Understanding Islam

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a classic, written from the perspective of why Muslims believe in their faith.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780941532242
  • Publisher: World Wisdom
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Series: The Library of Traditional Wisdom
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 5.55 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Read an Excerpt

People often ask me: "Why do you like Islam?" and my regular answer is: “Because the Muslims take God seriously; they are aware that God the One is near us here and now, and yet cannot be described, either by intellectual or by supra-intellectual means but can be experienced by the pure and loving heart.

It is this aspect of Islam which is lucidly shown in Frithjof Schuon's work: God is The Reality, and to be a true Muslim means to believe in the reality of the Absolute and the dependence of all things on the Absolute. Religion, so he holds, ought to be treated as something sui generis, something that cannot be described in scholarly technical terms and whose goal is not to tackle social and political problems but rather to guide humankind to a spiritual level on which all problems are seen, and thus eventually solved, through man's faith in and reliance upon the eternal wisdom of the Creator—an idea difficult to understand, let alone to appreciate, for many modern people in whose world view no room is left for transcendence; and for whom—as the author remarks in passing—religion might "become the handmaid of industry." For the Muslim, however, God The Absolute has destined everything according to His eternal wisdom—“He will not be questioned as to what He does" (Qur'an, Sura XXI, 23) and "man chooses freely what God wills.”

These words remind the reader of the beautiful lines of the Indo-Muslim poet-philosopher Mohammad lqbal, who in one of his last poems tells a praying person that even though his prayer might not change his destiny, yet it can change his spiritual attitude by bringing him into touch with the Absolute Reality:

Your prayer is that your destiny be changed.
My prayer is that you yourself be changed.
This means that you accept willingly and lovingly whatever God has decreed.

As for the Qur'an, it is, as Schuon says, "a closed book," a book which, being divinely inspired has to be difficult and will not disclose the depths of its meaning to the superficial reader; rather, it has to be meditated upon and, as the mystics of yore used to say, has to be understood as if man were listening to God's own words, addressed to him at this very moment. This does not mean simply an intellectual understanding, but an "understanding with one's whole being." The divine threats and promises contained in the Qur'an are symbols for the equilibrium that exists in the entire universe, as all great religions have taught; this is a kind of "Golden Rule" which is at work throughout the created cosmos, because in God the One and Absolute both jamal—kindness, beauty, relief—and jalal—power, majesty, wrath—are contained (as Rudolf Otto spoke of the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinans). They manifest themselves in the twofold rhythm of life, be it the heartbeat or the breathing, the two poles in electricity, or simply the contrast of day and night. And yet, as the Islamic tradition states, God's mercy is greater than His wrath.

The Prophet of Islam, so often misunderstood in the West, represents in his "serenity, generosity, and strength…the human form oriented toward the Divine Essence," as the author states, and his role is visible in his place in the confession of faith, the twofold shahadah. The shahadah is the center of true Islam; it is the statement that "there is no deity save Allah" (which sacred Name embraces all that is), and that "Muhammad is His messenger." It is this confession of Absolute Divine Unity that makes a human being a Muslim. As for man's response to the Divine Presence, it is prayer; for to exist is to praise God. Sum ergo oro, "I am, therefore I pray," as Schuon changes the cogito ergo sum. Prayer is the activity of all that is created, and as the Qur'an asserts so beautifully: the birds with their wings and the flowers with their fragrance, the glaciers and the deserts—everything is created to glorify God, and man's noblest work is to join this chorus of prayer that permeates the Universe, whether we know it or not.

But what is prayer? "Prayer is as if the heart, risen to the surface, came to take the place of the brain which then sleeps with a holy slumber." "My eyes sleep, but my heart is awake," said the Prophet. This constant awareness of and participation in the laud of the universe is the duty and privilege of human beings, as the great leaders of the Muslim worlds have never tired to emphasize.

Schuon's book shows the essence of Islam, compares its world view with that of Christianity and often brings examples from other religious traditions, all of which his vast erudition comprises. The style of the work reminds the reader sometimes of crystalline pure forms, and yet one often finds passages which touch the heart. I think that everyone, and in particular those who rely solely upon an intellectual approach to the world and ridicule the beautiful ages-old symbols, should study the passage on page 137, in which the author's language soars to poetical heights, and learn that the scientific approach to the universe does not exclude or contradict the religious interpretation of the world: "What most men do not know—and if they could know it, why should they be called on to believe it?—is that this blue sky, though illusory as an optical error and belied by the vision of interplanetary space, is nonetheless an adequate reflection of the Heaven of the Angels and the Blessed and that therefore, despite everything, it is this blue mirage, flecked with silver clouds, which is right and will have the final say; to be astonished at this amounts to admitting that it is by chance that we are here on earth and see the sky as we do."

1 August, 1997

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