5 What is a Weltanschauung?

In 1781, in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg, a frail man of fifty seven years wrote his first book which would go on to powerfully challenge the ideas of famous empiricists like David Hume and John Locke.  This man was none other than Immanuel Kant and the book he wrote was called The Critique of Pure Reason.  This “critique” would be the first of three books he published over the course of nine years.  As Kant sat down in 1790 to write his third “critique” called The Critique of Judgment, he wrote a word in German that would reverberate until today.  This word would traverse many fields including Sociology, Cognitive Psychology, and Linguistics.  It would be used 175 years after it was first penned  by a Japanese man writing in Tokyo, Japan on the subject of Qur’anic Studies.1  That word was “Weltanschauung”.

 

The English word Worldview is a calque of this German word. A calque is a phrase or a word that is borrowed from another language by directly translating the term word-for-word.  In this case, Weltanschauung is composed of  Welt, which means ‘world’ and Anschauung which means ‘view’ or ‘perception’.

 

In our discussion in the previous chapter, we showed that understanding Islam as a religion is problematic.  In this chapter, we will explore how to properly conceptualize Islam, moving from understanding it as a religion to understanding it as a worldview.  Worldview is a better and ‘tighter’ approximation of the meaning of the word ‘dīn’ (as compared to ‘religion’) and and since Islam is a dīn, grasping worldview will allow us to more clearly understand Islam. This, in turn will empower us to deal with doubts about Islam.

 

A worldview is a framework of ideas and beliefs that inform one’s interpretation of the world they inhabit. This framework rests on existential questions i.e. questions about a person’s existence.  Questions like, “Where did I come from?”, “Why am I here?”, and “What happens when I die?”  James Anderson, expounding upon the answer to ‘what is a worldview?’ writes,

 

“A person’s worldview represents his most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe he inhabits. It reflects how he would answer all the “big questions” of human existence: fundamental questions about who and what we are, where we came from, why we’re here, where (if anywhere) we’re headed, the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of the afterlife, and what counts as a good life here and now. Few people think through these issues in any depth, and fewer still have firm answers to such questions, but a person’s worldview will at least incline him toward certain kinds of answers and away from others.”2

 

As Anderson mentions, few people will think deeply about existential questions and yet, the answers or lack thereof will determine how a person interprets reality.

 

To state it in a different way, a worldview is the ‘lens’ by which a person ‘views’ reality:

 

“Worldviews shape and inform our experiences of the world around us. Like spectacles with colored lenses, they affect what we see and how we see it. Depending on the “color” of the lenses, some things may be seen more easily, or conversely, they may be de-emphasized or distorted—indeed, some things may not be seen at all.”3

 

Imagine that you are wearing glasses with green lenses and I am wearing glasses with red lenses.  If I pointed to a tree and tried to convince you that the leaves of the tree are red, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for you to accept that the leaves of the tree are red.  Worldviews operate in a similar way with one crucial difference. In my analogy, you could theorize that we could both take off our glasses and view the tree with our naked eye and reach some sort of objective understanding of the color of the leaves. When it comes to worldviews, this would not be possible because everyone has a worldview and there is no way to interpret reality without a worldview.  In fact, even if someone claimed they could somehow transcend worldviews (i.e. take off their ‘glasses’), that claim would be based upon their worldview.

 

We can compare worldviews to languages we speak or directions we face.  Everyone has a language they speak, just like everyone has a direction they face.  No person can cogitate or communicate without a language. Similarly, a person is always facing a direction; they cannot be ‘direction-less’.  When a person has an awareness of this fact, i.e. everyone has a worldview, it will allow them to analyze their own worldview and that of others as well.4

 

The connection between worldviews and direction is alluded to in the 2nd chapter of the Qur’an:

 

Everyone has a direction towards which he faces. So race to [all that is] good. Wherever you may be, Allah will bring you forth [for judgment] all together.  Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.5

 

While this verse is speaking about a particular event in early Islamic history, namely, the changing of the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah in 624CE, it is also linking direction to morality.  In other words, what we deem to be moral vs. immoral, good vs. evil, pious vs. impious is dependent upon the ‘direction’ (read: worldview) we are facing.

 

Commenting on this verse, the famous 14th century exegete, Ibn Kathīr writes,

“This talks about followers of the various religions. Hence, every nation and tribe has its own Qiblah (direction of prayer) that they choose, while Allah’s appointed Qiblah is what the believers face. Abul-`Aliyah said, “The Jew has a direction to which he faces. The Christian has a direction to which he faces. Allah has guided you, O (Muslim) Ummah, to a Qiblah which is the true Qiblah.” This statement was also related to Mujahid, `Ata’ Ad-Dahhak, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, As-Suddi, and others. This last verse is similar to what Allah said: “…to Everyone We made a law and a method…” (Qur’an 5:48)”6

As is part of the hermeneutical principle that Ibn Kathīr adopts where he explains one verse of the Qur’an with another verse of the Qur’an, he links ‘everyone having a direction’ (Qur’an 2:148) with ‘everyone having a law and method’ (Qur’an 5:48).  To put it in our ‘worldview’ framework, everyone has a system (law/method)  by which they will determine morality which is dependent upon their worldview (direction).  James Anderson states the same concept as follows:

“Worldviews also largely determine people’s opinions on matters of ethics and politics. What a person thinks about abortion, euthanasia, same-sex relationships, environmental ethics, economic policy, public education, and so on will depend on his underlying worldview more than anything else.”7

 

Thus, before we can even start the discussion about doubts in Islam, whether those doubts are related to ethical / moral doubts (e.g. why are same sex relationships not allowed in Islam?), philosophical / scientific doubts (e.g. how could the Prophet Noah live for more than 950 years?) or trauma (why would Allah do this to me?), we must understand our worldview.  With that being said, what makes up a person’s worldview?

 

1 See Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Qur’an: Semantics of the Qur’anic Weltanschauung, 2002.

 

2 Anderson, James . “What Is a Worldview?” Ligonier Ministries, June 21, 2017. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-worldview/.

 

3 Ibid.

 

4 Sometimes what might happen is that a person could find themselves switching between competing worldviews depending upon their particular environment.  This is something that Muslims living in the West would be acutely aware of since they are having to negotiate an Islamic worldview with a modern worldview.  There is a paradigm (Islamic worldview) that one may adopt in the Masjid surrounded by Muslims and a different paradigm (modern worldview) when one is interacting with society outside of the Masjid.  Again, we can compare this to language.  If someone is a second generation immigrant to, say the United States, and they are bilingual, speaking Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, etc. inside the home and English outside the home, they would be subject to ‘code-shifting’ between the two languages depending upon the particular context at the time.   However, one language would be dominant, fluid and strong while the other would be comparatively subordinate, choppy and weaker.  This is true for competing worldviews as well. One worldview would necessarily be dominant and may completely overshadow the other worldview.

5 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Baqarah [2:148] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed February 24, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/2/148.

 

6 Kathīr, Ismāʻīl ibn ʻUmar Ibn. Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Maktaba Darussalam, 2000. Vol. 1, Pgs. 434-435

 

7 Anderson, James . “What Is a Worldview?” Ligonier Ministries, June 21, 2017. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-worldview/.

 

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