New Age Islam
Tue Sep 21 2021, 06:47 AM

Books and Documents ( 18 Jul 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

What Is Religion? Chapter 1: Islam A Challenge To Religion by Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez


Chapter 1: Islam A Challenge To Religion


What Is Religion?

By Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez

I. The So-called Urge for Religion

    Religion is as old as the rise of self-consciousness in man, but its origin, as that of man, is shrouded in obscurity. Man has, probably, lived on earth for about a million years. During the greater part of this period, he had no civilization and has not left his impress on any durable material. All we know about him is based on his fossilized remains, and while they tell us a good deal about his physical shape and structure, they tell us little about the man in him. Man acquired some rudiments of civilization when he began to work on stone and metal and to shape for himself tools, which hitherto he had taken ready-made from nature. The remains of his artefacts, however, shed valuable light on his developing needs and beliefs.

    Religion can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization. The caverns of primitive men, wherein dead bodies were laid with a provision of food and weapons, suggest beliefs and practices which are unmistakably religious in character. It would seem that no sooner had man attained the stage of mental development, represented by self-consciousness, and started on the road to civilization, than his breathless wonder at the world around him gave way to speculation on his origin and destiny and on the power which created the world and sustains it. His thinking took the form of myth-making and his tools of thought were not concepts but symbols. He felt vaguely but intensely an infinite power at work in the world around him. This dimly-sensed power evoked in him the responses of fear and reverence, or worship. The urge to worship appears to have always been there, but man can worship only that which he believes to be both good and powerful, because of his own helplessness. Primitive man was slowly and painfully groping his way to the idea of religion. He was seeking, with his scanty resources, for an object which he could appease or revere and worship. No doubt, he worshipped crude objects or simple natural phenomena, but we must not forget that for him they only symbolized the supreme power at work in the universe. Worship is a characteristic religious activity and the anthropologists have amassed ample evidence to prove that primitive man did worship something or other. It has also been proved that primitive tribes, even now living, cherish beliefs and engage in practices which are undeniably religious in character inasmuch as they refer to some deity or deities and to life after death.

    In the light of these findings one can safely affirm that religion is a universal phenomenon (for the simple reason that, as explained in the Introduction, the instinct of self-preservation is inherent in man). Plutarch, who flourished in the first century of the Christian era with extensive knowledge of the world of his time, affirms:

    In wandering over the earth, you can find cities without walls, without science, without rulers, without palaces, without treasures, without money, without gymnasium or theatre, but a city without temples to gods, without prayer, oaths and prophecy, such a city no mortal has yet seen and will never see.1

    In the modern age, religion is visible in many different aspects–sometimes it is looked upon as a natural phenomenon and as such it falls within the sphere of science. But, as the experience of individual man, it falls within the purview of psychology, while, as a social fact, it is the concern of the sociologist. The sociologist is, however, interested only in the function of religion as a cohesive force in society. The role of religion in human history has also not been overlooked: it has been studied. In our attempt to understand the nature of religion, therefore, we will first consider the definitions which have been offered by the various scientists and thinkers who have made a special study of the subject.

    II. The Definition of Religion

    The student of religion is as much bewildered by the diversity and variety of religions as be is baffled by the complexity of each single religion. He finds it well-nigh impossible to extract the essential element from the complex and heterogeneous mass of beliefs and practices in which it is embedded. In these circumstances, it is natural for him to select some aspect which he happens to regard as an important characteristic and try to define religion within this particular framework. This, among others, is the main reason why there are so many definitions of religion; but none of them encompasses the entire phenomenon or commands universal acceptance. In fact, every investigator in this field has given his own definition and some have offered more than one. Surprisingly enough, some of them are even self-contradictory. Some scholars hold that a set of doctrines is essential to religion; while others believe that religion may exist as a purely emotional attitude without any beliefs. Again, for some, belief in God is the life-blood of religion—but others reject this view and cite as instances Buddhism and other atheistic religions. However, let us examine a few representative definitions of religion, hoping to find some element common to them all which serves as the clue to a comprehensive definition:

    Religion is (subjectively regarded) the recognition of all duties as divine commands (Kant).

    Religion is to take everything individual as a part of the whole, everything limited as a representation of the infinite (Schleiermacher).

    That which expresses the innermost tendency of all religions is the axiom of the conservation of values (Hoffdeenng).

    William James holds religion to be "the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine". Calverton takes a different view of religion, "Magic and religion" he affirms, "evolved as (a) means whereby (man) believed he was able to acquire power (over his environment) and make the universe bend to his wishes". Professor Whitehead speaks of religion as "what the individual does with his own solitariness,"2 and in another place defines it as a "force of belief cleansing the inward parts".3 Whitehead's considered opinion on the nature of religion is stated more fully and clearly in the following passage which occurs in his Science and the Modern World:

     Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.4

    Commenting on various definitions of religion, Professor G. Galloway says, "When we keep in mind the psychological factors of the religious consciousness and the way in which they work, some definitions of religion strike us by their inadequacy and one-sidedness. We find, perhaps, that they are applicable to certain stages of religion but not to others, or that they leave out what is important." However, undeterred by the lack of success which had attended the efforts of so many great scholars, Galloway has advanced his own definition. He defines religion as "Man's faith in a power beyond himself whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gain stability of life, and which he expresses in acts of worship and service."5

    A.C. Campbell, in his illuminating work On Selfhood and Godhood, has devoted a chapter to the discussion of the problem of a definition for religion. He too has put forward a definition of his own which deserves consideration:

    Religion may be defined as a state of mind comprising belief in the reality of a supernatural being or beings endowed with transcendent power and worth, together with the complex emotive attitude of worship intrinsically appropriate thereto.6.

    Leuba, in his book, A Psychological Study of Religion, has listed no less than forty-eight different definitions of religion, each offered by a scholar of repute. Even this is far from being an exhaustive list as Ducasse in his book, A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion, has quoted twenty- seven other definitions.7 To add to the confusion, as has been observed before, many definitions contradict one another. As Professor H.J. Paton has pointed out, "For any serious view of religion, it is always possible to find another, equally serious, which seems to be its precise opposite."8.

     Ouspensky, looking at the formidable array of conflicting definitions, was led to accept the relativistic theory of religion. According to him, "Religion corresponds to the level of a man's being; and one man's religion might not be at all suitable for another man."9 His definition is clearly inadequate and unsatisfactory inasmuch as it completely ignores the Reality to which religion refers and denies it any form of objectivity.

    We have been trying to seek an element which is common to all the important definitions. That element, if found, would constitute the core of religion and as such can be expected to occupy the central place in every religion. The element, which we find common to most of the definitions, though not to all, is the belief in the existence of a transcendent cosmic power to which the term "Divine" is usually applied. Divinity too has been represented as one single entity and also as many; but the monistic conception has been more widely accepted than the pluralistic. While the existence of the supreme power is seldom questioned by religious people, their ideas regarding its nature are as vague, as indefinite and as varied as are the definitions of religion itself, and each great writer on religion seems to have conceived God in his own way. Only a few instances can be cited here. Kant speaks of God as "the moral Law-giver," and William James describes Him as "the higher part of the universe." Matthew Arnold believes God to be "the power that makes for righteousness."10 For Sir James Jeans, He is "the greatest of mathematicians." Bergson, in one of his earlier works, identified Him with the creative energy. Later on, when his thought had taken a mystical turn, he spoke of God as "Love and the Beloved".11 Thus we see that there are as many definitions of God as there are of religion. The point to be emphasized, however, is that God is infinite and, therefore, our finite understanding can never encompass His nature. Some of those who attempt to define God give free rein to their imagination and indulge in wild speculation quite out of touch with Reality. Others, seeking something of which their mind can take a firm hold, identify God with nature. But they forget that God is transcendent. He may be sensed but cannot be comprehended. Apprehension of God is supposed to occur in the mystical experience, *but this apprehension, as the great mystics themselves testify, is only fragmentary, elusive and tantalizing. A comprehensive definition of God, therefore, is not possible. None-the-less, it may be possible to formulate some idea of God. But religion is not satisfied with that. It requires a more adequate idea of God. We should, therefore, take up the question whether and how such an idea of God may be formulated.

    III. The Idea of God

    Belief in God is the life-blood of religion. Questions relating to God have naturally engaged the attention of the advocates and opponents of religion. What is God, and how do we know Him, are questions which no serious student of religion can brush aside. Adequate and satisfactory answers to these basic questions will enable us to understand the nature of God and assess the value of religion. In fact, we find that these questions too have received different and conflicting answers. It may be of interest to note that even the questions themselves have been phrased according to the point of view of each writer. Those who employ the positivist

    *The nature of this so-called "experience" will be discussed in a subsequent chapter.

    approach have put the question in the form of "How did the idea of God take its rise in the human mind?" Grant Allen and I. G. Frazer are fair representatives of this group of writers. Their answer may be summarized thus.

    Primitive man lived in constant dread of the violent forces of nature which threatened him with physical injury and even death. Storms, thunderbolts, earthquakes and other cataclysms of nature frightened and overawed him, and as animistic tendencies dominated his mind, he personified the forces of nature and sought to placate them by offering them worship and sacrifice. He thus peopled the world with gods. Later on, as man's mind developed, he found it necessary to rationalize his old attachment to them. The urge for unification led him to reduce the multiplicity of gods to one supreme deity. He formed an abstract idea of the Absolute and then, driven by unconscious emotional urges, objectified that idea. The God thus evolved is a subjective God. In the words of Sheen, "the only God attained by a purely affective approach is a subjective God born of one's own feelings."12

   This, in brief, is the evolutionary theory, which purports to give an account of the origin and development of the idea of one God. It is presumed that the idea of God is found only in the higher religions of modern man and that it was alien to the mind of primitive people. Recently, however, factual evidence has been brought to light which proves that this presumption is erroneous. On the basis of these facts, some scholars have advocated the view that primitive man's mind too was gifted with the awareness of God. According to Professor Toynbee, this view is put forward by Father Schmidt, who based his theory on observations made by him of "common elements in the religions of the most primitive surviving peoples, now scattered in holes and corners at opposite extremities of the inhabited surface of the Earth."13. The present writer cannot say how the scholars who are working in this field have reacted to this theory. If they regard it as, at least, worthy of serious consideration, it would mean that a different approach to the question "What is God?" is possible. If God's existence was recognized even by the most primitive people, it may be safely argued that the idea of God has a genuine reference to the Real, however imperfectly and inadequately it may represent the Real. Religion too, as a means of contacting the Real, therefore, becomes validated. Instead of being the expression of subjective wishes, religion is seen to be a transaction with the objective Reality. The goal of religion, from this standpoint, is not a phantom of imagination but Reality itself. The point being important, we should bear in mind its implications which we have to consider later on. For the moment, it should suffice to remark that in this context the idea of objective. Reality and belief in a being who exists independently of us—a being who is both immanent and transcendent—is a dim reminiscence of the original deenn.*

    We can now take up the question, "What is Religion?"

  IV. What Is Religion?

   Two different views of God were considered in the preceding section. According to the first view, God is the Ultimate Reality, and, According to the second, God exists only as an idea in the human mind. Corresponding to these two views of God, there emerge two views of religion. According to one, religion deals with the Absolute. Its business is to interpret the Absolute to us and to tell us how we can get close to it. According to the second view, religion is a superstition born of human wishes and fantasies. Its function is to provide illusory gratification to human wishes which are denied satisfaction in the physical world. From this point of view, religion originates in the primitive mentality of man in his ignorance, his fears and hopes. Jung, for instance, explains religion as a biological device for safeguarding the human self and his social fabric against the forces of disintegration. It is obvious

    * Deen to be explained later.

    That such a view relegates religion to the position of a private affair of the individual, something which has only a fictitious value to him, and assumes a role hardly distinguishable from the fantasies of self-willed individuals. Religious activity will thus appear only to be primitive, irrational or illogical, and completely out of touch with the real world.

   The scientist's approach to religion, on the other hand, is empirical and historical. He treats religion as a natural phenomenon and hopes to understand it by tracing it back to its origin in primitive society and taking note of the changes it underwent in the course of history. His stress is chiefly on the social function of religion. He thinks that religion comes into being and survives because it promotes social cohesion and group solidarity: but he fails to grasp the essence of religion as practiced in primitive society, because there it is enveloped in bizarre notions and grotesque superstitions. Lacking the (so-called) spiritual insight, he is led to regard the whole mass as religion, and takes its superficial aspects as constituting the core of religion itself. Auguste Comte was the pioneer in this type of investigation. He believed that human thought, in the course of its development, has passed through three well-defined stages—theological, metaphysical and, finally, scientific. Religion thus represents the earliest phase of mental evolution. In this stage, man's approach to Reality was emotional and irrational—in short, only mystical, while in the metaphysical stage, he relied more upon reason to lead him to the heart of Reality. In the last stage, that is, the scientific, he realized the importance of the observational data for gaining some knowledge of the world itself in which he lived. If we accept Comte's view, it will mean that religion has no relevance to the modern world, and its image will thus have to be regarded as a mere relic of the past, with no place in the scheme of modern knowledge and no bearing on the present-day life, deserving to be consigned to the limbo of obsolete ideas.

    Another empirically oriented theory gives a better reasoned account of the origin and development of religion. It points out that primitive man lived in constant fear of the forces of nature. Confronted with them, he suffered from an intense feeling of helplessness. He personified and deified these forces and offered sacrifices and worship to placate them. This was the first stage of religion, in which man humbly prostrated himself before these gods in the hope of pacifying them and inducing them to spare him. Later, he grew somewhat confident and thought that he could actively interfere in, the course of natural events and could devise methods to bend these forces to his will. The attitude developed a new phase of religion which was that of magic. Then man tried to influence the deities by charms, spells, incantations and occult practices, and thus probably the institution of priesthood arose to cope with the problem, and the magicians became the first priests.

    As human groups increased in size and their structure became complex, tribal customs could no longer regulate the behaviour of their members. The need was felt for a central organization, and the institution of Kingship thus made its first appearance. A single man was invested with absolute power and the entire administration was placed in his hands. He occupied a position high above the common people and exercised absolute control over their lives and property. His word was law submission to which was considered essential. He would brook no opposition. The desire for power is insatiable. However powerful the monarch might be, he wanted still greater power. With the passage of time, this turned him into an object of fear, hatred or love According to his treatment of his subjects. The theory that absolute monarchy was an indispensable condition for peace and order in society was universally accepted. So, it was bound to influence religion also. The idea of God was fashioned on the model of the absolute monarch, and He was conceived as the Being who ruled over heaven and earth as an arbitrary despot. He was the King of kings, the Lord of the universe, whose will was unquestionable and whose ways were mysterious. Man stood before Him quaking with fear–an abject and helpless creature. Religion, According to this theory, had now entered the third and the final stage. God was conceived as a tyrant, and religion became an instrument of oppression. It served the ruling class by representing it as appointed by the Divine Master to exercise power in the land and control over the masses. By means of "spiritual sanctions" it protected the ruling class against the fury of the oppressed people. With religion to defend them, the rulers could, with impunity, trample upon the rights of the common man which still remained undefined. This, in brief, is the Marxist theory of religion. The Marxists view religion as a cunning device employed by the bourgeoisie to safeguard their vested interests against the proletariat. Religion, they aver, is an opiate which makes the people insensible to their sufferings and persuades them to resign to their unhappy lot. This view of religion needs serious consideration. We may be permitted to say that the world of religion has not been able to meet this challenge so far. Only deenn can meet it, as we shall discuss later on.

    In so far as the view of the scientists is concerned, it may be pointed out that religion to them represents a distinctive approach to Reality quite different from the scientific approach. While science has been developing a truer and clearer view of one aspect of Reality, religion has been striving to achieve a clearer perception and a more and more adequate apprehension of Reality as a whole and its relation to and meaning for man in a realm beyond the reach of natural science. Professor Heisenberg, the famous physicist, in one of his recent writings, has observed that as science becomes more and more perfect, it gets farther and farther away from concrete reality and enters into the realm of abstraction. As scientific concepts tend to become more and more abstract, they get more and more remote from the real world of our daily experience. Each step that takes science nearer to perfection takes it farther away from the realities of life. Religion, on the other hand, strives to keep close to the living reality, and its concepts too, though they may not take the form of scientific expression, yet are more meaningful and in closer touch with human life.

    The philosophical approach to religion is certainly more appropriate than that of the scientist. The philosopher's quest is for the meaning and he strives to achieve a comprehensive view of religion and its value to human life. Unfortunately, many philosophers have been hampered by their preconceptions and have, therefore, failed in their search. Human reason, moreover, has serious limitations and it may be doubted if it can lead us by itself to the core of Reality. Some philosophers, as a result of deep and intensive reflection, have, no doubt, arrived at a conception of God, but this God turns out to be a mere abstraction, far different from the living God which religion tries to comprehend. Reason, by itself, in short, has not enabled us so far to answer the question: "What is religion? “

   Let us now turn to the mystic's approach. He appeals to his subjective experience which he finds to be absolutely convincing and supremely satisfying, at least to himself. He claims that in this experience he feels himself to be close and living contact with the Absolute. Unfortunately, this experience, as the mystic himself admits, is ineffable and incommunicable. He can neither convey his knowledge to others nor can he convince others that his experience was not purely subjective and illusory. Further, the mystic’s Absolute is static and unchanging. Time is reduced to a mere illusion. But the world of our experience is continuously in a flux. What is then the source of change if God is outside the stream of time? The mystic has no plausible answer to such a question.

    Perhaps a survey of the higher religions of the world (which originally were the same deen received by the various Anbiya from time to time) might enable us to get an answer to the question of the nature and validity of religion. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Formidable obstacles will have to be surmounted before we can form a just estimate of the value of each of the adyan. The lives of most of the Rasul and the history of adyan are shrouded in obscurity, and even the keen eye of the historian can hardly penetrate the mist that envelops their lives. Authentic facts about their lives are hard to obtain and the problem is more complicated by the tangle of myths that has been woven around them in the course of centuries. Even patient historical research has, very often, failed to separate fact from fiction. The result is that the accounts of their lives are mostly hearsay or conjectural. What is worse, even their teaching has not come down to us in its original form. We do not know, for certain, when their so-called sayings were committed to writing, and there is good reason to believe that the sacred books, generally supposed to embody their teaching, have been tampered with from time to time. It would seem that in the course of successive editions many passages were excised and many were interpolated. The teaching of the Rusul has certainly been preserved in the scriptures but only in a distorted form. It is, therefore, well-nigh impossible to recover the original form and substance of these adyan.

    The only exception is the Deen of Islam. It’s Nabi and his companions lived in the limelight of history. His teaching and actions were extensively recorded by his followers and they can be checked by the accounts given by contemporary historians of neighbouring lands. Authentic facts about his life and doings are numerous and easily accessible in contemporary records. Moreover, the Qur'an, on which Islam is firmly based, has come down to us exactly as it was delivered through the Rasul. It has always been transcribed with scrupulous care. No Muslim scribe has ever dared to omit or insert a single letter. The source of Islam has thus remained untouched and unadulterated. We can reasonably hope, therefore, that a close study of Islam will give us the clue to the real nature and function of deen.


1.       W.M. Urban, Humanity and Deity, p.15.

2.       E.S, Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion p.18.

3.       J.Huxley, Religion without Revelation, p.40.

4.       A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 222.

5.       George Galloway, the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 181, 184.

6.       A.C. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, p.248.

7.       Cf. Ibid., p. 234.

8.       H.J. Paton, The Modern Predicament, p. 59.

9.       P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 299.

10.     Bright man, op. cit., p. 81.

11.     Henry Bergson, The Two Sources of Religion and Morality, pp. 245-6.

12.     Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophy of Religion, p. 238.

13.     Arnold Toynbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion, p. 18.



URL of this page: