Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World
FOLLOWING MUHAMMAD – Book Sample
Contents – FOLLOWING MUHAMMAD
- Islam in the Eyes of the West
- Islam as Part of the Contemporary World
- Anti-Islamic Attitudes from Medieval Times to the Present
- Avoiding Prejudice in Approaching Islam
- Approaching Islam in Terms of Religion
- Islam and the Modern Concept of Religion
- Islam and the Historical Study of Religion
- Islam Defined by the State and by the Numbers
- Islamic Religious Language
- The Sacred Sources of Islam
- The Seal of the Prophets: The Prophet Muhammad
- The Word of God: The Qur’an
- Ethics and Life in the World
- Islamic Religious Ethics
- Greek Philosophy as a Source of Ethics
- Islamic Ethics in the Colonial Age
- The End of the Caliphate and the Concept of the Islamic State
- Examples of Islam and the Modern State in Practice
- Liberal Islam
- Gender and the Question of Veiling
- Islam and Science
- Spirituality in Practice
- Early Sufism and the Cultivation of Mystical Experience
- The Spirituality of Shi‘ism
- Later Sufism
- What Is Islamic Art?
- Reimagining Islam in the Twenty-first Century
- Beyond East and West
- New Images of Islam
- Islam and Pluralism
- Suggested Further Reading
Islam and the Modern Concept of Religion
One of the goals of this book is to raise the level of the understanding of Islam from the perspective of religion, yet this is no easy task. How can one define the concept of religion? Like any other word, “religion” has a history. The term came into existence at a certain time for certain purposes, and its meaning has changed significantly over the years.
Although it may be tempting to regard major concepts such as religion as being universal and applicable in all times and places, they are, in fact, historically conditioned and depend on particular circumstances. We cannot understand religion in a timeless sense or through an abstract definition. Religion can be understood only with respect to context: we have to understand the actors, the time, the place, and the issues in order to avoid making serious mistakes.
Surprisingly, religion is not mentioned in the Bible. The word is derived from a pre-Christian Latin term, religio, which was adopted by European Christians in the western Mediterranean region. It is surprisingly difficult to find an equivalent term in any of the other classical languages of Christianity, such as Greek, and it is even more difficult to find comparable concepts outside Christian sources.
A brief excursion into the history of this term and some of its principal transformations illustrates how dramatically a fundamental term can change. While this sketch considerably simplifies the development of the concept of religion in the West, it demonstrates how our concept of multiple religions is closely linked to the modern period of European colonialism.
One of the most important authors in ancient Rome, Cicero, offered an explanation of the origin of the term “religion” in his Latin treatise On the Nature of the Gods, written around 45 B.C.E.1 According to this explanation, the Latin term religio was derived from the word relegere, which means “to read again,” or “to read over and over.” Thus religio means a painstaking sense of duty, concentrating fully on what one is supposed to do.
We still retain a sense of this usage in our expression, “He reads the daily paper religiously.” It was most common for Latin writers to use the word in the plural, in the form religiones, meaning ritual duties. There was not necessarily any theological or doctrinal content to this concept of religion, but it did contain a notion of duty and obligatory practices.2
The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire led to a distinctively Christian adaptation of the concept of religion. The influential theologian St. Augustine expanded on this in a short book entirely devoted to the subject, Of True Religion (390 C.E.). This was in part a philosophical treatise in which Augustine argued that true religion meant acknowledging the creator with reverence, uniting a correct intellectual perspective with appropriate attitudes and actions.
The exact nature of this acknowledgment could vary from one age to another. Augustine felt that in earlier times the non-Christian philosopher Plato had been an example of true religion. In the fourth century C.E. he announced the divine arrangement or dispensation for humanity was Christianity, uniting the philosophy of Plato with the truth of Christ. Augustine went on to articulate a detailed series of intellectual and spiritual stages of development that were available to the seekers of true religion. Several points emerged, however, as radical innovations in this Christian concept of religion.
First, for Augustine, true religion only existed in the singular; he did not have any concept of multiple religions. Second, religion was now a subject that had strong theological and doctrinal content. Third, the source of authority for the articulation of proper attitudes and actions was located in the Christian Church, as the historic tradition connecting humanity with Christ; religion was not merely an abstract teaching but depended on revelation expressed in time and space, in a historical and local context. Uniting theological truth with the legal authority of the church would have immense repercussions for the development of Christianity.
A major shift in the concept of religion can be detected at the dawn of the modern era, some fourteen centuries later. Major and drastic transformations had taken place in European Christianity since the time of Augustine, not the least of which was the split caused by the Protestant Reformation.
A convenient example of the new perspective can be seen in the work of the famous Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in his book On the Truth of the Christian Religion (published in Latin in 1627). Although the title appears superficially similar to that of Augustine’s book, the difference is profound. Particularly in the wake of the European wars of religion between Protestant and Catholic, it had become clear that religion is a noun in the plural—there are multiple religions that all claim the same authority.
Glossing over the split within Christianity, Grotius turned his gaze outward and described non-Christian groups as religions, too, although necessarily false ones.
Grotius’s book, in fact, was a debating manual for European sailors on missions of economic and military conquest; it was designed to help them convert the Jew, the Muslim, and the pagan to Christianity. What is new about this perspective? As with Augustine, doctrinal truth and legal authority are claimed for Christianity.
But now Christianity is only one of several religions that are in competition for world domination. The framework for this new emphasis was the era of European colonialism, which can be dated back to the time of Columbus but began to hit its full stride by the end of the eighteenth century.
It is worth pausing to examine the picture of religion that emerges from the extremely popular work of Grotius (it was translated into multiple languages, and the Latin version was a standard school text through the mid-1800s in England). If one looks at the frontispiece of the English translation published in 1632 (True Religion Explained and Defended against ye Archenemies Thereof in These Times), one sees a portrait of religion as an allegorical female figure poised between the New Testament and the Old Testament (fig. 2.1).
In separate portraits around the page, the Christian is contrasted with the Jew, the Muslim (here called “the Turke”), and the pagan, each with a suitable biblical verse describing their relative status. Notes to the frontispiece explain the basic concept of Islam as both violent and false: “The Turke stands with his sword in his hand, by which he defends his Religion, that sprang from Mahomet (Muhammad), a false Prophet, foretold in generall by Christ.” Without going into all the details, one can see here in the overall trend from “religion” to “religions” a concept of competing beliefs and political communities in a context of imperialism and missions.
Grotius’s conclusion to this book is as follows: “There is not, neither ever was there any other Religion in the whole world [other than Christianity], that can bee imagined more honourable for excellency of reward, more absolute and perfect for precepts, or more admirable for the manner according to which it was commanded to bee propagated and divulged.”3 This unsurprising choice of Christianity as the supreme religion of the world and the automatic assumption of the falsity of other religions is another aspect of the modern European concept of religion. All this will have particular importance for the concept of Islam.
In setting up this global conflict between Christianity and all other religions, Grotius skips a crucial conflict internal to Christianity, which has had immense repercussions for the modern concept of religion. The Protestant Reformation was arguably the biggest crisis in the history of Christianity. It led to immense social upheavals, including peasant revolts, apocalyptic uprisings, and interminable wars between Protestant and Catholic, based on religious identity. Politics was so closely fused with religion that the slogan of the day was “religion belongs to the ruler” (cuius regio eius religio); that is, the state religion would be dictated by the ruler.
These bloody and prolonged religious wars eventually provoked revulsion against intolerance of different religious beliefs. A series of philosophers and thinkers began to advocate that morality and behavior alone should be controlled by the state, while belief could remain a private matter. The culmination of this doctrine of the Enlightenment came in the concept of freedom of religion and tolerance, as seen in the rejection of established state religion by the framers of the American Constitution.
But many European countries (with the exception of revolutionary France and various Communist regimes) have continued to accept various forms of official state recognition of particular churches. Still, in general terms, this shift to modernity has decisively elevated the power of the state over religion in matters of law and political authority while leaving various religious groups in competition in the realm of belief.
In the colonies, however, with their large numbers of non-Christian subjects, Christian missionaries were given free rein and encouragement to seek new converts. The essential point to be noted is that religious toleration in Europe was only extended to different varieties of Christianity; non-Christian religions did not receive this concession…..
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