Islam Re-thought

By John Lerwill. Last Updated 4 May 2011

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What is Islam? ... How does it relate to other religions? ... What is the future for Islam?
Islam is, it could be said, at a cross-roads. At the same time, the Western World in the main does not know what Islam is - we may have heard of 5-times a day prayer, Ramadhan, Mecca and perhaps one or two more aspects of Islam and about Muslims, but is that sufficient to know about a religion whose influence sparked the development of a then new and great civilization of learning and tolerance as it spread both westwards and eastwards, absorbing (as it went) Greek, Hindu and Persian learning?

That its affect was so emphatic on the Medieval World caused Christianity to examine this new civilization very closely, and embibed many of its views in relation to science and the cosmos. To-day we use "Arab numerals". Islam even encroached into much of Iberia (what we now know as Spain and Portugal) and its adherents created wonders of architecture and landscape gardening in a climate of tolerant intellectual growth in which the Jews also flourished.

Islam's influence on the world was felt so strongly so long ago now, and that probably urges us to view it as something obsolete - not relevant to us in the West. However, that view became somewhat shattered on 9/11 in 2001, as we realised that something apparently related to Islam suddenly appeared to be a direct, deadly threat.

Since 9/11 (and after other attacks), there have been many assurances proferred that "this was not Islam in action, this was an aberration - the action of extremists", "Islam teaches Peace, not the killing of innocents" - etc. These statements ARE true. But do they explain to the West anything of what Islam really is? Furthermore, how many Muslims really understand their religion? How is it possible for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus (and other religious adherents) to co-exist in harmony when their ways appear - on the surface - to be so different?

Philosopher Charles Taylor - recently the winner of the Templeton Prize for his work on highlighting the role of spirituality as a practical philosophy - refers to the concept of a 'clash of civilizations' and the need to "fight back against a creeping Islamophobia growing in our lives." He added that there is a need to for both 'sides' to learn more about the other, and about the diversity of each other's respective cicilization.

However, as a result of 9/11 and other events, it is Islam that is under focus, and the conscientious of those who follow that noble path seek to know what is the truth in their religion? What does the Qur'an say - they ask - about this or that important issue? How do we - they ask - relate our religion to modern circumstances? In many cases, these questioning Muslims look to ijtihad as a means of solving their queries. Ijtihad is an accepted intellectual method of questioning issues about Islam, but I fear that it is too intellectually orientated, and will not appeal to the masses. Ijtihad does, however, encourage examination of the truth - and any move in that direction must surely be beneficial.

But my question remains: How can ijtihad be applied successfully unless there is a truly wise guiding light who knows the Qur’an and can teach the meaning of the Qur’an according to the level of understanding of his/her listeners? Even Ghazzali (who is referred to later) realized his limitations on that one (and became a Sufi)!

My understanding of Islam, and of any major faith for that matter, is that its true teaching comes from within, and true understanding therefrom comes through the heart (qalb). Professor Montgomery Watt - a foremost western writer on Islam - said:

Truth is not derived from ancient texts on a superficial basis. A great Islamic and Sufi teacher named Rumi is quoted as saying (e.g. in ‘The Sufis’, Idries Shah) that the Qur’an has seven levels of understanding. Another great Sufi teacher - Ibn al-'Arabi - said of the Islamic common law (the Shari'ah): As each of the great Sufi teachers demonstrated by their life and teachings that formal Islam is not the be-all-and-end-all, how can applied ijtihad be truly successful unless one’s heart is traveling in a guided direction (through a teacher)? As we all know, if the intellect is left to its own devices, round can become square and tall can become short with the application of a few choice words, so – to my way of thinking – applied ijtihad is not likely to be as successful unless it is transmuted by the Sufi method, which is through Love. Love is something that anyone can equate to - it does not need a university degree to recognise feelings and inspiration. A farm worker can experience those things, as can any manual worker. For example, in the 19th century, there lived a man who came to be known as the 'Postman Poet'; his job was as a postman in the semi-rural areas of North Devon in England, but his meanderings inspired him to write poetry which was good enough to invoke the support of grandees such as Charles Dickens and the Duke of Wellington. Edward Capern was famous in his own time. His inspiration was not, of course, at the height of a Rumi or Omar Khayyam, but the source was the same.

That Muslims should question their own religion is, of course, a pre-emptive need. Perhaps Muslims should ask, if they believe in Isa (Jesus) as a prophet, why they do not understand his teaching, which was (perhaps) the ideal to which all those who submit themselves to God (Muslims) should aspire through Islam, and as taught by the Sufis.

I am a white Englishman, born in the heart of the industrial Midlands during the Second World War. As a child, Islam was something "foreign" and hardly referred to in our schooling. How, then, is it that I came to know anything about Islam? And (more particularly) how is it that I appear to judge myself able to 'pontificate' on Islam in any kind of way?

Having been brought up in three sects of Christianity (CofE, Methodism and the Evangelical Movement), I converted to Islam in 1978 at the age of 34 after some study in respect of the inner (Sufic) teachings. How I came to study Sufism is by itself another story! Furthermore, I came to have direct experience of all the main Islamic branches that exist. In 1985 it happened that I ceased to be a formalist Muslim, but that is not because I found fault with Islam. However, I now espouse the unity of all religions, which is what I regard as part of The Prophet Muhammed's teachings. I continue to think of Islam as being hugely important in the development of mankind, but I believe its central message is essentially no different to any other religion. That message relates to the spread of peace through love of God and His creation.

But the key to this issue is in my earlier reference to "Sufic", or Sufism. This inner dimension of Islam - which is transmitted through spiritual teachers according to time and place - has been home territory to many of Islam's greatest thinkers, and, notably, one al-Ghazzali, who at one time condemned the Sufi teachings, but then came to be one himself! A fine account of him can be read here. It is through a belief I developed about this inner quality of Islam that enabled me to move amongst so many different Islamic sects and, later, brought me to reading the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedic manual to living the inner life. I have also studied more about the Essenes, Christianity (particularly about the early Gnostics, and also the Cathars, Unitarians, Quakers and Mormons), Sikhism and Buddhism. The Jain, Zoroastrian and Ba'hai faiths were also uncovered! In 1997 I visited Assissi, and something occurred there that can only be described as "seeing the light" (or part of it!). In 2000 I "coincidentally" came across the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I then seemed to have come full circle, and all seemed now to be so simple - which, of course, it isn't! Well, not quite!

For more about Sai Baba, please click here.

That is by no means all my story, but I hope it gives the gist! If I had been asked 40 or 50 years ago whether I would want my life to take such a route, I would probably have said "I doubt it!", but when I think back to my early youth I can recall the inner questions probing me to seek answers. That, combined with at least four occasions when I might easily have lost my life, cause me to think that all has been at the behest of a greater entity - but one that I feel we are all part of; Christians, Muslims, Hindus - everyone.

It is with great interest, therefore, that I discovered a book by 'C. A. Karim' entitled 'Islam : The Sai Perspective', which is freely available on the Internet, here. Published early in this Millennium, it tells of a man's upbringing as a Muslim, that his father was a Sufi, and how Mr. Karim found difficulties in understanding Islam that were satisfied only by finding Sri Sathya Sai Baba and following Sai Baba's instruction. By this means, Mr. Karim has found happiness in the religion of his father - the Sufi Way. It is also no mean illustration of how Sai Baba's teachings are not meant to take individuals away from the religion of their birth or choice. His teachings are intended to help Christians be better Christians, Muslims be better Muslims, Hindus... etc.

Beneath is a list of clarifications on references made by Mr. Karim in his work, which I hope help in the process of reading his book. I should add that Mr. Karim is a Muslim brought up in the Indian state of Kerala - in south India. Thus some of the Arabic transliterations are of the Indian/English style, and in these cases - in particular in the case of the use of proper nouns - I attempt to show the normal western English transliteration of the Arabic, for those who may be used to those forms. I can vouchsafe Mr. Karim's work as beneficial to gaining an insight into the Sufic world, particularly in his references to some of the main luminaries of the Sufi Way.

In my opinion, Mr. Karim's work does much to highlight the true message of Islam as a religion of Love and Peace, and if his explanations were to be understood then the essential aspects of all religions would then be clarified also. Each religion was taught according to place and time, hence the variations in methods and practises.

I would also like to point to another book that is relevant in this context, and freely available here, entitled "Sai Baba and Sufism" by Prof. Zeba Bashiruddin. This book is also very well worth reading.

Link to a Summary History of Islam.
A further Bibliography.

The Unity in Diversity series
 


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