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Religion and Society

Looking for the Traces of Divine Mystery

Last update: 2018-06-11 17:01:30


Religions differ from each other not only in terms of dogmas, laws and rites but also according to the cultures of the people who belong to them, the tradition of civilisations, the type of language and the meanings that each of them attributes to words and to terms (1). This difference is extended not only to phrases and contents but also to the realities of the seen and unseen world. How many words and phrases exist in this or that religion that cannot be transposed into other languages, like religious concepts, even though one can perhaps render them perfectly, or almost, at a linguistic level! To this category also belongs, for example, the tandem faith and reason: it appears that no language or religion is without some element that corresponds to these, both at the level of current language and at the level of religious terminology. Despite this, what is expressed by faith and reason in this or that religion differs, not very much or a great deal, from another faith. For this reason, it is useful, in order to understand the meaning of any religious term in a given language, to compare it with the meaning that it has in other languages, even in the case in which such religions are linked by shared religious and linguistic roots. Given that the subject of this paper concerns reason and faith in Islam, and in the Koran in particular, I will confine myself here to a rapid comparison of the two concepts as they are employed in Judaism and Christianity – the two religions with which Islam shares membership of a shared root, that is to say the religion of Abraham – to then return to bring out the specific meanings with which this tandem is used in the Koran. Experts on comparative religion (2) state that even if we are used to speaking in a general way about the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths with the assumption that the term faith captures the sphere of relations between man and God in these religions, the reality is very different. In Hebrew, the language of Judaism, there is no term that expresses this meaning. This is because the words by which we can understand the message of the Torah overall are those that express divine action and not those that speak about the position of man. This divine action revealed by the Torah is organised around a central idea, which is that of the ‘pact’ or ‘covenant’ that God makes with the Israelites that He has chosen because they are the ‘chosen people’. God, for His part, remained faithful to this ‘covenant’ when He took Abraham as his friend. The Israelites, therefore, must also be faithful, for their part, observing the law brought to them by Moses, he who spoke with God, and on which depends their salvation, that is to say their return to the ‘promised land’ (Palestine). It is clear, therefore, that the representation that Judaism makes of the relationship between the Israelites and God leave no space to the need for a concept of faith that goes back in one way or another to dogma, to personal adherence to such dogma and to faithfulness, as takes place in Christianity and Islam. Thus the question that is posed as regards the people of Israel is not faith, in the sense of dogma, but faithfulness to the ‘covenant’ of God with them. Faithfulness and God Even though, as I have observed, the concept of faith includes in Christianity, as in Islam, the concept of dogma, nonetheless its contents is not the same in the two religions. And thus whereas the concept of faith in Islam centres around acceptance of the mission of Muhammad – may peace be with him – as we will see in detail we find that this concept in Christianity centres around the idea of faithfulness: on the one hand, the faithfulness with which God fulfils His promise through the coming of the Messiah at the end of times to establish justice etc., and, on the other, the faithfulness with which the Christian faithful must act, in line with the meanings embraced by the rite of baptism (which symbolises the washing away of original sin) (3). Thus, whereas the concept of faith is connected in these two religions with salvation, the idea of an eschatological faithfulness is totally absent from the Islamic horizon, at least as it is presented in the Koran. The horizon with which the concept of faith in the Koran is connected is a horizon that concerns at the same time this world (4) and the other, uniting after a certain fashion the Jewish promise and the Christian promise. On the one hand, in fact, God has promised believers victory in their fight against the polytheists and the unbelievers in this world, and, on the other, He has promised sincere believers paradise in the other life. These are just brief points on the difference between the concept of faith in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam. As regards the concept of reason in each one of these religions, this should be referred in reality not to the religion in itself but to the culture within which this or that religion spread (5). Ibn Manzûr, the author of the medieval dictionary Lisân al-‘arab, brings together the words that are etymologically connected with the term faith (îmân) and he defines them by indicating their contraries, as follows: ‘Amn (safety): the contrary of fear. Amâna (loyalty): the contrary of betrayal. Îmân (faith): the contrary unbelief. Îmân in the sense of tasdîq (to believe truthful): the contrary of believing someone mendacious. These meanings are all present in the Koran and belong to a single semantic network. Indeed, he who has trust in his companion is not fearful of him and does not fear that he will be betrayed by him, nor that he will keep the truth concealed from him or renege on him or deny him (disbelieve), and thus he holds him to be truthful and confides in him and does not consider him to be false. From this we can understand the statement of Ibn Manzûr: ‘lexicographers and other men of learning agree on the fact that the meaning of faith is to believe truthful’. We should, however, add that ‘to believe truthful’ is applied only to news provided to us by knowledge that we do not have. Indeed, what is present we can observe on our own, given that it is visible, audible etc. To achieve knowledge of what is absent and unknown, instead, we need to find traces or a witness that demonstrates it to us. And the search for a witness about what is absent (or rather the consideration, i‘tibâr, in the sense of passage, ‘ubûr, of the traces of something to that thing itself) is the work of reason and does not belong to the sphere of faith. Faith, therefore, is ‘to believe truthful’ what takes place outside the field of the visible and the deducible, or what belongs to the ‘invisible world’. The Koran defines ‘invisible’ subjects: if rational man does not believe in them he becomes an unbeliever, that is to say he cannot be defined as being in possession of faith in the sense of Muslim law: God the Most High says in fact: ‘Whoso disbelieves in God and His angels and His Books, and His Messengers, and the Last Day, has surely gone astray into far error’ [Koran 4:136]. Thus faith, in a religious sense, includes faith ‘in God and His Angels and His Books, and His Messengers, and the Last Day’ (6): all of these things do not belong to the sensible world but to the invisible world and for this reason faith in them is described as ‘to believe truthful’, to believe truthful he who informs us about them. Faith Alone is not Enough On the other hand, lexicographers make a distinction between faith and Islam as well. Faith, in fact, being to believe truthful, has the heart as its seat. Islam, instead, is the proclamation of submission and takes place through language. From this comparison they deduce that ‘every believer is Muslim but not every Muslim is a believer’. However, this kind of distinction and comparison does not explore to the full all the uses that the Koran makes of these two terms. In fact, there are verses that state that faith in God and the Angels etc. on its own is not enough but needs Islam’ (7). ‘Say: 'We believe in God, and that which has been sent down on us, and sent down on Abraham and Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender.'’ [Koran 3:84]. The discourse here is addressed to Muhammad and to his companions who believe in his mission, and orders them to believe also in what was revealed to the prophets and to the previous messengers, and to proclaim their islâm, that is to say their submission to God. The next verse come immediately to confirm that ‘Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers’ [Koran 3:85]. This verse, therefore, establishes that Islam, in this broad sense that embraces the faith that goes back to Abraham, is alone the religion accepted by God, the faith of which the Koran says in another passage is ‘the creed of your father Abraham. He named you Muslims aforetime’ [Koran 22:78]. With respect to the divergence that arose between the children of Abraham about questions of faith, this goes back to them and not to God [Koran 3:19-20]. It is clear that the concept of islâm in the Koran expands to include the religions derived from the faith of Abraham, that is to say, in fundamental terms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to which are added in other verses the Sabaeans and the Zoroastrians (8). However the concept of islâm is narrowed in other verses to express the simple proclamation by voice of belonging to the Islamic religion, without faith in one’s heart. The reason for this difference lies in the fact that the recipient of the discourse in these two cases is not the same. The Koran was sent down in passages in order to accompany its development and answer questions according to what the situation required. The previous verses were sent down in Medina and are also addressed to Jews and Christians (the delegation of the Christians of Najrân). As regards the next verse, which narrows the concept of islâm, it was revealed at Medina but is addressed to a group of Bedouin Arabs. God the Most High states: ‘The Bedouins say, ‘We believe.’ Say: '’You do not believe; rather say, “We surrender”; for belief has not yet entered your hearts’ [Koran 48:14]. In this verse, therefore, one finds a new definition of the relationship between faith and islâm according to what the situation requires. This verse and the verse that follows were sent down for certain Bedouin, of whom commentators say that they had proclaimed their islâm and had arrived in Medina to ask the Prophet to give them the same position as Emigrants (9) with all their merits in this world and the other. The previous verse arrived to answer them that the proclamation of Islam alone with language is not enough and that faith is needed in men’s hearts about the message of Islam and this requires obedience to God and his messenger. If they do this with upright intention, the verse declares, they will have what they deserve without losing anything of their reward. Subsequently the Koran, in the same context, defines the characteristics that ensure that a Muslim raises himself to such a level of faith as to merit what those Bedouins asked: ‘The believers are those who believe in God and His Messenger, then have not doubted, and have struggled with their possessions and their selves in the way of God; those – they are the truthful ones’ [Koran 49:15]. From what has been said hitherto, it is evident that the relationship between faith and Islam is not one-directional and thus it is not correct to state that every Muslim is a believer, but nor is it correct to state that every believer is a Muslim. It is the position of the individual that defines the relationship between these two concepts. Sickness of the Heart There is another difference between faith and islâm, analogous to that I have already observed, and which this time concerns the possibility of describing one of the two terms, but not the other, as susceptible to growth and diminution. Indeed, in the Koran there are verses that speak about the growth of faith and the growth of its contrary, unbelief, whereas we do not find anything that indicates such a possibility in relation to the concept of islâm [Koran 8:1-4]. Thus faith, just as it is strengthened with the growth of knowledge about its objects, also becomes weakened of sincerity and descends to the level of doubt which causes a condition of perplexity and agitation of the soul, described in metaphorical terms as ‘sickness of the heart’: an sickness that can grow or diminish. Those who are afflicted by this illness are called ‘hypocrites’ by the Koran [Koran 2:8-12]. From what has been said hitherto, it appears that faith grows when it is combined with a broader knowledge of the unseen world, on the one hand, and with good works on the other, whereas it grows weaker through doubt and uncertainty and absence of obedience. Islâm , instead, as I have already observed, is simple attestation with language, and is also called ‘proclamation of the two testimonies’ (the testimony that there is no god but God and the testimony that Muhammad is the Messenger of God). Thus it cannot be described in terms of growth or diminution given that the proclamation of the two testimonies is in itself true and complete. What has been said in this paper about faith and its being susceptible to growth and diminution provokes a question that never ceases to be a subject of divergence between the various schools of Islam: is faith only ‘believing to be true with the heart’ or does it also imply, together with this, obedience as well? I will confine myself here, as I have done in previous paragraphs, to what can be understood from the Koran about this question and I will say that in the Holy Book these mentions of faith are not made without good works being remembered together with it. The phrase ‘those who believe and do good’ is repeated in the Koran in an imposing way and to such an extent as to lead one to believe that faith alone is not enough and that good works constitute a condition for its completeness. The same applies to the phrase ‘those who believe and fear God’ (that is to say are distant from what God forbids). If we try to examine the passages in the Koran in which faith is mentioned, we find that it is always connected with good works (practising the virtues) or with fear of God (avoiding the vices). This happens every time that they are talked about in the context of reward in this life and the next. God the Most High, for example, says: ‘Yet had the peoples of the cities believed and been godfearing, We would have opened upon them blessings from heaven and earth’ [Koran 7:96]; and ‘Surely those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, there awaits them Gardens of Bliss therein to dwell forever – God's promise in truth; and He is the All-mighty, the All-wise’ [Koran 31:8-9]. The reward promised in the first verse relates to this world (rain and plants), whereas in the second it relates to eternal life. How should we understand this drawing near of faith and good works on the one hand, and fear of God, on the other? Returning once again to the Koran we can see with clarity that the contrary of faith is unbelief, that is to say lack of faith in God, ‘in His Angels, in His Messengers and in the Last Day’ (10) and the unbeliever, in this sense, if he does not receive the message from a messenger, will not receive the reward of unbelief – punishment. God the Most High states: ‘We never chastise, until We send forth a Messenger’ [Koran 17:15]. If, instead, he receives an invitation to believe by a messenger and declares him a liar and refuses to respond, then he deserves punishment. If this person believes and sees the invitation as true, but does not obey the obligations that the Messenger presents him with and does not attend to the exhortations to fear God and to do good works, then that person’s faith leads him outside the circle of unbelief and places him in the circle of impiety (fisq). If, lastly, the unbeliever believes but remains in the dark as to his duties and obligations, his faith is effective but his reward, for good or for evil, is not established with a clear text and is thus entrusted to God: if God wants to, He will reward him, or He will punish him if that is His wish. The Punishment of the Apostate An apostate is he who abandons the faith out of unbelief and thus loses the reward of his faith, notwithstanding the good works of which he can boast, and receives the reward of unbelief – the punishment of hell. However there is no text in the Koran which envisages his being killed: all the verses dealing with the condition of the apostate refer his status to the day of the Resurrection, leaving open to him the door of repentance. On this point God the Most High states: ‘whosoever of you turns from his religion, and dies disbelieving – their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever’ [Koran 2:217]. Hitherto I have discussed faith in relation to concepts connected with its contents (absence of faith, its growth and diminution, islâm, unbelief, apostasy, reward and punishment etc.). It remains to me to discuss the means by which one obtains faith. If faith is ‘believing to be true’ what is brought by messengers, what are the means by which people are brought to faith, that is to say by which to believe these messengers to be true? With respect to Judaism and Christianity, we can say that the fundamental means, even though not the only means, that Moses and Jesus – may peace be on Them – used to lead people to the faith in their messages were miracles: for Moses one is dealing here with ten signs, first of all the changing of his rod into a snake. As regards the Messiah, these involved a series of wonders such as the raising of the dead, the healing of the blind man and the leper etc. Even though the Torah and the Gospel exalt rational reflection and invite us to use reason, the absence of miracles and wonders in the mission of Muhammad and his turning to reason alone impose themselves as a phenomenon that distinguishes Islam from Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, the disbelieving opponents of the message of Muhammad – may peace be upon him – asked him on more than one occasion to bring miraculous signs on the model of those that the previous prophets had brought so as to be able to believe that he was really sent by God. But his answer was always a rejection of this challenge. The words of the Most High refer to this: ‘Naught prevented Us from sending the signs but that the ancients cried lies to them’ [Koran 17:59]. The text then indicates that the extraordinary miracles of the prophets did not have as their purpose that of establishing truth in itself but only of ‘frightening’ and thus to lead people to be led by the messengers, as the Most High states when proceeding in the next verse: ‘We do not send the signs, except to frighten’ [Koran 17:59]. Thus the Most High, in the place of miraculous signs, requires them to use reason, referring men to the book of nature, asking them to pay attention to it carefully in order to draw a lesson from it: ‘Surely in the heavens and earth there are signs for the believers; and in your creation, and the crawling things He scatters abroad, there are signs for a people having sure faith, and in the alternation of night and day, and the provision God sends down from heaven, and therewith revives the earth after it is dead, and the turning about of the winds, there are signs for a people who understand. Those are the signs of God that We recite to thee in truth; in what manner of discourse then, after God and His signs, will they believe?’ [Koran 45:3-6]. In addition to the book of nature there is the book of history, the book of the prophets and the messengers and their peoples. ‘What, have they not journeyed in the land and beheld how was the end of those before them? They were stronger than themselves in might, and they ploughed up the earth and cultivated it more than they themselves have cultivated it; and their Messengers came to them with the clear signs; and God would never wrong them, but themselves they wronged. Then the end of those that did evil was evil, for that they cried lies to the signs of God and mocked at them’ [Koran 30:9-10]. Apart from the testimony of nature and the testimony of history, the Koran draws the attention of the polytheistic disbelievers to the Book that God sent down to Muhammad, namely the Koran itself; it alone is sufficient to convince those who wish to be convinced: ‘They say, 'Why have signs not been sent down upon him from his Lord?' Say: ‘The signs are only with God, and I am only a plain warner. What, is it not sufficient for them that We have sent down upon thee the Book that is recited to them? Surely in that is a mercy, and a reminder to a people who believe’ [Koran 29:50-51]. Then He challenges them to produce something comparable: ‘Or do they say, ‘Why, he has forged it? Say: ‘Then produce a sura like it, and call on whom you can, apart from God, if you speak truly’ [Koran 10:38]. The order of the universe, the lessons inherent in the history of the prophets, and the eloquence of the Koran are elements that are equal and complementary as proof: in the order of the universe there is the proof of the existence of God and His uniqueness; in the history of the prophets there is the proof of His strength, mercy and capacity to effect vengeance; in the eloquence of the Koran there is the proof of the prophecy of Muhammad the truth of his mission. And these three kinds of proof, found in their connection, are what we call the Arab religious rational fact, in opposition to the irrational fact which for reason means, according to the discourse of the Koran, associating other gods with God, denying the resurrection and declaring the mission of Muhammad – may peace be on Him – false.




(1) ‘And We have sent no Messenger save with the tongue of his people, that he might make all clear to them’ [Koran 14 : 4]. (2) Edmond Origues, Encyclopedia Universalis (2004). (3) From this comes the fact that the word ‘faith’ means not only faith (al-îmân) in the sense of believing somebody to be truthful but also dogma (al-‘aqîda). (4) Cf. for example Koran 24:55 and 9:72 (5) In the past I have made a distinction between the characteristics of ‘Arab reason’ and ‘Greek reason’ and ‘European reason in my book Takwîn al-‘aql al-‘arabî (‘The Formation of Arab Reason’), Markaz Dirasât al-Wihda al-‘arabiyya bi-Bayrût, Beirut, 1984, the first chapter. For this reason I will confine myself here to an illustration of the concept of reason and the relationship between reason and faith as it appears in the Koran alone. (6) This is the most complete list present in the Koran and is accepted by all Muslims. (7) Amongst these Koran 28:84; 43:68-69. (8) Koran 2:62; 5:69; 22:17. Commentators are divided about the reason why the Sabeans and the Zoroastrians deserved to belong to the faith of Abraham and some of them have stated that these ‘possess a likeness to the book’ derived from the remains of the faith of Abraham. (9) Those that had abandoned Mecca and followed the Prophet of Islam (translator’s note). (10) See note 6. (11) The other verses in the Koran that deal with the figure of the apostate are: 3:77, 86-87; 8:13. See also 4:115; 24:55. In all these passages one cannot find a clear text on the killing of the apostate. *Translator’s Note: all translations from the Koran are taken from The Koran Interpreted (Macmullan, New York, 1955), translation by A. J. Arberry.