CHAPTER ONE: ONE GOD, MANY PROPHETS
The Unity of Truth and the Multiplicity of Revelations
Say: He, God, is One, God the Self-Sufficient Besought of all.
He begetteth not, nor is begotten, and none is like Him.
Quran 112: v.1-41
GOD THE ONE
At the heart of Islam stands the reality of God, the One, the Absolute and the Infinite, the Infinitely Good and All-Merciful, the One Who is at once transcendent and immanent, greater than all we can conceive or imagine, yet, as the Quran, the sacred scripture of Islam, attests, closer to us than our jugular vein. The One God, known by His Arabic Name,Allah , is the central reality of Islam in all of its facets, and attestation to this oneness, which is called tawhid, is the axis around which all that is Islamic revolves.Allah is beyond all duality and relationality, beyond the differences of gender and of all qualities that distinguish beings from each other in this world. Yet He is the source of all existence and all cosmic and human qualities as well as the End to Whom all things return.
To testify to this oneness lies at the heart of the credo of Islam, and the formula that expresses the truth of this oneness,La ilaha illa’Llah , “There is no god but God,” is the first of two testifications (shahadahs ) by which a person bears witness to being a Muslim; the second isMuhammadun rasul Allah , “Muh.ammad is the messenger of God.” The oneness of God is for Muslims not only the heart of their religion, but that of every authentic religion. It is a reassertion of the revelation of God to the Hebrew prophets and to Christ, whom Muslims also consider to be their prophets, the revelation of the truth that “The Lord is one,” the reconfirmation of that timeless truth that is also stated in the Catholic creed, Credo in unum Deum, “I believe in one God.” As the Quran states, “We have never sent a messenger before thee except that We revealed to him, saying, ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me’” (21:25). Like countless Muslims, when I read the names of the prophets of old in the Quran or in the traditional prayers, I experience them as living realities in the Islamic universe, while being fully conscious of the fact that they are revered figures in Judaism and Christianity. I also remain fully aware that they are all speaking of the same God Who is One and not of some other deity.
The One God, orAllah , is neither male nor female. However, in the inner teachings of Islam His Essence is often referred to in feminine form and the Divinity is often mentioned as the Beloved, while the Face He has turned to the world as Creator and Sustainer is addressed in the masculine form. Both the male and the female are created by Him and the root of both femininity and masculinity are to be found in the Divine Nature, which transcends the duality between them. Furthermore, the Qualities of God, which are reflected throughout creation, are of a feminine as well as a masculine nature, and the traditional Islamic understanding of the Divinity is not at all confined, as some think, to a purely patriarchal image.
The Quran, which is the verbatim Word of God for Muslims, to be compared to Christ himself in Christianity, reveals not only the Supreme Name of God asAllah , but also mentions other “beautiful Names” of God, considered by traditional sources to be ninety-nine in number, Names revealing different aspects of the Divinity. The Quran states, “To God belong the most beautiful Names (alasma’al-husna ). Call on Him thereby” (7:180). These Names are divided into those of Perfection(Kamal) , Majesty(Jalal) , and Beauty(Jamal) , the first relating to the essential oneness of God
Himself beyond all polarization and the last two to the masculine and feminine dimensions of reality in divinis (in the Divine Order). The Names of Majesty include the Just, the Majestic, the Reckoner, the Giver of Death, the Victorious, and the All-Powerful, and those of Beauty, the All-Merciful, the Forgiver, the Gentle, the Generous, the Beautiful, and Love. For Muslims the whole universe consists of the reflection in various combinations of the Divine Names, and human life is lived amid the polarizations and tensions as well as harmony of the cosmic and human qualities derived from these Names. God at once judges us according to His Justice and forgives us according to His Mercy. He is far beyond our reach, yet resides at the center of the heart of the faithful. He punishes the wicked, but also loves His creatures and forgives them.
The doctrine of God the One, as stated in the Quran, does not only emphasize utter transcendence, although there are powerful expressions of this truth such asAllahu akbar , usually translated as “God is great,” but meaning that God is greater than anything we can conceive of Him, which is also attested by the apophatic theology of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as by traditional Judaism. The Quran also accentuates God’s nearness to us, stating that He is closer to us than ourselves and that He is present everywhere, as when it states: “Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115). The traditional religious life of a Muslim is based on a rhythmic movement between the poles of transcendence and immanence, of rigor and compassion, of justice and forgiveness, of the fear of punishment and hope for mercy based on God’s love for us. But the galaxy of Divine Names and the multiplicity of Divine Qualities reflected in the cosmos and within the being of men and women do not distract the Muslim for one moment from the oneness of God, from that Sun before whose light all multiplicity perishes. Striving after the realization of that oneness, or tawhid, is the heart of Islamic life; and the measure of a successful religious life is the degree to which one is able to realize tawhid, which means not only oneness, but also the integration of multiplicity into Unity.
Moreover, since there is no official sacerdotal authority in Islam like the magisterium in Roman Catholic Christianity, the authenticity of one’s faith in Islam has by and large been determined by the testification of tawhid, while the degree of inward realization of this truth has remained a matter to be decided by God and not by external authorities. This has been the general norm in Islamic history, but there have also been exceptions, and there are historical instances when a particular group or political authority has taken it upon itself to determine the authenticity or lack thereof of the belief in tawhid of a particular person or school. But there has never been an Inquisition in Islam, and there has been greater latitude in the acceptance of ideas, especially mystical and esoteric ones, than in most periods of the history of Western Christianity before the penetration of modernism into Christian theology itself.
Now, although Islam is based on the reality of God, the One, in His Absoluteness and Suchness, it also addresses humanity in its essential reality, in its suchness. Man, in the traditional sense of the term
corresponding to insan in Arabic or homo in Greek and not solely the male, is seen in Islam not as a sinful being to whom the message of Heaven is sent to heal the wound of the original sin, but as a being who still carries his primordial nature (al-fit.rah) within himself, although he has forgotten that nature now buried deep under layers of negligence. As the Quran states: “[God] created man in the best of stature (ah. san altaqwim )” (95:4) with an intelligence capable of knowing the One. The message of Islam is addressed to that primordial nature. It is a call for recollection, for the remembrance of a knowledge kneaded into the very substance of our being even before our coming into this world. In a famous verse that defines the relationship between human beings and God, the Quran, in referring to the precosmic existence of man, states, “Am I not your Lord?’ They said: ‘Yes, we bear witness” (7:172). The “they” refers to all the children of Adam, male and female, and the “yes” confirms the affirmation of God’s Oneness by us in our pre-eternal ontological reality.
Men and women still bear the echo of this “yes” deep down within their souls, and the call of Islam is precisely to this primordial nature, which uttered the “yes” even before the creation of the heavens and the earth. The call of Islam therefore concerns, above all, the remembrance of a knowledge deeply embedded in our being, the confirmation of a knowledge that saves, hence the soteriological function of knowledge in Islam. Islam addresses the human being not primarily as will, but as intelligence. If the great sin in Christianity is disobedience, which has warped the will, the great sin in Islam is forgetfulness and the resulting inability of the intelligence to function in the way that God created it as the means to know the One. That is why the greatest sin in Islam and the only one God does not forgive is shirk, or taking a partner unto God, which means denying the Oneness of God, or tawhid.
This direct address from God, the One, to each human being in its primordial state requires total surrender to the Majesty of the Absolute, before whom ultimately nothing can in fact exist. In an ordinary sense it means the surrender of ourselves to God, and in the highest sense it means the awareness of our nothingness before Him, for, as the Quran says, “All that dwells in the heavens and the earth perishes, yet there abideth the Face of thy Lord, Majestic, Splendid” (55:26-27). The very name of the religion, Islam, comes from this reality, for the Arabic word al-islam means “surrender” as well as the peace that issues from our surrender to God. In fact, Islam is the only major religion, along with Buddhism (if we consider the name of the religion to come from Budd, the Divine Intellect, and not the Buddha), whose name is not related to a person or ethnic group, but to the central idea of the religion. Moreover, Islam considers all authentic religions to be based on this surrender, so that al-islam means not only the religion revealed through the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, but all authentic religions as such. That is why in the Quran the prophet Abraham is also called muslim, that is, one who is in the state of al-islam.
True surrender is not, however, only concerned with our will. It must involve our whole being. A shallow understanding of surrender can lead to either a passive attitude, in which one does not strive in life as one should
according to the promulgations of the religion, or to mistaking one’s own imperfect understanding of Islam for the truth and performing acts that are against God’s teachings while claiming that one is acting in surrender to God. Islam states that a person must be the perfect servant (‘abd) of God in the sense of following His commands. But since God has given us many faculties, including free will and intelligence, our surrender must be complete and total, not limited to only certain faculties. It must involve the whole of our being.
Otherwise, hidden thoughts and emotions as well as false ideas can combine with a fallacious sense of external surrender of one’s will to God to produce acts in the name of religion that can have calamitous consequences.
Such acts have appeared from time to time historically and can be seen especially in this day and age, but they are deviations rather than the norm. The norm by which the vast majority of Muslims have lived over the ages has meant surrender to God with one’s whole being, following the Divine Law and the ethical teachings of Islam to the extent possible, striving in life according to religious teachings to the extent of one’s ability, and then being resigned to consequences that ensue and accepting what destiny has put before us. It is in this sense that the common Arabic saying maktub, “It is written,” marking the sign of resignation to a particular event or results of one’s actions, must be understood.
This surrender has certainly not meant either fatalism or an individualistic interpretation of Divine norms in the name of surrender. It has, on the contrary, led to an inward and outward striving combined with serenity that characterizes traditional patterns of Islamic life, in contrast to both modernistic and much of the so-called fundamentalist currents found in the Islamic world today.
CREATION OF THE WORLD AND OF HUMAN BEINGS
Since the One God is Infinite and Absolute as well as the Infinitely Good, He could not but create. His infinitude implies that He contains within Himself all possibilities, including that of negating Himself, and this possibility had to be realized in the form of creation. Moreover, as St. Augustine also stated, it is in the nature of the good to give of itself, and the Infinitely-Good could not but radiate the reality that constitutes the world and, in fact, all the worlds.
But creation or radiation implies separation, and it is this ontological separation from the Source of all goodness that constitutes evil. One might say that evil is nothing but separation from the Good and privation, although it is real on its own level, in a sense as real as our own existential level on which we find it.1 And yet the good belongs to the pole of being and evil to that of nonbeing.
Throughout the history of Islam there have been numerous profound metaphysical and theological discussions concerning the question of evil, as there have been in other religions, especially Christianity. But in contrast to the modern West, in which many people have turned away from God and religion because they could not understand how a God who is good could create a world in which there is evil, in the Islamic world this question of theodicy has hardly ever bothered the religious conscience of even the most
intelligent people or turned them away from God. The emphasis of the Quran upon the reality of evil on the moral plane combined with the sapiential and theological explanations of this question have kept men and women confronted with this problem in the domain of faith. The strong emphasis in Islam on the Will of God has also played a role in resigning Muslims to the presence of evil in the world (which they must nevertheless combat to the extent possible), even when they cannot understand the causes involved.
In any case, God has created the world, in which there is imperfection and evil, but the world itself is considered by the Quran to be good, a view corresponding to that found in the book of Genesis. And creation has a purpose, for, as the Quran says, “O Lord, Thou didst not create this [the world] in vain” (8:190). The deepest purpose of creation is explained by a famoushadith qudsi (a sacred saying of the Prophet not part of the Quran in which God speaks in the first person through the mouth of the Prophet): “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.” This sacredhadith (h. adith qudsi) also speaks of God’s being “a hidden treasure,” which is a symbol of the truth that everything in the universe has its origin in the Divine Reality and is a manifestation of that Reality. Everything in the total cosmos both visible and invisible is a theophany, or manifestation, of the Divine Names and Qualities and is drawn from the “treasury” of God. The Wisdom of God thus permeates the universe, and Muslims in fact see the cosmos as God’s primordial revelation. Everything in the universe, in reflecting God’s Wisdom, also glorifies Him, for, as the Quran says, “There is nothing but that it hymns His praise” (17:44). In fact, the very existence of beings is nothing but their invocation of God’s Names, and the universe itself is nothing but the consequence of the breathing upon the archetypal realities of all beings in the Divine Intellect of the Breath of the Compassionate (nafas al-Rah. man ). It is through His Nameal-Rahman , which means the Infinitely-Good and also Merciful, that the universe has come into being. It is significant to note that much of the Quran is devoted to the cosmos and the world of nature, which play an integral role in the traditional life of Muslims. All Islamic rites are harmonized with natural phenomena, and in general Muslims view the world of creation as God’s first revelation, before the Torah, the Gospels, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures were revealed. That is why in Islam, as in medieval Judaism and Christianity, the cosmos is seen as a book in which the “signs of God,” the vestigia Dei of Christian authors, are to be read.
The Islamic understanding of anthropogenesis, the creation of human beings, resembles those of Judaism and Christianity in many ways, but also
differs on certain significant issues. In fact, there are also important differences between Judaism and Christianity when it comes to the question of original sin. As for Adam’s original creation, the Quran speaks of God creating Adam from clay and breathing His Spirit into him, “And I breathed into him My Spirit” (15:29). The Quran continues:
And when thy Lord said unto the angels: “Verily! I am about to place a vicegerent(khalifah) on earth,” they said, “Wilt Thou place therein one who will bring corruption therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee?” He said: “Surely, I know that which ye know not.”
And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels, saying: “Inform me of the names of these, if ye are truthful.”
They said: “Be glorified! We have no knowledge save that which Thou hast taught us.” (2:30-32)2
The angels were then asked by God to prostrate before Adam, and all did so except Iblis, that is, the Devil or Satan, who refused because of pride. God placed Adam and his wife in paradise and permitted them to eat of the fruits there, except the fruit of the forbidden tree. But Satan “caused them to deflect therefrom,” and the Fall ensued.
But a revelation was sent to Adam. He repented and became the first prophet as well as the father of humanity.
The Quranic account contains all the main features of the sacred anthropology of Islam and its view of the nature of men and women. First of all, God chose the human being as His vicegerent(khalifah) on earth, which means that He has given human beings power to dominate the earth, but on the condition that they remain obedient to God, that is, being God’s servant, or ‘abdAllah . There are numerous Quranic references to this truth. The two primary features of being human are servanthood and vicegerency:
being passive toward Heaven in submission to God’s Will, on the one hand, and being active as God’s agent and doing His Will in the world, on the other. Moreover, Adam was taught all the names, which means that God has placed within human nature an intelligence that is central and the means by which he can know all things. It also means that human beings themselves are the theophany, or visible manifestation, of all of God’s Names. There is in principle no limit to human intelligence in knowing the nature of things (the question of knowing the Divine Essence is a different matter) unless there is an obstacle that prevents it from functioning correctly. That is why Muslims believe that any normal and wholesome intelligence will be naturally led to the confirmation of Divine Oneness and are at a loss when rationalist skeptics from the West refuse to accept the One (most Muslims are unaware of the obstacles in the soul of such a skeptic that reduce the intelligence to analytical reason and prevent it from functioning in its fullness).
Adam, the prototype of humanity, is superior to the angels by virtue of his knowledge of the names of all things as well as by being the reflection of all the Divine Names and Qualities.
As for Iblis, his rebellion comes from pride in considering his nature, which was made of fire, superior to that of Adam, who was made of clay.
He refused to prostrate himself before Adam, because fire is a more noble element than earth or clay. He could not see the effect of the Spirit that God had breathed into Adam. Satan was therefore the first to misuse analogy, to try to replace intelligence with ordinary logical reasoning. His fall was thus also connected to the domain of knowledge. The lack of total knowledge on his part created the sense of pride, which in Islam, as in Christianity, is the source of all other vices.
The Quran mentions Adam’s wife, but not her name.
Hadith sources however confirm that her name was Hawwa’, or Eve. In fact, the Islamic names for the first parents of humanity, Adam and H. awwa’, are the same as in Judaism and Christianity. The Quran, however, does not mention how she was created. Some traditional commentators have repeated the biblical account of her creation from Adam’s rib, while other authorities have mentioned that she was created from the same clay from which God created Adam. It is important to note for the Islamic understanding of womanhood and women’s roles in both religious and social life that, in contrast to the biblical story, Eve did not tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Rather, they were tempted together by Iblis and therefore Eve was not the cause of Adam’s expulsion from paradise. He was also responsible; they shared in performing the act that led to their fall, and therefore both men and women are faced equally with its consequences. As far as the forbidden fruit is concerned, again, the Quran does not mention it explicitly, but according to traditional commentaries it was not an apple, as believed by Christians and Jews, but wheat.
The creation of human beings complements the creation of the cosmos and adds to the created order a central being who is God’s vicegerent, capable of knowing all things, of dominating the earth, given the power to do good, but also to wreak havoc and, in fact, corrupt the earth. According to a famous hadith, “God created man upon His form,” although here form does not mean physical image, but rather the reflection of God’s Names and Qualities. But human beings are also given the freedom to rebel against God, and Iblis can exercise power over them. The human being contains, in fact, all possibilities within himself or herself. The soul itself is a vast field in which the signs of God are manifested. As a Quranic verse states, “We shall show them our signs(ayat) upon the horizons and within their souls until it becomes manifest unto them that it is the truth” (41:53). Therefore, in a sense, the human being is itself a revelation like the macrocosm.
It might be said that from the Islamic point of view creation and revelation are inseparable, and that there are in fact three grand revelations: the cosmos, the human state, and religions-all three of which Islam sees as “books.”
There is, first of all, the cosmic book to be read and deciphered.
Then there is the inner book of the soul, which we carry within ourselves. And finally there are sacred scriptures, which have been sent by God through His Mercy to guide humanity throughout the ages and which are the foundations of various religions and keys for reading the other two books, that of the cosmos and that of the soul.
MANY REVELATIONS, MANY PROPHETS
In the Islamic perspective, the oneness of God has as its consequence not the uniqueness of prophecy, but its multiplicity, since God as the Infinite created a world in which there is multiplicity and this includes, of course, the human order. For Islam, revelation and prophecy are both necessary and universal. Humanity, according to the Quran, was created from a single soul, but then diversified into races and tribes, for, as the Quran states, “He created you [humanity] from a single soul” (39:6). The single origin of humanity implies the profound unity within diversity of human nature, and therefore religion based on the message of Divine Oneness could not have been only meant for or available to a segment of humanity. The multiplicity of races, nations, and tribes necessitates the diversity of revelations.
Therefore, the Quran, on the one hand, asserts that “To every people [We have sent] a messenger” (10:48), and, on the other hand, “For each [people] We have appointed a Divine Law and a way. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you concerning that wherein ye differed” (5:48). According to these and other verses, not only is the multiplicity of religions necessary, but it is also a reflection of the richness of the Divine Nature and is willed by God.
Religion(din) , revelation(wahy) , and prophecy(nubuwwah) have a clear meaning in the context of the Islamic worldview and therefore need to be carefully defined in the modern context, where all of these terms have become ambiguous in ordinary discourse. The closest word to the English term “religion” in Arabic is din, which is said by many to have been derived from the root meaning “to obey, submit, and humble oneself before God.” Al-din means religion in the vastest sense as the sacred norm into which the whole of life is to be molded. It is the total way of life grounded in teachings that have issued from God.
These teachings reach humanity through revelation, which means the direct conveying of a message from Heaven (revelation being understood apart from all the psychological entanglements it has acquired in much of modern Western religious thought). Revelation, moreover, must not be confused with inspiration(ilham) , which is possible for all human beings.
Islam sees revelation not as incarnation in the Hindu or Christian sense, but as the descent of the Word of God in the form of sacred scripture to a prophet. In fact, the Quran uses the term “Book”(kitab) not only for the Quran, but also for all other sacred books and the totality of revelations. The Quran considers all revelations to be contained in that “archetypal book,” or Umm al-kitab (literally, “the Mother Book”), and the sacred scriptures to be related in conveying the same basic message of the primordial religion of unity in different languages and contexts.
As the Quran states, “We never sent a messenger save with the language of his people” (14:4). Even when the Quran states that “the religion with God is al-islam” (3:19) or similar statements, al-islam refers to that universal surrender to the One and that primordial religion contained in the heart of all heavenly inspired religions, not just to Islam in its more particular sense. There is, moreover, a criterion of truth and falsehood as far
as religions are concerned, and the Quran’s confirmation of the universality of revelation does not mean that everything that has passed as religion yesterday or does so today is authentic. Throughout history there have been false prophets and religions, to which Christ also referred, as well as religions that have decayed or deviated from their original form.
Islam sees itself as heir to this long chain of prophets going back to Adam and believes all of them, considered to be 124,000 according to tradition, to be also its own. It does not believe, however, that it has inherited their teachings through temporal and historical transmission, for a prophet owes nothing to anyone and receives everything from Heaven, but it does believe that its message bears the finality of a seal. Islam sees itself as at once the primordial religion, a return to the original religion of oneness, and the final religion; the Quran itself calls the Prophet of Islam the “Seal of Prophets.” And, in fact, fourteen hundred years of history have confirmed Islam’s claim, for during all that time there has not been another plenary manifestation of the Truth like the ones that brought about the births of Buddhism and Christianity, not to speak of the earlier major religions. The two characteristics of primordiality and finality have bestowed upon Islam its trait of universality and the capability to absorb intellectually and culturally so much that came before it. It has also made spiritually alive the prophetic presences that preceded it, so that, for example, such figures as Abraham, Moses, and Christ play a much greater role in the spiritual universe of Islam than Abraham and Moses do in the Christian universe.
While speaking of the finality of the Islamic revelation for this cycle of human history, which will last until the eschatological events at the end of historic time, something must be said, from the Islamic point of view, about the “order” and “economy” of revelation. Muslims believe that each revelation takes place through the Divine Will, but also on the basis of a spiritual economy and is not by any means ad hoc. Each revelation fulfills a major function in human history seen from the religious point of view. For example, around the sixth to fifth century B.C. which also marks the transition from mythological time to historic time, a qualitative change took place in the march of time, which for Islam, as for Hinduism, is not simply linear. This is the period when the myths of Homer and Hesiod recede as Greek history flowers and the stories of mythical Persian dynasties are left behind as the Persian Empire takes shape.
From the human point of view, this qualitative change in the terrestrial life of humanity required new dispensations from Heaven, and from the metaphysical perspective, these new dispensations themselves marked the new chapter that was to begin in human history.
This period, which philosophers such as Karl Jaspers have called the Axial Age, was witness to the appearance of Confucius and Lao-Tze in China and the new crystallization of the primal Chinese tradition into Confucianism and Taoism, and the appearance of Shintoism in Japan and the beginning of the terrestrial life of the solar emperors, who marked the beginning of historical Japanese civilization.
This age was also witness to the life of the Buddha, whose teaching spread throughout India and Tibet and soon transformed the religious life of
East and Southeast Asia. At nearly the same time, we see the rise of Zoroaster, who established Zoroastrianism in Persia and whose teachings greatly influenced later religious life in western Asia. Finally, around the same time we have the rise of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism, which was central to the spiritual life of ancient Greece and from which Platonism was born. This remarkable cluster of figures, which also includes some of the Hebrew prophets, figures whom Muslims would call prophets, transformed the religious life of humanity, although the still living and viable religions of the earlier period such as Judaism and Hinduism survived. Moreover, this list of figures does not exhaust all the notable sages and prophets of the Axial Age.
One would think that the cycle of revelation would have been terminated in the Axial Age. But the decadence of the Greek and Roman religions around the Mediterranean Basin and the weakening of the northern European religions created a vacuum that only a new revelation could fill. Therefore Christianity was revealed by God. Although originally a Semitic religion, providentially it soon became, to some extent, Hellenized, and Christ was transformed almost into an “Aryan” solar hero for the Europeans, who were destined to find the path of salvation through this new dispensation from Heaven. It certainly was no accident that in Europe Christianity remained strong and unified, while in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, destined to become part of the future “Abode of Islam,” it splintered into numerous small denominations fighting among themselves as well as against Byzantium.
This latter situation, added to the inner weakness of Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire and certain other religions elsewhere, created another vacuum to be filled, this time by a new Semitic religion-Islam. Islam, like Judaism, remained faithful to its Semitic origin, but, like Christianity, was not confined to a particular ethnic group. Islam thus came to reassert the full doctrine of Divine Oneness on a universal scale after the Axial Age and the appearance of Christianity, placing in a sense the last golden brick in that golden wall that is revelation. With it, the structure of the wall became complete, and, as far as Muslims are concerned, although small religious movements may take place here and there, there is to be no plenary revelation after Islam according to the Divine Providence and the spiritual economy of God’s plans for present-day humanity. When asked how they know such a truth, Muslims point to the Quran itself and the fact that no previous revelation had ever made such an explicit claim. Being the final religion of this cycle, Islam is not only closely related to its sister monotheisms, Judaism and Christianity, but also possesses an inward link to the religions of the Axial Age as well as to Hinduism. It is this link that made it easier for Islam than for Christianity to incorporate so much of the wisdom Hinduism and of the religions of the Axial Age, from Buddhism and Pythagoreanism to Zoroastrianism and even later to Confucianism, within its sapiential perspective.
Paradoxically, the insistence of Islam upon God as the One and the Absolute has had as its concomitant the acceptance of multiplicity of prophets and revelations, and no sacred scripture is more universalist in its
understanding of religion than the Quran, whose perspective concerning the universality of revelation may be called “vertical triumphalism.”
In contrast, in Christianity, because of the emphasis on the Triune God, God the One is seen more in terms of the relationality of the three Hypostases, what one might call “Divine Relativity”; the vision of the manifestation of the Divine then became confined to the unique Son and Incarnation, in whom the light of all previous prophets was absorbed. In Christianity the vision is that of the Triune God and a unique message of salvation and savior, hence extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church), whereas in Islam there is the One God and many prophets. Here is to be found the major difference between how Muslims have viewed Jews and Christians over the centuries and how Christians have regarded Jews and Muslims as well as followers of other religions. For Muslims, the Quran completes the message of previous sacred texts without in any way denigrating their significance. In fact, the Torah and the Gospels are mentioned by name as sacred scriptures along with the Quran in the text of the Quran. Likewise, although the Prophet terminates the long chain of prophecy, the earlier prophets lose none of their spiritual significance. Rather, they appear in the Islamic firmament as stars, while the Prophet is like the moon in that Islamic sky.
The sacred scripture of Islam, known in Arabic by many names, of which the most famous is al-Qur’an, “the Recitation,” is considered by all Muslims, no matter to which school they belong, as the verbatim revelation of God’s Word made to descend into the heart, soul, and mind of the Prophet of Islam through the agency of the archangel of revelation, Gabriel, or Jibra’il in Arabic. Both the words and meaning of the text are considered to be sacred, as is everything else connected with it, such as the chanting of its verses or the calligraphy of its phrases. Muslims are born with verses of the Book, which Muslims call the Noble Quran, read into their ears, live throughout their lives hearing its verses and also repeating certain of its chapters during daily prayers, are married with the accompaniment of Quranic recitations, and die hearing it chanted beside them.
The Quran (also known as the Koran in English) is the central theophany of Islam, the fundamental source of its metaphysics, cosmology, theology, law, ethics, sacred history, and general worldview. In a way the soul of the traditional Muslim is like a mosaic made up of phrases of the Quran, which are repeated throughout life, such as the basmalah, “In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful,” with which all legitimate acts begin and are consecrated; alh. amduli’Llah, “Praise be to God,” with which one terminates an act or event in the attitude of gratefulness; insha’a’Llah, “If God wills,” which accompanies every utterance concerning the future, for the future is in God’s Hands and nothing takes place save through His Will. Even the daily greeting of Muslims, al-salamu ‘alaykum, “Peace be upon you,” which the Prophet taught to his companions as the greeting of the people of paradise, comes from the Quran. As some Western scholars of Islam have noted, there is perhaps no single book that is as influential in any religion as the Quran is in Islam.
To fully understand the significance of the Quran, a Westerner with a Christian background should realize that, although the Quran can in a sense be compared to the Old and New Testaments, a more profound comparison would be with Christ himself. In Christianity both the spirit and body of Christ are sacred, and he is considered the Word of God. The Quran is likewise for Muslims the Word of God (kalimatAllah ), and both its inner meaning, or spirit, and its body, or outer form, the text in the Arabic language in which it was revealed, are sacred to Muslims. Arabic is the sacred language of Islam and Quranic Arabic plays a role in Islam analogous to the role of the body of Christ in Christianity.
Moreover, as Christians consume bread and wine as symbols of the flesh and blood of Christ, Muslims pronounce, using the same organ of the body, that is, the mouth, the Word of God in the daily prayers. The rationalist and agnostic methods of higher criticism applied by certain Western scholars to the text of the Quran, which was not compiled over a long period of time like the Old and the New Testaments, is as painful and as much a blasphemy to Muslims as it would be to believing Christians if some Muslim archeologists claimed to have discovered some physical remain of Christ and were using DNA analysis to determine whether he was born miraculously or was the son of Joseph.
In any case, for Muslims themselves, Sunni and Shi‘ite alike, there is but a single text of the Quran consisting of 114 chapters of over 6,000 verses revealed to the Prophet of Islam in Mecca and Medina over the twenty-three years of his prophetic mission. As verses were received and then uttered by him, they would be memorized by companions, who were Arabs with prodigious memories. The verses were also written down by scribes. The order of the chapters of the Quran was also given by the Prophet through Divine command. During the caliphate of the third caliph, ‘Uthman, some twenty years after the death of the Prophet, as many of those who had memorized the Quran were dying in various battles, the complete text of the Quran was copied in several manuscripts and sent to the four corners of the Islamic world. Later copies are based on this early definitive collection.
It is said in Islam that God gives to each prophet a miracle corresponding to what was important in his time. Since magic was so significant in Egypt, God gave Moses the power to turn his staff into a serpent. Since medicine was such an important art at the time of Christ, God gave him the miracle of raising the dead to life. And since poetic eloquence was the most prized of all virtues for pre-Islamic Arabs, God revealed through the Prophet by far the most eloquent of all Arabic works. In fact, the greatest miracle of Islam is said to be the eloquence of the Quran. Its eloquence not only moved the heart and soul of those Arabs of the seventh century who first heard it, but also moves to tears Muslim believers throughout the world today, even those whose mother tongue is not Arabic, although Arabic is the language of daily prayers for all Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike. The grace, or barakah (corresponding both etymologically and in meaning to the Hebrew barak), of the text transcends its mental message and moves souls toward God in much the same way that hearing Gregorian chant in Latin would for centuries in the West deeply affect even those who did not understand the
Latin words. Of course, the same can be said for the Latin Mass itself, whose beautiful liturgy was of the deepest significance for some fifteen hundred years even for those Catholics who did not know Latin.
The Quran has many names, each revealing an aspect of its reality. It is al-Qur’an, or “recitation,” which also means “gathering” or “concentration.” It is al-Furqan, or “discernment,” because it provides the criteria for discerning between truth and falsehood, goodness and evil, beauty and ugliness. It is Umm al-kitab, the archetypal book containing the root of all knowledge, and it is al-Huda, the guide for the journey of men and women toward God. For Muslims, the Quran is the source of all knowledge both outward and inward, the foundation of the Law, the final guide for ethical behavior, and a net with which the Divine Fisherman ensnares the human soul and brings it back to Unity.
The Quran contains several grand themes. First of all, it deals with the nature of reality, with the Divine Reality and Its relation to the realm of relativity. Second, the Quran says much about the natural world, and in a sense the Islamic sector of the cosmos participates in the Quranic revelation. Then the Quran contains many pages on sacred history, but the episodes of this history are recounted more for their significance as lessons for the inner life of the soul than as historical accounts of ages past. Sacred history in the Quran contains, above all, moral and spiritual lessons for us here and now.
The Quran also deals with laws for the individual and society and is the most important source of Islamic Law, or theShari‘ah . Furthermore, the Quran comes back again and again to the question of ethics, of good and evil, of the significance of living a virtuous life. Finally, the Quran speaks, especially in its last chapters, in majestic language about eschatological events, about the end of this world, about the Day of Judgment, paradise, purgatory, and hell.
The language of the Quran, especially in dealing with eschatological realities, is concrete and symbolic, not abstract, or descriptive in the ordinary sense, which would in any case be impossible when one is dealing with realities our earthly imaginations cannot grasp. This trait has caused many outsiders to criticize the Quran for its sensuous description of the delights of paradise as if they were simply a sublimation of earthly joys and pleasures. In reality every joy and delight here below, especially sexuality, which is sacred for Islam, is the reflection of a paradisal prototype, not vice versa.
According to the Prophet and many of the earliest authorities such as ‘Ali and Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the Quran has many levels of meaning, of which the highest is known to God alone. In the same way that God is both the Outward (al-Z. ahir) and the Inward (al-Bat.in), His Book also has an outward and an inward dimension or, in fact, several levels of inner meaning. Throughout Islamic history, Quranic commentaries have been written from both points of view, the outward and the inward. The first is called tafsir and the second ta’wil. Works of both categories are crucial for the understanding of the text of the Quran, each word and letter of which is like a living being with many levels of significance, including a numerical
symbolism, which is studied in the science called jafr, corresponding to Jewish and Christian Kabbala.
The chapters(surahs) and verses(ayahs) of the Quran are both the path and the guidepost in the Muslim’s earthly journey. The root of everything Islamic, from metaphysics and theology to law and ethics to the sciences and arts, is to be found in it. Every movement that has begun in Islamic history, whether religious, intellectual, social, or political, has sought legitimization in the Quran, and the permanent flow of the daily life of traditional Muslims unaffected by such movements has also been marked in the deepest sense by the presence of the Quran. Jurists have sought to interpret its legal verses and Sufis its inner meaning. Philosophers have drawn from its philosophical utterances and theologians have debated its assertions about the nature of God’s Attributes and His relation to the world. Today, as when it was revealed, the Quran remains the central reality of Islam and the heart of Muslim life in both its individual and social aspects.
THE PROPHET OF ISLAM
The Prophet of Islam, to whom we shall henceforth refer simply as the Prophet, is for the West the most misunderstood reality within the Islamic universe. For over a millennium he has been maligned in various European sources as an apostate, a pretender, and even the Antichrist, and one has had to wait well over a thousand years until the twentieth century to see fair treatments of him appear in European languages. Until recently, Christians usually compared him, of course very unfavorably, to Christ, assuming that he holds the same position in Islam as Christ does in Christianity.
Westerners therefore called Islam Mohammadanism until a few decades ago, a term detested by Muslims, and concentrated their attacks against him in order to vilify Islam. Even those who admitted to his remarkable achievements in this world refused to accept him as a prophet.
Christian attacks against him were, in fact, the most painful and divisive element in Islam’s relationship with Christianity over the centuries. Even today the general misunderstanding of the Prophet in the West remains a major obstacle to mutual understanding. In modern times certain Western writers opposed to Christianity tried to use the Prophet as an instrument in their attacks on Christianity without any real appreciation or understanding of the Prophet himself.
Rarely does one find in earlier Western history a figure such as the German poet Goethe, who harbored deep respect and even love for the Prophet.
To understand the heart of Islam it is, therefore, essential to understand the significance of the Prophet from the point of view of traditional Muslims-not that of either Muslim modernists who neglect his spiritual dimension or the so-called puritan reformers who for other reasons belittle his significance in the total religious economy of Islam.
The Quran asserts clearly that the Prophet was a man and not divine, but also adds that God chose him as His final messenger, the “Seal of Prophets,” that he was given the most exalted and noble character, and that he was chosen as a model for Muslims to emulate as mentioned in the verse, “Verily you have in the Messenger of God an excellent exemplar for him
who looks to God and the Last Day and remembers God often” (32:21). This verse is the basis for the emulation of the Sunnah, or wonts (in the sense of actions and deeds) of the Prophet, that is central to the whole of Islam. For Muslims, the Prophet is a mortal man(bashar) , but also God’s most perfect creature, or what the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, call the Universal Man (al-insan al-kamil). As a Sufi poem recited often throughout the Islamic world asserts, Muhammad is a man, but not like other men. Rather, he is a ruby and other men are like stones.
The Prophet was born in Mecca in the “Year of the Elephant,” that is, 570 C.E., into an aristocratic branch of a major tribe of Mecca known as the Quraysh. His own family descended from Hashim, and so he and his descendants are known as Hashimites, which was a branch of the Quraysh. His father, ‘AbdAllah , died before he was born and his mother, Aminah, also died when Muh.ammad, whose most famous name means “the most praised one,” was very young, leaving him an orphan. He was brought up in the household of his uncle Abu T. alib, the father of ‘Ali, the fourth Sunni caliph and the first Imam of Shi‘ism.
The young Muhammad also spent some time with the Bedouins in the desert to master Arabic eloquence and to learn their ways, which had been the custom of the people of Mecca from ancient times. From his early days he was known for his honesty and sincerity and given the title of al-Amin, “the Trusted One.” He also had a strong contemplative tendency, which caused him to retreat often into the desert for prayer. Although the Meccans at that time practiced a crass form of idolatry, there were among them those who still followed the primordial monotheism of Abraham and are referred to in the Quran as the hunafa’, the primordialists.
The Prophet was one such person and believed in the one God even before being chosen as prophet.
As a young man Muhammad began to travel with caravans to Syria, and Muslims believe that it was during one of these trips that a Christian monk, Bah. irah, predicted that he would become a prophet. Because of his honesty and earnestness, which had become famous, he attracted the attention of a wealthy businesswoman of Mecca, Khadijah, who was fifteen years his senior, but who proposed marriage and asked him to manage her business affairs. Muh.ammad accepted and had a very happy marriage, from which issued four daughters, the most famous of whom is Fat.imah. She later married ‘Ali and is the mother of all the descendants of the Prophet, who are called sayyids or sharifs and who have played an extraordinary role in Islamic history. The Prophet had a monogamous marriage until Khadijah died when he was fifty years old. It was only in the last years of his life that he contracted other marriages, mostly for the political purpose of unifying the various tribes of Arabia.
When Muh.ammad was forty years old and praying in a cave called al-H. ira’ near Mecca, the archangel Gabriel came to him with the first verses of the revelation that constitutes the beginning of Surah 96, “The Clot.” Thus began his prophetic mission, which was to be carried out in the most difficult situation conceivable, for the message was one of uncompromising monotheism in a city that was the center of Arabian idolatry. The Ka‘bah, or
the House of God, which stands at the center of Mecca and is the most holy site in Islam, was built originally, according to Muslim belief, by Adam himself and rebuilt by Abraham. But this primordial sanctuary had now become filled with the idols of various tribes who would regularly visit Mecca for the purpose of pilgrimage. Mecca had therefore also become a major center for trade, and much of the power and wealth of Meccans derived from the presence of the Ka‘bah in their city. The message of the Prophet struck therefore at the heart of not only the religion, but also the source of power and wealth of the people of his own city, including his family.
At first only Khadijah, ‘Ali, and the Prophet’s old friend Abu Bakr accepted the message that was revealed to him.
Gradually, however, a number of others, including such eminent personalities as ‘Umar ibn al-Khat.t.ab, who was later to become the second caliph after Abu Bakr, and ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the future third caliph, embraced Islam. The very success of the Prophet’s mission made the opposition to him and his followers more severe every day.
There were several attempts on his life until, in the year 622
C.E., after agreements made with emissaries sent from the city of Yathrib to the north to Mecca, he migrated by Divine command to that city along with his followers. That migration, called al-hijrah in Arabic, marks the major turning point in Islamic history, when Islam was transformed from a small group of devotees to a full-fledged community.
Yathrib became known as Madinat al-nabi, the City of the Prophet, and is known to this day as Medina. Here the first Islamic society, which has remained the ideal model for all later Islamic societies, was founded.
Shortly before the migration, an event of supreme spiritual and religious significance took place in the Prophet’s life, an event that is also mentioned in the Quran. According to Islamic tradition, he was taken on what is called the Nocturnal Journey, or al-mi‘raj, on a supernatural horse, called al-Buraq, by Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem. Then, from the place where the mosque of the Dome of the Rock is now located, he was taken through all of the heavens, that is, all the higher states of being, to the Divine Presence Itself, meeting on the journey earlier prophets such as Moses and Jesus. The mi‘raj is the prototype of all spiritual wayfaring and realization in Islam, and its architecture even served as a model for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The experiences of this celestial journey, moreover, constitute the inner reality of the Islamic daily prayers and also the bringing to completion the performance of their outward form.
It was during this journey that the Prophet reached the Divine Presence, beyond even the paradisal states at the station that marks the boundary of universal existence; beyond this station, which the Quran calls the Lote Tree of the Uttermost End, there is only the hidden mystery of God known to Himself alone. It was in this most exalted state that the Prophet received the revelation that contains what many consider to be the heart of the credo of Islam:
“The Messenger believeth, and the faithful believe, in what has been revealed unto him from his Lord. Each one believeth in God and His angels
and His books and His messengers: we make no distinction between any of His messengers. And they say: we hear and we obey: grant us, Thou our Lord, Thy forgiveness; unto Thee is the ultimate becoming” (2:285).3
Jerusalem had been the first direction that Muslims faced when praying(qiblah) , before it was replaced by Mecca by Divine order, and is also considered to be the site of the eschatological events at the end of time according to Islamic tradition. But the Nocturnal Journey made Jerusalem even more significant for Muslims. In fact, the three holy cities of Islam, namely, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, are inextricably intertwined with the life of the Prophet.
In Medina the nascent community was confronted immediately with attacks from the Meccans, and several wars called maghaziwere fought in which the Muslims prevailed usually against unbelievable odds. Finally, the message of Islam spread throughout Arabia. The Prophet returned in triumph to Mecca, forgiving all those who had done so much to harm him and his followers. He purified the Ka‘bah of the idols in and on top of it and then performed, along with other rites, circumambulations of the House of God, following the footsteps of Abraham, a pilgrimage called hajj, which continues to this day, being one of the “pillars,” or fundamental elements, of the religion. But he did not remain in the city of his birth and upbringing.
Rather, he returned to Medina, where he died in 632 after three days of illness. He was buried in his own apartment, which was adjacent to the mosque he had built. Called the Mosque of the Prophet, or Masjid al-nabi, it is the original model of all later mosques and is visited to this day by millions of Muslim pilgrims every year from all over the world.
The Prophet died having unified Arabia, ended the prevalent violence, and created peace among tribes that had been fighting each other since time immemorial. With few means, a man who had been an orphan and who had suffered in countless ways, laid the foundations for a new religious society and civilization that was soon to make its mark upon a large portion of the world and begin a new chapter in human history. This summary account of the life of the Prophet brings into focus the way in which Muslims view the life of the founder of their religion. In order to understand Islam, it is essential to grasp the significance of this account for Muslims and not to accept blindly what earlier revisionist Christian polemicists or contemporary agnostic historians may have written in the West about him.
To comprehend the significance of the Prophet in Islam, it is necessary to remember that the great founders of religions are of two types. The first constitutes the category of those figures who preach detachment from the world and a spiritual life that does not become entangled with ordinary worldly matters with all their ambiguities and complexities.
Supreme examples of this type are found in Christ and the Buddha, both of whom founded what were originally small spiritual communities divorced from and not integrated into the political, social, and economic conditions of the larger society. Christ who said that his kingdom was not of this world did not marry and was not the leader and ruler of a whole human society, and the Buddha left the married life of a prince to devote himself to the monastic life and the attainment of illumination.
The second type is exemplified by Moses, David, and Solomon in the Abrahamic world and by Rama and Krishna in Hinduism. Such figures, whether seen as prophets or avatars, entered into the complexity of the ordinary human order to transform and sanctify it. The Hebrew prophets as well as some avataric figures from Hinduism were also political leaders and rulers of a human community. They were married and had children and therefore appear to those who have been brought up gazing upon the dazzling spiritual perfection of Christ or the Buddha as being too immersed in the life of the world and therefore less perfect.
Such a judgment neglects the truth that once Christianity and Buddhism became religions of a whole society, they too had to deal with the earthly realities of human society, with justice, war and peace, and the question of family and sexual relations.
In any case, the Prophet must be seen as belonging to the second category. His contemplativeness was inward, while outwardly he had to face nearly every possible human situation. He experienced being an orphan, living the life of a merchant, suffering persecution. He grieved deeply the loss of his beloved wife Khadijah and his two-year-old son Ibrahim, but he also knew the happiness of family life and of final triumph in the world. He, who loved solitude and contemplation, had to deal with the affairs of men and women, with all their frailties and shortcomings. He had to rule over a whole society and to sit as judge in cases of one party’s complaints against another. One might say that his mission was to sanctify all of life and to create an equilibrium in human life that could serve as the basis for surrender and effacement before the Divine Truth.
In every religion all the virtues of its adherents derive from those existing in the founder of the religion. In the same way that no Christian can claim to have any virtue that was not possessed to the utmost extent by Christ, no Muslim can have any virtue that was not possessed in the most eminent degree by the Prophet. More specifically, the Prophet exemplifies the virtues of humility; nobility, magnanimity and charity; and truthfulness and sincerity. For Muslims, the Prophet is the perfect model of total humility before God and neighbor; nobility and magnanimity of soul, which means to be strict with oneself but generous, charitable, and forgiving to others; and finally, perfect sincerity, which means to be totally truthful to oneself and to God. This crowning Islamic virtue requires the melting of our ego before God, for, as a Sufi saying asserts, “He whose soul melteth not away like snow in the hand of religion [that is, the Truth], in his hand religion like snow away doth melt.”4
Love for the Prophet is incumbent upon all Muslims and in fact constitutes a basic aspect of Islamic religious life. It might be said that this love is the key for the love of God, for in order to love God, God must first love us, and God does not love a person who does not love His messenger.
The Prophet is also held in the greatest esteem and respect. He has many names, such as Ahmad (“the most praiseworthy of those who praise God”), ‘AbdAllah (“servant of God”), Abu’l-Qasim (“Father of Qasim”), and al-Amin (“the Trusted One”), as well as Muh.ammad.
Whenever any of these names are mentioned, they are followed with the formulaic phrase, “May peace and blessings be upon him.” It is considered a sign of disrespect to mention his name or the name of any of the other prophets without invoking the benediction of peace upon them.
The invocation of benediction upon the Prophet is so central for Muslims that it might be said to be the only act that is performed by both God and human beings, for, as the Quran says, “Verily, God and His angels shower blessings upon the Prophet. O ye who have faith! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy salutation” (33:56).
The love and respect for the Prophet also extends to other prophets who remain spiritually alive in the Islamic universe. In fact, Muslims do not consider the fact that the message of the Prophet was conclusive to mean that it was also exclusive. The Prophet is for them both the person they love and admire as God’s most perfect creature and the continuation of the long chain of prophets to whom he is inwardly connected. A pious Muslim would never think of praising the Prophet while denigrating the prophets who came before him, particularly those mentioned in the Quran. In the metaphysical sense, the Prophet is both a manifestation of the Logos and the Logos itself, both the beginning of the prophetic cycle and its end, and, being its end and seal, he contains from an essential and inward point of view the whole prophetic function within himself.
It is in this sense that Mah.mud Shabistari sang of the Prophet, using his esoteric name Ah. mad, in his Gulshan-i raz (“The Secret Garden of Divine Mysteries”):
Since the number hundred has come, ninety is also with us. The name of Ahmad is the name of all the prophets.
The love for the Prophet, therefore, far from diminishing respect for other prophets, has only increased the admiration of Muslims for the prophets who preceded the Prophet of Islam and for whom he himself held the greatest respect, as reflected in the many traditions, or sayings, transmitted from him.
These sayings, called in the plural ah. adith, were assembled after his death and, after much critical study, collected in canonical collections by both Sunni and Shi‘ite scholars.
They form, after the Quran, the most important source of everything Islamic and constitute, in fact, the first commentary upon the Quran. Technically, theHadith is part of the Sunnah, which means all the doings or wonts of the Prophet. TheSunnah is the model upon which Muslims have based their lives, including the rituals ordained by the Quran. Along with the teachings of the Quran, theSunnah is the primary cause for the unity so observable among Muslims from so many diverse ethnic groups and cultures. As for the Hadith, some deal with the most sublime spiritual truths and others with everyday aspects of life, such as how to carry out an economic transaction justly or how to deal fairly with one’s family. They include such sayings as:
“No person is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”
“Illumine your hearts by hunger, and strive to conquer your ego by hunger and thirst; continue to knock at the gates of Paradise by hunger.”
“To honor an old person is to show respect for God.”
“There are heavenly rewards for every act of kindness to a live animal.”
“God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”
“Charity is a duty for every Muslim. He who has not the means thereto, let him do a good act or abstain from an evil one. That is his charity.”
“When the bier of anyone passes by you, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim, rise to your feet.”
“God is pure and loves purity and cleanliness.”
“The best jihad is the conquest of the self.”
“Heaven lies at the feet of mothers.”
“The key to Paradise is prayer.”
“God saith, ‘I fulfill the faith of whosoever puts his faith in Me, and I am with him, and near him, when he remembers Me.’”
The spiritual reality of the Prophet is ever present in Islamic society through the living character of hisSunnah and the authority of his Hadith. It is moreover experienced through the grace that emanates from his spiritual reality and is called “Muh.ammadan barakah,” a grace that is ever present in the life of Sufism, in the litanies chanted in honor of the Prophet, in the visitation to holy sites throughout the Islamic world, which are like so many extensions of Medina, and in the heart of all Muslims for whom the love of the Prophet is both the necessary concomitant and means of access to the love of God. This love for the Prophet also entails love and respect for other messengers, to which the Quran refers so frequently. Even the Islamic definition of faith (al-iman) states the necessity of having faith in God, His angels, and His messengers, not only His messenger. As the Quran states, “O ye who believe! Believe in God and His messenger and the Scripture which He has revealed unto His messenger and the Scripture which He revealed before. Whosoever disbelieves in God, His angels and His Scriptures and His messengers and the Last Day, he verily has wandered far away” (4:136). It is not only disbelief in the messenger, but in all of God’s messengers that leads a person away from the path of correct belief and faithfulness. But, of course, to be a Muslim requires specifically the acceptance of the messengership and prophethood of Muhammad; hence the second testification(shahadah) of Islam, Muh.ammadun rasulAllah (“Muh. ammad is the Messenger of God”). Through this pronouncement along with the first shahadah a person formally becomes a Muslim. The first shahadah, La ilaha illa’Llah (“There is no god but God”) is by itself in fact universal testimony to the acceptance of religion as such, to al-din, which lies at the heart not only of Islam, but of all the authentic religions revealed before the descent of the Quran.
ISLAM’S ATTITUDE TOWARD OTHER RELIGIONS IN HISTORY
In light of what has been said of the Islamic conception of revelation and religious diversity, it is important to mention that before modern times Islam was the only revealed religion to have had direct contact with nearly all the
major religions of the world. It had met Judaism and Christianity in its birthplace in Arabia and afterward in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt; the Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism after its conquest of Persia in the seventh century;
Hinduism and Buddhism in eastern Persia and India shortly thereafter; the Chinese religions through the Silk Route as well as through Muslim merchants who traveled to Canton and other Chinese ports; the African religions soon after the spread of Islam into Black Africa some fourteen hundred years ago; and Siberian Shamanism in the form of the archaic religions of the Turkic and Mongolian peoples as they descended into the Islamic world. Centuries ago Zoroaster and the Buddha were common household names among Muslims of the eastern lands of the Islamic world, especially Persia. Indian Muslims had come to know of Krishna and Rama a thousand years ago. The Persian polymath al-Biruni had composed a major work on India in the eleventh century, one that is still a valuable source of knowledge for medieval Hinduism. Furthermore, numerous works of classical Hinduism and some of Buddhism were translated into Persian centuries ago, including the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Chinese Muslim scholars knew the Confucian classics and many considered Confucius and Lao-Tze prophets.
The global nature of the religious knowledge of a learned Muslim sitting in Isfahan in the fourteenth century was very different from that of a scholastic thinker in Paris or Bologna of the same period. On the basis of the Quranic doctrine of religious universality and the vast historical experiences of a global nature, Islamic civilization developed a cosmopolitan and worldwide religious perspective unmatched before the modern period in any other religion.
This global vision is still part and parcel of the worldview of traditional Muslims, of those who have not abandoned their universal vision as a result of the onslaught of modernism or reactions to this onslaught in the form of what has come to be called “fundamentalism.”
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 recognized in the Quran.
Respect for such teachings is so strong among Muslims that today, in interreligious dialogues 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. One need only recall the holiness for
Muslims of the tomb of Abraham in al-Khalil, or Hebron, in Palestine, of that of Joshua in Jordan, and of Moses’ resting place on Mt. Nebo, also in Jordan. Some Muslims have occasionally criticized intellectually and also engaged militarily 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 itself 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 theShari‘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.
WHO IS A BELIEVER AND WHO IS AN INFIDEL?
With this framework in mind, it will be easier to understand the categorization in Islam of people into believers (mu’mins ) and what has been translated in the West as “infidels” or “nonbelievers”(kafirs) , which means literally “those who cover over the truth.” Every religion has a way of distinguishing itself from the other religions. Judaism speaks of Jews and Gentiles, and Christianity of the faithful and the heathens or pagans. Each of these categorizations has both a theological and a popular and historical root related to the self-understanding as well as the history of that religion. In the case of Islam, the distinction is based more on the question of faith, or iman, and less on the more general term islam. In the Quran faith implies a higher level of participation in the religion, as we shall discuss in the next chapter, and even today only those who take their religion very seriously and are virtuous are calledmu’min (or possessors of iman). And yet the Quran does not limit the termmu’min only to those who follow the Islamic religion; it includes the faithful of Islam along with followers of other religions, as is
evidenced by the Quranic assertion, “Verily, those who have faith [in what is revealed to the Prophet] and those who are Jews and Christians and Sabaeans-whosoever has faith in God and the Last Day and does right-surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall overcome them and neither shall they grieve” (2:62). In this verse as well as verse 69 of Surah5 (“The Table Spread”), which nearly repeats the same message, recognition of other religions is extended even beyond Judaism, Christianity, and Sabaeanism to include “whosoever has faith in God,” and the possibility of salvation is also made explicitly universal. Likewise, the boundary between the Muslim faithful and the faithful of other religions is lifted. One could therefore say that in the most universal sense whoever has faith and accepts the One God, nor the Supreme Principle, is a believer, or mu’min, and whoever does not is an infidel, or a kafir, whatever the nominal and external ethnic and even religious identification of that person might be.
As a result of this explicit universality of the Quranic text, the use of the terms “believer” or “faithful” and “infidel” or “nonbeliever” is much more complicated than what we find in Christianity. In Islam there is, first of all, the Sufi metaphysical view of absolute Truth, which is seen to be beyond all duality, even beyond the dichotomy of iman and kufr, or faith and infidelity; yet, to reach that transcendent Truth beyond all duality one must begin with faith and start from the formal foundations of Islam, which distinguishes itself clearly from kufr. The esoteric understanding of kufr and iman, so prevalent in classical Sufi poetry, especially among the Persian poets such as Rumi, Shabistari, and H. afiz. must not, therefore, be confused with the prevalent idea in certain Western circles that one can reach the absolute Truth by simply avoiding the world of faith as well as infidelity. On the levels of external religious forms, iman has to do with truth and kufr with falsehood. This dichotomy is not destroyed by the exhortation of the Sufis to go beyond kufr and iman, which means to reach tawhid, or oneness beyond all oppositions and dichotomies.
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 the 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 eighteenth century the Wahhabi movement, which began 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 H. anaf i scholars considered the Wahhabis themselves to be kuffar.
The prevalent image in the West that all Muslims are united as the faithful against the infidels-even if some wellknown Christian preachers repeat to their flocks this assertion made by some extremists within the Islamic world-is simply not true. There have always been those who have spoken of the necessity of the unity of Muslims as the faithful, and in a certain sense that unity has been always there despite diversity on many levels. But the whole question of who is a believer, or a person of faith, and who is an unbeliever, or infidel, requires a much more nuanced answer than is usually given in generally available sources.
Moreover, the term kafir has both a theological and judicial definition and a popular political and social definition, and the two should not be confused. In the conscience of many devout Muslims, a pious Christian or Jew is still seen as a believer, while an agnostic with an Arabic or Persian name is seen as a kafir. And the anathema of kufr, far from involving only outsiders, has also concerned various groups within the Islamic world itself. 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.
ISLAM AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM TODAY
Muslims today continue to experience the presence of other religions in their midst as they have done over the centuries. In the middle part of the Islamic world there are Christian minorities, the largest being in Egypt, and still some Jews, especially in Iran and Turkey, although most of the Jews from Arab countries migrated to Israel after 1948. There are still Zoroastrians in Iran, and Muslims live with Hindus in India, of course, but also in Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and with Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ladakh, Burma, China, and elsewhere. They also live with Confucians and Taoists not in only China, but also in Malaysia and Indonesia. By and large, through most periods of Islamic history, the relation between Muslims and religious minorities living in their midst has been peaceful. Exceptions have arisen when severe political issues, such as the partition of Palestine or India, have altered ordinary relations between Muslims and followers of other religions. Today, despite some abuses here and there issuing from socalled fundamentalist currents in various Islamic countries, religious minorities in the Islamic world usually fare better than Muslim minorities do in other lands, except in America and some Western countries, where they have been able to practice their religion until now without manifest or hidden restrictions. All one has to do is to compare the situation of the Christian minorities of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, three states not known for their leaning toward the West, with Muslim minorities in China, the Philippines, India, and the Russian Caucasus, not to speak of the
Balkans, where the horror inflicted by Christian Serbs upon Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars is still fresh in everyone’s memory.
The peaceful presence in the Islamic world of various religious minorities, especially Christians, has been upset to a large extent 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 Christian charity, but with the goal of conversion.
Many of 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 Christian. 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.
To understand current Islamic reactions to Christian missionary activity in many countries, one should ask how the people of Texas and Oklahoma, where many American evangelists come from, would respond to the following scenario. Suppose that, with vast oil money from the Islamic world, Islamic schools were to be established in those states. Because of their prestige, these schools attracted the children of the most powerful and well-todo families, and these future leaders, in attending these schools, underwent a systematic process of cultural Arabization even if they did not participate in the encouraged formal conversion to Islam.
Western missionary activity is not like that of medieval Christian preachers of the Gospels, or like the Orthodox missionaries among the Inuits of Canada, who would adopt the language of the Inuits and even their dress. Most modern Western missionary activity throughout Asia and Africa has meant, above all, Westernization and globalization combined with the cult of consumerism, all in the name of Christianity. Were there not to be such a powerful political, economic, and even military pressure behind the presence of these missionaries, then their presence would be in a sense like that of Tibetan Buddhists or Muslims in Canada or the United States and would not pose a danger to the very existence of local religions and cultures. But the situation is otherwise, and therefore Christian missionary activity, especially in such places as Indonesia, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan Africa, plays a very important role in creating tension between Islam and Christianity and indirectly the West, which gives material and political support to these missionaries even if, as in France, the state is avowedly secularist.
Of course, this identification with modern Western secularist and now consumerist culture has not always been the case with all missionaries. The French Catholic Père de Foucault lived for a long time among Muslim North Africans as a humble witness to Christ and was greatly respected by his Muslim neighbors, as were a number of other monks and priests. There have also been humble Protestants who came to Muslims to represent a presence of Christ’s message without aggressive proselytizing through material enticement of the poor. Such exceptions have certainly existed. Nevertheless, Western Christian missionary activity, supported as it is directly or indirectly by all the might of the West, poses a major problem for contemporary Muslims’
dealings with Western Christianity, in contrast to local forms of Christianity with which Muslims have lived usually in peace for centuries. One need only recall in this context that while Baghdad was being bombed during the Persian Gulf War, no Iraqi Muslims attacked any local Iraqi Christians walking down the street, whereas the reverse has not been true since the tragic September 11 terrorist acts; a number of American and European Muslims have been attacked and harassed as a result of the religious, racial, and ethnic xenophobia that has been created in certain circles by that great tragedy.
In speaking of missionary activity, it is necessary to say something about Islamic teachings concerning apostasy(irtidad) , which has been criticized by missionary circles and others in the West. According to classical interpretations of theShari‘ah , the punishment for apostasy for a Muslim is death, and this is interpreted by many Westerners to mean the lack of freedom of conscience in Islam. To clarify this issue, first of all, a few words about conversion. The Quran says, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), and in most periods of Islamic history there was no forced conversion of the “People of the Book.” In fact, forced conversion is an affront to God and the dignity of the human conscience created by Him. Arabia at the time of the Quranic revelation was an exception. There the pagan Arabs who practiced a most crass form of polytheism were given the choice of either becoming Muslims or battling against them. It was very similar to the choice offered by Christian to European “pagans” once Christianity gained power on that continent. But even in Arabia, the Jews and Christians were not forced to become Muslims.
The Shari‘ite ruling on apostasy may therefore seem strange in light of Islam’s attitude toward other heavenly inspired religions. The reason for such a ruling must be sought in the fact that attachment to Islam was related before modern times to being a member of the Islamic state as well as community, and therefore apostasy was seen as treason against the state, not just religious conversion.
Today when the state is no longer Islamic in the traditional sense in most Islamic countries, many religious scholars have spoken against capital punishment for apostasy. Moreover, in practice, although the law is still “on the books,” in many places it is hardly ever applied, as can be seen by the presence of several million Christians converted from Islam by Western
missionaries in recent times in such countries as Indonesia, Pakistan, and several West African nations.
In practice this law is somewhat like laws against adultery that are still “on the books” in England, but not applied.
Sectarian fighting between Muslims and newly converted Christians still occurs in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Sudan, and a few other places, but these have more to do with local political, economic, and social issues than with the traditional Shari‘ite ruling about apostasy.
The traditional Shari‘ite ruling, which is now being amended by some legal authorities and for the most part ignored because of changed conditions, must be understood not in the context of the modern West, where religion has been to a large extent marginalized and pushed away from the public arena, but in the framework of the Christian West. One only has to think what would have happened to Christians in medieval France or seventeenthcentury Spain if they had converted to Islam. In any case, the question of apostasy raised so often by those who ask about Islam’s relation to other religions must be understood in both its classical context and the present-day situation, when it is largely overlooked because of changed conditions and is, in fact, being reinterpreted by a number of important Islamic legal experts.
Another issue often raised in the West when discussing Islam’s relation to other religions is that Islam does not allow the presence of non-Muslims in a certain area around Mecca while Christianity allows non-Christians even into the Vatican. Now, it must be understood that each religion has its own regulations concerning sacred spaces. In Hinduism certain areas in Benares are closed to all non-Hindus, and Muslims respected those rules even when they ruled over that city and did not force their way into the Monkey Temple or other sacred sites. Like Hinduism and several other religions, Islam has a sacred space around Mecca whose boundaries were designated by the Prophet himself and where non-Muslims are not allowed.
That has never meant that the rest of the Islamic world has been closed to the presence of other religions and their houses of worship. Churches dot the skyline of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and many other cities, and synagogues are also found everywhere a Jewish community lives from Tehran to Fez. Within the Ottoman Empire in many places in the Balkans where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together, synagogues, churches, and mosques were built next to each other. To this day this harmonious presence of different houses of worship is visible in Istanbul itself. Outside of the harim, or sacred precinct, in Arabia, it is the duty of the Muslim state, according to theShari‘ah , to allow the building and maintenance of houses of worship of the “People of the Book,” and any order to the contrary is against the tenets of Islamic Law and traditional practice.
Of course, during Islamic history there were occasions when after a major triumph a church was converted into a mosque, as happened with the Hagia Sophia, but the reverse also took place often, as when the Grand Mosque of Cordova was converted into a cathedral. Altogether for Islam, the general norm is the one established by ‘Umar, who, when he conquered Jerusalem, ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be honored and
protected as a church. Otherwise, most of the churches in the Islamic world that later became mosques were those abandoned by Christian worshipers, somewhat like what one sees in some cities in Great Britain these days.
On the intellectual plane, there is a great deal of interest in the Islamic world today in religious dialogue, the impetus for which originated in Christian circles mostly after World War II. In many countries, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia, religious dialogue has even been encouraged by governments as well as by individuals and religious organizations. Numerous conferences have been held in many parts of the world with Protestants, Catholics, and more recently Orthodox Christians; with Hindus in India and Indonesia; and with Buddhists and Confucians in Malaysia. Because of the Palestinian-Israeli problem, the dialogue with Judaism has been somewhat more difficult, but even that has also continued to some extent in both the Middle East and the West. In these dialogues scholars from many different schools of thought have participated, both those within the Islamic world and those Muslims living in the West. There have been some exclusivists who have opposed such dialogues, as one sees also among Christians and Jews, but the activity of religious dialogue has gone on for decades in the Islamic world and is now an important part of the current Islamic religious and intellectual landscape.
Even on the more theoretical and philosophical level, what has come to be known as religious pluralism has become a matter of great interest and a major intellectual challenge in many Islamic countries today, including some of those called “fundamentalist” in the West. There is no country in the Islamic world in which there is greater interest in the theological and philosophical questions involved in the issue of religious pluralism than Iran. There works of such famous Protestant and Catholic writers on the subject as John Hick and Hans Küng have been translated and are being discussed even in the public media; there the views of traditionalist metaphysicians such as Frithjof Schuon, who speaks of the “transcendent unity of religions,” a view that is also my own, are part and parcel of the general intellectual discourse. The same keen interest is also to be found in countries as different as Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
Faced with the danger of loss of identity and the enfeeblement of religion as a result of the onslaught of modernism with its secularist bias, some Muslims, many very active and vocal, espouse a radical exclusivist point of view when it comes to the question of the relation of Islam to other religions. But for the vast majority of Muslims, the Quranic doctrine of the universality of revelation and the plurality of prophets under the One God still resonates deeply in their hearts and souls, and they remain ever mindful of the many verses of the Quran concerning the reality of One God and the multiplicity of revelations sent by Him. When they think of their beloved Prophet, they are mindful of these words of God:
We inspire thee [Muh.ammad] as We inspired Noah and the prophets after him, as We inspired Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We imparted unto David the Psalms;
And messengers We have mentioned unto thee before and messengers We have not mentioned unto thee; and God spoke directly to Moses; Messengers of good news and warning; in order that mankind might have no argument against God after the messengers. God is Mighty, and Wise. (4:163-65)