The Essence of Religion

Sura 98 Ayas 4–5

And those to whom scripture was given did not become divided into sects until after evidence had come to them.

But they were enjoined nothing more than to worship God, be sincere in religion and be regular in prayer and give charity, for this is the essence of religion.

The Quran, the Hadith, and all other books of scripture in the world contain parables, stories, advice, and prescriptions on a large number of topics. People in ancient times derived detailed rules of social, moral, and economic living from scripture and mandated obedience to these rules as religion. Different people came up with different rules. In this way, schisms and sects were formed, and they have been the source of strife in human history ever since. These ayas point out that the requirements of religion are simple: faith in God, prayer, and charity, with the condition that we be sincere.

These ayas, when they were revealed, described the schisms among the followers of earlier scriptures. However, the same dynamic later unfolded among Muslims.

Different religious groups have different ways of prayer, and they make it a point of contention and division. It is noteworthy the Quran speaks repeatedly about the importance of prayer but does not prescribe a formulation for it.

The second aya mentions sincerity in religion as essential. Pretense makes prayer, charity, and all other good things we do ineffective. When a community ordains religion as following a large number of rules, then pretense becomes commonplace because it is too difficult to follow many rules. You are motivated not by your conscience but by the desire to seek approval of your community.

Becoming sincere and honest poses the greatest challenge in a person’s spiritual development. Duplicity is bred into us from childhood when we learn to pretend to do things to seek approval from our parents. We become adults, but the habit of living for social approval stays with us.

Parents have the difficult task of teaching good habits and values to their children, and at the same time, allowing them enough freedom so their ability to think on their own stays intact. Since this is a difficult balance to achieve, most people become adults with a gap between what they feel is right and what they have been programmed into believing is right. A person’s spiritual journey is the struggle to fill this gap. We become sincere when we realize on our own the value in traits of good character such as honesty, fairness, patience, and humility. We then try to live sincerely by these values. Our prayers and our works of charity then also become authentic and sincere.

Detailed rules of social life presented as religion did not emerge among Muslims until the great imams, more than a century after Prophet Muhammad. In the decades after the Prophet, the very few written copies of the Quran were not accessible to most people and there were no books of Hadith. Fiqh, or jurisprudence, had not yet been created as a system. The Muslim men and women of those days experienced religion through passages of the Quran and some Hadith they heard from others and had memorized. It is inspiration from these, and reasoning based on these, that guided the lives of Muslims. It was an era of great dynamism among Muslims.

A century later, Islam had spread to much of the known world among people with diverse cultures and languages. At that time, several scholars codified rules of sharia. These are rules to regulate all aspects of life, including how to wash yourself, what to eat and how to eat, conditions under which a woman could go out of the house, rules for borrowing and trading, the penal code, dress codes for women and men, rules for facial hair, how you should greet a non-Muslim, and myriad other rules, and these were all perceived as the unchanging religion. The different sets of rules prescribed by different imams led to the formation of sects, as this aya predicts.

As a result, a long era of conformity began which resulted in stagnation of Muslim social and spiritual life. In the centuries since then, Muslims have sought redemption in obeying rules they don’t understand or question. The freezing of thought manifested soon in a demise of social, scientific, and artistic innovation. The Muslim world found itself in increasing isolation from progress that was being made elsewhere.

In order to benefit from spiritual teachings, it is important to separate the essential from the peripheral. We should recognize the principle of progressive change in religious as well as in cultural and social life. Truth is eternal, but the way it is expressed changes with time, and it is experienced differently by different people.
This is Chapter 9 in “The Quran and The Life of Excellence” by Sultan Abdulhameed

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