It is easy to say that Islam is a misunderstood religion, but the real problem lies in who interprets it. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, believed to be the word of God, and the Hadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, are the two authoritative texts in Islam. However, the problem is this: language, by its nature, is open to interpretation and indeed is interpreted differently depending on the reader. The Quran, according to the late Gai Eaton, is like a mirror: one will interpret the book depending on one’s nature and personality.
In his must-read book Islam and the Destiny of Man (1994), Gai Eaton says: “If they are by nature superficial they will find it in [the Quran] only superficialities, and if profound, profundities in corresponding measures. If they come arrogantly, they will interpret certain verses as justification for their arrogance…” Likewise if people approach the Quran with no faith and little openness and discernment, it is likely they will leave the Quran just as they started.
Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists suggests that there is much good in religion and its principles can apply to everyone. de Botton, however, refuses to acknowledge the veracity of the metaphysical claims of religion.
But how is the intellectual mind suppose to interpret and grapple with the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad? What people tend to forget is that Islam labels itself as a religion for the whole of humankind – and if this is the case, it must appeal to everyone and speak to everyone, both educated and uneducated.
This is why the Prophet spoke to different people on different levels: to the bedouins, the Prophet often said simple things to appeal to their intellect, and to the highly intelligent, he taught them deeper, more profound things to appeal to their intellect.
According to Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), “Britain’s most influential Muslim”, many of the utterances in the Islamic tradition are both “hyperbolic” and “allegorical”.
Gai Eaton adds: “For the Quran to contain more than a thimbleful of the message it must rely upon images, symbols and parables which open windows on to a vast landscape of meaning, but which are inevitably liable to misinterpretation.”
Metaphysical concepts like heaven and hell are nothing like what we imagine them to be, nor are they anything like how they are described to us. Furthermore, the anthropomorphic and corporeal traditions in Islam, where God is described in human terms, as if he had a human body, are to be interpreted allegorically.
Hell is not so much a place of eternal barbarous torture, but according to Muslim American Intellectual, Hamza Yusuf, it’s a place of “divine alienation”.
Hell is a very human problem. It’s hard to fathom the idea that some people will be in hell for eternity. Gai Eaton has suggested that nobody will be in hell for eternity and cites a Prophetic tradition where the Prophet Muhammad reminds us that eventually God’s ‘hand’ will pull people out from hell – and His ‘hand’ is infinite so we can expect that everyone will be saved.
Martin Lings narrates a tradition about the inhabitants of hell, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, in his biography: Muhammad: His life based on the earliest sources. The jist of the [long] hadith is that after the Prophets, Angels and believers have interceded for the people of hell, God, in his infinite mercy, will “take out from the fire those who did no good and will cast them into a river at the entrance of Paradise which is called the River of Life.” (1)
Shaikh Abdul Hakim says: “The doctrine of infernal felicity [the idea that the flames of hell will eventually become a source of pleasure] indicates that those who remain in Hell after the Prophetic Intercession either have their punishment remitted or enter Paradise. And the scholars agree that the Prophetic Intercession will embrace every sinner.”
The only sin which is deemed as “unforgivable” if a person dies without repenting for it, is shirk, associating partners with God. Islam, by its nature, is an iconoclastic faith – it breaks both the outward idols as well as the inward idols. Islam’s aim is not just to stop people from prostrating to man-made idols, but is to stop us from worshipping ourselves. Our egos and desires need to either be annihilated or harmonised so that they are in conformity with the divine Order.
One of the criticisms of religious people is that they only do good because they expect reward and only avoid sin because they expect punishment. Human beings are often emotionally driven – and reward and punishment are emotional drives which make us incline towards that which is good.
Islam also shares many similarities with the Aristotelian philosophy – Aristotle once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” The purpose of doing good and avoiding evil in Islam is for it to become habitual and natural to us; we should reach a level where our heart becomes saturated by goodness and only good emanates from us. This is known as Ihsan.
Hamza Yusuf reports a saying in Islamic thought: “Amongst the people and their purposes there are two stations: the purpose of common people is to gain rewards…but the end or purpose for the people of distinction is nearness and presence, to feel near to God and feel his Presence.”
So, we must now ask: What is Islam? In Islam and the Destiny of Man it says: “…Islam presents itself as the synthesis of all that came before. The final brick has been put in the great edifice of the divine Revelation, and for this very reason, the Muslim must expect his truth to be confirmed in other religions.” In other words, it is the completion of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.
The world or the dunya is viewed as something which veils the Divine from us. And this veil is harder to penetrate when one is in a state of disbelief or kufr. Linguistically, kufr means to “cover up” so what many disbelievers do is cover up the Truth and, in turn, justify it to themselves. There are some who incessantly ridicule or attack religion and/or those with a belief in God, perhaps so that they feel better about their disbelief. Others, however, have valid reasons why they disbelieve. Perhaps they can’t explain the problem of evil, or maybe they have only looked into one religion and have painted all the others with the same brush or it could be that they have never been properly introduced to the esoteric dimension of religion. The veil, which hides the Divine from us, is harder to penetrate when one is in a state of kufr but easier to see through when one has faith or Iman, as one’s heart has greater spiritual insight.
One of the most important things Gai Eaton says in the book is: “Muslims are under an obligation to deepen and develop the intellectual bases of their faith and have no excuse for relying on unthinking obedience and emotional fervor to protect it against the searching questions of our time.”
Muslims need to put to aside their sanctimonious claims; we are all equal. Ali (R.A.) the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad said: “You are either my brother [or sister] in faith or my equal in humanity.”
How and why some people believe and others don’t does not always make sense to us, but it shouldn’t be our concern – the final judgement lies with God.
1) Muhammad: His life based on the earliest sources, page 94.