By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
23 February 2018
The best is self authenticating. The Sun shines and we know and need not fight over it.
Many religions claim to be the best or assert their finality or primordiality. How do we understand such claims and appreciate Mulla Sadra’s point, endorsed by Muslim theologians and sages in their own ways, regarding Islam as superior and more complete than any other religion because it incorporates the teachings of all religions?
If we closely attend to the ground of the claim of finality – access to the Absolute – for which prophets are the means, we can, across religions, identify the ground of superiority and resolve conflicting claims. Today we note Schuon’s (Shaykh Isa Nuruddin’s) clarification of the logic underlying finality. Schuon clarifies the logic with reference to Islam (and this should apply to other religions also):
“True terminality – the glory of being the omega – is not realized by any one religion as opposed to another, it is realized by esoterism in relation to all religion; it is in this sense that Sufis interpret the dogmatic terminality of Islam, and this doesn’t go without an amalgam that strictly speaking is abusive, but that can be found, quite obviously and mutatis mutandis, within every religious system.”
He relates the idea of terminality to the message of equilibrium Islam realizes between “the outward and the inward, the earthly and the heavenly, in conformity with man’s nature and vocation.” He similarly understands the dogmatic assertion that the Prophet is “the best of men” or “of creation” (Khayar-I Khalq). To quote him:
“Firstly, this designation of “the best” refers to the Logos, which is the prototype of the cosmos in the Principle, or of the world in God; and in this case the epithet doesn’t refer to any man. Secondly “the best” is Muhammed in as much as he manifests or personifies the Logos, every other Messenger (Rasul) is equally “the best”. Thirdly, “the best” is Muhammad (SAW) in as much as he alone – in accordance with the framework of perspective – manifests the whole Logos, the other Messengers manifesting it only in part, which amounts to saying that Muhammad (SAW) is “the best” in as much as he personifies the Islamic perspective, the man who reveals it necessarily the best but as much can be said, of course, of every other Messenger within the framework of his own Message. Fourthly, Muhammad (SAW) is the best in as much as he represents a quality of Islam by which it surpasses other religions; but every integral religion necessarily possesses such an unequalable quality, lacking which it would not exist.”
Ibn Arabi has also stated claim of finality in a way that can’t be resisted or questioned by scholars and advocates of other religions. It states, as one contemporary scholar notes, that if all-inclusive point of view that is Islam is situated anywhere it is “at the point of coming into manifestation of everything…It is not a Judeo-Christian or Islamic perspective, but it is this which has informed and given rise to the Abrahamic line and to all spirituality everywhere… this point of view is completely distinguished from all partiality, and all qualifying adjectives, and that it is free from the qualifications of all religions, and is thereby completely muslim to the Truth.”
Ibn ‘Arabî also gives the most universal definition of Muhammadan where this involves “perfectly realizing all stations” and bringing “together all standpoints or stations,” an enterprise that every tradition would identify with. As Shaykh Isa notes, the epithets applied to the Prophet (SAW) apply equally to the Totality and the Centre as Muhammad (SAW) is a human expression of them. “As a spiritual principle, the Prophet is not only the Totality of which we are separate parts or fragments, he is also the Origin in relation to which we are so many deviations.”
Thus seen, we see Ad-Deen or the Religion or Religion of religions, Islam, (as distinguished from din or a religion applied to particular historical religions deemed passé or unacceptable if fail to reflect/embody/affirm Islam. It is common between Deens – historical Islam and other religions) as a quest of all integral religions and Muhammad (SAW) as the ideality of everyman and known or unknown Centre/Pole of existence. Islam is here a metareligion and its metahistorical, metaphysical, symbolic, esoteric content the judge/referral point with respect to which every religion is to be judged.
Historical Islam’s most characteristic or distinctive notions such as rejecting absolutisation of anything less than the Absolute (thus condemning shirk), dualism of flesh and spirit (wrongly attributed to Christianity), unity/inseparability of earth and heaven – this world and the beyond, profane and the sacred –, affirmation of the world, Middle Path, religion as way of life or living whole life in the shadow of/in reference to the Divine Norm, respecting rights of reason and intuition or intellection find expression in traditionally held authoritative interpretations of canon of other religions. None can, ordinarily, claim to have realized the best religion as it implies claiming all the perfections the best implies which in turn require a life’s work of realization or spiritual ascent and humility to claim nothing or avoid self righteousness or agency for virtue. None has access to total truth called Islam. We are not required to judge the best in terms of rituals or law as they are something less than the Absolute and don’t have fixed unique form and aren’t self contained.
Islam itself is not this or that collection of propositions or forms – it is not a finished product but ever unfolding process and it is unwarranted to fix its particular formation and call it the best in every sense. Every religion we know can be expressed, in its most fundamental sense, as submission to Truth/surrender to non-self/Other/Tao/ Reality and this submission in turn is expressed by worship whose one essence and pluralism of form is clearly recognized and in fact unavoidable within every tradition. Messengers don’t call to themselves but to the Way to realize the Origin and the End or Absolute and as such there is not encouraged any comparison between them in the essential function of conveying/embodying saving truth. Historically also we don’t find very sharply definable identity/separation of Islam from other sister faiths till many decades after its inception. And Islam has been self avowedly understood as a revivification/reformation of Abrahamic legacy and thus can’t insist on absolutising it separate historical identity and make it a judge of other identities it itself recognizes as relative in reference to Ad-Deen.
Finality means absoluteness and we know Muslims have claimed this for shahadah but never insisted that a given theology or fiqh is final/absolute. Islam is committed to the absoluteness of the Absolute only; the rest it takes to be non-absolute and thus relative in a sense and that means openness to various formulations that don’t idolize the relative. If all metaphysics is derivable from the statement of unity la Illaha illallah, as has been maintained, and Muhammad Rasulullah (SAW) encompasses all archetypal perfections that are there, we see in Islam’s shahadah quintessential expression for every religion’s ideal. It is another question that a particular believer may betray the ideal or be self exiled from the ideal or mistakes ideal for what is less than ideal formation.
The problem in debate over finality claims is choosing between metaphysical/esoteric or Haqiqa centric and exoteric theological-legalistic understanding of basic terms Islam and Iman or Tawhid and messengership. Mostly people miss proper hierarchical relationship here not noting that it is the former that can subsume the later and not vice versa. The claim of being the best or final is vacuous if it refers to particular form as that would absolutize that form and that contradict the principle that what is sought by religion transcends forms.
Muhammad (SAW) considered as a sort of light –Siraj al-Munir (light-giving lamp) – as a principle of guidance, as the light of consciousness/intelligence that constitutes/illuminates everything, as a principle of manifestation unveiling Being that grounds the very notion of truth, as expressing universally adorable/lovable ideals such as wisdom and perfection of ethic that constituted sine qua non of his mission – is, self avowedly, (or required to be) at the centre of every religion and spirituality. One needs to be muslim to Truth/Reality to be saved, an assertion that no religion would dispute. One needs to realize that Heaven’s will has been communicated and is accessible in its essentials (mankind, in general, has no argument of ignorance) and seeking to live that Norm is what is basically required for affirmation of the particular messengers including the Last Messenger. When other traditions propose messengers such as the Christ as the final truth they really mean not a person so and so but Christ reality/ the Logos that we can access as we perfect our submission to truth or love. (“Christ is the Heart of the macrocosm as the Intellect is the Christ of the microcosm.”)
Many religions have claimed to be the best but no believer in them has been given the license to claim the title for himself/herself. The best includes an idea of quest for yet to be and is a prize to be claimed, an existential project, a possibility and not already realized and accessible set of propositions (which, being linked to language/concepts remain contingent or relative) to be bragged about (bragging betrays ego that the best requires to be transcended) and we find in Islamic tradition, for instance, very clear warning against complacency to claim eligibility of entry to Heaven until the last breath or denying to a particular person one encounters such entry. Tradition received from pious elders (aslaf) constitutes the best against individual opinions/fallible interpretations and given claims of fully assimilating the same in one’s life and understanding in a way that can’t be improved are suspect for possibly concealing arrogance of the claimant.
Traditions assert that one can’t deny the Absolute and the Envoy of the Absolute and truly live witnessing the best or ideal/be fully loyal to oneself. One has to settle for something that is not the best. Let us keep inviting ourselves and then others to the best we can only dimly witness due to our imperfections. The best is self authenticating. The Sun shines and we know and need not fight over it. Consciousness/Intellect in its full flowering is the project for all of us to undertake and it requires martyrdom for love. The bell tolls for all of us. Are we true to the best – divine image – in us? Repentance and prayer understood as will to attach to the Absolute are called for.