By Dr. Omar Austin

We may ask the question, what is religion all about, what is its purpose and aim? That question may be answered very briefly by saying that religion is concerned with Truth and Reality and the affirmation of Truth, not with any relative truth or reality but with the Divine or Absolute. Truth, The Absolute Reality.

In this brief definition of religion we may discern two of its most fundamental aspects, the aspect of knowing or recognising the Truth and the aspect of action of the affirmation of the Truth. These two aspects may also be termed Doctrine and Method, and the order in which I place them is important since right knowing must come before right action.

Since the Divine Truth and Reality cannot by its very nature be satisfactorily expressed in a world where all is subject to distinction and division, the doctrine, or that which expresses the Truth, must perforce employ the stuff of our human and terrestrial experience to convey albeit imperfectly, divine Truth. Thus, all the variegated images and formulations of our world are used as clues or symbols of the Truth, Symbol in this sense may thus be taken to mean that which at once reveals to us and hides from us divine Truth.

I say hides from us, because the use of earthly images and formulations which are never perfect and complete in themselves, leads to the danger that these images and formulations may be taken as ends and used, as we all know, as the means to division and falsehood, Mortals that we are, the revelation of Divine Truth through the symbols, visual or verbal, of doctrine is not enough. We must be continually reminded of it. Thus, activity or method is necessary to preserve our precarious state of awareness. The Qur’an, that greatest vehicle of revelation of Truth is frequently called within its pages a Dhikr or reminder, and this purpose of reminding lies behind all religious and spiritual method, which method is usually employed in the form of rites.

It is thus on these two aspects of religion, knowledge and action, doctrine and method, that I wish to talk to you, especially in its application to Islam.

My thesis in doing this is that the rites, by which I mean all the terms, actions, gestures and images related to them, are like everything in this Dunya or lower world of ours, symbols or signs which reveal the Truth to us and which, by their repetition serve, or should serve to remind us of that Truth, so that we may perform them in Truth.

The notion of these two aspects of religion is constantly reiterated in the Qur’an, side by side, in the phrase “those who believe and act rightly”; in other words, those who recognise and hold to the Truth and act in accordance with it, who do that which reinforces their faith.

At this point, I think it is important to explain, what I understand to be the notions of symbol and rite in Islam, so as to illuminate better the phrase I have just quoted. In the dictionary various words are given for both terms, e.g. symbol and rite but not the words which in my opinion best express these concepts in an Islamic context.

In speaking of symbol in Islam, I think immediately of the word Ayah, sign, token, and the Qur’an uses everywhere this word to indicate that everything in this world reveals something of the Truth of God.

The term method or rite is best translated in ]slam by the word ‘ibadah, worship or service. This Islamic term for rite is most important, in that it does not only define an activity, but also our state before God.

It is important also to remember that the word Ayah is frequently linked in the Qur’an with Aql. Intelligence, since only the ‘aqilun are able to perceive the truth which every Ayah reveals. To those who do not enjoy this divine gift of ‘Aql, the Ayat merely serve as veils, which conceal the Truth, with the result that, as the Qur’an tells us, their actions and deeds are vain and illusory; habitat ‘a’maluhum fi al- dunya wa’I-Akhirah. Thus, without Truth, there is no true activity.

In speaking of signs and symbols, the Qur’an also reminds us, that we may find them not only in the external world, but also within ourselves: sa-nurihim ayatina fi’l-Afaq wa fi anfusihim. Thus, God reveals Himself to us not only in the world outside us, but also in our Inner selves, and our rites must serve to remind us not only of God’s majesty and beauty in the universe around us, but also of His truth within US.

What then is the secret of the concept of Ayah, of the notion of ibadah ? The mystery of his Ayah is surely that from the deepest depths of our being to the farthest reaches of the universe, all things in all their variety and apparent distinction, are but signs which reveal is; indivisible and Unique Being. The mystery of lbadah is that all activity, whether consciously devoted to Him or devoted to other than Him, is in reality subordinated to and an affirmation of His Will. The first mystery is contained in the words of the Qur’an,

“And wherever you turn yourselves, there is the face of God.”

The second summed up in His words:

“All that are in the Heavens and the Earth prostrate themselves to Him, willingly or unwillingly, and their shadows, both morning and evening.”

The mystery of both is that ….

“To God, do all matters revert,” and “to Him is the coming in the end.”

It was al-Ghazali who said, that all things have two faces, a face of themselves, and a face of God. In respect of the former, they are real, in respect of the latter they are nothing.

Unfortunately, it is a sad fact of all religious experience and an indication of our mortal state, that most of us are so convinced of the ephemeral reality of our own separate identity, and so occupied with maintaining the illusion, that we fall, for the most part, to recognise the message of His signs and are sluggish in doing that, which should divert us from our self concern. This regrettable state is alluded too frequently in the Qur’an.

It is an even sadder fact, that even those signs which are clearest and the actions which remind us most of His truth, we manage to turn into habits of thought and action, which we take for granted and which contrive to slot into our own sorry scheme of things.

The saddest fact of all, is that even those negative characteristics, which I have just described, namely self-confidence and selfish activity, are in an obscure way, themselves Ayat, a sign of the fact that we are made ‘ala suratihi, in His image and thus, tend even if unconsciously, to reflect His attributes and arrogate them to ourselves, i.e. our concept of selfhood, identity, free will, power, etc. reflect His attributes.

The error is to assume that these are our own, to use as we will. The privilege of being man, ‘insan’ implies the obligation to be true to our divine origin on pain of nothingness.

I suggested earlier that the rites of Islam are not merely acts of obedience, performed as a token of our servitude, but they are also themselves signs or symbols of Truth, which by their formulations, actions and images may teach us wisdom. Every aspect of the rites, beneath their external forms, reveal to us truths concerning three main areas of experience.

1. Our relationship with ourselves.

2. Our relationship with the world.

3. Our relationship with God.

Let us look carefully and deeply at the five fundamental rites of Islam and see what the forms and actions we so much take for granted reveal.


How many of us say so often, without really thinking about it, ashhadu alla ilaha illa ‘Ilah, Muhammad Rasul Allah. Let us look at the concept of Shahadah or Witness. The root Shahida means to be aware, to be conscious, to see. It has to do with the evidence of sight, of direct experience, of consciousness. For most of us, however, this witness to the Truth indicates no more than a dim recognition, largely of an intellectual kind.

It certainly does not mean, except in the case of the greatest mystics, any direct vision of the Truth, but this is what is implied by the word Shahadah. I suggest, therefore, that this rite, while lying at the very foundation of our faith, also indicates a much higher truth than is apparent at first sight. For us mortals, the term Shahadah implies ideally a transformation from a false, deluded consciousness, to a true consciousness of divine reality, to a consciousness of something higher than ourselves. It, however, also symbolises and gives a clue to God’s Selfhood.

This will become clearer if we consider first, the meaning of la ilaha ill’Allah, or rather the first negative part of it. What is meant by La ilaha, what is an ilah. Is it not a sort of super ego, a super I, which induces us to rely upon and humble ourselves to it. Is not the ilah anything within ourselves or outside us, which would set itself up as a quasi absolute, which seeks to subordinate and annihilate all other assertions of self. Is it not, in fact, that relative and fleeting reflection of the Divine Self, which would usurp to itself as much as it can of His Self-sufficiency and permanence.

As I said earlier, even our puny and sinful feelings of self-confidence, self-sufficiency and self- righteousness, betray our divine origin and reflect His Reality. When, therefore, we say La ilaha, are we not saying, there is no real I, no true Self, no Absolute but God ? Is not then the Shahadah, the Witness in some way indicative of His Witness, His vision, His Self-consciousness, as reflected in The Qur’anic verse:

La ilaha illa ana, fa’buduni … alaslu bi-rabbikum

Is it not He alone who has the right to say I, to call Himself the Witness, so that when we call ourselves witnesses, is not our witness but a pale reflection of His Supreme Witness to Himself. Thus, it is that the term Shahid is most appropriately applied to the Martyr who has fallen fighting for God, in his active Shahadah, he has annihilated himself, he has effaced his I, in favour of the Divine I.

So also when we claim to be witnesses, whether knowingly or not, we are effaced, annihilated in the reality of the Witness, al-Shahid. After all, our consciousness of I, like the drop of foam which hovers fleetingly in its independence only to fall back into the mighty ocean from whence it came

…. wa ilaihi al-masir ….

is really only through Him; as we read on many a Muslim tombstone Huwa al-Baqi, it is He, Who remains. Thus, the Sufi seeks not to reach union with God, but to realise the always existing identity. Similarly, in reading the Qur’an, which is His word, do we not also symbolically efface ourselves in the uttering of His word. We natlu, that is we follow, we try to imitate the divine Self-expression.


After the act of witness, in which our heart and mind has been involved, we come to the rite of prayer, in which our body also is to share. Here again, the message, the teaching is La ilahaha illa’llah, the affirmation in words and movement of God’s supremacy.

This prompts me to observe, that not only do the rites all have this single theme of affirmation, but that the four remaining rites of Islam form two pairs, each pair being closely related in its symbolism, to illustrate this. Let us consider the close relationship between prayer as a symbol and the Pilgrimage as a symbol. Both these rites have two dominant themes in common:

1. That of purification, purgation, self- sacrifice

2. That of orientation, focusing and connection to the centre.

In view of this thematic correspondence between the two rites, I will discuss them together.

Both themes are inward and individual in the case of the prayer rite and external and communal in the case of the Pilgrimage.

One might also observe that the first rite constitutes a rhythm, while the latter is, for most Muslims at least, a single event, the first symbolising the regular and rhythmic irruption of the eternal and supernatural into the day to day routine of natural pursuits, the latter marking, so to speak, the dedication of a whole life span.

It is significant that as part of the prayer rite, the act of purification should be represented by water, a symbol of what is subtle and inward. It is also interesting that water is mentioned by the Qur’an as being that from which all was created, suggesting that its use for purification indicates also a return to the origin, to the beginning to the Garden

“tairi min tahtiha . .. “

which idea is later echoed in the istiqbal, of which more later.

In the light of what I said earlier in connection with the Shahadah, the Wudu or ablution, may be interpreted at three levels. Firstly, the act of physical purification, secondly, the purification of the inner man from sin and selfishness, and lastly, at the highest level, the purification of one’s consciousness from all that is other than Him.

Having prepared oneself by shedding all that is not fit for the presence of God, one consciously and deliberately sets out on the inward journey of Prayer, that is to say one makes the intention to pray and to set ones face toward the Qiblah, as if one were setting out on a physical journey. But whereas, the Hajj is the pilgrimage to the centre of the outer world (Macrocosm), the salah is the pilgrimage to the centre of the inner world (Microcosm), away from the outer word as temptation and distraction.

Nawa, intend also means to journey, to go far from, absence, to go in another direction. That is to say, the journey to Him, Who is nearer than the neck vein, to the meeting in the heart between the servant and His Lord.

Having set one’s face in the direction of Truth one performs an action and utters words which constitute, so to speak, a final purging of self, as also an exclusion of all external influences; that is one utters the Takbir al-tahrim, which means the assertion of God’s greatness, which renders oneself and one’s place of prayer, forbidden to all but His influence.

This act corresponds to the donning of the lhram clothing, which similarly indicates the exclusion lahrim, of worldly influences. This practice is reiterated through the prayer, as if it were a weapon with which one defends the sanctuary of one’s worship The Takbir accompanies significantly enough, every movement during the prayer, thus confirming that each action is for Him atone, and may have no other object.

As Ghazali said, He who stands an the prayer carpet and, saying Allahu Akbar, has any other thought but God in his mind, is a liar.

Going through the various movements of the prayer, one retraces, as with the water ablution, the course of creation to the origin in God. Thus, the Standing may symbolise the human state, the bowing, the animal state, and the prostration, the inanimate state, while at a higher level the prostration suggests the annihilation of self in His Selfhood, the sitting position indicating ones existence through His Mercy alone.

Thus, with its repeated formulae, its movements, its rak’ats, the prayer provides the Muslim with a cyclic and rhythmic re-integration into divine inwardness and permanence, into a haven from the devouring jaws of time and the world. This image of inwardness and refuge is suggested very much by the cool restful space of the Mosque.

The symbol of the Hajj or Pilgrimage is also dominated by the two themes of purgation and orientation, purgation or sacrifice, as symbolised by the sacrifice of Sayyidina Ibrahim,peace be upon him, and orientation, as indicated by the physical journey towards the outward centre at Mecca. For this rite, the image of the world has changed, here it is no longer envisaged as the source of temptation and distraction, from which we must withdraw to God al-Batin, the Inner, but rather as the theatre of God’s Self-manifestation, a universe of Ayat, which offer evidence of His mercy and bounty.

Here it is not so much the purging of the tempted and distracted soul, as the purging it of its hardhearted indifference to God, the breaking of its egotistic will. Here it is not so much the journey inwards away from the world, as much as the journey towards God, the Outward, al-Zahir, towards a recognition of Him in His world, and in other men away from the frigid and selfish soul.

Prayer was, so to speak a contraction, the Hajj is like an expansion.

In Sayyidina Ibrahim’s readiness to kill his only son at God’s command, we have the symbol of the necessity of sacrificing that self-centred obsession with our own whim, and will, which so often recoils in sulky and stubborn rebellion both from the recognition of God’s rights as also of the rights of fellow souls, the need to kill the “soul which incites to evil” al-nafs al-ammarah bi’l-su’,

For through ourcommunion with other men, as through our contact with God’s other creation, God presents us with the Hujjah balighah, that we are not unique, not absolute, not perfect, that His existence as evidenced in His creation, is more than ours (Akhalq akbar) and that His will as manifested through others of His creatures must override our own.

Thus, it is that we set forth on the Pilgrimage, as on the course of life itself, not with or for ourselves alone, but in company with other souls, all oriented to the same centre, all dependent upon each other and ail clothed in the white robe of readiness to obey His command, calling Labbaik.

Thus, we escape from the prison of our selves, from the claustrophobic world of self-satisfaction, to the wider world of religious brotherhood and common purpose.


The two remaining rites of the fast and the aims-giving are like the prayer and the pilgrim- age dominated by two themes:

1. Sacrifice

2. Giving

Also like the other two, these rites represent on the one hand, a world denying, and on the other, a self denying tendency.

The fast, which is surely one of the greatest, communal religious institutions in the world does not involve so much withdrawal from the world as the suspension (misak) of its impact on our souls, the halting of life’s natural flow by a major act of obedience, which derives from a compelling consciousness of God’s supreme right to command.

This is not so much the replacing of natural rhythms with a divine hymn, so much as the sudden cessation of those rhythms. The fast means not so much the purging of the soul’s nature and will, so much as the denial to it of its natural opportunities. It symbolises the sacrifice of the soul in its relation with the world and its being given or offered to God. In doing this, man reflects by his detachment from the world, the Divine Self-sufficiency, while simultaneously becoming even more conscious of his complete need of God.

This act of self-sufficiency in God serves to demonstrate that man partakes of the attributes of God, shares with Him in His reality; since by obeying the command to fast, to hold back from what the world offers him, man shows that he is not only an animal; that he is able to transcend the automatic course of instinctual rhythms, that he is able to wake from the sleep of unconscious patterns and become aware of a higher reality than himself in which he shares.

He shows also that he is not the slave of time, in that he is able to break by his act of obedience deeply ingrained natural habits. The natural soul writhes under this denial and reaches out longingly for its accustomed satisfactions, but it is repulsed everytime and forced to acknowledge its own helplessness and servitude. It is significant that the only relief possible to the soul, during the hours of fasting comes in the form of the water which purifies. Here, once again, the rite symbolises our extinction (fana’) in His will and reality, it is a mode of the first shahadah, La ilaha illa Allah.

It was said earlier that the fast is not only a sacrifice, but also a giving of the soul to God. It is a giving on the part of man, in that it is indicative of his willingness, if only grudging, to acknowledge divine truth, as also to surrender himself to it totally. Totally, since properly speaking as indicated by Mary’s statement,

Lan uaallima al-yawma insiyyan,

the fast means the suspension of all the habits of the natural man, including unnecessary talking, indeed indulgence of any kind. Thus, the fast like the prayer is an individual rite, a rite which forces man inward, not this time on a journey to the centre, but to a confrontation with himself and his state.

Dr. OMAR AUSTIN is attached to the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Durham. The above talk was delivered at the Islamic Cultural Centre, London.

The Muslim
January-February 1973