Posts Tagged ‘Wilfred Cantwell Smith’

“The X-Files” is a popular television series that was originally aired from September 1993 to May 2002. It was produced by Chris Carter for the Fox Network. While I did catch an occasional episode or two when it was first aired, it’s only now — almost two decades after the series began — that I’ve started watching “X-Files” religiously, i.e., in a dedicated, deliberate fashion. At the time of this writing, I am somewhere in the middle of season 3.

In this post, I am concerned neither with the mythology of “X-Files” nor with any of its specific stories or characters. Rather, I want to explore the meaning of one of the two slogans that became iconic in American culture thanks to the series’ popularity—“The Truth is Out There” and “I Want to Believe.” I’d like to tackle the latter slogan first, leaving the former for another day.

Throughout the series, or at least in the episodes I’ve watched so far, one of the protagonists — FBI agent Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) — frequently expresses his desire/ambition to “believe.” He does so both verbally and through his actions. Mulder even has a poster hanging prominently in his office that depicts a hovering UFO or alien spaceship, with bold letters proclaiming “I Want to Believe.” The slogan appears to be intended by the creators of “X-Files” to serve as a quick description of what motivates this particular character to engage in a relentless, even obsessive, struggle to track down aliens, observe paranormal phenomena, and expose government conspiracies designed to cover up the first two — even at the cost of endangering his life.

The question I want to explore concerns the value of adopting “I Want to Believe” as one’s goal or purpose in life —  something akin to what Stephen Covey calls a “personal mission statement.” The slogan appears to suggest that believing is some sort of virtue that ought to be cultivated for its own sake, that it is something all of us (or at least the noblest and the most ambitious among us) should aim for. The assumption is that the vast majority of us don’t believe —  most of us are either inherently incapable of believing or we have recently lost the ability to believe; and this general lack of belief is precisely what makes Mulder a lone warrior, a “cry in the wilderness” type of prophetic figure, who insists on continuing to believe even when the evidence is either scanty or ambiguous. What makes him a hero is that he goes on believing in extreme possibilities despite all the pressures of a skeptical culture and despite all the eye-rolling of his partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). And yet, Mulder seems to be fully aware of the difficulties involved in maintaining a practical commitment to his beliefs, as there are powerful forces attempting to discredit his theories and findings. Given that he regularly comes up with hypotheses that are too fantastic from the viewpoint of his peers, Mulder needs all the support he can get in order to persevere in following his hunches. Since that support is hard to come by from other people, the poster in his office appears to function as a surrogate. Presumably, the poster is a constant reminder of what his life’s purpose is supposed to be, a reminder that he must take his own hypotheses seriously even if they appear silly or unscientific to everyone around him.

To keep one’s commitment to believe intact in the face of opposition and ridicule clearly represents an act of exceptional courage. Either that, or it is a sign of delusional schizophrenia. There is a fine line separating genius from madness, a line that is far too easy to cross. Because of the possibility that one may have lost one’s mind, to believe against the collective pressure of society is to take a tremendous risk. There is safety in believing what everyone else believes and denying what everyone else denies. More than safety, there is considerable wisdom in accepting what has become established as true after centuries or millennia of collective human experience; there is, after all, no need to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, there are occasions when it is worth going out on a limb — when it is worth believing and proclaiming a truth that is neither commonly acceptable nor currently provable — simply because one has an intuitive sense of having caught a glimpse of some aspect of truth. But then again, one’s own sense of confidence that one sees what others can’t or won’t see is no guarantee that one isn’t delusional. There is no dearth of highly confident individuals in mental asylums, folks who are absolutely convinced of the truth of whatever they happen to believe. While risking one’s position in society for the sake of one’s convictions is very often the cause of real human progress, a complete lack of doubt in one’s own private thoughts reveals a deficiency in self-awareness and cannot be a very healthy condition. Some form of objective, external confirmation of one’s hunches or visions is therefore necessary for gaining a relative assurance that one’s feet are firmly planted on this side of the genius-madness boundary.

Assuming that one hasn’t gone crazy, it is no doubt highly noble to maintain one’s commitment to believe what one personally knows to be true, especially when that commitment doesn’t provide any obvious, material advantage but is actually detrimental to one’s social status and approval ratings. In other words, believing what’s true is a virtuous act, especially when performed in the face of opposition or ridicule. But this raises the possibility that one can also believe what isn’t true—one may believe what’s actually false. Clearly, believing what’s false may or may not be a vice, but it cannot be a virtue. It follows that there is nothing noble or virtuous in believing as such.

In everyday English, believe means (1) to have confidence or trust in a person; (2) to give intellectual assent to, or accept the truth or accuracy of, a statement, doctrine, etc. The dictionary doesn’t say that in order to believe one must be justified in one’s convictions, or that one’s convictions must, in fact, be true. The concept of truth is not part of the concept of belief. All people—including delusional schizophrenics—do believe something. The really interesting issue therefore is not the fact of belief but the content of belief. It is a trivial point that people believe; the non-trivial question concerns what they believe, and whether or not what they believe is, in fact, true.

At first sight, the slogan “I Want to Believe” appears to be incomplete, for it lacks an object for the main verb. If the slogan is taken out of its narrative context and presented before a group of people unfamiliar with the television series, they would probably wonder about the missing object—“believe what?” Of course, this is not a problem for the audience of “The X-Files.” They are fully aware that, within the mythology of the series, the kinds of statements and reports that people find incredible concerns extraterrestrial aliens, paranormal phenomena, and government conspiracies, and that these are most likely the sort of things that Mulder “wants to believe.” Indeed, the “The X-Files” mythology never suggests that there has been any decline in the human ability to believe as such; rather, the decline is only in the human ability to believe certain kinds of statements and reports, and in their ability to give credence to certain kinds of interpretations of observed events or data. It is in the face of this very specific sort of incredulity that Fox Mulder wishes to believe otherwise.

I would like to emphasize that believing as such is not a virtue, partly because everyone believes something just by being human and partly because of the possibility of believing what’s false; and that only believing what’s true can properly be seen as virtuous, especially when a person goes on believing despite facing opposition and ridicule. People who are delusional—as well as those who are confused, mistaken, uninformed, misinformed, brainwashed, deceived, and so on—can be extremely certain and steadfast in their beliefs; they may be so convinced that they are willing to kill other people or sacrifice their own lives. Yet, no one thinks of their commitment to whatever they believe as particularly virtuous. It seems that people do not associate virtue with belief unless they are convinced that the belief in question is, in fact, true. This seems to suggest that humanity, in general, does not have a high regard for believing as such, but only for believing in a truth—especially an unpopular truth. For all practical purposes, what matters is judgments like these is people’s perception of whether something is true or false; they would respect a person’s commitment to what they take to be true and not what they take to be false. Leaving aside the epistemological question, it seems to me that this is indeed the right attitude.

Let’s return to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office that says “I Want to Believe.” What kind of believing does this slogan advocate? When the slogan is taken out of context, it seems to suggest believing as such, without any reference to the content of what is to be believed. But we have seen that the absent object in the sentence “I Want to Believe” is not really missing, for it is implied by the overall mythology of “The X-Files.” Apparently, the slogan refers to believing in the plausibility of particular kinds of scenarios — scenarios that are likely to be seen by the mainstream of society as having little or no probability of being real.

The wanting part is obvious, for Mulder approaches every perplexing situation with a strong bias towards the most fantastic and least probable hypothesis, and is visibly disappointed whenever a mundane explanation wins out (which is relatively rare). He is not open-minded, in the sense of someone who is receptive to all possibilities. For this reason, and as Scully keeps bringing it to his attention, Mulder demonstrates a tendency to pick and choose only that evidence which suits his pet hypothesis in any given case, revealing the depth of his commitment to believe. In real life, this tendency will be normally seen as a violation of the scientific spirit; within the narrative framework of “The X-Files,” however, it is depicted as Mulder’s extraordinary ability to identify the most relevant clues in a given case.

Every now and then, it appears that Mulder’s issue is not believing per se; rather, it is finding concrete evidence for what he already believes intuitively. In this respect, he is not all that different from most of us, including scientists. Yet, the fact remains that in real life intuition can both guide and misguide, depending on how it is interpreted.

At the same time, the poster in Mulder’s office proclaims believing to be the object of his heart’s desire, rather than confirming his beliefs. If he already believes, what’s the point of saying that he wants to believe? Or is the poster referring to the degree or intensity of his belief? It would seem that Mulder’s belief in extreme possibilities is rather fragile, always about to fall apart, and so he constantly needs reassurances in the form of concrete evidence; what he really wants to believe is that he has not invested his life in pursuit of something illusory. He constantly needs, from this perspective, external validation that he is not living a meaningless life.

At another level, however, what is not always clear is why Mulder wants to believe. Whether one has a hunch or one is in doubt, in either case it is worthwhile to inquire and investigate until one discovers the truth of the matter. But finding or figuring out what’s true is not the same thing as believing whatever one wants to believe. Isn’t finding out the truth better than proving one’s beliefs? Take, for instance, the issue of extraterrestrial aliens visiting the earth and abducting humans for experiments, a theme that “The X-Files” writers find particularly attractive. In fact, alien abduction is a pivotal theme for the entire series. Depending on the viewpoint of a given character and the specific narrative frame of a given episode, this scenario can be either true or false. But regardless of whether or not alien abduction turns out to be factual within a specific context, it seems to me that trying to cultivate a belief in its factuality would be a pretty useless enterprise. Whenever I see the poster, I want to give Mulder a piece of my mind: You should be aiming at knowing, Mr. Mulder, not believing.

What is intriguing is that he does know. The FBI agent is fully aware that extraterrestrial aliens have been abducting humans for experiments, and he knows this on the basis of his own countless experiences and encounters. At a personal level, he has no reason to doubt that alien abduction is a factual phenomenon. Since he knows that the scenario is true, what he clearly needs to do is to demonstrate its factuality before the wider public, thereby defeating the government conspiracy to keep this a secret. And this is precisely what motivates him in episode after episode of “The X-Files.” Given that Mulder knows, I am troubled by the poster in his office that says “I Want to Believe.” For if Mulder truly knows, I don’t understand why he still wants to believe.

In an earlier post on “Faith and Belief,” I quoted Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s observation that, in contemporary English usage, the word “belief” is frequently used in a way that implies its sharp contrast with respect to the word “knowledge.” Generally speaking, when people say “I believe” they’re indicating that (1) they are not completely sure, and/or that (2) there is legitimate room for disagreement. On the other hand, when people are completely sure that what they believe is true, so much so that no rational and informed person could possibly disagree, they would simply say it in a matter-of-fact fashion, without bothering to preface it with “I believe.” Thus, it makes a great deal of difference whether a person says “It is raining” or “I believe it is raining.” The former sentence implies, but usually does not include, the phrase “I know.”

In everyday English usage (as opposed to academic language), a tenacious belief does not attain the status of knowledge unless it happens to be true. A wrong belief, no matter how firmly or confidently held, can be seen as a mistake, a confusion, a misunderstanding, etc., but it is never seen as knowledge. In other words, knowledge is not simply a belief about which a person is completely sure. In addition to subjective certitude on the part of the believer, the belief itself must be objectively true for it to qualify as a piece of knowledge. (How do we know that a belief is true is besides the point.) Consider the following examples, slightly modified from Smith.

The above examples demonstrate the following features of beliefs: (1) beliefs can be true or false, (2) a person can be certain or uncertain about the truth of a given belief, and (3) a belief amounts to knowledge only when it fulfills two conditions, i.e., subjective certitude and objective truth. Out of the four statements, Smith contends that only the last one, “I know that Washington DC is the capital of the United States,” would qualify as knowledge.

These simple observations lead us to the following axiom: The more we know, the less we believe. Or, as knowledge expands, beliefs shrink.

What, then, is the value of the slogan “I Want to Believe” as a personal mission statement? Not a great deal, I would say. Since the word “believe” usually implies a feeling of uncertainty, and since even a strong feeling of confidence does not guarantee that a given belief is objectively true, it seems to me that knowing is a much higher goal to pursue than mere believing.

I would like to see Mulder’s poster proclaiming a different goal: “I want to know.”

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The Meaning and End of Religion (1962) — declared “a modern classic” by John Hick — is probably the most important of the many writings by the Canadian historian and theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith. In this book, Smith presents a complex and subtle argument to explain his proposal for how the academic study of religion ought to be approached by scholars and students alike.

An important element in Smith’s argument is the claim that the emergence of the notion of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity is a very recent — and a very modern — phenomenon. To highlight the uniqueness of the modern concept, Smith spends the better part of an entire chapter tracing the history of the word “religion” in the Latin West. Here, I will restrict my comments to section v of chapter 2, where Smith offers three case studies to illustrate how the word “religion” was understood in Latin Christendom during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Smith’s three case studies are as follows: (1) Marsilio Ficino’s work De Christiana Religione from 1474, (2) Ulrich Zwingli’s work De Vera et Falsa Religione Commentarius from 1525, and (3) John Calvin’s work Christiane Religionis Institutio from 1536.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was an influential philosopher during the European Renaissance, a translator into Latin of the writings of Plato and Plotinus. Smith notes that the phrase Christiana Religione was “relatively new” when Ficino used it, and that it “subsequently became common and has remained so, but with a profound change of meaning” (p. 33). Smith goes on to describe what this phrase meant to Ficino, contrasting it to what it has come to mean now.

Today, we are likely to translate the phrase Christiana Religione as “the Christian religion,” and understand it as a synonym for “Christianity.” This is so because today we understand the word “religion” as meaning “any system of doctrines and practices, any institutional phenomenon or historical development, one of ‘the religions’ of the world.” This meaning of the word “religion,” Smith argues, was “certainly not in Ficino’s mind.”

When we think of “the religions” (in the plural), we are thinking of the variety of ways in which people express their religiosity. Ficino understood this idea very well, but he did not use the word religio to describe it; instead, he used the phrase ritus adorationis. On the one hand, Ficino believed that human beings practice, and have practiced, many different “ways of adoring God.” He thought that God Himself had allowed such diversity, and that it was good and desirable. On the other hand, he used the word religio to indicate something unchanging and stable. According to Smith, “That to which Ficino gives the name religio . . . is universal to man; it is, indeed, the fundamental distinguishing human characteristic, innate, natural, and primary.” While there are many different “ways of adoring God,” Ficino believed that there was only one religio.

Smith suggests that we render Ficino’s sense of the word religio by using the English word “religiousness.” Given that Ficino was a Platonist, he assumed the classical distinction between the perfect “ideal” and the imperfect “actual.” As a Platonist, Ficino believed that “the veritable form is ideal” and that “the actual occurrences in human history in the lives of men and women are more or less inadequate, approximative, more or less untrue instances of that ideal.”

Consequently, Ficino understood that religio is not, and cannot be, of different types. In its absolute perfection, religio exists only in the world of forms; what we have here on earth are the countless human attempts aimed at enacting that ideal within the messy confines of history. In other words, religio in human actuality necessarily falls short of its ideal perfection, which is why it is found in the human realm “in differing degrees of genuineness,” as Smith puts it. Since religio is good, Ficino thought that it was better to have it in a small quantity, or in a low grade of genuineness, than to not have it at all.

Next, Smith looks at the word Chrstiana as used by Ficino in the phrase Christiana religio. He argues that it makes a great deal of difference whether we translate this phrase as “the Christian religion” or as “Christian religion.” In the former instance, the presence of the definite article indicates the contemporary sense of the word “Christian” as pertaining to Christians or Christianity. In the latter instance, the absence of the definite article indicates the original sense of the word “Christian” as pertaining to Christ. As a result, the English phrase “the Christian religion” assumes the modern sense of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity and can therefore be understood as signifying “Christianity.” In contrast, the phrase “Christian religion” does not assume the modern understanding of “religion,” and, consequently, signifies something far more profound, namely, the kind of religiousness that was “exemplified and taught” by Christ. Regarding the distinction between “the Christian religion” and “Christian religion,” Smith notes:

The difference is not minor. Not only by religio did Ficino not mean what is today referred to in the phrase ‘the Christian religion’; it would also be altogether meaningful to ask whether that to which today this latter phrase objectively refers is ‘Christian’ in Ficino’s understanding of that term.

Smith’s question may be paraphrased as follows: How much of what we today call “Christianity” actually pertains to Christ?

Smith’s next two case studies are from the period in European history known as the Reformation. The first of these is the book De Vera et Falsa Religione Commentarius (1525) by the Swiss Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). The title can be translated as “An Essay on True and False Religion.” The issue at stake, once again, is the meaning of the word “religion,” this time as used by Zwingli. Given the modern understanding of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity, and given the reality of many different “religions” in the world, Zwingli’s title may suggest to an unsuspecting modern reader that his book argues for the validity of Christianity over and against Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and so on. This, however, is very far from the meaning that Zwingli had in mind. By “true religion,” Zwingli did not mean a systematic and coherent entity called “Christianity,” and by “false religion” he did not mean other systematic and coherent entities such as “Judaism,” “Islam,” “Buddhism,” and so on. This is because in the sixteenth century the modern concept of “religion” as a thing-like entity with definite boundaries has not yet emerged. Smith notes:

By this title he is not maintaining that Christianity is a true religion, other religions false. Neither he nor Calvin seems to use the term ‘Christianity’ at all. The opening sentence of Zwingli’s work announces firmly that it will deal ‘with the true and false religio of Christians’. For him, religio is a relation between man and God. It is established when man comes to trust God who in His mercy reaches out toward him. False religio, or as he calls it, false piety or superstition, is found therefore when anything is trusted as God other than He. (p. 35)

Like Ficino, Zwingli used the word religio not to indicate a systematic and coherent entity but to indicate a particular human quality; we may render his sense of religio as religiousness, faithfulness, or piety. Indeed, what he calls false religio comes rather close to our modern understanding of “religion.” Smith explains:

For Zwingli, false religion is an oversanctifictaion of popes, councils, church authorities, and the like; a giving honour to the mundane organization through which the divine is mediated instead of the divine itself. To use our modern terminology, one might almost represent Zwingli as introducing the concept of ‘false religion’ precisely to characterize the tendency whereby men give their allegiance to religion rather than to God. (p. 35)

This last idea is important enough to deserve repetition: False religiousness is the tendency of people to “give their allegiance to religion rather than to God.” The significance of Smith’s (and Zwingli’s) insight can be appreciated by noticing its contemporary relevance. Today, it is not uncommon to meet people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and who say that they believe in a “higher power” but are not too excited about “organized religion.” Perhaps such people have a genuine thirst for what Smith calls “religiousness” and what Zwingli calls “true religion,” and yet they have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the rituals, institutions, and social forms of their religious tradition. The real cause of their dissatisfaction, however, is not necessarily the “mundane organization through which the divine is mediated.” Perhaps what has made them dissatisfied with “organized religion” is not the fact of religion being organized, but the human tendency to absolutize the means (the organized aspects of religion) while forgetting or disregarding the end (religiousness, faithfulness, or piety). This is tantamount to giving one’s allegiance to a particular religious system, as opposed to giving one’s allegiance — for lack of a better word — to “God.”

Smith notes that the title of Zwingli’s book is best rendered into English as “An essay on genuine and spurious piety” (p. 37).

Smith’s third case study is the famous and highly influential work by John Calvin (1509-1564), Christianae Religionis Institutio, first published in 1536. According to Smith, one consequence of the widespread influence of Calvin’s work, especially in its catechism form, was the increasing use of the word religio and the phrase Christiana religio by the end of the sixteenth century. Calvin’s work was translated into English in the nineteenth century under the title “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” a title that Smith believes represents a “serious misinterpretation.”

For one thing, institutio meant ‘instruction’, instituting, setting up, establishing . . . . Furthermore, religio is certainly not ‘one of the religions’, an over, institutional phenomenon nor an abstract system. It is rather, as with the other writers that we have observed, the sense of piety that prompts a man to worship. It is innate in everyman, and is the one characteristic that lifts man above the brutes. It is an inner personal attitude.

Smith goes on to suggest that the title of Calvin’s magnum opus is best rendered into English as “Grounding in Christian piety” (p. 37).

All three case studies serve to illustrate and substantiate Smith’s argument that the contemporary meaning of the word “religion” has emerged gradually during the early modern period. Before the seventeenth century, the word “religion” was used to indicate a particular human quality, namely faith or piety. In this sense of the word, the use of the plural form, “the religions,” would have been absurd. It was only through a gradual — and peculiarly modern — process of reification that the word “religion” came to designate not an inner, personal attitude that people have, but a well-defined and impersonal system of beliefs and practices.

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When Iqbal published his lectures on “the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam,” he decided to add a brief preface. The preface begins with the following statement:

The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea’.

This is a significant statement, considering where it appears: in the preface to a book which is all about ideas! Introducing a highly theoretical work that addresses the nuances of Islamic as well as Western thought in the areas of metaphysics, theology, and ethics, Iqbal found it necessary to confess that the world of ideas — thought — is not something that’s terribly important from the Qur’anic viewpoint. After acknowledging that ideas do not constitute a central concern of the Qur’an, Iqbal went on to argue in the same preface why it is nevertheless necessary that we pay attention to ideas.

Iqbal’s statement about where the Qur’an puts its primary emphasis is significant for several other reasons as well. For instance, it demonstrates an element of critical self-awareness on Iqbal’s part. He knew perfectly well, and was able to acknowledge in writing, that his own emphasis on religious thought was not in perfect harmony with the Qur’anic emphasis on what he called “deed.”

Perhaps the important question from the reader’s viewpoint is this: Is Iqbal’s statement correct? Is it really true that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea”? The claim may sound counter-intuitive to many Muslims, who may want to argue that the Qur’an does pay sufficient attention to ideas. Thus, when the Qur’an speaks about God and God’s attributes, or narrates the stories of previous prophets, or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise — isn’t it obvious that in all these matters the Qur’an is discussing what may be called beliefs? And isn’t it true that beliefs are made up of ideas? If they are not ideas, what else could they be?

The term that most Muslims use for religious beliefs is ‘aqa’id, plural of ‘aqidah. The contemporary use of the word ‘aqidah is such that it is practically a synonym for what Christians call “creed.” Strictly speaking, a “creed” is not the same thing as “belief.” A community can have a wide range of beliefs at any given moment, but when a particular understanding of what everyone is supposed to believe is expressed in a particular verbal formula by a religious authority, the resulting declaration of belief is called a creed. Thus, the Latin version of the Nicene Creed begins with the words “Credo in unum Deum,” we believe in one God, indicating the declarative and public (or communal) nature of a creed. During most of Christian history, matters of creed were typically very important, in that whether or not one professed the right creed was the main factor in differentiating between orthodoxy and heresy (in some cases, this could mean the difference between life and death).

In the Islamic instance, the term ‘aqidah is normally taken as suggesting a particular formulation of religious belief as articulated by a particular religious authority — and this is exactly how the term “creed” is normally defined. For our present purposes, however, whether we call the particular formulation in question a “creed” or a “belief” makes little difference; for whichever term we choose, the critical issue is that the actual content of ‘aqidah is widely assumed to be either an idea or a set of ideas.

Given that idea is the substance that is believed to constitute any particular ‘aqidah, and given that having the right ‘aqidah is taken to mean holding certain specific ideas as true, we can see how Iqbal’s statement appears to belittle the importance of ‘aqidah. When Iqbal says that “The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea,'” what he is clearly implying is that, from the Qur’anic perspective, matters of ‘aqidah are not all that worthy of our attention. This is obviously a claim that is in sharp contrast to what a significant proportion of Muslims seem to hold.

Nowadays, a great deal of emphasis is being placed in many Muslim circles on having the “correct ‘aqidah,” and a great deal of intellectual effort is spent on fulfilling this goal. Many Muslims show a strong attachment to their own understanding of what they take to be the one “correct ‘aqidah,” and some are not reluctant at all to criticize and condemn alternative understandings as absolutely unacceptable. In some extreme cases, it would appear as if having the “correct ‘aqidah” is of ultimate significance for one’s salvation — as if going to hell or reaching the paradise is primarily a question of holding in one’s mind the correct wording of particular religious ideas.

Given this widespread emphasis on religious ideas, Iqbal’s statement implies a sharp critique of the attitude that defines the very meaning of religion for many contemporary Muslims. If his statement turns out to be true, it would demand from contemporary Muslims fundamental changes in how they approach their religious lives.

How can we find out whether or not Iqbal’s statement is correct? An important consideration is that the word ‘aqidah, in the sense of a particular articulation of a religious belief — that is to say, a “creed” — does not appear in the Qur’an. In his book “Faith and Belief” (1979), Wilfred Cantwell Smith makes the following observation:

The root ‘aqada, “to tie a knot”, either literally or in the figurative sense of binding a person by a legal or moral commitment, making a binding engagement, occurs seven times in the Qur’an: twice as the verb and five times as a noun. The words ‘aqidah, ‘aqa’id do not occur. (p. 196)

Of course, just because a word does not appear in the Qur’an is no proof, by itself, that there is something religiously illegitimate about the concept it represents. But that is precisely where the problem resides, for the actual concept behind the word ‘aqidah is very often not grasped too well by contemporary Muslims. To quote Smith once again:

Furthermore, I have found in working on mediaeval kalam texts that the VIIIth form i’taqadah, which does not occur in the Qur’an but is introduced into theology later, along with ‘aqidah, ‘aqa’id, in the sense of “creed”, begins there by meaning not “to believe” something but rather more literally to bind oneself, to commit or to pledge oneself to, to take on the engagement of living in accord with a given position; and that only gradually across the centuries does it eventually acquire the more neutral meaning of “to believe” something intellectually. This last comes quite late in the mediaeval period and is perhaps not common until early modern times. (p.196)

What Smith is pointing out in the above quotation is a problem common to all religious traditions that rely on written texts. As time passes, the texts remain static but the language keeps changing. The result is that in the later part of a tradition’s history, texts written in the earlier part tend to become increasingly incomprehensible. This is especially problematic when a later-day reader feels confident that he or she is interpreting an old text exactly as it was intended to be understood, but is doing so without taking into account the glaring fact that the denotations and connotations of words do not remain static over hundreds of years. The word ‘aqidah and related words were initially used by Muslim theologians and jurists in the sense of making a commitment to one or the other side of a controversial issue; as time passed, Muslims continued to use these words but increasingly in the sense of holding certain ideas in one’s mind. According to Smith, while this trend can be found in the late medieval period, it probably did not become dominant until the early modern period.

To reiterate, the widespread sense of ‘aqidah as an idea to which one gives intellectual assent is very different from the original sense of the word as used by classical Muslim theologians and jurists. Nowadays, the vast majority of Muslims use the word ‘aqidah in a way that makes it a virtual synonym for religious “belief” or, more precisely, for “creed.” (I have in mind the modern meanings of these two words, not their premodern meanings.)

One can justify the religious legitimacy of the classical sense of ‘aqidah by appealing to arguments that are ultimately based on the Qur’an. One can also justify the modern sense of ‘aqidah as believing something intellectually or holding certain ideas in one’s mind. What one cannot justify is the assumption that the contemporary meaning of ‘aqidah is identical with what our classical authorities had in mind when they used that word. Integrity demands that one acknowledges that an important shift in the meaning of this word has taken place during the centuries that separate us from the authors of our classical texts.

In light of this discussion, what is the significance of Iqbal’s opening statement in the preface to his major work? When Iqbal suggests that the Qur’an does not emphasize idea, he is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of ‘aqidah — in the modern sense of the word. To put his claim in slightly different language, Iqbal is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of belief, including religious belief. Obviously, this claim also applies to what is called a “creed,” insofar as a creed is understood to be a formalized expression of religious belief. Iqbal is saying that, instead of focusing its attention on matters of ‘aqidah, belief, or creed, the Qur’an focuses its attention on something else. This something else Iqbal calls “deed.”

An important caveat is necessary at this point. Notice Iqbal’s use of the word “emphasis,” which is crucial in interpreting his statement about the Qur’an. Iqbal is not saying that the Qur’an pays absolutely no attention to ideas. Given that Iqbal himself makes ample use of the Qur’anic text in discussing a wide range of ideas, it would be a blatant error on his part if he were to make such a claim. What he is saying is simply that the Qur’an does not emphasize ideas. In other words, the primary aim of the Qur’an does not consist in informing us as to which ideas we ought to hold in our minds and which ones we must not hold in our minds; yet, this fact does not mean that the Qur’an is entirely indifferent to ideas. Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. While the Qur’an does suggest many things that qualify as ideas, the primary aim of the Qur’an lies elsewhere, in the realm of “deed.” This is important for Muslims to understand because the priorities of the Qur’an are supposed to become our own priorities.

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