Metaphysics. Cosmology. Tradition. Symbolism studies in comparative religion

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1   The expression was coined by Zaid Shakir in the context of recent inter-cultural polemics, especially relating to Samuel Huntington’s claim of a so-called “clash of civilizations.”

2   Frithjof Schuon, Roots of the Human Condition, “Outline of the Islamic Message” (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2002), p. 81.

3   Frithjof Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, “Contours of the Spirit” (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007), p. 68.


Outline of the Islamic Message

Frithjof Schuon

The enigma of the lightning-like expansion of Islam and its adamantine stability lies in the fact that it has given a religious form to what constitutes the essence of all religion. It is in this sense that some Sufis have said that, being the terminal religion, Islam is ipso facto the synthesis of the preceding religions—the synthesis and thereby the archetype; terminality and primordiality rejoin.

On the surface of Islam, we find some features of the Bedouin mentality, which quite obviously have nothing universal about them; in the fundamental elements, however, we encounter as it were religion as such, which by its essentiality opens quite naturally onto metaphysics and gnosis.

All metaphysics is in fact contained in the Testimony of Faith (Shahādah), which is the pivot of Islam.1 Exoterically, this Testimony means that the creative Being alone is the Supreme Principle that determines everything; esoterically, it means in addition—or rather a priori—that only Beyond-Being is the intrinsic Absolute, since Being is the Absolute only in relation to Existence: this is the distinction between Ātmā and Māyā, which is the very substance of esoterism. “Neither I (the individual) nor Thou (the Divine Person), but He (the Essence)”: it is from this Sufi saying that the pronoun “He” has often been interpreted as meaning the impersonal Essence; and the same meaning has been attributed to the final breath of the Name Allāh.

After the Testimony of Faith comes Prayer (Salāt), in the order of the “Pillars of the Religion” (Arqān ad-Dīn): the human discourse addressed to the Divinity, which is of primary importance since we are beings endowed with intelligence,2 hence with speech; not to speak to God, yet to speak to men, amounts to denying God and His Lordship. The intention of primordiality, in Islam, is manifested by the fact that every man is his own priest; primordial man—or man in conformity with his profound nature—is a priest by definition; without priesthood, there is no human dignity. The meaning of prayer is to become aware—always anew—of total Reality, then of our situation in the face of this reality; hence to affirm the necessary relationships between man and God. Prayer is necessary, not because we do or do not possess a given spiritual quality, but because we are men.

The Testimony and Prayer are unconditional; Almsgiving (Zakāt) is conditional in the sense that it presupposes the presence of a human collectivity. On the one hand it is socially useful and even necessary; on the other hand it conveys the virtues of detachment and generosity, lacking which we are not “valid interlocutors” before God.

As for the Fast (Siyām)—practiced during Ramadan—it is necessary because asceticism, like sacrifice in general, is a fundamental possibility of human behavior in the face of the cosmic māyā; every man must resign himself to it to one degree or another. Indeed, every man, whether he likes it or not, experiences pleasure, and thus must also experience renunciation, since he chooses Heaven; to be man is to be capable of transcending oneself. At the same time, Islam is well aware of the rights of nature: all that is natural and normal, and lived without avidity and without excess, is compatible with the spiritual life and can even assume in it a positive function.3 Nobility is here the awareness of the archetypes, and above all the sense of the sacred; only he who knows how to renounce can enjoy nobly, and this is one of the meanings of the Fast.

*        *        *

Unlike the Testimony of Faith, the Prayer, the Fast, and to a certain extent Almsgiving, the Pilgrimage, and the Holy War are conditional: the Pilgrimage depends on our capacity to accomplish it, and the Holy War is obligatory only under certain circumstances. We need not take into consideration here the fact that every obligation of the religion—except for the Testimony—is conditional in the sense that there may always be insuperable obstacles; the Law never demands anything impossible or unreasonable.

The meaning of the Pilgrimage (Hajj) is the return to the origin, thus what is involved is a living affirmation of primordiality, of restoring contact with the original Benediction—Abrahamic in the case of Islam. But there is also, according to the Sufis, the Pilgrimage towards the heart: towards the immanent sanctuary, the divine kernel of the immortal soul.

In an analogous fashion, there is, along with the outer Holy War (Jihād), the “Greater Holy War” (al-Jihād al-akbar), that which man wages against his fallen and concupiscent soul; its weapon is fundamentally the “Remembrance of God” (Dhikru ’Llāh), but this combat presupposes nonetheless our moral effort. The all-embracing virtue of “poverty” (faqr) is conformity to the demands of the Divine Nature: namely effacement, patience, gratitude, generosity; and also, and even above all, resignation to the Will of God and trust in His Mercy. Be that as it may, the goal of the inner Holy War is perfect self-knowledge, beyond the veilings of passion; for “whoso knoweth his soul, knoweth his Lord”.

To return to the Testimony of Faith: to believe in God is to believe also in that which God has done and will do: it is to believe in the Creation, in the Prophets, in the Revelations, in the Afterlife, in the Angels, in the Last Judgment. And to believe is to acknowledge sincerely, drawing the consequences from what one believes; “belief obligates”, we could say. Whence the crucial importance, in the thought and sensibility of Islam, of the virtue of sincerity (sidq), which coincides with “right doing” (ihsān), whether it be a question of religious zeal or esoteric deepening.4 Theologically, one distinguishes faith (īmān), practice (islām), and their quality (ihsān), the “right doing”, precisely; and this right-doing, according to a Muhammadan saying, consists in “worshipping God as if thou seest Him; and if thou dost not see Him, He nonetheless seeth thee”.

Translated by Mark Perry

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