Key perspectives: religion as a human system; need for a balanced approach
“We shall make it a main part of our work to place Mohammed and Islam in a new light before our readers, to spread juster views of Mohammedan history and civilization.”
One of the great harms done by the present spectacle of jihadic terrorism, apart from its external acts of violence, is that it has tarnished the image of a great religion which has given birth to splendid civilizations and cultures. And these Islamic civilizations have made important contributions to human progress. If the genius and potentialities which gave birth to these great Islamic civilizations and their achievements, can again be revived and properly nurtured in the light of a futuristic vision, they can make equally important contributions to the future progress of humanity. This is the purpose of the present study; its objective is two fold: first to understand and appreciate the achievements and contributions of a great civilization and culture; second to understand the role, significance and the future of Islam in an evolutionary spiritual perspective
Religion as a Human System
We look with horror at the bloody face presented by Osama’s Islam and tend to condemn the whole religion and civilization of Islam as a violent creed. Most of the popular conceptions of Islam, especially in the west after the 9/11 disasters, belong perhaps to this category. On the other hand, cultured and educated Hindu, in India, who is well versed and proud of the glorious spiritual traditions of his religions, seeing the exoteric Islam from the high pedestal of the spiritual and intellectual loftiness of his own religion, tends to look down upon it with a superior smile. But such negative attitudes to other religions and civilization based on their present condition create inseparable mental barriers for the “confluence of civilization” of which some people are now talking about.
But such a confluence can come not by talking about it but by a genuine mutual understanding among cultures. Sri Aurobindo, writing on the problem of Hindu-Muslim unity, in India, said “We shall make it a main part of our work to place Mohammad and Islam in a new light before our readers, to spread juster view of Mohammedan history and civilization.”(1) There is a real need at present for such an attempt, to know and preset the deeper and beautiful side of Islam but without ignoring whatever imperfections which have crept into the religion. For, we must keep in mind that no human system can be entirely perfect because as long as we, human beings, are imperfect all our creations will have the stamp of our human imperfection. Religions may claim divine origin and perfection. But the divine message reveals and expresses itself through human instrument and no human instrument, even the best and the noblest, is entirely perfect.
The perfection of the individual and the collectivity are interdependent. A spiritually evolved individual who is in a higher level of consciousness than that of the communal mass can uplift the collectivity by his thoughts, words and deeds. On the other hand, when an individual reaches a level of perfection which is very far above and beyond the present evolutionary condition of the community, then he or she becomes inwardly remote and inaccessible to the people around him and therefore will not be of much help them. So the divine revelation adjusts itself to the present inner and outer condition of the community.
Each civilization, culture, community or epoch of human history or evolution, gets a moral or spiritual revelation which is not remote to its understanding and capacity and through an individual who represents the levels of perfection which the people around him can understand and live.
But the spiritual ideal brought down by the Prophet and the Avatar is lived or realized only by a few close disciples. And when the message begins to spread itself through the masses there is an increasing dilution and distortion of the message. Nevertheless, through this process of diffusion the spiritual ideal becomes accessible to a larger number of people and gets established in the mental atmosphere of the planet; it acts silently behind the veil in the mass mind and more and more people are touched by the ideal in the mind or heart. So inspite of the dilution and distortion, some work is done for the evolutionary progress of humanity.
The Need for a Balanced Approach:
So what we need today is a balanced appreciation of Islam. For example, closer home in Indian history, Islamic rule has a positive as well as a negative side. The negative side represented by Ghazni Mohammad was, as Will Durant, describes “one of the bloodies stories in history”. No amount of secular brain washing can hide this fact from the discerning and unbiased student of history. But there is also the other side of Islam, represented by Akbar. Sri Aurobindo, referring to this positive side of Islamic rule in Mughal India says:
“The Mughal Empire was a great and magnificent construction and an immense amount of political genius and talent was employed in its creation and maintenance. It was as splendid, powerful and beneficent and it may be added, inspite of Aurangazeb’s fanatical zeal, infinitely more liberal and tolerant in religion than any medieval or contemporary European kingdom or empire and India under its rule stood high in military and political strength, economic opulence and the brilliance of its art and culture.” (2)
Similarly the eminent Indian historian R.C. Majumdar, says regarding the Mughal empire in India:
“—India during the period enjoyed a proverbial reputation for wealth and splendour and attracted a large number of visitors from Europe—-(3)
But not only the Mughal India, but also in other parts of the world like Turkey, Spain, Persia where Islam entered and conquered, it fostered equally splendid civilizations and advanced cultures. The scholars of Islam and keen students of history are aware of the greatness and achievements of the premodern Islamic civilizations and cultures. But for the majority of non-muslims who look at the present condition of Islam, and who are not aware of its past history, there seems to be a mental block for a just appreciation of Islam. So we have to look at Islam with a broader view and a more sympathetic understanding. Such an appreciation and sympathy for Islam is not entirely lacking among non-muslims. But the problem here is the motive behind such sympathies. As the Islamic scholar Daniel Pipes, describing some of the dubious motives behind the adulation of Islam, states:
“Islam has won self-serving support for two types of Westerners. The first group uses it as a vehicle to attack its own society; for people who feel ill at ease in the West, embracing Islam serves as a way to change allegiance and to reject the world they grew up.—The second group of apologists, more recent but far more influential today promotes Islam for profit. Praise for Islam often translates into better access to research materials for professors, funds for administrators, visas for journalists, vote at the UN for diplomats and trade opportunities for businessmen. Incentives for Islamphilia have multiplied many times with the coming of the oil boom and the huge increase in disposable incomes available to Muslims.”(4)
There are also other motives for “Islamophilia”. In India politicians pamper the Muslims and the Islam for the large vote-bank. In the present Indian journalistic and intellectual climate, Hindu-baiting and Islam-patting has become a fashionable pastime and a means to display one’s secular credentials. Or else, I may sympathise with Islam out of a patronizing ego. When I symphathise with someone who has been the object of hostile criticism of a majority of people, I feel a sense of moral superiority, congratulating myself for my offbeat magnanimity and tolerance. I may also indulge in sympathy out of a sloppy goody-goodyness, feeling a sentimental pride in looking at the “positive side” of things. To see the beauty and goodness in everything is a great attitude and discipline very much helpful for our inner growth, but it must be done without glossing over or ignoring the darkness or distortions.
So none of these attitudes or motives will lead to a better understanding of Islam. What is needed at present is a balanced approach to the achievements and failures of Islam. To do this we have to get behind the present condition of Islam to its past achievements, which gives an indication of its potentialities, which can be recovered in the future. We should also examine the root causes behind the failures of Islam which may provide important corrective lessons for the future evolution of Islam.
- Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, vol.2, 24.
- Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, vol.14, 378-79
- The History and Culture of Indian People Ed. R.C. Majumdar, Vol.VII, Preface, p.XV
- Daniel Pipes, In Search of God, Islam and Political Power, pp.14