MEANING AND SIGNIFICANCE OF RELIGION

 

Asghar Ali Engineer

 

(Islam and Modern Age Sept, 2005)

 

Since rationalist and secularist movements became a dominant discourse in Europe in 18th century onwards, religion has become highly controversial issue. There are all sorts of views about religion. While some consider it totally irrelevant and put their faith in science others consider it as too dogmatic and resistant to any change and hence an obstacle in human progress. While, on the other end of the spectrum, people hold fast to religion and stick to age-old dogmas and doctrines and consider it a ‘sin’ to deviate from those dogmas and doctrines. They consider them divine and hence immutable.

 

The rationalist demand proof for everything and refuse to admit anything higher and beyond the realm of visible and verifiable evidence. They feel dogmas exist only in the field of religion and nowhere else. They totally rely on human reason and for them reason is supreme and anything beyond it untenable. On the other hand, those who believe in religion maintain that reason is too fragile to rely on and has obvious limitations. What is divine is incomprehensible by reason. They rely on revelation, intuition and faith and in extreme cases faith turns into blind faith.

 

Thus reason and religion become mutually exclusive and irreconcilable. Both tend to reject each other. In these rational and religious discourses truth is lost irretrievably. The rationalists consider religion, as a major culprit and feel most of human problems can be solved only after getting rid of religion. The believers, on the other hand, tend to think that if religion is lost, world will turn into an evil place to live in and it will invite major disaster. The irony of this debate is that while rationalists put faith in reason the believers use reason to refute rationalist arguments.

 

Thus it will be seen that a human person can neither do without faith nor without reason. Also, one has to precisely define what is meant by ‘religion’ ‘religious faith’ and what would be implications of leaving reason or human intellect free of all other constraints. Also the important question is: can faith be free of all rational inquiries and reason be free of faith? This is very vital question and has to be answered with all sense of responsibility.

 

In my opinion reason needs faith in values and faith needs to be controlled by critical inquiry. Reason without faith and faith without reason can turn into major problem for human beings.  We should also understand that religion and faith are inseparable but religion is much more than faith. It is true religion revolves around axis of faith but religion in itself includes elements of social customs, traditions and institutions. Thus one has to distinguish between faith and religion too.

 

One can thus say that every faith finds expression in concrete historical and social conditions and one cannot appreciate religious institutions and beliefs without appreciating social and historical conditions. Even divinity can be expressed only through given social conditions and no divine thought can do without socially conditioned institutions. It is also important to note that any divine revelation is both response to social and historical conditions as well as provision for transcendent norms.

 

However, often the initial divine response to given socio-historical situation acquires permanency and eternal sanctity and its transcendent dimension is completely lost. First of all let us understand that religion has four important aspects: 1) institutional system; 2) thought system; 3) ritual system and 4) value-system. Institutional system and thought system are historically conditioned and represent divine response to the given historical situation.

 

Let us understand that the institutional and thought systems are important but one must take their historicity into account. To consider any religion lock, stock and barrel permanent is to misunderstand the divine response itself. Thought and institution systems are as much human as divine and must admit of change with changing conditions. Value system, being transcendent, is only of permanent nature and value system is common to all religions.

 

Ritual system, on the other hand, is means to attain the values and is thus means rather than the goal. However, given human nature, rituals often become goal and are performed for its own sake. Thus with the passage of time they loose all meaning and get delinked with values they are supposed to represent. It is also important to note that though values are common to all religions, rituals are not.

 

Rituals are also cultural expression of the given values. Each religion is borne in a given culture with its own customs and traditions. Every culture is unique so is the ritual system in every religion. Thus ritual system, though unique as it develops in different cultures, is not necessarily contradictory in its goal. Different ritual systems developed in different religions through the medium of given cultures, tend to emphasise the same goal.

 

However, followers of different religions develop prejudice towards ritual system of other religions and even tend to denounce it. This is because they fail to appreciate role of culture in shaping the ritual system. We will also throw light on the role of priesthood in every religion in causing conflict. Suffice here to say that it plays important role in promoting conflict with other religious communities.

 

The Qur’an, has expressed the futility of such conflict in number of ways. Thus in 2:148 it emphasises varied nature of way and direction in which one turns to worship Him. One should not fight about these different ways but to worship Him sincerely. Also, in 6:109 it requires Muslims not to abuse others’ gods as they can abuse Allah without knowledge.  And in 22:40 the Qur’an states that be it the Christian place of worship or that of Jews or others, they are all sacred and Allah’s name is remembered in these places of worship belonging to different religious communities and must be protected.

 

The Sufis understood this much better than the ‘Ulama who tended to be indifferent or in worst cases even hostile to other religions’ ritual systems. Here it would be important to throw light on the role of priesthood in different religions. In fact much of the conflict between religions has been due to the role of priesthood. It is part of institutional system in every religion. Religion per se does not need priesthood. Islam in particular is supposed to be totally free of this institution of priesthood as far as the Qur’anic teachings go. Every believer is not only responsible for all religious rituals but is also directly answerable to Allah for his/her deeds. No intervener or intercessor is needed. However, as common believers do not fulfil their responsibility those who acquire expertise develops and acquire monopoly over understanding of religious thought and doctrines.

 

It is also to be noted that since priesthood acquires vested interest in controlling thought system, ritual system and institutional system in religion, it looses its true spirit in the form of value system. Value system becomes least important to them. The centrality of value system has to be marginalized to serve their own interests. The priesthood can maintain its control over its followers only by asserting superiority of its religion over the other. This is the only way it can keep its flock of followers together.

 

However, a close examination of fundamental scriptures of different religions would clearly reveal that they do not assert superiority over other religious scriptures. They assert universality rather than specificity. Specificity often emerges in religious thought system developed later in the given historical and cultural situation. The Qur’an asserts the concept of wahdat-i-Deen (unity of religions). Two major Islamic thinkers from Indian sub-continent Shah Waliyullah Dehlavi (of 18th century) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad of twentieth century both have thrown detailed light on this concept in their magnum opuses Hujjat Allahi al-Balighah and Tarjuman al-Qur’an.

 

Those who maintain centrality of the value system over historically and culturally conditioned thought and ritual system will never develop attitude of hostility towards other religions. The irony of the situation is that those associated with the religious communities be they priests or be they community leaders acquire vested interest in maintaining control over the community and then they marginalize its value system or spirituality and promote status quo, opposing any change or co-operational efforts with other communities.

 

It would be quite interesting to note yet two other aspects of religions i.e. religion as a moral guide and religion as an identity. Te basic role of every religion is to provide guidance for morally and spiritually healthy life on earth so as to continuously enrich our existence and make it more meaningful. However, every religious community, i.e. community of believers, need an identity, a community to belong to and this identity plays an important role in psychological sense.

 

While religion as a moral guide brings closer cooperation between different religious communities, religion as an identity tends to create conflict. Identity is not only a psychological need but also draws walls of separation and results in clashes of worldly interests between members of different religious communities. Prof. Huntington of clash of civilization fame misconceives this clash of interests as clash of civilizations.

 

It will help lessen tensions between different communities (religious, national or civilizational), if we can understand this difference between the two roles i.e. that of moral guide and that of identity. If we use religion as moral guide alone it will cause no problems but if it is linked to our identity it becomes easy tool for politicians and other vested interests to exploit. However, it is very difficult to de-link religion with identity as a community of believers sharing common religion does get linked up with common identity and this common identity has its own dynamics.

 

The feeling of ‘we’ and ‘they’ is the result of this feeling of identity. Our common humanity is thus becomes secondary to our separate religious identities. In fact it is not possible to completely do away with commonly shared identity but it should not be over-emphasised either at the cost of our common human identity. More emphasis should be laid on moral aspects so as to de-emphasise to an extent, separate religious identity.

 

The value system in any religion is its soul whereas institutions, rituals etc. represent its body. As every living body has soul, every living religion has value system, which gives it life. The believers are unfortunately more focussed on the body than on the soul. While we create grand institutions, we neglect the most essential values. The most fundamental values common to all religions are as follows: 1) Love; 2) non-violence; 3) compassion; 4) equality; 5) justice; 6) human dignity and 7) truth.

 

These seven values are common to all religions some value being emphasised more than the other in another religion. Love for example is more emphasised in Christianity (so also by Sufi Islam which calls it ishq) and non-violence in Indic religions like Hinduism and Jainism. Compassion is more emphasised in Buddhism and equality and justice in Islam. Truth, of course is common to all religions. And all these values are complementary to each other.

 

Seen in this light all religions, looked from this perspective, compliment each other rather than conflict with each other. Thus one must re-emphasise the value system to reduce inter-religious conflict. The founders of these religions, it is important to note, began by emphasising these core values. The founders did not engage themselves in building grand institutions. They did not even engage in developing the thought system. They struggled hard to improve the moral health of their followers.

 

The followers of these religions, however, soon built grand laces of worship and other institutions. And soon huge establishments came into existence to be controlled by few leaders who then control the community also. The Buddha never constructed temples. He never stayed at one place and went round preaching his doctrines, which were quite rational. Jesus lived in the company of the poor and served them and laid down his life for the noble cause.

 

The Prophet of Islam led very simple life and constantly struggled for the cause of the poor, the needy, the orphans and the widows and was strongly committed to the cause of human equality, dignity and justice. He built very simple mosque where he and his followers not only prayed but he also used it as a community place where he met delegations and dispensed justice. He had to go hungry for days at times.

 

Nanak and Kabir also led exemplary life of utter simplicity and devoted themselves to the cause of truth. However the followers of all these great founders of religions developed huge institutions, built empires and began to control huge assets. The very spirit of core values was soon lost and conflict between different religious communities developed. The inter-religious conflict is not religious conflict indeed but conflict between the secular interests of its followers or between their leaders. If we understand this it will greatly help us understand the nature of inter-religious conflict.

 

For all such theological differences the key phrase in the Qur’an is fastabiqu al-khayrat i.e. excel each with the other in good deeds, leaving all other differences to Allah. Thus the Qur’anic doctrine is that human differences will be finally settled by Allah. So let not human beings fight over these but excel each other in good deeds. However, ignoring this important doctrine we engage ourselves in fighting with each other on petty differences both within the community and between the communities.

 

Also, to de-emphasise values the leaders of various religious communities over-emphasise ritual system which helps them preserve their control as well as the social status quo. It is important to note that founders of various religions from Buddha to Christ to Muhammad to Nanak, never approved of status quo. In fact all of them were seriously disturbed, even anguished, by the prevailing conditions, deeply reflected over the malaise and set about to change them.

 

They deeply loved humanity and their main concern was to restore social and moral health often by striking at the vested interests of all kinds, ‘religious’, political as well as economic. The Buddha was disturbed by ritualistic sacrifices of his time while neglecting suffering humanity. He reflected over this social and moral sickness and concluded that compassion for suffering humanity was the only remedy. Buddha’s eightfold truth talks about right thought, right action so as to restore moral health of the society and to reduce human suffering. But again rituals took over soon and all values were sidelined. Buddhism today no more engages with human suffering but gives priority to building monasteries and grand temples and huge establishments.

 

The Prophet of Islam himself an orphan knew what suffering is and he saw accumulation of wealth in Mecca by inter-tribal corporation, on one hand, and, intense sufferings by slaves, the poor, the needy and the widows, on the other. They were all neglected while the few were chasing wealth and luxuries. He was seriously disturbed by this social malaise and confided himself to the cave of Hira and reflected deeply over moral and spiritual malaise and began to receive divine revelation to set this right.

 

The Qur’an thus emphasised truth of all religions on one hand, and, equality, human dignity and social justice, on the other. It exhorted its followers to take care of the weaker sections of society (mustad’ifin) and denounced the powerful and exploiters (mustakbirin). According to the Qur’an Allah is on the side of weaker sections and will severely punish the powerful and the arrogant (see 28:5 and 9:34). The Prophet was the exemplar par excellence of this and was so compassionate towards suffering humanity that he was addressed in the Qur’an as the Mercy of the worlds (rahmatan li al-‘Aalamin).

However, his followers soon forgot these moral values of equality, human dignity, compassion for the suffering humanity and justice. Soon civil war broke out among Muslims within a couple of decades of the death of the prophet and thousands were killed, all believers and followers of Islam. Religion looses its spirit when it becomes huge establishment. Unfortunately many religious leaders began to justify violence in the form of jihad for their own interests. The true meaning of jihad – to make utmost efforts for spreading good and fighting evil – was lost. The Prophet had said that the best form of jihad was to tell truth on the face of a tyrant. This requires tremendous courage and spirit of sacrifice to go for such jihad.      

From above discussion it would be seen that a truly religious person should be strongly committed to the core values, which are almost common in all religions. A truly religious person would never emphasise differences (which are there due to culture, social traditions and historical situation) but commonality between religions. A truly religious person would never accept status quo but would be committed to change it for better.

A truly religious person should be sincerely committed to human freedom, freedom of conscience. Only a free person can act morally without any pressure from any quarter. One who is not free has no choice and one who has no choice cannot be morally responsible. Thus a religious person should be passionately committed to human freedom and human dignity. No one should be enslaved if moral health of the society is to be upheld. Subjugation to authority robs a person of freedom of choice.

A religious person should incessantly strive for truth. A quest for truth is an act of true worship. Quest for truth is also the quest for inner peace and spiritual richness. The quest for truth leads to inner certitude and inner certitude leads to freedom from all forms of ignorance and the Qur’anic term iman means inner conviction and inner certitude. Thus true believer (mu’min) is one who has deep conviction in revelation from high on which exhorts them to excel in morality and human perfection.  

It is for this that the Sufis emphasised the doctrine of what they called insan-e-kamil (perfect human being) who is totally free, who is not slave of is own lust, who does not worship idols of his desires and bows down only to Allah who represents perfect knowledge and is Just.

A truly religious person has no trace of arrogance and is model of humility. Arrogance is borne of ignorance and unjust power. Also, a truly religious person commits himself to leave the world better than he found it after his birth. Only one who is desirous of power and pelf would leave it worse than when he was borne. A religious person freely and fearlessly chooses what is good as against what is evil, raises his voice against all forms of injustices in the world and works passionately for liberation of entire humanity irrespective of caste, colour and creed.

It is such religious person that can bring peace to the world.

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
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