayings from those of dubious authority and both from sayings attributed to the Prophet but lacking any historical basis. Muslim scholarship had already created detailed criteria fro evaluating the authenticity of each hadath more than a millennium before Western orientalists appeared on the scene to deny the authenticity of the whole corpus. Needless to say, denying the whole corpus of Hadath is effect invalidates the Islamic tradition itself. Obviously, the so-called historical criticism of such Western scholars is not taken seriously by traditional Muslim scholars, especially since many of the Western orientalists' arguments have been negated by the discovery of recent historical evidence, while their whole position is implicitly based the disavowal of the reality of Islamic revelation.
God possesses an Essence (al-Dhat) that is beyond all categories and definitions, like that darkness, which is dark because of the intensity of its luminosity, the black light to which certain Sufis have referred. Although beyond all duality and gender, the Divine Essence is often referred to in the feminine form, and al-Dhat is of feminine gender in Arabic. In Its aspect of infinitude It is, metaphysically speaking, the supreme principle of femininity, standing above and beyond the aspect of the Divinity and Creator while in Its aspect of absoluteness It is the principle of masculinity. Furthermore, the Essence delimits Itself in the Divine Names and Qualities that constitute the very principles of cosmic manifestation and are the ultimate archetypes of all that exists, both macrocosmically and microcosmically.
Islam rejects completely the Promethean and Titanic conception of human beings as creatures in rebellion against Heaven, an idea that has come to largely dominate the Western concept of the human state since the Renaissance. In the Islamic perspective, the grandeur of men and women is not in themselves, but in their submission to God, and human grandeur is always judged by the degree of servitude toward God and His Will. Even the power given to human beings to both know and dominate things is legitimate only in the condition that they remember their theomorphic nature according to the hadath "God created man upon His form" and continue to remain subservient to that blinding Divine reality that is the ontological principle and ultimate goal of return of human beings. All human grandeur causes the Muslim soul to remember that Allahu akbar, "God is greater," and that all grandeur belongs to Him.
From the very beginning, even in Mecca, but especially in the Medinan community, the SharaŽah began to be promulgated through the actual practices of the prophet and the nascent Islamic community and the pronouncements handed down by the Prophet as the judge of the newly founded Islamic society. On the basis of this early practice and the twin sources of the Quran and Sunnah (which includes the Hadath) - and also the use of such principles as ijma, or consensus of the community, and qiyas, or analogy - later generations continued to apply and codify the Law until the second/eight and third/ninth centuries, when the founders of the great schools of Law (al-madhahib), which have continued to this day, appeared on the scene.
The great jurists (fuqaha', pl. of faqah) who codified the schools of Law practiced the rendering of new opinions based on the basic sources, or what is called ijtihad. In the Sunni world, the gate of ijtihad has always been open, and it is considered essential that in each generation those who have the qualifications to practice ijtihad, called mujtahids, go back to the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadath (which for ShaŽites includes the sayings of the ShaŽite Imams) and reformulate in a fresh manner the body of the Law.
To the assertion often made by modern Western critics of Islam that Islamic Law must keep up with the times, Islam answers that if this is so, then what must the times keep up with? What is that orders or forces the times to change as they doa Islam believes that the factor to make the times and coordinate human society must be the SharaŽah. Human beings must seek to live according to the Will of God as embodied in the SharaŽah and not change the Law of God according to changing patterns of a society based on the impertinence of human nature.
After the death of the prophet, the caliphate (from the Arabic khilafah), the most important of all Islamic political institutions, developed and survived in one form or another until the seventh/thirteen century, despite the opposition of various ShaŽite groups and other elements. The caliphate was considered the vicegerent (khalafah) of the Prophet; as such, his function was to promulgate the Divine Law, preserve internal order, protect the borders of dar al-islam, and appoint judges to officiate in SharaŽite courts. The caliph was not expected to possess knowledge of the inner meaning of the Divine Law or even be an authority (in the sense of faqah or mujtahid) in the Law.
Christianity had the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and aggiornamento in the Catholic Church in the 1960s. Judaism has also witnessed the rise of both the Reform and the Conservative schools, at least in the West. Islam, however, has not undergone, nor is it likely to undergo in any appreciable degree, the same kinds of transformation either juridically or theologically. Its religious life and thought remain for the most part within the framework of orthodoxy and tradition. The modernism and so-called fundamentalism that are evident in certain sectors of Islamic society and in certain lands have caused traditional Islamic life to wither, but have been unable to create any significant theological worldview that could challenge the traditional one.