What is Islamic Universality?

To answer this question as far as this blog is concerned, I will firstly try to define what “Islamic” and “Universality” mean to me within a Quranic worldview, and then proceed.

“Islam” means both ‘peace’ and ‘submission’ in Arabic and and also designates the ‘religion’ of all the Prophets in general and the final religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in particular who appears at the historical end of a whole chain (silsila) of plenary Prophecy. The Quran, which is the ‘Word of God’ revealed piece-wise in Scriptural form to the Prophet Muhammad (saw), utilizes all these definitions in appropriating ‘islam’ in various contexts within the Quran. That which is ‘islamic’ then, is anything  or any subject which is related to a state or condition of spiritual peace and submission before its Creator. The term “islam” is therefore appreciated both in an ontological sense as well as an application of any mode of Prophetic or Revealed guidance, wisdom and/or inspiration.  That which is “universal” pertains to notions, elements, or principles which are common and  broadly encompassing as well as inclusive of all categories and applicable to all conditions, situations and purposes while not necessarily being confined to any conditions, much like the Quranic metaphor of the “olive” whose Origin is described as “neither of the East nor the West”.

Therefore the term “Islamic Universality” will  be understood here to mean those elements or dimensions of revealed or Prophetic teaching which are essential, common and universal to all of humanity and are to be found at the heart of all true Revealed Guidance (rushd) in general (be that in the form of ANY revealed scripture and wisdom  or in the signs of God as found in the different levels of order of creation) and in the Revealed Guidance of Islam in particular. That which can be said to constitute the most universal dimensions of Islam understood in the general sense as the religion of all the Prophets, and in the specific sense as the revealed religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad (saw), is to be understood here as part and parcel of “Islamic Universality”.

The most universal dimension of Islam understood as the religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad is the teaching of the Unity of Divine Reality (Tawhid). This constitutes the very substance of everything and anything that can be considered as Truth and Reality (Haqq) in Islam, that is, as both ‘orthodox’ and ‘universal’ from a Quranic point of view. Tawhid is also considered to be the heart and essence of every revealed religion in the Quranic worldview: “And We sent no Messenger before you but We inspired him saying, ‘There is no God but Me, so worship Me” (21:25). Discussions or reflections related to this dimension shall be labeled under the heading of ‘Tawhid/Divine Unity”. It can be said without hesitancy and by  Quranic self-definition that the most Absolute reality and teaching in Islam is Tawhid.

‘Under’ this level of Islamic awareness concerning the Reality of Divine Unity would be the level of Prophecy (nubuwwah) which is the means whereby teachings, communications and transmissions regarding the Divine Reality are actualized in space and time for humanity. Any discussion connected to this level of discourse which may be confined to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) or include any and all Prophets and their respective revealed wisdom traditions shall be labeled under the heading of  “Nubuwwah/Prophecy”.

The final level of Islamic awareness for our purposes will be the recognition of humanity’s perpetual, spiritual returning (ma’ad) to the Divine Reality, which is our true Origin (mabda’). Any theme connected to spiritual purification and praxis, wayfaring, the day of ‘return’, (and even the “end-times”) in any way shape or form shall be categorized under the heading of “Mabda’ wal Ma’ad/Origin and Return”.

We shall attempt to confine ourselves to those elements on each one of the levels of Islamic awareness mentioned above which are the most universal. Some may find parallels to our categories with the notions of ‘islam’ ( submitting to/following religious praxis), ‘iman’ (faith and creedal/intellectual belief) and ‘ihsan’ (spirituality, moral excellence, practice and virtue) which have been understood by the Tradition to indicate the different ‘levels’ of the revealed teaching of “Islam”.  As such, these categories shall be utilized as well to delineate the differing levels of  “Islam” and ‘Islamic Universality’ when deemed appropriate.

A final word should be said regarding the scope of “Islamic Universality”. True universality must include religious particularity and thereby exclusivity. Therefore, my understanding of “Islamic Universality” shall always acknowledge both the “outward” and “inward” dimensions of Islam, along with the universal and exclusive elements relating to both of these dimensions.  As such, the perspective of “Islamic exclusivism” is acknowledged within the scope of our universal perspective,  with a view to integrating it (implicitly, but at times explicitly) into a higher unity of awareness of religious truth which we have defined here as “Islamic Universality”. If a universalist rejects or ‘excludes’ exclusivism, than such a “universalism” is itself a form of “exclusivism”.

We say all this to recognize that we discern in the Islamic Sources of Revelation (both in the Quranic and Prophetic Discourse) modes of universality, as well as particularity and exclusivity which we believe to be “Intended” by God who is aware of the diversity of intellectual, spiritual and moral needs of serious seekers of Truth. Moreover a religion can not be a religion which vehicles spiritual truths and saves souls without the elements of exclusivity and universality bound and woven together in a manner which expresses its unique particularity. If the Divine Nature is simultaneously Absolute and Infinite, then this must manifest itself in religious forms here below through the inclusivity and exclusivity proper to all revealed religions. It is through its character of inclusivity that a plenary world religion radiates itself to “all nations”, and it is though its exclusivity that the same religion preserves its quality and integrity through vicissitudes of time and space. As such, I believe no expression or understanding of “Islamic Universality” is complete without this recognition.

And God Knows Best.


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The Other in the Light of the One: The Universality of the Qu’ran and Interfaith Dialogue”, by Reza Shah-Kazemi. The most comprehensive academic and metaphysical analysis of ‘Islamic Universality’ in the context of interfaith dialogue. He gives the most precise meaning of the way we intend to use “Islamic Universality” on this blog from a Sufi Hermeunetical framework. He draws from a whole range of Sufi commentaries on the Quran, as well as citing many contemprary Western and Muslim authorities and academics regarding religious dialogue and creates a ‘pioneering synthesis’ much needed for our context of dialogue and coexistence.

2. “The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Written on the first anniversary of 9/11, this book presents the universal dimensions of Islam in an unparallelled manner which speaks directly to the current context. Dr. Nasr’s sections on “The Spectrum of Islam” includes a discussion on Sunnism and Shiism. His chapter which deals with Islam’s “sacred Law” is a welcome contribution which can serve to dispell many misunderstandings created by ‘Islamophobes’. His first chapter, “One God, Many Prophets” is phenomenal in both scope and depth. He writes as a Sage who actively identifies tawhid (Divine Unity) as the heart of every revealed religion, and is inclusive of all founders of religions (especially Christ) and includes references to the Buddha and Lao Tzu whom he decribes as Prophets.

3. “The Vision of Islam”, by Sachiko Murata and William Chittick. Probably the best and most comprehensive ‘introduction’ to the depth and breadth of Islam and the Islamic tradition, in the English language. The word ‘introduction’ is put in quotation marks because this book is much, much more than a mere introduction to the subject. It truly presents and unparalleled “vision” of the whole of the universal and particular dimensions which constitute the Islamic tradition in a most succinct fashion.

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