A student of mine at the university where I work in Rome, Italy, asked me a series of pertinent questions. The student, an Italo-American who had taken my introductory course on Islam, asked if I was a Muslim. Or rather: am I still a Muslim, seeing all the blood related to Islam in parts of the world. I answered the student that it was not important to know my belief, ‘but since you wish to know, I tell you yes, I am Muslim, and will remain so, at least as far as I can see myself in the future and the world.’
The other questions that the student raised might be worded as follows: how can a large community of believers still stick to its religion or tradition despite the harsh view that a large part of the dominant world forms about it? How can it preserve its tradition and still aspire for a better future? How can its majority distance itself from its tiny minority that defame the whole tradition? And how can people of other traditions trust people of this deformed tradition? How can rational and modern believers express their religiosity without being misunderstood by people within their own tradition and people without? For short-sighted people, unaware of history, it may appear that Muslims are the exception in history. No, they are not. Europe and America in particular come from the same history. Their background is a history of religion and wars, and a history of achievements and failures. For about five centuries, Europe had to go through a long labour, full of social, cultural, scientific and political changes to reach its current condition – which is not the best nor the last best condition either! The last five hundred years of European-American re-birth have not been easy at all. Civil wars, religious wars, and nationalist wars caused millions of deaths that are unprecedented in human history. Scientific achievements are unprecedented too, fortunately. A ‘brave new world’ has emerged out of their experiences of re-birth, and it has influenced in different ways the rest of the world; still, the rest of the world cannot replicate its model, nor does it wish to replicate it, simply because it is not the best nor the last model humans can aspire for. The Arab-Islamic world, so plural and diverse, lived its golden age before this European-American rebirth. After its decay, it has been trying for the last two hundred years at least to re-awaken. Awakening is never easy when you have a profound tradition behind you, and strong rivals ahead of you. The wars we experience in the Middle East in particular and elsewhere are not fully internal; external powers have been playing in that yard for the last two centuries, and their divisionist legacy still lives. Historical betrayals since modern European colonialism have engulfed this part of the world in continuous conflict at most, and in continuous unrest and worry in the least. It is erroneous to depict that part of the world as a full-time war zone, or its people as violence-mongers. To understand them, we need to study their theologies, their philosophies, their literatures, their arts, music, and foods. They are people of culture and a deep sense of history and pride; if they were not, they could have easily accepted colonialism and the hegemony of modern Europe. They have been there for millennia, and humanity has learnt from them over the centuries; we should not forget this.
The Universality of a Religion
I told the student that Islam as a world religion claims universality and comprehensiveness, like Christianity. Islam is catholic in the literal sense; it is also Catholic in the political-theological sense; it has been used in politics since its advent. At the same time, it is individualist in its spiritual dimensions; it is Protestant in this sense – as would say the late Algerian-French theologian Mohammed Arkoun. This makes this religion as diverse as individuals and communities that claim it for their belief or identity or ideology. This makes it plural by definition. There are as many Islams as Muslims. The vast Islamic empires that made ‘Islamdom’ flourished through this religion; it was used in politics for legitimacy, but it mostly was the religion of the masses of different languages, cultures, ethnicities and geographies. It is now irrational and insane to accuse ‘Islam’ of terrorism. Which Islam, in which language, and in which geography? Who speaks for it? Who represents it? An ordinary Muslim, let alone an educated or religious scholar would tell you there is no one Islamic representative body that can monopolise the Islamic voice. Islamic societies and empires enjoyed diversity for the lack of such a unifying one-voice in the past.
Human beings need something to believe in and whether they build such imaginaries of God or they are truly divinely inspired religions is not the point here. The point is to defend the choices of people, especially when such a choice contributed to building their history and civilisation in the past, and the source of their pride in the present. Atheist or agnostic worldviews create their imaginaries too – however scientific their founding arguments might be; ordinary atheists or ordinary agnostics are as ordinary believers in their intellectual capacities as religious ordinary believers, to put it simply. So, if a community is attacked because of its religion or belief, then it is easy to attack all other communities when a tiny group of its believers cause some horrendous harm, whatever might be their ideas. Do we accuse all Jews or Christians or Buddhists or nationalists or atheists of harm when only few or some of them cause it? The Italian Sufi leader Abdul Wahid Pallavicini says in Islam Interiore that when a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim fight one another, they do not fight because they are so (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim); they fight because they are not so; they fight because they have deviated from the meaning of religion. The Qur’an says, ‘O mankind, indeed we created you from male and female, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted’ (49: 13).
In Islamic civil society, piety in individuals, knowledge in scholars, and social justice in leaders have been the three major values ever sought. Reformists now speak of these in ‘modern’ terms, based on the will of the people. At the heart of this religious worldview, classic and modern, is the idea of spiritual responsibility. The Moroccan philosopher Taha Abderrahmane (b. 1944) refers to Islam and its core message of ethics as the ‘religion of piety’ (din al-haya’) in his recent trilogy that bears the same title The Religion of Piety (‘haya’’ in Arabic may appear closer to the meaning of ‘modesty’ in English, but ‘piety’ is more comprehensive and inclusive). This is what makes people stick to the faith even in dire political moments. It is their source of moral standing and hope for a better future. It is their source of civility, and civic ethics.
Religions are historical, but they claim to be ahistorical. Like the spiritual, and consequently political, revolt that Jesus Christ came to launch in the Judaic religious context and Roman political dominance, Islam, too, came in a context of Arab socio-cultural mix of religiosity, paganism, and tribal politics. The spiritual idea of Oneness of God in Islam, and its universal values preached for a decade in Mecca, gave a new meaning to previous religions and traditions that lived so far in the region, and elsewhere in the world. That spirit of spiritual revolution without mediation of man between the mundane and the transcendental formed an ethic that would impact all other sectors of life. This ‘sharia ethic’ (as referred to by Wael Hallaq, the scholar of Islamic law) has developed flexibility at times, and gone rigid at others; conflicts have taken place but this moral compass has remained. As to the obligatory rituals (daily five prayers, fasting in Ramadan, paying the annual charity of zakat, and doing pilgrimage if one can afford it), they have become in the tradition the accompanying mechanism that ideally should keep the level of ethics to their highest level of correctness and rightness. This mixture of internal and external dimensions of religion are what gives it special place in the life of people; it brings together the known and the unknown, the vertical (transcendental) and the horizontal (mundane), the rational and the emotional (and the emotional can be so irrational at times). That is how the universalism of a religion grows and remains. And that is how believers find in religion, Islam in this case, a solace, an answer to both existential and day to day life questions. And people have the right to hold such beliefs, whether we agree on them or not. It is their choice of life, and they can live as they wish – as long as violence is not intrinsic to this belief. There is no need to say that historians can tell us that there is no tradition that grew up without violence, the least of which is psychological violence; I would agree; there is no peace without a minimum of violence caused at some point in the formation of any tradition; even calling for a new and peaceful religion for instance can cause a level of violence that can grow at some moments for various reasons. This applies to religions and to secular state formations. Broadly, the point to retain here is that violence should not be among the ideas of this new religion or ideology. The horrific blood of the French revolution is immense, still it is praised and defended for its other ideals (liberty, equality, fraternity, rule of law, etc.), however secular/mundane these ideals may be. If this is the case, then we should not be blind to the effect that religions have on human beings, since they often speak of another eternal and better world, the otherworld, the metaphysical world, beyond mundane/secular materialism.
The Dynamic Universe of the Qur’an
The Qur’an requires the use of the intellect to understand one’s place in the universe, and to understand this universe and how it works. Piety without intellect is good, but piety with intellect is much better in the Islamic tradition. Learning is obligatory for a believer. The Qur’an is fundamental to understand the Islamic worldview, but it is not Islam. Islam as it is taught in the Qur’an is dynamic; it moves with the movement of man and the universe. That is why it is full of moralist stories about the past, and full of invocation of geography, earth, the sky, nature, animals, plants, and the whole universe. It is incomprehensive without a lived experience on this earth; in this sense it is very secular. The medieval philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yagzan [Alive, Son of the Awake, or Philosophus Autodidactus] by the Andalusian philosopher ibn Tufayl (c.1105-1185) captures this communion between the mundane and the transcendental very well. The universal values of justice, goodness, sisterhood, brotherhood, motherhood, parenthood, solidarity, charity and mercy are everywhere in the Qur’an. Out of some 6,300 verses of the Qur’an (the number depends on what you count as a verse, and one of the common numbers is 6,666 verses), only some 15 per cent are clearly legal in their prescription (for example, on inheritance division, robbery, and adultery). And even these verses are further explained in the prophetic Sunna and conditioned by early legal theorists. This demonstrates that the complexity of the Book is not easy to be understood by non-experts, however fluent one might be in memorising the Qur’an. As a philosophical text, the Qur’an requires a solid background to be understood. Karen Armstrong, the renowned scholar of religions, is right when she says that religion in modern times is not taken seriously to the extent that anyone allows himself to talk about it as an expert. Besides being a belief system, religions have developed a number of conditions to be able to delve into their sciences. Among these are language(s) proficiency, proficiency in history and history of ideas, mastery of classical interpretations before proposing new ones, good intent and ethics of the interpreter, etc. We cannot expect a non-philosopher to give us an acceptable understanding of classical or modern philosophical texts, let alone expect him to be a genuine philosopher; the same thing applies to other disciplines; we cannot bring a musician to the stadium to win a football match, unless he is good at football too. We cannot expect a religious scholar to develop to us a theory that defends atheism. If this is so, how can we expect a non-expert scholar of religion or a non-theologian to give us an interpretation of a particular religion that becomes acceptable by believers of this same religion? Religion, besides being a belief system, is a science, a human and social science, and it has to be respected as such.
A literalist reading of the Qur’an is so damaging to its overall message of existential responsibility, personal growth, and social well-being. The fact that it was revealed to the Prophet during 23 years of his prophethood reflects its dynamics and development. Moreover, the non-logical order of its verses in the Book also reflects that it is neither a pure analytical text that caters only for categorical minds nor is it a text that contradicts the apparent contradictions in nature and changing humankind. By some chance, the Qur’an’s compilation reflects the changing human nature and its non-systematic order; it seeks order, the way humans seek order through some apparently contradicting laws and priorities. It is a Generous Book, that is how it is commonly known: al-Qur’an al-Karim. Its generosity stems from this flexibility and dynamics. A literalist reading kills such a generosity and flexibility. Muslims need a regressive interpretation that moves afterwards to the future. Some literalists are regressive, and they do not move to the future; they move to the past and wish to remain there; they are anti-intellectual, anti-modern, and in various ways anti-the Qur’anic spirit of movement. This Generous Book has been studied by scholars; they respect it as a sacred book, and they often quote from it some verses, but they do not qualify themselves as interpreters. They know that it is not an easy book after all. For centuries, Muslim children have learnt (parts of) the Qur’an by heart for language mastery and for the ethical responsibility it teaches to young hearts. When they grow up, they know they do not qualify as scholars since memorising all of it or some of it does not mean the proficiency and qualification of interpreting it. Now, some young Muslims born in Europe, without language skills and mastery of the sciences of the tradition, jump to making of the Qur’an their own text, and make of themselves its guardian. This is not how the Islamic tradition has been preserved throughout the centuries. Scholars of religion were profound scholars, encyclopedic; and law in the Qur’an did not mean Islam for them; it was a small part of it; they were aware of the objectives behind these laws (maqasid al-sharia). Young dreamers of the Islamic State jump to forming a State without having the minimum proficiency in language, tafsir and hermeneutics, and the other human and exact sciences, let alone having the consensus of the broad Muslim community or umma.
Muhammad and Qur’anic Ethics
Behind the Qur’an is an Arab man: Muhammad. Behind every great religion or philosophy is a great man/woman – and by implication behind every great man is a great woman, one way or another. Muhammad, the orphan and the businessman, enjoyed good reputation amidst his community and the regions he travelled to for business in Arabia. He was known as the Trustworthy. He was also a man of solitude and contemplation. For years he would retreat to the Mount of Light, where at the age of (about) 40, he received revelation. The point here is that he was a man of values even before revelation. That is why his wife Khadija, a wealthy business woman, and his close friend Abu Bakr believed in him immediately when he spoke of revelation; they comforted his fears about his encounters with Gabriel. Of course a non-believer does not have to believe in these stories to respect Muhammad, but as a man who has changed the course of history and whose school of ethics still influences one-fifth of humanity, he deserves respect and admiration. His thirteen years of preaching Oneness and universal values are not a small achievement. His later ten years of founding a well organised and united community are not of little value in human history either. Only a good man can unite people, and influence humanity for centuries; a bad man can unite people too, but influencing humanity for centuries is doutbful. Muhammad is the genius of the Arabs throughout history, and if he has followers all over the world it is because of his human and universal qualities and not because of his Arabhood. It is mostly the existential and liberating message of Oness of God (Tawhid), and the principle of no mediation between the Creator and mankind that appealed to people to join the faith; it is the core message of Islam and its worldview.
Tawhid impacts the way one sees oneself, society and the world. The road for human goodness starts with believing that one comes from somewhere and returns somewhere – however unknown and infinite this somewhere might be. This high notion of God may be the utmost human reason may ever think of, if it thinks of a Creator for this Universe. Muslims may differ on everything, but they do not differ on the idea that God is infinite, and belief in Him should be infinite too. All the rest are details for discipline, discipline to understand this infinitude of the universe. This teaches humility, and humility teaches goodness, and goodness requires discipline to remain intact. Rituals are disciplinary; they may appear irrational, but the idea is to think beyond them. For that reason, exegetes explain the Qur’anic verse that says that the accepted and final religion for God is the religion of Islam; Islam here is Submission in Arabic, submission to the Ultimate, to the Original, the Infinite that has no beginning nor end. For this reason too Islam is a noun that does not refer to a place or a person; it refers to an idea, the idea of Submission to One Truth – Oneness. Even those who do not believe in Muhammad, or Islam, or in any religion, should give this idea of Submission its due respect since it aims at liberating human beings from the tutelage of other human beings. Even those who think that Muhammad made up this religion, let it be so! He made up a great idea that keeps challenging human reasoning. The renowned Andalusian jurist and philosopher ibn Rushd (1126-1198) said that prophets have the aura and respect of prophets because of the moral worldview and innovative path (sharia) they bring with them to society; it is the success and utility of this path in its time and place that can tell who is a prophet and who is not; Muhammad brought a new path, a new way; he is a prophet.
In Islamic history, this submission was expressed in the various intellectual traditions that were inspired by this idea of the Infinite and flourished in various ways – in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, politics, Sufism, arts, literature, architecture, music. Theologians, philosophers, jurists, scientists, geographers, poets, and politicians were born in Muslim societies, but their intellect could have allowed them to choose something else as an existential idea to live with. However, with few exceptions, they defended their theological approaches, philosophical projects, jurisprudential interpretations, poetic imaginations, and political choices with references to this faith. They could distinguish between their mundane, secular needs, and their metaphysical choices and beliefs. They thought and acted while aware of their limitations; they wrote and spoke and had in mind the infinite horizon around them both as a source of inspiration and as a source of ethical compass. This Islamic mind was rational because while it believed in another world, it also built a civilisation in this real world as a form of trying to understand what it means to be here and now, human, Muslim and finite in the infinite world. The Islamic mind, universal with a specific outlook of the world, was as dynamic as the dynamics of the Qur’an: it exhorted human beings to move and be creative, and at the same time it recalled the other world where everyone will be accountable for what s/he does. Whether philosophers, theologians, and Sufis believed the otherworld is real or not remains a subjective matter and open to the interpretation of their texts; each of them moved in that open horizon of the Infinite, and I assume they could all be right in what they thought and said, even when their ideas appeared less common, not common at all, or in contradiction at times; they expressed parts of the Infinite they felt, experienced, and thought about differently. The Harvard scholar Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015) tried to grasp this diversity in Islamic intellectual history in his magnum opus What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic; he would cite renowned theologians, philosophers, jurists, and poets, for instance, expressing different views about the same thing, all this within the realm of ‘being Islamic’, and without this excluding one another from the realm of belonging to this faith and its open horizon within which its communities of people live life differently. The idea of Submission, or the idea of ‘being Islamic’ in the thinking of Shahab Ahmed, in this infinite horizon then is not passive at all; it is active, creative, and plural. Submission to the Infinite means submission to human Conscience and Self-Critique for constant growth and well-doing. Well-being is important, but it does not necessarily mean well-doing; doing good (well-doing) is much more important in the realm of Submission.
It is in the modern and more pluralist age, maybe more than ever before, that believers will find the idea of Submission more appealing, which will gain more updated interpretations and meanings. What modernity and globalisation have led to is the sale of the idea of ‘God is dead’ while fear should actually be expressed about the ‘death of man.’ Homogenising thought, and marketising human affairs and bodies to unprecedented levels is the situation of the current world, the source of malaise, fear, hatred, global injustice, and non-stop conflicts, especially in impoverished countries and societies. If there is something dead in the spirit of the modern man it is the idea of Submission to Conscience and Self-Critique. Axis for man has become himself, his reason, without opening up the horizon to the infinite, the Infinite. It is only by opening up human creativity to the vast cosmic infinity that the sense of responsibility and care for goodness can come back; opening up to the Infinite means accepting other modes of being of various religions, cultures, and philosophies are part of one’s thinking and being. Power and richness are material; they can never replace the profound tranquillity human beings search for, in communion with the different Other. Only an internal tranquillity that encompasses the Other as part of the Self can control human greed for power and wealth; common good becomes the priority. The Infinite requires time to think, to live simply but profoundly with other human beings, nature and the cosmos. Power teachers arrogance, and does not allow time for internal critique and profundity. That is why the only everlasting idea that ordinary human beings have for solace in the face of excessive power and technology is spiritual quest, and spiritual tranquility, besides of course the maintenance of basic needs of food and shelter. Religion represents the ideal world, the uncorrupted world that can be found first inside the human soul, inside the body of the citizen of this world. That is why religion has a future, and rational religions that liberate human beings from excessive accumulation of power and wealth will remain powerful. World religions speak to human souls; world corporations and powers speak to their bodies. It is only submission to the real needs of the soul that the body can enjoy what it has. That is why Islam as I understand it is the religion of tomorrow. It will be needed, more and more, because it speaks to human reason and human soul, and not because it is political and will dominate the world – as political Islamists or Islamophobes think about it. There is no need to say that there is no intent for proselytisation here; when I say ‘Islam is the religion of tomorrow’ I do not mean it is conservative proselytisation that will make it so; I mean the concept of Submission in its utmost level of ethical liberation and existential feeling of constant growth; while it is emotional in its essence, it is reached through reason and constant rationalisation of faith. This Submission to Conscience is what other ethical religions and philosophies also call for in their own ways.
This said, a Muslim is a ‘submitter’, a ‘surrenderer’ to no one except for that inner and natural conscience that elevates the soul and loves the world for the majesty it reflects of its Originator. It cannot be an arbitrary world. A Muslim is then liberal, free from everything, except from its innate conscience, its moral compass that enlightens, the critical compass that guides, builds and distinguishes good from bad, right from wrong. That is what a Muslim means. Anyone who holds or develops this compass in his [or her] heart is Muslim, even when he is Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, or atheist with a deep moral gratitude to the Universe. Love for people and the world originates from this deep moral view of the world and an expression of gratitude towards its majesty and mystery. Without this original love, which piety teaches, Submission is not complete. We are all Muslim in different colours, the way Truth is in different expressions. This diversity is willed by the Originator: why should then a particular religion or philosophy or ideology monopolise the world and be its only expression? One cannot be Muslim unless this diversity is understood and respected as a version of a divine will. The great Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) summarised this well in his famous words:
My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka‘ba and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.
Atheism and the Challenge of the Infinite
It is not my intention to attack radical secularism or atheism. Only to make a few points. The Pakistani theologian Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) was suspicious of secularism, because he believed that it smells of atheism. I can agree with him to a certain extent, because some versions of radical secularism are so ideological and anti-religious; they establish themselves as the new modern gods, against traditional religious gods. Secularism has to limit itself to managing political human affairs, while religion has to keep its focus on human internal spheres, and be allowed in the public sphere only when the public agrees; it is impossible to separate the two spheres fully because the same human beings live in both spheres.
As to atheism, it is a worldview that has to be fully respected. No one can claim to be sure of his choices in life and what lies in the other world humans speak of. Atheism per se may be an ideal system of thought, grounded in science, but this science may demolish it too in the future, if not now. Orthodox religions, Islam included, refute atheism mostly because it makes human beings stand as their own gods. Fear that human beings are the creators of their own ethics and morality, without the possibility of having the chance for accountability in another world after life, endangers human life in this world.
The ideas of Paradise and Hell, or Incarnation, are great mechanisms for moral conduct for ordinary human beings. They respond to three major human needs: fear of the unknown future, the quest for justice, and the expression of sublime love (or ‘ishq in Arabic). First, the presence of another-world in the mind of human beings allows them to live a more natural life, without (much) fear. Fear of death, fear of darkness, fear of failure, fear of sickness, fear of being cheated, fear of being robbed, fear of being oppressed, are simple examples of fear that need to be controlled in a consistent manner. What provides consistency often is a comprehensive religion that has answers to even very minute details about how to live, how to sleep, how to eat, how to treat people, and how to be good in general to avoid the bad. As to the quest for justice, another-world allows human beings to have a back-up world, or a second-chance world for rectifying the injustices of this world. A tyrant, a killer, a dictator, or a cheater have to be punished for their crimes, if not here in this world, then in the other world. This is how ordinary believers understand the world from a religious perspective, otherwise they would see injustice in their God and in the creation of the world. Some refute evolutionary theory not because scientific evidence is lacking but because of the possible consequences of the theory: arbitrariness in nature and the world. And arbitrariness for them means the end of morality and moral compass that the idea of God means. The end of morality in turn means that the hegemon, the tyrant, the oppressor, the rich, and the powerful will always win in this life at the expense of the poor and the masses. There should be order in this world and its creation, and since there is order in the visible disorder of the universe, then this means there is an Originator to resort to at the end, sooner or later, through the Judgement Day, or Incarnation. These analyses, sophisticated as they are for a believer, and irrational as they may be for a pure rationalist, are what has driven most of human history.
Seeing then that it is neither impossible to establish one way of secular government, nor one way of religious belief, it becomes a further reason that human beings should be respected for the choices they make about the reasons that drive their innate capabilities of hearts and minds. It is impossible to harmonise them, nor is it possible to make of all human beings pluralist scientists, philosophers or Sufi mystics, because these same pluralist scientists, philosophers and Sufis need guidance to arrive at the idea of plurality and diversity of the world; they are often not born pluralist; they discover it, and religion is one inspiring source for them. A lot of them, most of them maybe, find the path of enlightenment through religion and its prophetic teachings, especially when this religion exerts the use of reason. What do we do then? We tell these ordinary and intellectual believers you have got it all wrong? Reason and science alone is the way to go? Believers say yes to reason and science, but also yes to the deep human call of belief in another world that is inspiring to this world.
As to the expression of sublime love (or ‘ishq), it is a way of revealing self-enlightenment through contemplation of the universe, nature, human life and its mysteries. Sublime love is a form of showing gratitude to one’s love, to Light. It is of course of many levels, and is felt differently by different believers – even atheists can feel gratitude to the Universe, but their denial of the existence of a God, the Ultimate Reality, remains the main difference between them and believers. For sublime lovers, atheists are part of this Universe and they (atheists) help all of us in understanding diversity and aspects of the Ultimate Reality, even when they deny it. Believers prefer their gratitude and love to be expressed in infinite terms, as a way of respect of the majestic infinity of the Infinite. Sublime lovers realise the cosmic unity among all existing entities, human beings, and religions, that is why their religion is pluralist. The famous female Sufi mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (713–801) expressed this love beyond the thought of Paradise and Hell: ‘I did not adore Him out of fear of Hell, nor out of desire for Paradise; I have adored Him for Himself and for Love.’
It is this sublime love which also another major Sufi expressed in his idea of Unity of Existence (wahdat al-wujud) between God and His Creation, i.e. the Andalusian Ibn ʿArabi (1165–1240). It is this special friendship between the believer and the creator of this universe that leads to Submission, against human arrogance that atheism may lead to (no need to say that arrogance has no particular religion or ideology or philosophy). Believing in the Infinite is more inspiring and creative than limiting oneself to one finite life. Not fearing life and death, seeking justice here, and hopefully in another world, and sublime love give much more meaning to life, and open human creativity to the transcendental. It may be for these reasons that the famous theologian and philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) severely attacked philosophers and reason; he did so not because he belittled their utility and value, but because, being himself a great Sufi, he saw that they eclipse the infinite with the finite. His writings on happiness and arrogance cannot be understood without bearing these issues in mind. The finite world is not enough to tranquilise the deep human soul. The infinite is more appealing, however unknown it may be. It is this unknown that reason should keep digging into, in search for more meanings.
Overall, the lawyer-philosopher and ex-president of Bosnia-Herzegovina Ali Izetbegović (1925–2003) summarises my thoughts on the question of atheism and morality in his famous work Islam Between East and West with these words:
The question of whether morality without God is possible will probably remain the subject of theoretical discourses as it cannot be tested in practice nor referred to by a certain historical event. No case of a completely irreligious community has ever been known throughout history, nor have we countries where generations are brought up in complete indifference or hatred toward religion to give us a sure answer to the question of whether there is morality without religion, or whether an atheistic culture and society are possible. […]
There are moral atheists, but there is no moral atheism. The morality of the nonreligious man also has its source in religion, but in an earlier, forgotten religion which still influences and radiates from all surroundings, family, literature, film, architecture, and so on. The sun has set, but the warmth that radiates in the night comes from the sun. The warmth is still felt in the room, although the fire in the hearth is out. Morality is past religion in the same way as coal is the sum of past centuries.
Alija Izetbegović distinguishes between common and moral interest. He says that even common interest can be fraudulent if the intention is selfish. ‘Authentic morality’ is that which builds on something eternal, and not ephemeral. Consequentialism in ethics is not the way to go either. While religion teaches ‘how to think,’ morality teaches ‘how to behave’. Religion then is much more important than mere morality, which reason alone can teach. Authentic morality is based on good intentions, that is on the inner conscience of human beings, their fitra. Conscience cannot be clean and truly moral unless it is free from ego, hatred and fear. Only Submission can teach such a high view of moral being.
Sharia Law is Not ‘Sharia Ethic’
Summarising Islam in sharia law, which does not make more than 15 per cent of clear prescriptions in all of the Qur’an, is a misrepresentation. Before the modern nation state, jurists developed sophisticated measures and conditions that would make the application of these laws super difficult. They gave options to the judge to judge case by case, taking into account circumstances and customs. Literalist political Islamists now go directly to the Qur’an and wish to apply its few prescribed laws, ignoring the exegeses accummulated over the centuries. Reading the Qur’an alone for political agenda may be very misleading and may result in anti-Islamic consequences (what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq now is one example). The Islamic mind was universal, and civilisational; it built a civilisation of multiple colours amidst people of different colours, races, languages, and religions. This open mind has turned into a defensive mind in its decadent historical moments; it has become more political than intellectual. The dangerous problem with this political mind is that it has become narrow-minded; it seeks to replicate the age of empires in the age of modern nation states; it seeks to restore a golden age that experienced diversity with narrow emotional politics and visible religious rituals.
The Persians did not come back, nor did the Greeks nor the Romans. Rather, they became an inspiring force in history; particular communities or geographies become more endowed to rise in their place, on the condition of re-interpreting that past and its glories differently. Muslims should not be an exception in this natural course of events. A lot of their past will never be replicated, but some of its aspects may be re-interpreted and modernised to give birth to new and modern communities or geographies that excel in new fields of human achievements. The (political) ‘Islamic world’ per se is an imagined community that is no longer. The Europeans who speak of it as a homogeneous world either do not know about its plurality, or they intend to keep essentialising it, and using the name as a way of easy self-identification: Europe or the West vs. the Islamic world. However, it is not impossible to imagine that in the future, certain countries that have an Islamic background and culture will work and co-operate politically and culturally and build some union, like the existing the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, or the Maghreb Arab Union, or the Gulf Cooperation Council; these already exist, but they are political entities that have different political and cultural agendas. To think that they can have ‘one’ Islamic agenda is a bygone dream that is no longer replicable. We are no longer in the age of classical empires and political caliphates.
Human history is full of wars and bloodshed. The recent World War I and World War II are unprecedented catastrophes that took place mostly in the age and geography of modernity – Europe. Shall we say that Europe and Europeans are intrinsically and eternally blood-thirsty? Of course we cannot. The Nazis and Fascists of Europe who used religion in their ideologies to exterminate Jews and homosexuals, for example, do not represent all the history of Europe, or in that case Christianity, and this does not consequently allow us to accuse their Christian faith in its totality of bloodshed and war-mongering. The same thing applies to other religions: the war voices of extremist Jews and Zionists in Israel and Palestine should not eclipse the wise voices of other Jews who are against apartheid and further colonialisation of Palestinian lands. In the same way, ISIS and al-Qaeda are movements that are not supported by any established Islamic scholarly institution. They remain a dark period in modern history of Islamic societies, for various geopolitical reasons, the way the past experienced the rise and fall of extremist movements, like the Khawarij (Secessionists) during the formative period of the Caliphate, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. There were tyrant rulers and totalitarian caliphs once in a while in Islamic history the way there were tyrants and totalitarian kings that ruled in the name of God in Europe for centuries. As to the conflict in Israel-Palestine, it should not eclipse also the Convivencia between Jews and Muslims in Muslim governed territories over the centuries. As a modern political conflict, that has religious reasons behind it too, it should be said, should not blind us to the past: Jews broadly lived well among Muslims; they were until recently called ‘Arab Jews,’ the way there are still Arab Christians. Non-Muslim minorities were a protected minority by Islamic law; they were dhimmis, a kind of second class citizens in modern terms, but in pre-modern times to be recognised as a minority was already a big achievement, since it clarified rights and duties.
In moments of bloody conflicts, human beings experience other dimensions of life. Death teaches a lot, especially for those who live after catastrophes to think of life and its mysteries. Often (religious) societies that experience devastating wars cling more to the metaphysical world, since it gives them the sense of hope, hope that things will be better, hope to join their lost family members in a better world, hope to forgive the ones who caused the catastrophies. Some may, on the other hand, revolt and turn agnostic or atheist, after seeing the absence of God from solving human injustices. Often, existential trials like these make human beings re-interpret the idea of religion differently – leaving aside those who convert to atheism or agnosticism or scepticism. Traumatised societies slowly reform their views on religion – or any other ideology that might have caused the trauma – without a radical break from the spiritual and transcendental world. They submit to the complexity of life and death, and go on struggling in life, driven by injuries, hope and love. This explains why European societies did not turn into radical atheistic societies after the various wars they have gone through for the last four centuries, or after World War I and II. This explains why Arabs have not turned into radical atheists after the various conflicts that their countries have experienced recently. The point here is that ordinary human beings, let alone the intellectuals and philosophers, do distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral in religion in particular, and in life in general. Sick people know generally that it is a matter of time before they become healthy again. They need to keep hoping that things would be better. Religion is like that too, and even stronger; it teaches internal and constant strength against the ephemeral. Religion, as is the case with the idea of Submission, teaches that as long as one is not a slave to someone or to some authority, one can always feel free, and can always aspire for a better situation. It is liberating either from a material constraint or from a metaphysical fear. For this reason, Muslims in Muslim majority societies are conservative, but not extremists and violent as the ‘ISISists’ are. They distinguish between the general message of Islam and its values, and the particular political Islam of ISIS, or even that of the Muslim Brotherhood or other versions of moderate political Islam. Muslims know that ISIS is regressive; it goes back to the Islamic past, and tries to apply its legal prescriptions without contextualisation. Islam came and raised the level of human dignity in general, and the dignity of women, slaves, black people, and minorities in particular. ISIS – and also a large part of political Islam movements – comes now and does the opposite; it goes back to the seventh century, and takes all the rights these categories have gained over the centuries; ISIS is not only non-Islamic; it is anti-Islamic; it is anti-human; it ‘de-dignifies’ human beings; it burns them, be they Muslim or non-Muslim.
Religious and Secular Fundamentalisms
Fundamentalism is common in any belief system but its intensity has increased in the modern period because it competes with secular fundamentalism. When two fundamentalisms of different worldviews compete, the consequences are simply devastating. Religion then can be as dangerous as any other ideology if not understood moderately. The globalisation of modern state violence, the universalisation of excessive and savage capitalism that is accelerating inequality, the widespread of mass-communication through the Internet, and the demonisation of non-Western cultures, are among the major factors that are impacting balance and moderation in the present world, and will play an even bigger role in this disequilibrium in the future if world powers and international companies do not deal justly with the rest of the world. Modernity has become not only an ‘unfinished project’ in the words of Jürgen Habermas, but it has become a maimed project as well. We need a modern modernity, perpetual modernisation of Euro-modernity to overcome the current disequilibrium and global delirium. It is for these reasons that religion, as a metaphysical project that speaks to the human soul, will become more appealing in the future, especially if it is a religion that encourages rational contemplation of the world for self-realisation, and no-mediation in faith for self-liberation, as the idea of active Submission teaches.
We need to defend society and one way of doing that is to talk about the infinite horizons human beings have in this life and world. Their inner souls as well as their intellectual capacities should be opened large and wide so that they can enjoy the possibilities there are open for them, which dumbing mass media, deafening populisms, naked capitalism, and dogmatism of any type steal from them. Submission to nothing of these is the way for liberation, regenerated modernity and dignified humanity. There is no liberty without self-liberation, and no self-liberation without an inner call for rational thinking about the universe. The Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi (d. 1993) called such a way of thinking ‘Muslim personalism’ – which is the title of one of his most important theoretical texts. The future of humanity is cosmic, however local this cosmopolitanism might be initially. Albert Einstein spoke of three kinds of religion in a 9 November 1930 New York Times magazine interview: a religion of fear, a religion of morality, and a religion of cosmic feeling. For him, scientists like himself cannot deny that there is something in the infinite, and it is what he referred to as ‘cosmic religious feeling,’ which art and science can portray more than any available theology or concept of God. I found that ‘cosmic religious feeling’ when I grew up reading the Qur’an by myself from an early age. I found it in those so many verses of the Qur’an that ask human beings to contemplate the world, nature, the stars, the moon, the sun, the animals, and plants. That is what I refer to as the inherent Qur’anic call for the rationalisation of faith. The Indian-Pakistani philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) dealt with philosophical aspects in the Qur’an and Islam, and his text remains inspiring for generations to come; he was critical of both European modernity and religious traditionalism. In the last chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, entitled ‘Is Religion Possible?’, Iqbal speaks of three stages of religious life: Faith, Thought, and Discovery. ‘Faith’ is the first stage of religions in which they develop spiritual discipline to approach God; ‘Thought’ is the stage of rationalisation of religion to understand the sources of its authority; religious foundations are also sought here through metaphysics; in ‘Discovery,’ the third stage, psychology takes over metaphysics, and religious life seeks direct contact with the Ultimate Reality; ‘It is here that religion becomes a matter of personal assimilation of life and power; and the individual achieves a free personality, not by releasing himself from the fetters of law, but by discovering the ultimate source of the law within the depths of his own consciousness,’ says Iqbal. In future re-modernised times, religion will be one’s own conscience, one’s own compass against the robbery that some state institutions, international corporations, global markets, and various dogmas practice in the name of free market, liberal economy, and the salvation of mankind from either religious extremism or extremist secularism and atheism. It is this liberation that religion, Islam, has taught me, and that is why I am Muslim by choice and conviction.[/restrict]