The Essence of Islam: Truth, Love, and Justice

Part One:  The Spiritual Basis of Community Self-Determination

Dr. Robert D. Crane
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I. The Role of Transcendent Purpose in Human Life

One of the biggest questions in both foreign and domestic policy is whether the drive for stability through uniformity should triumph over the search for peace, prosperity, and freedom through diversity. Do the Kurds have a right to exist as a people in Southwest Asia, or the Chechens in the Caucasus, or the Pushtuns in Central Asia, or the Palestinians and the Jews in the Holy Land? Should the imposition of centralized government through the monopoly of coercion inherent in state sovereignty crush the human search for both personal and group identity? And who has the right to decide on these issues, and on what basis?

Those who ascribe collective guilt to Muslims as inherently terrorist, or Germans as inherently Nazis, or to Jews or to any other human community as genocidal, are attacking the right of communities and of their component individual persons to dignity. Those who want to use force to stamp out the existing or imagined “other” are no less totalitarian than their imaginary enemy.

Muslims are no exception. Some want unity in their own organizations by imposing uniformity. Some want to impose a global caliphate to impose their own view of justice, even though this would violate all the basic premises of classical Islamic jurisprudence on human responsibilities and human rights.

Some of these Muslims invoke the teachings of the great scholar Ibn Khaldun by perverting his essential teachings on justice in order to support their caliphatic delusions. Ibn Khaldun wrote at the time of the Mongol invasions when the political rulers of the day insisted that their own tyrannical power was the only way to maintain what we would nowadays would call “national security”. He was imprisoned for life by teaching that the Islamic caliphate was not a military institution, nor even a political one. He taught that the Islamic global caliphate was exclusively the consensus of the leading scholars and wise men on the purpose of human life. Destruction of a civilization by its own leaders was no way to save it.

What was the solution to the chaos of his day? He was not alone in insisting that the ultimate salvation to the global chaos of his or any other century lies in the unending search for truth, love, and justice.

The two questions we need to address are, first, whether there is an essence of higher religion, especially Islam, and, if so, what is it, and second, what is the role of human community, especially in the classical Islamic classical thought of the third through seventh Islamic centuries.

In undertaking this exploration, we need, like Ibn Khaldun, to look at the big picture and ask the big questions of purpose, which go far beyond the purview of modern science. Does any of us have a purpose other then mere survival? Does the world have any purpose? Do persons and communities have any purpose in the larger world? We cannot avoid such questions, because to ask them is part of our human nature.

It is no accident that the most popular poet and teacher of purpose everywhere in the world today is Maulana Jalal ad din Balkhy, known as Rumi. He lived in an era similar to our own, an era of chaos and destruction, which was brought on by the Mongol invasion of his homeland in what is now Afghanistan. This is said to have brought on the destruction of all civilization and all purpose in life other than simple survival.

What was his reaction to all of this? He spent a lifetime teaching that there is no death, that life is an everlasting journey through time and space within this universe and then beyond in timelessness. This current life is like a dream and when our bodies die, it is then that we feel awake. He wrote, “My religion is to be alive from Love. Being only physically alive is a disgrace.” He taught that the unending and open-ended search for ultimate truth is universal and that this search is a product of love. He declared that love is the reason for the creation of the universe. He ended one of his poems with the words, “Were it not for love, the world would perish.” This was Rumi’s answer at a time when Ghenghiz Khan was carrying out a holocaust that wiped out half the population of Persia.

This is one of many paradigms of purpose in human life. Another is known as Secular Humanism, which is an ideology that calls for worship of the Imperial Self. Another is Cosmic Humanism, which worships the physical cosmos as a sentient being, of which we are an indissoluble part. Another was Marxism-Leninism, which may be defined as worship of collective man in the form of the State as an object of worship, which may be regarded as the “perfect storm” in the assault on human dignity and group identity.

The teachings of Rumi may be known in Islam as the paradigm of ihsan, which is loving awareness of Allah through awareness of one’s own transcendent self, the ruh, so that one’s actions will aim not toward the good but toward the best. This paradigm of purpose was described by Pope John Paul II as Personalism, which is the dignity of the person as a manifestation of the divine created by and in the image of the Source, otherwise known as God. This reflects the transcendent wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Maimonides, and the Lord Buddha.

This paradigm of purpose was best described perhaps by the Trappist monk, with whom I used to correspond forty years ago, Thomas Merton. He declared, “Your true identity is the person that God created you to be. So become it.” This is your purpose. And the same is true of the communities that reflect the identities of their members. This is true therefore of entire civilizations. Just as every person has a transcendent purpose, so too do entire civilizations.

Civilizations fall when they are exploited by hypocritical, ugly, unjust, and vengeful persons organized in institutional centers of organized power, corruption, and oppression, especially when all this is done in the name of religion and God. This is why so many people say they do not believe in God. Whenever anyone says to me that they do not believe in God, I always reply, “Tell me about this god that you do not believe in.” We end up agreeing in our love of truth, beauty, justice, mercy, and freedom, which I tell them is the transcendent reason for our existence and both the cause and purpose of every flourishing civilization.

II. Civilizations and Community as a Framework for Understanding

This raises the question, what is a civilization. A civilization is the highest form of human self-identity other than our human species. This civilizational level of identity has always been my framework for understanding human life on earth. When I was eleven years old in the summer of 1940, I wrote the first 150 pages of a projected 1,000-page book, entitled From Savagery to Civilization. The entire world at the time seemed headed for global confrontation and destructive war. This was the story of a boatload of settlers who were shipwrecked on a tropical island and were trying to reconstruct the civilization from which they had just come. Unfortunately, the characters in my book began to fight over the character of this civilization and instead reverted to savagery. Much against my own wishes, this terminated the book.

Eight years later, after the Second World War had been fought to a conclusion, I left Harvard to become the first American university student to study in Postwar Germany. The country was devastated and was expected to require a hundred years to recover. I spent a year at the Nurnberg Trials and in personal interviews studying what had led Germany to this shattered state. Especially I was interested in the spiritual dynamics of resistance to the new phenomenon of the totalitarian state, both Nazism and its sequel known as Stalinist Communism. When I joined the underground against Communism in Eastern Europe, I was imprisoned twice but escaped each time, perhaps the first person ever to have done that. And each time, I learned that a force higher than the human was the ultimate power in the world.

At this time, Arnold Toynbee had just published his seven-volume History of Civilization, which I assiduously read. I corresponded with Toynbee by sending him a forty-page critique of his magnum opus in which I complained that he seemed to miss the spiritual dimension of civilizational dynamics. Probably no thanks to me, he emphasized this spiritual dimension in all his subsequent books.

Toynbee stated that the first person ever to have looked at entire civilizations as actors in history was the Muslim, Ibn Khaldun, who lived a century after Rumi. Modern Western scholars consider Ibn Khaldun to be the first secular sociologist and historian, but, in fact, he was profoundly spiritual and a great Islamic scholar.

He introduced the concept of civilizational essence and civilizational interchange. He said that the dynamic of civilizational rise is community identity or asabiya. This can be destructive if it takes the form of exclusivist tribalism, which is the pursuit of one’s own power at the expense of others. In contrast, community identity can be constructive if it takes the form of learning from others in competition to benefit everyone. The Qur’an warns against the search for uniformity as the worship of a false god, and teaches the potential for unity that can come from fulfilling the purpose of human diversity.

The Qur’an emphasizes this positive aspect of group identity inherent in diversity, beginning with the smallest community in nuclear pairs. Surah Ya Sin 36:36 addresses the polarity in all physical creation: “Limitless in His glory is He who has created opposites in whatever the earth produces, and in men’s own selves, and in that of which they as yet no knowledge”. Surah al Dhariyat 51:47-49 tells us, “And it is We who have built the universe (sama’a) with Our creative power, and verily it is we who are steadily expanding it. And the earth we have spread out wide – and how well we have ordered it. And in everything have we created opposites ((zawjayn), so that you might bear in mind that God is One”.

Surah al Ra’d 13:3 states, “And it is He who has spread the earth wide and placed on it firm mountains and running waters, and created on it two sexes of every kind of plant; and it is He who causes the night to cover the day. Verily, in all this are messages indeed for people who think”. In Surah al Shura 42:11, we read, “He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle. By this means he multiplies you. There is nothing whatever like Him, and He is the One that hears and sees all things”.

In Surah al Nahl 16:68 we are reminded not merely of pairs or opposites but of entire communities as building blocs of nature of communities in nature: “And your Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in human habitations”. The dialectic of opposites produces a unity of attraction in larger communities, which, in turn, produces a still higher dialectic and a still higher unity.

In Surah al Hujurat 49:13, we read, “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other.” Surah al Ma’ida 5:51 teaches us: “To each among you have we prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If God had so willed, he would have made you a single Community (umma), but His Plan is to test you in what He has given you, so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God”. In Surah al A’raf 7:34, we are warned, “To every Community (umma) is a term appointed. When their term is reached, not an hour can they cause delay, nor an hour can they advance it”.

In Surahs Al Waqi’a 56:16, Al Dukhan 44:54, and Ha Mim 41:25, even in heaven and hell there will be companions in community. At the end of Surah al Qamar 54:49-55 we are informed about the Assembly of Truth in heaven: “Verily all things have We created and in proportion and measure. And Our Command is but a single act, like the twinkling of an eye. And often in the past have We destroyed gangs like you; then is there any that will receive admonition? All that they do is noted in their Books of deeds; every matter small and great is on record. As to the righteous, they will be in the midst of gardens and rivers in an Assembly of Truth (maq’adi sidqin) in the Presence of a Sovereign Omnipotent”.

In Surah Al-i ‘Imran 3:103, God urges the different tribes in Madina to join in a single federation: “And hold fast together, by the rope which God stretches out for you, and do not be divided among yourselves”. In the same surah, verse 200, we are advised, “O you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy. Vie in such perseverence. Strengthen each other, and remain in loving awe of God so that you may prosper”.

In his footnote 5461 to verse 62:9 of Surah al Jumu’a, The Assembly, Yusuf Ali beautifully explains the beauty of community identity and coherence embodied in the Friday Prayer and in the Hajj as central to Islamic belief and practice, wherein the diversity of human beings and their separate communities serves to glorify the Oneness of their Creator.

Ibn Khaldun also pioneered the interactive approach to the study of civilizations by showing that civilizations do not exist as separate entities but borrow from each other in a process of civilizational enrichment. He warned against the clash of civilizations, but taught that such clash was the exception rather than the rule. This approach has been revived by Susan Douglas of the Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. On May 5th, 2008, at a conference entitled “Islamic Traditions of Peace and Nonviolence”, sponsored by the Rumi Forum and the American University Center for Global Peace, Dr. Douglas explained that teaching about civilizations is a much needed global civic enterprise. Her theme was that we should stop our pedagogical approach of viewing civilizations as floats in a parade passing by as if they came from different planets. In fact, she said, we should study civilizational eras, wherein different civilizations faced common global problems and interacted in the search for answers.

She did not mention this, but it has struck me that the era of maximum civilizational chaos in human history, extending from China to Africa and Europe and even America, was the period of the sixth and seventh centuries after Christ, which was precisely when the Qur’an was revealed as probably the most profound history and analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations and of every level of community, even of plants and animals. It was also the beginning of an era when civilizational interchange reached its peak in the study of transcendent purpose.

III. The Natural Law of Faith Based Justice

The three major purposes that transcend the pursuit of power, privilege, prestige, and wanton pleasure in any civilization are justice, known in Qur’anic Arabic as ‘adl, balanced order, known as mizan, and freedom of religion, known by some as haqq al din.

Islam is known as a religion of peace, salam. In classical Islamic thought, as developed from the third through sixth Islamic centuries, peace as the essence of Islam results from justice, and justice is merely the expression of truth. The most profound verse in the Qur’an as a source of faith-based justice is Surah al An’am 6:115, “The Message of your Lord is completed and perfected in truth and in justice.” This teaches that justice is an expression of truth and that truth originates in the transcendent order of reality, indeed from the Being of God, not in man-made law.

Perhaps the second most profound verse is perhaps Surah al Shura 42:17, which emphasizes the concept of balance, known as mizan. This is central to all classical Islamic thought in every aspect of both personal and social life. “It is God Who has bestowed revelation from on high, setting forth the truth, and [thus given man] a balance [wherewith to weigh right and wrong].” This verse of the Qur’an teaches that divine revelation through the various prophets in human history is considered to be a balance, an instrument placed by God in our hands by which we can weigh all issues of conscience.

A third profound teaching of the Qur’an is the importance and power of choice, of which the most important instance is freedom of religion and the freedom to interpret divine guidance in the practice of justice. The concept of choice is central, because, without freedom to choose, neither balance nor justice would have any meaning. The power to choose between good and bad is the greatest gift from the Creator to the created, but it is also a profound test for every person, every community, and nation, every civilization, and humanity itself.

The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of the basic power to choose between purposes or higher paradigms of thought, because the choice shapes the governing agendas of both persons and communities and thereby controls action. According to the Qur’an, the choice that has determined the rise and fall of entire civilizations throughout human history is between the pursuit of transcendent justice and the pursuit of material power as an ultimate goal in life. The weightiness of this choice is indicated in the following Qur’anic verse from Surah al Hadid – Iron – 57:25:

“We bestowed revelation from on high, and [thus gave you] a balance [wherewith to weigh right and wrong]; and We bestowed [upon you] from on high [the ability to make use of] iron, in which there is awesome power as well as [a source of] benefits for man; and [all this was given to you] so that God might mark out those who would stand up for Him and His Apostles, even though He [Himself] is beyond the reach of human perception.”

Man has the power through his own ingenuity and free choice to convert to his own use the natural resources of the world in order to fashion tools and ultimately to develop technology and the machine and even nuclear fuel for either good or evil. He can develop modern conveniences to live more easily on his native planet or he can treat the entire planet as a tool and thereby lose his inner connection with nature. This, in turn, can lead to the gradual dissolution of all moral and spiritual perceptions and to denial of divine guidance as a fact of reality.

The balance to be maintained in every civilization as embodied in every world religion is among order, justice, and freedom. This paradigm of balance teaches that order, justice, and freedom are interdependent. When freedom is construed to be independent of justice, there can be no justice and the result will be anarchy. When order is thought to be possible without justice, there will be no order, because injustice is the principal cause of disorder. When justice is thought to be possible without order and freedom, then the pursuit or order, justice, and freedom are snares of the ignorant.

Without consensus on the proper nature of order, and of justice and freedom as essential parts of a single whole, rather than as independent pursuits, no civilization can continue to exist. The twin roles of religion in all of its traditionalist manifestations, including the monotheistic and “revealed religions”, and especially Islam, are the spiritual well-being or happiness of every person and the maintenance of consensus on the responsibilities and rights necessary to live in an ordered society.
IV. The Essence of Transcendent Justice?

Students of comparative legal systems differ on whether there is an essence to any particular religion and to any given legal system, or whether each religion is an accumulation of human practices and every legal system is a composite of accidentals developed in response to changing exigencies.

Islam is by far the best example of a religion that has very self-consciously developed a sense of its own essence and sharply distinguished this from any perverted interpretation and practice by self-professed Muslims. Whereas in Christianity the essence is considered to be love at the level of metaphysical philosophy, in Islam the essence is considered to be law at the level of moral philosophy. As Michiel Bijkirk put it in an email on May 18th, 2008, “Law in Islam has a soul or spiritual side. Without that spiritual side, there is only the law, not justice.”

In Western positivist law, which by definition is entirely manmade, law exists only to the extent that it is enforced. In Islam, if the law has to be enforced it has failed, because the purpose of Islamic law is primarily educational as a set of guidelines for action.

What are these guidelines? Some of the best minds in human history developed this set of guidelines over a period of many centuries. These guidelines are known as the maqasid al shari’ah or purposes of the shari’ah, or as the kulliyat or universal principles, or as the dururiyat or essentials.

Very briefly, these may be categorized as the following eight: haqq al din (freedom of religion), haqq al nafs (respect for the human person and human life), haqq al nasl (respect for marriage and human community), haqq al mahid (respect for the physical environment), haqq al mal (respect for the universal right to ownership of productive property), haqq al hurriya (respect for the universal right of self-determination or political freedom), haqq al karama (respect for human dignity, especially gender equity), and haqq al ‘ilm (respect for the rights to free speech, publication, and association).

For more than three decades, ever since I first encountered the normative law of the shari’ah as a set of human responsibilities and rights, I considered that these norms or guidelines constitute the essence of Islamic jurisprudence. They provide a sophisticated methodology for understanding the Qur’an and evaluating the ahadith, so that the rules and regulations or ahkam can be applied justly.

Recently, however, I have come to the conclusion that there are two essences, one formative and the other derivative, and that they must be maintained in a dialectical balance. I was thinking of human rights as the intellectual essence, but this is an essential derivative of a prior essence, which is love, ‘ishq, coming from beyond the human intellect. In systems terminology, there is an input/output balance. The input is transcendent, known as the batin, and the output is immanent, known as the zahr.

This is similar to the dialectic in all of creation, but especially between the theory and practice of law. In the intellectual processing, the theory should influence the practice, but the practice should also influence the theory. In Islamic jurisprudence and in Islamic thought generally, the theory itself comes from the transcendent source of divine guidance, as best human beings can understand it in the open-ended search for truth. But this understanding must also reflect the experience of practice in a changing space-time universe. The essence is indeed unchanging, but its application is or should be in constant flux, because that is the nature of reality.

The controversial question then arises, is there a need for a separate madhab or school of law that reflects this transcendent dimension more clearly than have the existing six madhdhabib. Or should one consider this focus on the transcendent merely as a school of paradigmatic thought rather than as a school of law, so that this paradigm can inform equally all the schools of law and help them maintain their independence from the dead hand of taqlid, which has caused the atrophy of their original inspiration in opposing the political imposition of uniformity? In Islam is there really a difference between thought and law, since law is the basic framework of reference in Islamic thought, whereas in the Western positivist paradigm human thought is the framework for law?

One might look at this new perspective on the shari’ah by using the analogy of the hourglass. The shari’ah is like an hourglass which transmutes the transcendent into the immanent by means of the art of intellectual processing. This processing from input to output is what Allah in the Qur’an refers to as the jihad al kabir or “great jihad,” which is the only jihad mentioned in the Qur’an, Surah al Furqan 25:52, wa jihidhum bihi jihadan kabiran, “struggle with it [divine revelation] in a great jihad.” The other two, the jihad al akbar and the jihad al saghrir, are mentioned only in the ahadith.

Following the insights of Rumi, the shari’ah would have two essences, the input of love and the output of human rights. Without eternal input there will never be any lasting output, since, as Rumi puts it, love is the reason for the creation of the universe. Quite simply, who would care about justice unless one were motivated by love? This, of course, would explain why in recent times justice has gone out of style.

In conclusion, it might be appropriate to remember the wisdom of “the throne verse,” the ayah al kursi, Surah Baqara 2:255, Ya’alamu ma bayna ‘aydihim wa ma khalfahum; wa la yuhituna bi shayin min ‘ilmihi illa bi ma sha’a, “He know all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to any of His knowledge except what He wills [them to attain].

This essay was delivered at the annual fundraiser of The Council on American-Islamic Relations, Pennsylvania Chapter, on April 3, 2010, and was condensed for the launching of Dr. Crane’s book, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective, at the International Institute of Islamic Thought on March 29th, 2010. This essay is further developed by the Center for Understanding Islam in its 620-page textbook, Islam and Muslims, co-authored by its president, Dr. Muhammad Ali Chaudry, and by Dr. Crane as its founding chairman. Political freedom in the context of community self-determination or “group rights” forms one of eight chapters, each on one of the eight normative principles of Islamic jurisprudence, in Dr. Crane’s forthcoming book, Rehabilitating the Role of Religion in the World: Laying a New Foundation on the Natural Law of Faith-Based, Compassionate Justice, which was posted in three parts in the ezine on May 30, 2009.