AS I WAS reading the history of the Dravidian religion of India that prevailed before the coming of the Aryans from the north, I was struck with horror by the “religious” beliefs and practices. There existed sects who worshiped the male sexual organ and indulged in communal acts of impurity – all as acts of worship. Questions arose in my mind. Did Allah not send a prophet to them? Did they not have prayer and fasting? Did Allah not prescribe monotheism, decency, modesty and ethics for them? He surely must have. So how, then, was it that their religion had become so degenerate? What was it in human societies that can stoop so low?

Allah is All-Knowing and All-Wise: He knows how, throughout human history, humans have changed and distorted His pristine message. Over a few generations, the truth of monotheism and the wholesome Sharîʿah (Divine Law) He sent to all peoples becomes confused in the minds of less knowledgeable or less observant followers. Of course, this is not because Allah could not protect His message: those laws were meant to be for specific times and peoples. Besides, human had not yet developed means to preserve the message over a long period – for this preservation required sufficient evolution of human language, the writing process, universal concepts, among other things – that did not happen until the age of Islam. In all previous religions, gradual and sustained influence of un-Islamic cultures became mixed with the Divine message. The key aspect here is that this process of perversion is always subtle, gradual, indirect, and initially imperceptible.

The final Sharîʿah of Islam was sent by Allah at a point when the human civilization had reached such a level of maturity that it was able to protect and preserve the message (through writing) and understand universal concepts (as opposed to narrow tribal or clannish worldviews). But how could distortion of Islam be prevented given the dangers of willful human perversion, forgetfulness and deviation?

It stands to both reason and faith that Allah—Almighty and All-Wise—wished to fool-proof his final message. History is a witness to the incorruptibility and indestructibility of the Islamic message. How was this done? By creating built-in mechanisms and teachings that have saved and will forever protect Allah’s Final Message from the fate of earlier messages.

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Fight That Which Really Matters

  1. Shirk And Shakk

The emphasis in the Quran is on real practical dangers that have always threatened the Truth. Rather than atheism, it is associationism, shirk, and doubt/uncertainty, shakk, that are really targeted in Islam. Atheism, that is open disbelief in God’s existence, has always been a minority idea, created by the vagaries of imagination of a few perverted minds, but it never found a large following. Even in this materialistic age of ours, the number of people who truly deny God’s existence is very few. Most people just don’t have the conviction, certitude or belief in God, but they cannot believe in God’s non-existence either. Therefore, Allah’s Dîn focuses on the real threat that most people do face or have faced. Shirk is a prevalent problem in all human societies: Hindus, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims, you name it. Even Buddhism, that  has traditionally lacked the idea of God, now has trends that are trying to fit in some kind of supreme deity.

Associationism, or shirk, is an enemy of religion because it opens doors to unrestrained vagaries, perversions and confusion – while seeming harmless and innocent in the beginning. Allah says:

Anyone who assigns partners to Allah (shirk), is as if he had fallen from heaven and been snatched up by birds, or the wind had swooped [like a bird on its prey] and thrown him into a far-distant place (of misguidance). [Surat Al-Hajj, 22:31]

In fact, history is also witness to the fact that doubt, shakk, about God is generated by nothing more than associationism, shirk, because once one accepts the idea of more than one, almighty and all-powerful God, things just do not make sense, and all sorts of explanations have to be devised and confusion results. Those who have struggled with the  idea of Christian Trinity can bear witness how multiplicity of God even in a subtle way can lead to doubts and even rejection.

  1. Human Religious Legislation

The next target in Islam is against the enemy that has really wreaked havoc by slowly eating away at the foundation of every message of Allah in all societies: man-made religious legislation.

Those ignorant of Allah’s Dîn and its wisdom may look at this principle of strict prohibition against innovation in religious matters and call it regressive and an impediment to progress. But those who know something of history will bear witness to how all messages of Allah changed until they became utterly disfigured and finally unrecognizable over a long period of time. All beliefs shared by a large number of people have a tendency to change both in presentation and in essence as the circumstances, needs, and whims of people change. These changes in understanding of people are subtle and unnoticeable. In matters of worldly life, human understanding needs to progress, and hence this subtle change in understanding, which leads to innovation and adaptation, is an important instinct which Allah has placed in us. However, in the matter of the Absolute Truth about Allah and the purpose of human life, a shift of any kind is undesirable and will accumulate over time to leave the Dîn of Allah utterly distorted. Hence, even a small shift in matters relating to religion is warned against in Islam, and innovation is condemned by Allah and His Prophet ﷺ strongly and unequivocally:

But say not—for any false thing that your tongues may put forth—‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to ascribe false things to Allah. For those who ascribe false things to Allah, will never prosper. [Sûrat Al-Naḥl,16:116] And:

…The unlettered Prophet (Muhammad), whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures) – in the law (Torah) and the Gospel…commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf,7:157]

Forbidding man-made legislation in religion, or innovation, is not a regressive principle, but a principle that separates the eternal truths from the variable conditions of this world and safeguards it from vagaries of human passion and flights of imagination.

Now one may ask why the innovation principle is operative in acts of worship, if it only safeguards eternal truth. To that I will humbly submit that acts of worship are statements of eternal truths of Islam, because action and belief are not as neatly separable as simplistic positivist logic would have it. Body and soul are intimately connected. It is for this reason that by starving the body during fasting we achieve spiritual benefits, and by performing a bodily exercise during Salah we show and secure the submission of our soul to Allah. Hence, safeguarding rituals of worship from innovation is indeed safeguarding those eternal truths that these acts of worship inculcate in the minds and souls of the worshipers.

How Religious Innovations Snowball

Imagine, for example, adding one sentence of prayer as a part of Salah after the regular prayers. In the beginning, some pious people may start saying this sentence collectively after each prayer to enhance the effect of this worship. Their young ones would see them do it, and some worshipers might even inform their children that “we only do it in order to enhance the effect.” Two generations down the line, however, the great grandchildren of those who instituted this new tradition will most likely not have any idea of how this new practice is separate from the actual prayers, and over time they would consider it part of regular Salah and chastise those who do not do it. Now each generation may itself add another recommended act to the actual prescribed act of worship, so after a hundred or so generations the actual worship and the belief it emphasized could be totally lost and nothing but the innovative practice remain. When there is too much stuff added to actual worship, it becomes too much to keep up with it all, so inevitably people begin to pick and choose, and often they choose what is easy and attractive and that which suits their desires. So a devotional song with music and dancing of men and women may become a substitute for what started as a Salah to one God alone.

Now you may think that I have exercised my imagination way too much, and that never in Islam have people substituted singing and dancing for Salah. But I submit that that is only because Allah’s Messenger ﷺ has so strongly warned against innovation of addition/deletion to/from Dîn which is a sin second only to shirk. In the messages of Islam that came to people before, such distortions are quite common.

It is periodic reform movements in Islam—that again and again scrutinize Muslims’ beliefs  and practices and try to bring them into accordance with the Perfect Dîn of Allah—that makes it possible for us to know exactly how Allah taught his Prophet ﷺ to perform Salah.


Originally posted 2015-04-24 10:05:36.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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