Comparative Study of Religions: Islamic and Western Approaches
Junaid Farooq Zargar
The western idea of religion is in direct clash with the meaning and understanding of religion from an Islamic perspective. Therefore, the aims and methods of comparative study of religions in the west are totally different from what they are in Islam.
The approach of western civilization towards religion is defined through the approach of modern social and natural sciences towards the questions about the reality of man and universe. By west here we mean the modern western civilization based on the modern social sciences serving a capitalistic world order.
Psychology is the most significant of social sciences. In the domain of psychology, modern west believes that man’s inherent desire to know and search about the reality of the universe and reaching out to God is just a result of his dreams in unconscious mind. Sigmund Freud is most famous for his psychoanalytic school of thought. He suggested that “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.” (Freud 1933). He further said, “Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.” (Freud 1961) West views religion as the unconscious mind’s desire for fulfillment. People believe in God to feel secure and reduce guilt.
Around the same time when Freud was expressing these views, the rejection of religion gained ground in natural sciences through the works of some of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century. Bertrand Russell ́s work developed logical positivism (Russell 1963). The fundamental axiom of this concept is that “any statement that cannot be proven or disproven is meaningless.” The statement that “God exists” cannot be empirically verified or refuted, thus any discussion regarding it in any context is an exercise in futility.
Philosophy is no more considered by west a right approach towards knowing the reality. The only type of philosophy that holds ground in the west is linguistics. The field of linguistic philosophy is dominated by Jacques Derrida’s approach known as deconstruction. While trying to understand the relationship between the text and the meaning, the deconstruction approach leads to suspension or deferral of meaning (Derrida 1967). Ultimately, it leads a man to believe that the relationship between the text and the meaning is not a definitive and absolute one but just an indicative and suggestive one (Silverman 1989). This results in skepticism towards all the claims made in religious scriptures although the religion views them as absolute and ultimate realities.
In the political arena, west follows secularism which is a direct rejection of Islam’s goal of guiding man in all spheres of life. The economics developed in the west and taught in western schools assumes that man is intrinsically greedy whereas Islam believes that the inherent nature of man contains good as well as bad. Man is a combination of soul and body. He is able to choose between good and evil. He is not intrinsically greedy.
By the Soul that is well created. and was given the choice between right and wrong. The one who does the right is successful. The one who does the wrong is a loser. (Quran 91: 7-10)
The fact is that modern economics is a fake science just like astrology and palmistry. (Zaman 2015)
The ethics as science developed in the west does not teach morals to be acted upon to please any God. Rather this ethics is based on the preservation of organization and order. It is a fake morality constructed to preserve the capitalistic world order which would otherwise collapse in absence of religion as morality loses all meanings if there is no God and no afterlife.
Same is the situation in all disciplines of social sciences of the modern west. There is no doubt that west approaches religion either with an outright rejection or looks at it with a contemptuous irrelevance. For the west, religion is a symbol of ignorance, lack of scientific approach and a stage of human evolution which is bound to become history with further development of our knowledge.
Thus, the western approach towards the comparative study of religions is aimed at either rejecting religion or ignoring it. The western approach towards the study of religion finally tends to reject religion altogether and prove that all religions are imaginations of man’s unconscious mind.
Strictly speaking, Islam is not a “religion” (a collection of ritual practices and dogmatic beliefs); rather it is a Deen (a complete way of life). (Khan 2009). Islam has its own concept of the reality of man and universe. According to Islam, the universe is the creation (makhlooq) of Allah and man is the slave (and) of Allah who has been sent to this world to be tested by Allah in his actions.
Allah says, “[Allah] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed.” (Quran 67:2)
Religion (Islam) is guidance from Allah for the man detailing how to successfully pass this test. Therefore, Islam views itself as the only way for the man to achieve the ultimate success and salvation. Allah says, “Indeed, the Deenin the sight of Allah is Islam (only).” (Quran 3:19)
Islam views other religions either as distorted forms of Islam itself or mere creations of the human mind. According to Quran prophets were sent to all people on earth from time to time.
With the passage of time, people would deviate from the teachings of their prophets and finally distort them to such an extent that it ceases to be Islam. Christianity and Judaism are classical examples of this. Although there is no direct evidence in the Quran and Sunnah that ancient religions like Hinduism too are distorted forms of Islam, however, this possibility can’t be totally rejected.
Therefore, the logical approach for a Muslim towards a comparative study of other religions can only be to reject those religions and convey to the followers of those religions the truth of Islam and wrongfulness of their (distorted) religions.
A Muslim scholar would approach the comparative study of religions for the purpose of dawah and debating with non-muslims. It was reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “I am the closest of mankind to Jesus in this world and in the Hereafter. The Prophets are like brothers, their mothers are different but their religion is one.” (Bukhari 3443).
It is totally wrong and impermissible to study other religions with the intention to receive guidance or to act upon them as Islam has been perfected and completed by Allah and mankind doesn’t need any source of divine guidance other than Quran and Sunnah. Therefore, only scholars should study other religions for the purpose of dawah and common Muslims should avoid studying comparative religions. This position becomes clear from the following points:
Umar ibn al-Khattaab came to the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) with some written material he had got from one of the people of the Book. He read it to the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him), and he got angry and said: “Are you confused (about your religion), O son of al-Khattaab? By the One in Whose hand is my soul, I have brought it (the message of Islam) to you clear and pure. Do not ask them about anything, lest they tell you something true and you disbelieve it, or they tell you something false and you believe it. By the One in Whose hand is my soul, if Moosa were alive, he would have no option but to follow me.” (Ahmad, Hadith 14736; classed as hasanby al-Albaani in Iowa’ al-Ghaleel, 6/34)
Ibn Taymiyah has said:
Because the Qur’an is the best of speech, they were prohibited to follow anything else. Allah, may He be exalted, says
“Is it not sufficient for them that We have sent down to you the Book (the Quran) which is recited to them? Verily, herein is mercy and a reminder (or an admonition) for a people who believe” (29:51).
(ibn Taymiyah 17/41-42)
Al-Haafiz Ibn Hajar said:
With regard to this matter, it is important to note that in the case of those who are not well-versed in knowledge and are lacking in faith, it is not permissible for them to read any of those books. (Al-aqalaani, 13/525)
Al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar. Fath al-Bari. Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, 1959
Al-Bukhari, Muhammad bin Ismaeil. Saheeh al-Bukahri. Beirut: Dar ihyaa al-turns al-arabi, 2010.
Albaanee, Muhammad Naasirud-Deen. Irwa’ al-Ghaleel. Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘aarif, 1996.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Future of an Illusion.New York: Norton, 1961.
Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Oxford, England: Norton & Co., 1933.
Ibn Taymiyyah. Majmu’a Fatawa Ibn Taymiyya. Cairo: Dar ar-Rahmat, 2010
Khan, Zamir Akhter. “Islam: A Deen Not Mere Religion” The Dialogue, Vol 4, Number 1:Qurtuba University, Pakistan, 2009.
Russel, Bertrand. Essays in Scepticism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1963.
Russel, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian. London: Watts, 1927.
Silverman, Hugh. J. Derrida and Deconstruction. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Zaman, Asad. “Islam versus Economics”. Chapter 2, Handbook on Islam and Economic Life, edited by Kabir Hassan and Mervyn Lewis. Oxford: Edward Elgar Press, 2015.
The author is a post graduate student in Department of Electrical Engineering at National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. He can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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