Will Religion be Needed

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They say religion is a means contrived by mankind to cover up problems that man could not solve but which, with further advances in civilization, will one day be solved and so, they ask, will religion no longer be needed?

The enemies of the religious life argue that religion was put together as a sort of outpouring of man’s feeling of powerlessness in the world or of his feelings of relief and gratitude when rescued from powerlessness. In summary form, the argument goes like this:

Certain natural phenomena proved impenetrable to man’s understanding and control, and so he attributed them to a creator. Or, man attached to certain natural phenomena an aura of sacredness because he derived an unreliable benefit from them – indeed, he went so far, in some cases, as to deify such phenomena. Thus it was, they say, that the river Ganges came to be held sacred by the people of India, or the Nile by the people of Egypt, and, in different ways, the cow by both. Confronted by fearful insecurity in the world, they say, man sought to secure himself by revering and appeasing what he supposed to be the source of his security or insecurity. The division, in some cultures, of this aura of sacredness between two deities, one good the other evil, led to the attribution of love and mercy to one, and of terror and punishment to the other. The argument carries on to ‘explain’ in a similar way the concept of hell and heaven, and eventually concludes with the observation that religion became, for the middle classes of people in society, a comforting illusion, and for the men of power in that society, and most especially for the men of religion, a means of manipulating the masses – in short, ‘the opiate of the people’. Does this argument have any real foundation? It does not. Religion is not by any means a consequence of infirmity in reason nor does it depend upon any infirmity of will (fear).

Among the meanings of the term din (the religious life) are obedience, recompense, and a way or path. These meanings are interlinked. The path is the way that leads, through obedience, to God, the All-Mighty, and at the end of life man will have to render full account of his good and bad deeds, all that he did on the way. In a more technical sense, din may be defined as ‘the whole of the Divine Law as it guides any person possessed of reason to do good’. Just as the Law distinguishes a legally responsible person from one who is not, so also the demands of the religious life are addressed to a being capable of reason and not to one incapable. Religion is not there because man cannot reason or because of what he cannot understand; rather, it is there because, by God, he can reason and because of what, by God, he can understand. Further, man obeys or disobeys God by exercising his free will. Obedience is required of him, it is not imposed. The notion that religion happens simply because man desires to obtain a good harvest and to avoid a bad one, in other words simply because he has no choice, no control, in his affairs, is utterly absurd. The true religion does not negate free will. On the contrary, it most particularly points out that nature was not created to impose upon man but to benefit him and enlarge his potential, and it emphasizes that man was endowed with the ability to choose his way by exercising the freedom to do so.

They say that religion comes about as a result of defective use of reason, but in truth religion is primarily grounded in faith. Although it is possible to deduce the existence of the Creator of the universe through an exercise of human reason, such a deduction is bound to be vulnerable and insecure. A sound belief in God is possible only through the guidance of a prophet. Every prophet was endowed with certain signs confirming his appointment by God. In addition to the miracles he worked, the Divine Scripture with which he was sent is the most significant demonstration of his prophethood. Whether a man lived during the life-time of the prophet or long after the prophet’s death, he is required to follow the Book and the prophet in his beliefs and actions.

It is not any kind of ordinary, worldly power that the prophet thus exercises over his followers. All of the prophets endured extraordinary hardships and suffering, and yet demanded nothing in return. They expected nothing of the world, although they could have acquired any worldly good whatever if they had agreed to (as they were urged to) abandon their missions. Our Prophet, upon him be peace, experienced the beauties and spiritual delights of heaven in his miraculous journey to the Divine Presence. Yet he chose to return to his people, that is, to return to torment, contempt, and ridicule. He was not a man of pleasures, whether of the body or of the spirit, but one who had dedicated his life to the service of mankind for the sake of God.

It may be asked if any person cannot have direct access to his Lord and so receive a revelation of religion directly from Him. Indeed it might be possible if the person had a perfectly purified soul, but (except by God) that is an impossibility. Therefore God (chose and) purified certain men and endowed them with prophethood: God chooses from the angels Messengers, and from mankind (al-Hajj, 22.75). Just as, from innumerable angels, God chose Jibril (Gabriel) to convey His message to His Messenger, so He chose the prophets from among mankind for the mission of teaching the din. They were men of pure character, and their companions were likewise distinguished souls since they carried the responsibility of transmitting the religion to future generations.

If the argument that religion comes about to help mankind cope with difficult events or difficult natural phenomena had any foundation, we should expect that religion would be occasional. We should expect that the need for it would arise only on certain occasions, and when the occasions passed away so would the need for religious preparation or response – until time brought the same or similar circumstances round once more. But true religion, the din of Islam, is not concerned only with ceremonies for birth and death and marriage, or with other rites to deal with crisis-points in individual or collective life. The din concerns itself with the disposition of the whole life of man as the responsible creature of God, as much in his inward being as in all the outward forms of his existence. The din guides and protects all the ordinary business of everyday living, even there where man is, by God, in steady, reliable control. The call to prayer comes all through the day, and every day, and it is directed to the whole community, not to a particular class among them. The religious life is not an answer to eclipses or thunderbolts or other natural phenomena; it is the means, allowed to man through the prophets, by which he may make himself worthy of faith and capable of steadily choosing the good.

The vigor and stability of faith depends upon worship and good actions. A Muslim who neglects his religious obligations may end up doing little more than speak well of his ancestors who lived a disciplined, religious life – that is, he may appreciate the virtue of others but fail to follow their example himself. Faith not nourished by worship and good actions is likely, sooner or later, to die away.

Praying five times a day strengthens our faith and renews our covenant with God. As long as we do every act of worship with alert, conscious intent, we shall receive assurance from God, strengthening our will and ability to discharge our obligations in other areas of life.

The din includes certain rules and norms to order our everyday life. A believer is required to seek the approval of God through his dealings with his fellow-men, as well as through formal or informal prayer. For example, his commercial transactions must be strictly in accordance with the Divine Law which is, we may here mention, another element of the din which reinforces faith. By abiding by this Law, a believer submits to the decrees of God in the particular matter and so transcends his own worldly preferences. For example, one who sells must inform the one who buys of any defect in the goods he is selling. His profit may be greatly diminished, even annulled, if he does this, but he will gain the satisfaction of obeying his Lord, and not becoming a servant of his own desires. When he stands in prayer before his Lord, this satisfaction will return to strengthen his faith and commitment.

Such observance provides to the believer practical means of reaching the Divine Presence. And the believer must aspire to this end, as it is the command of the Messenger of God, upon him be peace and blessings. He teaches us, when telling of the three men who were trapped in a cave, the mouth of which had been closed by a big rock displaced by the flood, how each of the three men offered God a good deed as a ransom to free them from the cave. Now it is impossible for us to resemble the Messenger in physical appearance, much as we might wish it, but we must try to resemble him in way of life. That will provide us with the ransom to offer to God against the torments of Hell.

And remember that virtue inheres also in the avoidance of sins: we must keep away from what God has forbidden – just as we would refrain from dealings involving interest, however much, at first sight, they may appear to offer advantage.

The pursuit of virtue, whether by observance or by avoidance, the practice of prayer and remembrance, the effort to establish the Law and justice, according to the teaching of God and His Messenger, and the penalties therein prescribed, are all essential elements in the unity of the religious life. And that unity is integral (not aggregate) – the parts cannot be separated from one another, any more than you could separate the vital elements of a tree. Just as water, light and heat, seed, roots, and branches, leaves, flowers and fruit, and the gardener who tends to it, are vital to the tree, so also are faith, worship, remembrance of God, the example of the Prophet, and the Divine Law, vital and integral elements of the din.

  • God created man as His vicegerent, His steward, on this earth. God, whom we worship, is Himself Absolute, Transcendent, independent of all things. He does not need our worship. Rather, it is we who need to worship Him. It is by His will that we do so – we would be incapable of managing it ourselves; the initiative is by God. God wills that, in accordance with the ordinances of the Qur’an, we should seek to lead a balanced life. He has opened to us a clear, straight path, so that we need not go astray. It is by following the Qur’an, this straight path, that (collectively as well as individually) man can develop his full potential and attain to true humanity.
  • We are in need of religion. Indeed, if we only understood what we truly need, we should be able directly to perceive man’s innate disposition toward eternal happiness. Then we should cultivate this innate disposition and, in different ways, proclaim our true need and desire: ‘O God, give us a way of which You approve, that we may be safe from any sort of deviance.’
  • It is certainly true that even the wisest philosophers have been unable to keep from going astray, while the most ordinary Muslims have been able to lead an upright life because they followed the clear way of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. Indeed, any Muslim, if he aims at the approval of God, and takes the Prophet as his guide, can lead a most fruitful life, in harmony with his deepest nature as the responsive, responsible creature of God.
  • Religion is not formulated by certain men to manipulate others, nor has it been formulated by mankind in general as a way of coping with the natural world. God has revealed religion to man as a portion of His Mercy, because man is in need of it and cannot be truly man independently of its guidance. Only the man who has passed through the trials of religious experience can be worthy of eternal happiness. Indeed, only through his following the clear way of religion will any man be distinguished in the hereafter. The Messenger of God, upon him be peace, said: ‘As you distinguish your horse in a herd by the blaze on its head, so will I distinguish my community in the hereafter by the brightness of the parts of the body washed in wudu’ (Bukhari, Wudu, 3; Muslim, Taharah, 34, 35; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2, 334, 362, 400, 523).
  • The clear way of religion, as revealed by God through His prophets, consists of fundamentals and branches. The fundamentals have always been the same for all the Divinely revealed religions from the time of the first prophet to that of the last, upon them all be peace. The Divinely revealed religions have differed from one another in the regime of worship and observances. God placed the obligation of a certain kind of worship upon the people of each epoch in accordance with their social conditions and capacities.
  • Belief in the resurrection, for example, has been central in every religion, and every prophet has preached this belief in one way or another. If this belief had not been so emphasized, religion would have been reduced to merely a social-economic or psychological system of rules and norms, powerless to inspire man inwardly to do good and avoid evil. Had belief in the resurrection not existed, worship sincerely directed to God would not have been performed, nor sacrifices undertaken sincerely and for the sake of God. Man acquires many virtues by believing that whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it. In trying to follow His way without deviation, we look forward to that moment—to which the whole span of eternal life in heaven cannot be compared—when we shall see our Lord without any veil.
  • Alongside such constant fundamentals, God has revealed changes in His Law. In the course of man’s long history, the new Shari’a has abrogated what went before – an aspect of the Mercy of God in response to the travail of man – from humanity’s infancy in the time of the Prophet Adam to its maturity in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, upon them both be peace (Musannaf, 11, 428). As the last and most perfected of the Divinely religions, Islam (whose Scripture and teachings have been protected from corruption) must prevail until the Day of Judgment. But even if the earlier Scriptures and Law had not been corrupted, they could not have retained legitimacy, since their authority from God was abrogated by the advent of Islam. Let us here conclude by repeating that Religion is not a man-made system contrived to cover up the problems man cannot solve. Rather, it is the Law to be observed in the inward and outward of man’s existence, enabling him to attain a state deserving of Paradise and the vision of God. As for merely human civilization – however far it advances, it will never be able to secure even man’s earthly good or happiness, let alone to replace religion.

 

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