As a scholar and philosopher of religion, I have struggled to come to terms with the essence of Islam as well as the other main world religions. I am interested particularly in the unities between the religions as well as the essential differences of each. Although limited to reading the Qur’an in English translation, I have benefited greatly from conversations with Moslem friends and scholars in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Libya, and Togo and from reading some of the many good books available concerning Islam by Islamic scholars.
In the light of this research, I have come to agree most with the great Islamist Frithjof Schuon (in Understanding Islam ,1963) regarding the essence of Islam. (Schuon’s explanation is not significantly different from many other scholars, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Knowledge & the Sacred, 1981). If this understanding is anywhere near correct, then there is a wonderful future for Islam in the 21st century and a key role for Islam to play in the unification and liberation of humankind.
Schuon states that Islam is the “meeting between God as such and man as such.” God is the Absolute Reality, the Manifestation (Creator) of the world, and Reintegration (or the source of salvation). Humanity is theomorphic (made in God’s image) and has both transcendent intelligence and free will. As such, humanity is a “dual receptacle” made for God. Islam was given to humanity through the Prophet to fill that receptacle with “the truth of the Absolute” and “the law of the Absolute.”
The essence of Islam, then, is Truth and Law. The Truth can fill the receptacle of human intelligence. Humans can recognize that God alone is Absolute and to see the entire world as a unity in diversity dependent on God. The Testimony of Faith (Shahadah) can inform the intelligence and the Law can fill the receptacle of the will. The Law (Shari’ah) can determine the free will of human beings. When this occurs, our gift of speech becomes “sacred speech” and speech becomes prayer. Humans are lifted to their theomorphic destiny and to salvation because our human essence, which was made as a receptacle for the Absolute, is now filled, rather than emptied or distorted, as is often the case today and throughout history.
Schuon calls this “esoteric” rather than “exoteric” Islam because it expresses what he calls the essence of God and Humanity to which the revelation through the Prophet was addressed. “Exoteric” Islam, if I understand him correctly, would be to confuse Islam with externals like controversies over the succession from the Prophet, the specific form of practices, or other specific historical or cultural forms.
Islam is unique and very different from the other great world religions I have studied (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity). But I believe this distinction between an esoteric and exoteric understanding can be applied to them all with great fruitfulness and import for world peace and the future of humanity on planet Earth. It means, for example, that none of them have anything to fear from the rise and development of science in the modern world.
We know, of course, that during the thousand years of the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization that science was very advanced among Islamic scholars and thinkers. If God is Truth, and science systematically investigates the truth about our universe, then clearly there can be no conflict with the Truth of the Absolute, since the entire world and everything in it was created by, and is a manifestation of, the Absolute.
The great tide of secularism and relativism that seem to have been unleashed by the rise of science is not the consequence of careful scholarship and the great quest for truth of the scientists. It is the consequence of superficial divisions, ideologies, dogmas, and cliches (promoted, in part, by commercial nightmare of exploitative capitalism). It is not science per se that has led to the great tide of confusion in human life but the exoteric divisions and distortions that human beings have falsely worshiped (like the nation-state or exploitative capitalism).
The essence of Islam, understood esoterically, is magnified by the developments in historical, scientific, and scriptural scholarship. After the discovery of the modern scientific method in the 17th century by Galileo and others, many Christian authorities rejected the new science because it seemed to remove human beings from the center of creation. This rejection continued right to the present after Darwin published his famous theory of evolution in 1859. Human beings were now demoted even further, it seemed, to products of an evolutionary process that made us cousins to monkeys and distant relatives of earthworms.
But if Islam is the meeting of God as such and humanity as such, that is, if Islam points directly to the essential features of our humanity in relation to the Absolute and provides a dynamic by which the human receptacle can be filled by the Truth of the Absolute and the Law of the Absolute, then science as the quest for truth will never challenge but can only elaborate the truth about our theomorphic situation. All forms of fundamentalism, whether Hindu, Christian, or Islamic, are mistaken reactions to the rise of science. The love of truth, as manifested in objective scholarship and research, can only have God’s blessing.
Islam promotes the unity of humankind and of truth. All human beings share the same theomorphic structure revealed to us by the Qur’an and the world is an integrated unity as God’s creative manifestation. Scholars such as Errol E. Harris (Cosmos and Theos, 1992) and Moazziz Ali Beg (The Ideological Integration of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Peace, 2004) have shown that the amazing breakthroughs in 20th century physics also reveal the unity of the world and humankind. Professor Harris relates these breakthroughs to Christianity while Professor Ali Beg relates them to the powerful tradition of the Sufis, such as the thought of the great Sufi thinker Ibn-al Arabi (1165-1240). Professor Ali Beg eloquently argues that the principle of the unity of all being elaborated by Ibn-al Arabi is the same principle of fundamental unity in the universe revealed by contemporary micro-physics and Einsteinian relativity physics.
The world of the 21st century is torn apart by ethnic, cultural, religious, ideological, national, racial, and economic divisions and differences. This fragmentation threatens the very future of humanity in a world with an exploding population, rampant militarism, a disintegrating environment, and massive poverty. This fragmentation is the result of two gigantic failures on the part of human beings (1) the failure to go beyond the exoteric response to existence (which takes superficial aspects of the world as fundamental realities) and (2) the failure to challenge and move beyond the centuries old fragmented institutions dominating human existence – exploitative capitalism and the “sovereign” nation-state.
To address the first of these failures requires the education of humanity to see what is essential about human life and the universe. Treatises like those of Schuon, Harris, Ali Beg, and Ibn-Al Arabi address this need. To address the second of these failures requires that we understand that it is an affront to reality (to God’s world and God’s theomorphic humanity) to divide the world into some 190 competing “sovereign” political entities, each with its own military, self-interest, and self-promotion as a focus. The result is the international chaos we have seen throughout the 20th century that led to the deaths of approximately 125 million people during that period from wars and the consequences of wars. The system of sovereign nation-states promotes division and falsehood among human beings.
The political madness of dividing humanity into 190 independent political entities is compounded by the global economic system of the past five centuries that promotes private greed and self-interest at the expense of human cooperation for the welfare and prosperity of everyone. Exploitative capitalism divides people from one another, destroys human mercy and compassion, promotes lying and falsehood in the service of private profit, creates absolute winners and losers, unsustainably exploits the natural resources of the planet, and creates ever greater poverty for the masses of humanity. Today, two billion human beings live on less than two U.S. dollars per day while the wealthiest 250 people in the world have assets equal to the combined wealth of the bottom 50 percent of humanity.
While the education of humanity beyond the exoteric relation to existence may be a slow process, the second failure of humanity (to move beyond the nation-state system and exploitative capitalism) can be addressed more rapidly. There are global organizations working for democratic world government and a concomitant transformation of global economics to sustainable, prosperity-based economies for all peoples. The most perceptive as well as practical of these organizations, in my view, is the World Constitution and Parliament Association that sponsors democratic federal world government under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth ( face=”Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>www.wcpa.biz).
Islam can and should promote ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Achieving the political unity of humanity under the Constitution will simultaneously promote the transition of people’s thinking from the exoteric to the esoteric understanding of human existence. The Preamble to the Constitution reads, in part, “conscious that Humanity is One despite the existence of diverse nations, races, creeds, ideologies and cultures and that the principle of unity in diversity is the basis for a new age when war shall be outlawed and peace prevail.” If we can unify humanity politically, then human thinking will be rapidly transformed to the esoteric principle of “unity in diversity” in which falsehood is abjured and truth is promoted.
Under the present world chaos of absolute fragmentation or diversity, falsehood is promoted because people do not see the basic unities of existence, humanity, and the world. The wonderful diversity of the world, including the variety of Islamic cultural forms and the teaching of the beautiful Arabic language, need to be protected by the collective political force of a united humanity. The freedom engendered by this protection needs to be extended to all peoples and religions creating a unity in diversity which is the expression of the peaceful world that is God’s will for humanity.
Islam at its best understands the unity of humanity and existence and can take steps to promote this unity in intellectual, political, and economic forms. The first and most important step, in my view, is to promote the ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth among the peoples and nations of Earth. Of course, the political unity of humankind cannot force people to accept the highest truth: the Absoluteness of God and the dependence of all things upon God. The political unity under the Constitution must give all people “freedom of religion or no religion” (Article 12).
But the revelation through the Prophet illuminated the truth of human free will. We must freely see the truth and freely conform our free will to that truth (through the Shari’ah). People must allow the Truth to fill their intelligence and must freely choose to live a life of submission (the Law of God) and prayer. They cannot be forced in this respect, but conditions can be created that make this more likely. Under the present world chaos, seeing the unity of existence and submitting to this in virtue (el-ihsan) is not encouraged by the dominant world institutions (the nation-state and global capitalism).
The unity of humankind asserted in God’s revelation to the Prophet is reflected, at the political level, in political unity of humankind provided by democratic world federation under the Constitution. Seeing Truth, and submitting to it, then becomes a possibility for humanity. People are enabled to freely see the Absolute and the dependence of all things upon the Absolute. In the present system of unlimited destructive diversity (including the system of “sovereign” nation-states and exploitative capitalism), the likelihood of this is severely diminished.
The essence of Islam is illuminated by the advances in science and scholarship. Islamic fundamentalism claims a “literal” interpretation of the Qur’an and claims the medieval laws to be unchangeable regardless of historical developments. This can and should be transformed into Islamic esoterism that recognizes the essence of God and humanity, beyond history, can be creatively adapted to each new historical era. What does submission to God mean today? What is sacred speech today? What almsgiving today? What is pilgrimage today?
There may well be great virtue and submission in embarking on the journey to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. But is there an additional meaning to “pilgrimage,” a surplus of meaning? Could it be that our submission to God’s law would require something more of us with regard to “pilgrimage” or “almsgiving”? Perhaps recognizing a surplus of meaning to “almsgiving” could lead us to change the global economic system that creates so much poverty and misery in the world that simple giving to the poor cannot possibly address the need? Perhaps we should be embarking with our entire lives on a pilgrimage toward the political unification of humanity under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth?
Under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, not only will the diversity of religions, cultures, nations, and peoples be protected (through the collective force of the united whole), but an environment of unity, integrity, equality, and freedom will allow the Truth to appeal to man’s intelligence more readily. In a world of peace and prosperity (with an economic and political system that unites rather than divides humanity), the possibility of the deeper meaning of God’s revelation becomes available to human beings. Today’s Islam, as the religion of truth, law, unity, and virtue, can play a major role in the political unification of humanity.