Moving Islam Beyond Religion

According to a recent report in the National Geographic, various surveys are indicating a rapid growth in what are termed the “nones”, i.e., those who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. For instance, the Pew Research Center reports that “nones” now make up a quarter of the population in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany, and are the second largest group in North America and most of Europe. With these figures one cannot help but think of a Hadith related in the collections of al-Hākim, Ahmad and others, in which the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “The Hour will not begin until la ilaha illa Allah (there is no deity to be recognized for worship other than God) is no longer uttered.

Narrations about the End Times and official polls aside, the increasing number of people denouncing religion, including born Muslims after they enter college, is a phenomenon that is becoming far too readily observed anecdotally and it needs attention. If Islam was indeed the religion of the Fitra, i.e., the natural innate disposition towards Truth, goodness and purity, why would Muslims leave it? One can make a case that this is the eventual outcome of liberalism infiltrating minds through the education system, social activism, and the entertainment industry. However, the Quran teaches us to point the fingers at our own selves before we look elsewhere for the cause of our shortcomings.

A probable reason why religion may be rejected by an increasing number of young people today is its presentation as an intellectually stultifying way of life. This view of religion is reflected in the etymology of the word, which is derived from the Latin religio referring to a supernatural constrain, or religare meaning to restrain. In other words, the general popular conception of religion is that of a binding force that limits one’s actions. It is interesting to note here that as opposed to being strictly restrictive, the focus in the relationship that God has with the believers as outlined in the Quran and Hadith is about guidance. The first request we make as we recite the Quran from the beginning is to guide us to the Straight Path, and immediately following this request the answer comes in the second chapter, describing the Quran as having guidance for those who are mindful of God.

The Arabic word used to denote religion, deen, is derived from the three letter root word da ya na, which refers to incurring debt. Hence, the phenomenon of religion as it is to be adhered to entails recognition of being indebted to God and adhering to His commands and prohibitions. In practice religion appears to demand passive adoption of imperatives as opposed to an active engagement on one’s part with their Lord’s commandments. This is further enforced with the all-too-common way of translating the word “Islam” as submission. Many reading this may be familiar with the use of the Quran and Hadith as a conversation stopper. An attempt to understand and discuss is often seen as being argumentative, which earns one the final knockout verse from Surah an-Noor, “When the true believers are summoned to God and His Messenger in order for him to judge between them, they say, ‘We hear and we obey.’ These are the ones who will prosper.” [24:51]

The problem with this view of religion is in it being static, supposedly uninfluenced by historical and local contexts, and unfiltered through the human intellect. Dr. Sherman Jackson noted the danger of this approach to Islam in a recent article, stating “unlike their ancestors, the greatest threat facing most Muslims in the world today is not physical annihilation but the lack of cultural and intellectual authority with which to develop and gain assent for alternatives to forms of life and thought that challenge or undermine the efficacy of Islam…the primary threat Muslims face today is civilizational.

It is interesting to observe that pre-modern Muslim scholars wrote their texts with an awareness of their contexts. Their texts were not restricted to straight linguistic interpretations of the Quran and Hadith reports. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find them referring to various local customs and available scientific knowledge in their expositions. Contrary to modern Islamic neo-traditionalism (or neo-orthodoxy if you will), pre-modern Muslim scholars did not appear to be shy of engaging the tradition in a critical way. Of course this is not to equivocate between pre-modern Muslim scholars with aberrant so-called Muslim “reformers” today who seek to dismantle Islam and turn it into a New Age religion that appeases post-modern, neo-liberal, capitalist, and consumerist sensibilities. But it is to point out that a strict reading and studying of pre-modern texts and calling that “Islam” will only go so far today.

Beyond being a “religion”, the Quran describes what the Beloved ﷺ was tasked to deliver as a message that has three components, “God has been truly gracious to the believers in sending them a Messenger from among their own, to recite His revelations to them, to make them grow in purity, and to teach them the Scripture and wisdom – before that they were completely astray.” [3:164] Fakhr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī (d. 1209 CE) notes in his commentary on this verse that the full realization of what it means to be a human being comes about from knowledge of two things: Truth for its own sake, and what is good so that it is acted upon. Put another way, the human intellect has two capacities: theoretical and practical. Here, ar-Rāzī highlights that one of the purposes of revealing the Quran to the Beloved ﷺ is for the human being to achieve the full potential of those two capacities. He further elaborates that the “Scripture” referred to in the verse points to the outward manifestation of the Shari’a, i.e., the legal code and practices that stem from it, and “wisdom” refers to the virtues, secrets, benefits, and objectives of the Shari’a. Attainment of this wisdom is praised elsewhere in the Quran where it states, “He gives wisdom to whomever He wills, and whoever is given wisdom has truly been given much good, but only those with insight bear this in mind.” [2:269]

One of the best definitions of wisdom was offered by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350 CE) in his Madarij as-Salikeen (Steps of the Seekers), where he defines wisdom as “doing what is appropriate in the suitable manner for it to be done at the fitting time (or context) for it be carried out in.” This definition is essential to understanding how the Shari’a is meant to function in practical terms. Distilling the Shari’a to its essence, Ibn Qayyim wrote in his text on the protocols of fatwa I’lam al-Muaqi’een ‘an Rabbil Ālameen (Informing the Signatories on Behalf of the Lord of the Worlds):

The foundation and essence of Shari’a is about ruling for the benefit of [God’s] servants in this life and the Appointed Time. It is all justice, all mercy, all benefits, and all wisdom. Every matter that exits from justice to transgression, from mercy to its opposite, from benefit to harm, and from wisdom to frivolity is not from the Shari’a even if an attempt was made to make it so through interpretation.”

Al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 1108 CE) notes in his book on ethics ath-Thari’ah ila Makarim ash-Shari’a (The Path to Virtue) that it is by combining knowledge of the rulings of the law with its higher virtues and realizing both in action does one attain the highest stations and be fully mindful of their Lord. Unfortunately, much of modern teaching of the Islamic tradition relies on a pre-modern way of reading it, which imports pre-modern contextual realities no longer applicable today. This has led to the malaise of modern Islam, where the focus is on transmitting derived rulings that may sometimes be inapplicable because they were contingent on the context in which they were derived in, and rather than acknowledging this fact we find ourselves either having to feel guilty for not being born in the right era, or as in the case of an increasing number of Muslims rejecting Islam for its inability to provide the guidance it claims for itself to have.

Islam is not meant to be a religion per se. It is a sad commentary on our state today as Muslims that we often respond late if at all to calls that do not concern our immediate selfish interests as a group. The way Islam is taught focuses on either our acts of worship or our history, which does not necessarily turn one into a concerned citizen. Hence, when young Muslims want to engage with the modern world they are left without a metaphysically Islamic cognitive framework, and their lived experience becomes removed from their religious teaching, where the theoretical and practical capacities of their intellects become divergent. It is therefore not overly surprising to see many of them find Islam irrelevant and become disenchanted. It is high time that we recognize the urgency of our need and responsibility to re-examine our limiting conception of Islam as a “religion”, and adopt the mindset of our pre-modern scholars while acknowledging our own unique context.