Islamic perspective

Values, not rituals are essence of religion


What is religion? In actual practice religion consists of beliefs, dogmas, traditions, practices and rituals. A believer born in a religious tradition inherits all this and takes everything for granted and believes every thing he has inherited is an essential and integral part of religion.

For him rituals are as important and integral as the values. However, while rituals are performed regularly, values are either violated, neglected or practised mere symbolically. Rituals are, however, observed more meticulously. There is another trend, which is more modern comparatively. It began with colonialism in nineteenth century i.e. treating religion not merely as a faith but as an ideology, particularly political ideology. These ideologues insist that religion is not merely a spiritual experience but also a political system. For them political system is much more important than the spiritual aspects of religion.

They insist on establishing a state based on religious ideology and then insist that even new legislation is not permissible. It is all perfected in the past – during medireview or even pre-medireview period. These laws are perfect and God-sent and hence no re-thinking is permissible. Anyone who does, commits a serious crime. Change is deviation and deviation is sin against God. Thus a religious state should not only implement these laws rigorously but also punish severely all those who advocate change. It does not matter even if such a rigorous application of laws injures the core-values of religion. For these ideologues of religion all that matters is a political system. They not only build a political system but also set up a political party. No opposition to such a party is entertained as it is projected as the party of God and how can there be opposition to the party of God? Needless to say such a party based on religious ideology ultimately leads to authoritarianism of the worst kind.

For philosophers religion can be divided into four categories:

  1. Ritual system
  2. Institutional system
  3. Value system
  4. Thought system

Some philosophers of religion maintain that what is permanent in religion is firstly the ritual system and secondly the value system. Institutional system and thought system could and should undergo change with the time as such a change would not injure the spirit of religion.

According to these philosophers the institutional and thought systems are highly influenced by the circumstances of their origin. In fact they do not belong to religious thought as such but reflect the observations, beliefs, traditions, practices and mental development of the time. For example, in the course of time the Greek philosophy and Greek sciences became integral part of thought system of Christianity and Islam and soon they acquired the status of holy dogmas in these religions. The dogma that earth is flat and that it is at the centre of universe and that sun goes round it was acquired from Greek thinkers and philosophers. However, this became integral part of Christian and Islamic doctrines. Anyone challenging it was held to be sinner. When Gallileo challenged this dogma he was punished and made to recant.

Thus it will be seen that thought system is often acquired from alien sources but over a period of time it becomes an integral part of one's faith and any deviation from it is considered an irreligious act. Thousands of people in various religious categories were severely persecuted in the history of religion for challenging the thought system evolved or acquired from other sources.

What is called theology or `Ilm-e-Ilahi or kalam in Islam was evolved by human beings or Christian and Muslim scholars but these human thoughts were elevated to the status of immutable dogmas and doctrines. In fact it acquired the status of revealed scriptures. These human opinions became as sacred as the revealed scriptures themselves. All new scientific discoveries and new social and political institutions were fiercely opposed by the religious authorities in the name of religion and their votaries persecuted.

Such dogmas also had political implications. For example most of the Muslims believed in the dogma of non-createdness of the Qur’an but the Mu`tazila, a rationalist sect of Islam, developed the dogma of createdness of the Qur’an. Since the Abbasids aligned with them this dogma acquired an ‘official Islamic’ status and anyone opposing it was seen as an enemy of the regime, apart from being the enemy of Islam. Even prominent ‘Ulama like Imam Abu Hanifa were persecuted by the Abbasids for their refusal to accept the dogma of createdness of the Qur’an.

Similarly fierce controversies raged during the Umayyad period between the jabriyas and qadriyas (i.e. between those believing human beings being determined and those believing they are free to act). This controversy was also political rather than strictly religious in nature. The Umayyads openly encouraged those who believed in jabr and persecuted those believing in qadr. Those who believed in determination argued that the Umayyad regime is divinely determined and hence must be accepted while those who believed in freedom of action argued that the Muslims are free to overthrow the Umayyad regime and replace it with more just and benevolent one. This political controversy had, however, acquired religious overtones and believer in either doctrine thought it is integral part of religious belief.

Thus a thought system in religion and theology should not be treated as essential part of religious beliefs. It can and should change over period of time. Many ahadith also reflected the spirit of time rather than the spirit of Islam. No wonder than they clashed with the Qur’anic injunctions which are truly divine in nature. These ahadith were fabricated by those who wanted their own ideas to be established as divine ideas.

Similarly many prevailing traditions and practices in society wherein Islam originated or whereto Islam spread later were assimilated and sanctified in the name of religion. They even became part of Islamic ritual system. And no opposition to it could be entertained. Even superstitions of worst kind were sanctified by religious authorities and any opposition to these superstitious beliefs was characterised as heresy. It is important to note that what is ‘heresy’ and what is ‘pure doctrine’ is determined, not by religious but by worldly or even political considerations. If the heretics did not have their way and if they had not faced persecution nothing would have changed in this world.

A religious dogma (of course there are secular dogmas as well) is an authoritative assertion of certain belief and no opposition to such a belief is entertained. Only difference between a religious and a secular dogma is that while one can oppose secular dogmas it is very difficult to oppose religious ones. Religious dogmas are imposed in the name of God, the supreme authority. How can one challenge ‘divine’ authority. All religions, long after the demise of their founders, developed such dogmas and theologians, formulating these dogmas, imposed their own authority. Through these dogmas they assumed their own ‘divinity’.

Each religion, be it Semitic or non-Semitic one, challenged the oppressive and exploitative establishment of their own time and provided their followers with enlightening beliefs and human values, liberating philosophies and oppressive traditions. Every religion provided a great liberating experience by emphasising certain values be it Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Later Sikkhism, Kabir Panth and Bahaism also showed new enlightening paths for their believers.

However, each religion was soon turned into a powerful establishment by some of its followers negating the very spirit of founding moment – a defining moment – of that religion. Once a religion was turned into an establishment certain rituals and dogmas became more important than the liberating values. No major religion has escaped this fate. Once a religion is turned into a powerful establishment lifeless dogmas and newly invented doctrines become central to that religion. Further tragedy is that when this happens reform movements arise trying to restore original spirit of the religion but the reform movements, if ‘successful’ themselves become another powerful establishment and original values are once again lost sight of. Some reformist dogmas rule the roast at the cost of those fundamental values.

The followers of a religion, unfortunately, cannot, or are not allowed to acquire knowledge of their faith in depth by those who control the religious establishment. Or those who are allowed, must submit to the authority of those who control religious establishment. Thus every religious establishment develops its own politics which becomes much more central to that establishment. The establishment, needless to say, depends on certain dogmas and these dogmas then cannot be challenged. Any challenge to these dogmas will be considered subversive to the establishment. Christianity subverted the powerful Jewish establishment of its own time and remained religion of the oppressed for nearly four centuries. But once Roman Empire adopted it, it became a powerful establishment and developed its own dogmas, which did not allow any opposition. Thus the religion of the oppressed soon became religion of the oppressors.

Islam was a great liberating religion. It challenged the powerful establishment of rich Meccan traders and gave a great sense of dignity to the most oppressed of the system. The most marginalised sections of the Meccan society were black slaves, women and the poor (orphans and widows included). They had no rights in that society. Islam not only treated them as equal human beings but gave them a sense of dignity and proclaimed the most liberating doctrine of equal honour for all children of Adam. Thus all the weaker sections of Meccan society – slaves, poor, women and the youth aspiring for change, rallied round the Messenger of Islam as his doctrines were found to be most liberating of all for them.

Thus Islam laid stress on justice and equality; justice for all weaker sections of society and equality among all including between men and women. Islam also stresses on other values, apart from these two seminal values. Christianity, on the other hand, lays great stress on love and forgiveness, which are very essential for smooth human relationship. Judaism too lays emphasis on justice, being Abrahamic religion. Among Indic religions, Hinduism, stresses Universalism and tolerance, Jainism non-violence and Buddhism compassion. Bahaism, comparatively young religion, lays emphasis on equality of all human beings. And truthfulness is, of course, a common value in all religions.

Thus we see that there are seven most fundamental values in all religions put together: 1)Truth; 2) Non-violence; 3) Justice; 4) Equality; 5) Compassion; 6) Love and 7) Tolerance. If any human being practices these seven values he/she can be most religious and finest of human beings. However one rarely finds a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Jain practising most fundamental of these values. They would stress rituals rather than the values. The rituals require a priestcraft and it is the priestcraft, which benefits from insistence on religion. The religious establishment is controlled, among others, by priesthood.

We would like to throw some light here on these fundamental values which make human beings really religious in spirit. If we follow these values there will be no inter-religious conflict. Let us remember that inter-religious conflict is not, as many rationalists tend to think, inherent in religious teachings; inter-religious conflict, in fact, is result of too much emphasis on rituals at the cost of values on one hand, and misuse of religion for political, economic and other personal interests, on the other. It is not my proposition that rituals have no importance or do not play any part in religious structure. They do have an important part to play and have significance of their own.

It is rituals, which impart uniqueness to each religion. Values are not unique to any religion whereas rituals are. Rituals are also important part of religious festivals and festivals are important part of our culture. These rituals and festivals enrich our life and make it more colourful too. For many people these rituals impart great sense of fulfilment and become important psychological support. They feel quite uneasy if they do not perform these rituals. But having said this I would like to emphasise that rituals are not central to a religion while values are. One often thinks that by performing these rituals one has fulfilled ones religious obligations. It is not so. If one faithfully performs one’s religious rituals but violates these fundamental values or ignores them, one cannot said to have fulfilled one’s religious obligations.

A truly religious person is more conscious of these fundamental values rather than of rituals. Rituals can be neglected, values cannot be. It is also to be noted that rituals can be performed without hurting ones selfish interests but values demand great sacrifice from us. No wonder then we stress rituals more than the values. It is also interesting to note that while priests stress rituals the Sufi and Bhakti saints or mystics stress these values. While priests thrive on these rituals the Sufi and Bhakti saints live starkly simple life and do everything possible to control their desires. In any case one has to keep ones selfish desires under control, if one wishes to practice these values.

Let us discuss the nature and significance of these values. The first and foremost among these values is Truth. What is truth? Truth is not mere conformity with fact though it too is most essential. But there is more to it than conformity with fact. Truth embodies spiritual dimension too. Being truthful requires being spiritual and transcendent. A person who cherishes Truth as a value would never be satisfied with what is; he/she would always strive for what should be. The present reality cannot satisfy as it is imperfect. Thus Truth has a spiritual dimension of perfectness; any traces of imperfectness rob it of the quality of truthfulness.

Thus a person who practices truthfulness would never be satisfied with what is given because what is given is far from being perfect. God is Truth or Truth is God (in Islamic tradition it is huwa’ al-Haq i.e. He is Truth) precisely because He is Perfect. Thus a person in search of Truth is in fact is in search of moral and ethical perfection. Anyone who is morally or ethically imperfect has traces of untruth in him/her. And a truly religious person keeps on striving for moral perfection and remains in search of truth, which also amounts for search for higher knowledge. Thus there are three important dimensions of truth: conformity with fact, ethical and moral perfection and search for higher knowledge.

I cannot think of any religion, which does not lay stress of truth in these three senses. Thus, it should be understood that value-oriented religion has no potential for conflict. It is all search for Truth, striving for Truth, search for moral and spiritual perfection and constant search for higher knowledge. Search for Truth requires involvement of ones inner being with all sincerity, without any trace of superficiality or any trace of falsehood or pretension. If we become religious in this sense neither there will be inter or intra religious conflict and our world will become an abode of peace.

Another important value is non-violence. Since we have evolved from animal world from monkey to human beings, we have inherited strong aggressive instinct. It is this strong aggressive tendency within us which is store-house of violence within us. In the animal world this aggression was needed for survival and in human beings it assumes even more lurid form – promoting ones selfish desires and usurping others legitimate rights. Hatred is another powerful engine for violence. However, as human beings we are also equipped by God with intelligence and higher consciousness. Being a religious person it is our duty to activate our higher consciousness and curb our aggressive violent tendencies. No religion can sanction violence except strictly for defence. Jainism advocates, among other religions, highest degree of non-violence. It is an ideal. In our world many forms of violence exist in our society. In fact the very unjust structures of society promote selfishness and violence. Mere exhortation will not do. We have to remove structural injustices in order to make a non-violent society possible. More injustices in society more the violence.

Thus it will be seen that only a just society can be a non-violent society. Justice, therefore, is another important value. A truly religious person is just person. What is justice? There is no unanimity and it is a contentious concept. It is also very subjective concept. The mighty and powerful define justice in their own way and the weak define it in their own manner. Thus justice is as much spiritual as material in nature. As long as there are powerful and weak, exploiters and exploited, central and marginalised in the society, justice will remain very subjective concept. A just society is possible only when structural injustices are done away with and a powerful inner spiritual urge is there to do away with all forms of discrimination and exploitation both in material and spiritual sense. Though economic justice is very important dimension of justice is not the only dimension of justice.

There are other forms of justice as well. There has to be cultural, social, regional and racial dimensions. Any sense of superiority – be it cultural, social or racial would lead to a sense of injustice and discrimination. All cultures, societies, regions and races should have equal opportunities to thrive and prosper. There should be no trace of discrimination. Any trace of superiority would lead to sense of injustice and would sow the seeds of unrest and conflict. Thus it would be seen that justice is very much integrally related to equality.

Thus equality is another important value for a truly religious vision. Justice and equality always go together. There cannot be a just society without equality of all human beings. A religious person would have an integral sense of equality of all human beings irrespective of their culture, language, race or nationality. All human beings have strictly equal worth. Any discrimination between one human being and another would be an irreligious act. Religiosity cannot be based on any form of discrimination, as all human beings are creatures of one God. Thus equality of all human beings is the very basis of true religiosity. The very idea of ritual purity and impurity as found in caste hierarchies or of racial superiority as found among whites, is an irreligious ideal. A truly religious person will not entertain any concept of superiority of one over the other.

If all human beings are equal they must be loved equally. There cannot be equal love without equal respect. Thus love is another value for a religious person. He/she will love all equally. Again the question is what is love? Is it mere instinct to possess? A lover is often motivated by the desire to possess the loved one. And such a passion to possess the ‘loved’ one leads to jealousy which is just opposite of love. Thus it is this passion to possess makes us love our own culture, our own race and our own religion, among others. This leads to being either indifferent or jealous of the other. It is this passion to belong which creates psychological categories of ‘we’ and ‘others’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’.

True love is not only non-possession of the loved but also respect for its integrity and autonomy. And love in this sense is not possible unless we respect the right to independence of the one we love. Thus non-possession of the loved one and respect for his/her integrity and independence would lead to a real world of equality, independence and love. Thus love in the sense of non-possession and independence of the loved one leads one to yet another value – compassion.

Compassion is truly a spiritual quality felt for the loved ones. And if we love entire humanity we will have compassion for all human beings irrespective of what nation, race or culture they belong to. Compassion is felt when fellow human being suffers. Thus compassion is born through sensitivity to others suffering. If we develop this sensitivity to a high degree we will have compassion for all those who suffer and others will have compassion for our suffering. There is no human being who does not suffer. Thus it is through compassion that all of us will be bound in a most humane relationship. There cannot be greater human quality than compassion as it is a positive passion for removal of suffering. Thus a religious person is devoted above all to removal of sufferings in all forms from earth. Everything else is secondary to him/her. If we have compassion for suffering we will not permit any injustice, any discrimination, any inequity and any hatred as all these lead to suffering.

Tolerance is another value, which is highly necessary for a society, which holds compassion in high esteem. Absence of compassion leads to hatred and tolerance and hatred are each other’s opposite. All traces of hatred can be removed only if we develop a quality of tolerance. Hatred leads to suffering and suffering can be removed through compassion and tolerance. Where there is no tolerance there will be hatred and where there is hatred there will be no compassion. Thus compassion and tolerance are also integrally connected. Thus a compassionate person is necessarily a tolerant person too.

Thus a truly religious person is truthful, non-violent, just, respects equality, loves all, is compassionate and tolerant whether she/he performs certain designated rituals or not. In fact rituals in symbolic sense are instruments for realising these values. But these rituals become ends in themselves and hence religion becomes dogmatic, static and indifferent to human suffering and in some cases even cause of suffering. We should strive to promote value-oriented and not ritual-oriented religion in the world. It will be a great boon for humanity.