BY EKREM DEMIRLI
JAN 26, 2023 – DAILY SABAH
Islam is “universal” when inviting people to its teachings but offers absolute felicity only to the ones who attain the knowledge of the whole. (Getty Images Photo)
When we start asking such questions, we will see that we are faced with a serious problem because these questions lead us to ‘the 000 questions’: ‘What is the purpose of religion?’
“Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him.” Quran (Surah Al-Isra: 17:23).
“Everyone – knowingly or unknowingly – worships none but God.” (Ibn Arabi’s comment on this verse).
What does Islam promise to the people who do not believe? Islam claims to lead people to felicity (sa’ādah) but does it only involve the people who believe in its principles about God and reality? Is there anything that Islam promises to those who believe in other “religious” principles or those who do not? In short, can Islam have a genuine relationship with “the others?”
We can pose such questions about the relation of Islam with human beings as a whole. Still, we can also question where the Muslim thinkers who interpret Islam and try to address humanity stand in human heritage. Can a Muslim thinker genuinely contribute to the non-Muslim world without being just a subject matter for them? For instance, what do names like Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Yunus Emre, or Ibn Arabi, who have all gained popularity in recent years, represent in the heritage of humanity?
When we start asking such questions, we will see that we are faced with a severe problem since these questions lead us to the question, “What is the purpose of religion?” the difference between philosophy and religion becomes clearer here. On the other hand, all these questions require us to address how we can talk about the universality of Islam as “acceptable and appealing to everyone.” In which sense can Islam be universal? Is Islam a religion that speaks to all people as they are and observes their worldly and spiritual benefits? We should remember that these questions are still valid as they used to be in the past. Muslim thinkers always point out these questions while analyzing the faith and the Islamic principles and keep them on their agenda directly or indirectly. In this respect, Muslim philosophers looked for a universal language while building their metaphysics on “reason,” and Mu’tazilites focused on the question of correspondence between this universal language, that is, reason and revelation. For Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamaah and other theologians, “religious” thinking took precedence over sense, and they drifted away from the universal language, acknowledging that reason was limited. However, these questions continued to be a problem for them. This question summarizes the whole situation: What does religion mean to people? Regarding the thoughts and institutions it built, we can paraphrase the question: To whom do these thoughts and institutions address and what do the addressees gain by them?
The problem was not limited to what Islam offered to other people! Apart from that, when Muslims had contact with belief systems other than theirs and their philosophical-cultural heritage, their perspective was determined according to their answers to these questions. The same problem arises here, “Can a Muslim have a genuine relationship with a thinker whose belief is different from his or completely the opposite of what he believes, and can he relate to this thinker on a common ground of humanity?” Muslims have been aware of this problem since the beginning. There is this old idea that each thought and cultural element might have originated from prophethood because, in the Islamic tradition, it is mentioned that there were “124,000 or so” prophets. So, Muslims thought if something was true that means one way or another its source must be prophethood.
However, they thought this truth was imperfect, as it was “misinterpreted” or “taken out of context.” So, engaging with other cultures and philosophies meant getting an imperfect truth. That is why Islam undertook the duty of “perfecting” the truth by setting forth a framework that could complete what was missing in other cultures and philosophies. In this article, we want to focus on this issue from a different perspective.
Islam shows tolerance to non-Muslims. There is a consensus about this even among non-believers. The only exception to this tolerance is “Mushrik” meaning the one who associates false gods with Allah. The exclusionary attitude toward idolaters in the law softens when it comes to “Ahl al-Kitaab” (the People of the Book) and opens to the will of coexistence. Moreover, without doubt, this tolerance has never been limited to the relations with ordinary people who have no power or authority in daily life, neither has it been limited to sneaky hypocrisy covered by a shallow smile. The moral theory of Islam has developed in a way to form a basis for this tolerance and its legitimacy; and basic moral and human values such as mercy, justice, righteousness, sincerity, and so on have been defined according to this philosophy. The Prophet Muhammad was known as “trustworthy (Al-Ameen)” in a polytheistic society; so, for a Muslim, morality could not be a characteristic that could be neglected under any circumstances like time, place, or party. Each Muslim had to be virtuous all the time wherever he was. What made tolerance legitimate, and compulsory, was this theory of morality. There can be found in many examples of Islamic moralistic texts, especially in the Manaqib, which played a vital role in reaching out to larger groups. In these texts, Muslims are encouraged to be merciful even toward non-Muslims and be patient, tolerant, and generous to everyone no matter who they are.
Maintaining the idea that Islamic virtues do not change according to time, place, or people, these texts offer that the basic moral principles must apply equally to Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslim moralists believed that Allah is the source of morality and therefore it must be good by itself! Human beings must be virtuous under all circumstances, and it does not matter if the addressee is Muslim or not. On the other hand, the religious judgments that constitute the legal framework of this morality are worth mentioning. Above all, the security of life is a universal entitlement. It is one of Islam’s main principles: at this point, religious identity is not regarded in the judgment. This is also true for the security of reason, lineage, and religion. This shows that Islamic law and morality have put forward a theory that is non-exclusive and built a “universal” norm and taken measures necessary for the benefit of humans. This is not restricted to human beings only. Considering the contemporary interpretation of verses and Hadiths about spreading corruption throughout the land, it is also clear that it pays attention to the world and the other beings living in it. This is how Muslims could develop a political and social theory – and partially an ideology – concerning Islam for approximately two centuries: Islam offers means of salvation both in this world and the hereafter. The peace and well-being of all creatures on earth depend on obeying this law.
Ensuring worldly benefits for people and taking necessary measures for it draws Islam closer to ideologies and philosophies. In this regard, some remedies for a social and personal life can be borrowed from Islam, and it is possible to relate to Islam and obtain benefits from its judgments and teachings even if the principle of “faith” is lacking. The legal judgments of Islam in particular, its moral judgments, the texts and art through which it has built the religious concept can all be considered sensible, irrespective of “faith.” We can also apply this to practices: For instance, fasting may be a form of diet and people can benefit from it to stay healthy. Islam has this endless possibility that Allah has observed every kind of benefit of His vassals. The Mu’tazila interpretation of “benefits” can be the primary principle that can draw Islam closest to a sensible ideology.
In that sense, the community and urban values built by Islam can guarantee that everyone, can have a happy and peaceful life. Because these values involving the individual and social life are compatible with basic human values or at least do not contradict them. In this regard, Islam benefits from this heritage of humanity and contributes to it directly and indirectly. Any Muslim thinker who wants to approach a non-believer should ignore the principle of “faith” for a moment and apply this principle of benefit and righteousness which will create a stronger bond. Islam is reasonable and humane and does not engage in deception because Islamic principles are capable of creating felicity in this world and this is an objective judgment.
Islam promises felicity and peace for everyone, even for the world, but can this peace lead to absolute salvation? In the other world, is there a spiritual felicity for the people whom Islam helps reach peace in this world? This is where Islam separates from the above-mentioned philosophies and ideologies. What makes Islam a religion is its principle of submission to absolute power and will. This is faith. Faith does not only bind a person to God; it also binds this world to the next, the worldly to the spiritual, and the created to the Creator, and the key factor here is faith and faith is fundamental in this respect. Therefore, the main concern of Islam is to put “faith” at the center of the relationship between God and human beings. This is how human beings will get benefits, and salvation will be possible through faith. When a human being has faith in God and acts accordingly, there is the possibility of salvation. In this case, felicity and peace arise as a result of this faith.
There is this important example worth mentioning here. It is the story of people in a dark room trying to describe an elephant. We can think of it as blind people picturing an elephant. The people in the dark room use only their sense of touch while describing it. Everyone has their perception and starts depicting the elephant. And eventually, people come up with very different descriptions of the elephant and there emerges a conflict. There is one thing necessary for a consensus: One person must see the whole and tell everyone what he sees. This is a very famous example given to explain relativity in terms of equivalence of evidence. However, it is easily misinterpreted because if we think that the people in the room are members of different religions and Islam is one of them, we move away from one of the last interpreters of this story, Rumi.
Rumi told this story not to talk about the people in the room but about the one who sees the whole elephant. The one who sees the whole elephant is the Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him). Islam makes a connection with the members of other religions and cultures through this example. Everyone sees a part of the elephant and has an idea of the elephant. They all have their share of the truth, and the benefit and felicity in this world are limited to this knowledge. Islam only sees the elephant, the room, the darkness, and the people there. Therefore, it has the right to build “a city” – its values – and it is its responsibility and duty to tell people the whole picture. The felicity is not reached through partial knowledge! What makes us attain felicity is the knowledge of the whole. And this sort of knowledge comes from faith and submission. In this city built by Islam, other people are acknowledged as the people who know the parts of the elephant but there is a danger here, which is the tendency to confine oneself to “the partial.”
Humans tend to be content with insignificant knowledge, and it is a great danger for them. We can explain this in terms of the sciences; it is similar to the relationship between metaphysics and other sciences: The former knows the universal and the whole, the latter knows the partial; the former is by itself for itself, and the latter depends on metaphysics for legitimacy. As in this interpretation, Islam acknowledges itself as the principle for validation and builds a city upon this idea. This validation determines the framework of tolerance and here emerges the idea that the people who do not have authentic “faith” could only reach felicity in this world. In this sense, “being universal” corresponds to “attaining the absolute truth.”
Islam is “universal” when inviting people to its teachings but offers absolute felicity only to the ones who attain the knowledge of the whole. Islam has one thing to say to the people who are deprived of authentic faith: “You are blind in the world (the darkroom), and you will be in the Hereafter.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Academic at the Department of Sufism, Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University
Categories: Ahmadiyyat: True Islam, Arab World, Creed of Islam, Diversity in Islam, ISLAM, Islam, Muslim World, World
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