The First English Journal on Traditional Studies — established 1963
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Universal dimensions of Islam : studies in comparative religion / edited
by Patrick Laude.
p. cm. --(Studies in comparative religion)
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-1-935493-57-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Islam--Universality. 2. Islam--Relations. 3. God (Islam)--Attributes. I. Laude, Patrick,
Printed on acid-free paper in USA.
For information address World Wisdom, Inc.
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Universal Dimensions of Islam
One of the fundamental problems of our contemporary world has been judiciously referred to as a “clash of the uncivilized.”1 This conflict has been particularly acute in the encounter between certain mainstream elements of the secular West—with which one must aggregate, at least outwardly, a few zones of resilient Christian identity and emerging neo-Christian cultures—and some of the most visible contemporary expressions of people and societies for whom Islam is the predominant principle of collective identity. In the West, one of the praiseworthy responses to such tensions and oppositions has come from those who have called for a better “understanding” of Islam. Here, understanding is not meant to refer to a full acceptance, but to a sufficient grasp of the inner and outer “logic” of Islam, as well as to a degree of recognition of its spiritual and moral values. Perhaps paradoxically to some, such a capacity to understand others presupposes an inner attitude which has everything to do with the degree to which one has assimilated the core principles of one’s own civilization. This holds true, needless to say, on any side of the civilizational “divide.” There is no civilization formed by the sacred that does not ultimately lead its most discerning representatives to perceive in some measure the relativity of its own exclusiveness, at least in petto. To this extent, to be “civilized” amounts almost as much to recognizing the intelligence and beauty of other civilizations as it is to fathom the foundations of one’s own; the latter being, in fact, the precondition, if not the guarantee, for the former.
The writings collected in this volume make the case for a vision of Islam as a religion and civilization intrinsically equipped to address universal human predicaments, and converging thereby with the highest spiritual expressions of all authentic religious heritages. They point to fundamental “universals” of Islam, such as the doctrine of Unity and “unification” (tawhīd), the essentialness of Divine Mercy, the inclusive and integrative nature of the Muslim concept of prophecy, the Islamic ability to assimilate various cultural and ethnic languages, and the capacity of Islamic mysticism to serve as a spiritual bridge between diverse religions. They include now classic essays by “founding fathers” of the Perennial Philosophy, testimonies from spiritual figures of Sufism, and contemporary studies of Islam and Sufism by experts and younger scholars of religion. Finally, as the universal language par excellence, poetry could not but be included in this volume.
* * *
The universal dimensions of Islam refer to the dimension of breadth as well as depth. They pertain to both form and essence.
On the level of form, there is to our mind no better way of pointing out this universality than by quoting Schuon’s assertions that “Islam . . . has given a religious form to that which constitutes the essence [“substance” in the original French] of all religion”2 and that “Islam . . . aims to teach only what every religion essentially teaches; it is like a diagram of every possible religion.”3 The simplicity of the form renders it accessible to any man or woman, and therefore potentially to all of mankind. It speaks to all capacities and levels of understanding. It also allows for its manifestation through diverse cultural contexts, from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans to India and China.
From another point of view—notwithstanding the expansive potentiality of Islam’s schema-like form—other aspects of its form have placed limits on Islamic expansion. This is particularly true when referring to the Bedouin and Arab cladding, as it were, of the message. Such a cladding is not the best means of “exporting” Islam, as it enters into conflict with psychological and cultural traits predetermined by other civilizational “logics”. Be that as it may, this twofold aspect of the Islamic form may correspond to the distinction, on the one hand, between form as an expression of divine essence, or “archetypal form,” and, on the other hand, form as a providential but necessarily exclusive clothing of human culture.
On the level of the essence of the message, the principal element of Islam’s universality undoubtedly lies in its doctrine of Unity, understood either from an exoteric or esoteric perspective. From an exoteric standpoint, the universality of Islam is to be found, in a sense, in the aforementioned “schematic” aspect of its affirmation of one supreme God as opposed to many divine manifestations. The Qur’ān and the traditional teachings and interpretations of its message have shown the way of universality through the affirmation of a metaphysics of the Unity of Divine Reality and through the corresponding affirmation of a divine recognition of other traditional faiths. They have done so to the extent that it is possible within the context of a religion, that is to say, within an exclusive belief system. Esoterically, tawhīd opens onto the metaphysics of essential Unity, which the various spiritual and traditional languages couch in so many “syntaxes,” either affirmatively or apophatically, objectively or subjectively, doctrinally or methodically.
Thus, Islam arrives at the religious paradox of founding the providential legitimacy of its own exclusiveness on the very principle of its overall inclusiveness; a paradox that lies at the core of the unity of Islam, while being the source of its diversity throughout all times and places.