4 Islam is NOT a religion

Religion.  What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read this word, ‘religion’? Perhaps you are thinking about Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or perhaps you are thinking about a set of archaic rituals or a collection of beliefs that are unverifiable.

 

Is Feminism a religion? Most people would not consider Feminism to be a religion.  However, if Feminism is not a religion and Islam is a religion, then we could theorize an “Islamic Feminism” because Feminism and Islam are in separate conceptual domains which can overlap in the area of “Women’s rights”.   There is an underlying problem here which one may miss if they do not explore the philosophical assumptions of both Feminism and Islam.  One main assumption that serves as the undergriddle of Feminism comes to the fore when we look at the debate on abortion.  “My body, my choice.” is echoed in many Feminist rallies.  In other words, the underlying assumption is that a person owns themselves.  This runs completely antagonistic to the Islamic paradigm, which clearly states that God owns us:

 

And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.1

 

Islam not only speaks about women’s rights but also about men’s rights, children’s rights, parents’ rights, animal rights, and most importantly, God’s rights.  In fact, to state that there can be an “Islamic Feminism” belies the foundations of Islamic beliefs.

 

In this section I will be arguing that Islam is NOT a religion and by conceptualizing Islam as a religion, a person will become prone to being affected by doubts. It is important then to start with the word ‘religion’ itself.  Here I will bifurcate the understanding of the term ‘religion’ into a ‘normative’ understanding  and a ‘descriptive’ understanding.  By ‘normative’ I am referring to how the word should be understood, as it describes itself based upon its etymology and linguistic roots.  Conversely, when I speak of a ‘descriptive’ understanding of the word, I am referring to how it is understood in the context in which it is used.

 

By way of example, consider the word, ‘Islam’.  A normative understanding of ‘Islam’ points to what ‘Islam’ says about itself.  ‘Islam’ is a gerund (verbal noun) whose triliteral root is traced back to ‘istislam’ which means, “to surrender, capitulate; to give way, surrender, yield”2 Thus, a normative understanding of Islam would be ‘submission or surrender to God.’  Compare this to how the word ‘Islam’ is understood in various contexts.  If I mentioned the word to a random stranger in Midland, Texas they may say, “Oh Islam? Yea that’s that craziness which causes people to want to kill other people, right?”  If I mentioned the word to a person in a mosque, they may say, “Islam is about prayer, fasting, community, brotherhood and great biryani.” How the word ‘Islam’ is understood by the person hearing the word will be dependent upon their surroundings and context.  Both of these contexts (Midland and the Mosque) are descriptive understandings of the word.

 

When we come to the word ‘religion’ and present a normative and descriptive understanding of the word, it will allow me to fine tune my initial claim i.e. Islam is NOT a religion.  Islam is NOT a religion when we consider the descriptive understanding of ‘religion’.  However, Islam may be considered a ‘religion’ when we cast the term in its normative light.

We can derive a normative understanding of ‘religion’ by juxtaposing a pre-modern conceptualization of the word with a contemporary understanding of the word.

 

What we understand when we hear the word ‘religion’ today is a consequence of a particular European historical event, as Shahab Ahmed writes, “Fundamental here are the consequences of the fact that the concept and term “religion” as it is used today in the language of modern analysis – both by scholars and laymen – emerged in the wake of the devastating European “Wars of Religion” (1530-1630) as a product of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe.  “Religion” was articulated as instrument and expression of the social and intellectual struggle of Europeans to free themselves from the monopoly of the totalizing truth-claims that were made by and exercised from the social, political, intellectual and material institution of the Christian Church.”3

 

The understanding of ‘religion’ prior to the “Wars of Religion” was much broader and  facilitated a comprehensive ‘lens’ by which to view reality.   This ‘lens’ was provided by the institution of the Christian Church such that, “Christianity was the very air one breathed in what we call Europe and what was then Christendom. It was the atmosphere in which a man lived out his entire life…Today we make a choice to be Christian or not.  There was no choice in the sixteenth century.  One was Christian in fact.”4

 

A reflection of this ubiquitous “air of Christianity” in pre-modern Europe can be seen in the exchange of letters between the Byzantine Emperor Leo III and the Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz around the year 720.  In one of these letters, Leo III criticizes the Islamic depiction of paradise, which speaks about sensual delights like milk, honey and wine and carnal fulfillment by way of pure virgins:

 

“…we hope, after our resurrection, to enjoy the celestial kingdom, so we are submissive to the doctrines of the Gospel, and wait humbly for a happiness such that “eyes have never seen it, nor ears ever heard it, but which God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. II, 9).  We do not hope to find there springs of wine, honey or milk.  We do not expect to enjoy there commerce with women who remain for ever virgin, and to have children by them, for we put no faith in such silly tales…”5

 

What is interesting to note, is that Leo III is not appealing to a logical problem of sensual pleasures in paradise.  For if God can create those pleasures on earth, then is it not possible for Him to create them, albeit in a heightened form, in paradise?  Rather, because the ‘lenses’ by which Leo III perceives reality are distinctly Christian, the very notion of such pleasures is “silly”.6

 

This expansive understanding of ‘religion’ was not limited to Christendom, but was also present in the pre-modern Islamic world. Before the arrival of colonial powers into Islamic lands, the wide-range concept of dīn was the ‘lens’ by which truth was viewed.

 

If there is a normative understanding of ‘religion’ (that which was present before the Wars of Religion) and a descriptive understanding of it (that which emerged after the Wars of Religion) then we can say that the concept of dīn is closest to that of the normative understanding of ‘religion’.  A deeper insight into this normative understanding of ‘religion’ and the concept of dīn can be obtained by way of studying the etymology and linguistic roots of both terms respectively.

 

With regards to the etymology of the word ‘religion’, one opinion is that the word originated from the Latin “religare” (to bind) which then morphed into “religio” meaning an obligation, bond or reverence. Another opinion, states that the word “religio” can actually be traced back to the term “relegere” and thus, “religio” actually means “to go through over again in reading, speech and thought.”8

Based upon the etymology, we can propose that ‘religion’ is that which you are obligated to follow due to some exoteric bond or based upon a deep, esoteric reverence and that is fortified by repetitive thought, conversation or reading.  Note that this conceptualization of ‘religion’ would now encompass Feminism, Liberalism, Transgenderism, Capitalism, etc. because one could find themselves obligated to their precepts due to either being exoterically bound to these ideologies or having an esoteric reverence for them and then in turn, the claimed veracity of these ideologies is fortified by repetition in the media, academic institutions, social events, etc.

 

This conceptualization of religion can be mapped out, albeit not perfectly, to the word ‘dīn’ in the Islamic framework. Linguistically, dīn comes from an Arabic triliteral root which has a number of related concepts to the etymological understanding of ‘religion’: recompense, obligation, indebtedness, etc.8  The term is very often used with a transactional framing i.e. exchanging something for something else.  For example, there is an Arabic proverb which uses a form of the word: kamā tadinu tudān, “as you do, so shall you be repaid”.9

 

Also, in the first, supplicatory chapter of the Qur’an, the 3rd verse reads: Māliki yaum al-dīn Sovereign on the Day of Recompense.10  Commenting on this verse, Muhammad Mohar Ali says, “Dîn has a multiplicity of meanings depending upon the contexts, such as judgement, reckoning, and awarding of reward and punishment, religion or way of life and millah or community.”11 It follows that any notion of judgment, reckoning, awarding of reward and punishment, etc. must have a system, law or standard upon which it is based. Otherwise, how can one make a judgment, or reward or punish, or call to reckon without a standard by which

 

1 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Baqarah [2:155-157] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed February 21, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/2/155-157.

 

2 Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (English and Arabic Edition). Snowballpublishing.com, 2020., pg. 496 under verb form X, سلم

 

3 Ahmed, Shahab. What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton University Press, 2017., pg. 177

 

4 Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais. Harvard University Press, 1982., pg. 336

 

5 Jeffery, Arthur. “Ghevond’s Text of the Correspondence between ’Umar II and Leo III.” The Harvard Theological Review 37, no. 4 (1944): 269–332. https://doi.org/10.2307/1508294., pg. 328

 

6 Early Christianity generally regarded sex or sexual desire as evil or sinful. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk is quoted to have said, “There is one evil, an evil above all other evil, that I am aware is always with me, that grievously and piteously lacerates and afflicts my soul. It was with me from the cradle, it grew with me in childhood, in adolescences, in my youth it always struck me, and it does not desert me even now that my limbs are failing because of my old age.  This evil is sexual desire.”  See Carlton, Genevieve. “Weird Things That Early Christianity Regarded As Sexual Sins.” Ranker, November 16, 2017. https://www.ranker.com/list/what-counted-as-early-christian-sins/genevieve-carlton.

 

7 Regarding the etymology of ‘religion’, Sarah Hoyt writes, “The Oxford Dictionary says, The connection of the word religion with religare, to bind, has usually been favored by modern writers. This etymology, given by Roman grammarian (end of 4th cent. A.D.) Servius (Relliogo, id est metus ab eo quod mentum religet, dicta religio) was supported by the Christian philosopher Lactantius (about 313 A.D.) who quotes the expression of the celebrated Roman philosophical poet Lucretius: religionum animum nodis exsolvere, in proof that he considered ligre, to bind, to be the root of religio… The Century Dictionary, though referring to the uncertain origin of religio, cites the English ligament as perhaps allied. So, Harper’s Latin Lexicon refers to Corssen’s Aussprache as taking religio in the same sense as obligatio (obligation)… But in De NaturaDeorum, 2, 28, 72, Cicero derives religio from relegere, as meaning to go through or over again in reading, speech or thought.” See Hoyt, Sarah F. “The Etymology of Religion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 32, no. 2 (1912): 126. https://doi.org/10.2307/3087765.

 

8 Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (English and Arabic Edition). Snowballpublishing.com, 2020. Pg. 353 under (دان (دين

 

9 Lane, Edward W., and Stanley Lane-Poole. An Arabic-English Lexicon. Cosimo Incorporated, 2013. Pg. 949

 

10 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Fatihah – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed February 22, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/1.

 

11 Ali, Muhammad Mohar. A Word for Word Meaning of the Qur’an, 2002. pg.1

 

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