The relation between faith and belief is dialectical: (1) belief is one of the forms in which faith is expressed, (2) belief is one of the sources from which faith is nourished.
Let me elaborate. People’s faith expresses itself in a variety of historical forms; these historical forms, in turn, sustain and nourish their faith. The historical expressions of faith are many — symbols, myths, beliefs, doctrines, theologies, rituals, customs, laws, ethics, institutions, activism, music, poetry, calligraphy, architecture, and so on. The entire range of historical forms produced in the context of a given religion together constitute what Wilfred Cantwell Smith calls a “cumulative tradition.”
A cumulative tradition comes into being, and continues to expand and change, within the limitations of historical time. Historians can therefore trace the birth and growth of a religious tradition to the relevant individuals and groups acting within particular historical settings. What often remains elusive in such studies, however, is the quality of personal faith without which that tradition would never have emerged in the first place; as well as the role played by that tradition in sustaining and nourishing the personal faith of countless individuals and communities over hundreds or thousands of years.
Academic studies of religion tend to focus on cumulative traditions, even though religion is much more than its historical expressions. No understanding of religion can be complete without giving due attention to the quality of personal faith that gives birth to, and is maintained by, these historical expressions. In fact, any given cumulative tradition is necessarily imperfect when judged from the viewpoint of faith. In effect, the cumulative tradition is supposed to serve the faith of an individual or community; not the other way around. Even though faith can hardly thrive without a cumulative tradition, faith must take priority over all aspects of the cumulative tradition.
In other words, a given religion consists of both personal faith and a historically expressed cumulative tradition, but these two components do not enjoy the same value. From a religious viewpoint, it is indisputable that faith is primary; the cumulative tradition — including belief — is secondary.
To some extent, faith needs belief. While belief is based upon faith, it is also one of the many ways in which faith is sustained and nourished. Smith writes that “belief is one among many of the overt expressions of faith,” but then goes on to emphasize that belief is an important part of the apparatus that helps support and maintain the personal faith of an individual or a community.
Yet the term “expression” is inadequate, and in danger even of being misleading. For once the form has been set up, and especially once it is preserved by becoming incorporated into the on-going tradition, where it may serve for decades or even for millennia, it functions not only to express the faith of its formulator and then that of subsequent generations, but more importantly to induce and to nurture the latter, and to give shape to it . . . Great men contribute to a tradition new forms which express their personal faith; but that faith has itself in its turn been stimulated by earlier forms, so that all religious men, great and small, derive from (or we may better say, through) the forms of a tradition the faith by which they live their daily lives . . . (p. 17)
We can see that belief is clearly an important part of any historically contingent religious tradition. Since personal faith is supported and maintained by the various forms of the cumulative tradition with which it is associated, one could say that personal faith depends, among other things, on beliefs — at least to a certain degree. This partial dependence of faith upon beliefs can become problematic when, with the passage of time, some religious beliefs become untenable, i.e., difficult or impossible to maintain. Depending upon how closely the personal faith of an individual or community is tied with a particular set of beliefs, a weakening of beliefs will have varying degrees of negative consequences for personal faith.
And yet, we must not forget that belief is only one of the countless ways in which faith can express itself in history; as such, belief is only one of the countless sources from which faith can receive its nourishment. This means that when a particular set of religious beliefs becomes untenable as a result of historical change, faith does not immediately perish.
Consider the fact that faith is expressed in beliefs (ideas that we hold in our minds) as well as in practices (what we do, or how we live our lives). As certain beliefs become untenable, the continuing availability of certain religious practices can still nourish the personal faith of individuals and communities — at least for some time. Under these conditions, the importance of beliefs may decline somewhat as attention increasingly shifts in the direction of practices. The problem, of course, is that religious practices are no more immune to the pressure of historical change than are religious beliefs. As certain religious practices become difficult or impossible to maintain, we can expect the personal faith of individuals and communities to decline even further.
Let me digress for a moment to make a point about the relative importance of beliefs and practices within a given cumulative tradition. In certain historical contexts, the former may receive more attention than the latter, giving rise to an apparent opposition between “orthodoxy” (correct belief) and “orthopraxy” (correct practice). Commenting on this important point, Smith writes:
Every great religious movement has had many expressions. We can observe that, of these, one or a few tend at times to be singled out for special emphasis and centrality — probably never to the exclusion of all others, although it can happen that the others come to be interpreted then in terms of that central one. These may then be seen less as immediate expressions of the fundamental faith than as secondary expressions of the primary expression . . . . (p. 17)
Smith goes on to say that while Christians tend to take “monotheism” primarily as a “doctrine” (i.e., a matter of belief), Jews and Muslims tend to take it primarily as a “moral command” (i.e., a matter of practice). For Jews and Muslims, says Smith, monotheism is “less a metaphysical description than an ethical injunction.”
It is often claimed, in light of this observation, that Judaism and Islam are religions of orthopraxy while Christianity is a religion of orthodoxy. Such sweeping labels can be misleading. The difference, insofar as it actually exists, is not that of exclusive commitment but of relative emphasis (as Smith correctly notes). While in many contexts Jews and Muslims emphasize monotheism as an ethical imperative and Christians focus on its doctrinal subtleties, the reverse is also true. The oneness of God has an obvious doctrinal importance for Jews and Muslims, and it has a profound moral and practical importance for Christians. It would be wrong to say, therefore, that Christians don’t care about practice, or that Jews and Muslims don’t care about beliefs. Perhaps the distinction can be articulated as follows: The moral command flows from the doctrine in one case, and the doctrine emerges from the moral command in the other case (though even this formulation is not absolute by any means). We should note that there is a growing emphasis on “discipleship” in contemporary Christianity, which represents, at least partly, a shift of emphasis away from issues of doctrine.
In short, the relative significance of right belief and right practice can vary from one tradition to another, and even from one period to another within the same tradition. Regardless of such variations, the fact remains that both orthodoxy and orthopraxy act as forms of expressions, and as sources of nourishment, for people’s faith.
Let’s return to the question of the relationship between faith and belief. To reiterate, at any given point in history, personal faith is expressed in the form of certain beliefs and, in turn, the resulting beliefs help sustain the personal faith of individuals and communities. As history moves on, however, societies inevitably change in both small and dramatic ways. Consequently, many beliefs that used to be effective sources of nourishment for personal faith in the past tend to become increasingly untenable; they lose their ability to attract the allegiance of a person’s mind and intellect. Such beliefs become increasingly ineffective sources of nourishment for people’s faith, leading to what may be called a “crisis of faith.” In the face of such a crisis, the personal faith of both individuals and communities tends to lose its strength and vitality to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the crisis. Typically, religious individuals and communities struggle with the crisis and eventually discover or create new historical forms; among other things, they are able to formulate fresh and more credible beliefs through which to express their personal faith. These new beliefs then replace the older ones as effective sources of nourishment for personal faith at both individual and communal levels.
The loss of a particular set of religious beliefs is not unique to the modern period. The history of any cumulative tradition will show that beliefs tend to change all the time, that it is perfectly normal for one set of beliefs to disappear while giving way to another set of beliefs. Consequently, the loss of a particular set of religious beliefs does not mean the end of faith; rather, it represents a challenge that has been successfully met countless times in history. As religious individuals and communities face this challenge with courage and perseverance, their cumulative tradition undergoes a process of renewal and revival.
Having looked at the two meanings of belief, let us now consider the word faith. Unlike belief, whose meaning changed drastically during the seventeenth century, the word faith has retained much of its original meaning in modern English. Yet, the two words are often used inaccurately as synonyms, thereby adding to the confusion and giving rise to a distorted view of religion.
The word faith word is derived from the Latin fides, which means “trust, confidence, reliance.” The word fides, in turn, comes from the Latin root fidere, “to trust.” The same root is also found in the word fidelity. Even though the word faith is sometimes inaccurately used as a synonym for the modern sense of belief, the word fidelity still carries the original sense of loyalty. The word hi-fi (an abbreviated form of high fidelity) is a case in point.
Based on its etymology as well as usage, we can say that faith is not primarily a matter of holding certain ideas in one’s mind, i.e., it is not a matter of believing per se. Rather, faith denotes a particular kind of attitude or orientation that is characterized by trust, loyalty, and commitment. As such, faith is a way of being in the world, a way of relating to oneself and others, a way of living. It is not believing something; it is being someone. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. . . . It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbour, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles . . . ” (p. 12).
One way to overcome the confusion between faith and belief is to think of the word faith as denoting an attitude of faithfulness. When we hear someone say “Tom is a faithful husband,” we know that it does not mean “Tom believes that his wife exists.” Rather, the sentence means “Tom is loyal to his wife.” Similarly, the statement “I have faith in God” does not mean “I believe that God exists.” Rather, it means “I trust God” or “I live a life of commitment to God.”
If it is true that the essence of religion is faith, rather than belief, then we can expect this to be reflected in the language of religious scriptures. Consider the Christian scripture, for example. In the Greek New Testament, the words pisteuo and pistis appear many times. The former is a verb and the latter is a noun, both denoting an attitude of trust, confidence, commitment, and loyalty, i.e., faith. Yet, these two words are often rendered in English translations of the New Testament as believe and belief, respectively. This rendering is highly problematic, since it transforms the New Testament’s emphasis on a particular kind of practical attitude into the somewhat passive notion of holding an idea in one’s mind.
Below is the transliterated Greek text of a frequently quoted New Testament verse, John 3:16.
Notice the word pisteuon and how it is rendered into English in two different translations.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (King James)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)
In the King James translation (1611), pisteuon is rendered as “believeth.” Given that in the early seventeenth century the word belief still meant something very similar to faith, this translation was quite adequate. However, when the New Revised Standard Version (1989) uses the word “believes,” the translation can no longer be considered accurate, since the meaning of the word belief in 1989 differs significantly from its meaning in 1611.
But this is not entirely the fault of the translators. Part of the problem is that contemporary English treats the word faith only as a noun. If it were possible for the word faith to be used as a verb in contemporary English, we would have been able to say sentences like “I faith” or “I am faithing” or “I have faithed.” In that scenario, the modern translators of the New Testament would have rendered the relevant part of John 3:16 as follows: “everyone who faiths in him . . . .” It is unfortunate that the English language does now allow this usage; for faith is not a thing that we possess but is a quality of how we live, act, and be in the world. In other words, faith refers to a sort of practice or activity more than it refers to an entity or an idea. For this reason, the notion of faith is best expressed using the active language of verbs, and less so through the relatively passive language of nouns.
Since the English word belief allows itself to be used as a verb — believe, believes, believed — it is tempting (and sometimes unavoidable) to use it as a substitute for the word faith in certain contexts. As already mentioned, the use of belief as a synonym for faith posed no significant problem before the seventeenth century, since the meanings of the two words overlapped to a very large extent. In the twentieth century, however, this usage has led to a plethora of confusions and misunderstandings.
But notice what happens when the New Testament verse quoted above is translated into Arabic.
Here, the Greek word pisteuon has been rendered as u’minu, which is one of the verb forms of the Arabic word iman (faith). It can be seen that the Arabic translation of John 3:16 is much more faithful to the original Greek than is the English rendering of NRSV. In both Greek and Arabic, the respective words for faith have corresponding verb forms, allowing these two languages to convey the dynamic and active quality of this concept. In sharp contrast, the notion of faith as a verb cannot be directly and concisely expressed in contemporary English, forcing English speakers to use an entirely different word — belief. The unfortunate outcome of this is a virtual conflation of faith and belief. (The problem highlighted here with respect to the New Testament applies to English translations of the Qur’an as well.)
As mentioned earlier, Wilfred Cantwell Smith has contended that the modern conflation of faith and belief has generated a distorted view of religion. Now that we have looked at both of these terms in some detail, we can begin to appreciate Smith’s insight into the nature of this distortion.
If we approach religion primarily in terms of belief (in the modern sense of holding certain ideas as true), then we are likely to judge the value of religion on the basis of its cognitive elements alone, i.e., on the basis of religious ideas. This approach allows the so-called “New Atheists” to argue that religion is false because its truth-claims do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. These critics of religion are right in assuming that the essence of religion is faith, but the problem lies in how they define faith. For many of the “New Atheists” and their disciples, the word faith essentially means “believing without evidence.” If the essence of religion is faith, and if faith is “believing without evidence,” then it is clear that religion is something fundamentally irrational, especially when we compare it with science.
But the notion that faith is essentially “believing without evidence” is seriously flawed. As we have seen, faith is a kind of attitude and orientation towards oneself and others; it is not, primarily, the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind — with or without evidence. In other words, it is true that the essence of religion is faith, but it is not true that the essence of faith is giving intellectual assent to particular truth-claims expressed as propositions (and to do so “without evidence.”). This means that the value of religion cannot be judged on the basis of its cognitive elements alone.
And yet, religion’s cognitive elements are not entirely irrelevant to any judgment as to the value of religion. This is because while faith and belief are two different concepts, they are not unrelated by any means.
Modern “believing” . . . is placed in relation to, contra-distinction from, knowing. Let us consider this briefly, for everyday usage. For the man in the street, may we not say that knowledge involves two things: (a) certitude, and (b) correctness, in what one knows. To use quite unsophisticated terms, in ordinary parlance one knows whatever one knows when there is a close positive relation of one’s ideas both to the inner conviction and to objective truth. At this same level . . . there is the common-sense notion of believing. This is similar to knowing in that it is thought of as conceptualist, as in the realm of ideas in one’s mind (even, of propositions). It differs from knowing in that it involves one or other of again two things, and perhaps both: (a) lack of certitude; (b) open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed. (p. 35)
Notice that Smith is not presenting a philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of belief and knowledge. He is, on the contrary, telling us how these words are actually used by contemporary English speakers.
We can appreciate Smith’s insight by performing a simple exercise. Take any proposition and add the phrase “I believe” at the beginning; then say the sentences out loud and notice how the meaning changes. For instance: “Today is November 6” is a simple proposition, but “I believe today is November 6” contains rather significant elements of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error, and an openness to alternative possibilities. The first sentence is an expression of knowledge; one is saying what one knows to be true. The second sentence is an expression of belief; one is saying what one believes to be true. Even though the first sentence does not actually begin with “I know,” this phrase is tacitly implied due to the very straightforward and matter-of-fact structure of the sentence. When I am completely sure about something, I just say it without any qualifications; but when I am not completely sure, I qualify my proposition with “I believe.”
But what is Smith’s larger point? What is the purpose of all this linguistic hairsplitting? As suggested earlier, the modern meaning of belief is in sharp contrast to its premodern meaning. Smith wants us to appreciate how a disregard for this difference has contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of religion and religious life.
Consider the question “Do you believe in God?” Given that the modern sense of the word “believe” involves the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind, the question seems to suggest the following sense: “Do you hold the idea of God in your mind?” Or, alternatively, “Do you think there is a God?” Either way, since belief is understood as a habit of thought, believing in God appears to be a matter of keeping a particular thought in one’s mind, viz., the idea that God exists.
Notice the difference this makes. Today, believing is seen as a matter of having a particular thought, which is a mental activity. Before the seventeenth century, believing was understood as a matter of having a relationship, which is the activity of the whole person as well as a person’s state of being. In the premodern period, therefore, the question “Do you believe in God?” would have meant something like “Do you love God?” Or, alternatively, “Do you live a life of devotion and service to God?” The contrast between the two meanings is hardly trivial.
With this background, we can also appreciate that while the modern usage of the word belief suggests a significant distinction between believing and knowing, this was not the case in the premodern period. Since belief was understood in terms of love and loyalty, the issue of the existence or non-existence of God was irrelevant to the notion of belief. This is because the question “Do you love God?” has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists; to ask about one’s relationship with God already presupposes God’s reality.
The shift from the premodern to the modern meaning of the word belief did not occur overnight; instead, it took place very gradually over a couple of centuries. But now that it has occurred, we can appreciate the rather stark difference between the two meanings by putting them together side by side. Smith writes:
The long-range transformation may be characterized perhaps most dramatically thus. There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”
In light of this quote, the main distinctions between the premodern and the modern meanings of the word belief (in relation to God) can be summed up as follows: (1) In the premodern period, the reality of God was accepted as self-evident; it was a presupposition that most people took for granted and never questioned. (2) In the modern period, it is no longer possible for most people to accept the reality of God as a self-evident fact; instead, it has become an open question that is to be argued about, contested, and debated.
In effect, belief no longer means love, loyalty, devotion, and service; instead, it simply means a thought in the head, especially a thought about which one is not entirely sure.
In his book Faith and Belief (1979), the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith analyzes these two terms from a variety of angles, including the history of their usage. Smith notes that many people use the words faith and belief in a more or less interchangeable manner, as if they were synonyms; yet, the two words have very different meanings in contemporary English.
Smith shows that the confusion surrounding these words has resulted from the fact that before the seventeenth century these words did carry rather similar or at least overlapping meanings, but that over the last three hundred years or so their meanings have undergone a gradual but very important divergence. Even though the modern meanings of faith and belief are quite different, some of us are either not fully cognizant of this difference or for some reason prefer to use them in their premodern sense, especially when speaking in a religious context. The resulting ambiguity has contributed to a major misunderstanding of the nature of religion.
Let’s begin with the word belief. In modern usage, Smith says, believing “is the holding of certain ideas” and, as such, represents “an activity of the mind.” At this basic level of denotation, the question of certainty or truth does not arise.
What does it mean to hold an idea in the mind? Upon introspection, we can easily notice that our mental life is always in a state of flux. Thoughts appear in the mind, give rise to other thoughts, and then disappear. The process, however, is not random. Whether or not we are consciously aware of them, certain thoughts tend to occur repeatedly over an extended period of time, until they establish themselves as tracks or pathways in the mind. These, in turn, form mental patterns along which most of our everyday thinking tends to flow. This suggests that while our mental world does not remain static from one moment to the next, in the long-run it does develop certain patterns that may be described as stable, if not permanent. With sufficient introspective skill, we can learn to notice these patterns, though it takes extraordinary effort to recognize the subconscious thoughts that are responsible for creating these patterns in the first place.
Insofar as our habitual patterns of thought allow themselves to be articulated as ideas, we may call them beliefs. In other words, a belief is an idea that we hold in our mind over an extended period of time. It is essentially a thought in the head, though a relatively stable one.
In addition to the denotative meaning of belief as an idea held in the mind, Smith demonstrates that the contemporary usage of this word suggests two significant connotations. When these connotations are taken into account, it becomes clear that the modern meaning of the word belief represents a concept that is in opposition to what most people think of knowledge. According to Smith, the commonsense meaning of the word knowledge involves both certitude and correctness, neither of which is part of the commonsense meaning of belief.
Consider the impression we convey when we start a sentence with “I believe,” as opposed to “I know.” In the former case, the speaker implies a lack of full confidence in what he/she is about to assert, while allowing that the audience has every right to disagree. In the latter case, the speaker is not only completely sure but also assumes that the truth of what he/she is about to assert should be obvious to other people. According to Smith, the phrase “I believe” is intended to give the impression of an “open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed.”
To reiterate, when I begin a sentence with “I believe,” I am implying one or both of the following qualifications: (1) this is my current opinion or position, but I may be wrong and I may change my mind in the future; (2) I am okay with the fact that there are many people who do not share my views, since the issue is open to multiple interpretations.
We should also keep in mind that the phrase “I know” is often left unsaid; for the very absence of “I believe” frequently implies “I know,” even when the latter phrase is not actually uttered. For example, notice the difference between “I believe it is raining” and “It is raining.” In the latter sentence, “I know” is tacitly implied.
To appreciate the significance of the difference between “I believe” and “I know,” consider the famous exchange between the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and a BBC reporter that took place during an interview in 1959. John Freeman, the interviewer, asked: “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God?” Jung said: “Believe? I don’t need to believe — I know.”
This exchange nicely illustrates what Smith means when he emphasizes the modern distinction between believing and knowing. When faced with the question “Do you believe in God?” most people are likely to respond with “yes,” “no,” or “may be.” A philosopher or theologian may demand that the word “God” is defined before they can give an answer. Carl Jung, however, recognized that the most problematic word in the question was not “God” but rather “believe.” In effect, Jung gave an answer that offered much more than what the interviewer had asked (or hoped) for. Jung said, essentially, that we “believe” only when we do not “know,” and that if we “know” then there is no need for us to “believe.” What is called believing is merely an inferior substitute for those who don’t (or not yet) have the real thing, i.e., knowing.
Two of the most fundamental questions with which human beings must grapple are as follows: “How should I live?” and “How do I know?”
The first question is obviously more urgent than the second, for we cannot put the business of living on hold while we try to figure out what is the best way of living. However, the urgency of the ethical question does not diminish the importance of the epistemological question. While doing what we believe is the right thing, lurking in the background is the constant challenge of justifying our actions, primarily to ourselves. That means being conscious and critical about how we know what we know.
In effect, since we tend to live in accordance with what we know and use what we know to justify how we live, the question of ethics (“How should I live?”) is inseparable from the question of knowledge (“How do I know?”).
Notice that there is an important presupposition underlying each of these questions. The first question assumes that there are good and bad ways of living; the second assumes that what we know can be true or false. When we ask the practical question — “How should I live?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is good and avoid what is bad. Similarly, when we ask the epistemological question — “How do I know?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is true and avoid what is false.
But thinking in terms of good/bad and true/false also points to a deeper presupposition, i.e., that there exists an objective standard that makes such judgments possible in the first place.
Today, some people argue that no objective standard exists that can ground our judgments of good/bad and true/false. I don’t think that they actually believe this; I think what they are really concerned about is that a great deal of exploitation and oppression in history has been legitimized by appeals to some objective standard, and that this has made them suspicious of all such claims. I share their concern and suspicion, but I don’t think that we can so easily dispense with the very concept of an objective standard. We do, however, need to proceed with great caution.
At the risk of making a circular argument, I would like to suggest that an objective standard does exist, and that it is known as “reality.” Following Charles Peirce, I would define “reality” as that which is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels or believes about it. In other words, reality is what is independent of all its actual or possible representations. It is the ultimate referent of “objective.”
In principle, then, the objective standard that helps ground our judgments — both ethical and epistemological — is reality. Thus, something is good or true insofar as it is in harmony with reality; it is bad or false insofar as it conflicts with reality. This implies that the value of our judgments depend on the degree of our acquaintance with reality. In other words, both the ethical question (“How should I live?”) and the epistemological question (“How do I know?”) presuppose that the nature of reality is either known or is knowable, at least to the degree that allows us to make some tentative judgments. In effect, our ethics and epistemology are inevitably grounded in the way we answer the ontological question, i.e., “What is real?”
It is at the intersection of these three fundamental human concerns — ethics, epistemology, and ontology — that the concepts of faith and belief acquire their full significance.
Most Christians are likely to answer this question with an emphatic “yes.” Most Muslims, on the other hand, are likely to respond with an equally clear “no.” Despite the starkness of the Christian “yes” and the Muslim “no,” I would like to suggest that the two approaches are neither contradictory nor irreconcilable. In fact, I would like to go so far as to say that, at least on this particular issue, there is no essential conflict between the Biblical logic and the Qur’anic logic.
Before going further, I would like to set up some ground rules. First, let us agree that meanings are far more important than words. It is obvious that a particular meaning can be conveyed by a number of different words, and that any given word may act as a vehicle for several different meanings. In any reading of the scriptures, we want to focus our attention on trying to grasp the meanings that the given texts are supposed to convey, rather than quarrel over words, names, and labels. As Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Or, as Rumi counsels us in his Masnavi, “Pass beyond (external) names and look at the (underlying) qualities, so that the qualities may show you the way to the essence.” Indeed, Rumi frequently uses the metaphor of “bones” when referring to surface appearances, including words; in contrast, he uses the metaphor of “marrow” when referring to the realities that underlie surface appearances, including meanings. Take out the marrow, says Rumi, and let the dogs fight over the bones!
Secondly, let us assume that scriptures are entirely self-consistent. Specifically, let us agree that nothing in the New Testament contradicts anything else in the New Testament, and that, similarly, nothing in the Qur’an contradicts anything else in the Qur’an. The belief in the internal consistency of the scriptures is well established in both the Christian and Islamic traditions. This principle of non-contradiction simply means that any apparent discrepancy within either of the two scriptures must be attributed to our own faulty intellects rather than to any defect in the scriptures themselves. Practically speaking, this means that if we were to find a statement in either of these scriptures that appears to contradict another statement elsewhere in the same scripture, then, as a matter of principle, we would attempt to reconcile the two statements. We would do so either (a) by interpreting one statement in the light of the other, or (b) by taking into account both statements with a view to transcend them in the form of a higher synthesis.
Thirdly, when trying to understand the meanings of particular passages, it would be helpful to focus on their real-world consequences. In other words, let us agree to follow what American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce has called the “pragmatic maxim.” In his 1878 essay, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce said: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” Only a few years before his death, Peirce reiterated this maxim in his 1910 essay, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” as follows: “the true meaning of any product of the intellect lies in whatever unitary determination it would impart to practical conduct under any and every conceivable circumstance . . .” This means, essentially, that if two statements are going to have identical consequences on the practical conduct of those who take them to be true, then the two statements are identical in their meaning.
Having set the ground rules, let us begin by exploring the New Testament on the theme of love. As is well-known, the most common Greek word used in the New Testament that is usually translated as “love” is αγαπη (agape), though, strictly speaking, the word mostly appears as a verb, “to love,” αγαπαω (agapao) . This word appears in the oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John, “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16) as well as in Jesus’ words, “But I say unto you, love your enemies . . .” (Matthew 5:44). In the Epistle of John, we read, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “. . . we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
In the New Testament, “love” is an action word; it denotes something that God does and we are supposed to do it as well, perhaps in imitation of him or as a response to his love. Since “love” is an action word, to say that “God is love” cannot possibly mean that God is a static entity or “thing” that we may label as “love.” On the contrary, it means that God loves to such an extraordinary degree and with such great consistency and intensity that we might as well call him “Love.” This is like saying that someone acts in such an extraordinarily generous way that we might as well call that person “generosity.” Consequently, even when the word “love” is used as a noun, which is rare, the New Testament’s emphasis is on its verbal character, i.e., on love as a manner of acting, as a mode of practical conduct, as a way of being in the world.
The meaning of the word “love,” however, is still unclear. What, exactly, does it mean to love someone? As already noted, “love” indicates a particular way of acting towards the object of one’s love, i.e., the beloved. As used in the New Testament, the word “love” does not denote a feeling. Jesus is asking us to do something, to live our lives in a certain way; he is not asking us to feel a particular emotion!
We ought to make a clear distinction between “love” and “like.” In the American culture created by Hollywood, Hallmark cards, and the music industry, we have been conditioned to think of “love” as that warm, happy, cuddly feeling that we sometime experience in relation to another person. This, I would suggest, represents a pernicious and immoral expropriation of a powerful religious symbol for commercial purposes. In the same context, I would also suggest that “liking” is not a matter of choice; it is instinctive, involuntary, and largely springs from unconscious forces over which we have little or no control, including projections. Love, on the other hand, is a matter of conscience, deliberate decision; it’s a choice that we make or fail to make. If Jesus had said “like your enemies,” I would have found it impossible to carry out his instruction. I would have to say, “I am sorry, Jesus, but I don’t like my enemies, and I don’t think I am capable of changing my dislike for them into like. Please ask me do something that is possible.” Thankfully, Jesus did not say “like your enemies.” Indeed, he did not even say “like your neighbors.” And he did not ask us to do what is beyond our capacity. He said, instead, “love . . . .” I may not like my enemies, or, indeed, my neighbors, yet it is possible for me to love them. That’s all I am being asked: “Love others, even if you do not like them.”
Let us assume that we accept the call, and agree to love others. In what way is this acceptance going to affect our practical conduct? If we think of love only as a feeling, then loving others does not have to have any necessary affect on how we act towards anyone. According to the “pragmatic maxim,” that would render the commandment “love your neighbor” practically meaningless. On the other hand, if this commandment is to have any meaning at all, its meaning must be found in how our acceptance of this commandment changes our practical conduct. The question that we face is not theoretical or intellectual, i.e., “what is love?” Instead, the question is ethical and practical, i.e., “how do I conduct my life so that my actions manifest love?”
A very important clue to the nature of love is found in the King James Version of the Bible. This 1611 English translation of the Bible frequently renders the Greek word agape as “charity” rather than as “love.” Here is one example: according to the NRSV, the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13); in the King James Version, however, the verse is translated as follows: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these [is] charity.” Since the meaning of the word “love” has become distorted in the contemporary culture, we may begin to recover its original sense by relying on the word “charity” as a valid synonym for agape. Unlike the word “love,” the word “charity” has not lost its dynamic, verbal character. We don’t think of “charity” as a feeling; we think of it as a doing. To act in a charitable way is to act benevolently towards others; it is to live in a way that does not harm other beings but, instead, helps them to meet their needs and fulfill their potentials. To be charitable is to display, through one’s behavior, goodwill towards others, as well as compassion, clemency, kindness, mercy, leniency, and so on.
But the Greek language has three other synonyms for love, one may object. How, exactly, is agape different from eros, philia, and storge? Eros is passionate love, usually with sensual desire and yearning for union with the beloved. Philia denotes loyalty to friends, family, and community. Storge is the natural affection that parents feel for their children. None of these concepts come close to agape, or charity. First, agape is the kind of love in which the practitioner does not demand any extrinsic rewards, particularly from the object of his or her benevolence (though intrinsic rewards are almost always anticipated), and second, the potential zone of one’s benevolence is not limited to one’s own group, conceived as one’s children, relatives, friends, or larger community. In fact, it is precisely these two characteristics of agape that are sometimes emphasized by adding the adjective “selfless.” Christian love, it is said, is “selfless love.” The problem with the word “selfless,” however, is that it can create the impression that the human being who practices this kind of love does not receive anything in return for his or her act of charity and benevolence. That kind of thinking is plainly false and erroneous.
Human beings are directly motivated by their feelings, and indirectly by their needs. Whenever one or more of our needs are unmet, we experience certain unpleasant feelings. The unpleasant feelings then drive us to seek the fulfillment of our unmet needs; the fulfillment of our needs leads to the elimination of the unpleasant feelings and the generation of pleasant ones. Consider an example: the unpleasant feeling of hunger motivates us to eat; the act of eating fulfills our need for nourishment; the satisfaction of having met our need creates the pleasant feeling of satiety. The same mechanism operates in all human activities, including moral actions. When we act charitably towards another person or creature, we do not act in a strictly “selfless” way. Instead, we act out of our inherent need to be compassionate. By helping someone else meet their needs, we are simultaneously trying to meet our own needs as well. This is precisely why charitable actions feel good. This pleasurable feeling that arises within us is a major part of what motivates us to be kind and benevolent towards others; it is the intrinsic reward we receive for acting in accordance with our true nature. It is the immediate payoff for actuating our innate disposition. We can, perhaps, attribute “selfless love” to God, but we cannot attribute it to human beings.
In light of this discussion, it makes sense to say that the New Testament’s position on God’s love for his creatures can be understood in terms of charity, i.e., benevolence, kindness, compassion, and mercy. Consequently, to say that God loves the world is merely another way of saying that God acts towards the world in a benevolent, kind, compassionate, and merciful way. In practice, then, it makes absolutely no difference whether we say “God loves the world” or we say “God acts compassionately towards his creation” or “God is merciful.” Unless we wish to quarrel over surface appearances, there is little reason to doubt that God’s love, in this context, is indistinguishable from God’s benevolence, compassion, and mercy. Furthermore, it is patently clear from the New Testament that this character-trait or attribute of God does not discriminate, i.e., that God’s love is for everyone and everything, without any conditions, limits, or restrictions.
This is an exceedingly significant point, since, when we turn to the Islamic scriptures, we find that the Qur’an does not present God’s love as unconditional. The act of loving is attributed only to God and to human beings, never to any other creature. According to the Qur’an, God loves those who act in certain ways, and God does not love those who act otherwise. There are fourteen verses that identify the kind of people that God loves, and another twenty-three verses that identify those that he does not love. Consequently, there is a definite sense of conditionality in relation to who God chooses to be the objects of his love. In the Qur’an, God does not love indiscriminately; he is very selective. I will return to this point in a future essay.
In order to see how the Christian and Islamic positions are not contradictory, we need to ignore the bones and get to the marrow. At the level of the bones, Christians are justified in saying that God’s love is unconditional and Muslims are justified in rejecting that notion; at the level of the marrow, however, it will turn out that they are both affirming the same truth.
But first, we need to know how to get to the marrow. By asking the question “what does the Islamic scriptures say about love,” we would be confining ourselves to the level of the bones; this is because the usual Arabic words for love (hubb, muhabba, wadd, ‘ishq) do not have the same connotations as the Greek word agape. Where words divide us, the meanings would unite. I suggest that instead of approaching the problem directly, we approach it indirectly by asking the following questions: In the Qur’an, is there any character-trait or attribute of God regarding which God does not discriminate? Is there anything that God bestows upon everyone and everything, without any conditions, limits, or restrictions? What, if anything, is unconditional in God’s relationship to his creation?
All of these questions have a single answer: rahmah. The Qur’anic term rahma comes from a three-letter lexical root that Arabic shares with Hebrew. In both languages, words derived from this root evoke the following meanings: mercy, compassion, benevolence, tenderness, kindness, affection, and, not surprisingly, womb. The Hebrew word rachuwm (compassionate or merciful) is used several times in the Jewish Bible; for instance, “For the Lord your God is a compassionate God . . .” (Deuteronomy 4:31). The related Hebrew word racham means compassion or mercy, and also appears in the Bible; for instance, “. . . and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:14:23). In Arabic, the word rahm means womb, and, by exension, the web of relationships that come into being through the process of birth. The word rahmah, usually translated as compassion or mercy, has connotations of the loving tenderness that a mother has for her child. Two main adjectives from this root, rahman and rahim, serve as the most often repeated names that identify God in the Qur’an: al-Rahman (the all-Merciful) and al-Rahim (the most Compassionate). The formula bismi Allahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim (In the name of God, the all-Merciful, the most Compassionate) appears 114 times in the Qur’an.
Mercy is not only an important attribute of God, it is also a highly desirable character-trait for human beings. According to the Qur’an, the most noteworthy qualities of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, include his compassion, kindness, and leniency. After all, Muhammad was sent “as a mercy to the worlds” (21:107). To imitate his “beautiful example,” Muslims need to actualize the quality of mercy in their own personalities.
The New Testament’s use of the Greek word agape parallels the Qur’anic use of the Arabic word rahmah. Like agape, God’s rahma is unconditional; it is also very similar to the Christian notion of “grace,” since no one needs to do anything in order to earn, or deserve, God’s mercy, which is always already available to everyone, everywhere. God has declared “. . . my mercy encompasses all things . . . ” (7:156). Commentators on the Qur’an have argued that “all things” must include God’s wrath or punishment as well; in other words, God is merciful even when he shows his wrathful side. According to a hadith qudsi, God has inscribed upon his throne the following words: “My mercy precedes my wrath.” These texts have been taken to mean that while wrath is a divine attribute that God may choose to manifest in relation to some of his creatures for a limited duration and purpose, mercy is a permanent and all-embracing attribute of his being, an attribute that he manifests in each moment. God is occasionally wrathful, but always compassionate.
There is even a Qur’anic parallel to the New Testament’s claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Qur’an proclaims: “Call upon God or call upon the all-Merciful, whichever of these two [names] you invoke [makes no difference, since] to him belong the most beautiful names” (17:110). This particular verse has been taken to mean that rahma is more than just an attribute of God; it defines the very nature of God’s essence. To say that God is all-Merciful is another way of expressing our trust that reality is benevolent. Despite what may happen in the short-term, we are justified in believing that all is going to be well in the end; or, rather, that “all manners of things” are already well, if we can only see them from God’s viewpoint.
Perhaps we can now see that, at the level of words and of surface appearances, Christians and Muslims cannot agree that God’s love is unconditional. At the deeper level of meanings, however, they may appreciate that what the New Testament calls “love” is the same as what the Qur’an calls “mercy.”
Why did Christians conceive of a triune God in the first place? Why did they decide to wrestle with the interminable complexities of Trinity when they could have opted for a simple, unproblematic deity? For Iqbal, the answer seems to be obvious, as already quoted.
The doctrine is another way of stating that the Absolute Unity must have in itself a principle of difference in order to evolve diversity out of itself.
This way of understanding the Trinity translates the question right back into the Islamic frame of reference. If the doctrine of Trinity represents the Christian attempt to formulate the principle of differentiation within the Absolute Unity that is God, then it cannot be as strange or crazy as it typically appears to many Muslims.
The notion of Trinity is not mentioned in the New Testament. It was formulated in the fourth century by Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Essentially, the doctrine was conceived on the basis of the key distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and God’s actions and operations (energeiai), a distinction first made by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Jesus. According to the Christian formulation of this doctrine, God has a single essence (ousia) which is unknowable to creatures (as Philo had postulated), but, according to the Scriptures, God has made himself known to us in three manifestations (hypostases), viz., the Father, the Logos, and the Spirit. These three are divine energeiai that help mediate the ineffable and incomprehensible divine essence to our limited intelligence.
Like Christians, Muslims too have encountered the problem of affirming the reality of diversity within God’s self-expression, and of doing so without compromising the implications of the first shahada, “there is no god but God.” In the Christian tradition, the problem is addressed through the doctrine of the Trinity. In the Islamic tradition, it is addressed through the doctrine of divine names and attributes. When I hear that “God is three persons in one substance,” my response, as a Muslim, is to ask: Why stop at three? If there is one divine “substance,” then on what basis do we limit the self-expression of that One into only three forms? I say this, obviously, due to my Islamic bias.
According to the Qur’anic worldview there is only one God, but this one God happens to have a great many names. A famous hadith enumerates 99 names of God (al-asma al-husna = the most beautiful names) but the tradition insists that divine names are, in fact, countless or innumerable . . . infinite. These names denote divine attributes; to say that God has an infinite number of names is to acknowledge that no creature can identify all of divine attributes. The multiplicity of divine attributes is the key, for it introduces the principle of differentiation within (or alongside) the Absolute oneness of God. This principle does not compromise divine unity, however, which remains true as regards the divine “essence.” The diversity of created forms is then understood as manifestation of the multiplicity of divine attributes in virtually infinite combinations and configurations.
The same principle of differentiation, however, raised the classical issue of contention between the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites, i.e., whether or not the “essential” attributes of God (knowledge, power, life, hearing, sight, will, speech) are co-eternal with God? The Orthodoxy subsequently resolved the problem by insisting that divine attributes are neither the same as divine essence nor are they distinct from it. Before that could happen, however, the most famous controversy in this regard–on the nature of the Qur’an as God’s kalam (speech)–produced the only inquisition in Muslim history. The debate sounds silly from a modern viewpoint, but it was nothing of that sort. As an “essential” attribute of God, “speech” could be understood as co-eternal with God, which somehow made the Qur’an “uncreated” for one group of theologians. The other group, rejecting the plurality of eternal entities, insisted that the Qur’an must be understood as “created” in time. In fact, these two are not the only options, but that’s exactly how the debated was framed.
This is how Farid Esack describes the nature of the controversy in his book The Qur’an: A Short Introduction.
The focal point of Mu’tazilite theology was thier emphasis on the absolute unity of God and on God’s justice . . . . In dealing with the issue of God’s attributes, therefore, and in particular with the attribute of speech, their primary concern was to uphold God’s absolute unity, uniqueness, and immutability. To suggest that anything, even divine revelation, shared in any of these characteristics, they argued, would detract from God’s utter beyondness. Their principle of divine justice resulted in a rejection of notions of God’s arbitrary rule and predestination. If the Qur’an were eternal, they reasoned, it followed that all the events narrated therein were pre-ordained; the players in all of these events would thus allhave had their fates saeled, even before birth.
Esack notes that initially this issue remained confined to a narrow circle of scholars, and that most mainstream scholars simply opted to “suspend judgment” rather than take one or the other extreme positions on a matter that was clearly speculative. They would acknowledge that “the Qur’an is God’s speech” but were prudent enough to say nothing further than this fundamental article of faith. The situation changed, of course, when the Abbasid rulers in the early ninth century CE attempted to make the Mu’tazilite view of the “created” nature of the Qur’an into an official doctrine and forced the entire Muslim community to accept it as the only true option–or face persecution. To make a very long story short, the democratic impulse of the community not only rejected the Abbasid inquisition but, partly as a reaction against the extremism of the Mu’tazilite view, went all the way to the other extreme. After the inquisition was over, the orthodox Muslim view emerged in the form of affirming that the Qur’an, as divine speech, was “uncreated.” Soon, “created” was understood as “temporal” while “uncreated” became synonymous with “eternal” or “co-eternal with God.”
The Christian parallel, of course, was the great controversy between Arius and Athanasius on the nature of Christ. While Muslim theologians struggled with the createdness or eternity of the Qur’an in the ninth century, several hundred years ago their Christian counterparts had already experienced a similar struggle with respect to the createdness or eternity of Christ.
The controversy arose in the late third century and extended throughout the fourth. It is fair to say that the aftershocks are still being felt today. It began when Arius posed the question whether Jesus Christ was co-eternal with God the Father, or was he created by God the Father. The resulting doctrine, sometimes called Arianism, is summed by the Encyclopedia Britannica as follows:
It affirmed that Christ is not truly divine but a created being. Arius’ basic premise was the uniqueness of God, who is alone self-existent and immutable; the Son, who is not self-existent, cannot be God. Because the Godhead is unique, it cannot be shared or communicated, so the Son cannot be God. Because the Godhead is immutable, the Son, who is mutable, being represented in the Gospels as subject to growth and change, cannot be God. The Son must, therefore, be deemed a creature who has been called into existence out of nothing and has had a beginning. Moreover, the Son can have no direct knowledge of the Father since the Son is finite and of a different order of existence.
The fact that a prominent leader of the Church was able to make this argument indicates that the Christian community did not yet have a firm, fixed position on this issue. The theological doctrines were still under construction, and it was still very much possible to shape and direct them from within the community. Since there was no orthodox view yet, Arianism was not a heresy. It became a heresy only after this view was officially declared to be so. As Arianism gained followers, Athanasius emerged as the main rival who proposed that Christ was as divine as God the Father, and was begotten, not created in time. The rivalry between these two opposing views on the nature of Christ did not remain limited to the Church hierarchy but soon came to involve laypeople, monks, and members of the Roman imperial family. The Emperor Constantine had to intervene, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 condemned Arianism as a heresy. The Nicaean Creed declared belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . . .”
There is much in common between the Mu’tazilite vs. Ash’arite controversy on the nature of the Qur’an in the ninth century, and the Arius vs. Athanasius controversy on the nature of Christ in the fourth century. In both cases, each side had strong theological arguments and support from scriptural texts; in both cases, the matter was resolved not solely on the basis of the strength of arguments but more so according to social and political realities. The outcomes were very similar too. In the end, the Christian community accepted that Christ was co-eternal with God the Father; in the end, the Muslim community accepted that the Qur’an was uncreated divine speech.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a simple, unproblematic deity. Theologians would not allow such a deity to exist! And yet, it would be unfair to place the entire blame on theologians. The issue is inherent in the structure of reality, more specifically in the relationship between the Creator and the creation. To posit a single God who cannot be reduced to any form, image, or place is to de-divine the created universe, to de-sacralize the world of forms. This prevents idolatry, which is an important achievement, but also introduces an infinite distance between the Creator and the creation . . . thereby making God practically inaccessible, removing the mysteries of love and passion from religious life, and reducing the human-divine relationship to a dry, mechanical formality. Both the Christian doctrine of Trinity and the Islamic doctrine of divine names and attributes aim at managing the same dilemma, i.e., how to let God be God (as Martin Luther famously said) while still keeping God easily accessible to thought and imagination, as a friend and a lover? Christians have found a mediating presence in Christ (as well as in the Holy Spirit). Muslims do so through recognizing the reflections of divine names and attributes in all created things.
Yet another aspect of Christian doctrine that Muslims find scandalous concerns the belief in Jesus Christ as the “Son of God.” The Qur’an seems to be particularly appalled at the very possibility of such a blasphemous notion. The Qur’an acknowledges Jesus as a messenger of God, and as Christ, while emphatically denying the claim that he was/is the “Son of God.” The following verses are probably the strongest expression of that rejection in the entire Scripture.
The translation is by A. J. Arberry.
And they say, “the All-Merciful has taken unto Himself a son.” You have indeed advanced something hideous! The heavens are well nigh rent of it and the earth split asunder, and the mountains well nigh fall down crushing; for they have attributed to the All-Merciful a son! And it behoves not the All-Merciful to take a son. None is there in the heavens and earth but he comes to the All-Merciful as a servant. (Maryam 88-93)
Given the generally mild and conciliatory attitude of the Qur’an toward Christians, the above strongly worded condemnation should make us pause and reflect. There is more here than a simple doctrinal disagreement or religious polemic. Indeed, the Qur’anic rejection is not aimed solely at the notion of God having a son; it extends with equal intensity to the notion of God having a daughter or daughters. The latter was a commonly held pagan belief in pre-Islamic Arabia, one that the Qur’an repeatedly denounces and even ridicules. According to the Qur’an, the belief in God having daughters with a divine status of their own was irrational because it contradicted the Arab pride in male offspring. Typically, an Arab man would proudly celebrate the birth of a son but would feel terribly ashamed among his peers if the newborn were a daughter. Given this patriarchal mindset, in which a son was always better than a daughter, the worship of female deities stood out as a major cultural contradiction.
In the following verses, the Qur’an names the three central goddesses of Arabia, points out the contradiction caused by the patriarchal logic, and asserts that these so-called “daughters of God” are merely names without any referents . . . “names” that have been invented by “fathers,” i.e., by powerful men.
The translation is by Abdel Haleem.
Consider al-Lat and al-‘Uzza, and the third one, Manat — are you to have the male and He the female? That would be a most unjust distribution! — these are nothing but names you have invented yourselves, you and your forefathers. God has sent no authority for them. These people merely follow guesswork and the whims of their souls . . . (Al-Najm 19-23)
The Qur’an seems to reject the very notion of God having an offspring, regardless of whether that offspring is construed as male or female. If the gender of the offspring being attributed to God is not relevant to the Qur’anic argument, then we may conclude that Christians are not being singled out for a polemical attack. Something much more important is at stake.
It may be kept in mind that the Qur’anic view of God had been clearly articulated very early in the process of revelation. Well before any mention of Christians or their beliefs, the revelation had proclaimed in an early surah that God does not give birth.
Here is Arberry’s translation:
Say: “He is God, One; God, the Everlasting Refuge; who has not begotten, and has not been begotten; and equal to Him is not any one.” (Al-Ikhlas 1-4)
The problem with attributing a son or daughter to God in a metaphysical sense is that it compromises God’s absolute singularity. An offspring resembles the parent, and so the parent cannot claim absolute uniqueness after having given birth to a son or daughter. What is at stake here is the “individuality of the Ultimate Ego,” as Iqbal puts it in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (p. 50). What does it mean to be an “individual”? Iqbal quotes Henri Bergson on this issue, noting with approval the latter’s insight that “individuality is a matter of degrees and is not fully realized even in the case of the apparently closed off unity of the human being.” He then goes on to quote from Bergson’s Creative Evolution:
In particular, it may be said of individuality, that while the tendency to individuate is everywhere present in the organized world, it is everywhere opposed by the tendency towards reproduction. For the individuality to be perfect, it would be necessary that no detached part of the organism could live separately. But then reproduction would be impossible. For what is reproduction but the building up of a new organism with a detached fragment of the old? Individuality, therefore, harbours its own enemy at home.
In nature, Bergson seems to be saying, there is an inherent tendency to achieve uniqueness, singularity, individuality. Even though the disposition is there, creatures do not, in fact, reach perfect individuation because the species’ need for reproduction allows a part of each creature to survive independent of the source. After quoting Bergosn, Iqbal goes on to offer his own remarks:
In the light of this passage it is clear that the perfect individual, closed off as an ego, peerless and unique, cannot be conceived as harboring its own enemy at home. It must be conceived as superior to the antagonistic tendency of reproduction. This characteristic of the perfect ego is one of the most essential characteristics of the Qur’anic conception of God; and the Qur’an mentions it over and over again, not so much with a view to attack the current Christian conception as to accentuate its own view of a perfect individual. (pp. 50-51)
If God is to be conceived as the Ultimate Ego who is absolutely and unconditionally unique–as the Qur’an does, in fact, suggest–then the belief in an offspring of that God would rupture the principle of divine individuality from within. We can see why the Qur’an uses unusually strong language to drive this point home. Iqbal’s interpretation helps us to move beyond religious polemics and apologetics, allowing us to appreciate the deeper significance of the Qur’anic assertion that God does not give birth. The main purpose of the Qur’anic arguement is not to refute any given formulation of religious doctrine in a limited polemical context; rather, its main purpose is to convey with maximum emphasis that the Ultimate Ego is a unique individual in every sense of the word. God does not beget, nor is God begotten!
At the same time, it is important to remember that there are two overlapping ways in which religious language functions. A religious utterance may take the form of a metaphysical assertion, or it may be a metaphorical expression of a deeply experienced conviction, intuition, or feeling. If a divine son or a divine daughter is posited as a metaphysical principle, i.e., as a being who is capable of existing apart from, and independent of, the parent—as a human offspring does- then this clearly negates and compromises the integrity of God’s own individuality. It brings God down to the level of imperfectly individuated creatures. Such a notion is unacceptable from a Qur’anic viewpoint.
And yet, in many contexts people may use phrases like “children of God” merely to indicate the close and intimate connection between God and the human race, without intending to make any metaphysical claims. This is an example of metaphorical language, which must not be taken literally, i.e., in a metaphysical sense. Generally speaking, Muslims do not like to use this language, mainly out of their concern for preserving God’s transcendence and, above all, for maintaining God’s individuality. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said: Al-khalq ayal Allah, which means, literally, “all creation is God’s family,” or even “all creation is God’s progeny.” This is obviously a metaphorical use of the word “family” or “progeny,” not to be taken in a literal sense! The hadith does constitute an example of how a religious utterance can be metaphorically structured with no metaphysical implications.
There is considerable evidence that the phrase “Son of God” was used in classical Jewish culture merely as a metaphor denoting a man’s exalted status; it wasn’t until much later in Christian history that the phrase acquired some of its metaphysical connotations. The Qur’anic critique of the notion of God having an offspring is clearly aimed at preserving God’s individuality; it does not negate the possibility that some human beings may be quite exalted in God’s eyes. A close study of the phrase “Son of God” as found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament does not reveal the same range of metaphysical meanings as were developed later by Christian theologians; and yet, the metaphorical meaning of this phrase has not been completely eclipsed.
Muslims cannot decide on their own what Christians believe; only Christians can say what they believe, and what their beliefs mean to them. Whether the word “begotten,” as used in the Nicene Creed, is intended to be a metaphysical principle or a metaphorical one is obviously a very important question . . . for Christians. As far as I have been able to understand as an outsider, the best explanations of the Trinity do not seem to posit Christ as the “Son of God” in the sense in which this belief–according to Iqbal’s interpretation–would jeopardize God’s individuality. After all, the doctrine of Trinity does not assert three deities, each of which would be capable of existing apart from the other two! It actually asserts a single God with three distinct manifestations. This does not mean, of course, that all Christians actually understand this subtle theological point.
The Latin version of the Nicean Creeds begins as follows: “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, Factórem cæli et terræ, Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.” Translation: “We believe in one God, Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” If we assume that “Father” is intended metaphorically rather than metaphysically–and we may make that assumption simply by giving the benefit of the doubt to those who composed this wording–then I cannot think of any reason why a Muslim would not recognize this statement as accurately representing his/her own belief.
There is, of course, much more to the Nicean Creed then the sentence quoted here, some of which we may not find as compatible with Islamic beliefs as the opening sentence. The point I am making in this post, however, is simply this: Words do not have simple, straightforward meanings. Words that have hundreds of years of theological controversies behind them cannot be assumed as representing single, obvious, and uncontested meanings. Case in point: the phrase “Son of God” and the range of beliefs that are associated with it. Regardless of what Christians do or do not believe, Muslims ought to appreciate the difference between the sense in which certain phrases/beliefs would clearly compromise the Qur’anic conception of God, and the sense in which the same phrases/beliefs may not necessarily have that effect.
God knows best.
Perhaps no aspect of the Christian doctrine of Trinity causes more scandal for Muslims than the part about the divinity of Jesus Christ. In Surah Al-Ma’ida 5:17, the Qur’an seems to denounce this belief in categorical terms:
Here is Abdel Haleem’s translation of this verse:
Those who say, “God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,” are defying the truth. Say, “If it had been God’s will, could anyone have prevented Him from destroying the Messiah, son of Mary, together with his mother and everyone else on earth? Control of the heavens and earth and all that is between them belongs to God: He creates whatever He wills. God has power over everything.”
Here again, many contemporary Muslims fail to pay adequate attention either to the very nuanced Qur’anic language or to the Christian explanations of the meaning of Trinity, thereby misunderstanding both.
No doubt, there were many Christians during the period of Qur’anic revelation, just as there are today, who have little or no clue as to what it is that the belief in the divinity of Christ is meant to convey. In the popular Christian imagination God is, indeed, the same as Christ. According to the Qur’an, this belief is tantamount to denying the truth of the matter. And so it is.
But then, not all Christians believe that God is Christ. In fact, this is an oversimplified and distorted version of what they are supposed to believe.
For Muslims, perhaps the best way of approaching this problem is to take a longer, roundabout route.
One of the earliest writings of Muhammad Iqbal include a paper titled “The Doctrine of Absolute Unity as Expounded by Abdul Karim Al-Jilani,” published in the September 1900 issue of Indian Antiquary. In this paper, Iqbal offers a critical analysis of the theology developed in the treatise Insan Al-Kamil, written by a fourteenth century Sufi scholar who is more commonly known as Al-Jili.
Al-Jili belonged to the school of Ibn Al-Arabi, a twelfth century mystic and sage known for his voluminous writings. Ibn Al-Arabi stands out most prominently in any survey of the last 700 years of Islamic intellectualal history, both in terms of the quality and sophistication of his writings and the range and depth of his influence. It is not for any trivial reason that he is recognized as “Shaykh Al-Akbar” or the Grand Master . . . a title that the Muslim ummah has not conferred upon any other scholar or sage.
Contemporary Muslims tend to be ignorant, and sometimes suspicious, of Shaykh Al-Akbar–much to their own disadvantage. Up until the nineteenth century, Ibn Al-Arabi was widely recognized, deeply revered, and closely studied throughout the Muslim world. It is only in the twentieth century that certain political and economic factors led to the popularity of a shallow and negative perspective on Ibn Al-Arabi’s teachings, augmented by a plethora of misunderstandings brought about by the general disconnect between Muslims and their own intellectual heritage.
Growing up in a Sufi family in the late nineteenth century India, Iqbal had come in contact with some of the views of Ibn Al-Arabi as a precocious child of pious parents, particularly through the latter’s well-known treatise Fusus Al-Hikam (The Ringstonesof Wisdom). However, it appears that Iqbal did not have access to the entire range of the Shaykh’s writings, most of which were not yet available in published forms.
The notion of Insan Al-Kamil, the “Perfect/Whole Person,” goes back to the works of Ibn Al-Arabi. In the late nineteenth century, Iqbal encountered this notion through the writings of Abdul Karim Al-Jili. The latter was, in fact, merely explaining the teachings of the Grand Master.
At the risk of oversimplification, the doctrine of Insan Al-Kamil may be summarized as follows: God has created the human being as a set of potentialities. The purpose of existence is for the human individual to recognize and develop those potentialities so as to reach “perfection” or “wholness.” What exist in the human being as mere potentialities are nothing other than the fully and absolutely realized attributes or qualities of the Almighty. By actualizing these potentialities, the human individual absorbs within himself or herself the attributes or qualities of God–thereby becoming “perfect” or “whole.”
After a critical examination of Al-Jili’s view of Insan Al-Kamil, Iqbal notes the similarity between this, very much Islamic, doctrine on the one hand, and that of the Christian doctrine of Trinity on the other.
We now have the doctrine of the perfect man [sic] complete. All through the author [Abdul Karim Al-Jili] has maintained his argument by an appeal to different verses of the Qur’an, and to the several traditions of the Prophet the authenticity of which he never doubts. Although he reproduces the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, except that his god-man is Muhammad instead of Christ, he never alludes to his having been influenced by Christian theology. He looks upon the doctrine as something common between the two forms of religion and accuses Christianity of a blasphemous interpretation of the doctrine–of regarding the Personality of God as split up into three distinct personalities.
In the above passage, Iqbal is making several points: (1) Al-Jili’s doctrine of the “Perfect/Whole Person” is an authentic Islamic perspective due to its grounding in the Qur’an and Hadith; (2) Al-Jili is in agreement with the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ, even though he himself does not recognize this agreement, nor does he seem to be directly influenced by Christian theology; (3) the only significant difference between Al-Jili’s view of Insan Al-Kamil and the Christian view of the divinity of Christ is in the identity of the man who is looked upon as the supreme realization of human potentialities, viz., Muhammad of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth, respectively (peace be upon them); (4) Al-Jili rejects the doctrine of Trinity, for in his (erroneous) view Trinity implies the splitting up of God into three distinct personalities.
There is already a great deal of food for thought in what I have quoted above. But Iqbal has more to say.
Our own belief, however, is that this splendid doctrine [i.e., Trinity] has not been well understood by the majority of Islamic and Christian thinkers. The doctrine is another way of stating that the Absolute Unity must have in itself a principle of difference in order to evolve diversity out of itself. Almost all the attacks of Muhammadan [sic] theologians are directed against vulgar beliefs while the truth of real Christianity has not sufficiently been recognized. I believe no Islamic thinker will object to the deep meaning of the Trinity as explained by this author [i.e. Al-Jili] . . . . Shaikh Muhy al-Din Ibn Arabi says that the error of Christianity does not lie in making Christ God but in making God Christ.
If your jaw didn’t drop, read the last sentence again!
At this time I do not have the actual passages before me where Shaykh Al-Akbar makes this remark. However, even as Iqbal has quoted it, the meaning of Ibn Al-Arabi’s powerful insight can be appreciated easily, especially when we notice that it is an exegetical comment on the Qur’anic verse quoted above.
The Qur’an is as clear as it is categorical regarding what is wrong with the popular Christian distortion of Trinity. Let me quote the translation again:
Those who say, “God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,” are defying the truth. Say, “If it had been God’s will, could anyone have prevented Him from destroying the Messiah, son of Mary, together with his mother and everyone else on earth? Control of the heavens and earth and all that is between them belongs to God: He creates whatever He wills. God has power over everything.”
Try to notice with an objective, unbiased mind exactly what it is that the Qur’an is criticizing. According to the Qur’anic text, it is wrong to say that “God is Christ.” As Shaykh Al-Akbar points out with the extraordinary perspicacity that is the hallmark of his interpretations, the Qur’an condemns the belief “God is Christ” but it does not disallow the belief that “Christ is God.” If Christians are mistaken, then their mistake lies in making the former statement. If they were to make the latter statement, they would not be deemed truth-deniers according to the Qur’an.
“God is Christ” versus “Christ is God”? Aren’t we splitting hair?
No, says Ibn Al-Arabi, and Iqbal agrees with him wholeheartedly. There is a tremendous difference between the two statements, a difference that is so stark that the first statement is tantamount to disbelief and the denial of truth, while no negative judgment can be made of the second statement.
In short, the belief “God is Christ” leads to religious exclusivism, but the belief “Christ is God” does not necessarily entail that consequence.
To say “God is Christ” means that one man, Jesus of Nazareth, fully and exclusively encompasses the entirety of the essence and all the attributes of God. It implies that divinity is found in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ. This, in effect, seriously limits God’s ability to manifest and the human ability to find God. It limits the self-disclosure of divine attributes to a single locus, whereas, according to the Qur’an, there are infinite loci of divine manifestation.
On the other hand, to say “Christ is God” means that Jesus of Nazareth displays through himself many of the attributes of God; that what is present in each one of us as mere potentialities are fully actualized in Jesus; that it is possible to know something of God by knowing something of Jesus; that, in Islamic terms, Jesus is a “Perfect/Whole Person,” an Insan Al-Kamil, a man who acts as a mirror and therefore reflects God’s attributes to the rest of God’s creation.
The notion of the “Perfect/Whole Person” as a mirror that reflects divine attributes is a common Islamic metaphor. And a very useful one if Christians and Muslims are to understand each other.
From a Muslim viewpoint, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that the attributes of God are reflected in the life and personality of Jesus Christ–just as they are reflected in the lives and personalities of all the prophets and other pious human beings. Some may wish to argue whether those attributes are reflected more fully in Jesus or in Muhammad; such a question, however, cannot be rationally debated by human beings who are, by definition, less perfect/whole than the men they wish to judge!
More to the point is the issue of identity. A human individual can become perfect/whole to varying degrees, but he or she can attain that status only as a human being. We remain servants and creatures, no matter how close we get to the Divine Presence. A mirror that is reflecting a very strong source of light will itself be illuminated strongly, but it will remain a mirror. The moon reflects the light of the sun, and therefore has a very special relationship with the sun, but in the final analysis the moon does not become the sun. Note in this context the strong emphasis on the humanity and humility of Jesus and Mary, and of all other creatures, in the later part of the Qur’anic verse quoted above.
And yet, it is not entirely wrong to say that a mirror reflecting a strong light–at least for most practical purposes–is itself light. Strictly speaking, it is true that the mirror is not the same as the source of light; but it is also true that the mirror is not really separate from that source either. As such, Ibn Al-Arabi allows the statement “Christ is God” because this is exactly what it means–a mirror reflecting light may seem to shine almost as brightly as the source of light itself. But he would caution in the same breath that if we were to say “Christ is God” we should also say “Christ is not God.” While it is true that the mirror is the light, it is equally true that the mirror is not the light.
It is this insight that forms the core of the Christian doctrine of Trinity–where Christ is both fully divine and fully human–an insight that is so subtle as to be routinely misunderstood and misinterpreted by both Muslims and Christians.
In reality, then, the Qur’an’s so-called “critique” of Trinity, as found in Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:17, is not even addressing the doctrine of Trinity. Instead, it seems to be directed against Docetism, an early Christian heresy that proclaimed Jesus’ divinity but refused to accept his humanity. It appears that ramnents of Docetism have survived in the popular imagination throughout Christian history, despite its rejection by Church leaders as a heretical doctrine. Alternatively, this Qur’anic verse could be seen as a critique of some variant of Monophysite Christianity, in which Jesus was understood as having only a divine nature. Either way, the above discussion shows that on this issue both mainstream Christianity and the Qur’an have essentially the same position.
Several years ago, I was speaking to a small group in an Islamic Center when the topic of Trinity came up, almost out of nowhere. I was speaking on an altogether different subject when I casually mentioned that “monotheist” is a term used for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. One gentleman immediately objected: “But Christians are not monotheists!”
I was taken aback, mainly because this issue was too far from my mind at that moment. I asked, “How so?” He went on to explain that Christians believed in the Trinity, and that, to him, meant they believed in three deities rather than a single one.
I remember making some vague comments, for I wanted to get back to the original subject as soon as possible instead of getting sidetracked.
Today, however, I have no idea what the talk was about; the only thing that stands out now is the particular claim I heard from one audience member: Christians are not monotheists because they believe in three gods.
If we were to take a random sampling of lay Muslims and ask them what Trinity means, I suspect that a substantial proportion–if not the majority–will say something to the effect that Trinity is the belief that there are three gods. Given the emphasis that the Islamic tradition places on the oneness of God, this view of Trinity can, and does, introduce a significant wedge between Christians and Muslims.
The question, then, is two fold; first, we need to figure out whether this Muslim take on the Trinity is in accordance with the Qur’an, and, second, we need to figure out if Christians really believe in three gods.
Let’s start with the Qur’an. Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:73 categorically declares:
One of the most commonly used translations of the Qur’an is by Abdullah Yousuf Ali, whose version reads:
They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.
According to The Message of the Qur’an, an English translation and interpretation by Muhammad Asad, the verse means:
Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the third of a trinity” — seeing that there is no deity whatever save the One God. And unless they desist from this their assertion, grievous suffering is bound to befall such of them as are bent on denying the truth.
The Noble Qur’an, a popular English translation by Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali Muhammad Muhsin Khan, provides the following translation/interpretation:
Surely, disbelievers are those who said: “Allâh is the third of the three (in a Trinity).” But there is no ilâh (god) (none who has the right to be worshipped) but One Ilâh (God -Allâh). And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful torment will befall the disbelievers among them.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pikthall, in his The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, renders this verse as follows:
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve.
A. J. Arberry, in his The Koran Interpreted, gives the following meaning:
They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Third of Three.’ No god is there but One God. If they refrain not from what they say, there shall afflict those of them that disbelieve a painful chastisement.
According to Abdel Haleem’s English translation, the verse means:
Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist.
Finally, here is Alan Jones’ translation of the same verse:
Unbelievers are those who say, ‘God is the third of the three.’ There is no god but One God. If they do not desist from what they are saying, the unbelievers amongst them will be touched by a painful torment.
These translations may appear virtually identical, but notice how the first two translations differ from the subsequent ones. Yusuf Ali and Asad introduce the word “Trinity” in their respective translations. It also appears in the translation by Al-Hilali and Khan, except that they put parentheses around it, as in “Allah is the third of the three (in a Trinity).” The rest of the translations quoted above do not use the word “Trinity” at all.
What is going on? It turns out that the Arabic word for Trinity is تثليث (tathlith), which does not appear anywhere in the Qur’an. The word that Yusuf Ali and Asad translate as “trinity” is actually ثلاثه (thalathah) which means, simply, the number “three,” so rendered by the rest of our translators. Surely “three” is not synonymous with “trinity” by any stretch of the imagination. To a reader unfamiliar with Arabic, the first two translations give the impression that the Qur’an is criticising the Christian doctrine of Trinity, even though this word never appears in the Qur’anic text. Al-Hilali and Khan’s translation is potentially misleading too, but they deserve the credit at least for putting parentheses around the word “trinity” to indicate that this is not part of the Qur’anic text.
The difference is stark between saying “God is the third of three” and “God is the third of Trinity.” To equate “three” with “Trinity” is a major mistake in translation/interpretation of the Qur’an, a mistake that misleads the lay readers into believing not only that the Qur’an is criticizing the doctrine of Trinity but also, more importantly, that Trinity means a belief in three deities. The Qur’an is categorically denouncing the belief that there are three divine beings and that God is only one of those three; that belief, however, has nothing to do with the official Christian position on the meaning of Trinity, which is much too sophisticated to be synonymous with a naive belief in “three gods.”
Just as most Muslims do not understand the subtle points of Islamic theology, most Christians have little grasp of the subtle points of Christian theology. This is to be expected, since theology has never been a popular indulgence for the masses of ordinary, faithful men and women in either of these traditions. Most modern people do not understand the intricacies of the Theory of Relativity, or of Quantum Mechanics, or even how their cell phones or computers work. Advanced physics, like advanced theology, is a matter of specialization. It is perfectly OK if the majority of us have no clue about such matters . . . particularly because they do not affect our day to day living. Exceptwhen a difficult-to-grasp theological issue becomes a weapon in the hands of ignorant polemicists.
If we were to conduct another survey, this time asking Christians to explain the meaning of Trinity, I suspect that the results will confirm the above contention. There will be a stark contrast between the answers given by the majority of lay Christians and the answers given by academically trained theologians at Yale or Oxford.
In light of this, it is fairly obvious that the Qur’anic criticism is not directed at the sophisticated explanations of Trinity that have been developed by the top Christian theologians over several hundred years of reflection and argumentation. The Qur’anic criticism is directed at the popular misunderstanding of Trinity as “three gods.” This misunderstanding or corruption must have been common among the Christians of seventh century CE who lived in and around the Arabian Peninsula, just as it is not uncommon to meet Christians today who are inclined to think this way, usually without conscious awareness. And yet, the actual Christian position is too subtle and extremely difficult to formulate in words without raising the possibility of such misunderstandings. The doctrine of Trinity does not teach that God is “third of the three.” Instead, it teaches that God is one and three at the same time. If some Christians misunderstand this by ignoring the first half (God is one) and emphasizing the second half (God is three) then this is their error.
Whether we look at the matter from a Christian perspective or an Islamic one, it is indeed a denial of truth to say that God is “third of the three.” I think Muslims and Christians could easily agree on this point.
This resolution of the problem, however, raises another, more interesting, question. If the verse quoted above is not a criticism of the Christian doctrine of Trinity, what, in fact, is the Qur’anic position vis-a-vis this doctrine?
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month of fasting, will commence in a few days. Most Muslims will fast throughout the month, each day from dawn to sunset, as well as many non-Muslims who are beginning to find this practice conducive to their spiritual growth.
What is a typical fast like? You wake up for a small meal just before dawn; you refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex all day long, until it is time to break your fast . . . at sunset. There are extra prayers to be offered at night, which further shorten your rest time.
Sounds irrational, doesn’t it? Why make yourself suffer?
Even though it is rarely introduced as such, there is no denying that suffering is the main feature of the whole exercise. Fasting is a disciplined and controlled way of frustrating our basic instincts, particularly our needs for food and rest, thereby generating an experience that is highly unpleasant from a biological perspective. And yet, Ramadan is one of the most anticipated time of the year for Muslims, as well as the most joyful one.
The self-imposed suffering we experience during the month of fasting has one characteristic feature, I think, that makes all its unpleasant aspects worthwhile. The suffering is supposed to be experienced with maximum awareness. To merely suffer is not the point; the point is to suffer consciously.
Not everyone, unfortunately, is going to pay attention to this particular feature of fasting; many of us will try to avoid feeling the unpleasant sensations of hunger, thirst, tiredness, annoyance, irritation, impatience, and so on, that naturally arise in the fasting body-mind. They will try to immerse themselves in activities, in conversations, in watching movies, in board games . . . with the sole aim of ignoring, avoiding, forgetting these unpleasant sensations. They will eat bigger and more delicious meals than usual, both before dawn in order to delay the unpleasantness as much as possible, as well as at sunset in order to compensate for all the unpleasantness they have already endured during the day. If possible, they will take really long naps during the day, sometimes getting more sleep in Ramadan than they are used to getting in the rest of the year.
All of these strategies are aimed at not achieving what seems to be the primary purpose of the entire setup of Ramadan, i.e., learning to consciously suffer. By using these strategies, many of us will be quite successful in feeling the absolute minimum of unpleasantness, and that too with little or no awareness; with the help of these strategies, we will defeat the purpose.
It so happens that suffering is inevitable for human beings, regardless of how much progress technology makes and how much social engineering we perform to ward off sickness, disappointment, despair, loss, and other unpleasant things. It is not just that we do not seem to eradicate suffering, but that a complete absence of suffering will not even be acceptable to us. We won’t be able to live and thrive as humans if we were to find ourselves in a perfect world, a world that lacks all unpleasantness, all suffering. On this point, let me quote someone with a penetrating insight into the human condition. I mean, of course, Agent Smith.
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.
Despite its unpleasantness, suffering has a positive role in making us who we are, as well as in fostering the conditions and faculties that allow us to become what we are capable of becoming. There is hardly any point in taking something that is as necessary for the full flowering of our humanity as suffering and making it into our enemy, something to be conquered and eliminated at all costs.
Now, it should be obvious that I am not advocating that you go out of your way to court suffering, nor am I suggesting that all attempts at minimizing it should cease. The issue, rather, is one of inner attitude. If something is everywhere, happens all the time, and absolutely no one is immune from it . . . shouldn’t we approach it with respect and even compassion? Shouldn’t we learn how to experience it, how to benefit from it, how to make it our friend rather than an adversary? Insofar as suffering can be eliminated, I would say, let’s try our very best to eliminate it. But insofar as it still remains, I would say, let’s embrace it fully. If certain forms or degrees of suffering are unavoidable, if they won’t go away no matter how hard we try, then let’s stop trying to push them away. Let’s treat them as honored guests; there is no need to invite such guests, of course, but if they have already arrived at our doorsteps then let’s welcome them!
Paradoxically, what helps us transcend suffering is not the attitude of enmity, opposition, or war against its purported causes . . . but a deepening of our experience of suffering in all its unpleasantness. In this background, the pedagogical value of Ramadan lies in the innumerable opportunities it provides for practicing conscious suffering in small, manageable installments. Experiencing the limited and controlled suffering of fasting is therefore a spiritual practice that prepares us for the kind of suffering that is neither self-imposed nor pre-planned, the kind of suffering that can appear at our doorsteps anytime, without warning.
The meaning of Easter loses much of its sharp edge when it is thought of as a one-time event, or as a supernatural miracle. It acquires its true force and relevance, in my view, only when it is thought of as an illustration of the way in which God normally works . . . or, for the nonreligious, the way in which reality functions.
If Easter is a one-time “historical” event that took place on a particular day and at a particular time in a particular part of the world, then it is of little relevance to me no matter how spectacular or amazing it might have been. I have absolutely nothing against one-time events. In fact, I am very interested in one-time events for the following reason. Once I have compiled a record of many one-time events that are similar in one way or another, I could use this information to discern patterns, laws, and regularities. This helps me understand how reality functions (or how God works). On the other hand, an event that is absolutely unique, in the sense that the likes of it never took place before and will never take place ever again constitutes a problem. Not that such an event is impossible; but that such an event does not tell me much about the larger picture that I am trying to discern here. Exceptions and anomalies are, for this reason, much less valuable for a scientist than the discovery of consistent patterns and regularities in the behavior of reality.
If Easter is going to have any meaning, it ought to constitute some kind of sign that points toward a discernable pattern in divine activity. In other words, we ought to be able to find events that are more or less similar to Easter, in some way and at some level, so that we may be able to generalize. It is the usual and the ordinary that gives us the best and most reliable clues to understanding reality, as opposed to the unusual and the extraordinary.
As a one-time event, then, Easter has little meaning; as a particularly powerful example of an ordinary and natural phenomenon that takes place everywhere on a regular basis, however, Easter is overflowing with significance. In fact, there is so much significance here that it is hardly exhausted by our reluctance to believe in resurrection and ascension in a literal sense.
The relevance of Easter cannot be found in the belief that it was a supernatural intervention in the ordinary flow of reality, and, as such, it could only have happened once in history. On the contrary, the relevance of Easter is found in the living experience of humankind that indicates the occurrence of the Easter phenomenon innumerable times every day.
The myth of Easter captures a fundamental truth that is such an inherent part of reality as to be virtually undeniable. Simply put, the deep structure of reality is such that it would, in the long-run, support justice over injustice; truth over falsehood; compassion over cruelty; and fairness over tyranny. Moral truths are as real as scientific truths; and opposing such truths is as foolish as trying to defy gravity.
There is nothing new
In the age-old struggle
Between tyranny and the people.
They haven’t changed their ways
In a very long time:
And neither have we altered
Any of our habits.
They haven’t stopped
Trying to burn us at the stake;
And we haven’t ceased
Turning those flames
Into blooming gardens.
There is nothing new
In the age-old struggle;
They always lose
And we always win.
(Part of a longer poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz)