The Islamic Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective-I-M.S. Srinivasan

The aspiration of the deeper soul or the spiritual dimension of a civilization manifests outwardly through its Religion.  In general, this deeper aspiration of the soul of a civilization manifests more markedly in that part or faculties of its consciousness, which are more developed or refined than others.  For example, if the intellectual or aesthetic faculties of a civilization are more developed than the deeper emotional and intuitive faculties, like the ancient Greece, then this higher aspiration of soul may express itself more through philosophy or art rather than through religion.  But in all civilizations, which have a strong and well-developed religious sense, it is religion and spirituality, which express the highest aspiration of its soul.  The religion of Islam like, all Semitic religions is the religion of a Book and a Prophet.  In Islam, Book is the Koran and the Prophet is Muhammad.  This article examines Islamic religion in an evolutionary perspective.

Religion of the Koran

Muslims consider Koran to be the Word of God revealed to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.  The devout Muslim venerates Koran not only as the heart of religion but also as the source of all philosophy, science and wisdom.  The other scriptural sources of Islam are the Hadis, which was a chronicle of the ministry of Muhammad and Sharia, the Islamic law.

The main contribution of the religion of Koran to the religious evolution of the world is a clear and inspired formulation of Monotheism.  The Koran or Islam may not be the first to invent monotheism.  In fact there was an element of monism or monotheism, open or veiled, dominant or subordinate in all great religions.  We can even say that all great religions are in essence monistic or monotheistic; whatever may be its outer forms of worship.  There was even an attempt towards monotheism in the pre-Islamic Arabia.  As Encyclopedia Britannica points out “Southern Arabia by the end of the 4th century had abandoned its ancient polytheism in favour of a monotheistic cult of a supreme deity under the name of Rahman, the Merciful.”  But in other religions, the idea of the Oneness of God remains veiled or vague behind the coexistence of other polytheistic conceptions like the trinity of Christianity or the many gods of Hinduism.  In a predominantly intuitive religion like Hinduism, with its profound spiritual tradition the monistic idea of the Oneness of God was so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the masses, that even the most unlettered villager worshipping his village deity knows that the god he is adoring is only a name and for of the supreme Being.  But still, the idea of one God remains more in the background rather than in the front.  Among the great scriptures of the world, only in Koran, the monotheistic idea of the one Gods comes to the front with an unambiguous clarity, uncompromising insistence and with such an awe-inspiring force.  Here are a few verses from the Koran, however diminished through translation, bring out the power of the scripture:

“Your God is one God

There is no deity save Him

The All-merciful, All-compassionate”                                                      (2:163)

“Say: O People of the Book

Seek out the common ground

between us and you

That we shall worship none but God

And that we shall not ascribe

divinity to anything beside

Him,

And that we shall not take human beings for

Our lords beside God.”                                                                        (3:64)

“Allah: there is no

deity save Him

The Living, the Everlasting

Slumber seize Him not, neither

Sleep;

To Him belongs all that

is in the heavens and the

earth

Who is there that shall

intercede with Him save  by His leave

He knows what lies before and behind

all people

They can comprehend only that part

Of His knowledge which He wills

His Throne extends over heaven and

earth

The preserving of them does not weary

Him

He is the All-high, the All-glorious”                                                      (2,255)

Thus the Allah of the Koran is not a sectarian God of the Muslims.  He is the One Godhead, the Incomparable who shares His divinity with no other God or man; Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of the Universe and the Master of Earth and Heaven; All-knowing, Al-mighty and Omni-present and the Lord of last Judgement; Merciful and the Compassionate; Transcendent beyond all worlds but at the same sufficiently near to man to respond to human aspiration and prayer.  All these divine attributes are conveyed in a language and imagery, which are at once simple, direct and inspired without complicated philosophical terms or esoteric symbolism.

The tone of Koran rings with two distinct but complementary notes.  On the side of God, the emphasis is on His all knowing and Almighty omnipotence, His mercy and compassion and His responsiveness to sincere prayer.  On the side of man, the emphasis is on righteous living and total submission to His Will.  As Saniyasanian Khan points out in the introduction to his excellent compilation of selected verses from Koran:

“When Muslim prays using the physical movement of their bodies, they acknowledge certain things.  Firstly, as they stand quietly before Allah, shutting out the ‘world’, they are realizing their absolute helplessness and insignificance in the light of their Creator’s Presence and they are overwhelmed with the need to ask forgiveness for their shortcomings that took place in those moments when they are not aware.  Then in humility they bow as they draw closer to consciousness of that Great Being’s almightiness and power.  Then as they feel the Divine Love and Compassion flood their souls, the kneel their faces on the earth, and love Him in response.”

The ethical demand of Koran on the believer is high and lofty.  The moral teachings of Koran ask for humility, charity, truthfulness, chastity, sincerity, faith and above all surrender to God.  The following verse sums up the ethical and religious discipline of Koran:

“Men and women who have surrendered

believing men and believing women

obedient men and obedient women

truthful men and truthful women

enduring men and enduring women

humble men and humble women

men and women who give in charity

men who fast and women who fast

men and women who guard their chastity

men and women who are ever mindful of God,

On them God will bestow forgiveness and a rich reward.             (33:35)

But Koran is not entirely the teaching of exoteric or dualistic religion.  There are passages in Koran, which can be the basis of a monistic, mystical and interior religion.  The well-known chant of Koran “la-ilahi-illallah” can be translated or interpreted either in the traditional sense as “there is no god except Allah” or as some Sufis do, in a monistic sense, as “there is nothing else except Allah”.  There are also other passages in the Koran, which come very close to suggesting a mystical monism like for example “wherever ye turn there is the face of God” (2,115) or “He is the first and the last and the outwardly hidden”. (57:3) The nearness and the immanence of God in man is so strikingly conveyed in the koranic verse:  “We (God) are near to him (man) than his jugular vein” (50:16).  There are also passages in Koran which stresses on inner sincerity and right inner attitudes and condemns mere outer piety, like for example: “God will not call you to account for oaths which you may have uttered without thought but will take you to task for the intention in your hearts”. (2:225)  “Do you ask other people to behave rightly while forgetting to do it yourself, even though you recite the holy words (2:43:44).”

But it has to be admitted that Koran contains some aggressive verses which calls for a violent jihad against the unbeliever and the idolater like for example “fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religions reigns supreme”(2, 193).  “Lay hold of him and bind him and burn him in the fire of hell” (8, 39).  “Cast terror into the heart of the infidel.  Strike off their heads maim them in every limb”.  These verses combined with a near exclusive stress on a single conception of divinity were perhaps the origin of that fanatical, intolerant and aggressive streak in Islam, which still remains as a source of much violence, and conflict in the world.  However, such aggressive verses remain incongruous and out-of-sync in a scripture, which as a whole chants the sublime song of the One Godhead who is the merciful, compassionate and almighty Father of humanity and the universe.  In a balanced perspective it is necessary to take note of and point out the dark spots without glossing over it.  But it is not helpful to dwell on them.  Our emphasis should be on things that divide or debases humanity but on the factors which unites and elevates.

 Contributions of Koranic Religion

This brings us the contribution of Koranic Religion to the evolution of the religion.   The Koranic Religion has helped in the ethical and religious of evolution of a large mass of people to progress from a primitive or tribal religion made of worship of nature-powers or local gods or a narrow anthromorphic personal god for narrow earthly aims, to a wider, more universal and impersonal idea of the One Godhead who is the creator, sustainer of the Universe and a higher ethical awareness.  But the flip-side of it is that a too exclusive insistence on a single religious concept like monotheism tends to create in the human mind intolerance or hostility towards other equally valid religious experiences and conceptions like monism or polytheism or pantheism.  But a spiritual revelation like Koran spontaneously adopts itself to the evolutionary needs of the time and place and the people.  Perhaps such an exclusive insistence on a single idea may be necessary for the evolution of the community or the humanity of the time and place in which the Koran was revealed.

Sometimes in order to uplift a community to a new or higher ideal, its attachment to other or lower ideals, even though they are equally valid has to be broken.  An intuitive spiritual synthesis of all these apparently contradictory religious conceptions is possible and has been achieved.  Such a synthesis is the foundation of Indian religion and spirituality especially Hinduism.  Indian seers perceived that all these religious experiences and conceptions are in their origin and essence correspond to various “aspects” or complementing spiritual truths of the One Divine Reality.  In the spiritual quest of seers, saints and sages of the world, each of these aspects of the divine reality has given birth to a distinct spiritual experience and realization.  In the highest and the most comprehensive spiritual intuition, all these various conceptions experiences and intuition of the divinity is seen as the reflections in the human mind of the different poises of a supreme Reality, which at once transcends and reconciles them in Its Unthinkable Mystery.

However, very few individuals, communities or civilization possess this higher intuition or a spiritual synthesis.  In some civilizations like the Indian, because of its long-established spiritual traditions, even the masses have a certain inborn spiritual instinct to perceive vaguely the higher ideal.  But in general, the average religious mind in the mass has to be gradually led from the lower to higher conceptions, sometimes stressing exclusively on a single conception.  So, when we examine the spiritual history of humanity, we will find that each spiritual teaching or revelation delivered through a prophet gives only that much of the spiritual truth which the humanity of the time and place can understand and assimilate.  As the human consciousness progresses in the course of evolution it will receive more and more comprehensive revelation of the divine Mystery.  But, our human mind clings to each revelation as if it is the final and the whole truth.  As the modern Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan points out in his book on Sufism “—messages differ from one another in their outer appearance, each message being given in accordance with the age of man’s evolution and also in order to add a particular part in the course of divine wisdom” and says elsewhere in the same book “—clinging to the personality of their particular teacher, claiming for him superiority over other teachers and degrading a teacher held in same esteem by others, that people have separated themselves from one another and caused most of the wars and factions and contentions which history records among the children of God.”

So, the Koranic religion has helped a large mass of humanity to raise from a primitive polytheism or anthromorphism to a higher religious conception of monotheism.  But if we cling to this ideal as the highest, then it will prevent our further evolution to a higher synthesis of Unity in Diversity.  In this higher synthesis the Divine Oneness expresses itself indivisibly and through a multitude of names and forms, beings, forces and energies, aspects, poises and paths, culminating in the perception there are numberless ways of viewing, approaching and realizing God and ultimately each individual has his or her own unique way of reaching the divine goal.  Similarly Koranic religion has helped a large mass of humanity to raise from a purely earthly and materialistic ethics to higher level of ethical idealism and discipline.  However, the goal of the religious and ethical discipline of Koran seems to be a more or less sensuous paradise after death, where the soul will enjoy all the earthly pleasures but in a much more refined and magnified form.  Here again, this conception may help in the religious and ethical evolution of primitive and underdeveloped souls towards a higher ethical discipline by luring them with a sensuous paradise.  For every human being begins his evolution as a physical man engrossed in his immediate material and sensuous needs of his body.  In order to prod him to progress further, he has to be lured to seek for something higher than his immediate earthly needs.  But at the same time, when clung to, it will prevent the evolution of the soul towards a higher religious and ethical consciousness.  For as long as the fear of hell and the lure of paradise remain as the motive force behind ethics or religion, it will prevent the flowering of a true and genuine ethical and religious consciousness. This higher evolution happens only when the higher values like Truth, Goodness or God are sought for it sown sake and not for some earthly or heavenly rewards.

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