The Unity of Islam
I have a unique way of meeting people who don’t know anything about me. It often goes something like this: “Well, hi Maria, nice to meet you.” “You, too.” “So, what do you do?” “Oh, I’m a grad student.” (stalling…) “Where?” “Oh, at this small school up in Pasadena called Fuller.” (still stalling…) “What are you studying?” (Here it comes…) “I’m studying theology.” (Ok, there, is that enough?) “What type of theology? Do you study all religions?” “Umm, no, just Christian theology. Although there are some classes on World Religions…”
Given the number of times I’m had that conversation (which, I admit, I always make more awkward than it needs to be), I was starting to feel convicted that I had never studied anything but Christian theology. How could I go through three years at seminary and come out not knowing the basics of other major world religions? What did that mean for my desire to understand people outside of my own faith? Or the knowledge that comes from understanding how Christianity fits into the tapestry of world religions and beliefs? If I care about people outside of my own faith, shouldn’t I know the basics of their story? And if I’m serious about Christianity, shouldn’t I know how it converses with other religions?
This summer I finally got around to taking a world religions course, and am studying Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I just finished reading a short introduction to Islam, called Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and was drawn into the beauty, devotion, and richness of the religion. One thing that captured me was the focus on unity within Islam, both the unity of God and the unity of living in relation to that God.
The core testimony and belief of Islam is twofold: there is “no god but God” and “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”. The testimony of no god but God places the core truth of Islam on the unity of God. According to Nasr, the very reason for being of Islam is to assert the Oneness of God. There is only one God, one divine, and before God everything else is nothing. Other names for God, the “Divine Principle”, the “Unity”, the “One”, also attest to the unity of God.
Although many in the West may think Islam began with the testimony of the prophet Muhammad, Islam believes that it is a universal and primordial religion, where the Prophet simply asserted the truth that always was. Therefore, Muslims believe Islam is an eternal religion. This idea allows all truths and prophecies proclaimed before the revelation of the Prophet to be integrated into the truth of Islam (as long as they conformed to the principle of Unity). In this way, Islam moves towards uniting truth and the traditions of all the prophets that came before it, including Abraham and Christ.
Islam also moves towards unity across people groups and nations. Muslims are found all around the world, but the principle of ummah unites them all. The ummah is the totality of Muslims around the world, and one’s religious identity, or inclusion in the ummah, overrides all linguistic, ethnic, and national identities. Muslims may often be pitted against each other, but they find solidarity around the Divine Principle, the message of the Quran, and love for the Prophet, and their inclusion in the ummah.
The Divine Principle, God is one and all things rely upon God, creates the greatest unity within Islam. Nasr shows that Islam does not create a sacred-secular divide but sees “every human thought and action must be ultimately related to the Divine Principle,” and therefore everything is sacred. Religion covers both private and public aspects of life, and reminds humans of the sacred reality of the Divine Principle giving life and meaning to all things. Islam is a total way of life, a way of organizing one’s spirituality and prayers, but also one’s family, economic life, politics, and practices. In the West where it is so easy to privatize faith, Islam shows a different role of religion in one’s life:
Islam cannot accept a human world in which religion is irrelevant. It can understand perfectly what it means to rebel against God and His prophets and has a fully developed doctrine concerning the nature of evil, the trails and tribulations of the life of faith, the dangers of unbelief, and the consequences of being responsible, as a being endowed with freedom to choose before God. But the idea of humanity without religion as normal and a world in which the being or nonbeing of God is irrelevant and inconsequential as acceptable are totally rejected by Isalm, which sees religion as the sin qua non of human life. Indeed, it is a human being’s relation to the Absolute, whatever that relation might be, that determines his or relation [to everything else].
In Islam, you cannot avoid religion any more than you can avoid breathing. Everything is religious. Everything is sacred. Because everything is connected to the Divine Principle. So every area of life and society falls under the sacred.
There is much much more to be said about Islam, and I know my own grasp of Islam falls pitifully short (one 200 page book does not get you far) but there is also something beautiful and profound that Nasr showed me within Islam, and that is the idea that in a world of divisions, of public vs. private, of secular vs. sacred, of religion vs. country, that God may just be bigger that all of that, that God may not make those distinctions, that the Sacred may just blow right past the barriers we put up, because God cannot be contained to the boxes we put God in, and everything is sacred.