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"...for truth wants to be known. It exerts pressure on the knower to share his vision of it with his peers." (Isma'il R. al-Faruqi)

HomeArticlesDefining Islamic Traditionalism: First Principles in the Islamization of Thought

Defining Islamic Traditionalism: First Principles in the Islamization of Thought

36 min.

The great task facing Muslim intellectuals and leaders is to recast the whole legacy of human knowledge from the standpoint of Islam. The vision of Islam would not be a vision unless it is a vision of something, namely, life, reality, and the world. That vision is the object of study of various disciplines. To recast knowledge as Islam relates to it, is to Islamize it, i.e., to redefine and reorder the parameters and the data, to rethink the reasoning and interrelationships of the data, to reevaluate the conclusions, to re-project the goals, and to do so in such a way as to make the reconstituted disciplines enrich the vision and the serve the cause of Islam.

To this end, the methodological categories or methodologically-relevant principles of Islam, namely, the unity of truth, the unity of knowledge, the unity of humanity, the unity of life, the telic [ed., purposeful] character of creation, and the subservience of creation to man and of man to Allah (SWT), must replace the Western categories and determine the perception and ordering of reality. So too, the values of Islam should replace Western values and direct the learning activity in every field. These values, especially the usefulness of knowledge for man’s felicity, the blossoming of man’s faculties, and the remolding of creation so as to concretize the divine patterns, should be manifested in the building of culture and civilization and in human models of knowledge and wisdom, heroism and virtue, and pietism and saintliness.

While avoiding the pitfalls and shortcomings of traditional methodology, Islamization of knowledge ought to observe a number of principles that constitute the essence of Islam. To recast disciplines or categories of knowledge, both in scope and internal coherence, under the framework of Islam means subjection of their theory and method, and their principles and goals, to the Oneness of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and to four derivative unities.

1. The Oneness of Allah (SWT)

Oneness of Allah (SWT) is the first principle of Islam and of everything Islamic. It is the principle that Allah (SWT) is indeed Allah; that no other being is Allah (SWT); and that He is absolutely One, absolutely transcendent metaphysically, and axiologically [ed., morally] ultimate; that everything else is ontically separate and different from Him and is His creation. He is the source of all goodness and beauty. His will is the law of nature, as well as the law of morality. His worship and praise are due from all creatures, above all from humans, whom Allah (SWT) has created in the best of forms and endowed with the faculties with which to recognize Him and acknowledge His works, as well as the capacity to transform creation so as to fulfill therein and manifest the inherent and pervading unity of His ethical and esthetic patterns.

To think and live in the consciousness of divine Oneness is to do so in a world enchanted and alive, since everything in it is there by Allah’s act (SWT), is sustained by His providence, and is in constant motion tending by nature ever forward toward realization of His will. In such a world nothing is happenstance; nothing is futile or devoid of meaning. In Allah’s creation nothing is but according to a precise measure which Allah (SWT) has ordained for it. To be part of such a world is to recognize one’s infinite complex of relations with all creatures; above all, it is to acknowledge one’s creatureliness, one’s indebtedness to Allah (SWT), and to give Him His due of love and obedience.

To be a Muslim is to have Allah (SWT) constantly present in one’s consciousness. And since He is the Creator and the Judge, to be Islamic means to do all and everything as He has directed and for His sake. All good and all happiness, as all life and all energy, are His gifts. In the Islamic life, these are acknowledged and used as such, while in Islamic thought, He is the First, the ultimate cause and end of everything.

As such His being and activity are the first constitutive and regulative principles of all knowledge. Whether the object of knowledge is the microcosm of the atom or the macrocosm of the stars, the depth of the self, the conduct of society, or the march of history, Islamic knowledge regards the object of knowledge as materially caused by the antecedent constituents of the situation whence that object proceeded; but the actual discharge of causality that brought about the object out of an infinity of other possible objects to which those same constituents might have led is the initiative of the Divine Being (SWT), issuing from a divine command.

Islamic knowledge also regards every object of knowledge as fulfilling an end willed by Allah (SWT), or serving another end that is so willed, so that the causal hierarchy of the universe is at once a hierarchy of ends, at the top of which stands the divine will willing the end of every individual being, of every series of ends, and of the hierarchy as a whole. Islamic knowledge recognizes that there is neither being, nor truth, nor value outside the chains and complexes of each, in which Allah (SWT) is cause and end, both immediate and ultimate; that whatever is conceived of, known, or evaluated outside the divinely ordained nexus is non-existent, false, or value-free, or merely misrepresented as standing outside that nexus.

2. The Unity of Creation

The unity of creation is a unity of cause, a unity of purpose, and an organic unity of cause and effect; that is, it is a metaphysical unity, an axiological unity, and a unity of both in the human person, who is the universal khalifa.

1. Cosmic Order

From the Oneness of Allah (SWT), the unity of His creation follows with logical necessity. As He said in the Qur’an, “If there were in heaven and earth other gods than Allah, both heaven and earth would have fallen into chaos” (Surah al Anbiya’ 21:22). If there were more than one ultimate reality, ultimate reality would not be ultimate. Moreover, the universe would then have to follow different orders; and if it did, it would not be the ordered universe we know. Nor would it be possible for us humans to know a universe in which more than one order obtains. Cosmic order, it must be remembered, is that under which we discern objects as substances, qualities, relations, and events. It is the consistency or unity of cosmic order that enables us to recognize the permanence of substances as things, and the repetition of events as causal relations. Without cosmic order, neither things nor causes and consequences would be the same.

Creation is an integral whole precisely because it is the work of one Creator Whose order and design has infused every part of it. Cosmic order consists of the laws of nature. These operate throughout the universe and permeate every part or aspect of it. The material, the spatial, the biological, the psychic, the social, and the esthetic – all reality obeys and fulfills these laws. All laws are the sunan or patterns of Allah (SWT) in His creation. Allah (SWT) is not merely the source of these laws; that is, having once designed nature according to them and established their working in nature, He did not decide to operate and/or control them no more. He is not a retired God, but eternally living and active. Therefore every being in the cosmos, and every event that takes place, are so by His command.

At any stage of its existence, every being has built within it the dynamic power to change. This dynamic power comes from Allah and is sustained by Him. Furthermore, this power is not necessarily bound to produce the result with which it is associated. It is by Allah’s command (SWT) that a particular effect is caused by the causes usually associated with it. Allah (SWT) may operate a cause to bring about its effect immediately; but He can and does operate a cause by means of other causes, so that what seems to us to be an inexorable chain of causes is just as much a divine causing as a single cause.

For our part as humans, we trust Allah (SWT), or His cosmic order, that given a cause, its effect will follow. As al-Ghazali and Hume had found out despite their ideological differences, there is no necessity to any causal connection. Indeed, what we call causality is mere “following upon” and repetition, leading us to believe that a cause is usually followed by its effect. Such faith has nothing to stand upon except the benevolence of the divine Being. For Allah (SWT) seeks not to cheat or misguide. He is a benevolent Creator, Who ordered things in the universe to make it livable and comprehensible to us, and to make it possible for us to exercise our moral options and prove our ethical worth in the deed.

2. Creation: A Kingdom of Ends

Allah (SWT) created everything and did so with precise measure (Al Furqan 25:2). This measure assigns to everything its nature, its relations to other beings, and the course of its existence. Equally, the divine measure subjects everything not only to the system of causes described above, but also to a system of ends. Everything has a raison d’etre, a purpose which its being serves. This purpose is never final, but always subject to other purposes with which it constitutes a finalistic nexus that ends only in Allah (SWT). For only He is the ultimate End, the final Purpose, unto Whom everything returns. His will makes every good good.

Everything that is therefore is at once related in a cause-effect relationship to everything else, as well as in a finalistic or means-to-end relationship. For both the metaphysical and the axiological relationships terminate with Allah (SWT). The network of each is infinite. Certainly, both are open for human inspection and for human knowledge and appreciation. Being infinite, however, only a portion of the relationship can be known to humans who are led, as it were, by a pocket spotlight in a dark jungle. But it is their prerogative and duty to press ever forward in its exploration and discovery. To discover and appreciate those relations is to establish knowledge and appreciation of the immutable patterns of Allah (SWT).

That all things in creation serve a purpose and that all purposes are internalized as means and ends to one another makes the world one telic system, vibrant and alive, full of meaning. The birds in the sky, the stars in the firmament, the fishes in the depth of the oceans, the plants and the elements – all constitute integral parts of the system. No part of it is inert or evil, since every being has a function and a role in the life of the whole. Together, they make an organic body whose members and organs are interrelated in ways that humans are only now coming to discover through science, but only in very limited parts of nature.

Muslims know all too well that creation was organic, that every part of it serves some end or another, even if that is not known to them. This knowledge is a consequence of their faith. Confronted with the wolf devouring the lamb, the bird eating the butterfly, or the human body feeding the worms in the earth, they assume all being to be good, fulfilling in its natural activity a divine purpose and serving a system of purposes that culminates in the Divine Will.

The Muslim is not free to ascribe anything to accident or to blind fate. Earthquakes, pestilences, drought, and tragedy, the Muslim regards as ordained by Allah (SWT). However tragic or painful these events may be, the Muslim accepts them as effects of Allah (SWT), willed by Him for a good cause which the Muslim may not now discern. As effects of Allah (SWT), the Muslim is never overwhelmed by them, because he knows Allah (SWT), the Author of them, to be at once His beneficent Protector. He therefore assumes them to be tests, ordained by Allah (SWT), to try him, calling for the greatest firmness and for faith and optimism in the final outcome. This aspect of the faith of Islam is precisely what humans need in the face of tragedy in order to work for and accomplish good in the world and to secure their own earthly and eternal happiness.

Allah (SWT) has ordained this world as one in which causes are followed by their effects, where causes converge on everything from an infinite scope and effects diverge from every event in equally infinite scope, and where the same infinite relationships exist and bind everything together in a system of purpose, consisting of an organic and telic hierarchy [ed., reflected in the higher purposes or dururiyat and subordinate goals or hajjiyat and objectives or tahsiniyat of the shari’ah and tawhid cybernetics]. This is itself meant to provide a theater for man’s life and ethical endeavor. The theater is not its own end; nor is it the property and exclusive domain of man. Since man is created for a life of service to his Creator (SWT), the world is His grant to every person and community. Man’s duty therefore is to work out the divine patterns in it, but to safeguard it from deterioration and indeed to improve it.

3. Tashkir, or Subservience of Creation to Man

Allah (SWT) has granted the world as a temporary gift and theater to man. He has made everything in it subservient to him, i.e., capable of being used by man for his nourishment, enjoyment, and comfort. Such use may be immediate as in the case of nourishment and enjoyment, or mediate as when the forces of nature are utilized to produce the goods men need. Between the objects of creation and human usufruct there is a built-in concordance. Creation has the needs of humanity built into it, its objects being meant to serve those needs. The whole range of nature is capable of receiving man’s efficacy, of suffering change at his initiative, of transformation into any pattern man desires. Humankind can dry up the seas or utilize the sun, move the mountains and cultivate the deserts, or lay the whole world waste. Man can full the world with beauty and enable everything to prosper, or fill it with ugliness and destroy everything. The subservience of creation to man knows no limits. Allah (SWT) has willed it so.

The causal and finalistic interconnections of the objects of creation are the substance of this subservience, which would be futile and meaningless without them. Man would quickly lose interest in creation and give up any attempt to transform it into the ought-patterns [ed., axiological paradigm] revealed by Allah, if he could not depend on causes to bring about their effects or the means to be good for their ends. Such would be an inert, immovable, and unchangeable world, or a world for fools [ed., though anomalies or miracles, as exceptions to prove the rule, evidence the higher wisdom of Allah and His living sustenance of His creation].

3. The Unity of Truth and the Unity of Knowledge

Reason may certainly have its illusions and aberrations as well as its uncertainties. Its capacity for self-criticism gives it a fair degree of protection; but wherever ultimate truth and reality are concerned, its human predicament leaves it in need of corroboration by the infallible source of Revelation.

Once the questions of first or ultimate principles are settled, then reason acquires new vigor with which it can overcome the problems confronting it. Its basic presuppositions must all be apodeictically certain [ed., direct and clear argument must show their truths and point out their wider implications; from the same root as “paradigm,” which means to show by comparison with a model]. Some are so by self-evidence; others are the common experience of humanity at large. There are others, however, which are capable of an ought-to-be necessity only; that is, they are capable of being perceived as true only by those who have the requisite degree of wisdom, or maturity of religion or ethical vision, and who are on that account expected to see reality as it is. Hence, recognition of such truths and values may not be mathematically universal, but it enjoys a different kind of necessity, an ought-to-be necessity or sollensnotwendigkeit.

Where reason does not enjoy apodeictic certainty, the light of faith can provide this certainty and in fact cast illuminating light on all other presuppositions, and support with additional certainty the whole worldview built upon them. This light of faith is definitely epistemological, and comes as the apogee of reasonableness, not its opposite. Between the light of faith and the apodeictically certain presuppositions there is affinity, harmony, correspondence, and complementarity.

In Islam, faith is never irrational in its role and contribution, unlike other religions which tend to be dogmatic through and through. It does not stand above reason, just as reason does not stand above faith. The perception of reason and faith as diametrical opposites, and of man as having to choose between them, is not Islamic. Consider the following passage from the New Testament:

“The Jews require a sign [miracle] ad the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block [skandalon] and unto the Greeks foolishness….The foolishness of God is wiser than men….Not many of you are wise as men account wisdom, but God has chosen those whom the world considers foolish to confound the wise;….the weak of the world to confound the mighty; He chose the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something, so that man can do no boasting before God” (I Corinthians 1:22-28)

If this contrasts reason and faith, it may be Jewish or Christian or Hindu, but it is not Islamic.

As concerns the theory of knowledge, the position of Islam may best be described as the unity of truth. This unity devolves from God’s absolute Oneness and is convertible with it. Al haqq or the “truth” is the name of Allah (SWT). If Allah is indeed Allah (SWT), as Islam affirms, then the truth cannot be many. Allah (SWT) knows the truth and, in His Revelation, He tells it as it is. What He conveys in the Revelation cannot be different from reality, since He is the Creator of all reality as well as of all truth. The truth that is the object of reason is embodied in the laws of nature. These are the patterns of Allah’s creation, His sunan, which are constant and unchangeable, and hence are possible to discover, to establish, and to use for the benefit of humanity. Besides proclaiming Allah’s existence and creation, Revelation gives instruction about the world, teaching the very same laws of nature or divine patterns in accordance with which the universe runs. Obviously, there can be no truer disclosure or rendering of these laws or patterns than by their Maker and Author. Theoretically therefore there can be no discrepancy. This logical equivalence of reason, truth, and reality with the fact of Revelation is the most critical principle epistemology [ed., as well as shari’ah thought] has ever known. This equivalence is based on three principles underlying all Islamic knowledge.

First, the unity of truth prescribes that no claim on behalf of Revelation may be made that goes counter to reality. The propositions that Revelation is supposed to teach must be true, i.e., they must correspond to reality and agree with it. It is inconceivable that Allah (SWT) may be ignorant, or that He may seek to cheat or misguide His creatures. His statements therefore, given expressly to guide and instruct, cannot oppose reality. Whatever they may claim must accord with reality. Wherever such variation from reality occurs, the Muslim is rightly cautioned by the doctrine of the unity of truth to reconsider his understanding of Revelation. The doctrine guided him against overhasty interpretation, exaggerated allegorical interpretation and exegesis, or reading into the material any esoteric meaning or batin arbitrarily assumed on the authority of someone. The meanings of the Islamic Revelation are eternally anchored in two solid rocks: Arabic lexicography and syntax, which have remained unchanged since the revelation of the Qur’an, and reality.

Second, the unity of truth prescribes that no contradiction, difference, or variation between reason and Revelation is ultimate; that there is no overarching principle, fact, or understanding that can contain, solve, and remove the contradiction. In investigating nature and attempting to discover the patterns of the Creator’s laws in the universe, it is certainly possible for one to make mistakes, to end up in illusion, and to think he has grasped the truth while being in error. Such would create discrepancy between Revelation and reason. The unity of truth rejects such discrepancy as illusory and demands that the enquirer reconsider and re investigate the data. The cause of the discrepancy may well be in the findings of reason, in which case it would be salutary to send the investigator back to the data for reexamination. And it may well be in his understanding of Revelation, in which case it would be equally salutary to send him back to its data for review.

Third, the unity of truth, or the correspondence and identity of the laws of nature with the patterns of the Creator (SWT), prescribes that no inquiry into the nature of creation or any part of it may be closed and concluded. The patterns of Allah (SWT) are infinite. Openness to new evidence and persistence in the quest are necessary characteristics of the Islamic mind, which accepts the unity of truth. A critical attitude to all human claims, and an active search for the laws of nature, recognizing that no search is ever ultimately conclusive, are at once necessary conditions of Islamicity and of genuine science. In accordance with this view, the strongest conclusion is always tentative, valid only until new evidence has questioned, refuted, or verified it. The highest wisdom, the most certain pronouncement, must always be followed with the affirmation, , that is, Allah (SWT) knows better, or only Allah (SWT) really knows.

4. The Unity of Life

The third of the four unities deriving from the Oneness of Allah (SWT), in addition to the unities of creation, of truth and knowledge, and of humanity, is the unity of life. This can be summarized as man’s affirmation and promotion of life by building culture and its derivative civilization, all is response to the Divine amana and khilafa entrusted to every person and to all mankind.

1. The Divine Amana

In a passage of the Qur’an, Allah (SWT) says: “And when [after creating heaven and earth] Allah told the angels that He was about to create a vicegerent and assign him to the earth, the angels pleaded, `Would you place on earth persons who will do evil and shed blood while we praise and adore you constantly?’ Allah replied, `I have a hidden purpose which you do not know.’ [Having created Adam] Allah taught him the names of all things, showed him to the angels and asked them to name the things of nature. They could not and answered, `Praise be to You. We know only what You have taught us. Yours is the knowledge and the wisdom.’ Allah asked Adam to tell the names, which he did. … Then Allah asked the angels to prostrate themselves to Adam” (Surah al Baqara 30-34). In other passages concerning the creation of man, Allah (SWT) says, “We offered Our trust to heaven and earth and the mountains. But they feared and withdrew and refused to accept it. Man, however, agreed to take it” (Surah al Ahzab 33:72). “I have not created men and jinn but to serve me. … ” (Surah al Zariyat 51:56). “Allah created heaven and earth … that you [humankind] may prove yourselves ethically worthy by your deeds” (Surah Hud 11:7). “Praised be He … Who created life and death that you may prove yourselves ethically worthy by your deeds” (Surah al Mulk 67:1-2).

The foregoing passages of the Qur’an answer for all time the question of whether or not man’s being has a reason explaining it. Islam affirms with all possible emphasis that man has a raison d’etre and that it is the service of Allah (SWT).

The divine will is of two kinds, a kind that is realized necessarily, namely, the divine patterns on the basis of which creation runs. These patterns are the laws of nature. They are immutable and their fulfillment is cosmic. They are known by reason in addition to Revelation. Allah (SWT) enjoined upon man the duty to seek them, to understand them, to establish them as knowledge, and to utilize them to his advantage.

The second kind of divine will is realized only in freedom, that is, only when they are fulfilled in a condition where fulfillment, as well as violation or non-fulfillment, are distinct possibilities. These are the moral laws. They co-exist with the laws of nature, that is, they are always realized in a context of things, persons, and relations in the empirical world, but they belong to an order different from the empirical. They are a priori. Whether or not they enter the real situation and become fulfilled therein depends upon whether that situation fulfills their own peculiar requirements. Moral laws require the free exercise of a personal will. Devoid of such will, “heaven and earth and the mountains” were incapable of accepting and carrying the divine amana or trust. Only man carries it, for he alone is capable of such moral freedom. His capacity puts him above the angels. For they do not enjoy the capacity to obey and disobey. That is why Allah (SWT) commanded them to prostrate themselves before man. They are perfect and can only obey Allah’s orders. They praise and serve Him constantly and never disobey. Thus the obedience of man is worthier than the obedience of the angels precisely because such obedience comes from persons [ed., i.e., from all sentient beings, including humans and jinn, including the Devil) who are well capable of doing otherwise.

For such a person to turn away from evil, the way of the lesser good, the way of the material or utilitarian or selfish good, and to opt freely to do that which the moral law demands, is to realize a higher value. The moral life is a higher, superior, nobler, and greater kind of life. The higher part of the Divine Will does not enter history and become real unless human beings choose to realize it in freedom. Man is therefore a cosmic bridge between the higher echelons of the Divine Will and historical reality. Evidently his being is of tremendous significance.

2. The Khilafa

Man’s carrying of the divine amana constitutes his khilafa or vicegerency to Allah (SWT). His khilafa consists in the fulfillment of the moral laws. These and the religious laws are one. The latter do command a few rituals. These have aspects, however, that are not merely religious or otherworldly but are quite this-worldly in their character and effect. The whole rest of the corpus of the religious or moral laws consists of actual practices of living, of being, and doing. What they add to the actual practices is a quality, a perspective, a way of discharging those self-same practices.

It is commonplace for persons to desire, to grow, to acquire and possess, to love, to marry and procreate, to seize and exercise power, etc. Islam wishes these activities to continue. It does not, like much of Christianity or Buddhism, condemn and wish them to stop. All it seeks is to have humankind enter into these actions with a different motivation and to perform them in a different way. The different motivation is for them to be willed for the sake of Allah (SWT). And the different way is to do them justly and righteously, that is, to have them bring about their utilitarian or moral objective without entailing any undesirable, unjust, or immoral consequence.

The aforementioned unity follows from the fact that Islam does not separate the sacred or the religious from the secular. In its view, there is one reality only not two, as in the case of religions that bifurcate life into a sacred sector and a secular sector. Nothing is, as such, sacred except Allah (SWT); and no act is, as such, religious. Islam regards everything as secular and profane; it is the manner of doing it that fulfills or does not fulfill the religious or moral requirement. Events or human deeds could be good or evil, virtuous or vicious, depending on whether they bring about justice, righteousness, beauty, happiness, or otherwise. To be religious therefore does not mean to withdraw from the usual processes of life, nor to perform deeds utterly devoid of utilitarian value. The whole matter of religion is a quality of the very practices of living. On this account, Islam remains embedded in the very processes of life and history. Outside of these processes, there is neither piety nor virtue, and certainly no Islam.

Christianity and Buddhism, at least in their fundamentalist forms, may regard religion as doing other things than the processes of life and history, and they may prescribe self-mortification and asceticism, monasticism, and combating or even arresting those very processes. They do so because in their view the processes of life and history stand condemned as evil and doomed. For Christianity believes that creation is “fallen” and “evil” and “hopeless,” and prescribes faith and the imitatio Christi as salvation from them. Likewise, Buddhism believes creation is evil,tanha, full of nothing but pain and suffering, and prescribes self- and life-denial as salvation from the processes of life and history.

Islam denies such a priori axioms condemning life and history. In its view, creation as such is good, brought about by Allah (SWT) for a good purpose, namely, that it may be affirmed with devotion to Him and justice to mankind. Involvement in its processes is at the root of Islam’s view of man. Allah (SWT) has appointed him to achieve two objectives. First, humans should transform creation into the divine patterns, i.e, so rearrange its materials so as to make them fully and beneficially subserve human needs, the material (food, shelter, comfort, procreation), as well as the moral (intellectual, aesthetic). Second, in the very act of transforming creation, humans ought to instantiate the ethical values by choosing to enter into those acts of transformation in an ethical way, that is, in a way that fulfills the requirements of devotion to Allah (SWT) and justice to mankind.

The content of the Divine amana, and therefore of khilafa, is the development and establishment of culture and civilization. To institute peace and assurance of life and property, to organize humans into an ordered society capable of producing food and of processing, storing, and distributing it to all in adequate quantities and quality, to provide shelter, warmth and comfort, communication and ease, to build and make available the tools necessary to realize these goals, and, finally, to furnish opportunities for education and self-realization, and for recreation and esthetic enjoyment, this is the core content of khilafa. It is equivalent to the making of culture and civilization, to the affirmation and promotion of life and the world. Allah (SWT) commands all this to be done and declares it to be the very reason for His creation of the world. The Divine, anterior motive in all this is that humans may prove themselves ethically worthy in doing it. They can do so by entering into their routines of action for His sake and maintaining the balance of justice throughout their actions.

Rightly, Muslims understand khilafa as predominantly political. The Qur’an repeatedly associates khilafa with establishment of political power (Surah al A’araf 7:73), the reassurance of security and peace (Surah al Nur 24:55), the vanquishing of enemies and the replacement of their regime by that of the vicegerents (Surah al A’araf 7:128 and Surah Yunus 10:14 & 73). Political action, i.e. participation in the political process as in election or bay’ah of the ruler, giving continual counsel and advice to the chief of state and his ministers, monitoring their actions, criticizing and even impeaching them – all these are not only desirable but prime religious and ethical duties. Failure to perform such duties is, as the Prophet (SAWS) said, to lapse into jahiliya. On the other hand, to be part of the politico-religious body of Islam is integral to the faith itself. Abu Bakr and the sahaba (R) fought those who wanted to secede from the body while keeping the faith, branding them as apostates who had rejected the whole of Islam. Unlike Christianity, large sections of which have always regarded the political process as the depth of evil and counseled against involvement in it, Islam considers it to be of the essence and prohibits withdrawal. The same is true a fortiori of culture and civilization. Islam regards building them as the very business of religion. All the more contrasting with the norms of Islam therefore is the disengagement of the Muslim masses from the political process in the period of decay in which we are still ensnared.

3. Comprehensiveness

The will of Islam to culture and civilization is comprehensive, as it must be if it is meant seriously. This comprehensiveness is at the foundation of the comprehensiveness of the shari’ah. Every aspect of human life is affected and this affection is the relevance of Islam to it. This relevance may be clear or unclear. And it may be hard, as in the shari’ah‘s injunctions and prohibitions, its wajibat and muharramat, or it may be soft, as in its categorizations of mandub, makruh, and mubah [ed., gradations in the spectrum, unknown in Western law, between the required and the forbidden). But nothing escapes Islam’s relevance.

True, the area of the mubah or permissible is wide. But its width is not a sign of Islam’s irrelevance. The mubah lies outside the realm of enforcement, whether strictly or coercively, as in the case of wajib and haram, or by moral authority as in the case of mandub [encouraged] and makruh [discouraged]. Beyond that realm stands the realm of culture and life-style which is just as important for Islam as that of enforcement. In fact, enforcement depends upon proper acculturation, which is its presupposition and without which it is unthinkable. Nothing is enforceable to which people have not been already acculturated, of which they are not already convinced, and on which there is not already a community consensus.

Therefore it is the duty of the Muslim thinker to Islamize every single item in human living, i.e., to define and apply the relevance of Islam to it. The Qur’an has already done so in a number of areas of human activity normally assigned the status of “soft enforcement” or neutrality, e.g. concerning such practices as mutual greetings, speaking softly, not overstaying one’s welcome, gentleness to parents and elders, etc. The Prophet (SAWS) did his best to fine-tune the application of Islam by his teaching and example in such areas as how to eat and drink, keep clean, engage in recreation, treat one’s neighbor, etc. The style of life that Islam had instituted in the early period of elaboration or extension of these Qur’anic and Sunnatic directives needs today to be redefined, recrystallized, and complemented so as to extend these directives to activities not known or common then, or to apply them more firmly to those areas which modernity has raised from the status of luxury or marginality to that of necessity. The areas of social intercourse, of travel and transportation, of recreation, of the audio and visual arts, of mass communications, and, of course, of politico-economics and international affairs, are especially in need of creative thought in order to maintain the relevance of Islam.

5. The Unity of Humanity

The Oneness of Allah (SWT) and the necessary unity of His created manifestation mean that the Creator (SWT), from the ontological perspective, must stand in absolutely the same creatorly relationship to all humans. The converse of this relation is that all humans must stand in absolutely the same creaturely relationship to their Creator. In so far as their being is concerned, they cannot be ontically plural without this plurality implying an equal plurality in the Creator (SWT).

Certainly, humans can and do have different characteristics such as race, color, physical build, personality, language style, and culture. But none can have ontological value, i.e., constitute the person it qualifies as a different being. None of them can affect the person’s creaturely status before Allah (SWT). Their value remains accidental to the person’s being Allah’s creature.

By determining the personality and/or content of their possessor, ethnic characteristics may and very often do bring about his moral felicity or ruin. But their determination of the ethical outcome is never final or ultimate. For it is never ultimately impossible that a person with any imaginable combination of such characteristics be morally worthy or unworthy. The inner core constitutive of the person’s being must therefore remain somewhat free of them, capable of following their determinative power or doing otherwise, i.e., of channeling their causal efficiency to other ends.

The foregoing argument is the reason underlying the divine statement in the Qur’an, “O People, We have created you (all) of a single pair, a male and female (namely, Adam and Eve); and We have constituted you into tribes and nations that you may know one another. Nobler among you in the estimate of Allah is the more virtuous” (Surah al Hujurat 49:13). Belonging to one gender or another, to “tribes and nations” or one ethnicity or another, is perhaps the most obvious characterization of, and first differentiation among, humans. Second come language, physiognomy, intelligence, dexterity, and body strength, which are less fixed at birth and more apt to undergo change. Third are the readily changeable characteristics of personality, which constitute the virtues and vices: from wisdom and knowledge, and piety and patience, to ignorance and foolishness, and faithlessness and rebellion. All these constitute the human personality or life style, at least in its foundation and base. The rest of personality and life style is built up as habit or judgment, tendency or temperament, reputation, and the history or tradition of that personality through the accumulation of its own deeds. All of them are constitutive and determinative of the human person. The difference is wide between those that are predetermined before birth and hence immutable and those that are acquired in various stages of life and hence are subject to growth and development and to change and abolition.

Humans are very apt to mistake the values of these differing levels of characteristics and of the roles they play in the life of a person. In history, no other facts have determined the human judgment of persons and groups more than the first order of characteristics, namely, gender and ethnicity. And yet these are the most innocent, because they are the least dependent upon moral decision and action, and the least susceptible to change. In most cases, their immediacy and obviousness mislead people to take them as ontic and differentiate and discriminate on their basis. This is why the Qur’an picked them first and sought to demolish all judgments dependent upon them. These characteristics are the work of Allah (SWT), necessary and unchangeable, and created by Allah (SWT) merely for the purpose of identification. They are to be regarded solely as a “passport” or “identity card,” saying absolutely nothing about the moral character or value of the carrier. If the term “know” is taken figuratively, then the Qur’an would be telling us that gender and ethnic characteristics were created by Allah (SWT) so that humans might find in them mutual complementation and cooperation.

Hence, all humans are one and the same. On this ground the universalism of Islam is based. All humans are one in the eyes of Allah (SWT), except as their deeds might distinguish them in moral virtue and in cultural or civilizational achievement. If one’s attitudes and actions toward others are dependent upon one’s own group or personal characteristics, it is a moral duty to grow, develop, and change or radically alter those characteristics. And it is always possible to do so. The door to such cultivation or alteration is never closed. On the other hand, where judgment does take place on the basis of one’s own or others’ immutable characteristics, a mortal crime – namely, ethnocentrism – is committed.

The implications of such crime are ominous: the unity of humanity is violated, and Divine Oneness is violated as well. Nothing is more odious to Allah (SWT) than shirk, which is creating and worshiping would-be rivals to Allah (SWT) in what is known as associationism or polytheism; and nothing less than shirk is the implication of ethnocentrism, because it rejects the unity of creation and therefore the Oneness of Allah (SWT). Nothing has been more productive of hostility, war, and bloodshed among humans than ethnocentrism. Religion and all sorts of causes have been paraded as causes of various conflicts among groups of humans. In reality, nearly all these conflicts among groups are ultimately reducible to ethnocentric decisions made on the basis of the immutable characteristics of a so-called “enemy.”

With ethnocentrism, of which racism and nationalism are the commonplace expressions, Islam can make no compromise. The conflict between them is irreconcilable, because the damage that ethnocentrism inflicts upon the human spirit – whether as the subject or the object of discrimination – is irreparable.

To condemn ethnocentrism as Islam does is not to condemn patriotism. The latter means the attitude of love and endearment, of appreciation of the life and value of the group, of self-preparation to undergo any exertion or sacrifice, including laying down one’s life, in defense of the community. As such, patriotism not only is not an evil, but is a positive good enjoined by Islam. It is both a religious and ethical duty to love, serve, and defend the moral community of one’s own people and land against aggression and injustice.

Ethnocentrism is far removed from patriotism. Its essence is to assume the advantage of the ethnic entity as an ultimate criterion of good and evil; and its most common expression is to hold the ethnic entity superior to mankind because of the innate characteristics of its members, and to regard and pursue that advantage at the cost of any other. It is because ethnocentrism makes such an assumption that it is possible for it to command the absolute loyalty of the adherent. The claim it makes is the claim of ultimate reality

The committed ethnocentrist, whether Jew, German, French, or Russian, genuinely assumes the Jewish people, Germany, France, or Russia to be ultimate realities constituting ultimate criteria of good and evil. What Zionism built in the psyche of the Jewish people, what Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche and other Romantic thinkers built in the psyche of the German people as to what “Deutschland” is, and what Rousseau, Fustel de Coulanges, and others had built in that of the French people as to what la nation or la France is, was nothing short of a mystique that bloated the Jewish People, Germany, and France into something approximating the ultimate reality of religious faith. The pride and inspiration commanded by these mystical entities, and the moving appeal they exercise upon the heart and imagination of the adherent, are indeed those of a purported reality that is mysterious, tremendous, fascinating, transcendent, and ultimate.

The Muslim is the person who believes the exact opposite precisely because his God is absolutely the only God of all. This is the premise that necessitates his assumption of all the unities we have been discussing. A Muslim nationalist or racist is therefore a contradiction in terms; and the Muslim who claims commitment to nationalism is either a zindiq (a non-Muslim pretending to be one), or a munafiq (a hypocrite), or one whose commitment is so superficial that it cannot withstand the lure of bribe or personal advantage. That is also the reason why the careers of the overwhelming majority of so-called committed Muslim nationalist leaders have left much to be desired by way of consistency and fidelity.

In modern times, knowledge of man has nearly all been based upon ethnic entity as the ultimate definiens of humanity; and knowledge of society has rested on ethnic entity as the first and ultimate ground of social order and organization. The universalism of the Enlightenment had never been given a chance of implementation before it was repudiated in favor of the ethnocentric approach of romanticism. Indeed, the universalism of the Enlightenment was theoretical and suspicious, considering that even in the hands of the prince of the movement, Immanuel Kant, the various people of mankind were graded as superior and inferior on the basis of traditional European prejudices toward the innate characteristics of Asians, Africans, and Europeans. Romanticism swept over the whole of the West, wiped out every trace of rationalist or Christian universalism, and provided the greatest impetus for the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. Man was defined by the thinkers as a function of facts, faculties, and forces that spring and nourish themselves from a land mystically conceived, from a race or people or blood mysteriously standing in an infinite dimension of time, and from a tradition whose roots run infinitely in depth and extension through both space and time. Furthermore, these are not understood by reason but are grasped by feeling, immediate experience, and intuition. Their most eloquent and clearest expression is to be found in the arts, especially in music, painting, and literature. Even religion was reconceived by these romantic thinkers, notably Schleiermacher, as founded solely on the ineffable experience of the adherent, i.e. his personal feeling, thereby conceding the point to the detractors of religion that it is irrational and arbitrary and of the same nature as “illusion” and “opium.”

The Western humanities continued to speak of “man” and “humanity.” But in their romanticized understanding, these terms denoted Western man and Western humanity. If they did not exclude the billion “blacks,” the billion “browns,” and the billion “yellows” of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, it counted them only as approximations of humanity which might be colonized, exploited, and used for the welfare of Western humanity. Certainly they ought to be studied; but they ought to be so as specimens of a bygone age, and thus contribute to Western man’s historical (evolutionary) understanding of himself.

Ethnocentrism is internally divisive, for it is always possible to find within any defined group a few sub-groups that reveal a greater concentration of innate characteristics than the larger group. Such “facta” could then furnish the base for a smaller group to call itself an ethnic entity endowed with a stronger particularism. Hence, besides separating the Westerners from the rest of the world with which they were coming into more intensive contact because of the development of industry and transportation, romanticism divided the West into mutually hostile and competitive nations, each seeking its “national interest” as if it were the criterion of all good and evil. The nations of the West learned from and readily accepted the findings of one another. The romantic insights, analyses, and expressions of one nation were quickly acknowledged as true of another, adopted, and applied as if they were one’s own.

The Western social sciences – history, geography, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology – were all developed under the impetus provided by romanticism. All of them, each in its own way, are based upon the ethnocentric view that the nation, or ethnic entity, with its well defined geography and demography but infinite and woozy history is the ultimate unit of analysis and value. When they speak of “society” or “social order,” they mean their own national entity or order. Some say it openly on their first pages; others leave it unsaid as their most basic needless-to-be-said assumption or premise. Sociology boldly affirms the ethnocentrist thesis because it deals directly with society and social order. Political science follows. Western geography can conceive of the world only as a satellite of the West, a world revolving around England, America, France, Germany, or Italy as its heart and core, depending on the author and place of publication. Western economics was at its earlier stages impertinent enough to claim for itself the status of a universal science. But it was put back in its place as a Western analysis of a Western nation by the arch-romanticists and ethnocentrists of Europe, the Nazis. The same bombastic claims made on behalf of the discipline by Karl Marx were denied in practice by Lenin and Khrushchev. Their regime, however, never permitted a statement to this effect to appear in print; but it allowed a fair measure of ethnocentric (in this case, national-socialistic) declarations to be included in the new USSR constitution of 1978.

Finally, anthropology is the boldest of all. In its view, “humanity” means ethnicity and is logically equivalent to and convertible with it. In the last two centuries, its effect has been to whip up humankind into a frenzy of ethnocentric consciousness by singling out one subgroup after another, and constructing for it an ideology and axiology out of that group’s innate characteristics or what its advocates have fabricated and declared to be innate and particular to that ethnic group. Instead of identifying and emphasizing what is universally human, its whole concern is to identify the particular, and to develop and blow it far out of proportion.

Islam recognizes the family as the constitutive unit of social order, and buttresses its extended form with legislation regarding inheritance and dependence in order to enable the largest possible family membership to eat from the same kitchen and hence mutually and economically to support the social, emotional, and mental health and prosperity of its members. Beyond the family, Islam recognizes multiple levels of community in humanity, and finally the universal social order of the largest community, mankind. Man’s membership in this order generates interest in the social sciences, or should do so. Human groupings without a moral basis between the family and humankind, such as country, region, the “people,” or “nation-state,” Islam regards purely as administrative units absolutely irrelevant to the definition of good and evil and to the interpretation and application of the shari’ah. The arts, the humanities, and the social sciences of the modern West must therefore be totally recast. A new foundation of first principles should be given them concordant with the universalism of Islam. And they ought to receive from the Islamic thinker a new axiology – viz., Islamic values and ends – as ultimate objectives for guiding all thought and action [ed., which is precisely the raison d’etre of shari’ah thought and tawhid cybernetics].

Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi


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