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This Theme of the Month is a result of requests
from both new Muslims and non-Muslims alike for an introduction to the basic
principles of Islam and to the experiences of some of its new adherents. It
aims to shed light on the sociological and spiritual implications that following
its tenets can have, and also intends to raise awareness among Muslims to some
of the difficulties that new Muslims face. Lastly, the Links section lists some
of the resources available online for New Muslims.
"The unexamined life is not worth
Islam in the last decade of the twentieth century had ceased to be solely of interest to those who are concerned with "foreign" religions or cultures. As we are slowly realising, Islam is truly a world religion, increasingly visible in Europe and the United States as well as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Muslims are very much part of the mosaic of Western societies, no longer foreign visitors but fellow citizens and colleagues. Thus, to understand the world in which we live, requires a knowledge of Islam as a prerequisite for an appreciation of our theologically interconnected and historically intertwined Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.
"And [remember] when your Lord
brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made
them testify of themselves, [He asked]: "Am I not your Lord?" They
said "Yes, we testify!" Lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection:
"Of this we were unaware."
The definitive attribute of man is his ability to forget. The very word used in the Quran for "man," insan, is related etymologically to the word nisyan, or forgetfulness. Thus the human as he is initiated into the world progressively loses his awareness of the immediate presence of God. It is the function of religion to make us remember.
This is related to the five stages of the lives of man, one of which, is the 'preconceptual life', which took place before we came into this world. This world, known as dunya in Arabic, is derived from the word 'low' and is seen in Islamic cosmology as the lowest world. Indicating that there are worlds above this one, and that man descended from the highest, which is from the presence of God. This stage of preconception is when, according to the Quran, God took all the created souls, and brought them together where He said to them "Am I not your Lord?" and the souls responded in affirmation, "Yes, we testify!"
"Where then, are you going?"
Thus when the soul is breathed into the womb it has a primordial recording or recollection of this initial contract made with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. When conception takes place, it is the movement from the soul into the lower world and at that point the movement of the primordial recording into the subconscious, no longer being present at the conscious level. A similar theory can be found in Western tradition, which Plato referred to as the primordial memory - in having forgotten, life is a process of remembering. It is for this reason that the first thing the Muslim father does is to read the adhan (Muslim call to Prayer) in the new born babe's ear. Contained within the adhan is the testimony of faith, or Shahadah which professes that 'there is no deity save God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God', reminding them of their origin and indicating their return to that origin through this life, the movement from conception to death, a movement back to our origin, to the Presence of God. The Quran, one of its names being 'the reminder', implies rekindling awareness already present. An awareness present in the heart of hearts of every human being in recognising their Creator. And an awareness that is retrievable in this world, hence the role of the Divine Messengers, one after another, to arouse it from its veiled and dormant state.
"Men are sleep, and when they die
they wake up"
This offers a clue to the deeper meaning of the term kafir, usually translated as "infidel," "unbeliever," or "denier of the truth." The word kafara means "he covered," and a kafir is 'one who covers' as the night 'covers' the visible world in darkness. In their abstract sense both the verbs and the nouns derived from it have a connotation of "concealing" something that exists or "denying" something that is true. Hence in the usage of the Quran a kafir is "one who denies" (or "refuses to acknowledge") truth in the widest spiritual sense of this latter term; that is irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the Supreme Truth - namely the existence of God - or to a doctrine or ordinance enunciated in the Divine Writ, or to a self-evident moral proposition, or to acknowledgement of, and therefore gratitude for, favours received. This should in fact be obvious as soon as one recognises that the truths in question are inherent in human nature, though 'forgotten', as the Quran asserts again and again. It is not a matter of being unable to accept something we are told, but rather of refusing - from self-interested motives to admit something we already know. The act of concealing something even from oneself is an act of will.
"I was a hidden treasure and I desired
to be known; therefore I created Man"
Islam is also known as the din al-fitrah, which might be translated as the "religion of primordiality" or even as "the original religion," since it refers back to a time before the different "religions" were revealed or crystallized, and is thus the "perennial philosophy," which is to be found behind the veil of every authentic religion. Islam, however, claims by implication a particularly direct relationship to this "perennial philosophy," since it defines itself as the final revelation of a timeless message of which mankind has been "reminded" again and again by countless "messengers of God." The Quran acknowledges without ambiguity that the laws and practices of the different crystallizations of the din al-fitrah have differed according to time and place, but the truth of the Divine Unity and the decisive principles that are derived from this do not change, have not changed, and can never change. "The doctrine of Unity is unique", so it is said. All else is illusion.
The connection between the "Primordial religion" and the final one is underlined by the first and the last prophets, Adam and Muhammad (pbut), the beginning of the story and the end of it, stressing the closing of the circle as represented by Muhammad's mission. History has unfolded and humanity had pursued its predestined course. There had to be-and there was-a return to the origin. In this sense, there is no such thing as a new religion. Past Prophets sent to different peoples throughout history all bore the message of Eternal Truth, which in order that it may be fully understood, must present itself differently to different worlds. Thus Islam, despite certain real but superficial differences, is also the faith of Jesus, Abraham, and Moses (pbut). With the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) being sent to all humanity.
"[Recall the time] when your
Lord told the angels: 'I am setting on earth a vicegerent.' They asked: 'Will
you put therein one who will work evil and shed blood, when we praise You and
sanctify Your name?' He replied: 'Surely I know what you know not.'"
Modern science has reduced the natural world to a field of matter where chaos prevails at the most elemental level of the system. While order - baffling to the atheist - appears at the molecular level with each moment and every particle in this higher system bound by the immutable laws of physics. In religious language, all things move in submission to God's ordering of His creation. Into this flawless, elaborate system He has set man, His viceroy. Now, although man's physical elements are in themselves intrinsically bound to obey the inexorable laws of creation, he is set apart in having been endowed with a soul. And it is only through his realisation of the Primordial pact with his Creator, that man can hope to attain to this function, and the projection, as it were, of the vertical dimension onto the horizontal plane. In being gifted with intelligence, he alone of all creatures is capable of knowing the Reality and of rising above his own earthly and contingent self hood. The Muslim, recognises that to be human is to be the channel of transcendent intervention in running the world's mechanisms. He is, potentially if not actually higher than the angels, for his nature reflects totality and can be satisfied with nothing less than the Total.
This is one side of the human coin. A simple change of perspective shows the other, for it is precisely this situation - man's 'centrality' - that offers him the possibility of committing monstrous crimes and rather than see himself as a servant of God, man attempts to make himself a god beside God; the vicegerent usurps the place of the King. He is then alone in creation and all other creatures are either toys to play with or obstructions blocking his way. Man is the only creature who kills his own kind as a matter of course.
Thus, religion recognises man's essential inability to deal with his world. A social contract based on belief in spiritual growth and final judgement is the best foundation for a caring society. Wherever this belief is strong, and this of necessity becomes increasingly rare, then alone can man hope to become what Muslim's call God's viceroy, His Khalifa on earth. But this status, which is what we were created to strive for, nevertheless recognises that man cannot deal with his situation unaided. Outside help is indispensable.
This state is none other than mans fitra, or "natural disposition" which is in harmony with God and the created world over which he has been given authority. His fitra nature is to love God, beauty, and all humanity, and to feel revulsion towards selfishness, ugliness, and evil. Muslim ethical thought starts with this assumption, that man is fundamentally a creature of goodness and faith, and that, as the Prophet (pbuh) said, "Every child is born with the fitra," and that evil is only the product of his environment and upbringing. Yet the harsh realities of the world are usually quite different. Man is evidently not in harmony with anything. Wars, injustices, and intolerance are the rule rather than the exception. Distance from the sources of revelation brings about a kind of hardening in the spiritual ether; tyranny becomes more usual than tranquillity. This is not to say, however, that the religious project has failed; it merely means that it has become the concern of individuals rather than societies. And indeed, we see that the older and more ineffectual religious tradition becomes, the more it relinquishes its claims to a conditioning role in the political and social process.
(Source: Islam & the Destiny of Man, Gai Eaton; Islam: Religion of Life, Abdul Wadod Shalabi; The Lives of Man, Imam al-Haddad; The Lives of Man: on death and dying, H Yusuf; The Message of the Quran, Muhammad Asad; Man - Islamic Spirituality, Gai Eaton; The Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage, John L. Esposito)