Towards a new Understanding

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 17, 2020

Towards a New Understanding of Islam and Eman

So far, we have shown that the traditional definitions of al-Islam and al-Eman as we know it today are incompatible with Allah’s text.

What we need to do now is to explore the definitions that are more faithful to the Book. We need to explain the differences between ‘those who assent to God’  (muslimun) and ‘those who have faith’ (muminun). This implies a redefinition of the pillars of Islam and Eman, for which the concepts of ‘doing what is fair and just’ (al-Ihsan) and ‘doing what is righteous’(al-amal al-salih) will be introduced. ‘Doing what is righteous’ will be defined as a pillar of islam, while al-Ihsan ‘doing what is fair and just’ will be defined as a pillar of Eman. we distinguish between verses that are ambiguous (mutashabiha), designating verses relating to prophethood; and those that are definite, the verses relating to messenger hood. These are supplemented by verses that are neither fully definite nor fully ambiguous.

The ambiguous verses represent what we call  al-Haqq: the objective sources of existence, inasmuch as they are the general, absolute, and eternal laws of the universe, unaltered since the creation of the world, divine commands that are universal and never change, but for the first time revealed in a human (Arabic) language.

The definite verses designate al-suluk: guidance for human attitude and specific rules of social behavior refers to commands that are limited and do change. In this understanding, the definite verses contain the basic commandments, shared by all religions, while the ambiguous verses contain the practical aspects of these commandants and may vary from one religion to another. We will also deal with two often misunderstood verses in the Book.

These verses say that ‘the religion before Allah is al-Islam’ and that ‘if anyone desires a religion other than al-Islam, never will it be accepted of Him’ (al-imran 3:85). In order to interpret these verses correctly we need to ask: what is meant by the phrase ‘a religion other than al-Islam’? How is this religion defined and why it is so special?

The answers to these questions will eventually help us to put our priorities right, to place morality and ethics above ritualism, and, finally, to achieve a truly sustainable ‘Islamic awakening’.

We all understand the current phenomenon of Islamic awakening, represented by the diverse streams of contemporary Islamism, as consisting of the following aspects: a) obsessive focus on ritualism of veiling, fasting, and pilgrimage and so on, b) veneration of the salaf forefathers, and c) exclusion of an ethical discourse and hatred of the West and everything non-Islamic.

our concept of ‘Islamic awakening’ is meant to reverse the current Islamist agenda and advance an ethical ‘awakening’ that emphasizes morality against a rigid ritualism. Instead of returning to the notion of synonymity in the Book, we set out to find subtle differences of meaning between terms such as islam and Eman or between shirk and kufr that only look similar on the surface. We know how the Book displays an astonishing precision, reflecting the majesty of its divine Maker, in distinguishing between al-muslimun (those who assent to God) and al-muminun (those who have faith in Muhammad).

In the same manner, it also subtly distinguishes between al-muminun (those who have faith) and different categories of ‘unbelievers’ such as al-kafirun (those who reject God), al-mushrikun (those who violate God’s unity) and al-mujrimun (those who dissent from God). It is absolutely vital for our reading of the Book to negate synonymity and to identify even the smallest semantic variation in the Book. And yet, our claim that there is no synonymity in the Book does not mean that we insist on an absolute difference between these terms.

What we mean is that there are subtle semantic variations between these words (such as vowels and letters) that are by no means oppositional or antonymic. For example, qata’ to cut , qas to shear, qataf to pluck , Arabic words all connote the same root meaning, (to separate by some force) , and minor additional layers of meaning make each word unique and different from the others in the same group. Ignoring such subtle differences while writing or reading newspapers is bad enough, but we should not ignore them while reading Allah’s Book! Now that we have established that Islam and Eman are two different concepts and that the traditional understanding of al-Islam’s five pillars are inaccurate, we can now redefine Islam and its pillars according to the Book, applying the method of tartil, that is, a thematic arrangement of the verses that contain the terms in question. 1. The term al-Islam refers to an ‘assent to God’:

We learn that al-Islam means belief in the existence of God, in His unity and in life after death; we learn that this belief contains an absolute, axiomatic truth, insofar as these articles of faith can neither be proved nor disproved by empirical evidence or scientific tests; and we learn that such beliefs are equally shared by all people in this world and are, as they are based on natural reason and instinct, intelligible to both common people and the intellectual elite.

2. Al-Islam (‘assent to God’) is a religion shared by the entire universe known and unknown to us and not just by the inhabitants of our globe: We hear that these are rational beings that live in the many galaxies of this universe who according to the Book not only heard of God, the only One, but also assented to Him, subjectively and willingly because of God’s divinity (al-uluhiyah) as well as objectively and dispassionately because of His sovereignty ( al-rububiyya).

We also learn that this religion is called Islam, meaning ‘belief in His existence and His unity’. This belief is a matter of utmost logic because Allah, the Highest, is our Lord, that is, the Lord of the sky and the earth, lord of what’s between them and in them. 3. The religion of Islam and life as a Muslim cannot be identified with Muhammad’s messenger hood, nor with any other prophetical message: We hear that Noah was a Muslim, as were Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, Solomon, Moses, and Jesus.

They all were Muslims (assenters to god) in spite of the fact that they were not contemporaries of Muhammad and never performed the rituals he prescribed. Their faith was confined to belief in God and His unity. Everyone who believed in the existence of God and the Hereafter (the absolute, axiomatic truth) was a Muslim, regardless of the individual messenger he followed, and regardless of the name of the religious community to which he belonged. 4. Al-Islam is the only heavenly religion that humankind has ever known: It has been transmitted by different messengers, each in his own way. Islam began with Noah and culminated in the Noble Prophet, passing messenger hoods from Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, undergoing several developments and passing through several periods, while facing a growing intellectual and material capability that its human recipients developed in dealing with subsequent messenger hoods.

The Definition of Islam & Eman is next.