PAGANISM AND THE CELEBRATION OF “BIRTHDAYS”:
Bismillah. Alhamdulillah wa salatu wasallam ala Rasulillah.
The following is a list of quotes from writings and writers, ancient and modern, religious and secular, attesting to the Pagan origins and nature of celebrating one’s supposed day of birth. Of course many contemporary, secularized people will object and say that “birthdays” no longer have any religious significance(despite the fact that all the ancient pagan rituals are maintained and preserved in the modern celebrations). However if you profess to be a Muslim, a Jew, or a Christian, you should not be doing this; Especially after you become aware that the word “secular” has the same definition as `irjaa(separating beliefs from actions, i.e. separating public actions from privately held beliefs(religion)). Yet “religion” is, from the Latin “religare”, “that which binds”, thus making Secular Humanism a religion in its own right.
“Shaytan has gained the mastery over them, and caused them to forget Allah’s Remembrance. Those are Shaytan’s party; why, Shaytans party, surely, they are the losers!,” –[Qur’an: Surah al-Mujadilah: 58:19].
109:1 Say: O Kafirun!(disbelievers)
109:2 I do not worship what you worship
109:3 and you do not worship what I worship.
109:4 Nor will I worship what you worship
109:5 nor will you worship what I worship.
109:6 You have your deen and I have my deen.´
—[Qur’an: Surah al-al-Kafirun]
“Whoever imitates a people is from them,” –[Sunan Abu Dawud]
“Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: ‘You would tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step so much so that if they had entered into the hole of the lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Allah’s Messenger, do you mean Jews and Christians (by your words)” those before you”? He said: ‘Who else (than those two religious groups)’?,” –[Sahih Muslim].
“The Prophet sal Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam also said: ‘The Day of Judgment will not come until my Nation closely imitates the nations before them.” It was asked: “Like the PERSIANS and ROMANS, Messenger of Allah?” He, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam replied: “Who are the nations (I could mean) except those?” [Sahih Bukhari].
“Originally the idea [of birthday greetings and wishes for happiness] was rooted in magic. The working of spells for good and evil is the chief usage of witchcraft. One is especially susceptible to such spells on his birthday, as one’s personal spirits are about at that time. Dreams dreamed on the birthday eve should be remembered, for they are predictions of the future brought by the guardian spirits which hover over one’s bed on the birthday eve. Birthday greetings have power for good or ill because one is closer to the spirit world on this day. Good wishes bring good fortune, but the reverse is also true, so one should avoid enemies on one’s birthday and be surrounded only by well-wishers. “Happy birthday” and Many (more) happy returns of the day” are the traditional greetings”, -[The Lore of Birthdays, Linton, p. 20]…
“The giving of birthday gifts is a custom associated with the offering of sacrifices to pagan gods on their birthdays. Certainly the custom was linked with the same superstitions that formed the background for birthday greetings. The exchange of presents is associated with the importance of ingratiating good and evil fairies on their or our birthdays [ibid].
“The traditional birthday cake and candles also have their origin in ancient pagan idol worship. The ancients believed that the fire of candles had magical properties. They offered prayers and made wishes to be carried to the gods on the flames of the candles. Thus we still have the widely practiced birthday custom of making a wish, then blowing out the candles. The Greeks celebrated the birthday of their moon goddess, Artemis, with cakes adorned with lighted candles…” -[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil].
“The Egyptians discovered to which of the gods each month and day is sacred; and found out from the day of a man’s birth, what he will meet with in the course of his life, and how he will end his days, and what sort of man he will be,” [Herodotus, Persian Wars, Book II, ch. 82].
“Since it was believed that the positions of the stars at the time of birth influenced a child’s future, astrological horoscopes came into being, purporting to foretell the future, based on the time of birth. “Birthdays” are intimately linked with the stars, since without the calendar, no one could tell when to celebrate his birthday. They are also indebted to the stars in another way, for in early days the chief importance of birthday records was to enable the astrologers to chart horoscopes,” [The Lore of Birthdays, p. 53].
Rawlinson’s translation of Herodotus includes the following footnote: “Horoscopes were of very early use in Egypt and Cicero speaks of the Egyptians and Chaldeans predicting a man’s destiny at his birth”…
Furthermore, the book “The Lore of Birthdays” (New York, 1952) by Ralph and Adelin Linton, on pages 8, 18-20 had this to say:
“The Greeks believed that everyone had a protective spirit or DAEMON(jinn) who attended his birth and watched over him in life. This spirit had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday the individual was born”.
Narrated Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, radyAllahu anhu:
“Allah’s Apostle, may Allah’s peace and blessings be on him said: ‘There is none amongst you with whom is not an attache from amongst the jinn (devil). They (the Companions) said: Allah’s Apostle May Allah’s peace and blessings be on him with you too? Thereupon he said: Yes, but Allah helps me against him and so I am safe from his hand and he does not command me but for good'”, –[Sahih Muslim 6757, similar narration 6759 by ‘Aisha, radyAllahu anha].
“The Romans also subscribed to this idea. . . . This notion was carried down in human belief and is reflected in the “guardian angel”, the “fairy godmother” and the “patron saint”(the dead Sufi master for the Sufis). . . . The custom of lighted candles on the cakes started with the Greeks. . . . Honey cakes round as the moon and lit with tapers were placed on the temple altars of [Artemis]. . . . *”Birthday” candles, in folk belief, are endowed with special magic for granting wishes*. . . . Lighted tapers and sacrificial fires have had a special mystic significance ever since man first set up altars to his gods. The birthday candles are thus an honor and tribute to the birthday child and bring good fortune…”
Thus birthdays had their origin in mythology and magic, with horoscoping also playing a role.
“Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess,” [Josephus. Translated by W. Whiston. Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 26. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing, 1977, p. 632].
In their essay titled “Birthdays, Jewishly,” Lisa Farber Miller and Sandra Widener point out that the Encyclopedia Judaica is very blunt on this topic:
“The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual.”
“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD,” [Deuteronomy 18:10-12].
“You are wearied in the multitude of your counsels; Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, And the monthly prognosticators Stand up and save you From what shall come upon you. Behold, they shall be as stubble, The fire shall burn them; They shall not deliver themselves From the power of the flame” [Isaiah 47:13-14].
“But some have felt, basically by seeing certain alleged manger scenes, that the Magi/wise men came from the East and gave Jesus presents on the day of His birth,” -[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil].
Well, there are a few issues with this.
First, the wise men definitely were not with `Isa, alayhi salam, on the day of His birth. The Bible is clear that he had already been born:
1 “Now AFTER Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” [Matthew 2:1-2].
“Furthermore, notice that they came to worship Him, not celebrate His birthday. It was customary in those times (and still is today) to provide gifts when meeting royalty. Thus, the wise men meeting Jesus and providing presents should not be construed as a birthday celebration”.
Late, Orthodox Catholics were against the celebration of birthdays. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday [Martindale C. Christmas, 1908].
Here is some of what Origen wrote:
“…of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below” -[Origen, in Levit., Hom. VIII, in Migne P.G., XII, 495) (Thurston H. Natal Day. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Margaret Johanna Albertina Behling Barrett. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York].
History of celebration of birthdays in the West:
“It is thought that the large-scale celebration of birthdays in Europe began with the cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia but was spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire. Before this, such celebrations were not common; and, hence, practices from other contexts such as the Saturnalia were adapted for birthdays. Because many Roman soldiers took to Mithraism, it had a wide distribution and influence throughout the empire until it was supplanted by Christianity.”
“Christmas is also relevant because December 25th was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that one of the key features of Mithraism was Sunday observance. The reason that this seems to be relevant is that the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to make a profession of Christ, was also the first Emperor to make Sunday laws–which he began to do on March 7, 321. Also, a few years later, the Council of Nicea that Constantine convened in 325 A.D. declared Sunday to be the “Christian day” of worship (for more information, please see the article Europa and the Book of Revelation).”
“According to the fourth century historian Epiphanius, some who observed Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, claimed that Emperor Constantine mandated a Sunday observance of it in the Council of Nicea in 325 in order to somehow honor his birthday,” -[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil]:
“You changed the Passover to Constantine’s birthday” -(Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verse 9,4. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, pp. 410-411).
The World Book Encyclopedia notes:
“Christmas…In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).
“Hence, it would seem to follow that since those who professed Christ as late as the third century did not celebrate birthdays, that it was not after a Roman Emperor implemented Sunday, that perhaps he and others were amenable to adopting other practices of Mithraism–one of which was birthday celebrations. This is apparently how birthdays became to be celebrated amongst those that professed Christianity. A celebration for the date of Jesus’ birth in Rome probably began near this time, but was mandated no later than 354 A.D.”
“Thus the “birthday of the sun” festivities were a major factor in the date chosen for followers of Greco-Roman Christianity to celebrate. And once those that professed Christ began to widely celebrate that “birthday”, other birthday celebrations became more common,” -[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil].
“Back in 1969 Anton Lavey wrote The Satanic Bible.
On page 96 on the 1976 version, it mentions birthdays: “THE highest of all holidays in the Satanic religion is the date of one’s own birth. This is in direct contradiction to the holy of holy days of other religions, which deify a particular god who has been created in an anthropomorphic form of their own image, thereby showing that the ego is not really buried.
The Satanist feels: “Why not really be honest and if you are going to create a god in your image, why not create that god as yourself.” Every man is a god if he chooses to recognize himself as one. So, the Satanist celebrates his own birthday as the most important holiday of the year. After all, aren’t you happier about the fact that you were born than you are about the birth of someone you have never even met? Or for that matter, aside from religious holidays, why pay higher tribute to the birthday of a president or to a date in history than we do to the day we were brought into this greatest of all worlds?
Despite the fact that some of us may not have been wanted, or at least were not particularly planned, we’re glad, even if no one else is, that we’re here! You should give yourself a pat on the back, buy yourself whatever you want, treat yourself like the king (or god) that you are, and generally celebrate your birthday with as much pomp and ceremony as possible””-[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil].
CONCLUSION: Celebrating “Birthdays” originated in magic and Pagan mythology. Besides the fact that we humans are spiritual beings having a human experience and not vice versa, and thus do not know the date of our actual birth, rather what we know is our “earth” day, “birthdays” were traditionally celebrated by followers of Mithra. After a sun-worshiping emperor(Constantine) made a profession of Christ and passed the first Sunday law, he did not consider that there were problems with celebratory aspects of Mithraism/Saturnalia as long as Christ and believers, and not Mithra, were the focus of the celebrations.
“But should we be following the example of the Romans who mixed practices of Mithraism into their religion or of those who first accepted Christ?, “-[Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?: Do Birthdays Have Pagan Origins?, Bob Theil]
“Whoever imitates a people is from them,” -[Sunan Abu Dawud].
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Praise be to Allah.
As we have seen in the previous article to this series, Islam is variously defined. I offered two theologically based definitions, one based on brief linguistic and etymological definitions as well as another theological definition rooted in ‘aqeeda. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of peace, when on takes into account the linguistic meaning of Islam as Submission and couples it with etymological considerations lost in translation that suggest that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam(submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace).
Islam also is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed, and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention is empty in Islam. Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner. Islam is all these things. The main theme of this piece will be to extend the discussion by introducing the theme that approaches to studying Islam, although coming to the study with operating assumptions of its own about how Islam is defined and should be defined, the approaches themselves also drive the definitions. In other words, approaches yield definitions.
Approaches Yield Definitions
I have divided the approaches I am most concerned with into four broad categories, for ease of discussion: Populist, Academic, Independent, and Insider/Believer approaches. Each of these main categories has many sub categories, and, as with any categorization that tries to avoid essentialism as much as possible, there is considerable overlap of categories. For example, an Insider/Believer approach, although seeking to affirm religious beliefs rather than critique them, can be academic; just as an Academic approach can be Independent, not affiliated with any official academic institution. An approach that seeks to affirm Populist notions of Islam by utilizing an academic veneer, can still be scholarly, even if faulty, and so on and so forth. An Academic approach can consist of many academic disciplines either utilized independently or through a multi-disciplinary approach. Increasingly, however, any approach that is academic has to have a multi-disciplinary approach to be effective. The main Academic approaches I will be focusing on are the previously mentioned Theological, Typological, Historical, Philological, Literary Criticism, Cultural, Sociological, Marxist, Psychological, Philosophical, Phenomenological, Feminist, Modernist(not to be confused with the Muslim Modernist Movement), Post modernist, and Anthropological academic approaches. Each of these subjects deserve their own treatment so future article will deal with them topically.
The main focus of this article is to briefly introduce how approaches to studying Islam often yield definitions of their own. I briefly introduce this topic by way of an introduction to the Populist approach to Islam. This category of approach will have its own article so this will not be as comprehensive a discussion on the Populist approach to Islam as found there. The reason the Populist approach interests me the most is this approach to Islam has yielded the most negative images of Islam, and is the main driving force behind Islamophobia as a Social Phenomenon. Its definitions have also found their way into the Mainstream Academic discourse, so it is most important, in my view, to deconstruct this approach, and analyze how the themes of the earliest form of Islamophobia were adopted in the Medieval Period, leaving a legacy to Orientalism, Historicism, Islamicism, Scholasticism, Culturalisim, and contemporary Neo-Colonialism and neo-Orientalism; all major disseminators of Islamophobic ideas.
The Populist Approach
The Populist approach includes the Historicist/Islamicist, Orientalist/neo-Orientalist, Scholasticism, and Culturalist/Civilizational approaches. It should not be difficult to see how all of these approaches inform an overall populist approach. The populist approach differs from the academic approach in that it utilizes the non-nuanced, often pseudoscholarly, simplified, media-driven and media-reflected popular discourses surrounding Islam. The experience of the masses with Muslims determines their understanding of Islam and Muslims. It is Islamicist when it concerns itself primarily with differences of religion. Islamicism is also a specialty, thought of as preceeding official Orientalism, that dealt with all things Islam in a scholarly way, or what passed for scholarly in that time. It is a discipline regarded as the precursor to Orientalism proper, primarily because the latter utilized many of the themes of the former. However, I use it in a different sense here. I use the term here, primarily, in the sense of extracting certain themes related to Islam, gained by a study of Islam that is concerned with differences between Islam and other religions, but differs from the work of Missionaries in that it does not seek to promote the truth- value of a particular religion vis a vis Islam.
It is Historicist when it analyzes Islam primarily from a historical perspective centered on relations with the West. It is Orientalist when it concerns itself primarily with Islamic culture, and neo-Orientalist when it combines secular Orientalist criticism, with religious missionary and Islamicist criticism. It is scholastic when it adheres closely to dogma and/or traditional methods of a particular school of thought or is pedantic in this adherence, and Culturalist/Civilizational when it postulates an inferior Islamic culture with respect to Western culture and an inevitable clash of civilization between these cultures.
I spend quite a bit of time discussing definitions of Islam and approaches to studying Islam because I would like readers to get a sense of how definitions and approaches not only yield definitions of their own, but how they drive the discourse on Islam. It should not escape the readers’ attention that Islamophobia flourishes and survives, albeit not completely in the mainstream yet, simply because Muslim definitions and approaches are rejected out of hand; usually with the the concommitant excuse that Islamic definitions and approaches are inherently biased.
It cannot be escaped that Islam is Din and Iman. Islam is both a faith and a religion(yes it is a religion). In this regard Islam is ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed, and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention(niyyah) is empty in Islam. Islam is also Sunni and Salafi(not to be confused with the various neo-Salafiyya movements), so Islamic traditionism cannot be ignored and replaced with Islamic neo-conservatism, liberalism, modernism, revisionism, progressivism or any other -ism such as Sufi-ism that seeks to obscure the Muslim mainstream in order to proffer an Islam more palatable to the West, or an Islam that exists only as a reactionary counterweight to the West.
Islam is moderation, by definition, so the term “Moderate Muslim” is a divisive redundancy; and therefore useless. The linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace” does not exist, unlike in in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). Therefore it is hard for some to understand that Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah and it is this submission/voluntary acceptance that brings one into a state of peace. It must also be understood that Islam is an ideology, a discursive tradition, and a complete way of life where the lines of sacred and profane are blurred. And finally it must be understood that Islam is not that inherently evil, ultimate “Other” , menacing the West in secret and/or out in the open. This is the beginning of the genuine dialogue.
In anthropology of Islam, Islam is mainly studied by observing and recording practice, placing these observations in a theoretical framework for analysis. This should, but does not always, involve ethnographic fieldwork. I critique this approach of focusing on practices rather than texts and beliefs. However, one major positive development to this approach to the study of Islam and religion in general is that the adherents of a faith, its believers, are given a voice that would otherwise be ignored in a supposedly dispassionate academic study of Islam. How Islam is defined by those who would control the discourse on Islam and postulate the myth of the “Muslim Problem” is the key to understanding Islamophobia as Social Phenomenon, and combating it. Muslims must take some measure of control of the debate and counter the mythologization of Islam as the ultimate enemy to Western civilization, until such a time as Islam’s detractors are willing to meet Muslims on a level playing field and become part of a dialogue between Islam and the West. We are being spoken to and told what our faith is, not spoken with. In order to counteract the echo chamber monologue-type discourse that is increasingly becoming mainstreamed, Muslims must not be afraid to call Islamophobia what is is: an intellectual cop out and a massive case of projectionism. We must educate non-Muslims until they internalize the difference between “threat” and “challenge”.
Anthropology of Islam:
Issues of Authority in Islamic History
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Praise be to Allah.
The earliest period in the history of the Islamic Fact, that is the period of Prophet Muhammad’s(saws) call, and the immediate period after his death saw the first serious issues of authority arise. The question of who is to rule the Islamic or Muslim community, the Ummah, is not a question that seems to have been answered adequately in Islam’s earliest periods nor can it be easily resolved today. Looking at three distinct periods in Muslim history one can analyze why issues of authority have immediately arisen amongst the Ummah, what the basis of that controversy is, why these issues of authority continue to hold significance in the modern, contemporary Muslim world and world at-large, and what the outcomes and influences of these controversies are and how they continue to affect the Ummah.
The early period after the death of the Prophet(as), with the election of one his closest companions, Abu Bakr(ra), is the first period that will be evaluated. The Umayyad period, considered to be the first Muslim empire, and the Contemporary period will next be compared and contrasted in an attempt to connect the effect of these issues of authority and how they were resolved in the Umayyad period and how they continue to affect Muslims and the idea of reformulating Islamic ideas with respect to the question of authority. In a future article issues of authority will be analyzed vis a vis the Early Period, the Classical Period, the Mongol Invasions, the dissolution of the Caliphate, and Colonialism and Neo-colonialism and how events in these periods directly contributed to the crisis of authority currently being experience by the Muslim world.
From the beginning Islam was seen both as a spiritual force and a political force with its leader, Prophet Muhammad(saws), serving as the leader of a religious community and as the head of state, if one will, of a political entity. According to Mohammed Arkoun in “Rethinking Islam: Common Questions and Uncommon Answers”, the ultimate issues at stake in Islam are “the distinction between power and authority”. He defines authority as the ability to persuade…” from the conversion of the consciousness to that which gives meaning to the existence of the person(Arkoun 18). One can add to this idea that not only must a leader provide meaning for his converts/followers, but his assumption of authority leads to the acceptance of the leader’s authority as well as the ability of the leader to exercise said authority. According to Esposito in “Islam: the Straight Path”, “Given Muhammad’s formative and pivotal role, his death(in 632) threatened to radically destabilize the community. Who was to lead?(Esposito 35). This is when the issue of authority became initially crucial.
The death of the charismatic leader left not only a power vacuum, but a competition for authority over the surviving Ummah. With the selection/election of Abu Bakr(ra), a precedent, it is believed, was set as to how to elect a Khalifah(successor); a precedent that present-day Sunnis mythologize and glorify as the proper way for a Muslim to assume authority. Coupled with Quranic ideas about consultation(shura), we see Islam laying down broad democratic principles of government. Of course this authority was understood as representative authority, as Allah, the Qur’an and finally the Sunnah are the true sources of authority for those who would later call themselves Ahl al Sunna wal Jammah(Sunni for short). Mankind is regarded as the vice-regent of Allah and the khalifah stands in place of the Prophet(as) in terms of temporal authority, but not spiritual authority. The period of Abu Bakr’s reign is of course known as the beginning of the “ rightly guided caliphs”, the Rashidun Era. These caliphs, along with the accomplishments of Muhammad’s(saws) lifetime and the period in which they lived, have been mythologized into a utopian, normative period. Sunnis believe, in stark contrast to Shi’a doctrine, that Muhammad (saws) never designated a successor (Esposito 36).
The Rashidun Era, although regarded as part of the mythical, normative period was not without its conflicts, especially over issues of authority. These conflicts boiled over until it culminated in the first Sunni/Shi’a Split. The fourth Caliph, Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet(as) was regarded by his supporters as the legitimate successor to Muhammad (saws). According to these Shi’a Ali(partisans of Ali), the leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet’s(as) family. This doctrine was further elaborated in the many different forms of Shi’i religion. Further, Ali’s(ra) later supporters claimed evidence for their doctrine existed in the Qur’an itself.
Now we come to the period where the collection and elaboration of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad(saws), his sunnah, became crucial not only for establishing Islamic law(Shari’ah and Fiqh), but to where these traditions were being used to legitimize political positions. This in turn sparked the beginning of Hadith criticism and the Islamic sciences derived from this endeavor. The emergence of the Umayyad Empire, considered the first “real Muslim world empire”, literally exacerbated the controversy over who should rule the ummah, and how this community should be ruled. The advent of this empire saw the emergence of imperialism, dynasticism, bureaucracy, and military aristocracy in the Muslim community. These phenomena elicited minor to severe protest from such groups as the emerging religious elite, the ‘ulama, the so-called mystics, the Sufis, and the violent opposition groups like the Kharijites. These groups could all agree that many Umayyad practices were considered to be “unIslamic”. Among these were the institution of the monarchy itself, the innovations brought about by co-opting the cultural, administrative, and military practices of the conquered, as well as the decadence and intrigue of imperial court life and the Arab nepotism and nationalism that was in direct contradistinction to Islamic ideas of egalitarianism.
In short, Umayyad rule was increasingly seen as illegitimate and lacking any real authority over the Muslim community. The ‘ulama began to take a more prominent role in formulating a body of law called Shari’ah, but properly understood as fiqh. The creation of a comprehensive law, covering all aspects of human existence and our duties to Allah was seen as a necessity in the face of Umayyad erosion of Islamic values. According to Esposito, “ dissatisfaction with Umayyad rule also resulted in the development of nonrevolutionary reform movements(Esposito 48). Indeed it may be said the greatest contribution of this period is the rapid development of the Islamic sciences, religious and secular(the distinction is however, often blurred in Islam), and the creation and elaboration of Islamic law as well as other Islamic literature; in this period we see the foundations for the myth of the “closing of the gates of ijtihad”. Muslim scholars wanted to solidify usul al-fiqh to protect against the threat to the authority of the ‘ulama. According to Arkoun, Islam had become “institutionalized as a state to provide centralization and administration of a vast empire”(Arkoun 21). Protests to this resulted in the creation of an “official, orthodox Islam”; indeed orthodoxy is best understood more as a relationship of power, even if that “orthodoxy” is in fact “correct belief”.
In the contemporary period, we see the results of these controversies. Of course I have skipped over major developments and periods contributing to the conflicts in the Muslim community in this introduction; conflicts surrounding issues of authority that include the events surrounding the Abbasid revolution and period, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, The Mongol invasions and conversions, colonialism, modernity and globalization. I will attempt to comprehensively, but not exhaustively, cover these throughout the course of the series. These issues notwithstanding, it is possible to introduce the subject of how issues of authority in the Islamic community during Islam’s earliest, formative period and the formation of a corpus of law that was paradoxically not a fixed, codified body of written laws and that helped formulate and shape an official orthodox Islam, eventually lead to the foundations for a crisis of authority in the Muslim community. This crisis of authority is the aftermath of a colonialism that sought to circumvent, subvert, and marginalize traditional Islamic authority, vested in the ‘ulama.
It is also the aftermath of modernism and modernization as well as globalization. This crisis was precipitated by the vacuum in authority that is the by-product of Muslims losing political authority in our own lands, caused partially by the aforementioned phenomenon. When the ‘ulama gained maxim prestige and authority as a form of parallel power, in response to what were seen as corrupt state leaders, all that remained to be accomplished by imperialists was destroying this bastion of authority, as the corrupt Muslim leaders became elites aligned with the colonialist power structure. This was the danger of vesting all real authority if not political power with the ‘ulama that I alluded to with the statement:
issues of authority in the Islamic community during Islam’s earliest, formative period and the formation of a corpus of law that was paradoxically not a fixed, codified body of written laws and that helped formulate and shape an official orthodox Islam, eventually lead to the foundations for a crisis of authority in the Muslim community. This crisis of authority is the aftermath of a colonialism that sought to circumvent, subvert, and marginalize traditional Islamic authority, vested in the ‘ulama.
The power of the ‘ulama, which saw its maximal realization in the Shi’a state of Iran, is being challenged everyday by educated and uneducated lay Muslims alike, if we take the large body of intellectual literature and current events seriously. Many of these leaders have reacted violently to the “power and authority vacuum” resulting from previous Islamic history in an effort to restore an idealized “Muslim glory”.
Traditionally, and in today’s Muslim regimes as well, many ‘ulama have been co-opted or have voluntarily allied themselves with state authorities, usually authoritarian regimes, in order to legitimate their own own authority, creating the “scholars for dollars” phenomenon that eventuated in the modern distrust of religious authorities. Because Islam displays “a rich, at times, bewildering array of interpretations”,(Esposito 223), it is now becoming increasingly relevant for contemporary Muslim societies to resolve issues of authority. In fact, who has the authority to decide who will have the authority is itself an issue(!) The rise of self-proclaimed Muslim leaders, the majority of whom have no traditional Islamic education is rampant and does not seem to be at an end. Osama bin Laden’s death will give rise to another Muslim ideologue with not “‘ulama credentials” or very little Islamic education beyond the basic. These issues are crucial to Muslim realization of self-determination, to avoid irresolvable fractioning of the ummah, and to avoid Islam being “reformed” into the irrelevance reminiscent of a secular West that hypocritically invokes its Christian past when it is convenient or feels threatened.
Islam and the Idea Mystical:
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Praise be to Allah.
The distinction made between scared/holy and mundane/profane does not apply neatly to every religious tradition. Although many religions, through the mode of theology, belief, and ritual practice, and many scholars make this distinction, it will be argued here that in Islam, especially its “mystical” aspect and other aspects found in the mysticism of other religious traditions, this distinction is not to be found. This view is often the result of anthropological and sociological typologies and studies of religion that attempt to make universal claims about religion by focusing primarily on the Western, often secular, view of religions found in academia. Islam is usually erroneously lumped together, eucemenically, with the Westernized, biblical religious traditions, often because it is considered an Abrahamic faith, rather than how Muslims see it, as the Abrahamic faith. We must remember here that both Christianity and Judaism are Middle Eastern faiths, so we wonder with those of knowledge how these religions are considered Western religions(?)
I will briefly survey this topic by first approaching it through the concept of the dimensions of religion. Then I will narrow the argument by discussing specific aspects of the Muslim tradition and its specific religious dimensions, namely prayer, Muslim architecture and the idea of sacred space. Then I will relate this to “mysticism” and the concept of an obliteration of the line between sacred and profane by looking at the mystical strains in other religious traditions to show how they also do not make a clear distinction between sacred and profane.
Language usage in the study of Islam in most likely the primary factor in perpetuating what Islam is and what Muslims actually believe and practice. The same holds true for other religious traditions. This becomes even more relevant when we talk about a religious anthropology, an attempt to study religions academically and objectively. There are many ways of defining religion; most of them leave one more confused than enlightened. Defining religion anthropologically, for the purposes of this essay, generally it can be said that religion is a complete way of life and as George Bernard Shaw once remarked “ there is only one religion, though there are hundreds of versions of it”( Anatomy of the Scared, 4). This line annihilates the concept of a distinction between sacred and profane and shows that all ways of human life are variation on one type; concern with the numinous. This is properly called the religious experience. This is also similar to the Islamic perspective. From there it can be narrowed down to a more specific definition. However, because the modern attempt to define religion has its roots in the western (secular) and Christian worldview the difficulties become compounded.
Dimensions of Religion
The Western view of religion sees three basic characteristics constituting a religion: the existence of sacred scriptures, mutually exclusive beliefs and practices associated with the religion, and finally religion is seen as a separate sphere of life. This forms the framework for discussing the dimensions of religion. We will relate this typology to Islam. However as a word of caution, we should remember the flaw in Western academic studies of religion in general and Islam particular: the result of focusing primarily on studying religion through practices leaves open four fallacies: the idea that all religions are primarily focused on beliefs, that religious beliefs fully explain cultural practices, that belief is equivalent to total identity, and that determination of belief is more important than the determination of the object(s) of belief.
According to Ninian Smart, the author of “The Religious Experience” there are several dimensions of religion. These include the ritual, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, and experiential dimensions. I will utilize discussion of these dimensions in order to argue that the distinction made between holy and profane made by many scholars cannot be found in many religious traditions, and a universalized study of a religion has to avoid making these kinds of bold, generalized claims about religion. Anthropology has been struggling with trying to avoid essentialization, yet it is still prevalent in the study of religion.
Many scholars have already argued that ritual or the ritual dimension of religion is the key aspect, along with myth, to understanding religion. Beginning with scholars such as Nathan Soderblom to Rudolf Otto, Emile Durkheim, all the way to Mircae Eliade, this idea, along with the distinction we are discussing, has become pervasive in academic studies of religion. Émile Durkheim considered the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane to be the central characteristic of religion: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.”( Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 47). In Durkheim’s theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil. The sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well( Pals, Daniel (1996) Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. US ISBN 0-19-508725-9). Durkheim’s claim of the universality of this dichotomy for all religions/cults has been criticized by scholars like British anthropologist Jack Goody. (“The sacred-profane distinction is not universal”. Retrieved on 2007-07-10. quote: “neither do the Lo Dagaa [group in Gonja, editor note] appear to have any concepts at all equivalent to the vaguer and not unrelated dichotomy between the sacred and the profane” ).Goody also noted that “many societies have no words that translate as sacred or profane and that ultimately, just like the distinction between natural and supernatural, it was very much a product of European religious thought rather than a universally applicable criterion.”
This external manifestation (ritual) is a mirror of an internal intention and motivation though (The Religious Experience 3). Ritual refers to worship(‘ibadah) and other ritual acts. It can then be argued that if the internal, the invisible world, causes human beings to act religiously, to express themselves through rituals, then these acts themselves are to be considered sacred. In theory, the very performance of a ritual is designed to obliterate the illusion of the separateness of the holy and profane, even if temporarily. In Islam, constant remembrance of Allah(dhikr) is considered a virtuous act of paramount significance. Bearing this in mind we should seek to understand that maintaining the separation between Allah and His creation does not make a separation of sacred and profane clear by default. Yes Allah ‘azza wa jal is the Most Holy, yet the pervasiveness of such Islamic ideas as the sacredness of all life and the virtue of sacralizing all actions makes it also clear that the terms “holy” and “sacred” are being conflated.
Indeed, in every mystical tradition that I will mention, the goal of the religious life is the realization, by various means, of the unity of all Being. Taking this further, in orthodox normative Islam, religion is seen as a comprehensive system covering all aspects of life and thought; everything is considered sacred in theory. So even with Mainstream Islam’s rejection of the seemingly pantheistic idea of Unity of Being (wahadat al wujud), there is a tendency to obliterate the line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane. However in order that we avoid neat, universal claims ourselves it must be said that Allah (the God) is seen as the most Holy One, totally distinct from creation in a somewhat mysterious way as the Uncreated Creator.
Muslim tradition and its Specific Religious Dimensions
The mythological aspect in Islam is primarily associated with stories about Allah, usually found in texts considered “sacred”, in the sense of special and set apart, yet still definitely applicable to “profane life”. It also deals with stories about founders, prophets, holy, men, saints, spirits, demons, etc. Many Muslims are loathe to use the word myth for any Islamic stories because of the modern associations of myth with falsehood. However in an academic study of religion that word has a more neutral connotation. I will use it in that sense to state that Islamic stories and texts, including those found in the Qur’an seek to obliterate any concept of a neat separation of sacred and profane. Mythology in this sense does not mean falsehood then, but a system that explains inimical, spiritual truths through the universal power of symbolism and metaphors.
In the closely related doctrinal dimension of religion, we can see how a theology “develops” from mythology ripe for this kind of theological and doctrinal development. The symbols and mythology of Islam are systematized into a doctrinal framework, so it is generally difficult to neatly differentiate between mythology and theology. It is in this dimension where the distinction between sacred and profane is blurred. Islam is no different, the maxim found in the Qur’an to “enjoin the good, and forbid the evil” an admonition and command for each individual Muslim to live a holy life.
In the ethical dimension the ritual, mythological, and doctrinal dimensions of religion are brought together in a code of behavior. All of these acts culminate in the social and experiential dimensions. Although many erroneously believe that Islam is a religion of Law, ie a legalistic, ritualized faith, there is a strong personal aspect to Islam, especially found among the Sufis. In fact, the inherent communalism found in Islam and many religious traditions that have not alienated themselves from their mystical strains creates a social atmosphere of solidarity founded on a commonality of personal experience of God and religion,. This is the experiential dimension of religion.
Muslim Prayer and the Sacred and Profane
As stated before , for the Muslim, Islam is a complete way of life. The Muslim prayers, called salat are a way of making “contact” with the Divine. In fact the word salat does not neatly translate as prayer but as “making contact”, among other definitions, including what non-Muslims understand as “worship”. In many Western religious circles prayer is seen primarily as propitiation and supplication, so salah is more appropriately understood as worship(‘ibadah) rather than prayer in the Western sense. This where the distinction between sacred and holy and profane and mundane is ritually obliterated five times a day. Many Muslims pray additional prayers, called sunnah and nawafil, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad(saws) and his Sunnah, or way, as expounded in extra Quranic, yet canonical, books called Hadith. All of the ritual practices and duties that make one a Muslim, including salat and alms-giving(zakat), and fasting(sawm), and pilgrimage(hajj) and even jihad are considered to be necessary, integral aspects of the Muslim life. And many Sufis, those following a mystical tradition within Islam, not the innumerable Sufic groups, take these ritual obligations even further.
Prayer has many different aspects in Islam. As mentioned above the concept of prayer, has multiple meanings for Muslims. It is not primarily supplication and propitiation, but worship and many other religious activities. The word prayer actually denotes and encompasses many activities to a Muslim. These include salat( contact with the Divine), du’a( supplication), dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and Quranic recitation both aloud and internally; and primarily for the Sufi, munajjat (devotional conversation) and fikr or muraqaba( meditation) , These practices guide and motivate a Muslim to lead a holy life internally through their thoughts and externally through every action. During Ramadan, the “holiest month” of fasting, the Muslim life become intensified and one can observe the ordinary Muslim becoming like a Sufi in some sense, but more accurately as a true, devout Muslim. A Muslim lives “in the name of Allah”, and dies “for the sake of Allah” and strives to approach Allah .
Note: I make a distinction between tassawuf and tazkiyya on one side and the various Sufic groups that comprise Sufism; one is legitimately a mode of religiosity and in a sense a school of thought in Islam. The other is clear deviation from the Path.
We extend this extended discussion of the ritual dimension to an additional discussion of the ethical dimension. This dimension is where we also see a blurring of the distinction of the sacred and the profane. Virtues like honesty and enjoining the good and forbidding the evil are examples. How Muslims are to interact with each other in the social dimension and with other Muslims also is an example of turning every action into something sacred. Islam teaches that intentions are central to all actions. Extending from this is the idea that if the intention behind mundane, permissible actions is seeking the pleasure of Allah, then this act becomes transformed into an act of worship.
The Prophet (r) stated the following: “Anything you spend seeking Allaah’s Countenance will be rewarded, even for [the bit of food] that you put in your wife’s mouth.”
Ibn al-Qayyim wrote in his classic, Madaarij as-Saalikeen, “The most exclusive [group of] people who become close to Allaah are those who change the nature of their permissible acts into deeds of obedience to Allaah.” He also wrote “The customary deeds of those people who truly know Allaah are acts of worship [for them] while the ritual acts of worship are customary deeds for the masses.”
Muslim Architecture and The Idea of Sacred Space
In the book “Making Muslim Space” the idea of a “sacred space” as specifically applied to a place of prayer such as a mosque(masjid) is denied. Nothing about a building by itself makes it more particularly “Islamic” as many different styles can and have been incorporated in Islamic architecture. And the line between sacred and holy and profane is obliterated when we read about Muslims who state that the mosque is neither especially holy nor profane, and a Muslim can pray anywhere on Earth she/he so chooses. Indeed Prophet Muhammad(saws) said in an authentic narration that the whole world is a masjid except the toilets and the graveyards. In short everything a Muslim does is towards the realization that there is no permanent, real distinction between sacred and profane’ as the Sufi goal in to unite with Allah, to return to Allah in this life and as the ordinary Muslim has as his goal a holy life that makes everything sacred and hopes for the inevitable return to Allah in the Hereafter.
Mystical Strains in Other Religious Traditions
We turn now to a brief discussion of mysticism in other religious traditions to show how they are similar to Islam’s ideas about the Sacred. This is not to say that Islam’s view is validated by this similarity with other religious traditions, or that this similarity is a one to one correlation. This is merely a brief comparative exposition to show that a universalized typology that claims that all religions have a central idea of separation of the sacred and profane is unrealistic, to put it mildly. In an effort to academically avoid making judgments about the truth claims of the various religions, many social scientists have missed the mark with this type of idea that has a heavy reliance on the thought of Western anthropological scholars such as Emile Durkheim and Mircae Eliade.
The reality of God is taken for granted. I am not just thinking of the images of divine beings that are omnipresent, but the philosophic acceptance of spiritual knowledge. Horst Georg Pöhlmann, writing of his first visit to India in 1989, says:
“Religion is practiced as a matter of course; people pay brief visits to the temple between their shopping. . . Everyone in the street can see through the open temple door the sacred fire which burns in the dark sanctuary of the temple before the image of God. . . There is no distinction between the sacred and the profane, between religion and every day, as with us. Here God really is a God of the everyday. Religion is something natural. . . It is an innermost need. . . There is no secularization. Everyone is religious. Among the Hindus every house, every shop, every rickshaw has the picture of a deity.” Suddenly to be immersed in Indian religious thinking, which assumes the existence of a Divine Reality and that union with the Divine (moksa) is the goal of the spiritual quest, was liberating and refreshing. There are in classical Hinduism three recognized paths (sadhanas) to God: the way of disinterested service of others, the way of devotion and the way of knowledge (karma-yoga, bhakti-yoga and juana-yoga). The word yoga, which is cognate with the English word ‘yoke’, means union with God and the way to that union. The third path, jnana, means spiritual insight rather than intellectual knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge: one is the result of the study of the scriptures, but the other is realization or experience of union with the Divine. Intellectual knowledge is not enough. In the Chandogya Upanishad, the student Narada complains, ‘I have studied all the Vedas, grammar, the sciences and the fine arts, but I have not known the self and so I am in sorrow.’ Another conceited young student, Svetaketu, is asked by his father, ‘As you consider yourself so well-read . . . have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?’
Spiritual intuition — the experience of the Divine — is accepted in Hindu philosophy as a valid source of knowledge. This confirmed my feelings that the presuppositions of linguistic philosophy were too limited. Indeed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who exposed the limitations of our use of language, himself said, that there was a mystery beyond language. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent.’”
For me this Hindu emphasis on experience of the Divine reinforced my own basic conviction. If I tried to summarize my deepest spiritual aspiration, I would use the words of St Paul, ‘It is no longer I that live, but Christ Jesus lives in me’ (Galatians 2, 20), or I would echo the yearning from the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer that ‘I might evermore dwell in Christ and he in me’. My faith was rooted in spiritual or mystical experience. Learning about Hindu philosophy and Western Idealist philosophers, such as Royce and Bosanquet, to whom my Indian Professor Dr. C. T. K. Chari introduced me, gave me an intellectual basis for a theology rooted in religious experience.
Let me clarify what I mean by religious experience by quoting from William James’ land-mark book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, which was first published in 1902. He puts clearly what I had myself sensed and for which I was discovering an intellectual basis in those first months of being immersed in Hindu philosophy.
‘The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime and creed. In Hinduism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, . . . we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates language, and they do not grow old.’
The mystic experience is a sense of oneness with All Being –whether that is described as God, or the Real. The experience cannot be adequately expressed in words. Although in Hinduism, many facets of the One Divine Being are pictured as gods, Hindu teachers have always made clear that there is only one Spiritual Reality. Brahman is the One Reality which is the Ground and Principle of all beings. Brahman is described as Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat., Cit. Ananda). Brahman cannot be described. ‘Neti, Neti, Not this, not that’. Hinduism can remind us of the holiness and wonder of a God who is beyond our imagining. It recalls the so-called ‘apophatic’ tradition in Christian thinking that God, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, is greater than any picture we have of the Divine. God is best spoken of in negative terms, as in the hymn ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.’
Furthermore by looking at more information on Hinduism, specifically Vedanta, from a website adisahkti.org we see a quote from Brian Hodgkinson relating the mystical strands in these religions with Islam and Christianity:
This Self is nearer than all else, dearer than son, dearer thanWealth, dearer than anything. If a man call anything dearer than
Self, say that he will lose what is dear, of certainty he will lose
it; for Self is God. Therefore one should worship Self as Love. Who
worships Self his love shall never perish … This Self is the Lord of
all beings; as spokes are knit together in the hub, all things, all
gods, all men, all lives, are bodies, are knit together in that
Self.” (pp. 121, 135 Brian Hodgkinson, “The Essence of Vedanta”)
All the Holy Scriptures – Torah, Bible, Qur’an, Upanishads, Vedas,
Puranas, Granth Sahib – uphold the Self as Spirit, the essence and
presence of the Divine in humans. That is why Jesus answered them
in the temple, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?”.
Self-realization is a slow process of confirming the same divinity
i.e., realizing the Divine within humans. No external images,
rituals or human contacts whatsoever are needed for this inner
journey to realize and meditate in the Kingdom of God within.
Note: Although Islam does in fact affirm that the “self” is spirit or ruh, as per the Qur’an, it is not Orthodox Islamic belief that Allah, used synonymously here with the term the Divine, is present in His creation, as the above quote suggests. The spirit is a creation and not the Uncreated which Allah is. In some Sufic circles as well as in other non-Sufi circles it very popular to think of Allah in this way, however the Qur’an and Sunnah do not support this theological view, which is essentially pantheistic. The quote was utilized by way of illustration. Even without this heretical idea about Allah, it still can be understood that the Divinely mandated/revealed ideal lifestyle of the Muslim, in the Muslim view, his Deen, obliterates the distinction between the sacred and profane without having to speciously claim that Allah and His creation are mystically One, or that Allah dwells in the human being therefore blurring the distinction between the Creator and creation.
Teachers disapprove of cultivating dualism, even between the sacred and the profane. A disciple is first asked to cultivate “a good mind”. In the intermediate stage, the disciple is asked to “break through the good mind” (i.e., stop distinguishing between the. sacred and the profane). In the final stage of learning, the monk lets go of all conceptualizations of good and bad or sacred and profane. This is called the final good.
Galatians, from the New Testament of the Bible sums it up neatly in this way:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
With “Christ” being understood to stand for the Divine, God, the Sacred and the Holy.
In short we see the distinction made between sacred/holy and mundane/profane made by many anthropologists and other scholars does not apply neatly to every religious tradition. In Islam, especially its mystical aspect and other aspects found in the mysticism of other religious traditions, this distinction is not to be found. This is the result of anthropological and sociological typologies and studies of religion that attempt to make universal claims about religion by focusing primarily on the Western, often secular view of religions found in academia. Islam is usually lumped together with the Western, biblical religious traditions, often because it is considered an Abrahamic faith. However in order that we avoid neat, universal claims ourselves it must be said again that Allah (the God) is seen as the most Holy One, distinct from creation in a somewhat mysterious way as the Uncreated Creator.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity’s Mystical religious traditions as well as in Sufism, this distinction is also either obliterated or denied. In Orthodox Islam, which includes tassawuf, this distinction is obliterated without resorting to a claim that Allah as the Deity is identical to His creation in a mystical way. Everything is sacred or holy because everything is created by or is emanated from the sacred. Therefore one must live their lives as such.The same can be said about ideas of the distinction between the sacred and holy in other religious traditions. In many ways this idea really reflects the secular humanist idea of a separation of sacred and holy, church and state, that is then superimposed onto religions. This is not the only time or way that secular ideas about religion have been reflected in academic study of religion.
To Allah we belong and to Him is our return [Qur’an 2:156]
Towards a Definition of Islam
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Islam has been variously translated by both Muslims and non Muslims alike. Some detractors of Islam have gone so far as to suggest that Islam is not a religion at all, but a “political ideology masquerading as a religion”. From the outset though, in terms of relevance, we need to understand that how Muslims themselves define Islam yields the most accurate meanings. With this in mind we can begin to discuss the various approaches to defining Islam, based in part on the varied approaches to define religion itself. In the academic arena, these approaches are:
15. Post modernist
We will discuss each of these approaches and their conclusions and efficacy in yielding a viable definition of Islam. To begin we will link a decidedly theological definition with its etymological and linguistic considerations.
First and foremost, theologically, Islam is Din and Iman. Din is best understood in relation to its antinomian, dunya, as anthropologist Gabriele Marranci contends. Dunya is usually translated as “world”, but it also connotes “profane” or “mundane”, therefore, “secular”. So Din carries the meaning “spirituality” or “spiritual experience”, rendering Islam primarily an experiential religion by definition, even though belief and doctrine are eminently important. What many Westerners regard as “religion”, can properly be understood really as ibadat and aqeeda in Islam. Ibadat refers to acts of worship, which includes, but is not limited to, ritual. Aqeeda is a word that simultaneously means belief, creed, and theology. As a result of the compartmentalizing of religion into a separate, private sphere of life in secular Western societies it has became difficult for many, Islamophobe or not, to understand just exactly how Islam can be regarded as a religion. This is not just a matter of a culturalist ethnocentrism resulting from Western views on separation of church and state. It also translates into a disdain for a religion that deals with every aspect of human life. Indeed Muslims declare that Islam is a “total way of life”, while Western detractors call it “totalitarian”. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
As anthropologist Daniel MartinVarisco contends, haters of everything Islam disparage Islam or lack the ability to understand Islam quite simply because of a possible hubris, since Muslims are seen as not “enlightened” enough to relegate their religion into irrelevance through secular reform in the same way the West has. So quite simply when asked what is Islam, one can reply Islam is three things at once, even if the answer does not encompass all that is Islam. Islam is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat, aqeeda, and tazkiya (spirituality). Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner.
The Language of Islam
Another way to understand the meaning of Islam is to approach it from a somewhat (crude) linguistic analysis. The role of language, translations, and definitions is one of the major factors in shaping Western public perception and discourse on Islam. Quite often what occurs when words are translated from one language to another that doesn’t contain the same precise concepts is distortion. Many are opposed to the Muslim idea that it is necessary to read and understand the Qur’an in Arabic to fully understand it. Yet just from an analysis of the word Islam, we can see how meaning can be altered. Advocating learning Islam from Muslims is what we are doing here.
Many translate the word islam as either peace or submission, depending on their ideological loyalties. But does either definition convey the true meaning of the word as embodied in the Qur’an through the Arabic language? I would argue that something indeed is lost in translation. In English the word submission directly connotes a sense of coercion. In reality the Arabic word istislam means surrender or more properly submission, so why is Islam translated as such as well. Is it simply because they share the same root?
In order to be a Muslim, one must accept Islam free of force or coercion. This is where the relational aspect is lost in translation. The word submission in English implies coercion on the part of one human to another. But in Islam the same word used to denote submission, when translated into English, refers to submitting one’s will to Allah. In Islam, there is a rejection of submitting one’s will to another human being over submitting to Allah.There is no word conveying this concept in English, so the same word, “submission” is used to mean both submitting to God and submitting to man.
The main issue with translating the word islam centers on the fact that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike in in Arabic where islam and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). This is an etymological relationship that should never be lost in translation, yet it is, as commonly held notions of the meaning of islam attest. Islam means “to freely submit one’s will to God’s, in pursuit of divine peace,” according to Ahmed Rehab. A simpler version that carries the same meaning is, as Professor Tariq Ramadan proposes, “to enter into God’s peace”. We can then propose a modified definition of Islam, along linguistic and etymological considerations. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of Peace. In this way the ideas of islam meaning Submission and islam meaning Peace are reconciled. So now we have two different but complementary definitions of Islam, based on theological understandings.
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Many critics of Islam claim that Islam is not pluralistic. But what exactly does that word mean? Here is an example of non-Muslims controlling and defining the “debate on Islam”, as well as defining the terms of reference that I think applies also to the case of “pluralism in Islam”. In the anti-Islamic climate we find ourselves in today, you will find many Muslims clamoring to convince non-Muslims that they are moderates.
In the post 9/11 climate we also find many Muslims feeling compelled to choose between seemingly irreconcilable identities. Muslims feel compelled to choose between affirming a Western and Islamic identity or a “moderate Muslim” over a “radical Muslim” identity. But what exactly is a “Moderate Muslim”? For a Westerner, many times a moderate Muslim is defined by the degree to which Muslims reject the parts of Islam that they (the non Muslims) may find unpalatable or unacceptable. This, I am sure we can see, has nothing to do with actual moderation.
A non-Muslim may ask you “do you reject jihad and Shari’ah?, and use your response to determine whether you are a “moderate Muslim”. Likewise, in the same vein of non-Muslims defining the terms of debate with reference to Islam, it is often stated that Islam is a very intolerant faith, the opposite of pluralistic. Islam is seen as inherently intolerant, religiously, socially, culturally, and politically . And it is claimed that we will see this intrinsic intolerance manifest itself wherever we find Muslim societies, especially in Muslim-majority nations.
What I have tried to do is give an introduction to the subject of pluralism in Islam from an Islamic perspective. The three main issues I have identified and briefly explained are syncretism in religious practice, the ability of Islam to adapt to pre-existing cultures, and the treatment of non Muslim minorities in Islam and Muslim-majority polities.
Syncretism refers to adding religious practices into Islam from non-Muslims. Both practices seen as bid’ah and acts that are considered kufr fall into the category of syncretism. Some of these practices include saint worship, certain faith healing practices, sorcery and witchcraft, astrology, spirit possession, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), and honor killing. It can also include celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and birthdays. Muslims do not believe stoning to death as a punishment for adultery and death penalty for apostasy qualify, even though these practices are not found in the Qur’an.
I introduced the concept of “orthodox establishment” to show that the idea of syncretistic practice is rejected by Muslims. So in essence, theologically speaking, Islam is not pluralistic at all. But those belonging to other religions shouldn’t see this as a problem. All religions have tried to maintain a sort of integrity, an orthodoxy. So why is Islam singled out for being theologically “intolerant”? Something else is going on here.
Socially, ‘ulama as well as governments tolerate syncretistic, peripheral communities as long as they make an outward show of maintaining orthodox practices(orthopraxy). This is done to maintain a sort of political stability. As long as the government and the ‘ulama (religious scholars) who support them don’t interfere too much with the affairs of peripheral cultural groups their governance is tolerated, approved, or regarded indifferently. There is no incentive to rebellion. This does not deny that there have been numerous instances of abusive governmental regimes and authoritarianism.
Culturally, Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with. This has led many scholars to suggest that there are many types of Islam, religious expressions that are unique because of the way the existing sociocultural milieu shapes Islamic experience. El-Zein says that there are many Islams. However, Akbar Ahmed contends, and I agree, there is one Islam but many Muslim societies. Inclusive and pluralistic does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are legitimately Islamic.
The issue of religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies is the most important of the issues related to pluralism in Islam. The real question of concern is the idea of religious freedom for non-Muslims in an Islamic state. When looking at the state of Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority nations it is evident that they are treated poorly, regarded as second-class citizens, discriminated against, even persecuted in some cases. We see this happening to Christians and Jews in Iraq and Egypt and other countries of the Muslim world. It happens to Buddhists in Afghanistan, Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Baha’is in Iran, and Ahmadiyya and Hindus in Pakistan and Kashmir.
Many critics of Islam look at these realities on the ground and studies of history and conclude that Islam is inherently and uniquely intolerant of religious minorities. Opinions among Mainstream Muslims range from denunciation of this behavior as unIslamic to outright denial of these realities. I listed several quotes from the Qur’an that prove that Islam supports respect and fair treatment for religious minorities. Islam also rejects religious coercion and religious persecution, thus advocates religious liberty. This is more than just “tolerance” and exemplifies the Islamic concept of pluralism. However most Muslims do have the desire to see Islam as the dominant religion in the world, which is normal for any true believer of any religion.
As my conclusion I state:
“As we can see Muslims are supposed to not only protect themselves from religious persecution but also protect other religious communities from harm from those who would persecute them on account of religion. The phrase “and religion is only for Allah” means that no one is to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs and everyone is at liberty to hold whatever belief they wish.”
We can now conclude three things in light of this information: 1.syncretism in religious practice is condemned as bid’ah and kufr in Islam, 2. Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and 3. religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, though not realized in most Muslim-Majority countries, is guaranteed by Allah through the Qur’an. So Islam is theologically “intolerant”; socially,yet socially,culturally and religiously tolerant. The question I have deliberately avoided addressing is “Is Islam politically intolerant?” That deserves its own treatment, so I avoided giving it cursory attention here.
Anthropology of Islam: Pluralism in Islam
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
The idea of pluralism in Islam centers on three main issues: syncretism in religious practice, the intrinsic ability of Islam to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies. It also seems that marginalized Muslim groups in the so-called Islamic societies or nations are so marginalized and relegated to the periphery by the perceived “orthodox establishment” to maintain a sort of political stability. As long as the government and the ‘ulama(religious scholars) who support them don’t interfere too much with the religious affairs of these peripheral cultural groups their governance is tolerated or approved or regarded indifferently. There is no incentive to rebellion. And the Muslim governments are content to concentrate on administrative tasks as long as those on the periphery at least make an outward show of maintaining orthodox practices(orthopraxy). Yet and still there have been numerous instances of abusive governmental regimes and authoritarianism.
Socially, the idea of a pluralistic, inclusive Islam as found in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, or East Africa is a contentious issue. Syncretistic practices are usually roundly condemned by what I call the “orthodox establishment”. In nations that are secular, as in the majority of the Muslim world, this orthodox establishment consists of the ‘ulama. Usually in these governments, which are usual very repressive, totalitarian, or seen as proxies for Western governments, religion only becomes a concern when individuals, groups or movements threaten the governments political power. Egypt is a perfect example of this type. In theocratic or monarchial forms of government, the ‘ulama are either co-opted or allied with the State to form this “orthodox establishment”. Iran and Saudi Arabia represent this type.
Syncretism in religious practice refers to the inclusion of elements into the religion of Islam that are either borrowed from or influenced by non-Muslim society. It also includes situations where Islam is overlain pre-existing cultures. Usually this is referred to by the orthodox establishment as bid’ah, innovation in religious practice and kufr, deviation in correct religious belief,. These societies have existed among the Muslims since the time of the final Messenger of Islam, Muhammad(saws). Some of these practices include saint worship, certain faith healing practices, sorcery and witchcraft, astrology, and spirit possession. It can also include celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and birthdays. Curiously, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), honor killing, even stoning to death as a punishment for adultery and death penalty for apostasy also qualify, anthropologically, as syncretic practices or bid’ah, yet the critics of Isl, many traditional Muslims, and Muslim extremists regard these practices as Islamic.
Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with. This maybe why one speaks of a Euro-Islam, a Western Islam, or an American Islam. Many scholars have suggested that there are many types of Islam, religious expressions that are unique because of the way the existing sociocultural milieu shapes Islamic experience. However, I have posited elsewhere that there can only be one Islam, especially when we understand the difference between content and container, essence and form. There is an interdependent reaction between Islam and pre-existing cultures. Both act on an affect each other, creating unique., local Islamic experience. Both those who believe that there are multiple versions of Islam and those that claim there is only one authentic Islam have difficulty reconciling their ideas with the Islamic concept that all Prophets of Islam, from Adam to Nuh to Ibrahim to Musa to Isa,(as) to Muhammad(saws) were Muslims.
How does one believe that all prophets were Muslim if the form that Islam took as a result of the Revelations each Prophet received and the teachings they expounded took different forms? And how does one reconcile the idea of multiple Islams with the other Islamic concept that Islam was in fact the religion that all Prophets taught? In an intellectual climate that accepts multiple interpretations of Islam it is possible to validate the extremist interpretation of Islam as legitimately Islamic, it seems. Often we hear pundits talk about the need to “reform” Islam by expunging extremist interpretations of it. Yet, in the mainstream mind, these are not legitimate Islamic interpretations at all. One possible answer is that Islam is inherently pluralistic, even as certain “interpretations” fall outside the possible range of legitimate Islamic expression. Inclusive and pluralistic does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are Islamic.
The issue of religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies is the most contentious and possibly most important of the issues related to pluralism in Islam. Theologically Islam is in fact exclusivistic. This cannot be denied. However the real question of concern is the idea of religious freedom for non-Muslims in an Islamic state. When looking at the state of Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority nations it is evident that they are treated poorly, regarded a second-class citizens, discriminated against, even persecuted in some cases. We see this happening to Christians and Jews in Iraq and Egypt and other countries of the Muslim world. It happens to Buddhists in Afghanistan, Parsis(Zoroastrians) and Baha’is in Iran, and Ahmadiyya and Hindus in Pakistan and Kashmir. Many critics of Islam look at these realities on the ground and studies of history and conclude that Islam is inherently and uniquely intolerant of religious minorities. Opinions among Mainstream Muslims range from denunciation of this behavior as unIslamic to outright denial of these realities. What does the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book say?
The oft repeated Quranic verse describing religious tolerance that is rejected by Islamophobes by utilizing the idea of an-nasik wa’l mansukh is only the beginning:
There is no compulsion in Religion… [Qur’an 2:256]
Critics of Islam contend that all of the so-called” peace verses” found in the Qur’an are canceled out, effectively abrogated by its “sword verses” or “war verses”. We will analyze the legitimacy of the Law of Abrogation in Islam in full detail in another article. But it will be briefly stated that the criticism amounts to a belief that certain verses in the Qur’an are no longer applicable, that Allah has replaced them. All of this flies in the face of actual Muslim belief, even among extremists. Muslims do not believe that the peace verses are no longer the word of Allah or do not belong in the Qur’an any longer. To get a clearer picture of the Quranic vision of religious tolerance and liberty I can list numerous v.
We have shown him the way, he may be thankful or unthankful [Qur’an 76:3]
The Truth is from your Lord, so let him who wishes believe and let him who wishes disbelieve [Qur’an 18:29]
Indeed there have come to you clear proofs from your Lord; whoever will therefore see, it is for the good of his own soul, and whoever will disbelieve, it shall be against himself [Qur’an 6:105]
Bu the actual verse that lays down the broad principles of religious freedom is:
And fight them until there is no more persecution and religion is only for Allah. But if they desist, then there should be no more hostility except against the oppressors [Qur’an 2:193]
Critics of Islam and extremists hone in on the phrase “and religion is only for Allah” and conclude that fighting must continue until Islam is dominant. Yet in light of the most primary method of Quranic interpretation(ta’wil), Qur’an explains Qur’an, we will see that not only does this verse completely defeat the idea of perpetual warfare in Islam, it defeats the idea that religious war in Islam is for the purpose of spreading Islam. In fact it shows that any religious war in Islam is only to prevent or fight religious persecution. Jihad is not “holy war”, as the Islamophobes contend. It also clearly shows, when coupled with verses 39- 40 of Surah 22, Islam allows religious liberty and does not countenance religious compulsion:
Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And surely Allah is able to assist them-
Those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is all. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. And surely Allah will help him who helps Him. Surely Allah is Strong, Mighty [Qur’an 22:39-40]
As we can see Muslims are supposed to not only protect themselves from religious persecution but also protect other religious communities from harm from those who would persecute them on account of religion. The phrase “and religion is only for Allah” means that no one is to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs and everyone is at liberty to hold whatever belief they wish. We can now conclude three things in light of this information: syncretism in religious practice is condemned as bid’ah in Isalm, Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, though not realized in most Muslim-Majority countries, is guaranteed by Allah through the Qur’an. Each of these ideas will be explored further in future articles.