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Chapter 2 THE FUNCTION OF DEEN Islam: A challenge to Religion

Chapter 2


  1.  Deen and Man

We have stated that a careful study of Islam is likely to give us an insight into the nature and function of deen. Before embarking on this study, however, it would be advisable to consider its role in human life. The primary function of deen is the development of human personality. It determines man’s outlook on life and makes life meaningful to him. It aims at the transformation of man’s character by organising his desires into a harmonious system of living. To the extent that it succeeds in this aim, it eliminates the sources of internal conflict and enables man to live at peace with himself and at peace with his environment. Success and happiness are basically the fruits of a genuine personal conviction. But deen has its social side as well. It is concerned with man as he exists in a network of social relationship. It does not isolate man from his social setting; rather, it brings him closer to his fellow-beings. It has a meaning for man as an individual; but it has a far richer meaning for him as a member of a social group. Deen leads man to the realisation that he can develop his potentialities only by co-operating with his fellow men in the attainment of common ends. In this way, it plays a vital part in the development of customs, laws and institutions. It is, therefore, the proper subject of study not only for the psychologist but also for the historian and the sociologist. All are equally bound to take it seriously and are not justified in explaining it away (as in the case of religion) as an illusion or a matter of mere personal concern. The philosopher, too, has the right to examine the validity of deen’s view of Reality and to assess its value as a cohesive force in society. Deen has nothing to fear from an impartial inquiry. It has survived the fiercest onslaughts of science and philosophy so far directed against it.

Iqbal* has rightly observed: “Higher religion(1) … recognized the necessity of (concrete)** experience as its foundation long before Science learnt to do so.”(2) He has also drawn attention to the central position of deen in a synthesis of all the data of human experience.(3)

In this connection it should be noted that the response of deen to Reality is not a partial one. It is not merely cognitive as it is in the case of science and philosophy, nor is it merely emotional as it is in aesthetics. It is a total response involving all the elements in the personality of the individual. Further, it is response of a coherent harmonious personality, a personality organised on the basis of a synthetic principle. In the words of Iqbal, “Religion … is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man.”(4) We must not lose sight of this fact if we want to understand the real nature of deen.

Let us pause to consider the implications of this view. If deen is the expression of the whole man, then his achievements whether in the sphere of action or of thought, must somehow be related to his deen or, in other words, to his basic beliefs about his relation to the Ultimate Reality. These beliefs essentially relate to deen. We see then that deen has given the impetus to the noblest enterprises of man. It is generally claimed that a scientific ideology can very well achieve this object. But this is not true, for the simple reason that a scientific or materialistic ideology, by its very nature, cannot satisfy the whole man. It may appeal to his reason or interest but will, certainly, remain unrelated to other elements in his personality, and will in effect lead to the fragmentation of personality itself. Science and art bring satisfaction to the rational and the emotional (aesthetic) sides of human nature respectively. But deen sets out to build up a view of the world which will satisfy all the deepest longings of man. Can deen really accomplish this stupendous task? Some great thinkers of the modern age who confuse deen with religion have posed this question, and stoutly maintain that in cannot do so. They point out  that in the past the fruits of religion have been not peace and harmony but strife and discord. Cassirer’s criticism of religion deserves to be quoted in full:

Religion remains a riddle not only in a theoretical but also in an ethical sense. It is fraught with theoretical antinomies and with ethical contradictions. It promises us a communion with nature, with men, with supernatural powers and the gods themselves. Yet its effect is the very opposite. In its concrete appearance, it becomes the source of the most profound dissensions and fanatic struggles among men. Religion claims to be in possession of an absolute truth, but its history is a history of errors and heresies. It gives us the promise and prospect of a transcendent world, far beyond the limit of our human experience – and it remains human, all too human.(5)

It is certainly a devastating criticism, and as it has been made by a leading thinker of the present age it deserves our serious consideration. To examine it, point by point, will take us far afield. We can only indicate the general line our defence of deen, as distinguished from religion, should take. The difficulty with Professor Cassirer is, as is the case with most of the critics of religion, that he has not studied deen as such but some particular religions, and those too which were either man-made or the revealed ones, though true in their origin, were subsequently vitiated by human interpolations. He would but have reached a different conclusion if he had studied deen. A true religion, if at all deen is styled so, is not a riddle; it rather solves so many riddles of man and the universe. There are no antinomies in a true religion. On the other hand, it reconciles contradictions in life and harmonises the opposites in human behaviour. It is true that religion has bred strife in the past in human society and that the religious communities have been torn by dissensions. But that is the result of the imperfect vision of truth entertained by each contending group. Deen, on the other hand, breeds humility and modesty, not arrogance and presumption. Men have certainly fought among themselves in the name of religion. Their motives were political or economic, masquerading as religious. But the man believing in deen is unwilling to impose his views on others. Finally, deen involves the belief in a transcendent world but it is wrong to say that this transcendent world is separate and remote from and unconnected with the world of human experience. The transcendent world of deen is only an aspect of the same Reality of which the world of the senses is another aspect. In fact, they interpenetrate each other and belong to the same Supreme Reality. Deen teaches us that the sensible world is an abstraction from Reality and that we should adjust ourselves to the whole concrete Reality and not to one of its aspects. We agree with Professor Cassirer that “religion” (deen, as we call it) is “human, all too human.” Its function is to regulate human life in such a way that the individual develops his personality and becomes a useful member of society. In order to attain this objective, it gives what may be termed permanent values, which no other source of knowledge can provide. It exhorts man to conquer the forces of nature, since the position it assigns to him in the universe is next to God, and to utilise the power so acquired for the development of the whole of humanity. It shows him the way to rise above animal level and to live the life of Man. It is possible only if he leads his life in conformity with permanent values. There would be no permanent values if there were no deen, and if there were no permanent values mankind will be no better than a herd of beasts. This is the real value and place of deen in human life and activity which has unfortunately escaped the notice of Professor Cassirer.

  1.  The Self

So far we have been concerned with the Ultimate Reality with its infinity of aspects. One of these aspects is the spatio-temporal world of our experience. Now, we can turn our attention to the human self which seeks a meaningful relationship with Reality. The Real, in relation to the human self, is God, and the self’s attitude to the Real is deen. The self is strengthened and enriched through permanent values which are the various attributes of the Real Self called God.

What is the nature of the human self and what is its place in the scheme of the universe? We will, first, state and critically examine the answers which modern science and philosophy have supplied to these questions. In ancient and mediaeval philosophy the self was synonymous with the soul, and the soul was believed to be an indestructible substance which existed before its temporary conjunction with the material body and which survives the dissolution of the body. The notion of the soul was taken over from primitive thought and was refined and elaborated by philosophers. Aristotle was the only great philosopher who rejected this view and propounded a theory more in consonance with natural science. He regarded the soul as the entelechy of the body, and as it was the form of the body, it was also inseparable from it. The soul was thus placed squarely in the system of natural phenomena. However, for centuries after Aristotle, the older view of an independent and supernatural soul was unquestionably accepted by both scientists and philosophers. It was challenged only when modern science was well under way.

In the eighteenth century, the term “self” came into vogue. It had the advantage of being closer to nature than the term “soul” which had a supernaturalistic flavour. The self was regarded as the subject of experience. The unity of consciousness, unique in the world, became intelligible only in the light of self which owned and held together the various sensations, feelings and ideas which compose consciousness. It was regarded as free and not subject to natural laws. Moreover, it was believed that the self remained unchanged and identical with itself throughout the life-span of the individual. However, the line of thought which began with Locke and culminated in the philosophy of Hume rendered this conception of the self wholly unacceptable to English thinkers. Locke conceived the human mind as a blank tablet which passively received impressions from the outside world. The contents of the mind were wholly derived from the external world; it did not itself produce or create anything. It merely received and stored impressions from external objects and forces. This view totally denies any activity to the mind. Locke held that any idea in the mind which could not be traced to its source in an impression was merely spurious. Berkeley applied this test to the idea of self and reached the conclusion that it was not a valid idea. Nevertheless, he believed that the flow of ideas was orderly and lawful as these existed in the mind of God and were owned by Him.

Hume delivered the coup de grace to the popular belief in an independent self. He carried out a penetrating analysis of the mind and found not a shred of evidence for its existence. He affirmed that whenever he looked into his mind he came across a sensation, an image or a feeling, but not the self to which they are supposed to belong. The mind, according to him, is merely a succession of ideas which are related to each other externally by virtue of existing in the same or successive states of consciousness. Being a thoroughgoing empiricist, he could not accept an idea which did not correspond to an actual fact of consciousness. He believed that orderliness and coherence in the contents of the mind could be fully explained in terms of the principles of association. Thereafter, the English empirical thinkers dispensed with the concept of self altogether.

Kant agreed that the self or ego was not a fact of experience. Nevertheless, he believed in a transcendental ego which was the ground of experience. The idealistic philosophers, therefore, continued to speculate about the transcendental self and its relation to experience.

The psychologists, with their naturalistic outlook, found the concept of a transcendental self as of no use to them. They confined themselves to the study of the facts of experience. However, as they found that the contents of the mind were not disconnected but centred round an “I” or ego, they developed the concept of the empirical self. They set themselves to solve the problems of the emergence of the empirical self and the changes it undergoes in the course of mental development. However, as psychology attained the status of a full-fledged science, even the concept of an empirical self was discarded as being associated with ideas of permanence and stability.

In modern psychology the concept of personality has supplanted the older concept of self. The psychologist now studies the origin of personality and the process of its development as well as the process of its disintegration in abnormal cases. Personality is conceived not as an entity but as the form or pattern which the raw material of the mind assumes when it is organised. The organisation of the instinctive urges, tendencies and capacities which constitute the biological equipment of the individual proceeds apace during the formative years of life. According to the view which is most widely held, the ground plan of personality is laid during the first five years of life. Two factors, the physiological and the social, determine the farther course of personality development. The physiologists hold that the hormones secreted by the endocrine glands play a decisive role in the growth and normal functioning of personality. Social psychologists, on the other hand, tend to attach greater importance to the social milieu in which the human child grows up. Personality, they believe, emerges through the process of socialisation. The child internalises the group code and the social norms which immediately begin to regulate his instinctive urges and motives. The group also assigns to him a particular role, and the child develops the capacities and gives free scope to the tendencies which he needs for playing the role successfully.

Freud has constructed a theory of the origin of personality which, though not universally accepted, is generally regarded as a valuable contribution to this field of investigation. He attached great importance to home influences for personality. His theory throws light on why man clings so tenaciously to his moral code even when it is detrimental to his interests and even when his reason does not approve of it. It is because the moral code does not enter the child’s mind by way of his intellect, which is still immature, but is received by and takes root in the emotional part of his nature. The child loves both his father and mother – but in different ways. His love for the mother is of the possessive kind. He wants the mother to be always with him, to minister to his needs as soon as they arise. This love is also libidinal or has an element of sexuality in it. The mother is the individual’s first love object. The child’s love for the father, on the other hand, is ambivalent, or has an ingredient of hostility in it. The child feels the father to be an obstacle in the gratification of his wishes and considers him as his rival for the mother’s love. He naturally takes up a hostile attitude to the father. However, he soon finds that this hatred of his father draws upon him strong social disapproval. The contradictory impulses of love and hatred directed towards the same person lead to a severe conflict in the child’s mind, which he is incapable of resolving himself rationally. He resolves it by repressing his hostility to the father. The repressed impulse and the ideas associated with it form the Oedipus complex. The father’s image and the moral code, of which the father was the chief exponent, sink into the child’s unconscious and constitute the super-ego or, in ordinary language, the conscience. As the child, actuated by fear, unquestioningly had obeyed the father, so he now has no choice but to obey the imperatives of the super-ego which, he feels, have their source outside himself. His attitude to his father is transferred to the super-ego which is based on the repressed image of the father. This, according to Freud, is the secret of the powerful influence that the conscience exerts on the mind of the individual.

Sociologists maintain that human personality takes root in a social environment and is shaped by social forces. According to this point of view, the individual plays a negligible role in his own development. He remains passive while society moulds him into the form which happens to enjoy social approval at the moment. The inadequacy of this view is obvious, for we see it happening before our eyes that two children, brought up in the same social environment, develop different types of personality. If the sociologists were right, the members of a particular social group would be indistinguishable from each other in respect of personality. As compared to the sociologists’ view, the psychologists’ view is more in agreement with observed facts. According to this view, personality develops as the result of the reactions of the individual himself. The important thing for personality is not the social influence to which the individual is exposed, but the way in which he reacts to it. Man, therefore, does not passively receive but actively acquires personality. The biological factor operating in man is of crucial importance for personality development. However, it will not do to disregard the social factor altogether. Man has, perforce, to accommodate himself to the demands of the group on which he is dependent and which provides him with security and the necessities of life. According to the psychological theory, which does justice to both factors, personality is the product of the interaction between the hereditary constitution of man and his social milieu.

Science aims not merely at knowledge but at precise knowledge. Precision is possible only when the subject matter is susceptible of measurement and when the technique of measurement has been perfected. For a long time it was believed that quantitative methods could not be applied to so elusive and imponderable a phenomenon as personality. We cannot deny the tribute of praise to the psychologists who, with commendable patience, hard work and ingenuity, have tried to solve this difficult problem. They first analysed personality into traits and then discovered that each trait had a certain dimension. The next step was to devise and perfect the technique of accurately measuring each trait. By combining the results of measurement we get an overall picture of personality or personality profile, as it is termed. Rorschach, Thurstone, Likert and Goddard have achieved remarkable success in this field. The modern psychologist now has a repertoire of special techniques for measuring each of the basic traits of human personality.

However, although the application of scientific methods to the study of personality has yielded a rich harvest of results, most of these have little bearing on the questions which loom large in religion. What is it in man which impels him to embark on the perilous and seemingly desperate enterprise of coming to terms with the Ultimate Reality? Why and how does he hope to fulfil himself by establishing a close and intimate contact with God?

Let us first see how far psychology and philosophy can help us to answer these questions. When we question the psychologist on the point, he refers us to the psychological definition of personality. Unfortunately, there is no definition which is accepted by all the major psychologists of the present age. Personality has been defined as the total quality of the individual’s behaviour. This definition brings out both the unity and complexity of personality. Personality is inclusive, so that no important motive, tendency or capacity remains outside it, and yet it has a unity which is not paralleled anywhere else in nature. For our present purpose it will suffice to state one more definition. Personality is the integration of the individual’s measurable characteristics and motivational undercurrents. This process begins in early childhood and proceeds, at first slowly and then at an accelerated pace, during adolescence until the emergence of the mature personality of the adult. Thereafter too, personality continues to undergo at least some changes, though slight, throughout the life of the individual. With senility, or through disease or traumatic experiences, a process in the reverse direction may set in. The process of disintegration may lead to the splitting or even fragmentation of personality. Cases of dual and multiple personality have been observed and intensively studied by psychiatrists; therapeutic techniques have also been devised for reintegrating the split personality.

We now see clearly that there is nothing substantial about personality as it is conceived by the psychologist. It is merely a structural form which mental elements may take on or discard.

Turning to the philosophers, we find that the Existentialists refuse to believe in any transcendental entity. They refuse to take a single step beyond the world of experience. For them too, the human self does not partake of Reality.

The Logical Positivists promptly reject any concept which cannot be traced back to a fact of experience. Their vision too does not extend beyond the horizon of experience. Whatever is not an experiential fact they dismiss as non-existent.

At this point, is natural to ask whether deen can get along with the concept of personality or of empirical self. Obviously it cannot. It can have no use for the ephemeral self of the psychologist or Logical Positivist. It needs something real which can enter into a meaningful transaction with the ultimately Real. It needs self which exists in mental phenomena and is also their underlying ground. Deeni activity is the expression of the reality in man and it is directed to the Real in the universe. The concept of personality may be scientifically sound, but somehow it leaves us dissatisfied. We feel that the object we pursued has eluded us and what we have grasped is a mere shadow. We suspect that scant attention has been paid to the depth factors in human life. The psychologist works from the surface of the mind downwards, and often fails to plumb the depths of the human mind.

At a later point in our discussion we will examine the Qur’anic concept of the self. Here let us pause to consider the effect of the scientific view of the self on the life of the modern man. The modern man lives at as superficial level. He pursues petty and selfish ends. No wonder that he is discontented and unhappy. His deepest cravings are left unsatisfied. Thus he is in conflict both with himself and with his fellow beings. In this connection, Iqbal’s remarks deserve to be quoted in full:

Thus, wholly overshadowed by the results of this intellectual activity, the modern man has ceased to live soulfully, i.e. from within. In the domain of thought he is living in an open conflict with himself; and in the domain of economic and political life he is living in open conflict with others. He finds himself unable to control his ruthless egoism and his infinite gold hunger which is gradually killing all higher strivings in him and bringing him but life weariness. Absorbed in the fact, that is to say, the optically present source of sensation, he is entirely cut off from the unplumbed depths of his own being.(6)

Modern man is certainly a prey to the two types of conflict which Iqbal has mentioned. For that matter, man may always have suffered from such a conflict. Modern civilisation, however, seems to have accentuated it. Nobody can deny that conflict is an active source of misery and unhappiness. Is mental conflict due to extraneous factors or to those which are inherent in the mind? Iqbal, through long meditation on the problems of life, was admirably fitted to pronounce a balanced judgment on this issue. The passage quoted above makes it clear that he blames conflict on modern civilisation which puts a premium on the selfish side of man and provides satisfaction for only a segment of the self instead of for the whole of it. This view deserves serious consideration. To judge the question in all its aspects, however, we cannot disregard the views of two psychologists who have made a solid contribution in this field.

The first psychologist who explored the depths of the human mind was Freud. On the basis of extensive clinical work, he advanced a theory which illumined many points which hitherto had remained obscure. He preferred the term Psyche, as it had no metaphysical implications. The Psyche, he believed, is the seat of a number of instinctive drives, each of which blindly strives to abolish or reduce the tension which accompanies it. Each of these drives is invested with a fund of psychical energy. This psychical energy, as it is expended in activities directed to the attainment of relief or pleasure, is termed the libido. Consciousness originates on the surface of the Psyche, which is also the surface of the organism, as it receives the impact of the environmental forces. As consciousness is in direct contact with the environment, it assumes the role of mediator between the interior of the Psyche and the environment. The conscious personality puts a curb on the instinctive drives and compels them to defer satisfaction to a suitable time. The formation of the Oedipus complex gives rise to the super-ego, which is the third sub-system of the Psyche. The super-ego, as it embodies the group code and group ideals, pursues ends which have social approval. The psyche has three   components – the Id (the instinctual drives of Psyche which are impersonal), the ego and the super-ego.

The libido finds its typical expression in the sexual activity of the adult. It can, therefore, be regarded as sex energy. For this reason, Freud was, rather unfairly, accused of being a pansexualist.

The ego and super-ego possess no libidinal energy at the beginning. But libido itself is highly transferable. It can be detached from the impulse which owns it and can be transferred to another which society approves of. This process is called sublimation. The ego suppresses the libidinal urges and diverts the energy thus released into socially approved channels. Civilisation is built up on the repression of the sex drive. The sexual impulses, however, cannot be extinguished. In this way arises a never-ending conflict between the demands of the libido and the demands of civilised society. Civilisation, however, rests on insecure ground. The repressed sex urge may erupt any time and bring down its imposing structure of civilisation. Internal conflict or conflict in the mind of man is the price we have to pay for civilisation. This conflict is accentuated with every increase in the complexity of social organisation. However, this is not the whole story. Freud believes that as a living organism man has inherited a deeper and more fundamental conflict. He defines instinct as the primitive tendency to revert to the previous state of existence and the former level of functioning. A living organism is constantly in an unstable condition. With the first stirrings of life in the erstwhile inanimate mass of matter, it felt the imperative urge to revert to the previous state of stability and lifelessness. Freud believes that the death urge lies at the root of our being. Death promises the final release from tension which is inseparable from life. The longing for death is the deepest longing in the Psyche. We are reminded of Buddha’s view of life and his longing for Nirvana. Freud may have been influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, as, according to him, we are called upon to say Nay to life. Consciously we may be aiming at and striving for self-development, but unconsciously we are moving towards the goal of self-annihilation. Which of the three alternatives open to us should we choose – acceptance, rejection or non-committal attitude? It may be pointed out that man naturally shrinks back from the prospect of extinction, that he passionately longs for immortality and that he tenaciously clings to beliefs which are related to the continuation of life beyond death. We may also note that eschatology forms an essential part of every religion the world over, with the solitary exception of Buddhism. The highest flights of poetic imagination have often been inspired by the hope that death is not the end of life but a transition to a higher state of life.

We may briefly comment on Freud’s treatment of religion. For him religion is an illusion which man has created to obtain solace and comfort in a world which is full of misery and affliction. Man’s strongest desires are frustrated and their energy is dammed up. It finds an outlet in imaginative activity which creates fantasies. Those repressed desires which are denied gratification in the real world find it on the ideal plane. The Imago, or the image of the father which lies buried deep in the unconscious, is projected on to the cosmos as God. Dr. William Brown, himself a psychoanalyst, has taken strong exception to this view. On the basis of his clinical work he affirms that a complex usually disappears when the patient is psychoanalysed. Religion, however, does not disappear, but may even be strengthened in the mind of the patient who has been psychoanalysed.

We may consider the views of another major psychologist, Carl Jung. Let us see what light he throws on the causes of inter-personal and intra-personal conflicts. His theory of personality is, in some ways, more profound than the psychoanalytic theory. In his view, the human personality is a complex system which comprises a number of sub-systems. Conflict may arise between any one of these and others. Jung’s theory of personality is highly complex and intricate, but it is not necessary for us to consider it in detail. We will confine ourselves to that part of it which is relevant to our immediate purpose. Jung’s observations on the chief source of discontent in the present age deserve careful consideration: these are that the opposing trends in the several systems are likely to clash with one another. The conscious desire may be in opposition to the unconscious.

A man may consciously desire wealth and may devote himself to making money. But his unconscious may harbour the wish to become an artist. Such a man, even if he becomes a millionaire, remains unhappy because the unconscious wish is frustrated. The remedy for conflict lies in personality itself. It possesses a transcendent function. This function is endowed with the capacity to unite the opposing trends of the several systems within and to work towards an ideal goal of perfect wholeness (selfhood).

Jung’s conception of the symbol is of particular significance for religion, as religious truths are generally expressed in symbolical language. Jung affirms that a symbol has two aspects – retrospective and prospective. In its former aspect, the symbol expresses the stored-up racial wisdom. In its prospective aspect it represents a level of development that is far ahead of man’s present status. Man’s destiny, the highest evolution of the Psyche, is marked out for him by symbols. We thus see that in religion symbols represent higher levels of development.

Another view of Jung has a direct bearing on religion. He believes that a fundamental urge in man leads him to seek unification with the universe. He passionately desires to be at one with it. The desire to achieve unification with Reality must be satisfied if man is to win peace and happiness. But because the condition of life today frustrate this desire, the modern man feels discontented and unhappy, although he does not know the reason for this state of his mind.

 III. The Qur’anic Concept of the Self

We have now the proper background for grasping, judging and appreciating the Qur’anic concept of the self. We have deliberately chosen the older term “self” in preference to the terms “personality,” “psyche” and “empirical self” which are current in modern psychology and philosophy. The reasons for this choice may be stated here briefly. The term “self” is in closer correspondence with the Qur’anic term “nafs,” than any of the terms which have come into vogue recently. Secondly, each of these terms suggests an ephemeral phenomenon which appears at a certain point of time, and after a short period vanishes into the thin air, leaving behind it no trace of its existence. Such a phenomenon cannot enjoy the status of a moral agent or a responsible being. What it is and what it achieves are of no significance either for itself or for the world. It is like the flame of a candle which shines for a moment and then is quickly swallowed up by the surrounding darkness. Finally, being unreal itself, it cannot enter into a meaningful relationship and co-operation with the Real. The characterisation of the self, which we find in the Qur’an, will  enable us to form an adequate idea of the self and a just estimate of its capabilities.

  1. The self partakes of Reality and consequently enjoys permanence and stability. It retains its identity throughout its career. The trials which it undergoes and the influences to which it is exposed change it without transforming it into something different from itself. It starts its career in an undeveloped form but equipped with immense potentialities. It may or may not actualise these potentialities but it never ceases to be itself. It is not a passive material which is moulded by external forces; it is essentially active and dynamic. Its typical activity is dini activity in the highest sense of the term, viz., the development and actualising of its basic characteristics, and thereby “drawing closer” to the Most perfect Self – God – whose attributes serve as an objective standard for the human self, and thus tasting the joy of proximity to Him. Death does not terminate the activity of the self; it is but an episode in its career.
  2. Further, the self, as conceived in the Qur’an is free. Freedom is an inalienable property of the self. Although it operates in the sphere of nature, its activity flows from its own nature and is not determined by natural causes. As Dr. Rhine, in his book, New World of the Mind, aptly remarks: “There is something operative in man that transcends the laws of matter.”

It is because the self is free that it functions as a moral agent. Duties and obligations have no meaning for a being which is completely determined. If the self were not free, it would be insensitive to the demands of “ought” and would respond only the demands of “must.” Its sense of responsibility springs from its sense of freedom; it is capable of leading a moral life only because it is free. This view implies that the self has a real choice of action. It can choose any one of the alternative courses of action open to it, and responsibility for its choice rests squarely on it.

Of course, the self does not enjoy absolute and unlimited freedom. Its freedom is circumscribed by the conditions under which it lives. The world of fact checks and restrains its activities in various ways and in various degrees. The self chafes under these restraints. It flourishes only in an atmosphere of freedom. In a highly regimented society its sphere of action may be subjected to increasing shrinkage. Such a society discourages all kinds of self-expression and curbs liberty of action. Under these conditions, the self begins to languish. It can regain its vitality only by regaining its freedom. The self burgeons, blossoms and fructifies in lofty thoughts  and noble actions only in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom is in the essence of the self and cannot be extinguished under external compulsion. The self, however, feels cramped and frustrated in a regimented and totalitarian society, or an “other-directed conformism,” or system of religion. The State, whose power has increased enormously in recent times, poses a serious threat to the integrity of the self. It has been steadily and relentlessly encroaching on the domain of the self. The individual’s freedom has been seriously curtailed by the modern State, armed as it is with scientific techniques of suggestion, propaganda and brain washing. The government can now influence the individual’s mind to a degree which was undreamt of in the past. It can control not only man’s overt actions but his inner thoughts as well. In these circumstances, the only citadel in which freedom can take refuge is deen. It ensures complete freedom for self within the framework of permanent values. Deen should, therefore, be defended at any cost, as the region where man can still enjoy freedom and function as a self and not merely as a cog in a machine.

  1. Again, the self as viewed by the Qur’an is not static. It possesses infinite capacity for development. With its own efforts (of course on the lines demarcated by permanent values), it rises to higher and higher planes of existence. The Qur’an says, “Verily We will raise you to higher and higher levels” (84:19). The self fulfils itself by developing and actualising its potentialities. With death, man does not cease to exist but passes on to a higher plane of existence. The Qur’an has prescribed deen, or the way of life, which fits man for the higher level. When man is elevated to the higher level, he feels as if the gate of Heaven had been thrown open to him. On the other hand, when he falls to a lower level he feels that he has been flung into Hell.

The Qur’an opens out a vast vista of development to man. No term has been set to his progress. Man’s destiny is marked out for him in symbols. To understand the symbols, however, we need true insight. When we can catch a glimpse of the higher level, then only does the symbol which represents it become intelligible. It is futile to discuss a symbol when we have no inkling of the stage to which it refers. The Qur’an when studied intelligently, provides us with the insight to understand the true meanings of these symbols.

  1. The self has the capacity for value-experience. It is sensitive to the higher qualities of its experience and appreciates their value. Value-experience is non-existent at the sub-human level. It becomes possible only when the self has emerged. Value- experience may be of a low or high order. The higher in the scale an experience is, the more satisfying it is found to be. When the self is fit to rise to a higher plane, it craves for a value-experience higher than that with which it had been content hitherto. An experience of high value enriches and elevates the self.
  2. The self develops mainly through its own efforts. It rises or falls through its moral or immoral actions. Says the Qur’an: “The self (nafs) owns only that which it earns” (74:38) and it changes through what it assimilates, good or bad. The self is subject to the law of requital. Its a’maal-ul-hasanah enhance its worth and a’maal-us-sayyi’ah degrade it. God never does wrong to the self. The Qur’an is explicit on this point. If the self is degraded, it is its own doing. External forces cannot touch the self and God never deals with it unjustly. So the self is affected by nothing except the results of its own actions. Suffering is the fruit of a’maal-us-sayyi’ah (mis-deeds).
  3. Finally, the self partakes of Reality and mirrors the Divine attributes. “I breathed My Ruh – Divine Energy – into him (man),” says the Qur’an (15:29). The Nabi said, “Cultivate in yourselves those qualities which reflect the Divine attributes.” By cultivating those qualities, the self develops and draws, so to say, closer to God. Through a’maal-us-sayyi’ah, it gets further away from God and Reality. A’maal-ul-hasanah (good deeds), as has already been observed, strengthen the self and a’maal-us-sayyi’ah weaken it. The distance between God and the human self is increased by the latter and is decreased by the former which cultivate Divine qualities. This is the teaching of the Qur’an. Moreover, the self becomes more and more real as it develops into itself the attributes of God, and more and more unreal as it recedes from Him. The Divine attributes serve as an objective model after which man can strive to fashion himself.


  1. God and Man


The self can enter into meaningful relationship only with other selves, and for realising itself it has to depend upon the help, sympathy and co-operation of other beings which have essentially the same nature as its own. The self, therefore, seeks out other selves and prospers in their company. It yearns to be in the midst of beings with whom it can communicate and in whose aspirations and activities it can participate. For this reason man nowhere leads a solitary life, but is everywhere found to be a member of a social group. Only in society can man enjoy mental health and function efficiently.

But, above all things, the self longs for co-operation, i.e., being a co-worker, with the Supreme Self or God. Such co-operation sustains and vivifies it. Without this, the self droops, languishes and loses the zest for life and activity. It is happy only when it is engaged in purposive activity, and happiest when it has the feeling of participation in the cosmic purpose. A compelling urge in the self impels it to seek the meaning of life and the world. The physical world, on the face of it, is purposeless and meaningless. Eiman makes life and the world meaningful. For this reason the self clings passionately and tenaciously to the belief in the Supreme Being, the most perfect and ideal Self.

The idea of God that the Qur’an presents is both simple and sublime. God is the creative force which is at work throughout the universe. God manifests Himself in the visible world of nature. The Qur’an says, “Whithersoever you turn, you look at the countenance of God” (2:115). The Qur’an calls upon us to reflect and ponder over the grand natural phenomena – the earth and sky, wind and rain, sun, moon and stars. All nature reflects the beauty and glory of God. Special attention is drawn to God’s attribute of Rububiyyah, according to which He sustains and fosters every being, and thus the lowliest organism develops and attains maturity and relative perfection. Because God controls and governs the world, the world process is not purposeless and meaningless. God guides and directs the cosmic process to a grand destiny, In human history a Divine Plan is being worked out, slowly but surely, and a splendid destiny awaits man. In the Qur’an, God is presented as both Immanent and Transcendent. He works in the world as a creative urge and also exists outside it as its ground. He manifests Himself in nature and yet transcends it. He is eternal and yet in the changing world every day a new phase of His glory is presented to our view (55:29).

The Qur’an sheds new light on the relation between man and God. It is one of partnership, although one of the partners is immeasurably higher than the other. The wide gulf that separates man from God is, however, not an insuperable obstacle to fruitful co-operation between them. Man is endowed with a self, and we have seen that a self can co-operate only with another self. By virtue of possessing a self, man can, in his humble capacity, work together with God in the carrying out of the Divine Plan. Man has a stake in the future of the world and as a free self has the capacity to determine, however slightly, what that future is to be. It gives man a new sense of dignity to feel that he is actively contributing to the success of the Divine Plan. The Qur’an earnestly appeals to man to work with God in bringing about a world in which justice and goodness are not merely ideas but realities. He can and should contribute to the sum total of goodness in the universe. Man’s acquisitive instincts make him selfish and greedy, and bring him into conflict with his fellow beings. As such he cannot fit into the Divine scheme. However, by encouraging and fostering his creative instincts, which enable him to create values, he will be able to work in harmony with the moral order of the universe and will move steadily towards the goal of full self-realisation and perfection. At the same time, he will be enriching the world with values and making it a fit abode for men, who are both free and good. He will be taking his modest share in accomplishing the Divine purpose. The Qur’an calls upon man to co-operate with other men in the pursuit of the good. “Help one another in birr  and  taqwa,” says the Qur’an (5:2).

Evolution proceeded at an extremely slow pace in the past ages, and, often, a million years passed before a higher quality emerged in the animal world. With the emergence of a free conscious self, the prospect is much brighter. When free men, under the guidance of God, are participating in the world process and are deliberately furthering it, the pace of evolution is sure to be accelerated. By following the right path, which the Qur’an has shown us clearly, we can develop all our latent potentialities and march forward to the ultimate goal of perfection.

As man owns a self, he has a natural affinity with God, the Absolute Self. This affinity confers on him the right and lays on him the duty of working in harmony with the will and purpose of God. By working in this way man not only realises himself but also gives an impetus to the progress of human society.

The way in which the Absolute Self manifests its attributes in the universe evokes feelings of awe, reverence and admiration in man. As man naturally imitates what he admires, he strives to develop himself and be as like God as is possible for a finite being to be. God serves as a model and also as an objective standard with which man can compare himself and judge his progress in self-realisation. Man needs God as a coworker and as an ideal.

  1.  Religion or “Deen”

As already explained in the Introduction, the Qur’anic term for religion is “deen.” Deen however, is not merely a synonym for religion. Deen is a broader and deeper concept than religion as it is commonly understood. Religion usually means a set of dogmas, an elaborate ritual and a host of trivial practices. Ordinary activities of life are hedged in by a number of rules and taboos. Simple acts such as eating and marrying are surrounded by a complex ceremonial. Man’s conduct in everyday life is regulated in the minutest detail. Deen, as presented in the Qur’an is not a matter of ritual or ceremonial. It is concerned with the broad aim of life and the programme of action by which that aim can be attained. Deen gives full scope to man’s initiative and discretion. It is meant for a free and intelligent person, a person who has the courage to think, judge and act for himself. Deen offers broad principles which give guidance to man in the adventure of life and which enable him to attain the goal of self-realisation and social welfare. These principles, however, are not meant to be followed blindly. They are to be applied with intelligence and forethought. Iqbal, who has grasped the essence of deen, remarks  that it enunciates “basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis.”(7) Hard and fast rules, therefore, have no place in deen. Deen has fully served its purpose if it has delineated the ideal of life in bold lines, has explicated the principles governing its pursuit and has inspired in man zeal and devotion for the ideal. The deen of Islam does not lay on man a heavy burden of rules and regulations. It merely gives him guidance where he needs it and provides him with permanent values. Man should seek the aid of deen in obtaining inspiration and vision; he should look elsewhere if he is interested only in the performance of ritual and ceremonial. Looked at from this angle, deen is not an opiate, as the Marxians contend, but a stimulant and a spur to action. Deen does not induce in us contentment with things as they are; it spurs us on the efforts directed to the establishment of a better order of society. On the other hand, religion inculcates a passive resignation and complete submission to authority, however oppressive and unjust it may be. At best, it counsels us to have recourse to passive resistance. Deen calls upon us to fight against injustice and oppression and to actively promote the cause of justice.

Another characteristic of deen distinguishes it from religion in its general sense. Deen is forward-looking: the ideal it embodies beckons to man from the future. Like a beacon it guides his steps towards a glorious destiny. Deen does not want man to keep gazing, awestruck, at some golden age in the remote and dim past: man’s duty is not to retrace his steps but to advance in the direction of futurity. Deen is prospective, not retrospective. It is a vis a front not a vis a tergo. That is why deen is a source of hope and attaches supreme importance to hope; so much so that to relinquish hope is reckoned as kufr (the Qur’an, 39:53; 12:87).

Finally, the Qur’an insists upon explicit conviction, which it calls eiman. A number of verses in the Qur’an make it clear that compulsion has no place in the sphere of deen. Deen must be accepted freely and voluntarily by man. A religion which is forcibly imposed on an individual has no value for him or for the world at large. Man has the right to exercise free choice in the matter of deen. “There is no compulsion in the matter of deen.” Asserts the Qur’an (2:256). If this command is accepted and obeyed in good faith, it will certainly put an end to all fanaticism and religious disputes. Understood rightly, this injunction is the charter of freedom of thought and expression even to those who do not believe in it. Deen, therefore, leaves the power to choose and act in man’s hands. It is through his personal initiative, strength of character, courage, fortitude, determination and ceaseless efforts that man can shape his destiny and can win for himself a future which must necessarily belong to him if he accepts and follows the Divine revelation in all sincerity.

  1.  Islam

The Qur’anic concept of deen has been elucidated in the foregoing section. Obviously, Islam fulfils all the requirements of deen. Islam, as Iqbal puts it, “is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual.”(8) It is much more than any of these or all of these. It is the vivid sense of God’s directive force and unflinching working of His laws. It is absolute eiman in God’s wisdom and His purpose. It is hearty participation in the upward progressive trend and movement of life and the world viewed as the expression of God’s creative force. Islam stands for life-fulfilment and rejects life-denial as unworthy of man. It commands us to face facts and not to shrink from them and take refuge in fantasy, and requires us to control and harness natural forces for achieving our ends. Asceticism, quietism and monasticism are all repugnant to Islam. Islam lays stress on social life and on its value for man, and does not regard the body as an evil and as an impediment to “spiritual” progress. It wants man to respect the rights of the body as well as the rights of the self. For this reason, Islam does not approve of self-abnegation and self-mortification. There is nothing mysterious in it and it has no place for mysticism. It aims at the establishment of a social order based on permanent values in which all its members act as free agents striving for a higher and noble cause of making man’s abode on this earth more beautiful, and making him fit for further evolutionary stages of life.

Islam, as a living force, will continue to play a vital role in the moral uplift and social, cultural and political unification of mankind. It will continue to make valuable contributions to the knowledge and culture of mankind. Above all, it will continue to enrich the “spiritual”(9) life of man and thus strengthen and elevate his self or his personality.




  1. When Iqbal uses the word “religion” with reference to Islam, it should be understood as Deen.
  2. M. Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 182. (Edition 1977) Published by Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore – Pakistan)
  3. Ibid., P. 2.
  4. Ibid., P.2.
  5. Ernst Cassirer,  An Essay on Man, p. 72
  6. Iqbal, op. cit., P. 187.
  7. Ibid., p. 179.
  8. Ibid., p. 189.
  9. The word “spirit” or “spiritual” has special significance in Christian ideology and has not been used by the Qur’an anywhere in that sense. The Qur’an speaks of man’s material and moral progress or degeneration, and not “spiritual.” Even about Muhammad (PBUH) it says, “And surely thou hast sublime morals” (68:4). The word “spiritual” has been used in this book following its common usage in the English language, i.e. as against purely physical, and should be taken in that sense only wherever it occurs with reference to Islam or the Muslims.

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Chapter 1 WHAT IS RELIGION? Islam: A challenge to Religion by G A Parwez

  1.   The So-called Urge for Religion

Religion is as old as the rise of self-consciousness in man, but its origin, as that of man, is shrouded in obscurity. Man has, probably, lived on earth for about a million years. During the greater part of this period, he had no civilization and has not left his impress on any durable material. All we know about him is based on his fossilized remains, and while they tell us a good deal about his physical shape and structure, they tell us little about the man in him. Man acquired some rudiments of civilization when he began to work on stone and metal and to shape for himself tools, which hitherto he had taken ready-made from nature. The remains of his artifacts, however, shed valuable light on his developing needs and beliefs.

Religion can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization. The caverns of primitive men, wherein dead bodies were laid with a provision of food and weapons, suggest beliefs and practices which are unmistakably religious in character. It would seem that no sooner had man attained the stage of mental development, represented by self-consciousness, and started on the road to civilization, than his breathless wonder at the world around him gave way to speculation on his origin and destiny and on the power which created the world and sustains it. His thinking took the form of myth-making and his tools of thought were not concepts but symbols. He felt vaguely but intensely an infinite power at work in the world around him. This dimly-sensed power evoked in him the responses of fear and reverence, or worship. The urge to worship appears to have always been there, but man can worship only that which he believes to be both good and powerful, because of his own helplessness. Primitive man was slowly and painfully groping his way to the idea of religion. He was seeking, with his scanty resources, for an object which he could appease or revere and worship. No doubt, he worshipped crude objects or simple natural phenomena, but we must not forget that for him they only symbolised the supreme power at work in the universe. Worship is a characteristic religious activity and the anthropologists have amassed ample evidence to prove that primitive man did worship something or other. It has also been proved that primitive tribes, even now living, cherish beliefs and engage in practices which are undeniably religious in character inasmuch as they refer to some deity or deities and to life after death.

In light of these findings one can safely affirm that religion is a universal phenomenon (for the simple reason that, as explained in the Introduction, the instinct of self-preservation is inherent in man). Plutarch, who flourished in the first century of the Christian era with extensive knowledge of the world of his time, affirms:

In wandering over the earth, you can find cities without walls, without science, without rulers, without palaces, without treasures, without money, without gymnasium or theater, but a city without temples to gods, without prayer, oaths and prophecy, such a city no mortal has yet seen and will never see. (1)

In the modern age, religion is visible in many different aspects – sometimes it is looked upon as a natural phenomenon and as such it falls within the sphere of science. But, as the experience of individual man, it falls within the purview of psychology, while, as a social fact, it is the concern of the sociologist. The sociologist is, however, interested only in the function of religion as a cohesive force in society. The role of religion in human history has also not been overlooked: it has been studied. In our attempt to understand the nature of religion, therefore, we will first consider the definitions which have been offered by the various scientists and thinkers who have made a special study of the subject.

  1.  The Definition of Religion

The student of religion is as much bewildered by the diversity and variety of religions as he is baffled by the complexity of each single religion. He finds it well-nigh impossible to extract the essential element from the complex and heterogeneous mass of beliefs and practices in which it is embedded. In these circumstances, it is natural for him to select some aspect which he happens to regard as an important characteristic and try to define religion within this particular framework. This, among others, is the main reason why there are so many definitions of religion; but none of them encompasses the entire phenomenon or commands universal acceptance. In fact, every investigator in this field has given his own definition and some have offered more than one. Surprisingly enough, some of them are even self-contradictory. Some scholars hold that a set of doctrines is essential to religion; while others believe that religion may exist as a purely emotional attitude without any beliefs. Again, for some, belief in God is the life-blood of religion – but others reject this view and cite as instances Buddhism and other atheistic religions. However, let us examine a few representative definitions of religion, hoping to find some element common to them all which serves as the clue to a comprehensive definition:

Religion is (subjectively regarded) the recognition of all duties as divine commands (Kant).

Religion is to take everything individual as a part of the whole, everything limited as a representation of the infinite (Schleiermacher).

That which expresses the innermost tendency of all religions is the axiom of the conservation of values (Hoffding).

William James holds religion to be “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Calverton takes a different view of religion. “Magic and religion,” he affirms, “evolved as (a) means whereby (man) believed he was able to acquire power (over his environment) and make the universe bend to this wishes.” Professor Whitehead speaks of religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness.”(2) and in another place defines it as a “force of belief cleansing the inward parts”.(3) Whitehead’s considered opinion on the nature of religion is stated more fully and clearly in the following passage which occurs in his Science and the Modern World:

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.(4)

Commenting on various definitions of religion, Professor G. Galloway says, “When we keep in mind the psychological factors of the religious consciousness and the way in which they work, some definitions of religion strike us by their inadequacy and one-sidedness. We find, perhaps, that they are applicable to certain stages of religion but not to others, or that they leave out what is important.” However, undeterred by the lack of success which had attended the efforts of so many great scholars, Galloway has advanced his own definition. He defines religion as “Man’s faith in a power beyond himself whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gain stability of life, and which he expresses in acts of worship and service.”(5)

A.C. Campbell, in his illuminating work On Selfhood and Godhood, has devoted a chapter to the discussion of the problem of a definition for religion. He too has put forward a definition of his own which deserves consideration:

Religion may be defined as a state of mind comprising belief in the reality of a supernatural being or beings endowed with transcendent power and worth, together with the complex emotive attitude of worship intrinsically appropriate thereto.(6)

Leuba, in his book, A psychological Study of Religion, has listed no less than forty-eight different definitions of religion, each offered by a scholar of repute. Even this is far from being an exhaustive list as Ducasse in his book, A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion, has quoted twenty-seven other definitions.(7) To add to the confusion, as has been observed before, many definitions contradict one another. As Professor H.J. Paton has pointed out, “For any serious view of religion, it is always possible to find another, equally serious, which seems to be its precise opposite.”(8)

Ouspensky, looking at the formidable array of conflicting definitions, was led to accept the relativistic theory of religion. According to him, “Religion corresponds to the level of a man’s being; and one man’s religion might not be at all suitable for another man.”(9) His definition is clearly inadequate and unsatisfactory inasmuch as it completely ignores the Reality to which religion refers and denies it any form of objectivity.

We have been trying to seek an element which is common to all the important definitions. That element, if found, would constitute the core of religion and as such can be expected to occupy the central place in every religion. The element, which we find common to most of the definitions, though not to all, is the belief in the existence of a transcendent cosmic power to which the term “Divine” is usually applied. Divinity too has been represented as one single entity and also as many; but the monistic conception has been more widely accepted than the pluralistic. While the existence of the supreme power is seldom questioned by religious people, their ideas regarding its nature are as vague, as indefinite and as varied as are the definitions of religion itself, and each great writer on religion seems to have conceived God in his own way. Only a few instances can be cited here. Kant speaks of God as “the moral Law-giver,” and William James describes Him as “the Higher part of the universe.” Matthew Arnold believes God to be “the power that makes for righteousness.”(10) “For Sir James Jeans, He is “the greatest of mathematicians.” Bergson, in one of his earlier works, identified Him with the creative energy. Later on, when his thought had taken a mystical turn, he spoke of God as “Love and the Beloved”.(11) Thus we see that there are as many definitions of God as there are of religion. The point to be emphasised, however, is that God is infinite and therefore, our finite understanding can never encompass His nature. Some of those who attempt to define God give free rein to their imagination and indulge in wild speculation quite out of touch with Reality. Others, seeking something of which their mind can take a firm hold, identify God with nature. But they forget that God is transcendent. He may be sensed but cannot be comprehended. Apprehension of God is supposed to occur in the mystical experience,* but this apprehension, as the great mystics themselves testify, is only fragmentary, elusive and tantalising. A comprehensive definition of God, therefore, is not possible. None-the-less, it may be possible to formulate some idea of God. But religion is not satisfied with that. It requires a more adequate idea of God. We should, therefore, take up the question whether and how such an idea of God may be formulated.

 The Idea of God

Belief in God is the life-blood of religion. Questions relating to God have naturally engaged the attention of the advocates and opponents of religion. What is God, and how do we know Him, are questions which no serious student of religion can brush aside. Adequate and satisfactory answers to these basic questions will enable us to understand the nature of God and assess the value of religion. In fact, we find that these questions too have received different and conflicting answers. It may be of interest to note that even the questions themselves have been phrased according to the point of view of each writer. Those who employ the positivist  approach have put the question in the form of “How did the idea of God take its rise in the human mind?” Grant Allen and J. G. Frazer are fair representatives of this group of writers. Their answer may be summarised thus.

Primitive man lived in constant dread of the violent forces of nature which threatened him with physical injury and even death. Storms, thunderbolts, earthquakes and other cataclysms of nature frightened and overawed him, and as animistic tendencies dominated his mind, he personified the forces of nature and sought to placate them by offering them worship and sacrifice. He thus peopled the world with gods. Later on, as man’s mind developed, he found it necessary to rationalise his old attachment to them. The urge for unification led him to reduce the multiplicity of gods to one supreme deity. He formed an abstract idea of the Absolute and then, driven by unconscious emotional urges, objectified that idea. The God thus evolved is a subjective God. In the words of Sheen, “the only God attained by a purely affective approach is a subjective God born of one’s own feelings.(12)”

This, in brief, is the evolutionary theory, which purports to give an account of the origin and development of the idea of one God. It is presumed that the idea of God is found only in the higher religions of modern man and that it was alien to the mind of primitive people. Recently, however, factual evidence has been brought to light which proves that this presumption is erroneous. On the basis of these facts, some scholars have advocated the view that primitive man’s mind too was gifted with the awareness of God. According to Professor Toynbee, this view is put forward by Father Schmidt, who based his theory on observations made by him of “common elements in the religions of the most primitive surviving peoples, now scattered in holes and corners at opposite extremities of the inhabited surface of the Earth(13).” The present writer cannot say how the scholars who are working in this field have reacted to this theory. If they regard it as at least worthy of serious consideration, it would mean that a different approach to the question “What is God?” is possible. If God’s existence was recognised even by the most primitive people, it may be safely argued that the idea of God has a genuine reference to the Real, however imperfectly and inadequately it may represent the Real. Religion too, as a means of contracting the Real, therefore becomes validated. Instead of being the expression of subjective wishes, religion is seen to be a transaction with the objective Reality. The goal of religion, from this standpoint, is not a phantom of imagination but Reality itself. The point being important, we should bear in mind its implication which we have to consider later on. For the moment, it should suffice to remark that in this context the idea of objective Reality and belief in a being who exists independently of us – a being who is both immanent and transcendent – is a dim reminiscence of the original deen.*

We can now take up the question, “What is Religion?”

 What Is Religion?

Two different views of God were considered in the preceding section. According to the first view, God is the Ultimate Reality, and, according to the second, God exists only as an idea in the human mind. Corresponding to these two views of God, there emerge two views of religion. According to one, religion deals with the Absolute. Its business is to interpret the Absolute to us and to tell us how we can get close to it. According to the second view, religion is a superstition born of human wishes and fantasies. Its function is to provide illusory gratification to human wishes which are denied satisfaction in the physical world. From this point of view, religion originates in the primitive mentality of man in his ignorance, his


fears and hopes. Jung, for instance, explains religion as a biological device for safeguarding the human self and his social fabric against the forces of disintegration. It is obvious that such a view relegates religion to the position of a private affair of the individual, something which has only a fictitious value to him, and assumes a role hardly distinguishable from the fantasies of self-willed individuals. Religious activity will thus appear only to be primitive, irrational or prelogical, and completely out of touch with the real world.

The scientist’s approach to religion, on the other hand, is empirical and historical. He treats religion as a natural phenomenon and hopes to understand it by tracing it back to its origin in primitive society and taking note of the changes it underwent in the course of history. His stress is chiefly on the social function of religion. He thinks that religion comes into being and survives because it promotes social cohesion and group solidarity: but he fails to grasp the essence of religion as practised in primitive society, because there it is enveloped in bizarre notions and grotesque superstitions. Lacking the (so-called) spiritual insight, he is led to regard the whole mass as religion, and takes its superficial aspects as constituting the core of religion itself. Auguste Comte was the pioneer in this type of investigation. He believed that human thought, in the course of its development, has passed through three well-defined stages – theological, metaphysical and, finally, scientific. Religion thus represents the earliest phase of mental evolution. In this stage, man’s approach to Reality was emotional and irrational – in short, only mystical, while in the metaphysical stage, he relied more upon reason to lead him to the heart of Reality. In the last stage, that is, the scientific, he realised the importance of the observational data for gaining some knowledge of the world itself in which he lived. If we accept Comte’s view, it will mean that religion has no relevance to the modern world, and its image will thus have to be regarded as a mere relic of the past, with no place in the scheme of modern knowledge and no bearing on the present-day life, deserving to be consigned to the limbo of obsolete ideas.

Another empirically oriented theory gives a better reasoned account of the origin and development of religion. It points out that primitive man lived in constant fear of the forces of nature. Confronted with them, he suffered from an intense feeling of helplessness. He personified and deified these forces and offered sacrifices and worship to placate them. This was the first stage of religion, in which man humbly prostrated himself before these gods in the hope of pacifying them and inducing them to spare him. Later, he grew somewhat confident and thought that he could actively interfere in the course of natural events and could devise methods to bend these forces to his will. The attitude developed a new phase of religion which was that of magic. Then man tried to influence the deities by charms, spells, incantations and occult practices, and thus probably the institution of priesthood arose to cope with the problem, and the magicians became the first priests.

As human groups increased in size and their structure became complex, tribal customs could no longer regulate the behaviour of their members. The need was felt for a central organistaion, and the institution of Kingship thus made its first appearance. A single man was invested with absolute power and the entire administration was placed in his hands. He occupied a position high above the common people and exercised absolute control over their lives and property. His word was law, submission to which was considered essential. He would brook no opposition. The desire for power is insatiable. However powerful the monarch might be, he wanted still greater power. With the passage of time, this turned him into an object of fear, hatred or love according to his treatment of his subjects. The theory that absolute monarchy was an indispensable condition for peace and order in society was universally accepted. So, it was bound to influence religion also. The idea of God was fashioned on the model of the absolute monarch, and He was conceived as the Being who ruled over heaven and earth as an arbitrary despot. He was the King of kings, the Lord of the universe, whose will was unquestionable and whose ways were mysterious. Man stood before Him quaking with fear – an abject and helpless creature. Religion, according to this theory, had now entered the third and the final stage. God was conceived as a tyrant, and religion became an instrument of oppression. It served the ruling class by representing it as appointed by the Divine Master to exercise power in the land and control over the masses. By means of “spiritual sanctions” it  protected the ruling class against the fury of the oppressed people. With religion to defend them, the rulers could, with impunity, trample upon the rights of the common man which still remained undefined. This, in brief, is the Marxist theory of religion. The Marxists view religion as a cunning device employed by the bourgeoisie to safeguard their vested interests against the proletariat. Religion, they aver, is an opiate which makes the people insensible to their suffering and persuades them to resign to their unhappy lot. This view of religion needs serious consideration. We may be permitted to say that the world of religion has not been able to meet this challenge so far. Only deen can meet it, as we shall discus later on.

In so far as the view of the scientists is concerned, it may be pointed out that religion to them represents a distinctive approach to Reality quite different from the scientific approach. While science has been developing a truer and clearer view of one aspect of Reality, religion has been striving to achieve a clearer perception and a more and more adequate apprehension of Reality as a whole and its relation to and meaning for man in a realm beyond the reach of natural science. Professor Heisenberg, the famous physicist, in one of his recent writings, has observed that as science becomes more and more perfect, it gets farther and farther away from concrete reality and enters into the realm of abstraction. As scientific concepts tend to become more and more abstract, they get more and more remote from the real world of our daily experience. Each step that takes science nearer to perfection takes it farther away from the realities of life. Religion, on the other hand, strives to keep close to the living reality, and its concepts too, though they may not take the form of scientific expression, yet are more meaningful and in closer touch with human life.

The philosophical approach to religion is certainly more appropriate than that of the scientist. The philosopher’s quest is for the meaning and he strives to achieve a comprehensive view of religion and its value to human life. Unfortunately, many philosophers have been hampered by their preconceptions and have, therefore, failed in their search. Human reason, moreover, has serious limitations and it may be doubted if it can lead us by itself to the core of Reality. Some philosophers, as a result of deep and intensive reflection, have, no doubt, arrived at a conception of God, but this God turns out to be a mere abstraction, far different from the living god which religion tries to comprehend. Reason, by itself, in short, has not enabled us so far to answer the question: “What is religion?”

Let us now turn to the mystic’s approach. He appeals to his subjective experience which he finds to be absolutely convincing and supremely satisfying, at least to himself. He claims that in this experience he feels himself to be in close and living contact with the Absolute. Unfortunately, this experience, as the mystic himself admits, is ineffable and incommunicable. He can neither convey his knowledge to others nor can he convince others that his experience was not purely subjective and illusory. Further, the mystic’s Absolute is static and unchanging. Time is reduced to a mere illusion. But the world of our experience is continuously in a flux. What is then the source of change if God is outside the stream of time? The mystic has no plausible answer to such a question.

Perhaps a survey of the higher religions of the world (which originally were the same deen received by the various Anbiya from time to time) might enable us to get an answer to the question of the nature and validity of religion. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Formidable obstacles will have to be surmounted before we can form a just estimate of the value of each of the adyaan. The lives of most of the Rusul in the history of adyaan are shrouded in obscurity, and even the keen eye of the historian can hardly penetrate the mist that envelops their lives. Authentic facts about their lives are hard to obtain and the problem is more complicated by the tangle of myths that has been woven around them in the course of centuries. Even patient historical research has, very often, failed to separate fact from fiction. The result is that the accounts or their lives are mostly hearsay or conjectural. What is worse, even their teaching has not come down to us in its original form. We do not know, for certain, when their so-called sayings were committed to writing, and there is good reason to believe that the sacred books, generally supposed to embody their teaching, have been tampered with from time to time. It would seem that in the course of successive editions many passages were excised and many were interpolated. The teaching of the Rusul has certainly been preserved in the scriptures but only in a distorted form. It is, therefore,      well-nigh impossible to recover the original form and substance of these adyaan.

The only exception is the Deen of Islam. Its Nabi and his companions lived in the limelight of history. His teaching and actions were extensively recorded by his followers and they can be checked by the accounts given by contemporary historians of neighbouring lands. Authentic facts about his life and doings are numerous and easily accessible in contemporary records. Moreover, the Qur’an, on which Islam is firmly based, has come down to us exactly as it was delivered through the Rasool. It has always been transcribed with scrupulous care. No Muslim scribe has ever dared to omit or insert a single letter. The source of Islam has thus remained untouched and unadulterated. We can reasonably hope, therefore, that a close study of Islam will give us the clue to the real nature and function of deen.




  1. W.M. Urban, Humanity and Deity, p.15.
  2. E.S. Brightman, A philosophy of Religion, p.18.
  3. J. Huxley, Religion without Revelation, p.40.
  4. A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 222.
  5. George Galloway, The Philosophy of Religion, pp.181, 184.
  6. A.C. Campbell, One Selfhood and Godhood, p. 248.
  7. Cf. Ibid., p. 234.
  8. H.J. Paton, The Modern Predicament, p. 59
  9. P.D. Ouspensky, In search of the Miraculous, p. 299.
  10. Brightman, op. cit., p. 81.
  11. Henry Bergson, The Two Sources of Religion and Morality, pp.245-6.
  12. Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophy of Religion, p. 238.
  13. Arnold Tyonbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion, p.18.

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