Foundation of NJ, USA


the Message Continues 7/35

Newsletter for June 2004






Islam between East and West
Alija Izetbegovic

"Though it is from the East that the sun rises, showing itself bold and bright, without a veil, it burns and blazes with inward fire only when it escapes from the shackles of East and West.
Drunk with the splendor it springs up out of its East that it may subject all horizons to its mastery,
its nature is innocent of both East and West, though in origin, true, it is an Easterner."
                                                           Iqbal ( Javid Nama )


The modern world is characterized by a sharp ideological encounter. All of us are involved in it, whether as its partakers or as its victims. What is the place of Islam in this gigantic confrontation? Does it have a part in the shaping of the present world? This book tries in part to answer the question.

There are only three integral views of the world: the religious, the materialistic, and the Islamic. [1] They reflect three elemental possibilities (conscience, nature, and man), each of them manifesting itself as Christianity, materialism, and Islam. All variety of ideologies, philosophies, and teachings from the oldest time up to now can be reduced to one of these three basic world views. The first takes as its starting point the existence of the spirit, the second the existence of matter, and the third the simultaneous existence of spirit and matter. If only matter exists, materialism would be the only consequent philosophy. On the contrary, if the spirit exists, then man also exists, and man's life would be senseless without a kind of religion and morality. Islam is the name for the unity of spirit and matter, the highest form of which is man himself. The human life is complete only if it includes both the physical and the spiritual desires of the human being. All man's failures are either because of the religious denial of man's biological needs or the materialistic denial of man's spiritual desires.

Our forefathers used to say that there existed two substances: mind and matter, under which they understood two elements, two orders, two worlds, with different origins and different natures, which  do not emerge from one another and which cannot be reduced one to another. Even the greatest spirits of the world could not avoid this differentiation; however, their approach was different. We could imagine these two worlds as separated in time, two successive worlds ("the present and the next"), or look at them as two simultaneous worlds different by nature and meaning, which is nearer to the truth.

Dualism is the closest human feeling, but it is not necessarily the highest human philosophy. On the contrary, all great philosophies have been monistic. Man experiences the world dualistically, but monism is in the essence of all human thinking. Philosophy disagrees with dualism. However, this fact does not mean too much, because life, being superior to thought, may not be judged by it. In reality, since we are human beings, we are living two realities. We can deny these two worlds, but we cannot escape from them. Life does not depend too much on our understanding of it.

Therefore, the question is not if we live two lives, but only if we live so with understanding. In this lies the ultimate meaning of Islam. Life is dual. It became technically impossible for man to live one life, from the moment he ceased to be plant or animal, from the time of qalu bala (the Qur'an, 7:172), when the moral norms were established, or when man was "thrown out into the world."

We have no rational evidence that there exists another world, but we have a clear feeling that man does not exist only to produce and to consume. Scientists or thinkers who try to discover the truth cannot find that higher life by thinking alone, but their own life, spent in search for the truth and neglecting the physical living, is just that higher form of human existence.

The two discussed lines of thinking in human history are parallel and can be easily drawn. In spite of their ceaseless mutual antagonism, they continue to date showing no essential progress. The first starts with Plato and runs through the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, followed by al-Ghazali, Descartes, Malenbranche, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Fitche, Cudworth, Kant, Hegel, Mach, and Bergson in our day. The materialistic line could be represented as follows: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Gassendi, Helvetius, Holbach, Diderot, Spencer, and Marx. In the field of practical human objectives, these two extremes of man's thinking are represented by humanism and progress. Religion, as it is understood in the West, does not lead toward progress, and science does not lead toward humanism.

However, in reality, there is neither pure religion nor pure science; for example, there is no religion without some elements of science in it and no science without some religious hope in it. This fact creates a mixture in which it is difficult to find the true origin or true place of an idea or tendency. By discussing them, our aim is to reach their pure forms, with their ultimate and logical but sometimes practically absurd conclusions. We will find the two systems as two inwardly logical and closed orders, but for many of us the picture will seem surprising. They even explain each other in terms of a mosaic, in which an empty place can be filled using the inverse argument. When, for example, materialism claims that only objective factors, independent of men, are the prime movers of all historical events, then in antithesis a quite opposite opinion should be expected. Indeed, after short searching we find the so-called "heroic" interpretation of history, for example Carlyle's, in which all historical events are explained as having been influenced by some strong characters - heroes. According to materialists, "history does not walk on its head," [2] and according to the others, quite the contrary: geniuses make history.

In the same fashion as in the preceding example, historical materialism is against Christian personalize, and by the same logic, creation is against evolution, ideal against interest, freedom against uniformity, personality against society, and so forth. The religious demand "destroy the wishes," had to have its opposite equivalent in civilization's imperative "create constantly the new wishes." In the table in the appendix at the end of this work, the reader will find a more detailed attempt to classify the ideas and views according to the said model. The result, although quite incomplete, can show that religion and materialism are the two elementary views of the world, neither of which can be split anymore, nor one fused into the other - to use a figure from the Qur'an - the two seas "...which cannot prevail one over another." [3]

It is impossible to find rational arguments for either of these world views. Both of them are within themselves logical systems, and there is no other logic that could stand above them and judge them. In principle and in practice, only human life is above them. To live - and above all to live completely and righteously - is more than any religion or socialism. Christianity offers salvation, but only inner salvation. Socialism offers only external salvation. Faced with these two parallel worlds in a logically unsolvable clash, we feel we have to accept both of them, trying to find their new natural balance. The two opposed teachings divide life, truth, and man's fate between them.

There are some essential facts on which everyone counts in life, regardless of one's own philosophy. Man learned them owing to his common sense or to his successes and failures. These facts are the family, material security, happiness, righteousness, veracity, health, education, freedom, interest, power, responsibility, and the like. If we analyze these facts, we will see that they group around a common axis and form a realistic system, maybe heterogeneous and incomplete, but reminding us very much of Islam.

The differences between the said basic teachings seem unbridgeable, but only so in theory. In practical life, the situation is different. What they were fighting against yesterday is today approved, and some very dear ideas remain only as a decoration of theory.

Marxism rejected the family and the state, but in practice it kept these institutions. Every pure religion disapproved of man's worrying about this world, but as the ideology of living people, it accepted the struggle for social justice and a better world. Marxism has had to accept some degree of individual freedom and religion some use of force. It is obvious in real life that man cannot live according to a consistent philosophy.

The question is whether they can find a way out and remain what they are. To adapt themselves to real life, they borrow from each other. Christianity, which has become a church, began to talk about work, wealth, power, education, science, marriage, laws, social justice, and so forth. And Materialism, on the other hand, which became socialism or an order, a state, speaks about humanism, morality, art, creation, justice, responsibility, freedom, and so forth.

Instead of pure doctrines, we are offered their interpretations for everyday use. The deformation of both religion and materialism has been happening according to a kind of law. In both cases the problem was the same: how can something that is only one aspect of life be implemented in real life which is more complex? In theory, one can be a Christian or a materialist, more or less radical, but in reality no one is consistent, neither Christian nor

Modern utopias in China, Korea and Vietnam, which held themselves as the most consistent forms of Marxist teaching, are good examples of the compromise and inconsistency in practice. Instead of allowing time to form the new morals reflecting new relations in the economic base, they have simply taken over the traditional moral norms, especially two of them: modesty and respect for elders. [4] So, on the side of radical Marxism, we find also the two most known principles of the existing religion. The authors of the system unwillingly admit this fact, but facts remain what they are, regardless of our recognition of them.

In some socialist states well-performed work is rewarded with moral stimulants instead of material ones. However, the moral stimulants cannot be explained by materialistic philosophy. It is the same case with the appeals for humanism, justice, equality, freedom, human rights, and so forth, which are all of religious origin. Certainly, everybody has the right to live 3s he thinks best, including the right not to be consistent with his own pattern. Still, to understand the world correctly, it is important to know the true origin and meaning of the ideas ruling the world.

In research of this kind, the dangers lie in different "obvious nesses" and so-called generally accepted opinions. The sun is not turning around the earth, although it is evident. The whale is not a fish, regardless of the fact that most people believe so. Socialism and freedom are not compatible, regardless of repeated convincing. In spite of the general confusion, ideas remain what they are and influence the world, not according to their apparent and temporary meanings and natures but according to their original meaning and nature.

We have approached the definition of Islam in a different way. Keeping in mind the main point, we can say Islam means first to understand and to admit the primeval dualism of the world and then to overcome it.

The adjective "Islamic" is used in this book not only to qualify regulations which are commonly known as Islam, but also and even more so, to term the basic principle underlying them. Islam here is the name of a method rather than of a ready-made solution and means the synthesis of opposite principles. The basic principle of Islam reminds us of the pattern in which life was created. The inspiration which connected freedom of the mind and the determinism of nature in the life appearance, seems to be the same which connected ablution and prayer in a unity called Islamic salah. A powerful intuition would be able to reconstruct out of salah the complete Islam, and out of Islam the universal dualism of the world. [5]

Europe was not able to find a middle way although (England has tried in a way to be an exception in this regard). That is why it is not possible to express Islam using European terminology. The Islamic terms salah, zakah, khalifah, jama`ah, wudu', and so forth are not prayer, tax, ruler, community, and washing. The definition that Islam is a synthesis between religion and materialism, that it exists in the middle between Christianity and socialism, is very rough and could be accepted only conditionally. It is more or less correct only in some aspects. Islam is neither a simple arithmetical mean between these two teachings, nor their average. Salah, zakah, wudu' are more indivisible since they express an intimate and simple feeling, a certainty which is expressed with one word and one picture only but which still represents a logically dual connotation. The parallel with man is obvious. Man is its measure and its explanation. [6]

It is known that the Qur'an leaves an analytical reader the impression of disarrangement, and that it seems to be a compound of diverse elements. Nevertheless, the Qur'an is life, not literature. Islam is a way of living rather than a way of thinking. The only authentic comment of the Qur'an can be life, and as we know, it was the life of Prophet Muhammad. Islam in its written form (the Qur'an) may seem disorderly, but in the life of Muhammad, it proves itself to be a natural union of love and force, the sublime and the real, the divine and the human. This explosive compound of religion and politics produced enormous force in the life of the peoples who accepted it. In one moment, Islam has coincided with the very essence of life.

Islam's middle position can be recognized by the fact that Islam has always been attacked from the two opposite directions: from the side of religion that it is too natural, actual, and tuned to the world; and from the side of science that it contains religious and mystical elements. There is only one Islam, but like man, it has both soul and body. Its contrary aspects depend on a different point of view: materialists only see Islam as a religion and mysticism, as a "right wing" tendency, while Christians see it only as a sociopolitical movement, as a left-wing tendency.

The same dualistic impression repeats itself when looking from inside as well. Not one original Islamic institution belongs either to pure religion alone, or solely to science which may go along with politics and economy. The mystics have always stressed the religious aspect of Islam, the rationalists the other one. All the same, both of them have always had difficulties with Islam, simply because it cannot be put into any of their classifications. Take wudu' as an example. A mystic will define it as a religious ablution with symbolic meaning. A rationalist will look upon it as a matter of hygiene only. They are both right, but only partly. The defectiveness of the mystic explanation lies in the fact that it lets the hygienic side of wudu' become a mere form. Following the same logic in other questions, this approach will reduce Islam to pure religion, by eliminating all physical, intellectual, and social components from it. The rationalists take quite the opposite way. By neglecting the religious side, they
degrade Islam to a political movement only, creating a new type of nationalism from it, a so-called Islamic nationalism, deprived of ethical-religious substance, empty and equal to all other nationalisms in this regard. To be a Muslim, in this case, does not represent an appeal or a duty, a moral or a religious obligation, or any attitude to the universal truth. It means only belonging to a group different from the other one. Islam has never been only a nation. Rather, Islam is a call to a nation, "to enjoin the right and to forbid the wrong" [7] - that is, to perform a moral mission. If we disregard the political component of Islam and accept religious mysticism, we silently admit dependence and slavery. On the contrary, if we ignore the religious component, we cease to be any moral force. Does it matter if an imperialism is called British, German, or Islamic if it means only a naked power over people and things?

For the future and man's practical activity, Islam means the call to create a man harmonious in his soul and body and a society whose laws and socio-political institutions will maintain - and not violate - this harmony. Islam is, and should be, a permanent searching through history for a state of inward and outward balance. This is the aim of Islam today, and it is its specific historical duty in the future.

The problems discussed in this book coincide in a way with the most specific feature of the present historical situation, namely, the division of the world into two opposing camps, based on ideological conflict. The encounter between ideas is projected in reality more clearly than ever before, assuming practical, determined forms. The polarization increases, unfortunately, day by day. Today, we are faced with two worlds divided to the core, politically, ideologically, and emotionally. A gigantic historical experiment about the duality of man's world takes place before our eyes.

Still, a part of the world is not affected by this polarization, and the majority of it is made up of Muslim countries. This phenomenon is not accidental. Islam is ideologically independent - nonaligned. Islam is such by its very definition.

This process of ideological and political independence of Muslim countries will be continued. The un engagement is not only political; it is followed by the same decisive demands to rid themselves from foreign models and influences, both Eastern and Western. That is the natural position of Islam in today's world. [8]

Islam, which occupies a central position between East and West, has to become conscious of its own mission. Now, when it is more and more obvious that the opposed ideologies with their extreme forms cannot be imposed on mankind, and that they must go toward a synthesis and a new middle position, we want to prove that Islam corresponds to this natural way of thinking and that it is its most consistent expression. As Islam in the past was the intermediary between the ancient cultures and the West, it must again today, in a time of dramatic dilemmas and alternatives, shoulder its role of intermediary nation in the divided world. This is the meaning of the third way, the Islamic way.

Last, a few words about the work itself. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, PREMISES, discusses the question of religion in general. The second part deals with Islam, or more precisely, with one of its aspects: bipolarity.

In any event, this book is neither theology, nor is its author a theologian. In this regard, the book is rather an attempt at the translation of Islam into the language which the new generation speaks and understands. This fact might explain some of its faults and inaccuracies - perfect translations do not exist.

[1] In this book, the term religion has the meaning it has in Europe - that is, faith as an esoteric experience which does not go beyond a personal relationship with God and as such expresses itself only in dogmas and rituals. Accordingly, Islam cannot be classified as a religion. Islam is more than a religion for it embraces life.

[2] Karl Marx, The Karl Marx Library, trans. Saul K. Padower (New York: McGrawHill, 1972).

[3] The Qur'an 55:19-20.

[4] Modesty is a good excuse for a very low living standard, and respect for elders has been easily transformed into a blind respect for authority.

[5] To define Islam as a principle is of essential importance for its future development. It has been said many times - quite correctly - that Islam and the Islamic world have become stereotyped and closed.

[6] It seems that ayah 30:30 from the Qur'an speaks directly about this: "So set your face steadily and truly to the faith, God's handiwork, according to the pattern on which He has made mankind..."

[7] The Qur'an 22:41.

[8] When this book was under preparation, two Islamic countries, Pakistan and Iran, cancelled their membership in a pro-Western treaty organization (CENTO). Some time ago, Indonesia, Sudan, Egypt, and Somalia rejected the attempts to be drawn into the orbit of the Eastern camp.





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