Unit 1: Webs of inquiry

The six posts on this blog [LABEL:TALIMAT] dealing with ‘intellectual aspect of Life’ were part of the IIS compilation titled ‘ON THE WINGS OF THE WORD’; I hope to post other contents in future also which will cover the ‘Din’ and ‘Dunya’. I hope that serious readers of the blog would have noticed the thrust of these compilations to advocate the ‘Intellectual’ approach as opposed to a ritualistic approach towards matters of faith.

Overview of the unit

1.1     Islam as a question

For many thinkers throughout history, religion has been a challenging subject to study. Scholars in the past and in recent times have spent their whole lives trying to understand what a religion is. We will begin this module by exploring how Islam has been approached as a question by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars.

1.2     Studying Islam

We will investigate in this section some important ways of studying religion that have appeared over time. Some of these methods emerged many centuries ago, while others are recent. We will find out how these methods are being used in studying Islam and other faith traditions.

1.3     Understanding Islam

Some approaches seek to promote a greater understanding of religion. Other methods look at religions critically, and are interested in finding out both their strengths and weaknesses. We will examine these different approaches in relation to Islam.

1.4     Many paths to truth

The world in which we live is a plural world. We do not find one single religion in it, but many. Each religion, in turn, consists of hundreds of communities, each with its own understanding and practice of its faith. One religious vision leads various groups of people to interpret and practise their faith in many different ways. In this section we gain a sense of the diversity of traditions among Muslin communities.

Web of Inquiry

1.1        Islam as a question

Religion and civilisation

Religions play an important part in the lives of people all over the world. The majority of the world’s population belongs to one or other of the living religious traditions. Thousands of communities in countries all across the world follow the Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh faiths. Some communities belong to traditions such as the Jain or Shinto faiths. Other groups practise some form of a tribal religion.
Since religion is something that matters to people all over the world, it forms an important aspect of our modern civilisation. It affects the beliefs, values and actions of individuals, communities and societies in a very deep way. It interacts with a wide range of forces to shape events in the modern world.
It is not only in recent times that religions have become important to societies. They have been a significant force in human history from the earliest of times. They have formed an integral part of human life and culture, and have deeply influenced civilisations of the past. Religions continue to be an important factor in people’s lives today.
Religion as inquiry
Given the importance of religion in our world, our education would remain incomplete if we did not make it part of our schooling.
A broad education that includes religion helps us to become aware of our attitudes towards people whose beliefs are similar to or different from our own. It leads us to find out what we have in common with people of different traditions, and what is unique to us.
Religion is also a fascinating subject to study in its own right. Because of its role in human life, it is a subject that has been of great interest to many scholars. Almost all the greatest thinkers have written something about religion. When we examine the ideas of these thinkers, they add to our insights into what it means for people to be religious.
In Muslim history, the faith of Islam has been viewed by scholars as a challenging subject to study. It has invited the attention of the best of thinkers in muslim societies. For these individuals, Islam has appeared as a question rather than something already known. It has provoked them to think deeply about it, and to explore it from different angles.
How did thinkers in the past approach the study of Islam?
. mysticism . theology
. philosophy
  • 9th – 10th CE Al- Ghazali

Make a list of reasons why religion is an important subject to study in the modern world.
The life of Al Ghazali
One of the greatest of Muslim scholars who studied the faith of Islam deeply was Abu Hamid Muhammad al Ghazali. He was born at Tus in Khurasan, near present day Mashhad in 1058 CE. He and his brother became orphans at an early age. Al Ghazali’s education started in Tus, and then in Nishapur. He eventually settled in Baghdad in 1085 CE at he age of twenty seven. He was received with respect and honour by the ruler as a recognized scholar.
In 1091 CE, al Ghazali became professor at the Nizamiyya, madrasa in Baghdad. Here he lectured to an audience of over three hundred students for four years. He also studied philosophy in his own time and wrote several books. Around this time he suffered from a nervous illness which made it impossible for him to lecture. After some time he left Baghdad on an excuse of making a pilgrimage, but in fact he is giving up his work as a lecturer.
After leaving Baghdad, al Ghazali lived as a poor sufi, often alone by himself, spending his time in meditation and other spiritual exercises. By the end of his life, he was convinced that the path of mysticism was the highest way of life for human beings. Al Ghazali died in 1111 CE.

A lifetime of questioning

Al-Ghazali’s life reveals to us a man with a very restless mind. It was a mind in search of the truth. By the age of twenty-seven al-Ghazali had become a famous scholar in Baghdad and could have happily spent the rest of his life there. However, he was not content with his knowledge of Islam and wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding of his faith. Towards the end of his life, al-Ghazali wrote an autobiography entitled al Munqidh min al Dalal (‘What delivers from error’). In this work he shares with us the different stages of enquiry he went through.
Initially al-Ghazali began by questioning his senses and found that he could not trust them to give him correct knowledge. He even began doubting the powers of his mind and became a skeptic for a while. AI-Ghazali tells us that with the help of God, he recovered from this illness’ and began to inquire about the different paths in Islam.
Al-Ghazali identified four approaches which he felt deserved greater study: theology, philosophy, the teachings of the Ismailis (Batiniyya) and mysticism. After studying each path, he finally decided to become a Sufi, leading a life of prayer and meditation.
The following passages adapted from al-Ghazali’s life story give us a unique insight into the journey of the mind that he experienced.

What delivers from error

From my early youth until the present time when I am over fifty, I have ever recklessly launched out into the midst of these ocean depths. I have ever bravely embarked on this open sea, throwing aside all caution. I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss, I have scrutinized the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community’. All this I have done that I might distinguish between what is true and false.
Whenever I meet one of the Batiniyya, I like to study his creed; whenever I meet one of the Zahiryya, I want to know the essentials of his belief. If it is a philosopher, I try to become familiar with the essence of his philosophy; if a theologian, I busy myself in examining his reasoning; if a Sufi, I yearn to fathom the secret of his mysticism.
To thirst after an understanding of things as they really are was my habit from a very early age. It was instinctive with me, a part of my God-given nature, not a matter of my choice. As a result, as I drew near the age of adolescence, the beliefs I inherited lost their grip on me. I saw that Christian youths always grew up to be Christians, Jewish youths to be Jews, and Muslim youths to be Muslims. I heard, too of the prophet saying that: ‘Everyone who is born is born with, sound nature; it is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian.’ My inmost being was moved to discover what this original nature really was.
I therefore said to myself: ‘To begin with, what I am looking for is knowledge of what things really are, so I must try to find out what knowledge really is. It was plain to me that sure and certain knowledge is that knowledge in which no doubt remains about an object, and no error or illusion accompanies it.
I investigated the various kinds of knowledge and found myself lacking all knowledge that could be proved true, except that obtained through my senses and my mind.
So, I said, ‘I must first judge this knowledge so that I may be certain on this matter. Is my reliance on senses of the same kind as my previous trust in beliefs I acquired from others?’
I proceeded therefore with great eagerness to reflect on the knowledge I obtained from my senses and my mind, to see whether 1 could make myself doubt it.
Doubt began to set in me, from where does this reliance on the senses come? The most powerful sense is that of sight. Yet when I look at the shadow of a stick on a sundial, I see it standing still. Then after an hour I found out that the shadow has in fact been moving very gradually.
Again I look at the sun and see its small size. Yet geometrical calculations show that it is greater than the earth in size.
I said to myself, ‘My reliance on knowledge from my senses has been destroyed. Perhaps only the truths of my mind are to be relied upon, such as the fact that ten is more than three that the same thing cannot both be true and false at the same time that a thing cannot both exist and not exist.
My senses replied, ‘Will not your reliance on the truths of the mind be like your reliance on the knowledge from the senses? You used to trust in us; when along came the mind and proved us wrong. Perhaps behind the mind, there is another judge who will show it to be false.’
I hesitated, a little to reply, but the senses heightened the difficulty by referring to dreams. Do you not see, they said, ‘how when you are asleep, you imagine things in your dreams’ holding them to be true? And when you awaken, do you not find that all you have dreamt has been imaginary?’
The Messenger of God says: ‘The people are dreaming; when they die, they become awake.’ So perhaps life in this world is a dream when compared to the world to come; and when a man dies, things appear different to him from what he now believes.
When these thoughts occurred to me, I tried to find some way of treating my unhealthy condition, but it was not easy. The disease was baffling and lasted almost two months, during which I was a skeptic. At last, God cured me of my sickness; I regained my health as well as the confidence in my mind once more.
This did not come about by argument, but by a light which God most high cast into my heart. That light is the key to the greater art of knowledge. Whoever thinks that the understanding of divine things rests upon strict proofs has narrowed down God’s mercy in his thought.
It was about this light that Prophet Muhammad said, ‘God created the creatures in darkness, and then sprinkled upon them some of His light. From that light must be sought an intuitive understanding of divine things. That light gushes from the spring of divine generosity at certain times, and for it one must watch and wait.
  • abyss – a deep opening in the earth
  • adolescence – teenage years
  • assault – attack
  • baffling.- puzzling
  • Battiniyya – those following an inner or esoteric meaning of Islam; a term referring to the Ismailis
  • creed – a set of religious beliefs doctrines – main principles of a religion
  • embarked – set salt; began an activity
  • fathom – grasp or understand deeply
  • gushes – flows suddenly or in abundance
  • instinctive – automatic, happening by itself
  • intuitive – without the direct use of reason
  • recess – a space in a wall, secret place
  • recklessly – without caution or care
  • skeptic – a person who doubts everything
  • sundial – a device showing the time by the shadow of a pointer cast by the sun
  • Zahiriyya – those following an outward or exoteric meaning of Islam
When God by His grace and abundant generosity cured me of this disease, I came to regard the various seekers after truth as being made up of four groups.
  1. The theologians
  2. The Battiniyya
  3. The philosophers
  4. The Sufis
I said to myself, ‘The truth cannot lie outsides these four classes. These are the people who tread the paths of the quest for truth. If the truth is not with them, no point remains for trying to look for it.
I now made haste to examine these four ways and investigate what these groups have achieved.
I started then with the science of theology and obtained a thorough grasp of it. I read the books of important theologians and also wrote some books myself on the subject. But it was a science; I found which, though attaining its own aim, did not attain mine. Its aim was merely to attain the commonly accepted beliefs and to defend them against those who differed.
After I had done with theology, I examined philosophy. I therefore set out in earnest to acquire knowledge of philosophy from books, by private study without the help of an instructor. I made progress during my hours of free time, after teaching in the religious sciences and writing. At this time, I was burdened of teaching three hundred students in Baghdad. By my reading books, during these free hours, God brought me to a complete understanding of the sciences of the philosophers in less than two years.
By the time I had learnt the science of philosophy, I realised that this subject too did not satisfy my aim in full. The mind neither comprehend all it attempts to know, nor solves all its problems.
The Battiniyya believed in gaining knowledge of the meaning of things from an infallible Imam who has charge of the truth. It had already occurred to me to study their views and become acquainted with what is in their books. I began to search for their books and collect their doctrines. I made a collection, then, of other beliefs and arranged them in logical order. I also gave a complete answer to them.
When I had finished with these sciences, I next turned to the method of mysticism (Sufism). I knew that the complete mystic way includes both belief and practice. The belief was easier for me than the practical activity. I began to acquaint myself with the beliefs of the Sufis by reading their books.
I came to realise that the mystics were men who had real experiences, not men of words. I had already progressed as far as was possible by way of intellectual understanding. What remained for me was not to be attained by oral instruction and study, but only by immediate experience and by walking along the mystic path.
Next I considered my life, and realised that I was caught in many attachments. I also considered my activities, of which the best was my teaching and lecturing. I realised that I was dealing with sciences that were unimportant and contributed nothing to the attainment of eternal life.
I reflected on this all the time, while the choice still remained open to mc. One day, I would decide to leave Baghdad and the next day, I would abandon my resolution. I put one foot forward and drew the other back. If in the morning I had a genuine longing to seek eternal life; by the evening a whole host of desires had reduced me to weakness.
Worldly desires were trying to keep me in chains, while the voice of faith was calling, ‘To the road! To the road! What is left of life is but little and the journey before you is long. If you do not prepare for eternal life, when will you prepare?’
Thereupon, realizing my weakness and having altogether lost my power of choice, I sought the help of God most high. He answered me and made it easy for my heart to turn away from position and wealth. I finally left Baghdad, distributing what wealth I had.


  • acquaint – become or make familiar with
  • attachments — ties, commitments
  • attain – gain, reach, arrive at
  • grace – favour
  • in earnest – with determination
  • infallible – incapable of error
  • oral- verbal
  • quest – search
  • resolution – intention
  • tread- walk upon, follow

Reflecting on the text

What led al-Ghazali to start questioning the beliefs he had acquired from an early age? What led him to the conclusion that the knowledge of the senses was not to be trusted?
Why did he start to doubt the ability of his mind to lead him to the truth?
Describe in your own words what a sceptic is. Why did al-Ghazali call his skepticism a ‘disease and how did he overcome it? Al-Ghazali describes four sciences’ that he examined. How did he go about studying each of them?
What kind of struggle did al-Ghazali face in leaving his old life behind and starting a new one?
In your opinion, what kind of a scholar was al Ghazali?

The journey of faith

Al-Ghazali’s life reveals to us a person travelling on the journey of faith, in this journey; he experienced both doubt as well as faith. It led him to question his heart as well as his mind.
The ‘land’ on which al-Ghazali travelled was ‘Islam’. For al-Ghazali, this land was an unknown territory with many different features. It was inhabited by people with all shades of understanding. It required careful exploration and study for its roads and paths to be identified.
Al-Ghazali recognized that there were many ways of understanding and practicing Islam, and that each of these ways deserved closer study. Al-Ghazali did not dismiss any interpretation of Islam merely out of opinion. He studied each one to understand what were its main principles and beliefs. Al Ghazali was a scholar who was genuinely interested in the different ways in which Muslims had come to understand the faith of Islam.

Explore other journeys in faith made by individuals of different religious traditions. How do they compare with al-Ghazali’s quest?

Islam can be studied from both the perspective of the believer as well as from the viewpoint of an outsider. Discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of these two ways of studying Islam.
Read carefully the following saying of lmam Ali quoted by al-Ghazali in his work: ‘Do not know the truth by men, but know the truth, and you will know who are truthful. Explain in your own words what this saying means.

REVIEW POINTIslam is a subject which invites inquiry and investigation.

1.2     Studying Islam

Approaches in the past

Al-Ghazali studied Islam using a variety of ways. He approached it through theology and philosophy. He also considered it from the viewpoint of the Ismailis and the Sufis. Al-Ghazali’s example shows us that Muslim
scholars in the eleventh century studied Islam from different perspectives.
In the past, scholars examined various aspects of Islam using a wide range of methods. Some scholars devoted their lives to studying the Quran, the hadith, tafsir and fiqh. Others were more interested in exploring Islam in terms of history, theology or philosophy.

The setting up of madrasas

Many of the scholars taught or studied Islam in madrasa or mosque colleges. Al-Ghazali taught religious sciences at the Nizamiyya of Baghdad. The Nizamiyya was a madrasa set up in Baghdad in the eleventh century. In this madrasa, students studied Islamic law.
Another famous mosque college was the al-Azhar in Cairo, founded in the tenth century by the Fatimid Ismaili Imam al-Muizz. Here, too, scholars were involved in learning about different schools of Islamic law. In the Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge), another Fatimid college in Cairo, a wider range of subjects was taught, such as medicine, astronomy, algebra and geometry.
Madrasas sprang up in many cities of Muslim empires in the past. They were often built and supported by the rulers of each empire, and housed libraries and lodgings for students. The most famous of these madrsas attracted famous scholars such as al-Ghazali. Some students traveled from one madrasa to another to benefit from the teaching of great scholars. Some spent many years mastering the different subjects, before being appointed as qualified teachers.

What are some of the ways in which Islam is studied?

  • Creed                
  • Dar al-ilm
  • Doctrine
  • Fiqh
  • Hadith
  • Madrassa
  • Tafsir


  • 10th century: al-Azhar founded in Cairo
  • 11th century: the Nizamiyya established in Baghdad


Find out more about madrasa and other Muslim centers of learning, and the subjects taught in them.

New subjects of study

After the Prophet’s time, the Quran became the first subject of study for Muslims scholars. They wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding of its contents. This led them to study Arabic grammar, which became an important subject in the madrasas that emerged in later times.
Scholars also started studying the life of the Prophet, his family and close companions. Some scholars, such as al-Bukhari, became specialists in the hadith or traditions of the Prophet. Others, such as al-Tabari, became renowned for their works on Islamic history. Yet others, like al-Shafii, made religious law their special field.
Muslim scholars also became interested in new subjects from past civilizations. Philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd found much of value in the works of Greek thinkers such as Aristotle. One of the subjects they mastered was logic, which helped them to sharpen their skills of reasoning. It became an important subject that was taught in some madrasas. Another subject was rhetoric, or the art of putting forward an argument.
While learning religious law, scholars would get their students to reason and argue using skills based on logic and rhetoric. They would ask students to criticize or defend different viewpoints. Through these methods, students came to exercise their minds and develop a better understanding of the subject matter.
The story of Ali
Many of the madrasas from the past continued into the modern period. The al-Azhar mosque college in Cairo was one of these centers that developed into a modern-day university. Other madrasas continued their traditional learning without changing their content or methods of studying Islam.
In the following text, we study the education offered by one of these traditional madrasas. The text is extracted from a book entitled The Mantle of the Prophet by Roy Mottahedeh. It tells the story of Ali who grows up in the city of Qom in Iran. He is educated in the, Faiziyeh, a famous madrasa
in Qom that trains students to become scholars of religious law.
In the story, we read about Ali’s first days in the madrasa. Ali is from a family of sayyids who trace their ancestry to the Prophet. He has already received a good education at home by his father and brother before he is enrolled at the madrasa. He is therefore ahead of the other boys.
The teacher starts the class by getting his pupils to examine a passage from a book entitled Mullah Abdollah’s Commentary. He guides them to understand two forms of knowledge by giving them examples and answering their questions. He encourages them to reason clearly using the skills of logic. Ali’s experience of his lessons in the madrasa gives us a glimpse of how Islam was taught in these centers of education in the past.
At the Madreseh
On the morning before his first day in the madreseh, Ali spent a long time on the roof trying to stare down the stork in a nest on the neighboring house…..when Ali’s brother came to take Ali to the front door of the house, Ali asked him, ‘What is the stork thinking?’
He’s asking himself, ‘What is that little boy who’s staring at me thinking?”
Now I will start thinking, “Why is the stork thinking. What is the boy thinking?” And the stork will start thinking …’
‘Yes dear Ali, it’s an infinite regress. Save it for the teacher at the school. My friend is waiting for you at the gate.’
Ali knew at first glance that Muhammad’s friend, who was about fifteen, looked the part of a madreseh student,
with his turban, black mullah coat, and bits of wooly beard, while Ali looked like what he was, ten year old with only a dark-blue frock coat and a shaming lack of beard. But he was wearing a turban, which, even though it had only two loops, still, by its colour, distinguished him as a sayyed, in contrast to his companion, who had only a white turban of an ordinary person, however large it may have been.
They walked out of the alleyway in front of the family home onto the road that led to the river…..Ali now found himself in his second staring contest of the day, this time with a camel loaded with bags of melons, which was walking at the pace as Ali and grumbling savagely. When the camel started to spit, Ali’s companion speeded up, and they soon reached the square near the river which opened onto both the shrine and the Faiziyeh, the greatest madreseh in Qom.
The gate into the Faiziyeh led into a rectangular courtyard which … (had) a large pool in the centre….the courtyard was surrounded by two stories of student rooms, uniform in size, with their doors and windows set with perfect symmetry in recessed arches.
At the centre of each side … of the courtyard was an arch two storey’s high, enclosing magnificent honeycomb pattern of stalactites, also covered with tiles. On his first day, Ali particularly noticed the dark-blue peacocks drawn on the tiles at the foot of each side of one of these arches … The peacocks, Ali noticed with re1ief, seemed to be staring at each other and not at him.
His companion brought him to a classroom that was in the lower storey of another of the tall arches. Most of the students fourteen and under were wearing light—tan and light—brown frock coats; the older students wore the aba, a black coat, split down the front and furnished with full sleeves, which is the characteristic dress of mullahs everywhere.
The students were sitting cross-legged in a semicircle around a teacher who sat on the second step of a movable set of stairs … When the teacher turned to face the class, Ali noticed that there were two white streaks in his beard, evenly placed near the corners of his mouth. He was holding a truly gigantic copy of the prescribed book, so much bigger than Ali’s own copy that Ali was at first afraid that his fifteen-year-old companion had dumped him in the wrong class.
  • alleyway – a narrow street or passageway
  • burlap bags – sacks made of coarse canvas
  • characteristic – typical
  • gigantic – enormous
  • infinite regress – circular reasoning
  • madreseh – Persian form of madrasa
  • mullah – a religious scholar
  • prescribed book – selected book for study
  • recessed arches – arch-shaped spaces inside a wall
  • sayyed – a descendant of the Prophet
  • shaming – causing shame
  • stalactites – rod or cone-shaped structures hanging down from a ceiling
  • streaks – long thin lines or bands that stand out because of their different colour

The teacher … cleared his throat, opened the gigantic book, and began, ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent….
‘There are two kinds of knowledge, and today we will discuss the difference between them. Sometimes we understand a thing without judging it, and such an understanding is simple, not a compound act. It is called “representation,” because we make a picture for ourselves in our mind. When I say I “know” this book before me, or “know” Zaid or the servant of Zaid, I know each of these by a simple act of immediate knowledge, a mental representation in which I exercise no judgment.
‘Other times, we judge and we make a relation between two things. To use the example mentioned in the Commentary, my knowledge that “Zaid is standing” is composed of two things, about which I have made a mental judgment … It is compound knowledge, composed of more than one element, and we call it “verification.”
One of the thirty—odd students spoke in the deliberately deep voice of a fourteen-year-old: ‘A problem. ‘You said that knowing ”the servant of Zaid”, is to know a piece of simple knowledge, a ”representation” in the mind. But it is compound knowledge, “verification,” since it involves a relation between two things: “Zaid” and “servant.” Then why do you and the commentary call it simple knowledge?’
A student in a very shiny new tan frock coat on the other side of the class was nodding his white turban in energetic agreement. Ali knew the answer because he had thought of the question the night before and seen its irrelevance.
The teacher ……. put the book down and smiled that the bottom ends of the two white streaks in beard tilted outward. ‘A good problem….. If I said, “The servant belongs to Zaid” or “The servant does not belong to Zaid,” then I have made a judgment, verification about a relationship….
‘But … [if] I say, “The standing Zaid is laughing”, then … here “standing Zaid” is a representation, which in this instance we are not judging. As it would be if I had said, “Zaid is standing.”…
The teacher smiled [and said:] ‘… You are here to learn to reason, not just to learn to read. Think about the basic text and basic commentary on own, and master it by asking about it in class….. Then, when you have grown a trunk for your knowledge, look at the margins of your book, read the commentaries on the commentary, and sprout leaves and branches. But this tree draws its water and food from questions … If you don’t ask; my lessons themselves will dry up and wither’
‘The teacher now opened his book and read Mullah Abdullah’s commentary … which said in very few lines in Arabic what the teacher had said in many more words in Persian. Ali had read the commentary very carefully the night before and slowly convinced him that he understood it completely. He was impressed by how very clear the book seemed after the teacher’s explanation and defence of the commentator.
By the third day Ali had begun to see his teacher more than a black beard with two white streaks. His explanations proved that he had every part of
the text so thoroughly in his mind that he could
always ‘anticipate future difficulties….. His good gray head with its black eye brows and black-and-white beard seemed so deeply involved in the text he taught that Ali felt his teacher spoke the inner mind of the enormous book he carried.
Reflecting on the text
What does the conversation about the stork at the beginning of the text tell us about Ali? What is Faiziyeh and how it is described by the author?
In what ways was Ali’s class similar to ordinary classes in an ordinary school? How was it different?
What subjects were being taught in the madreseh? Why do you think this subject was being taught?
What method did the teacher use to present the topic?
What did Ali think of his teacher as he got to know him better?
What did the teacher mean by the phrase, ‘this tree draws its water and food from questions’?
If you were in Ali’s class, what kinds of questions would you have asked the teacher?
Understanding and reasoning
The education in Ali’s madrasa was based on long tradition of learning. Scholars wrote commentaries on the works of earlier authors. Those who followed them wrote more commentaries on the margins of these commentaries. Learning became like a tree with a main trunk and branches. Each branch will lead to further branches and leaves.
In Ali’s story the teacher wanted his pupils learn how to think and reason, not just to read. However this thinking was not to be done in a vacuum. It had to be applied to the text and commentaries. Students first had to understand how the great scholars thought, before they started to exercise their own reasoning.
In the madrasas, pupils did not learn the subject of logic for its own sake. It was to help them in their study of religious law. They also studied the Quran, commentaries on the Quran, traditions of the prophet and the Imams and other subjects that would help them to become specialists in religious law.
Think of the ways in which the subject of Islam has been taught to you, at school and in other places. How does your learning compare with that of Ali?
Students in the madrasa were expected to study the works of past authors before exercising their own reasoning. Discuss whether this approach helped or hindered their thinking.
Logic was a useful tool in studying Islam. Find out what other subjects were valuable to scholars in the past in helping with their enquiries?
In the madrasa of the past, learning to think and reason formed an important part of the study of Islam.


  • anticipate – expect, be aware of something in advance
  • commentary – an explanation or discussion of a text
  • compound – made up of to things
  • irrelevance – not of importance
  • representation – image, picture
  • status – position
  • verification – establishing the truth something
  • wither – fade away. Loose vitality

The study of Islam in the past

Since religion is a complex subject, there are many ways of studying it. Some of the methods of studying religion are old and arose in the past, while others are of more recent origins.
One of the earliest approaches to study religion was theological. It was based on examining religion within the framework of a faith. Theologians were interested in explaining and defending the doctrines and beliefs of their faith.
In some periods and places; an attempt was made to approach religion using a philosophical approach. Here, the emphasis was on using reason to arrive at the same truths as those taught by a faith.
Another method was historical. Scholars were interested in tracing how a religion was founded, and how it developed over time. They recorded the significant events that had taken place in the history of their religion.

New methods of research

In recent times, the above methods have been refined and developed further. New methods have also emerged that apply scientific methods to the study of religions.
Religions can be studied at many levels, and from a variety of perspectives. The most common way has been to understand them as systems of beliefs and practices. In this approach, we learn about the religious systems of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths. However, terms such as ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Buddhism’ have been invented by modern scholars. They were not used by faith traditions in the past to describe themselves. The concept of religion, too, has acquired new meanings in modern times. A broader approach to understanding religions is to consider them as way of life, rather than simply systems of beliefs and practices. From this viewpoint, religions are concerned with the culture of a people, their customs and tradition, their ideas and expressions, their organisations and institutions. At a more general level, we can examine religions in the framework of civilisations.
Religion has many facets, and connects with many subjects. In some studies, scholars may inquire about religion in broad terms. In other studies, they may focus on selected aspects of religion. Some of these facets of religion are discussed on the next page.

Belief, ethics and society
The doctrines and beliefs of a religion form an important subject of study. The doctrines of a religion may take the form of a creed. A creed is a set of key principles or statements of belief that is said to, define a religion.
Another aspect of a religion is its set of moral principles or ethics. Religious ethics is concerned with how people relate to an ultimate reality, to one another, and to nature. A related area is that of religious law.
The social aspect of religions is another key area of inquiry. It refers, to aspects such as community, identity, social roles and relations, and religious organization. It includes issues such as the place of religion in a society, the relations between state and religion and inter-faith relations.

Myth, history and culture

Religious traditions are rich with stories, myths, allegories, poetry, and other forms of expressions.
Some studies are, devoted to gaining a deeper understanding of religious myths. These myths, which deal with topics such as origins, sacrifice, change and death, have created great interest among scholars in religious literature.
The history of religions is another area of study. Scholars working in this field investigate the beginnings of religious communities, how they came to be founded, what changes they experienced over time, and what impact they had on events in their region.
At another level, religions are studied as part of culture and civilisation. Scholars explore how religions have inspired forms of art and architecture, literature, music, and other creative forms. They also examine how religion interacts with politics, law, economics, education, science, health and other areas of importance to societies.
Ritual, mysticism and experience
The study of religious by and practices forms an important area of inquiry. Researchers study how the believers of a particular faith tradition practise their religion through such activities as prayers, rituals, festivals and rites. They examine the symbols and meanings associated with these practices, and the role that the rituals play in the community.
Mysticism forms an important part of all religions. Some scholars specialise in investigating communities who practise a mystical way of life. They examine the beliefs of these communities, how they are organised, their places of worship and their practices as well as their literature, art and music. Some scholars adopt a psychological approach to the study of religion. They investigate the spiritual and mystical experiences of individuals. They also inquire into the role that faith plays in an individual’s life. They try to understand how the practice of a, faith affects the inner state of a believer.
1.3        Understanding Islam
The decline of madrasa education
In the story of Ali we learned how a traditional form of Islamic education encouraged pupils to think and reason. During Al-Ghazali’s time, madrasa imparted the highest form of learning on Islam. They were centers of excellence which attracted the best teachers
and students.
In these madrasas, scholars and students actively exercised their minds. They mastered their subjects by reflecting deeply on the subject matter they were learning. They would engage in discussions and debates by challenging one another’s views. Through this kind of exchange, they were able to sharpen their thoughts and ideas.
In some places, the standard of education in the madrasas dropped with time. There were many reasons for this. One of them was that scholars came to rely heavily on commentaries written in the past. It discouraged them from writing new and original texts. Some scholars came to believe that all great thinking had been achieved in the past. They saw no need for new ways of solving problems, as the great thinkers of the past had done.
The rote learning of the Quran
In some parts of the Muslim world, Quranic schools came to be known as madrasas. Here, the students were taught to memories the Quran by heart. If Arabic was not their mother-tongue, they would learn how to recite the Quran without understanding what they were reciting.
The teachers in these kinds of madrasas did not teach any other subjects. They were not familiar, with the theology, philosophy or mysticism that al-Ghazali and the other great scholars had studied. Their understanding of Islam was about the contents of the Quran.
These madrasas did away with many subjects taught in the past. They confined themselves to teaching only the Quran. They also changed the methods of teaching from active questioning to rote learning.
Quranic education
Madrasas that are Quranic schools can be found in many cities, towns and villages in Muslim countries today. In some places, particularly in villages, they may be the only schools available for children. Youngsters in the villages may attend the madrasas for several years, during which time they learn to recite parts of the Quran. However, in some of the traditional madrasas students like Ali may be fortunate to encounter good teachers who help them to understand the Quran. These teachers give their pupils a good foundation in Islam by an in-depth study of a range of subjects.
In some places, students attend both a madrasa and a secular school. They receive two different types of education, and may end up with two different views about the world.
These different forms of education in the Muslim world today may lead people to different understandings of Islam. For some people, Islam becomes reduced to learning the Quran by heart. For others, it involves the active use of the mind.

Madrasa Education in Indonesia

In the story that follows, we get an insight into a form of madrasa education where students are taught about Islam in a narrow way. The passages in the story are from an autobiographical account entitled ‘Village Childhood’ by Muhammad Radjab, an Indonesian writer. The author was the son of a religious teacher in a village in Indonesia. As a child, his father sent him to the village madrasa or surau (mosque school) where he began to learn religious law.
Muhammad tells us about his experience at the surau, and the type of training he received. Here his was taught Arabic grammar, tafsir and fiqh. He had already learnt to recite the Quran by heart, but he did not understand Arabic at all. In the story we find him wondering why that was the case. We also find out what he thought about his teacher’s method of instruction.
Muhammad’s account gives us a contrasting view of madrasa education, compared to that received by Ali in the earlier account we read.

Learning Religious Law
One afternoon about three o’clock, while my friends and I were absorbed in playing soccer Uda Tjodi called for Djamin, Nasir, and me.
His Honor’s calling you to the surau,’ he said.
‘Oh boy, now what,’ I said to Bujung. What have we done wrong now?’

When we got to the surau, a Muchtasar’ holy book was presented to each of us – a book as big as a world map, and a book we had certainly never seen before in our lives. Its pages were all covered in extremely refined Arabic letters. We couldn’t read it yet, so it wasn’t written at the same level as the Quran was.
We had been ordered to go study it in the minor surau with Haji Daud, my uncle.
Apparently, our three set of parents had come to the common decision to have us study the Arabic language, it grammatical rules, the fikhi, and the Muslim syariat, all in as great a depth as possible. They were of the opinion that it would be better for the three of us to become religious teachers than merchants. And they’d be very proud if their children went on to become venerated religious scholars…..
With sadness, because our ball game has been stopped, but also with some curiosity to know what the Arabic language was saying, we went on over to the minor surau. Each one of us was carrying the holy book under his arm……
We sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle near a house pillar and opened the holy texts, which were rolled out on the floor. About half of the santris- were pretty good by now at reading what they were going to study.
For the three of us, though, everything was still murky. We did not understand a single word of Arabic. True enough, we were skilled at reading the Quran out loud, at droning it out, and we which letters to lengthen and which ones to shorten, but we didn’t understand its content. We had been reading and reciting for four years night and day, but we could not make sense of a single word of it…
While I was still confused and nonplussed, not knowing whether I’d be reciting verses or going back to my ball game, my uncle came out of his room beside the surau. His body was thin, his face was sour and rather pale from thinking too much, and from studying inside the building too much and not getting any exercise. He always looked like he was going to get angry’ He was always in his room, deciphering thick holy texts that he had carried home by the hundreds from Mecca. They were arranged along three walls of his room, absolutely covering them. …
Before commencing, he prayed and we accompanied him with the appropriate hand motions. He asked God that our verse recitation might be lengthy and that all of us might pious, learned persons and enter into heaven…..
But after reciting for some two hours, listening to his murky explanations, which repeated themselves and twisted and turned like a snake’s armpit, half in Arabic, half in Indonesian, I was still totally confused. So were my friends.
Moreover I was surprised: Why didn’t we understand a single word of Arabic? Why didn’t know the words for things around us, like house, surau, school door, window, kitchen, to eat, to drink, and him or her, in Arabic?
We barely had any acquaintance at all with the Arabic language when our heads started to spin with its grammar, and with all these rules we had to memorize and know by heart. Even though we had just started to study the science of reading, we weren’t allowed to make any mistakes when reading aloud from the grammar text.
And that’s the way it went every day. Mornings I’d go to elementary school, afternoons I’d study Arabic in the Lower Surau, and at night I’d recite verses from the Quran. And almost every day, I’d get criticized by my uncle.
The number of books I was studying grew to eight in all: I had four during the day and four at night. Afternoons we studied from two to five o’clock, and in the evenings from nine to eleven, though sometimes until two o’clock. It was like that every day except on Fridays. We’d read with the aid of a temple lamp (wall lamp).
The lessons got harder and the conflict between them and my soul became sharper, conflicting as these lessons did with the books I was reading in school. These two sorts of reading materials continuously caused a conflict inside me. The one told me to believe and accept on faith whatever the ancient syechs had taught, while the other broadened the intelligence and urged me to actually think……..


  • deciphering – translating
  • droning – reciting in an unchanging tone
  • fikhi- Indonesian for fikh; rules relating to religious duties
  • muchtasar– a shortened handbook of a longer work
  • murky- vague, not clearly understood
  • nonplussed- puzzled
  • santris – students at the surau
  • surau – a small mosque in Indonesia which is also used for teaching the Quran
    and religious law –
  • syariat– Indonesian for shariaMuslim law
  • syechs – Indonesian for shaykhs; religious teachers
  • venerated – respected

One day, while he was teaching about the sky and the earth, my uncle explained that the first sky was made of copper; the second sky was made of silver, the third of gold, and the fourth of diamonds. And that atop these diamonds the sun revolved, pulled by thousands of holy angels on a golden chain.
According to what he said, the sun went around the earth, not the earth around the sun as they taught us in school. Each of the skies was as thick as a foot trip taking five hundred years.
‘Please give me leave to inquire, Your Honour,’ I said to Uncle, for there was something that I didn’t understand yet. ‘Your Honour said the first sky is made of copper, which is as thick as a foot trip of five hundred years … What I don’t understand is how can copper as thick as all that be penetrated by the sunlight, whereas the sunlight doesn’t shine through roof tiles of just one centimeter thickness?’
‘Because God intends that the copper sky as thick as all that will be penetrated by the sunlight, while He does not intend the same for the roof tiles,’ answered my uncle.
‘… All right, then! …. Why does God’s will differ in that He wants the sunlight to come through in one case but He doesn’t want the sunlight to come through in the other case….?
That is God’s own will and we are not allowed to question it. God does not want the house roof to be penetrated by sunlight, so that the people inside the house won’t get too hot…..’
‘I’m totally sure if all that were true, we couldn’t see the sun…..
‘Now you must be very careful here! If one more time and purposefully cast doubt on the teachings of religion, you will be an infidel…., an apostate … a polytheist … a criminal and you will burn in hell for thousands years. You must pronounce the confession and ask for God’s forgiveness.’
‘I don’t feel I’m being insubordinate to God.’ I answered. ‘It’s just that I don’t understand all this yet and I am asking for further clarifications. And if everything is the will of God, might not my desire to find out all these things be an action of God, too?’
He didn’t answer. His face reddened and he said to the other students: ‘Now, this is the cause many young children becoming lost souls today. It’s all because they base their faith on their intellect. They do not have a firm faith because they lack a complete belief in the prophets, the caliphs and the ancient ulama.’
I didn’t feel lost; I just wanted a satisfactory explanation ……God would not have given intellect if It wasn’t to be put to good use. And what’s wrong with measuring everything ‘we are taught in terms of our intellect, so we’ll know which parts are true? …..
Upon hearing his pronouncements, half of my companions agreed with me, while the other were of the opinion that in matters of religion doubts could be countenanced, and we must not ask any questions. Our teacher (who had spent. years in Mecca) knows more than you do, they said.
Once we spent almost a whole month studying and memorizing the tayamam theories, that is, the ways to get prayer water out of the desert, and how to clean off our feet and hands by rubbing them against the house pillars or trees when there wasn’t any water; around.
I proposed to my uncle that we just skip the tayamam chapter or just take from it what we really, really needed, (that is, the core essence of it), so we could just finish it all in a day or so.
‘All this tayamam business, in my opinion, is important in Arabia, with its vast deserts, where it’s real hard to get water. This matter can be explained at great length for the Arabs, down to all its tiny details. But for us Indonesians, who live in a country rich in water, where the waterspouts overflow and the fish ponds, rivers, and lakes are very numerous – just look at Lake Singkarak and the Ombilin River – we don’t really need to study these tayamam matters very intensively, wasting a whole month over it.’
But that is what’s written down in the holy book and we are not allowed to skip it. Tuan Siech, who composed these passages, knows better than we do what we need to know and what we don’t need to know!’
I think we don’t need to study everything that’s written down. What we study must be in line with our situation and our own self interest, among our own people and in our own native land that we inhabit. We don’t have to recklessly follow whatever such and such Syech happens to have written down is beginning to its end …’
‘So it’s your opinion, that here in our country, there’s lots of water, right? Well, what if we happen to be up on a mountaintop and we want to say our prayers, what can we do then?’
‘In Indonesia, if there isn’t any water on a mountaintop, there certainly will be some down in the val1ey and we can just go down there for a moment and fetch some.’
‘And if there is no water in the valley?’
‘So don’t pity right away, before you can happen upon some water! And you don’t have to make an easy matter so difficult. God, I think, will not force us to pray if He knows there is some obstacle in our way.’
‘I have reminded you time and time again,’ said my uncle with a growl, ‘do not use your intellect. That’s the work of the devil. You are being an apostate, like Abu Djahal. How many times have you said words that veer away from the teachings of religion? You must ask God’s forgiveness and read the Confession. If you speak that way one more time, you will become an infidel and will burn in hell for a thousand years. I shall tell all this to your father!’ …
I believed that God would not be that cruel! God knew more about what I was feeling in my heart….


  • Abu Djahal- Abu Jahl, one of the opponents of the Prophet
  • apostate a person who gives up his faith
  • confession – admitting one’s wrongdoings to God
  • countenanced – approved, accepted
  • infidel – unbeliever
  • insubordinate – disobedient
  • penetrated – pass through
  • polytheist – someone who believes in more than one god
  • tayamam – a ritual of purification, before prayer, with sand, soil or dust when water is unavailable
  • ulama – religious scholars
  • Veers- turn, change direction

Reflecting on the text
Why did Muhammad’s father enroll him in the surau? What did Muhammad feel about this decision?
Which subjects did he study at the surau? What method did the teacher use to present the subjects? Why did Muhammad find it frustrating to study at the surau? What kinds of conflicts did he face?
What kinds of skills would have made it easier for him to study the subjects being taught? What was the attitude of the teacher to pupils asking questions in his class?
Why did Muhammad question his uncle about some of the topics being taught to him?

Questioning and learning

In studying religious law, Muhammad was expected to learn the Arabic language. He found it very difficult to follow its grammar. As a result, he was not able to read and understand the texts that were in Arabic.
Muhammad also had a questioning mind. He was keen to understand the topics that were being presented to him. However, his questions were seen as a threat by the teacher. It seemed to the teacher as if Muhammad was challenging his authority.
The teacher also had a literal understanding of Islam as a faith. He followed whatever was written in the texts very closely. He was not able to explain to Muhammad that the reference in the four heavens was a mythical account of creation. As a result, his teaching led to conflicts in Muhammad’s mind.
Compare the approach to of religious law in Muhammad’s surau to that in Ali’s madrasa. What are some of the major differences two?
When Muhammad questioned his teacher, half the pupils felt he was right to do so, and half felt questions should be asked on matters of religion. What kinds of arguments would each side have presented to support their views?


Examine Muhammad’s story from the teacher’s viewpoint. How might the teacher have related the same story?


Approaches that lead to greater understanding have an important role to play in the teaching and learning of Islam.

Religion as a complex subject of study

Since there are many ways of studying a religion, we can expect there to be many different understandings of what a religion is. How scholars approach religion will depend on who they are and what methods they use to study it.
A scholar writing about religion in the middle Ages will have a different understanding from that of a modern scholar. Someone who studies religion from the inside as a believer may arrive at different conclusions from one who studies it from outside. A sociologist will see religion differently from a psychologist. Below, we examine three different ways in which religion is understood.
Closed thinking
Some ways of understanding religion can lead people to think in a limited way about this subject, For example, some theologians have claimed that there is only one right way of studying religion. If we accepted this claim, we would deny ourselves the benefit of the many valuable insights we can get from other ways of understanding religion.
Other scholars reduce religion to one particular concept or one particular explanation. For example, a sociologist might claim that the only function of religion is to unify, people. Or a psychologist might claim that religion arises from people’s fears about the world. Such one-sided explanations do not take into account the many other possible explanations that have been offered by other scholars of religion.
Scholars may adopt a closed understanding of religion for many reasons. They might want to impose their view on others, or they may have a bias for or against religion, or they may have a limited exposure of the diversity of religions and religious communities.
Open understanding
Some ways of understanding religion lead us to think further about it and ask new questions. They give us insights into our own religion as well as other people’s traditions.
Such approaches ask us to question our own biases about religion in general, or about particular religions. They encourage us not to pass judgments about a religion before studying it in depth. They ask us to consider a religion from the inside by imagining what it might be like to experience that religion from the viewpoint of a believer.
Scholars who study religion from this perspective observe the everyday life of believers of a particular faith. They try to understand what it is to be part of a religious community. They seek what is unique to each faith in terms of its ideals, beliefs and practices.
Critical examination
Another approach is the study of religion from a critical viewpoint. A critical study seeks to find out more about the issues and concerns facing religious communities in the modern world. It examines the history of religions to find out how certain problems lave arisen. It looks at the major achievements of religious communities, as well as their weaknesses.
A critical study often has a constructive goal. It tries to identify ways in which religions can inspire people in the modern world. It asks how religious traditions can contribute to solving some of the problems facing all human beings, regardless of their beliefs. It looks upon the ethical and spiritual heritage of religious communities as an important asset for the future of humanity.
1.4        Many paths to truth
Understandings of Islam
In the previous sections, we encountered two different ways in which Islam is taught in the madrasas. We could broaden our study by including more examples of others ways in which Islam is presented. For instance, we could examine how Islam is taught in secular schools, as part of religious education or world civilisations. We could look at how it is taught in universities and colleges in different parts of the world.
Education plays an important part in how we come to understand religion. A broad education will lead us to arrive at a different view of religion from a narrow education. An education that encourages thinking will create a different type of understanding from one which discourages us to reflect.
Another important factor that influences our understanding is the type of upbringing we receive within our families and communities. For most of us, the religion we come to adopt is the one we acquire from our parents. We also grow up to adopt the interpretation of religion that our community upholds.
Communities of interpretation
Muslims consist of two main branches or traditions of Islam. The Shias and the Sunnis. Within each of these traditions, we find many communities of interpretation. Some of these communities have historical roots that go back to the time of the Prophet. Others have emerged in recent times. In every religion, we find a rich reflected by the family of communities belonging to a particular tradition. Islam is
no exception. Muslim history reveals that Islam has always been a faith of diversity from its very start. It has been the faith of people of different nations, races, cultures, ethnic groups, and languages. It has been understood and practiced in many different ways.
Some of these communities have placed greater emphasis on a legal understanding of Islam. They believe that their lives should be based closely on observing religious law. Others have adopted a mystical interpretation of Islam, seeking to find a deeper form of spirituality within the message of the Quran. Yet others have preferred an intellectual engagement with Islam, through the exercise of reason. These three forms of interpretation do not exist in isolation of one another. We often find shades of all three in individuals and communities. It is more often a case of the emphasis that is given to each by Muslims. We find Muslim communities with different interpretations living together, often peacefully and with respect for one another. Unfortunately, we also come across hostility between Muslim groups with different beliefs in some countries.

The study of Muslim communities

Islam is a faith of many communities in various regions of the world. The way in which Islam is understood and practiced differs widely from on region to another and from one locality to another. The history and culture of a people living in a particular area deeply influences the way they express their faith of Islam. Scholars of Islam often specialize in studying a particular region of the world. For example they may study the Muslim communities of central Asia, West Africa, or North America. Other scholars may concentrate on particular communities of Muslims such as the Sufi tariqas, or the shia communities, such as the Ithna Asharis or the Ismailis. These kinds of studies give us a deep insight into the ways of life of Muslims in different regions of the world. The researchers often stay with a selected community for a period of time observing their way of life, their customs and practices. They try to gain an understanding of the beliefs of people in the community. Regional and cultural studies give us a deeper appreciation of the diverse ways in which Muslim communities observe Islam in their everyday lives.
Views of Islam among villagers
The following reading is extracted from the work of a researcher who examined the beliefs that people in an Iranian village held about Islam. All the people in this village are Shia Muslim. He investigated their views by interviewing them and recording their responses.
The researcher spoke to about thirty people in the village. They were involved in a range of activities. Some were farmer and peasants others teachers and landlords.
The researcher found that the villagers expressed a wide variety of views and interpretations about Islam. Some villagers practiced a simple folk religion, which combined magic, superstition and teachings on Shia Islam. Others followed only the teachings of Quran, the Prophet and the Imams. Other had adopted a mystical interpretation of Islam.
In the text that follows, we have selected extracts from the interviews of three villages: a mullah, a factory owner and a teacher. As you read each person’s responses, try to think of what kind of beliefs about Islam are being expressed.

Views of Islam among Muslim villagers: the Mulla
What are man’s duties?

Man’s duties are to recognise God and to live by the rules of the religion. There are five different types of behaviour: obligatory, forbidden, desirable, disapproved, and neutral. Failing to do the obligatory acts and doing the forbidden ones is sinful, whereas doing the desirable acts and abstaining from the disapproved ones earns merits.
What is obligatory behavior and for what reason is it obligatory?
The daily prayers and the preceding ablutions are obligatory to satisfy and please God, to worship Him, and to ask for help. Giving alms … is obligatory because it collects wealth for the strength of Islam … In general, washing is obligatory if the things touched were polluting.
What are forbidden acts?
Stealing, lying, murder, false accusations, abuse, and beating a person without reason are haram. Slander is haram because the victim is annoyed by it eating the meat of animals whose throat has not been cut [is haram] because when the blood stays in the body, the meat gets rotten . .
Taking interest is forbidden because it distresses people. But the prohibition stipulates only that no interest be taken of the same kind: that is, it is unlawful to rake back twelve kilogram of honey if you gave only ten kilogram.
Hearing music is forbidden because it tends to become a habit and keeps people from working. But some authorities dispute this prohibition. Some say growing a beard is forbidden, but others say that it is obligatory, although the beard need not be long…
What are desirable acts?
These are acts whose practice is better than their non-practice. If done, they earn merit, but if not done, there is no sin. There is a very large number of such acts, such as:
  • Helping people by giving money, food and assistance.
  • Cultivating the land, raising animals, tending gardens, digging irrigation channels, trading and doing business …
  • Having social relations with one’s relatives, loving one’s neighbour, visiting the sick, accompanying the funeral procession, respecting one’s father and mother…
  • Putting perfume on one’s clothes, so people won’t be offended by bad odours …
  • Studying and teaching, because they enlighten and make good use of one’s faculties.
  • Frequenting the mosque and saying the prayers there …
How can one explain the fact that some people observe all these rules and regulations and others don’t?
There are four forces in man: rage . desire … fear and reason. Evil behaviour results whenever the first three of these forces are in any state of excess … someone who follows only these three forces is worse than an animal. But a person following reason and controlling the other three forces is noble. Such a person, like Jesus and Muhammad, is higher than the angels because angels don’t have the option to do evil …
What about the prayer invocations (dua)?
… Prayers arc supplications to God. One says, ‘It is You, up to You oh God; I can’t do anything.’ So God’s grace is one effect of prayer. The other is the psychic effect: it is reinforcement in the same way as when one says to somebody on the road, ‘The village is quite near; you will get there soon,’ when, in fact, he will have a long way to go.’
But the prayers written on a paper ….
..and hung around the neck of a child, and so on? That’s superstition … And in the same way it is superstition to believe that … pausing after a sneeze prevents mishap, or that giving eggs to a neighbour at night brings bad luck, or that studying the stars can reveal the future, or that certain days of the week and dates of the month are inauspicious.
But the mullahs have tolerated the superstition, such as prayer writing, quite generaly.
There are even some who don’t ride a car because they consider it forbidden, and others who say that inoculations and Western medicine are forbidden. But only illiterate, foolish characters say that.
Thus the religion has not been an obstacle to development?
Maybe some religious men have been, but not the religion. The religion says that science should be encouraged . .. Also, it is said, ‘Educate your sons in the true spirit of the time,’ which means that it is requisite to adjust to the changes time brings about. … No, if we are backward, it’s not the fault of religion …
It is also said that Islam must be backward because most of the modern inventions were actually made in the West. But inventions are ideas, and ideas have nothing to do, with. religion as such. Also, it is by no means established that this claim is true. In fact, in Iran there were men such as Ibn Sina and Omar bin Kayyam, the great mathematician. And Sadi said:
‘in the heart of every particle you split, behold the sun in its midst.’
This means he understood already then, 700 years ago, what on1y today we know as atomic theory. What an enlightened mind! …

  • ablutions – cleansing of the body before prayer
  • abstaining – restricting oneself from doing something
  • disapproved – not considered good
  • enlightened – knowledgeable
  • forbidden – not allowed
  • haram – Arabic term for forbidden
  • illiterate – unable to read; uneducated
  • inauspicious – unlucky
  • inoculations – vaccine injections for preventing diseases
  • interest – money charged for a loan
  • merits – good deeds; rewards
  • mulla – religious scholar
  • neutral – neither good nor bad
  • obligatory – compulsory
  • polluting – making impure
  • preceding – coming before
  • prohibition – what is forbidden
  • psychic- to do with the mind
  • requisite – necessary, required
  • slander – false and harmful statements spoken about a person
  • stipulates – demands
  • superstition – false belief or action
  • supplications – prayers in which believers seek for help

Views of Islam among Muslim villagers: the factory owner

What the purpose of this life? What was God’s aim in creating us?

So what is the meaning of all this? What are we here for? No, there is something behind all this. All these stars and planets and men and things of the creation – these aren’t just a joke. Or are we here to pile up things, to amass riches? Even if you had the riches of the whole world, what would they do for you there? You can’t take them along. . Or are we here to sit in a corner and muttering. A zikr, pass prayer beads through our fingers, while people are being oppressed?
No, no. all this is nothing if it weren’t for doing something good to another… If Hazrat-i Isa (Jesus), the Prophet, the Imam Husayn, had not served the people, what good would they have been? This is what we have come here for: to work for the good of other people and in the love of God…

What does it mean to know God?

… It is written that once, when Moses became haughty and thought nobody was like him. God ordered him to go to a certain place. Moses did, and there, on the shore of the sea, he met Hazrat -i-Khizr. They started to talk about knowledge (ilm), each giving an account of what he knew.
As they talked, an eagle came and scooped up a beak full of water from the sea. Khizr said, ‘O Moses, you should know that your knowledge is like this beak full of water, while mine, in comparison, is like this ocean. But after you, others will come, and compared to their knowledge. My own is only like beak full of water from the ocean. And yet, they have got only a beak full of the knowledge of God. And you presume to know everything?’
In a sense, we are like the fishes who once asked their chief in the assembly, ‘What is water?’ Living in it, they didn’t know what it was. In the same way, God is everywhere. But we don’t know what {His] essence is…..
And besides knowledge, you said, there has to he love?
Yes. Some are acting out of fear, others out of love. Acting out of love is better, much better. Mind you there are two types of love, untrue love and true love. The former is the love of passion, like being in love with a girl; the other is the love of God, the Prophet, the Amir al-Muminin, and so on. Untrue, pro fane love fades away after a while, but true love does not: it gets greater day by day until it becomes one spark of light. This true love can’t be given to you. You have to want it, to will it, to find it inside your own self – that’s the Sufi way. Look at Rumi: he became drunk with love toward God, but so can also quite simple people….

Why should there be a religion

If there were no religion . . . everybody would steal and rob. There would he sheer chaos. Life would bi impossible. If the prophets and Imams had not come and told us God’s rules, we would be just animals. We would be nothing. We would know nothing. How would we know God? We would be savages. ‘!’This doesn’t mean, however, that everybody abides by the religious rules perfectly. In fact, only very few people are doing so. Most of those who carry out the rule do so because they are afraid of other people, or because they want to show how pious they are.

Why is this so? How would you explain good and evil behaviour?

There are two forces in man, aql (reason, Intellect, spirit) and nafs (passion, carnal desires, drives) …
Now God give a man a free will to choose between reason and passion. It is exactly because of this free will that God has granted man a very high place in the universe. Animals are pure passion: they have no reason…..Angels are pure spirit: they have no passion. Man has both reason and passion. When he follows passion in an unlawful way and does evil, he is worse than an animal….When he follows reason and avoids evil and does well an animal . . . When he follows reason and avoids evil and does good, he is better than the angels….
But the struggle against passion is very hard. Recently a boy hit my son for no reason and injured him badly. When I saw it, rage welled up in me and filled me with violence. I had to use all my strength to hold back … There is constant conflict between reason and passion….

In this endeavor to make oneself good, is it useful to practice zikr?

It depends on the kind of zikr. If it only consist of sifting in a corner and endlessly repeating ‘Allah-hu,’ it is entirely worthless. But there is also a zikr in the sense of keeping God in mind at all times, in all you do…
You see, the only thing I know for sure is this: that one day they will carry me out of this house and I will face God. Our real home is there. All these stars, all these heavens and earths, all these religious rules we have been told, all these things show us that our real place is not here …
To fight oppression and to better the conditions of the people, this was my goal, because God has told us to do so. The plaster factory I am running now allows people to build better houses and provides the workers with an income. Anything you do must be for the benefit of others, too. If Hazrat-i Isa (Jesus) or the Prophet had worked only for themselves, what use would they have been?
As you know, I pay higher wages to my workers than anybody else here. Recently, 1 suggested to my partner that he should pay the same wages as I do. At this he said, ‘Then I’ll have only very little profit.’ I said to him, ‘Don’t talk like this. Should these people perhaps work for our benefit? They ought to have a share in the profit, too.’
No, God doesn’t want me to enrich myself at their expense. I consider myself just another worker, all of us sharing in the profit – like sitting around a tray of food and eating from it together. That’s the way the Prophet has ordered it.
[Hazrat] Ali said, ‘When you get up in the morning, you should think you are going to die this evening, but you should also think you are never going to die.’ This means, you should do so many good deeds that day as if it were your last day, but you should also work so hard as if you were never to die…..


  • abides by – follows
  • amass – collect in an increasing manner
  • Amir al-Muminin – ‘Commander of the Faithful’; for Shia, the title of Imam Ali
  • beakful – enough to fill a beak (i.e. a bird’s horny jaws)
  • carnal – of the body or flesh
  • chaos – confusion, disorder
  • drives – inner urges to satisfy needs
  • haughty – proud, arrogant
  • oppressed – treated harshly or unjustly
  • presume – take for granted
  • profane – not sacred, worldly
  • worthless – without value
  • zikr – dhikr, remembrance of God

Views of Islam among Muslim villagers: the old teacher
Will you know (what happens) after death?

I don’t know certainly I believe in hell and heaven: Heaven’ stands for a world of peace and pleasure; ‘hell’ for a world of misery — here or there, what difference does it make? A number of people say that paradise is where there is well-being. Life after death, this is just a word.
My belief is that, the soul……the soul … exists. It is something that urges you to do something.
Now how this is, and where it is, and where it goes, and where it comes from — this we don’t know. What happens after death, we just don’t know. But in hell and heaven I do believe. (Whether it is) for keeping order in the world … or for whatever, I believe in it.
We have a game here, a trick we play on a road companion. When we pass a big rock, we say to him, ‘This rock is muffling all sound. However loudly I shout, you won’t hear me behind it.’ If the other is simple-minded, he will believe it. He will go behind the rock and while I walk away, he will think I am yelling and yelling and that the rock stops him from hearing it. And when he finally comes around, he sees nobody. This is the way our minds are tied up. We don’t know what really is there.
They say paradise is a pleasant place with flowers and gardens and houris – that’s laughable – a place of pleasure. Pleasure! Whatever pleasure we find right here – that is paradise. Whatever trouble and distress we experience here, that is the World of Hell for us. Yes, it is right here in this world … If it is good here, it is heaven. If it is bad for us, it is our hell.
And then?
By God, I don’t know. Man is weak; he can’t know. Neither can the mullas. We cannot see into these things. I think about them, but I am not getting anywhere. So I say with everybody else, ‘paradise’. However it may be, the notion of hell invokes fear. Since most people act morally out of fear, it disciplines them. All these ideas are my own. I don’t want to interfere with the beliefs of others, but there are many I just can’t see….
Do you think that God punishes in this world?
Yes, I believe that punishment comes in this world but it is a problem why my child could be miserable because 1 did some evil. I think i this: the evil deeds of a person accumulate like water poured into a glass. As water overflows’ a full glass, so the is deeds of a person spill over into the next generation.
Also, it has to do with inheritance. My son is innocent, but just as he is the heir of my possessions and of my deeds, so he is necessarily the heir of my deeds, too. There are many such cases in the village. That’s the way I think –not that I have proof for it, though.
What is the meaning of religion?
Religion means to do good. It means what Zarathustra said: ‘Think good, speak good, do good’. Faith is the very belief in good actions, such as not harm anybody. All religions of the world say this. But beyond that, our knowledge, our information is deficient. We can’t see why it is so, why it is good. It is as if we had a veil in front of our eyes. We don’t know.
The regulations of the religion mean the same. Isn’t meaning of the prayers that we ought to do good, that we should obtain our bread by our own work and not by violating the rights of others? There are some, who make the ablutions, say the prayers and so on – all very pedantically – but who deceive, lie, and steal. Their prayers are worthless. What are the deeds?

How do you explain such behaviour?

Above all our early education is rotten.. If I am not sure my child won’t
be either. Moreover, understand the prayers because we say them in a language we don’t understand. We say only the external form, so to speak. Yet we are told we must say the prayers. The Mullah even said on the pulpit that even the thief must say them. He did not say, for example, that the meaning of prayers is that one should not steal…..
What about other regulations, such as fasting or vows?
Fasting has the same purposes. One is that the tongue, the ears, and the eyes abstain, so to speak, from evil speaking, evil hearing, and evil looking. Another aim is the cleansing of the body for our health. Last year I observed it for a while, but the eating at night didn’t do me good and I broke it off.
A pilgrimage may prompt me to do some good for another person … Once I told a rich man in a neighboring village who was about to leave for Mecca, ‘Every year, five or six children die in your village from the filthy drinking water. If you spent your money for building a water pipeline, it would be worth more than making the pilgrimage, even if every year only one child would be saved.’ But others told him, ‘This teacher says a blasphemy.’ So he travelled to Mecca.
Vows have the same intention. If by means of this belief, a hungry man gets bread, it’s good. Otherwise, it’s nothing.
The aim of these rules is to encourage human beings to realize their humanity

  • accumulate- collect
  • blasphemy – that which does respect what is religious or sacred
  • debt- something that is owed
  • deficient – incomplete
  • distress – severe pain, sorrow
  • heir- a successor; someone who inherits a title, wealth or property
  • houris – women of paradise
  • humanity- that which makes us human or humane (caring)
  • inheritance – whatever is left by a person after his or her death for a successor
  • misery- unhappiness
  • morally-to do with right and wrong actions
  • muffling– covering a source of sound to reduce its loudness
  • notion – idea
  • pedantically – following rules strictly without thinking of their deeper meaning
  • prompt- urge
  • pulpit – raised platform in a place of worship from where a sermon or religious talk is delivered
  • violating – disregarding
Reflecting on the interviews

What did the mullah emphasize in speaking about his view of Islam?
How did the factory owner explain his understanding of Islam? What was most important to him?

What kind of beliefs did the old teacher hold?
Identify one quote from each person that reveals what they believed in common.
Identify a quote from each one that shows what was different in the way they understood Islam. How do you explain the differences, given that all three men were Shia Muslims and they all lived in the same village? What do these interviews teach us about how Muslims in general understand Islam?

Varieties of beliefs

The study reveals to us that Islam is understood in different ways by people living together In a single village. We can therefore imagine the range of beliefs on Islam within the Muslim world.
The study also showed us that the views of Muslims on Islam can be many sided. The mullah stressed the importance of religious law in Islam, but he also saw Islam as a progressive religion that was not against scientific discoveries. The factory owner expressed mystical ideas, but he was also concerned about the welfare of his workers. The old teacher was doubtful about religious beliefs such as heaven and hell, and yet he believed in the existence of the soul.
The religious beliefs of individuals and communities are complex aspects to study. They require careful investigation because we seek to gain an understanding of people’s inner thoughts, feelings and experiences about something which is very precious to them.


Examine a religious tradition other than Islam. Identify the major communities of interpretation that make up that religion.


Muslim communities approached in terms what they hold in common, as well as what is unique to each one. Discuss what balance Muslims should try to achieve between unity and diversity in the modern world.


What are some of the reasons why people of each religious tradition come to arrive at different understandings of their faith over time?


Muslim communities across the world understand Islam in diverse ways depending on their history, culture and background.

Religions are concerned with something unique

In studying religious traditions, scholars ask the question whether religions are different from other forms of beliefs and experiences. They try to understand what the essence of religion is.
One answer is that religions are concerned with the relation between what is human and that which lies beyond the experience of humans. Another way of saying this is that religions deal with the relation between the material and the spiritual. Some thinkers
claim that religions are unique because they alone refer to the transcendent, that which is beyond our ordinary understanding.
The experience of the holy
One view of what makes religions different from other areas of experience is the idea of the holy. Religious believers experience something, which the human mind, cannot possibly comprehend, an unknowable called ‘the numinous’. The numinous is the wholly other, because it is completely different from anything human. In some religions, the numinous stands for God. In other traditions, it refers to an ultimate reality.
When religious believers are in the presence of the numinous, they feel a sense of fear and awe. These feelings are not ordinary ones. They arise because the believer experiences something, which is majestic, tremendous and overwhelming. The believer feels a sense of being an insignificant creature in the presence of the numinous.
This view has been criticized because it makes religion into something which is irrational or non-human.
The concept of the sacred
Another way of understanding religions as special is through the idea of the sacred. Religions are thought to be concerned with the experience of the sacred. The sacred is defined in many ways. One of its definitions is that it refers to what is of ultimate worth, meaning or value in human life. The opposite of the sacred is the profane. The profane refers to that which is ordinary or ‘this-worldly’.
The study of religion becomes one of finding out how religious communities relate to the sacred. An important question is why religious communities consider certain places, times, events and people as sacred. The activity of making things sacred is considered to lie at the heart of all religions.
Some thinkers feel that the sacred is an idea that applies to all human beings, not only to religious believers. If the sacred is concerned with what is of deepest value to us, then all human beings express this concern. They may define the sacred in different ways, but the sacred exists in everyone’s life whether or not they are religious believers.
Human concerns and meaning
Yet another way of understanding religions as special is by regarding them as dealing with ultimate concerns of human life. All human beings encounter questions of life and death, of human purpose and destiny, at some point in their lives. There is a deep-seated need in human beings to seek for meaning in their lives. Religions act as frameworks of spiritual and moral ideals within which people can find meaning and hope. They are an enduring source of inspiration and guidance, which help us to make sense of our world.
REVIEW of Unit 1: Webs of Inquiry
1.1     Islam as a question
  • What place do religions have in the lives of people in the modern world?
  • Why is it important to study religions today as part of our education?
  • How did thinkers in the past approach the subject of Islam?
  • What lessons do we draw from Al Ghazali’s life story?
  • To what extent is Islam a subject of inquiry to day?
1.2    Studying Islam
  • What are some of the ways in which Islam was studied in the past?
  • What do we learn from Ali’s story about the teaching of religious law in the madrasa of the past?
  • What role did reasoning and thinking have in these madrasas?
  • What new approaches have been used in recent times?
  • In what ways have they increased our knowledge about Islam and other relilgions?
1.3    Understanding Islam
  • What kind of education about Islam did Muhammad receive in the Indonesian surau?
  • What were some of the conflicts he experienced in receiving this form of education?
  • How does the teaching imparted in Quranic schools today compare with the education of madrasas in the past?
  • What are the differences between closed and open and critical approaches in understanding religion?
  • What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches?
1.4    Many paths in Islam
  • What important points do we learn from the interviews of the three Iranian villagers?
  • What are some of the ways in which Islam was interpreted by Muslim?
  • What is the community of interpretation? What are some examples of communities of interpretation in the Muslim context?
  • What conclusions can we draw about the nature of Islam from the diversity of Muslim communities and traditions that we find today?
  • How have scholars understood religions as being different from other forms of beliefs and experiences?

To continue reading further click:  UNIT-2


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