The Humble "I"

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Archive for the tag “fitrah”

The Natural & Primordial Faith

Plato-and-socrates-590x433During the 4th century B.C., or thereabouts, a series of dialogues or discussions were penned by Plato, one of the greatest of the Ancient Greek philosophers, which dealt with a number of profound existential themes: the origins of moral virtue, the value of justice, the nature of love, the reality of the soul, what defines good governance. Many of the dialogues take the form of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, posing questions to a person or a group so as to help them examine the validity of their beliefs and to wean out any contradictions.

In one such dialogue, The Meno, Socrates takes an ignorant slave boy and, by asking him a series of questions, manages to extract from him the fundamental axioms and rules of geometry. Having done so, Socrates insists that the boy knew the foundations of geometry all along. He had merely forgotten them. In Plato’s belief, each person is born with an innate knowledge of things; including knowledge of what is good and evil, right and wrong. Thus a baby lives close to the truth, but as it grows up it forgets and so falls into ignorance. Through proper inquiry, Plato suggested, knowledge may again be “recollected”.

Now in Plato’s exaggerated conviction about knowledge lies an elemental truth about human nature. The Qur’an makes it known that simply by being born into the human condition, man possesses a certain intuitive knowledge of, and an attraction to, truth, beauty and goodness. In Islam, such an innate recognition is part of man’s primordial nature, or fitrah which, in a way, may be said to resemble the “conscience”. So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man, says the Qur’an [30:30]. Hence, as turned out from God’s creative hand, man is born pure and innocent, inclined towards virtue, possessing an inborn capacity to sense, as it were, God’s divinity. Man’s fitrah, therefore, is to love God, truth, and beauty, and to feel an aversion towards selfishness, falsehood and evil. Such is his true nature; much as the nature of a lamb is to be gentle or a horse to be swift.

Islam’s view of human nature, therefore, is an optimistic one. Unlike in Christianity, which insists that everyone is born into a state of original sin, the Islamic faith begins with the premise that man is essentially a creature of goodness, and that any veering away from this norm is as a result of his socialisation and upbringing. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Each child is born upon the primordial nature, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian, or Magian.’ [Bukhari, no.1358] These three religions, well-known to the Prophet’s companions and contemporaries, are here contrasted with the “primordial nature” which, as the Qur’an sees it, consists of man’s instinctive recognition of God. Fitrah, in other words, is here equated with Islam.

So in the cosmology of the Qur’an, every human being is born predisposed to Islam, the primordial religion (din al-fitrah), and is perfectly capable of receiving the truths manifested by the light of divine revelation: that God is One, Unique, possessing the attributes of perfection, and that none deserves to be worshipped save Him. But man, when entangled in customs, distractions, whims, selfish desires and false teachings, becomes contentious, slavish, hankering after what is forbidden, and deflected from the pure worship of the One true God. And it is precisely for this that prophets were sent and heavenly scriptures revealed: to help man recollect his purpose of creation and to retrieve this fitrah.

Convert or Revert? The Muslim War of Words

misunderstanding‘Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third,’ goes one saying. The Qur’an honours those Who listen to the word and follow what is best in it. Those are such whom God has guided, such are men of understanding. [39:18] Sound cognition and understanding is seen as a divine gift, in a way flawed or fallacious understanding isn’t. In one hadith we learn: ‘Whosoever God intends to show goodness to, He grants him the understanding of the religion.’1

The American literary critic, Anatole Broyard, wrote that: ‘To be misunderstood can be the writer’s punishment for having disturbed the reader’s peace.’ In one sense, all communication is a sort of “disturbance of the peace,” for joy or for woe, and is open to being misunderstood and misconstrued. Misunderstanding occurs when what the speakers intends to express differs from what the listener actually believes has been expressed. Sometimes the misunderstanding stems from the speaker’s inadequacy of communication; sometimes through the listener’s simple misconstruction; at other times, through the listener’s shallow understanding. Indeed, there are even some that make it their commitment to misunderstanding you. The nafs is a most troublesome thing – God save us!

Some misunderstandings are harmless, others devastating. Some may be overlooked between people, others wreak havoc on relationships. Some are easily clarified, others seep into the social fabric, giving birth to bid‘ah.

Below is rather a common misunderstandings which has found its way into popular Muslim discourse, regrettably regarded as creed in many a preacher’s catechism. And while, from one angle, the misunderstanding is fairly innocent; from another, it raises some serious questions:

He is a revert to Islam, not a convert!’ How many times has someone insisted on this “correction” in a gathering, quite often with great gusto. The argument for it runs like this: Muslims believe that all people are born with an innate sense of God, or rather a natural faith in God, called fitrah. A hadith says: ‘Every child is born upon the fitrah, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian or Magian.’2 Islam has not been mentioned as one of the religions, since it is implied by the term fitrah. Conversion to Islam is thus seen as a “return” back to the original, primordial faith. For this reason, they insist that one has “reverted” – returned to a former condition or belief – rather than “converted” to Islam.

As appealing as this logic sounds, it does not have the support from scripture. It is a case of one plus one equals three: the ingredients on one side of the equation are fine, but the end result is not. Droves of people accepted Islam in the Prophet’s lifetime, peace be upon him, and at his hands. His call to them was simply: aslim – “enter into Islam,” “submit,” “become a Muslim”. He never asked them to “re-enter” Islam!

For example, Anas narrates: ‘A young Jewish boy used to serve the Prophet, peace be upon him, and he became ill. So the Prophet, peace be upon him, went to visit him. He sat by his head and said: “Become a Muslim (aslim)!” The boy looked at his father, who was with him and who said to him: Obey Abu’l-Qasim. So he embraced Islam (fa aslam).’3 Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’4 Again, he did not say: since the time that ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘accepted Islam a second time.’

Perhaps there is room in English for the term convert, as well as revert (even if the first is far more theologically correct). Perhaps one shouldn’t make too big a deal out of it. Perhaps this misunderstanding would be harmless enough, if only the revert “posse” would stop insisting how wrong the word convert is. For the discourse has reached a stage in which, at the mere use of the term convert, a long finger-pointing lecture can often ensue, where simple scriptural history is drowned out by self-styled logic. There is also the concern that when such self-styled logic begins to reinterpret other aspects of scripture, where will it all end!

1. Al-Bukhari, no.3641; Muslim, no.1037.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.1358; Muslim, no.2658.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.1356.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.

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