The Most Beloved Religion:Primordial and Generous Faith

“The Messenger of God was asked, ‘Which among the religions is the most beloved to God?’ He replied, ‘Primordial and Generous Faith’ (al-hanifiya al-samha).” (Quoted by Ahmad b Hanbal. Authenticated hadith, found in al-Bukhari)

When asked “which among the religions (al-adyan) is most beloved to God” (ahabbu ila-Allah), it is quite significant to note that God’s Beloved Messenger (saw) did not respond to his companion (ra) with the name of any known religion, or even specify in this narration “the final religion revealed through your Messenger”. Instead, the Prophet (saw) responded with a descriptive term which is more of a quality found in genuine faith and in genuine religion. This compound term, includes the words primordiality (al-hanifiyya) and generosity (al-samha), which put together, can be understood to mean “primordial and generous faith”.

It will be noticed by the observant Muslim that these qualities can be seen to make up the very essence of the Messenger of God (saw), also named by God as “The Beloved of God” and a “Mercy to all worlds”. Indeed for Muslims, the Prophet’s very nature and character brought “primordial and generous faith” to its full fruition: “And I was only sent to perfect character”. If we do not embody such Prophetic qualities, then it is possible we are not attracting God’s love as we should, because we are not following more fully the Prophetic model: “Say, If you love God, follow me, and God will love you and forgive you your sins”(3:31). Such a Prophetic definition of “the most beloved religion”, rooted in the Prophetic model of belief and praxis, can have profound consequences for how we view ourselves and our own religion, as well as how we view and interact with others, both intra-religiously as well as inter-religiously in our modern and multi-religious context.

Although this hadith does not exclude the possibility that this “most beloved religion” is Islam as the final religion (as Muslims would believe this to be), the wisdom contained in this hadith points to a more subtle truth than simply acknowledging which extrinsic religious form is most acceptable to God. Rather the Prophet is reminding us to bring our attention to that specific quality which can be said to qualify any given expression of religion and religious devotion, “amongst all the religions” as stated in this hadith, which attracts God’s Love. This spiritual quality is what the Messenger (saw) aptly termed “primordial and generous faith”. Such Prophetically defined faith can be understood to allude to a more universal dimension of religious truth and spiritual awareness. Such faith is more aligned with the “religion of the heart” than with the “theology of the mind”. In other words, primordial and generous faith points more to a spiritual quality of the heart and inner disposition of the soul of a devout (hanifi) person, then mere knowledge or certitude pertaining to the mind of an individual. In this light, such “hanifi” (primordially devout) wisdom as expressed through this Prophetic tradition has implications as to how Muslims should devout themselves to God in order to attract His Love (swt): that is, through awakening within themselves a more sincere and wholesome expression of their innate form of faith in God’s Oneness. The “samha” (generous) aspect of this wisdom implies a generous comportment with “others” (whether others in religion, or others in humanity) through expressing a forbearing attitude of good faith towards them, rooted in the ontological Oneness of God and the spiritual oneness of humanity. For the root of all “Islamic ontology” goes back to “Rahmah” (Mercy) as this is the primary “Quality” of the Divine Nature.  This Rahmah is the very ground of all existence, including the substance of all humanity and all revealed religion.

Such recognition of primordial generous faith quite naturally manifests in an acknowledgment of the inherent possibility of “primordial and generous faith” in the other. This would be “the most beloved way” to view and approach our co-religionists who differ with us, as well as with those in humanity who believe in and practice other religions, or are of different ethnicities. This is certainly possible, if not mandated, upon recognition and thereby adherence to a sense of good faith, generosity and nobility (samha), despite real religious difference and diverse ethnic expressions of religious culture in the other. For as the Qur’an states:

“O mankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another (li ta’arafu). Surely the most noble among you before God are the most reverent of you (atqakum). Truly God is Knowing, Aware.” (49:13, Study Quran).

If the “most beloved religion” is rooted in a recognition of the degree of reverence that an individual has for their Creator, then it becomes easier to transcend religious, ethnic and social boundaries and embrace with empathy any “other”, while maintaining one’s roots in one’s own religion. This writer has observed first hand in his own life and professional career, how many a Muslim and non-Muslim who have differed with us either theologically or in praxis, have had superior qualities of character. Surely, this can easily be related to their ability and grace to attract “Divine Love” by living that “primordial and generous faith” through a reverence to God expressed through a sincere adherence to their own religion.

To the possible objections founded upon a more exclusive understanding of religion and truth, the following question should be asked: Does God’s Love not reach sincere devotees of other religions? This question can be answered in many different ways, all quite legitimately from various Islamic points of view and levels of religious reference. Yet a profound key lies in the above understanding of primordial and generous faith: if such faith is a quality of the heart, then each and every human being regardless of outward religious confession,  has potential access to this primordial faith by virtue of having a heart and inner connection with God. For as we are reminded in another hadith, “God does not look at your bodies or your forms, He looks at your hearts”. By extension, what is “most beloved to God” is not necessarily the extrinsic form or outer body of a given religious practice (however important), but the inner state or heart of the devotee. This “inner heart” is universal and even transcends outer conformity to religious forms. For this reason, this “inner religion” or “religion of the heart”, can be identified with “primordial and generous faith”.

So how can “primordial and generous faith” be the “birthright” of all of humanity, regardless of religious orientation? Both an intuitive knowledge (ilm) of the pure Oneness of Divine Reality as well as a genuine and compassionate forbearance (hilm) towards others can be viewed as an innate quality flowing from a healthy human soul of sound disposition (fitra). This fitra, or innate sense of the sacred, is precisely what is termed “the most beloved among the religions to God” by the Beloved of God (saw), since it is “primordial” (hanifi).  In the Qur’anic worldview, such devout faith in and knowledge of God through “witnessing” is acknowledged as the very substance of our original human nature, an original nature related to our spirit even before it entered our human bodies in a pre-temporal (or primordial) moment of our humanity’s existence. The Qur’an renders it thus:

“And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?’, they said, ‘Yea, we bear witness’…” (7:172, Study Quran)

This verse can be seen to be the essential cornerstone of Islam’s ‘spiritual anthropology’ as it concerns the nature and destiny of human beings, as well as the sacred history of the underlying substance of all revealed religions. For Islam, the essential relationship between God and humanity is premised upon this “unmediated recognition” of God’s Oneness (Tawhid) we bear witness to, through His Lordship over humanity at the moment of primordial creation. In other words, the innate recognition of God’s Oneness is viewed to be the the very essence of being human, even if it lies hidden within our nature or obscured through religious teaching, for various reasons. Notably,  Divine Unity (Tawhid) is also believed to be the essential Truth and teaching of all revealed religion, regardless of the diverse forms or “languages of expression” it has taken. Being imprinted or embedded in the fabric of human nature, such primordial knowledge of God’s Oneness makes us duty bound to uphold this “self-evident truth” when we devote ourselves to God. It naturally compels us all to practice this “inalienable right” in the form of love, compassion and generosity (qualities rooted in the essential substance of the Divine Nature) towards all human beings who by definition share in this same spiritual heritage by simply being human. It is ultimately this underlying primordial nature which may be called “the primordial and generous faith” which the Messenger of God (saw) referred to. It is also this recognition as the underlying substance of all true religion that we strive to realize through the form of revealed religion we find ourselves in or have been guided towards. To sincerely devout ourselves to God alone and by ‘natural’ consequence emanate generosity of soul,  this can only attract the Love of God and make our spiritual orientation and religious expression “the most beloved religion” to the Divine Beloved (swt).

So beyond all the real differences between Islam and other religions, let us strive to recognize how all genuine religion finds its “validity” through being “beloved to God” to the extent that faith and religious practice awakens the awareness of humanity’s original or primordial (hanifi) religion of “Am I not your Lord?”! If we are able to succeed in this endeavor, then we will not be too quick to find “everything right” with ourselves or our own religion, and “everything wrong” with others and their religions–even with those within our own religion who disagree or differ with us. This recognition should immediately engender a sense of humility and sacred awe towards God who is the Origin (Alpha) and End (Omega) of All Truth.  Likewise, we should strive to recognize that all genuine acts of devotion (from religious worship to practicing virtues) are “loved by God” to the extent that they express and realize sincere devoutness (haniffiya) and radiate generosity (samha) towards others. Then accordingly, we will look at others through God’s unconditional love and compassion, engendering generosity, forbearance, and tolerance in the context of religious difference. If we are able to achieve this, we may then live “primordial and generous faith” whose fullest embodiment for Muslims is God’s Beloved Messenger (saw), who was a “mercy to all worlds” even other religious worlds. Such mercy to other religions was manifested in how God’s Beloved (saw) chose to respond in this hadith, to this very question.

And God Knows and Loves Best.


Suggestions for Further Reading:

  1. Spiritual Teachings of the Prophet: Hadith and Commentaries by Saints and Sages of Islam by Tayeb Chourief, Translated by Edin Q. Lohja–One of the best Hadith commentaries emphasizing the more spiritual sayings of the Prophet (saw) with excerpts of profound Sufi and Philosophical commentaries on the subjects.
  2. The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam, by Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi
  3. The Study Quran: See the commentaries following this above referenced verse 30:30, as well as 2:135; 3:67,95; 4:125; 6:79, 161; and 16:120, 123, regarding the “religion of the hanif” (primordial monotheist), which is often identified with “the way (millah) of Abraham”.
  4. “Generous Tolerance in Islam”, by Hamza Yusuf, in “Seasons: Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute, 2 (2005), which provides a profound and much needed traditional perspective on the term “al-hanafiyya as-samha”. The etymological references to these Arabic words are discussed as well.
  5. It is this same essential “primordial and generous faith”, and even the same essential question which sparked this most beautiful Prophetic answer, that is mirrored quite exactly in the meaning of the following Biblical Passage conveying the first two commandments in Matthew of the New Testament; the first commandment expressing the spirit of “al-hanifiya” (primordiality) and the second commandment speaking to the spirit of “al-samha” (generosity of spirit):

    “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love your Lord your God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love thine neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)






Between ‘Divine Willing’ and ‘Divine Permitting’: A Reflection on Religious Diversity, Divine Mercy and Human Response

“For each [Prophetic Community] We have appointed a Law and a Way. Had God Willed, He could have made you one community. But in order to test you with what He has given you [he has made you as you are]. So compete with one another in good works. And Unto God you will all return. He will reveal to you [the truth] of that about which you differed” (Holy Qur’an, 5:48)

When something is considered Divinely Providential such as the Quranic recognition of religious diversity (such as in 5:48 above), is Divine Providence in regards to religious diversity understood to mean something which God directly Willed or just ‘Permitted’?

I think both the ‘Divine Willing’ and ‘Divine Permitting’, although not being mutually exclusive, are distinct categories. Providentiality encompasses both God ‘directly Willing’ something to occur and/or ‘Permitting’ something to occur. In a sense, God more directly Wills the good to occur while only ‘permitting’ an ‘experience’ of evil to occur in one’s life or destiny, for example. However, with regard to God’s Willing of diverse revelations and messengers  along with the human response to Divine Revelation in a given Traditional world, there is a kind of meeting between God’s direct Will ‘to be’ and God’s permission ‘to exist’. God directly Wills for a revealed Perspective or Narrative to take a particular form, while God ‘permits’ humanity (or a particular religious humanity) to exercise their free will and intellect in shaping and molding that revealed narrative in order to promote, maintain, and transmit in an integral fashion, a Divinely revealed teaching on the human plane of religious discourse, all of which serve to spiritually nourish the souls attracted to a given revealed religion. It is perhaps through this very process that a revealed wisdom tradition transmits in a dynamic and progressive fashion its ‘orthodox’ and traditional religious teachings from generation to generation, while weeding out heresies or forms of misguidance which result from the challenges inherent in the human condition throughout history.

In this regard, the perspective of Frithjof Schuon, the Western Sufi Master and Swiss Metaphysician of Comparative Religion, on what he terms the “human margin”, or the margin of human response to a Revelation in a given Traditional framework is an apt means of reconciling how religious diversity is both a “Divine Willing” and a “Divine Permitting”. The ‘human margin’ can be seen as a  kind of “margin” of human speculation “allowed” or “permitted” by God in order to transmit certain timeless and universal teachings of revelation within a given, particular human context which are diverse by nature.  This “margin” which is the meeting of Divine Mercy and human response can be seen intra-religiously and inter-religiously. Intra-religiously: with the flowering of many oft-competing Intellectual, Theological and/or Spiritual Schools from Christianity to Islam to even Hinduism or Buddhism for example, each school or perspective serving the psychological, intellectual and spiritual needs of its adherents. Inter-Religiously: with the human and Divine ‘barriers of mutual incomprehension’ (each developing in their own ways) which delineate the multiplicity of Revealed Sacred forms and allow their independent flourishing in space and time. In this sense, the ‘human margin’ is a ‘divine margin’ as well. To quote the above referenced Quranic verse (5:48) again:

“For each [Prophetic Community] We have appointed a Law and a Way. Had God Willed, He could have made you one community. But in order to test you with what He has given you [he has made you as you are]. So compete with one another in good works. And Unto God you will all return. He will reveal to you [the truth] of that about which you differed” (5:48)

In this particular Quranic verse, religious diversity is clearly seen in a very positive (and even dynamic and competitive) light, whereas in other verses the Quran does in fact remain a bit ambiguous about religious diversity and even at times views diverse religious opinion as negative especially when the Quran criticizes the human behavior to split into factions or sects after the clear coming of Guidance. Yet factions and sects based on ‘human desires’ and ‘conflicts’ (itself the result of the “test” of religious diversity as mentioned in this Qur’anic verse) is one thing, and the Divine Wisdom and Mercy in diversifying and multiplying revelation in order to meet real human needs, something else. It is this latter, positive view of religious diversity which this particular Quranic verse overwhelmingly seems to refer to.

All this dovetails nicely into certain inquiries regarding the Muslim or ‘Islamic’ critiques of Islamic Universality which serve more to delineate exclusivist views from universalist ones. From an exclusivist point of view which has its Quranic precedent as well, God only ‘permits’ the continuity of ‘false’ or ‘deviated’ religions while Willing directly the Truth (or more superior Truth) of the Islam of Muhammad (saw) to flourish and live on; much like how God permits falsehood and truth while directly Willing only the truth, etc. And this kind of reasoning underlies some of the more intelligent critiques of certain Muslim Universalist perspectives out there (in fact offered by Leggenhausen in his critique of Nasr’s ‘perennialism’, a critique which in our opinion does not do full justice to Nasr’s perspective which we would term “Islamic Universalism”). Yet the difference between Muslim exclusivists or critics of Islamic universality, and Muslim universalists is the ability of the latter to expand their awareness of Religious Truth in a manner which situate the exclusive nature of religious truth on a particular level of religious discourse while viewing this exclusivist level from the vantage point of a more profound and encompassing Quranic understanding of the Divine Nature, Wisdom, Justice and Mercy.

In other words, the universalist as defined in this blog, recognizes the religious legitimacy of the claim of Islamic finality (in the form of Islamic abrogationism, etc) on the level of religious awareness which views Truth only in  exclusivist terms for certain (in fact many) Muslims, and acknowledges how in certain ways this is sufficient to resolve any tension regarding the Truth of the Self and the continued existence of the Other for exclusivists. However, the universalist or inclusivist goes a step further in his understanding or awareness of Divine Providentiality as it pertains to the Divine Wisdom  of religious diversity and Islamic finality in the Holy Qur’an. For the universalist Muslim, or any kind of religious adherent whose intellectual or spiritual awareness of religion and religious truth expands to include the Other to some degree of universality, what appears to be God’s ‘neutral’ or ‘ontological permission’ to allow other religions to flourish is now seen to be more a direct and ‘positive’ Willing than a mere ‘Permitting’. Islamic finality then, can be seen to function not only in an exclusive sense through which all religions preceding the Islam of Muhammad (saw) are abrogated, but also (and more profoundly) in an inclusive manner through which the same revealed religions are “affirmed” and “integrated” into a more encompassing awareness of the ‘chain’ and ‘circle’ of  Prophecy. Ultimately, the awareness of the Divine Providentiality regarding the authentic Other expands to include and recognize not just an ontological and even ‘accidental’ ‘validity’ of the other, but rather a ‘substantial’ and ‘sacred’ validity for the Other: a validity ‘rooted’ in the same ineffable Sacred Root which is the ‘root’ and heart of one’s own Religious Self.

It was from this purely essentialist and universal perspective that many a Sufi in the history of the Islamic Tradition (from Persia, to Africa and to the SubContinent) elucidated their own versions of sublime and universal openings to the Religious Other through recourse to poetry while maintaining their Muslim normativity. These poetic outpourings on religious universality which make up a significant part of the heritage of Sufi Literature should not be seen as ‘heterodox’, or extraneous and separate from the Quranic and Islamic worldview. In fact such poetic expressions, far from just being reduced to “theoophanic elocutions” resulting from ecstatic spiritual states which Sufis should be “excused” for,  should be viewed as part and parcel of the Wisdom (Hikma) which the Islamic tradition has to offer especially our context. Such poetic renditions of the principle of religious universality find their direct source of inspiration in many Qur’anic verses which elucidate Truth from this level of religious discourse which in a way serve as commentaries on the Quranic verses pertaining to spiritual universality and religious diversity.

Many examples can be given (and shall be given in future posts) but the following should suffice for now as it serves as kind of commentary on the Holy Qur’an 5:48 in the context of religious diversity. To take for example the words of the Sufi martyr Al-Hallaj,  it should be duly noted that these words of wisdom were proclaimed about 1000 years before the wisdom of certain Western Sufis Sages such as Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr  ‘providentially’ ever came into existence in the form of the “Traditional School” in the West. Words which proclaim a teaching which views the “root of all religion” (asl al-din) to be inclusive of all revealed religions as “branches” of the one and only Tree of Tradition (al-Din):

“Earnest for truth, I thought on the religions:
They are, I found, one root with many a branch.
Therefore impose on no man a religion,
Lest it should bar him from the firm-set root.
Let the root claim him, a root wherein all heights
And meanings are made clear, for him to grasp.”
[emphasis added]

And God Knows Best


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “Transcendent Unity of Religions”, by Frithjof Schuon. The most explicit and precise formulation of the Quranic understanding of the ‘inner unity of religions’, from a non-confessionalist, metaphysical and esoteric perspective. Other of Schuon’s articles which are noteworthy in this regard and present an almost complete but highly sophisticated teaching on this above topic are: “Diversity of Revelation” and “The Human Margin”, both of which can be found in “The Essential Frithjof Schuon”, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

2. “Beyond Faith and Infidelity: The Sufi Poetry and Teachings of Mahmud Shabistari”, by Leonard Lewisohn. A penetrating academic analysis of the universalist statements in the Poetry of the Persian Sufi Tradition, with a focus on the great Persian Sufi Poet, Mahmud Shabistari.

“Which Religion is Most Beloved To God”? Reflections On An Explicit Prophetic Response

Narrated by the Companion Ibn ‘Abbas:

“The Messenger of God was asked, ‘Which religion is the most beloved to God?’ He replied, ‘Primordial and Generous Faith. (al-hanifiyya al-samha)’”

Quoted by Ahmad b Hanbal. Authenticated hadith. Also found in al-Bukhari

The fact that God’s Beloved Messenger, Muhammad (saw), did not respond by claiming that the “Islam” brought through him was “the most beloved to God” or ‘the most superior religion’ and answered instead with a spiritual quality or innate orientation, rather than a name of a given religion is quite profound in and of itself. There is an inexhaustible teaching contained here in such a succinct Prophetic response, a teaching which is timeless and universal yet timely and particular to our context of religious pluralism. We shall try to distill some of this Prophetic wisdom below with God’s help, and shall begin with what is implicit in the Prophetic narration and then move to what is explicit in the same response.

Implicit in this Hadith is both the awareness of religious multiplicity as well as religious unity. Religious multiplicity: that there is more than one religion revealed by God and that beyond the formal diversity and human vicissitudes of revealed religions there is an inner quality which determines ‘when’ and ‘if’ a given ‘religion’ or ‘religious adherent’ is most beloved to God. Religious unity: that there is in essence only ‘one religion’ (al-Din) which manifests itself in time and space in diverse forms through the Prophetic founders of a given religion; and the more that this very essence or heart is realized or manifested by a given religion or follower of a religion, the more beloved that revealed religion or religious follower is to God. One witnesses such wisdom in many places in the Quran and Hadith, but the following should suffice:

“Every Religion has a special quality and the particular quality of Islam is modesty”–Hadith/Saying of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).

“Say: We believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (3:84)

“Truly We have revealed unto you as We have revealed to Noah and the prophets after him, as We revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed upon David the Psalms; and Messengers We have mentioned to you before and Messengers We have not mentioned to you–and God spoke directly to Moses–Messengers giving good tidings and warnings, so that mankind might have no argument against God after the Messengers. God is every Might, Wise .” (4:163-165)

“…For each We have appointed a Law and a Way. And had God willed, He could have made you one community. But in order that He might try you by that which He has given you [He has made you as you are]. So compete with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return. He will disclose to you [the truth] about that in which you all differed.” (5:48)

From this inclusive point of view, “islam” encompasses all revelations and revealed religions. And since “islam” is the principle and essence of all revealed religions, than to the extent that a given religion manifests “islam”, that is “submission to God “and “peace with God”, it is to that extent that it is “most beloved” to God. In other words, since all authentic religions originate with God through Revelation and Prophecy, it is significant to note that what is being considered here as the answer by the Beloved Messenger is recognizing ‘when’ or ‘how’ a given religion or religious follower is ‘most beloved’ to God, and not ‘which’ revealed religion per se is more superior by point of fact. Again, this can be appreciated by looking directly at the Prophet’s response to his companion which does not relate the name of any revealed religion-even his own–yet relates a general quality or orientation which can be seen to be the essence and heart of all true authentic religion and religious following: ‘al-hanafiyya as-samha’, that is ‘primordial and generous faith’.

This truth directs us naturally to recognizing that “islam” is first and foremost a primordial state of being, an inner orientation: an innate disposition (fitra) of creation before one’s Lord who is The Originator (al-Fatir), even before ‘islam’ can be viewed as a revealed form of guidance or religion. We find this kind of “islam”, that is a mode of being in perfect harmony, peace and submission with the Divine Intention and Purpose for creation in the following verses:

“…And there is not a thing [in creation] that does not sing His Praise (17:44)

“Seek they other than the religion of God (Din Allah), when unto Him submits whomsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? (3:83)

It is this level or reality of “islam” which is to be identified with “universal submission” or “universal peace” which is found only through the awareness of one’s most intimate connection with one’s creator which even precedes all revealed manifestations of “Islam” through the Prophets and their revealed religions. It is in fact this kind of ‘islam’ which can be seen to be the “religion of the primordial monotheist” (din al hanif) who is purely and sincerely devoted to the Divine Reality through Religion (mukhlisina lahud-din) often affiliated with the Prophet Abraham, as well as “religion of the original/primordial nature” (din al-fitrah) which is the True Origin and True Goal of all revealed religion:

“So set thy purpose for Religion with unswerving devotion (din al hanifi)–in accordance with the original nature which God fashioned (fitra-t-Allah); for there is no altering God’s creation (la tabdillah khalqilla): and that truly is the right religion (dalika din al-qayyima), but most men know not.” (30:30)

To return to our Prophetic statement in light of the above, that which the Prophet of Islam (saw) identifies as “the most beloved religion to God” is that which the Qu’ran refers to as “the right religion”. It is this very religion, or spiritual orientation innately within us and within our revealed traditions, that in its essence is immutable, incorruptible, un-abrogated and unalterable (la tabdila khalqillah, according to the above verse). To spiritually strive with the utmost sincerity of sacred direction (qibla) towards the Divine Reality in order to realize the very substance, heart and essence of one’s very inner nature and connection before God, is to realize that which is ever-present at the heart and origin of all true revealed religion, and vice versa. For that which the Qu’ran refers to as the “right religion” (din al qayyima) is inextricably linked to the heart of one’s being and the heart of one’s revealed religion. It is truly ‘that religion’ (or ‘that which binds’–the root meaning of religare in Latin–in our case, to God), that original, primordially generous and unswerving faith (al-hanafiya as-samha), which is the “most Beloved” to God. And ‘that right religion’ should not be seen as privy or exclusively bound to one form of religion in space and time, but rather as the true heart and transcendent essence of all revealed religion beyond any historical and spatial accretion. A truth, which our Beloved Messenger (saw) so succinctly transmitted to us in a single sentence response. A truth which is so direly needed now more than ever before in a secular yet multi-religious world seeking to better understand and fully live with religious diversity in a new existential light.

And God Knows Best.


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam”, by Reza Shah-Kazemi. The most succinct and comprehensive evaluation of the Quranic, Prophetic and Historical roots and manifestations of the spirit of tolerance in Islam to date (published 2012). The book opens with this very hadith treated here.

2. “Generous Tolerance in Islam”, by Hamza Yusuf, in “Seasons: Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute, 2 (2005), which provides a profound and much needed traditional perspective on the term “al-hanafiyya as-samha”. The etymological references to these Arabic words are discussed as well.

3. “Ideals and Realities of Islam”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, especially his chapter: ‘Islam, the Last Religion and the Primordial Religion’. The whole book is a landmark book which is a pure classic and synthesis of Sufi and Philosophical teachings on the universal dimensions of Islam, and is catered to a Western audience.

“Right Guidance” (Rushd) and the Three Levels of Islam

One of  the best ways to appreciate the different levels or dimensions of Islam is the tripartite definition given to ‘the Religion’ (al-Din) by the Angel Gabriel when he was discoursing with the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in front of his Companions, known famously as the “Hadith Jibril”. The tripartite division is categorized as: 1. ‘Islam’ or “following revealed praxis”; 2 ‘Iman’ or “faith and intellectual/creedal belief”; and 3. ‘Ihsan’ or “spiritual excellence, purification and virtue”.

The first level is defined by the Prophet upon being asked by the Angel Gabriel as “to accept the Shahada (the testimony of Faith in the Divine Unity and Prophecy), and the rest of the 5 pillars of Islam, that is, Prayer, Fasting, Charity/Alms due, and Pilgrimage. The second is defined as faith in God, the Angels, the Scriptures, the Prophets, the Day of Return and Divine Destiny. The third is defined quite elusively by the Prophet (saw) as “to worship God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He Sees you”.

Perhaps the most profound and universal way to view each of one these levels is to recognize that each dimension of Islam pertains to a particular mode of  ‘correctly’  or ‘harmoniously’ engaging the human being in one’s connection to Divine Reality. The first level of ‘islam’ is more formal and can be seen to engage the Divine reality through the means of the ‘body’. The second level of ‘iman’ can be seen to the engage the Divine reality through recourse to the ‘mind’, and the third level of ‘ihsan’ through the reality of the ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’. Hence the first level or dimension of Islam is related to “correct”, “harmonious” or “right practice”; the second to “right understanding” and the third to “right relationship” with God, self and others.

Seekers or Practitioners of Eastern Wisdom, especially as found in Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist paths shall appreciate the terms “right/correct/harmonious” as adequate descriptors for the terms ‘way’ or ‘nature/law’ (as in the terms Tao or Dharma respectively). The beauty of the English term “right” as a descriptor is that it is very ‘non-confessional’ or universal in scope and points to an objective quality which can be seen to be in ‘the nature of things’. Whether it relates to “right practice”or “right thinking”, it does not have some of the restrictive connotations that the terms “orthodox” and even “dogmatic” may have  in their respective Western Christian contexts, yet are wide enough to include the positive function and significance of these same terms which are sacred in certain forms of Christianity. From this point of view, it is interesting to note that the Quranic term “rushd” is probably best defined in English as “Right Guidance” and fits perfectly into the spirit of one of the intended meanings of the Quranic verse, “There is no compulsion in Religion (al-Din); Right Guidance (rushd) is clear from error/misguidance” (2:256). In this light, it is worthy to note that there is no formal Quranic equivalent in Arabic of the Western term “orthodox” as one finds in certain Western traditions, although the ‘meaning’ of the term ‘orthodoxy’ can be grasped through the Quranic term ‘rushd’.

As such, these three levels or dimensions of Islam can be viewed as levels of  ‘right guidance’ which is revealed from the Prophets to humanity on high, but recognized naturally and realized willfully from within the heart of human beings without any need for extrinsic coercion. Hence there is “no compulsion” in following “right guidance” according to this Quranic verse: by definition following ‘right guidance’ should occur naturally. When a human being recognizes Truth and Rightful Guidance in whichever revealed form it manifests itself in time and space, by their very nature that same human being naturally and freely starts inclining and orienting themselves towards “right guidance” (rushd) on the levels of ‘understanding’ (iman), ‘practice’ (islam), and ‘realization’ (ihsan).

And God Knows Best.

Suggestions for further reading:

1. “Vision of Islam”, by Chittick and Murata. This whole book is the most comprehensive introduction to Islam in the English language and runs like a traditional commentary on the aforementioned ‘Hadith Jibril’.

2. “The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi”, by Murata, Chittick and Tu Weiming. A very deep and penetrating book which is a translation of a Chinese Sage named Liu Zhiu’s teachings on Islam (died crica 1700’s) which uses the revealed wisdom of Neo-Confucian thought to explain the verities of Islam to the Chinese.

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.