A Young Muslim’s Guide to Religions in the World
Dr. Syed Sajjad Hussain
A YOUNG MUSLlM’S GUIDE TO RELIGIONS IN THE WORLD is the tirst in a projected series of books which the Institute of Islamic Thought in Bangladesh intends to publish as educational aids to the young who have to rely on publications by non-Muslims for knowledge about culture and civilisation. These publications discuss matters from an angle which is often anti-Islamic and sometimes distort history, by suppressing facts about Islamic society in order to justify their assertions. A Muslim student who reads them unthinkingly is apt to develop attitudes towards his own culture which at best can be described as apologetic.
The programme that we have embarked upon in concert with the International Institute of Islamic Thought in the USA, is designed to provide an alternative. What Dr Syed SaüadHusain has attempted in the present book is to analyse different religious cultures in an Islamic perspective, focusing on the differences and affinities, if any, between Islam and other religions. We hope the book will prove a useful primer to those interested in comparative religion and help correct many errors.
The Bangladesh Institute of Islamic Thought is a small body of people dedicated to Islam whose principal mission is to see to it that the Musli ms might understand their own religion and culture and not be influenced by alien attacks and non-Muslims be enabled to acquaint themselves with the Muslim point of view. They believe that the preservation of the Islamic heritage as weil as intercommunal peace and harmony depends upon the rational understanding of the truth.
The Bangladesh Institute takes this opportunity to acknowledge its gratitude to its counterpart in the USA for the encouragement it has received from il. We are also grateful to Dr Syed Saüad Husain for agreeing to cooperate with us in our programme.
It gives us immense pleasur that we are presenting the second edition of the book to the readers.
M. Zohurul Islam FCA
Seeretary General Dhaka2003 Bangladesh Instltute of Islamle Thought
It was Mr Shah Abdul Hannan and Mr Ahmad Fariduddin, both members of the Bangladesh Civil Service and old acquaintances of mine, the latter from his student days in the University of Dacca wh en 1 taught in the Department of English, who persuaded me to undertake to write this book. 1 agreed with considerable diffidence and told them that what 1 could at best produce would be a book for the lay man and the general reader. But having worked for two years on this project, 1 feel grateful to them for obliging me to put on record thoughts which had been stirring in my mind for years.
1 am also indebted to the late Dr Ismail Rajhi, the renowned Arab scholar, whose book on Islamisation of knowledge alerted most of us to the dangers faced by the younger generation of Muslims who live in daily contact with non-Muslim communities and have to read books written by non-Muslims in which Islam is often distorted. It was also Mr Shah Hannan and Mr Ahmad Fariduddin who drew my attention to the programme suggested by Ihe late Dr Rajhi as a measure designed to remedy the situation.
My friend Mr P. A. Nazeer, a retired civil servant himself, placed me in his debt by arranging for the entire MS to be retyped for the press.
Dr. M.R. Hilali of London, a former student and colleague, read some of the chapters and suggested many improvements. Parts of the manuscript were also read by Mr Abdul Hannan, Mr Ahmad Fariduddin and Mr Ahmadul Haque Khan of Rajshahi University. Their comments helped me to organise my ideas and their encouragement gave me the strenglh 10 continue.
Finally, 1 express my gratitude to the Institute of Islamic Thought, Bangladesh for agreeing to publish the book.
Syed Sajjad Husain
There are numerous works on comparative religion, anthropology, history and sociology from which Muslim students like others can derive knowledge about ancient cuits, but none or very few which tell them exactly where their own beliefs differ from theirs. There are subtle points of both similarity and divergence which it is not easy for the young to distinguish. Most of the books written by non-Muslims portray Islam as either a Christian heresy -this because of the man y affinities between the two faiths -or as a barbarous religion whose practices are indefensible on rational grounds. Scholars who find it possible to present the doctrines of incarnation and rebirth as perfectly valid philosophically do not hesitate to condemn Islam as a tissue of superstitions.
The greatest intellectual danger that the young Muslim faces . is the prevalent assumption that religion as become irrelevant. Educated Western man, whose representatives he encounters in the colleges and universities, professes a kind of agnosticism which is regarded as the hall mark of modernity. He is apt to conclude from this that religion has really ceased to count as a factor governing the world’s cultural climate. He too is tempted to adopt toward life an attitude which is a mixture of contempt for his predecessors and admiration for what he believes to be the products of secular culture. This frequently leads him to be fascinated and puzzled by an artistic or scientific achievement in modern times and to imagine that their creators belong to a much superior cultural background. Finding Islam under attack on every front, either in open denunciations or in subtle innuendoes, he learns to be apologetic about it when he does not feel ashamed of it.
Now the idea that religion has ceased to matter is one of those myths which can circulate only because it is not ehallenged olten enough. The seeularism of the West for instance is found on analysis to be only a veneer disguising attitudes which can be traced to religious faith. To give a conerete example, the Islamie law whieh permits limited polygamy is ridiculed as a relie of barbarism but adultery which means unlimited polygamy in practice is widely accepted as an integral feature of civilised life. If a person tried to take a second wife anywhere in the Western world he is bound to be charged with bigamy and jailed, but the same man can live in sin with as many as he likes. This is not thought to be iIIogical.
We often hear Christian values being defended, even by people who describe themselves as agnostics, on the ground that these values are universal. There is no doubt that sorne of them are universal, but the suggestion that the history of Christianity has always been a history of enlightened ideas in opposition to Islam’s alleged backwardness conceals its mediaeval past wh en it perpetrated in the name of religion sorne of the most hideous barbarities of which the world has any record. Islam has no tradition of witch burning; it never recommended the breaking of the bon es of heretics on wheels, nor any ordeal by fire to test men’s faith. A modern Christian who persona”y recoils from these horrors introduces himself as the representative of a superior tradition. Similarly, in the Indian subcontinent the personal literary or artistic achievements of a man or woman belonging to a pagan cult lead the Muslims sometimes to suppose that paganism itself must be something of greater value than their own monotheism.
There are those among Muslims who imagine that the best insu rance against this kind of risk is to shut one’s mind off an refuse to take notice of others. This is not only not possible but may expose a young Muslim so insulated to greater danger. If he is encouraged to inhabit an ivory tower of ignorance, the moment he is thrown into contact with outsiders, his defences collapse. Insulation is made impossible also by the fact that there is hardly any country or society which can today be totally independent of others. And for Muslims living in countries dominated demographically by non-Muslim populations the question of insulation does not arise at ail. In the classroom, in business houses, in the market place, on trains, buses and aeroplanes, the Muslims have to mingle with people who profess different faiths and subscribe to different cultural values. They have to deal with them, listen to them and read what they write.
The general backwardness of Muslims in sorne countries (in most cases economic, in others cultural) is one important reason why a feeling of inferiority is often a Muslim’s response when he confronts someone who seems to represent a more advanced culture, or a more prosperous level of economic wellbeing. He may despair of being able to extricate himself from this backwardness except by accepting wholesale the ways of those who appear so far ahead of him. This is a common phenomenon in Western countries with Muslim minorities.
The real antidote is knowledge at first-hand of the history and culture of those the Muslims encounter and of his own culture and faith. What led me to undertake to write this book is the idea that an analysis of non-Muslim faiths in a Muslim perspective might be of use to many young students. My purpose is not to provide exhaustive surveys, but to offer an examination of facts central to each of them from the angle of a . Muslim. 1 have tried to be objective, but not to pretend that 1 am a neutral observer, 1 have refrained as far as possible from unsympathetic criticism. Facts, 1 thought, must be set forth as
lucidly as practicable and allowed to speak for themselves. But 1 write from the point of view of a man belonging to the twentieth century who while fully attached to Islam does not think that nothing outside of Islam could be of any importance. Many of the real Islamic values, especially the emphasis on knowledge as the key to salvation, find greater adherents outside Islam today than within it.
The book deals with ail principal religions, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and some minor religious groups such as the Sikhs in India and Jains. 1 have attempted a discussion on the attitude to religion in the modern West and sought an answer to the question whether the West is really irreligious. My thesis throughout is that deeply ingrained religious attitudes are almost impossible to overcome. Even when a man tried consciously to transcend customary religious habits, beliefs assimilated over many generations cannot be shaken off; they assume new disguises and are presented in a new context as rational deductions from experience. 1 have already cited the Western attitude to polygamous marriage. Dietary laws are another instance.
Muslims are often dismissed as reactionary because of their abhorrence of pork, but few in the West would go as far as the Chinese or Japanese or Koreans who have a taste for canine flesh. Nor would they eat python or snake or monkey, which sorne ethnic groups regard as perfectly edible. The irreligious cosmopolitanism of the West is thus a limited enfranchisement from ancient prejudice, and the persen who objects to OOg meat has really no justification for criticising the Muslims for their avoidance of pork.
A Muslim who kept his eyes and ears open would likely be struck by a double standard applied in the evaluation of Muslim and non-Muslim behaviour. The Jews avoid pork with the same scrupulousness as the Muslims. They observe dietary laws which are called kosher rules with a punctiliousness which few Muslims could beat. On most Western airlines, kosher food is available. But seldom are the Jews criticised for adhering to a religious code so strictly. What, therefore, passes for irreproachable conduct among the Jews earns the condemnation. of Western observers as an instance of obscurantism among the Muslims.
Instances of this kind can be multiplied almost ad infinitum. To give one more example, Muslims have the reputation or notoriety of being intolerant, despite the fact that the Ouran specifically commands them to regard Jesus and Moses both as God’s prophets, and it is part of a Muslim’s belief that Islam rests on foundations laid by the earlier prophets. To show any disrespect toward them is to commit a sin by defying the Ouran itself. Yet strangely, it is they who are believed to be intolerant, not those who summarily reject Islam’s right to exist as a faith. The most supposedly fanatical of Indian emperors, Aurangzeb, paid for the construction and maintenance of temples, but there is no instance on record of any Hindu or Christian ruler’s sanctioning money for a mosque.
My purpose in this book has not been to refute this and other charges against Islam directly but to give a young educated Muslim an idea of the religious attitudes and beliefs, either open or concealed, of those whom he will encounter in his life.
There are two ways in which a Muslim reacts to non-Muslim societies. Either he develops an inferiority complex when confronted with evidence of a superior material culture, or he seeks refuge in the theory that ail infidels must necessarily be condemned as a group from whom we have nothing to learn. There are extremists who go to the length of asserting that Western science and technology like everything else from the West must be discarded or Islamised, an assertion which evokes a welcome from those who see the West as the source of such evils as colonialism and imperialism. The distinction between what is really evil in the West and what is really a continuation of that quest for knowledge of which Islam in the Middle Ages was the principal champion is in this emotional outburst totally blurred. To reject knowledge, whatever its source, is to repudiate one of the vital principles enunciated by Islam itself. But only those who know what is real knowledge and what is a smoke-screen of non Islamic values can borrow without losing their sense of identity.
It is easy indeed to condemn modern science and technology in vague and abstract terms by associating every modern evil with them. But the equating of evil with science and technology rests on false premises which only an appeal to the concrete can expose. The advocates of a total boycott of modern civilisation refuse to descend to the concrete or examine the contradictions in their own conduct.
Of ail the religious systems current in the present day world, Islam goes furthest in its assertion that renunciation is no answer to any problem, and that life needs to be organised in accordance with a code which makes a clear distinction between good and evil instead of confusing them philosophically. The theory that good and evil are both appearances and that reality embraces both is used in many societies to justify what in human terms is positively evil, Pain and pleasure, for instance, may in a sense be illusory, but the Muslim code would not. on that account let you inflict pain, nor would any other code. It is here that the Shariah of a Muslim insists on realism and opposes vague philosophical quibblings. The Shariah’s prescriptions vague philosophical quibblings. The Shariah’s prescriptions are often criticised by outsiders as so many restrictions on freedom, but as soon as a Muslim compares what passes for freedom in certain societies with the kind of security from anarchy that the Shariah offers he should have no problem shaking off the feeling that he belongs to a backward culture.
1 have devoted more space to Christianity and Hinduism than to others, because it seems to me that Christians and Hindus constitute a majority among those whom the Muslim encounters, Christians almost everywhere and Hindus in India and Bangladesh.
Buddhism presents some difficulties. It has a history independent of Hinduism but like Jainism it shares a common approach to life with Hinduism, or so it seems to a Muslim. The doctrines of rebirth and Karma are as integral to it as to Hinduism, and this completely outweighs the absence of a Supreme Deity in Buddhism. Basides in Mahayana Buddhism the Buddha has for ail practical purposes been elevated to the status of God.
The most puzzling phenomenon is the way the Chinese and Japanese have built the edifice of their ethical life on foundations which eschew convention al religion. Neither Confucianism and Taoism in China nor Shintoism in Japan are religions in the sense in which we are accustomed to understand the word. Yet it is impossible to categorise either country as irreligious. Communist repression has not succeeded in effacing from Chinese life the influence of Confucianism and Taoism. With them have mingled Christian, Islamic and other traditions, and the outlook of a Chinese is impossible to grasp without reference to ail these creeds. Japan similarly continues its attachment to sorne forms of Shintoism at the same time that many Japanese profess Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and even Islam.
The last chapter calls for an explanation. It deals with ancient cuits long dead. 1 include a discussion on them from the feeling that although these cuits are extinct and have no adherents, they have not ceased to count as a layer in the subconscious of many peoples. Besides, they, at least sorne of them, evidence an evolution in the growth of ethics and religion which needs to be reckoned with. Actually, as anthropology warns us, nothing in the history of religion is wholly superannuated. What is discarded survives as a dimly perceptible aura. Again from this point of view Islam’s theory of religious history is undoubtedly the best guide to the appreciation of the truth. Islam disclaims any title to being something new and original; it is the last in a line. The Quranic statement that no people has been without a religious guide has wide implications.
Modern anthropology and psychoanalysis have brought to light many facets of human emotion and sensibility which in ancient myths were given colourful names. It is not without significance that such terms as Narcissism and the Oedipus complex, to mention an example, derive from tales which for ages amused us as fictions but now appear in the light of modern interpretations to have meanings previously unsuspected. Whether we accept those interpretations as totally correct or not, it can no longer be denied that primitive man with-his love of the concrete often c10thed his reactions to his environ ment, human as weil as natural, in the language of stories about sUp’ernatural gods and spirits. We have left the stories behind, but we retain basically the same emotions and sensibilities, as members of the human race. This underscores the necessity of taking myths into account as a clue to many supposedly modern attitudes.
1 have of course limited myself to those myths which are concerned with religion, or to put it differently, discussed those aspects of myths which help towards a clearer understanding of the sources of religion and ethics.
The book is aimed at the general reader, not at the specialist who naturally will look for more exhaustive and detailed analysis, and for more information. It is also as an average Muslim that 1 have written. 1 am not a theologian nor am 1 a trained anthropologist. 1 felt that the way in which an average Muslim with some education judges matters might prove of greater interest to students in modern universities than the views of a theologian who might interpret things with greater precision but display a greater degree of rigidity in his outlook or those of an anthropologist who may have lost his faith in religion altogether. What 1 have attacked is the impression that anybody is really irreligious. It is that impression which misleads Muslim students in college and university in daily contact with people who seem to be indifferent to religious values.