Islam’s Appeal to the Modern World
Speech at the Ahmadiyya Convention at Columbus, Ohio, USA (1–2 August 1992)
by Muhammad Akram White
The Light & Islamic Review (US), September/October 1992 Issue (Vol. 69, No. 5, pp. 11–15)
Note by the Editor: Akram White is one of our young, knowledgeable members in the U.S.A., who has an enviable missionary spirit and enthusiasm for Islam and this Movement. In this regard, he has emulated his father, Mr. Barry White, a convert to Islam and highly active member of our Jamaat.
The world, especially the West, is in the throes of a spiritual crisis. I believe that only Islam has the vitality and depth to root out the cancers of materialism, amorality, and nihilism, which hold sway over so many. Islam’s supreme combination of logic and beauty, the practical and the aesthetic, must be presented to the West to halt the spread of this plague of de facto atheism. We cannot just wring our hands. Islam requires us to act to give the people an alternative.
Western Intelligentsia on Religion:
The intelligentsia of today have many excellent and long-overdue characteristics. They are tolerant, open-minded, thoughtful and logical. Perhaps their most shining virtue, most progressive quality, is their stress on humanism, the concern for all people regardless of race, nation or creed.
But there is one great, unfortunate, defect in their philosophy, one which belies all their humanitarian efforts. They backwardly reject religion. In fact, they consider it to be irrational, oppressive, and outdated. Since they are in many ways the intellectual trend-setters for the masses, this attitude is dangerously irresponsible.
The great strides in the sciences and general knowledge have given many the confidence to question the traditional views of man’s place in the world. The accumulated wisdom of the ages is outdated, supposedly. Man, in all his new-found wisdom, has outgrown the need for religion. Like Hebrew Kosher laws, religion is no longer needed — we have Freud, Marx, and the Big Bang —
“that’s all we need for the welfare of mankind.”
Religion is merely an addiction from which people need to be weaned off. Thus, many commit a double sin of shirk [idolatry]: worshipping themselves, and their new prosthetic god, science. Of course, they miss a great lesson of the Quran. Could all the scientists of M.I.T. combined create a single fly?
They (the intelligentsia) even consider religion a negative element of enslavement throughout human history. These attitude are intellectually and historically very shallow. More on that later. It is the saddest of ironies that the modern “intellectual” sneers at religion, which is the crucial satisfaction of man’s innate spirituality. Along with such great advances of the mind, the soul has been cruelly and dangerously neglected. Despite today’s astounding advances in science, history, cultural understanding, psychology, and so on, there is a spiritual vacuum in most. It illustrates what Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad meant when he said that the central weakness of western philosophy was its refusal to acknowledge God’s existence and importance.
Importance of Religion in Societal Harmony:
Highbrow derision for religion is based on two great fallacies:
- that religion exists only for the individual, and
- that religion is inconsequential to people’s wellbeing.
Now, there are two ways of looking at religion, each of which is incomplete unless it is complemented by the other: the individual believer and the society at large. The needs of both are uniquely balanced in Islam.
Even Freud realized that morality, which ultimately springs from religious belief, is much more than a sentimental question of marginal importance, but rather a matter crucial to mankind’s wellbeing, a sin quo non of human civilization. It is our proof against chaos and anarchy.
There is a self-destructive side to human nature. Human history has always had Pandora’s ills. War, adultery, murder, dishonesty, wife beating, and thievery did not first appear when she opened her infamous box. Despite the wildly optimistic predictions by some of a Utopian future in the nineteenth century, the old latin maxim, homo homini lupus,
“Man is wolf to his fellow man,”
is just as true today.
There is a saying from the Talmud,
“Without religion, there can be no true morality ….”
Benjamin Franklin cynically said,
“If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it?”
Laws such as
“Thou shalt not kill”,
“Thou shalt not steel”,
لَاۤ اِکۡرَاہَ فِی الدِّیۡنِ ۟ۙ
“There is no compulsion in religion” [The Holy Quran, 2:256],
serve a crucial higher purpose; they bring law and order to civilization. So, there is a kernel of truth to all the Right’s rhetoric about today’s need for “family values”, however hypocritical. Morality exists to rein in the self-destructive side.
Man’s Innate need for Religion:
As one author whom I have corresponded with said,
“we are living in critical times in the history of humanity; all the believers must work for the moral reform of mankind”.
It is the profound paradox of modern enlightenment that religion is passe. Modern secularism brought a positive tolerance, but, oh, the price we paid! If religion is indeed “the opium of the people”, then every baby is born an incorrigible drug addict! People need religion as surely as they need the air they breathe.
It is a colossal feat of hubris, ignorance, and short-sightedness, for the learned to forget the profound truth of Matthew 4:4:
“man cannot live by bread alone”.
There is an old saying,
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
This expresses a deep truth about human nature. Religion, belief in God, is built-in to man. It is part of his nature, embedded in his heart. Deep within, there is a part of him which yearns for and needs meaning, purpose, and guidance. Even primitive pagan belief systems, from Peru to China, have elements of an underlying monotheism. Even Hinduism has unmistakable traces of an early monotheism!
For a modern example look at communism. Though it professes atheism, it has all the trappings of a religion. It had a revered founder, holy scripture, saints, martyrs, belief in a sort of salvation, messianism, dualism, an abstract devil, and even holidays. All it lacked was a central belief in God. It is also rapidly disintegrating, as the masses become dissatisfied. Religion is flourishing like never before in the former USSR.
The desire to worship, to thank the creator for His generosity, exists within us all to some degree. The Sufi mystic, Rabia, captured the essence of what I am referring to. She said,
“Love of Allah has so absorbed me … O Allah, if I worship You in the fear of Hell, Burn me in Hell; and if I worship You in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise; but if I worship You for Your own sake, withhold not Your everlasting beauty.”
Result of Atheism is Frustration:
Or, on the flip side of the coin, I believe that the bitterness one finds in the writings of many atheists, like Stephen Crane, testifies more eloquently than all of Augustine’s proofs that there is a Supreme Being. The anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal in his poetry imply a thirst unsatisfied, an expectation unfulfilled. Deep down, even he wanted faith. So, by attacking religion, these intellectuals do a great disservice to those they wish to “free”. They should learn from the Old Testament: the Israelites had a spiritual freedom which transcended their physical bondage in Ninevah or Babylon. It is ironic that many of today’s liberals consider themselves pioneers in humanism by opposing religion, when a true humanitarian would support it.
Relativistic Treatment of Religion is Inappropriate:
Perhaps an apt metaphor for the paradox of Western enlightenment is Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein demonstrated, among other things, how practically every perception is suspect. For example, your car is anything but still as you wait for the red light to change — it is orbiting the earth’s centre, along with the road underneath, and even the trees. It all depends on your “frame of reference.” Thus, there is no such thing as absolute movement or absolute rest. According to relativism, one’s frame of reference, one’s standards, determine what one perceives. Life becomes an abstract painting, or a Rorschach ink blot. We all see different things, with no one impression having absolute certainty.
Relativism has helped us a lot, even outside of the sciences. It helped usher in a new standard of respect and tolerance for differences in tastes, culture, literature, music, etc. You are probably wondering what E=mc2 has to do with the spiritual emptiness of the West. The answer is simple: moral relativism. This unexpected ramification is a result of applying relativistic theory to inappropriate matters like Truth, morality, and ethics. It undermined many people’s belief in absolute Good or Evil, and God. Even Truth became an open debate.
With this new outlook, everything could be questioned. In the aftermath of Einstein’s revolution, there were no absolutes left. If movement is impossible to determine absolutely, and if we cannot say which language is better, then who is to say what is “Right” and what is “Wrong”? Suddenly we have subjective morality. As I said, most of its ramifications are good, but relativity fails us dangerously when applied to the soul. It was not meant for ethics. Religion is needed to supply a universal standard of Right and Wrong.
Islam is the Religion of Reason:
But please do not mistake my respect for religion in general, and my understanding of its place in civilization, for syncretism! While I recognize the many common aspects and purposes of the world’s great religions, Islam is the only one which I feel to be true, i.e., from God. Because it makes sense, among other things. The lost must be exposed to the liberating message of Islam. Its manifest logic must be showcased to attract the disillusioned idealists. The estranged masses must be given the Rope of Allah.
This requires dawa, or proselytizing, on our part. It is important to remember that it is neither correct according to Islam, nor prudent strategically, to attack. The Quran and Sunnah make it clear that Muslims are to engage in dialogues:
اُدۡعُ اِلٰی سَبِیۡلِ رَبِّکَ بِالۡحِکۡمَۃِ وَ الۡمَوۡعِظَۃِ الۡحَسَنَۃِ وَ جَادِلۡہُمۡ بِالَّتِیۡ ہِیَ اَحۡسَنُ ؕ
“Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner” (The Holy Quran, 16:125).
لَاۤ اِکۡرَاہَ فِی الدِّیۡنِ ۟ۙ
“There is no compulsion in religion” (The Holy Quran, 2:256).
وَ لَوۡ شَآءَ رَبُّکَ لَاٰمَنَ مَنۡ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ کُلُّہُمۡ جَمِیۡعًا ؕ اَفَاَنۡتَ تُکۡرِہُ النَّاسَ حَتّٰی یَکُوۡنُوۡا مُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ ﴿۹۹﴾
“And if thy Lord had pleased, all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Wilt thou then force men till they are believers?” (The Holy Quran, 10:99).
These injunctions from the Holy Quran are clear. Another reason for Muslims not to engage in hostile polemics is summed up by a quote from Henry IV of France:
“One catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than twenty casks of vinegar.”
When someone is attacked, he or she concentrates on winning the argument, not discovering truth and re-examining beliefs. This is doubly so when the topic is as heartfelt as one’s religion. And even if you do succeed in exposing your opponent’s error, you cannot build by tearing down! His beliefs have been absolutely shattered, he will be too hurt and insulted to listen to your message. Thus, you have neither helped Islam nor your victim.
The Quran explains the method of dialogue:
اَفَلَا یَتَدَبَّرُوۡنَ الۡقُرۡاٰنَ ؕ وَ لَوۡ کَانَ مِنۡ عِنۡدِ غَیۡرِ اللّٰہِ لَوَجَدُوۡا فِیۡہِ اخۡتِلَافًا کَثِیۡرًا ﴿۸۲﴾
“Will they not meditate on the Quran? And if it were from any other than Allah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy” (The Holy Quran, 4:82).
Much of the ineffable magnificence of the Islamic philosophy and way of life springs from intangible qualities, non-intellectual wonders of the heart, which are difficult to explain to the uninitiated. But Islam has singular appeal to the rational side of man. Since most of these people are cynical towards organized religion, feeling “they’re all the same”, you must explain how different Islam is from, so to speak, its competition. So we must show Westerners that Islam is sensible. That is a key to the Western mind and soul. I believe that the exercise of reason is one of the main ways to distinguish the word of God from all the forgeries. As we’ve already seen, the Quran agrees.
Compare these two excerpts from the Bible to the one from the Quran.
“Canst thou by searching find God?” (Job 11:7)
“We walk by faith not by sight.” (II Corinthians 5:7)
اِنَّ شَرَّ الدَّوَآبِّ عِنۡدَ اللّٰہِ الصُّمُّ الۡبُکۡمُ الَّذِیۡنَ لَا یَعۡقِلُوۡنَ ﴿۲۲﴾
“Verily the dumbest of animals in Allah’s sight are the deaf, the dumb, who do not use their reason.” (Holy Quran 8:22)
The Quran condemns past generations’ unthinking faith in their fathers’ religions, though they “made no sense.” The Quran mocks worthless, blind faith. Anything but blind, faith in Islam is based on clear evidence, rational evidence, rational examination, and love of Allah, the Creator.
Since truth can survive any questioning, the light of reason and criticism further reveals the beauty and grandeur of Islam. Islam is rational, not requiring the stifling of man’s natural, thinking nature. On the other hand, Luther, the founder of Protestantism, called reason a whore, berating it for lacking loyalty, not supporting Christianity. I doubt Holy Prophet Muhammad felt any similar frustration, because in Islam faith and reason are in perfect harmony. So, Islam does not feel threatened by critical analysis.
Unlike Catholics, we have never had an Index Librarum Prohibitorum, a list of forbidden books. Copernicus said that Aristotle was wrong, that the earth was not the centre of the universe. This differed with the Church’s position. Later, Galileo proved Copernicus correct with the recently invented telescope, and was imprisoned and censored. That attitude is alien to Islam. Islam suits the scientist or mathematician as easily as it does the mystic or philosopher. Islam has no Original Sin, vicarious atonement, prophets committing atrocities, or other intellectual pitfalls.
Beauty of the Quran:
Islam’s bedrock, the Holy Quran, has none of the problems I noticed long ago in other faiths: contradictions, absurdities, or inconsistencies are not to be found in its hallowed pages. A sublime simplicity was evident throughout its verses:
قُلۡ ہُوَ اللّٰہُ اَحَدٌ ۚ﴿۱﴾ اَللّٰہُ الصَّمَدُ ۚ﴿۲﴾ لَمۡ یَلِدۡ ۬ۙ وَ لَمۡ یُوۡلَدۡ ۙ﴿۳﴾ وَ لَمۡ یَکُنۡ لَّہٗ کُفُوًا اَحَدٌ ٪﴿۴﴾
“Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And none is like Him” (The Holy Quran, Chapter 112).
Compare the divine unity, the Tawhid, expressed in Surah al-Ikhlas above, to the oxymoron of a triple monotheism to be found in the Nicene Creed of Christianity.
The amazing fact about Islam’s doctrines is their deceptive succinctness and clarity. Easily comprehensible by a child, yet yielding intricate and profound truths upon reflection by the theologian or philosopher. One important point is that, unlike other holy scriptures and religions, the Quran and Islam, can truly earn one’s belief in their divine origins with rational evidence.
Islam is a Cosmopolitan Religion:
Another unique quality of Islam is its amazingly cosmopolitan outlook.
یٰۤاَیُّہَا النَّاسُ اِنَّا خَلَقۡنٰکُمۡ مِّنۡ ذَکَرٍ وَّ اُنۡثٰی وَ جَعَلۡنٰکُمۡ شُعُوۡبًا وَّ قَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوۡا ؕ اِنَّ اَکۡرَمَکُمۡ عِنۡدَ اللّٰہِ اَتۡقٰکُمۡ ؕ
“O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and female, and made you tribes and families that you may know one another. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful of you” (The Holy Quran, 49:13).
This verse establishes a ranking based on spiritual merit, as well as the brotherhood and origin of man. No other religious founder had so grand a vision encompassing all the world and all mankind.
The Quran has parts which defy conventional explanation and imply extra-human authorship. It contains information an illiterate merchant of the sixth century could not have known. Islam established a comprehensive blueprint for a just society centuries ago. Supposedly new concepts of justice, democracy, and equality were introduced far in the past. Islamic Shariah [Law] constituted a comprehensive legal code far ahead of its time, and comparable to ours.
Islam’s Practices are not Ritualistic:
But perhaps the great genius of Islam is its multifaceted character. Islam’s requirements are not arbitrary or petty. Like an allegory, Islam’s requirements have manifold significances, with levels of meanings and purposes for the individual and society. Take salat [prayer] for instance. All at once, it gives the believer spiritual sustenance, guidance, discipline, good health, hygiene, and a feeling of brotherhood within the Ummah [Islamic nation]. Or the prohibition of pork. On a spiritual level, it is a moderate example of self-denial, a little discipline for one’s religion. On an individual and societal level, it is a healthy habit to avoid pork. In fact, throughout most of history, the swine was a dangerous source of food because of certain diseases it carried. The same goes for limitations regarding alcohol, adultery, gambling, and the teachings about fasting, pilgrimage, marriage, and so on. These are not arbitrary inconveniences but prudent guidelines for society. These things are examples of how Islam is more than just an individual creed, but a plan for civilization.
When the gospels tell the Christians to
“turn the other cheek,”
it sounds really nice and inspiring, but examine it in depth and you realize that it is an invitation to anarchy. Imagine if this sentiment were implemented universally! What kind of legislation would result? How would wrongs be addressed? It illustrates how Christianity, unlike Islam, works only towards individual fulfilment.
Islam appeals to the Intellectual:
I have given a few examples of the great strengths of Islam, but I have more! One of the strongest signs of Islam’s truth is that it ultimately supports the profound ideals which are so important to today’s intellectual. New-fangled concepts like religious pluralism, universal liberty, racial equality, tolerance, rational examination, democracy, the brotherhood of mankind, and sexual equality have been part of Islam for centuries.
Also, Islam embraces a central tenet of secularism, a humanistic concern for all people’s welfare. Now Einstein was anything but the father of atheism! On the contrary, he felt that the universe’s strictly ordered structure implied a Creator. Notice the echo of Quran in that sentiment. So, this idea which initially seemed threatening to belief in God, ultimately supports us in our faith as further evidence, another ayat or sign from Allah.
In conclusion, at times it seems that Mammon, hedonistic individualism, and immorality reign supreme in a dark trinity over today’s world. But there are rays of hope in the gloom — today’s tolerance, knowledge, and wisdom serve our cause. Legions of modern-day hanifs from Boston to Basra await some message of truth to dispel the darkness of modern-day jahilliyah [ignorance]. Islam was spread by one great man under much harder and lonelier circumstances, in a time before mass communication or widespread reading. It is our solemn duty to help in our own humble ways in the great striving against falsehood, the Jihad Kabir, so that the sun can finally rise over the West. And remember, on the Day of Reckoning:
فَمَنۡ یَّعۡمَلۡ مِثۡقَالَ ذَرَّۃٍ خَیۡرًا یَّرَہٗ ؕ﴿۷﴾
“Whoso does an atom’s weight of good shall see it …” (Holy Quran, 99:7).