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.

Why Do Muslims Fast? By Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I have read many texts on Fasting, and sat in many lectures on this topic–as I am sure many of you have–yet, each time and every year just before Ramadan I return to this perspective on “Why Do Muslims Fast” by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, I am astounded at the fresh insights and wisdom which is transmitted to me at each and every reading from this very same article found in Dr. Nasr’s “Islamic Life and Thought”. Perhaps the fresh new insights received are due to the lessons learned from emptying ourselves anew as much as God Permits through fasting in Ramadan and throughout the year. May God preserve Professor Nasr, one of the rare Sages of our times whose life and thought embody that Quranic Wisdom which is “Neither of the East nor the West”.–Amen!

Ramadan Mubarik to all.
“Certain truths are by nature evident and need not be discussed in normal circumstances.But, in a day and age when the most evident truths are shrouded by the clouds of doubt and questioned, one is forced to discuss even the most obvious of them.One such truth is the necessity for an ascetic element in human life. Without an element of self-denial and asceticism no religion and therefore no human culture is possible.One must withdraw occasionally from the full life of the senses even in order to be able to enjoy the fruit of sensual perception.As the Taoist saying affirms, it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel. It is only a certain degree of restraint from the material objects of the senses that makes even the life of the senses balanced, not to speak of making possible an opening in the human soul for the spiritual life.One such practice of restraint is fasting, promulgated in Islam as obligatory for the month of Ramadan and recommended for other periods of the year. As the Holy Qur’an asserts, it is a practice which existed in older religions and in Islam it was only revived and institutionalized in the form of the sawm of Ramadan.Fasting during this month possesses, of course, many social and external benefits and features which have been discussed often and in fact even somewhat overemphasized in certain quarters, where the chief virtue of fasting is reduced to charity towards the poor.This element of charity is, of course, there but like all true charity it becomes spiritually significant only when it is directed towards God. And in fasting it is the obeying of the Divine Will which has as its fruit charity towards the poor and the needy and an actual participation in their hunger and thirst.But the most difficult aspect of the fast is the edge of the sword of abstention directed toward the carnal soul, the al-nafs al-ammarah of the Holy Qur’an.In fasting, the rebellious tendencies of the carnal soul are gradually dampened and pacified through a systematic submission of these tendencies to the Divine Will, for at every moment of hunger the soul of the Muslim is reminded that it is in order to obey a Divine command that the passions of the carnal soul go unheeded. That is also why the fast does not include only food but also abstention from every form of lust and carnal passion.As a result of this systematic restraint, the human soul becomes aware that it is independent of its immediate natural environment and conscious that it is in this world but not of it.A person who fasts with complete faith becomes aware very rapidly that he is a pilgrim in this world and that he is a creature destined for a goal beyond this material existence. The world about him loses some of its materiality and gains an aspect of “vacuity” and transparence which in the case of the contemplative Muslim leads directly to a contemplation of God in His creation.The ethereal and “empty” nature of things is, moreover, compensated by the appearance of those very things as Divine gifts. Food and drink which are taken for granted throughout the year reveal themselves during the period of fasting more than ever as gifts of heaven (ni’mah) and gain a spiritual significance of a sacramental nature.

To fast is also to wear the armor of purity against the passions of the world. It is to incorporate even “physically” in one’s body the purity of death which is of course coupled with spiritual birth.

In fasting, man is reminded that he has chosen the side of God over the world of passions. That is why the Holy Prophet loved fasting so much. It was a basic element of that “Muhammadan spiritual poverty” (faqr), about which he said, “al-faqr fakhri” (spiritual poverty is my glory).

This death of the passions cleanses the human soul and empties it of the putrid water of its negative psychic residues. The individual and through him the Islamic community is renovated through this rite and reminded of its moral and spiritual obligations and goals.

That is why the arrival of the blessed month is greeted with joy. For in it the doors of heaven are opened further for the faithful and the Divine Compassion descends upon those who seek it. To have completed the fast of Ramadan is to have undergone a rejuvenation and rebirth which prepares each Muslim to face another year with determination to live and act according to the Divine Will.

The fast also bestows a spiritual perfume upon the human soul whose fragrance can be perceived long after the period of abstinence has come to an end. It provides for the soul a source of energy upon which it feeds throughout the year.

The holy month has therefore been called “the blessed”, mubarak, one in which the grace or barakah of God flows upon the Islamic community and rejuvenates its deepest sources of life and action.”

Suggestions for further reading:
“Islamic Life and Thought” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981). This perspective on fasting is excerpted from this book.