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Toward an Islamic Theory of Meta-Religion
The relation of Islam to the other religions has been established by God in His revelation, the Qur’an. No Muslim therefore may deny it; since for him the Qur’an is the ultimate religious authority. Muslims regard the Qur’an as God’s own word verbatim, the final and definitive revelation of His will for all space and time, for all mankind.1
The only kind of contention possible for the Muslim is that of exegetical variation. But in this realm, the scope of variation is limited in two directions. First, continuity of Muslim practice throughout the centuries constitutes an irrefutable testament to the meanings attributed to the Qur’anic verses. Second, the methodology of Muslim orthodoxy in exegesis rests on the principle that Arabic lexicography, grammar, and syntax, which have remained frozen and in perpetual use by the millions ever since their crystallization in the Qur’an leave no contention without solution. These facts explain the universality with which the Qur’anic principles were understood and observed, despite the widest possible variety of ethnic cultures, languages, races, and customs characterizing the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, and from Russia and the Balkans to the heart of Africa.
As for the non-Muslims, they may contest the principles of Islam. They must know, however, that Islam does not present its principles dogmatically, for those who believe or wish to believe, exclusively. It does so rationally, critically. It comes to us armed with logical and coherent arguments, and expects our acquiescence on rational, and hence necessary, grounds. It is not legitimate for us to disagree on the relativist basis of personal taste, or that of subjective experience.
We propose to analyze Islam’s ideational relation in three stages: that which pertains to Judaism and Christianity, that which pertains to the other religions, and that which pertains to religion as such, and hence to all humans, whether they belong to any or no religion.
A. Judaism and Christianity
Islam accords to these two religions special status. First, each of them is the religion of God. Their founders on earth, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, are the prophets of God. What they have conveyed — the Torah, the Psalms, the Evangel (gospels) — are revelations from God. To believe in these prophets, in the revelations they have brought, is integral to the very faith of Islam.2 To disbelieve in them, nay to discriminate among them, is apostasy. “Our Lord and your Lord is indeed God, the One and Only God.” God described His Prophet Muhammad and his followers as “believing all that has been revealed from God”; as “believing in God, in His angels, in His revelations and Prophets”; as not-distinguishing among the Prophets of God.
Arguing with Jews and Christians who object to this self-identification and claim an exclusivist monopoly on the former prophets, the Qur’an says: “You claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and their tribes were Jews or Christians [and God claims otherwise]. Would you claim knowledge in these matters superior to God’s?”3 “Say, [Muhammad], We believe in God, in what has been revealed by Him to us, what has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the tribes; in what has been conveyed to Moses, to Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord.”4 “We have revealed [Our revelation) to you [Muhammad] as We did to Noah and the Prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, Solomon, and David.”5 “It is God indeed, the living and eternal One, that revealed to you [Muhammad] the Book [i.e., the Qur’an confirming the previous revelations. For it is He Who revealed the Torah and the Gospels as His guidance to mankind. … Who revealed the Psalms to David.”6 “Those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Sabians and the Christians — all those who believe in God and in the Day of Judgment, and have done good work — will receive their due reward from God. They have no cause to fear, nor shall they grieve.”7
The honor with which Islam regards Judaism and Christianity, their founders and scriptures, is not courtesy but acknowledgment of religious truth. Islam sees them in the world not as “other views” which it has to tolerate, but as standing de jure, as truly revealed religions from God. Moreover, their legitimate status is neither sociopolitical, nor cultural or civilizational, but religious. In this, Islam is unique. For no religion in the world has yet made belief in the truth of other religions a necessary condition of its own faith and witness.
Consistently, Islam pursues this acknowledgment of religious truth in Judaism and Christianity to its logical conclusion, namely, self-identification with them. Identity of God, the source of revelation in the three religions, necessarily leads to identity of the revelations and of the religions. Islam does not see itself as coming to the religious scene ex nihilo but as reaffirmation of the same truth presented by all the preceding prophets of Judaism and Christianity. It regards them all as Muslims, and their revelations as one and the same as its own. Together with Hanifism, the monotheistic and ethical religion of pre-Islamic Arabia, Judaism, Christianity and Islam constitute crystallizations of one and the same religious consciousness whose essence and core is one and the same.8 The unity of this religious consciousness can easily be seen by the historian of civilization concerned with the ancient Near East.9 It is traceable in the literatures of these ancient peoples and is supported by the unity of their physical theater or geography, in their languages (for which they are called “Semitic”), and in the unity of artistic expression.
This unity of the religious consciousness of the Near East consists of five dominant principles that characterize the known literatures of the peoples of this region. They are: 1) the ontic disparateness of God, the Creator, from His creatures, unlike the attitudes of ancient Egyptians, Indians, or Chinese, according to which God or the Absolute is immanently His own creatures; 2) the purpose of man’s creation is neither God’s self-contemplation nor man’s enjoyment, but unconditional service to God on earth, His own “manor”; 3) the relevance of Creator to creature, or the will of God, is the content of revelation and is expressed in terms of law, of oughts and moral imperatives; 4) man, the servant, is master of the manor under God, capable of transforming it through his own efficacious action into what God desires it to be; and 5) man’s obedience to and fulfillment of the divine command results in happiness and felicity, and its opposite in suffering and damnation, thus coalescing worldly and cosmic justice together.
The unity of “Semitic” religious and cultural consciousness was not affected by intrusion of the Egyptians10 in the days of their empire (1465-1165 B.C.), nor by the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete?), nor by the Hittites, Kassites, or “People of the Mountains” (the Aryan tribes?), who were all semiticized and assimilated, despite their military conquests.11 Islam has taken all this for granted. It has called the central religious tradition of the Semitic peoples “Hanifism” and identified itself with it. Unfortunately for the early Muslim scholars who benefited from this insight as they labored, the language, histories, and literature furnished by archeology and the disciplines of the ancient Near East were not yet available. Hence they scrambled after the smallest bits of oral tradition, which they systematized for us under the tide of “History of the Prophets.” In reading their materials, we must remember, however, that the accurate-knowledge (Abraham, of Julius Caesar, of Amr ibn al As12, and of Napoleon) about the Sphinx or the pyramids of Egypt, for instance, was equal i.e., nil.
The Islamic concept of “Hanif” should not be compared to Ka Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.” “Hanif” is a Qur’anic category not the invention of a modern theologian embarrassed by his church’s exclusivist claim to divine grace. It has been operating within the Islamic ideational system for fourteen centuries. Those to whom it is attributed are the paradigms of faith and greatness the most honored representatives of religious life, not the despised though tolerated approximators of the religious ideal. Islam’s honoring of the ancient prophets and their followers is to be maintained even if the Jews and Christians stop or diminish their loyalty to them. “Worthier of Abraham are those who really follow him, this Prophet and those who believe in him.”13 In the Qur’an the Christians are exalted for their self-discipline and humility, and they are declared the closest of all believers to the Muslims. “[O Muhammad], you and the believers will find closest in love and friendship those who say ‘We are Christians,’ for many of them are ministers and priests who are truly humble?”14 If despite all this commendation of them, of their prophets, and of their scriptures, Jews and Christians would persist in opposing and rejecting the Prophet and his followers, God commanded all Muslims to call the Jews and Christians in these words: “O People of the Book, come now with us to rally around a fair and noble principle common to both of us, that all of us shall worship and serve none but God, that we shall associate naught with Him, and that we shall not take one another as lords beside God. But if they still persist in their opposition, then warn them that We shall persist in our affirmation.”15
Evidently, Islam has given the maximum that can ever be given to another religion. It has acknowledged as true the other religion’s prophets and founders, their scriptures and teaching. Islam has declared its God and the God of the religions of Jews and Christians as One and the same. It has declared the Muslims the assistants, friends, and supporters of the adherents of the other religions, under God. If, after all this, differences persist, Islam holds them to be of no consequence. Such differences must not be substantial. They can be surmounted and resolved through more knowledge, good will, and wisdom. Islam treats them as domestic disputes within one and the same religious family. And as long as we both recognize that God alone is Lord to each and every one of us, no difference and no disagreement is beyond solution. Our religious, cultural, social, economic, and political differences may all be composed under the principle that God alone – not any one of us, not our passions, our egos, or our prejudices – is God.
B. The Other Religions
Islam teaches that the phenomenon of prophecy is universal; that it has taken place throughout all space and time. “Every human,” the Qur’an affirms, “is responsible for his own personal deeds. On the Day of Judgment, We shall produce publicly the record of such deeds and ask everyone to examine it, because it alone will be the basis of reckoning. Whoever is rightly guided so to his own credit; whoever errs does so to his own discredit. There is no vicarious guilt; and We shall not condemn [i.e., We shall not judge] until We had sent a prophet.”16 It follows from God’s absolute justice that He would hold nobody responsible unless His law has been conveyed, promulgated, and is known. Such conveyance and/or promulgation are precisely the phenomenon of prophecy. The same principle was operative in the ancient Near East, where the states carved their laws in stone stelae that they erected everywhere for people to read. Ignorance of the divine law is indeed an argument when it is not the effect of unconcern or neglect; and it is always an attenuating factor. Being absolutely just, as well as absolutely merciful and forgiving, God, Islam holds, left no people without a prophet to teach them the divine law. “There is no people,” the Qur’an asserts, “but a warner/prophet has been sent to them.”17 Some of these prophets are widely known; others are not. So neither the Jewish nor the Christian nor the Muslim ignorance of them implies the non-existence. “We have indeed sent prophets before you [Muhammad]. About some of them We have informed you. About others We have not.”18 Thus the whole of mankind, past and present, is capable of religious merit and felicity as well as demerit and damnation, because of the universality of prophecy.
As Islam conceives it, the divine system is one of perfect justice. Universalism and absolute egalitarianism are constitutive of it. Hence, the phenomenon of prophecy not only must needs be universally present but also its content must be absolutely the same. If different in each case, the universalism of the phenomenon would have little effect. Therefore Islam teaches that the prophets of all times and places have taught one and the same lesson; that God has not differentiated among His messengers. “We have sent to every people a messenger,” the Qur’an affirms, “to teach them that worship and service are due to God alone; that evil must be avoided [and the good pursued].”19 “We have sent no messenger except to convey [the divine message] in the tongue of his own people, to make it [the content] clearly comprehensible to them.”20 With this reassurance, no human has any excuse for failing to acknowledge God, or to obey His law. “[We have sent to every people] prophets to preach and to warn, so that no human may have an argument against God’s judgment of that individual’s deeds].”21
Islam thus lays the ground for a relation with all peoples, not only with Jews and Christians whose prophets are confirmed in the Qur’an. Having once been the recipients of revelation, and of a revelation that is identical to that of Islam, the whole of mankind may be recognized by Muslims as equally honored, as they are, by virtue of revelation and also as equally responsible, as they are, to acknowledge God as the only God and to offer Him worship, service, and obedience to His eternal laws.
If, as Islam holds, all prophets have conveyed one and the same message, whence the tremendous variety of the historical religions of mankind? To this question, Islam furnishes a theoretical answer and a practical one.
1) Islam holds that the messages of all prophets had but one essence and core composed of two elements. First is tawhid, or the acknowledgment that God alone is God and that all worship, service, and obedience are due to Him alone. Second is morality, which the Qur’an defines as service to God, doing good, and avoiding evil.
Each revelation had come figurized in a code of behavior particularly applicable to its people, and hence relevant to their historical situation and conditions. This particularization does not affect the essence or core of the revelation. If it did, God’s justice would not be absolute and the claims of universalism and egalitarianism would fall to the ground. Particularization in the divine law must therefore affect the “how” of service, not its purpose or “what,” the latter being always the good, righteousness, justice, and obedience to God. If it ever affects the “what,” it must do so only in those areas that are non-constitutive and hence unimportant and accidental. This principle has the special merit of rallying humanity, whether potentially or actually, around common principles of religion and morality, and of removing such principles from contention, and from relativism and subjectivism.22
There is therefore a legitimate ground for the religious variety in history. In His mercy, God has taken due account of the particular conditions of each people. He has revealed to them all a message that is the same in essence; but He has conveyed to each one of them His law in a prescriptive form relevant to their particular conditions, to their own grade of development on the human scale. And we may conclude that such differences are de jure because they do not affect the essence.
2) The second cause of religious diversity is not as benevolent as the first. The first, we have seen, is divine; the second, human. To acknowledge and do the will of God conveyed through revelation is not always welcomed by all people. Some with vested interests may not agree with the divine dispensations, and numerous circumstances favor such disagreement.
First, divine revelation has practically always and everywhere advocated charity and altruism, ministering by the rich to the material needs of the poor. The rich do not always acquiesce in this moral imperative and may incline against it.
Second, divine revelation is nearly always in favor of ordered social living. It would counsel obedience of the ruled to the law and self-discipline. But it always does so under the assumption of a rule of justice, which may not always be agreeable to rulers and kings who seek to have their own way. Their will power may incline them against the social ethic of revelation.
Third, divine revelation always reminds man to measure himself by reference to God and His law, not by reference to himself. But man is vain; and self-adoration is for him a constant temptation.
Fourth, revelation demands of humans that they discipline their instincts and keep their emotions under control. Humans, however, are inclined to indulgence. Orgies of instinct-satisfaction and emotional excitement have punctuated human life. Often, this inclination militates against revelation.
Fifth, where the contents of revelation are not judiciously and meticulously remembered, taught, and observed publicly and by the greatest numbers, they tend to be forgotten. When they are transmitted from generation to generation and are not embodied in public customs observed by all, the divine imperatives may suffer dilution, shift of emphasis, or change.
Finally, when the divine revelation is moved across linguistic, ethnic, and cultural frontiers – indeed, even to generations within the same people but fa removed from its original recipients in time – it may well change through interpretation. Any or all of these circumstances may bring about a corruption of the original revelation.
This is why God has seen fit to repeat the phenomenon of prophecy, to send forth prophets to reconvey the divine message and reestablish it in the minds and hearts of humans. This divine injection into history is an act of sheer mercy. It is continual, always ad hoc, unpredictable. To those who inquire, What was the rationale behind sending Muhammad at that time and place, the Qur’an answers: “God knows better where and when to send prophets to convey His message.”23
C. lslam’s Relation to all Humans
Islam has related itself, equally, to all other religions, whether recognized, historical, or otherwise. Indeed, even to the a-religionists and atheists – whatever their color – Islam has related itself in a constructive manner, its purpose being to rehabilitate them as integral members of society.
This relation constitutes Islam’s humanism. At its root stand the reason for creation, man’s raison d’etre. The first mention of the divine plan to create mankind occurs in a conversation with the angels. “I plan to place on earth a vicegerent. The angel responded: Would you place on earth a being who would also do evil and shed blood while we always praise and glorify and obey You? God said: I have another purpose unknown to you.”24 The angels, evidently, are beings created by God to act as His messengers and/or instruments. By nature, they are incapable of acting otherwise than as God instructs them to act, and hence they are incapable of morality. Their necessary predicament, always to do God’s bidding, differentiates them from the human creature God was about to place on earth.
In another dramatic and eloquent passage, the Qur’an reports: “We [God] offered the trust to heaven and earth and mountain. They refused to undertake it out of fear. But man did undertake it.”25 In the heavens, on earth, and in the mountains, God’s will is fulfilled with the necessity of natural law. Creation therefore, to the exclusion of man, is incapable of fulfilling the higher part of God’s will, namely, the moral law. Only man is so empowered; for morality requires that its fulfillment be free; that its opposite or alternative, that which is amoral or immoral, be possible of fulfillment by the same person at the same time and in the same respect. It is of the nature of the moral deed that it be done when the agent could do otherwise. Without that option or possibility, morality would not be morality. If done unconsciously or under coercion, the moral deed might have utilitarian but no moral value.
Vicegerency of God on earth means man’s transformation of creation — including above all himself – into the patterns of God. It means obedient fulfillment of His command, which includes all values, all ethical imperatives. The highest of imperatives are the moral. Since man alone is capable of moral action, only he can carry the “divine trust” from which “heaven and earth and mountain” shied away. Man therefore has cosmic significance. He is the only creature through whom the higher part of the divine will can be realized in space and time.
To clarify the raison d’etreof man, the Qur’an has rhetorically asked mankind: “Would you then think that We have created you in vain?”26 The Qur’an further praises “men of understanding” who affirm: “O God! Certainly You have not created all this [creation] in vain!”27 As to the deniers of such a purpose for creation, the Qur’?turns to an assertive, even offensive tone. “Indeed We have not created heaven and earth and all that is between in vain. That is the presumption of unbelievers. Woe and Fire to them.”28 As to the content of the divine purpose, the Qur’an asserts: “And I have not created men and jinn except to worship/serve Me.”29 The verb `abada means worship as well as serve. It has been used in this double sense in all Semitic languages. In the Qur’an, it is given further elaboration by the more specific answers given to the same questions of why creation? Why man? “It is He Who created heaven and earth…that you [mankind] may prove yourselves in His eye the worthier in conduct.” “And it is He Who made you His vicegerents on earth…so that you may prove yourselves worthy of all that He has bestowed upon you.”30
In order to enable man to fulfill his raison d’etre, God has created him capable, and “in the best of forms.”31 He has given him all the equipment necessary to achieve fulfillment of the divine imperatives. Above all, “God, Who created everything perfect…created man out of earth…and perfected and breathed into him of His own spirit.”32 He has bestowed upon him “his hearing, his sight, and his heart [the cognitive faculties].” Above all, God has given man his mind, his reason, and understanding, with which to discover and use the world in which he lives. He has made the earth and all that is in it — indeed, the whole of creation including the human self — malleable, that is, capable of change and of transformation by man’s action, of engineering designed to fulfill man’s purposes.
In religious language, God has made nature “subservient” to man. He has granted mankind “lordship” over nature. This is also the meaning of man’s khilafah or vicegerency of God in the world. The Qur’an is quite emphatic in this regard: “God has made the ships [the winds which drive them] subject to you….And the rivers … the sun and moon, day and night.”33 “He has made the seas subservient to you … camels and cattle … all that is on earth and in heaven.”34 God has planted man on earth precisely to “reconstruct and use it as a usufruct“35 and to this purpose made him “lord of the earth.”36 In order to make this engineering of nature and its usufruct possible, God has imbedded in it His sunan or “patterns”37, the so-called laws of nature which we know to be permanent and immutable solely through our faith that He is not a malicious but a beneficent God. Reading God’s patterns in nature or creation is equally possible in psychic or social nature38, thus opening nearly all areas of creation to human observation and cognition, as well as a fair portion of the divine purpose or will.39
Besides all this, God has revealed His will through the prophets directly and immediately, and commanded them to proclaim it to their peoples in their own tongues. He has sent the Prophet Muhammad with a final version which He convenanted to guard against tampering and corruption40, and which has been preserved intact, along with Arabic grammar and syntax, lexicography, etymology, and philology all the linguistic apparatus required to understand it exactly as it was revealed.41 Certainly this was a gratuitous gesture, an act of pure charity and mercy, on the part of the benevolent God. Its purpose is to make man’s knowledge and fulfillment of the divine will easier and more accessible.42
Every human being, Islam affirms, stands to benefit from these divine dispensations. The road to felicity is a free and open highway that anyone may tread of his own accord. Everybody is innately endowed with all these rights and privileges. God has granted them to all without discrimination. “Nature,” “the earth,” “the heavens” – all belong to each and every human.
Indeed, God has done all this and even more! He has implanted His own religion into every human at birth. The true religion is innate, a religio naturalis, with which all humans are equipped. Dazzling religious of mankind stands an innate religion inseparable from human nature. This is the primordial religion, the Ur-Religion, the one and only true religion. Everyone possesses it unless acculturation and indoctrination, misguidance, corruption, or dissuasion has taught him otherwise.43 All men, therefore, possess a faculty, a “sixth sense,” a sensus communis with which they can perceive God as God. Rudolph Otto called it “the sense of the numinous,”44 and phenomenologists of religion have recognized it as the faculty that perceives the religious as “religious,” as “sacred,” autonomous and sui generis, without reductionism.45
Finally, Islam entertains no idea of “the fall of man,” no concept of “original sin”. It holds no man to stand in an innate, necessary predicament out of which he cannot pull himself. Man, it holds, is innocent. He is born with his innocence. Indeed, he is born with a thousand perfections, with faculties of understanding and an innate sense with which to know God. In this all men are equal, since it follows from their very existence, from their creatureliness. This is the basis for Islamic universalism.
Concerning morality and piety, man’s career on earth, Islam countenances no distinction among humans, no division of them into races or nations, castes or classes. All men, it holds, “issued from a single pair,” their division into peoples and tribes being a convention designed for mutual acquaintance.46 Nobler among you,” the Qur’an asserts, “is only the more righteous.”47 And the Prophet added, in his farewell sermon: “No Arab may have any distinction over a non-Arab, no white over non-white, except in righteousness.”48
Islamic Meta-Religion in History
Under these precepts, whether explicitly revealed in the ipsissima verba of God or implied therein, the Prophet Muhammad worked out and proclaimed the constitution of the first Islamic state. He had barely arrived in Madina (July, 622 A.C.) when he brought together all the inhabitants of Madina and its environs and promulgated with them the Islamic state and its constitution. This event was of capital importance for the relation of Islam to the other religions, and of non-Muslims to Muslims of all times and places. Four years after the Prophet’s demise in 10/632, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, ordered that the date of promulgation of this constitution was so crucial for Islam as a world movement that it should be considered the beginning of Islamic history.
The constitution was a covenant, whose guarantor was Allah, between the Prophet, the Muslims, and the Jews. It abolished the tribal system of Arabia under which the Arab defined himself and by which society was governed. Henceforth, the Arab was to be defined by Islam; his personal and social life was to be governed by Islamic law, the shari’ah. The old tribal loyalties gave way to a new social bond that tied every Muslim to all other Muslims across tribal lines, to form the ummah. The ummah is an organic body whose constituents mutually sustain and protect one another. Their personal, reciprocal, and collective responsibilities are all defined by law. The Prophet was to be its chief political and juristic authority; and, as long as he lived, he exercised this power. After his death, his khulafa(pl. of khalifah, “successor”) exercised political authority, while juristic authority devolved exclusively upon the ‘ulama (the jurists) who had by then developed a methodology for interpretation, renewal, and expansion of the shari’ah.
A. The Jewish Ummah
Alongside this ummah of Muslims stood the ummah of the Jews. Their old tribalist loyalties to the Arab Aws and Khazraj tribes were to be supplanted by the bond of Judaism. Instead of their citizenship being a function of their clientship to this or that Arab tribe, it was hence to be a function of their Jewishness. Their life was to be structured around Jewish institutions and governed by the Torah, their revealed law. Political authority was vested in the chief rabbi who was also known as Resh Galut, while juristic authority rested with the system of rabbinic courts. Overarching both ummahs was a third organization, also called al ummah, or al dawlah al Islamiyyah (the Islamic polity, government, or “state”) whose constituents were the two ummahs and whose raison d’etre was the protection of the polity, the conduct of its external affairs, and the carrying out of Islam’s universal mission. The “state” could conscript the ummah of Muslims in its services, whether for peace or for war, but not the ummah of Jews. Jews, however, could volunteer their services to it if they wished. Neither the Muslim nor the Jewish ummah was free to conduct any relation with a foreign power, much less to declare war or peace with any other state or foreign nation. This remained the exclusive jurisdiction of the Islamic state.
The Jews, who entered freely into this covenant with the Prophet, and whose status the new constitution raised from tribal clients on sufferance to citizens de lure of the state, later betrayed it. The sad consequence was, first, the fining of one group, followed by the expulsion of another group found guilty of greater offense, and finally the execution of a third group that plotted with the enemy to destroy the Islamic state and the Islamic movement. Although these judgments were made by the Prophet himself , or, in the case of the third group, by an arbiter agre upon by the parties concerned, the Muslims did not understand them as directed against the Jews as such, but against the guilty individuals only. Islam recognizes no vicarious guilt. Hence when the Islamic state later expanded to include northern Arab Palestine, Jordan and Syria, Persia, and Egypt, where numero Jews lived, they were automatically treated as innocent constituents of the Jewish ummah within the Islamic state. This explains the harmony and cooperation that characterized Muslim-Jewish relations throughout the succeeding centuries.
For the first time in history since the Babylonian invasion 586 B.C., and as citizens of the Islamic state, the Jew could model his life after the Torah and do so legitimately, supported by the public laws of the state where he resided. For the first time, a non-Jewish state put its executive power at the service of a rabbinic court. For the first time, the state-institution assumed responsibility for the maintenance of Jewishness, and declared itself ready to use its power to defend the Jewishness of Jews against the enemies of Jewishness, be they Jews or non-Jews.
After centuries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine (Christian) oppression and persecution, the Jews of the Near East, of North Africa, of Spain, and Persia, looked upon the Islamic state as liberator. Many of them readily helped its armies in th conquests and co-operated enthusiastically with the Islamic state administration. This cooperation was followed by acculturation into Arabic and Islamic culture, which produced a dazzling blossoming of Jewish arts, letters, sciences, and medicine. It brought affluence and prestige to the Jews, some of whom became ministers and advisers to the caliphs. Indeed, Judaism and its Hebrew language developed their “golden age” under the aegis of Islam Hebrew acquired its first grammar, the Torah its most highly developed jurisprudence, Hebrew letters their lyrical poetry; and Hebrew philosophy found its first Aristotelian, Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides), whose thirteen precepts, couched in Arabic first, defined the Jewish creed and identity. Judaism developed its first mystical thinker as well, Ibn Gabirol, whose “Sufi” thought brought reconciliation and inner peace to Jews throughout Europe. Under Abd al Rahman III in Cordoba, the Jewish prime minister, Hasdai ben Shapirut, managed to effect reconciliation between Christian monarchs whom even the Catholic Church could not bring together. All this was possible because of one Islamic principle on which it all rested, namely, the recognition of the Torah as revelation and of Judaism as God’s religion, which the Qur’an attested and proclaimed.
B. The Christian Ummah
Shortly after the conquest of Makka by Muslim forces in 8/630, the Christians of Najran in Yeman sent a delegation of chieftains to meet the Prophet in Madinah. Their purpose was to clarify their position vis-a-vis the Islamic state, and that of the state vis-a-vis them. The conquest of Makka had made the Islamic state a power to reckon with in the region. The delegates were the guests of the Prophet , and he received them in his house and entertained them in his mosque. He explained Islam to them and called them to convert to his faith and cause. Some of them did and instantly became members of the Muslim ummah. Others did not. They chose to remain Christian, and to join the Islamic state as Christians. The Prophet constituted them as a Christian ummah, alongside the Jewish and Muslim ummahs, within the Islamic state. He sent with them one of his companions, Mu’adh ibn Jabal, to represent the Islamic state in their midst. They converted to Islam in the period of the second Caliph (2-14 A.H. / 634-646 A.C.), but the Christian ummah in the Islamic state continued to grow by the expansion of its frontiers to the north and west. Indeed, for the greater part of a century, the majority of the citizens of the Islamic polity were Christians, enjoying respect, liberty, and a new dignity they had not enjoyed under either Christian Rome or Byzantium. Both these powers were imperialist and racist and they tyrannized their subjects as they colonized the territories of the Near East.
An objective account of the conversion of the Christians of the Near East to Islam should be required reading for all, especially for those still laboring under the Crusades-old prejudice that Islam was spread among Christians by the sword. Christians lived in peace and prospered under Islam for centuries, during which time the Islamic state saw righteous as well as tyrannic sultans and caliphs. Had it been a part of Islamic sentiment to do away with the Christian presence, it could have been done without a ripple in the world or history.49 But it was Islam’s respect for and acknowledgment of Jesus as Prophet of God and of his Evangel (Gospel) as revelation that safeguarded that presence. The same is true of Abyssinia, a neighboring Christian state, which harbored the first Muslim emigrants from the wrath of Makka and maintained with the Islamic polity at the time of the Prophet a covenant of peace and friendship. The expansive designs of the Islamic state never included Abyssinia precisely on that account.
C. Ummah of Other Religions
Persia’s incursion into Arabia had left behind it some, though very few, Arab converts to the Zoroastrian faith. A larger number of these lived in the buffer desert zone between Persia and Byzantium, and in Shatt al Arab, the lower region of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, where Arabia and Persia overlapped. Notable among the Persian Zoroastrians in Arabia was Salman al-Farsi , who converted to Islam before the Hijrah and became one of the illustrious companions of the Prophet.
According to some traditions, it was the Prophet himself who, in the “Year of Delegations” (8-9/630-631), the year that saw the tribes and regions of Arabia sending delegations to Madina to pledge their fealty to the Islamic state, recognized the Zoroastrians as another ummah within the Islamic state. Very soon afterward, the Islamic state conquered Persia and included all its millions within its citizenry. Those who converted to Islam joined the ummah of Muslims, and the millions of others who chose to remain Zoroastrian were accorded the same privileges and duties accorded by the constitution to the Jews. The Prophet had already extended their application to the Christians eight years after the constitution was enacted. They were extended to apply to the Zoroastrians in 14/636, following the conquest of Persia by the Prophet’s companions, if not sooner by the Prophet himself.
Following the conquest of India by Muhammad bin Qasim in 91/711, the Muslims faced new religions that they had never known before, Buddhism and Hinduism. Both religions co-existed in Sind and the Punjab, the regions conquered by Muslims and joined to the Islamic state. Muhammad bin Qasim sought instruction from the caliph in Damascus on how to treat Hindus and Buddhists. They appeared to worship idols, and their doctrines were at the farthest remove from Islam. Their founders were unheard of by Muslims. The Caliph called a council of ulama and asked them to render judgment on the basis of the governor’s report. The judgment was that as long as Hindus and Buddhists did not fight the Islamic state, as long as they paid the jizyah or tax due, they must be free to worship their gods as they please, to maintain their temples, and to determine their lives by the precepts of their faith. Thus, the same status as that of the Jews and Christians was accorded to them.50
The principle governing Islam and Islamic governmental relations with other religions and their adherents had thus been established. It was implemented as the Islamic state entered into relations with those adherents, a process that took place either during the Prophet’s life or very soon after it. When the shari’ah crystallized in prescriptive form, the status, rights, and obligations of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens were already included. For fourteen centuries in many places, or less because of a later arrival of Islam or the imposition of Western law by colonial administrations, the shari’ah successfully governed Muslim non-Muslim relations. It created a modus vivendi which enabled the non-Muslims to perpetuate themselves – hence their continuing presence in the Muslim world – and to achieve felicity as defined by their own faiths.
The atmosphere of the Islamic state was one replete with respect and honor to religion, piety, and virtue, unlike the tolerance of modern times in the West born out of skepticism regarding the truth of religious claims, and of cynicism and unconcern for religious values. The Islamic shari’ah is otherwise known as the millah or millet system (meaning “religious communities”), or the Dhimmah or Zimmi system (meaning the covenant of peace whose dhimmah or guarantor is God).
Evil rulers cannot be denied to have existed in the Muslim world any more than in any other empire. Where they existed, Muslims suffered as well as non-Muslims. Nowhere in Islamic history, however, were non-Muslims singled out for prosecution or persecution. The constitution that protected them was taken by Muslims to be God-inspired, God-protected. The Prophet had already warned: “If anyone oppresses any dhimmi, I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgment.” No other religion or societal system has ever regarded the religious minority in better light, integrated it into the stream of the majority with as little damage to either party, or treated it without injustice or unfairness as Islam did. Indeed, none could. Islam succeeded in a field where all other religions failed because of its unique theology, which recognized the true, one, and only religion of God to be innate in every person, the primordial base of all religions, identical with Sabianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
Evidently, far from being a national state, the Islamic polity is a world order in which numerous religious communities, national or transnational, co-exist in peace. The universal Pax Islamica recognizes the legitimacy of every religious community, and grants it the right to order its life in accordance with its own religious genius. It is superior to the United Nations because, instead of national sovereignty as the principle of membership, it has taken the principle of religious identity. Its constitution is divine law, valid for all, and may be invoked in any Muslim court by anyone, be he a simple Muslim or non-Muslim individual or the chief of the largest religious community.
Conclusion: The Critical Methodology of Islam
Let us, in conclusion, review the characteristics of meta-religion according to Islam, those characteristics that make it rational and critical.
1) Islamic meta-religion does not a priori condemn any religion. Indeed, it gives every religion the benefit of the doubt and more. Islamic meta-religion assumes that every religion is God-revealed and God-ordained, until it is historically proven beyond doubt that the constitutive elements of that religion are human made.
2) Islamic meta-religion readily links the religions of history with the divine source on the ground that there is no people or group but God had sent them a prophet to teach them the same lesson of religion, of piety and virtue.
3) Islamic meta-religion grants ready accreditation to all humans in their religious attempts to formulate and express religious truth. For it acknowledges all humans to have been born with all that is necessary to know God and His will, the moral law, so as to discriminate between good and evil.
4) Islamic meta-religion is painfully aware of human passions, prejudices, and deficiencies and of their sinister influence upon what was revealed or discovered to be primordial religion (din al fitrah) or primordial truth. Thus, it calls upon all humans, especially the ulama of each religion, to subject their religious traditions to rational, critical examination, and to discard those elements that are proven to be human additions, emendations, or falsifications. In this task of historical criticism of all the religions of history, all humans are brothers and must cooperate to establish the primordial truth underlying all the religions.
5) Islamic meta-religion honors human reason to the point of making it equivalent to revelation in the sense that neither can discard the other without imperiling itself. That is why in Islamic methodology, no contradiction, or non-correspondence with reality, can be final or ultimate. The Islamic scholar of religion is therefore ever tolerant, ever open to evidence, ever critical.
6) Islamic meta-religion is humanistic par excellence, in that it assumes all men to be innocent, not fallen or vitiated at birth, capable of discerning good and evil, free to choose according to their reason, conscience, or best knowledge, and personally, that is, individually, responsible for their own deeds.
7) Islamic meta-religion is world — and life — affirmative, in that it assumes creation, life, and history not to be in vain, not the work of a blind force, or of a trickster-god, but ordered to lead to value. It acknowledges the critical principle that nature is incapable by itself to produce critical self-consciousness, but man’s role is to do precisely that. A trickster-god would be in foolish self-contradiction, to create man and endow him with his critical faculties.
8) Finally, Islamic meta-religion is an institution, not a mere theory, tested by fourteen centuries of continuous application, of success against tremendous odds. It alone among the religions and ideologies of the world was large enough in heart, in spirit as well as in letter, to give mankind the gift of a pluralism of laws with which to govern their lives under the aegis of its own meta-religious principles and laws. It alone acknowledged such plurality of laws as religiously and politically de jure, while it called their adherents with wisdom and fair argument to consider rationally, critically, and freely why they should not unite under the banner of the one religion that is the one and only meta-religion.
- On this point Muslim scholarship is unanimously in agreement. To those who are not familiar with this longstanding tradition, suffice it to warn that the situation of hermeneutical despair and confusion which exists in the case of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and other scriptures has absolutely no parallel in Islam. [⤺]
- Qur’an 20:88, 29:46, and 42:15 [⤺]
- Qur’an 2:140 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:84 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:24 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:2-4 [⤺]
- Qur’an 5:69 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:67 and 21:71-94 [⤺]
- An analysis of ancient Near Eastern religious consciousness may be read in this author’s Historical Atlas of the Religions of the World (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1974), pp. 3-34 [⤺]
- The evidence of Tall al Amarnah (Akhetaten) is the very opposite. The Egyptian colonial governors in Palestine communicated with the Pharaoh not in Egyptian but in Akkadian. [⤺]
- Regarding the latter, Sabatino Moscati wrote: “In the course of establishing themselves, the new peoples thoroughly absorbed the great cultural tradition already existing. In this process of absorption, Mesopotamia seems to prevail. Like Rome in the Middle Ages, despite its political decadence, Mesopotamia celebrates the triumph of its culture (over its enemies).” The Face of the Ancient Orient (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1962), p. 164 [⤺]
- Leader of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 19 A.H I 641 A.C. and late Governor. [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:68 [⤺]
- Qur’an 5:82 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:63-64 [⤺]
- Qur’an 17:13-15 [⤺]
- Qur’an 35:24 [⤺]
- Qur’an 40:78 and 4:163 [⤺]
- Qur’an 6:36 [⤺]
- Qur’an 14:4 [⤺]
- Qur’an 4:165 [⤺]
- It should be added here that Islam holds its revelation to be mainly a revelation of a “what” that can become a “how” befitting any historical situation. Thus, the “how”‘ or prescriptive form of the law may and does change in substance as well as in application, but not its spirit, purpose, or “what.” Usul al Fiqh discipline has devised and institutionalized a system to govern the process of evolution of the law. [⤺]
- Qur’an 6:124 [⤺]
- Qur’an 2:30 [⤺]
- Qur’an 33:72 [⤺]
- Qur’an 23:115 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:191 [⤺]
- Qur’an 38:27 [⤺]
- Qur’an 51:56 [⤺]
- “We have not created heaven and earth but … for you to prove yourselves worthier in your deeds….All that is on earth and all the worldly ornaments we have made thereof are to the purpose of men proving themselves worthier in the deed.” (Qur’an 11:7, 6:165, and 18:7) [⤺]
- Qur’an 95:4 [⤺]
- Qur’an 32:7-8 [⤺]
- Qur’an 14:32-33 [⤺]
- Qur’an 16:14, 22:36-37, 22:65, 31:20, and 45:12, 60 [⤺]
- Qur’an 11:61 [⤺]
- Qur’an 67:15 [⤺]
- Qur’an 30:30 and 48:23 [⤺]
- On the philosophical uncertainty of the laws of nature, see Clarence Irving Lewis, Analysis of Knowledge and Valuaton (Lasalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1946) and George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1923). Their position, which is that of contemporary science, is epistemologically identical to that held by al Ghazali (d. 504/1111) in his controversy with the philosophers (see his Tahafit al Falasifah or Refutation of the Philosophers, tr. by Sabih Kamali (Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963). [⤺]
- Qur’an 51:21, 33:62, and 35:43 [⤺]
- Qur’an 15:9 [⤺]
- Qur’an 30:30 [⤺]
- Qur’an 3:18 [⤺]
- This is the substance of the Hadith, “Every man is born with natural religion – i.e. as a Muslim. It is his parents that make him a Jew, a Magian, or a Christian.” [⤺]
- Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958) [⤺]
- Mircea Eliade, Patterns of Comparative Religion (London: Sheed and Ward, Ltd., undated) and The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harper and Row, 1961). [⤺]
- Qur’an 49:13 [⤺]
- Ibid. [⤺]
- Ishaq ibn Hisham, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), tr. by Alfred Guillaume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946) Thomas Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (London: 1906; Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf Publications, 1961). Al Kufi, Shah-Namah, tr., by H. M. Elliott in his The History of lndia As Told by Its Own Historians (London: 1867-77), vol 1, pp. 184-97 [⤺]
- Thomas Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (London: 1906; Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf Publications, 1961). [⤺]
- Al Kufi, Shah-Namah, tr., by H. M. Elliott in his The History of lndia As Told by Its Own Historians (London: 1867-77), vol 1, pp. 184-97 [⤺]