My academic journey began somewhat with Greek and Roman mystery religions. My initial fascination with and love of Greco-Roman culture led me to seek a means by which the fantastic and prolific polytheism of those peoples might be reconciled with more serious philosophical inquiry. It was clear to me that traditional Greek and Roman religion highlighted most wonderfully virtue and righteousness, but it was simultaneously clear that the polytheistic means by which this was accomplished was a vehicle inadequate to serious philosophical inquiry, suffering from problems made clear by the Greeks themselves. And on that note, it was not until later that I found my work in reconciling the matter was largely done for me in the rich depths of Greek culture.
About the time I discovered Plotinus in the course of my early studies and felt I had found the answer par excellence to religious inquiry, I encountered Daoism and Chinese Buddhism. The compatibility of the Way and the One of Plotinus was invigorating and astonishing to me; not only are both conceived of as the source of all that is, but the accompanying theories of transcendence are extraordinarily similar as well. It seemed extremely powerful evidence for the soundness of this theological understanding that two utterly detached cultures (in this respect, and for the most part) should have come up with what seemed to be, at its core, the same theory.
Academically, the already-prevalent and thorough understanding of Plotinus pushed me towards Daoism and it became my primary academic pursuit. My personal religious experience supported these schools of thought and I began to be more and more convinced that mankind, in religious experience, may not only be made aware of, but also participate in, the extrarational and incomprehensible nature of divinity.
Upon completing my undergraduate and graduate work, I had only just come to a point in my studies where I felt the basic groundwork of my pursuit of religion had been laid. I had identified sound theoretical basis for understanding the relationship between reason and faith, philosophy and religion, and I had found them, as have so many great thinkers in history, commensurable. Nonetheless, I was plagued by worry that I was merely behaving irrationally and contrary to all wisdom in thinking myself to have had such experiences.
To posit the existence of that which is held to be ineffable is a challenging task, indeed. I had many powerful and well-educated interlocutors who kept me rigorous in thought and held me to a high standard of proof when discussing the potential power of an extrarational awareness such as this. By them I was led to the work of Immanuel Kant wherein, to this day, I believe lies an extremely proficient (if not the most proficient) analysis of the boundary of rational inquiry and the corresponding justification of religion. Later, I most happily recognized the parallel thoughts among other great men of God such as Plotinus, Iamblichus, Averroes, and Akbar the Great.
With this newfound inspiration, and a sense of obligation given my academic credentials, I engaged a thorough two year study of the Tanakh and the Gospel, and I found the texts enlivening. They were surely not the scriptures of those televangelists and irrational zealots whose names predominate the understanding of Christianity in modern day America! I read every single word and every single footnote in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and I reviewed my undergraduate studies of exegetical methods and modern theological positions in Judaism and Christianity. At the end of that endeavor, I could not be more surprised at the commensurability of the Bible’s contents with the religious perspective I had developed thus far. Granted, my interpretations, it seems, are somewhat unique today, but it has become clear to me that this was not always so.
Wondering how much further this could go, I studied the Koran. Even more brilliant was this exposition of the human religious condition! Even more sophisticated, it seemed; so carefully worded and so self-aware, so to speak, that I could hardly believe what I was reading. Surely this was not the scripture of the likes of those who terrorize so many in the name of Islam, who again so often predominate the understanding of Islam in modern day America.
Seeking for those whose interpretations might align with my own (for surely others have found what I have found, lest I be merely some irrational kook in the grips of his own irrationality – a terrifying thought which I entertain somewhat frequently), I was led to Akbar the Great, and the Happy Sayings recorded in the Ain I Akbari have been the glorious jewel which remains positioned at the highest point of my studies. It was upon discovering his works and his thoughts, paired with my nearly-simultaneous discovery of al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, that I gained the confidence to consider myself Muslim. Though my reading of the Koran alone had sufficed for my own private endorsement (despite being an English interpretation of the Arabic), my burgeoning studies in Arabic philosophy and classical Islamic theology instilled in me trepidation and caution.
First and foremost, I am no scholar of Islam. I hope and will this to change, but as of yet, a Muslim scholar I am not. I do not even speak Arabic, and this may be viewed with non-trivial reason as tantamount to utter ignorance of Islam. I offer only the following rationale: the state of translation efforts being as they are, and my experience in academic reliance on translation and later acceptance or rejection of their efforts as my own capabilities progressed, leads me to believe I am reasonably justified in relying on those translations I have chosen for my present degree of understanding. I will begin studying Arabic, as I am obligated given my circumstances, and I hope to develop my education greatly in the upcoming years. Thus far, my findings seem to provide validation for my high-level comprehension of modern Islamic theological matters, but I recognize in my present condition not only its shallowness, but also its fatal flaw which must be remedied.
Secondly, and compounded by the first issue, I seem to presently disagree with some main tenants of modern Islamic thought. Of course, I disagree with some of Plato’s thought, some of Aristotle’s thought, and some of just about everyone’s thought. Some of my disagreements with many religious systems are extremely fundamental (e.g. with Christianity: a rejection of the Trinity or the necessity of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for our sins which must be accepted for salvation) and yet, having read their scriptures, I find myself inclined nonetheless at commitment to the faith. I am repulsed at the thought of being considered a new age pseudo-philosopher who proceeds with such lack of rigor as to wrongfully and incoherently assimilate religious thought, and I endeavor as relentlessly as I am able that I may understand thoroughly the objects of my study, but my conclusions remain.
On account of this situation, I have not formerly declared myself as a Muslim quite so openly. I am aware of the dangers involved in stepping into religious debate too soon, and they are none too palatable, so I intend to largely remain quiet, now that my position has been made clear. My reading of Arberry’s interpretation of the Koran struck in me such admiration, such respect and adoration for that holy scripture that I felt compelled to bring what I had found, be they mere glimpses of a reality perhaps all the more sweet, to those who would slander and defile the work with their misguided lives of violently terrorizing and murdering their brothers and sisters whom they are to love as they love themselves. To speak at least to those who would take their actions as legitimate, I felt a duty, and so I stepped forward with less preparation than I otherwise might. Having found what I have found, I can no longer stand idly in a world where such division is attempted in the name of this wonderful scripture.
So I researched those who have gone before me, and finding many who have been outside of orthodoxy on far greater scales than myself, I gained heart and decided to permit myself the consideration that I, too, am Muslim. Given my history, I’m something of a Hellenic Muslim, finding a home in Greco-Roman peripatetic culture before finding myself awestruck by falsafa and the progress made therein. My character of belief is more in line, perhaps, with Ibn Rushd.
Regardless, I am firmly committed to the core of the faith, that there is no god but God, and that righteousness is worship, which seem paramount despite the differences I have with modern orthodoxy. I am following my mind, considering thoroughly, and willing no wrong, and it seems to me this is all which can be expected of any of us. If I err while on this path, hopefully my sin shall amount to none graver than is common.
For if what I have read and understood is somehow unfortunately misguided, if all my studies of the Tanakh, the Gospel, the Pseudepigrapha, the Nag Hammadi texts, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus have failed to prepare me for engagement with Islamic thought such that I have mistaken the most crucial and seemingly obvious conclusions I have made from a thorough reading of a respected interpretation of the Koran and significant, albeit English-bound, study of classic Islamic theology and the thought of the falsafa, then I am, for some reason, performing abnormally poorly at a historic degree. I will have faith that I am not in this sorry state, though I do not discount the possibility.
So with caution, I lay bare some apparent disagreement with modern Islamic thought; I am inclined to believe the Koran is created, and this flies in the face of all modern orthodoxy. I am inclined similarly to a more radical insistence on a lack of distinction between Muhammad and other Prophets). I wonder at the religion which views its holy scripture and reads in it that Abraham was not Christian, as the Gospel had not been sent down, nor was he Jewish, being Israel’s ancestor, but he was a Muslim, only to hold the Koran as being so centrally important to Muslim identity. The religion strikes me as an intentionally universalized, primordial faith embedded in the hearts of mankind, and I cannot yet reconcile these positions. I understand at a high level some of the arguments in favor of this conclusion, and some of the arguments against my own, but I remain incapable.
Despite these strong reservations, I cannot escape the observation that, at the core of my beliefs, there is a single creative force from which all has issued forth, and a righteous devotion to this God is the basis for my life’s justification. There is a beautiful hadith:
“God’s right over His servants is that they worship God and associate nothing with Him. The servant’s right over God is that He not chastise anyone who associates nothing with Him.”*
And this is my aim entirely. I appreciate the warm comfort in that holy sentiment.
I think about the Koran frequently, and I consider its seemingly infinite merit. It seems I may be somehow misled, as my interpretation seems that of an unbeliever to many, but I cannot fathom that I have erred so greatly and with such great serendipity (or alluring misfortune?), for somehow I have arrived, by whatever means it may have been, at an intense and unprecedented reaction to this religious text. It seems the capstone of my life’s studies thus far, tying together all that has come before it, and I wonder at the understanding of Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets.
Recently, the immensely original thought of Al Ghazali have given me simultaneous comfort and worry regarding my affiliation with Islam. While he was a wildly original thinker, seemingly unconstrained by the orthodoxies of his day in many ways, he was also very much beholden to some fundamental orthodoxies. So much was he beholden that he was willing to declare Avicenna an unbeliever, and this brings me a great deal of pain, for if even the mighty Avicenna, a man who surely dedicated himself to none other than God, could be found an unbeliever by his contemporaries, what chance stand I?
But I am brought back to that which drew my love for the Koran from the very beginning. It is made clear that there is no man to whom it is given the prophecy and the Book that he might turn to others and say to them “Be you servants unto me, apart from God.” Despite the intense sectarian conflict that characterizes modern Islam, it is clear from the Koran that every Muslim serves only God, that one ought not to make such divisions among Muslims, and that study and knowing the Book is one’s own duty, with there to be no compulsion in religion.
The Koran, it seems to me, is the earliest scripture I have yet discovered which expresses such grand and masterful aim. In my estimation, it bears the greatest chance of all religious texts I have encountered (and certainly all Abrahamic texts) of bringing into unity all religions in the world. Historically, this idea has been subject to a wide range of religious characters such that there have been times when members of other religions actively considered themselves (and were considered by a significant portion of Muslims) to be Muslim, and there have been times when even those who have no influence aside from the Koran have been declared unbelievers.
So I now seek a general spirit of inquiry which ought to universally bind together all those who pursue religious truth. I care not for sectarian infighting or declarations of unbelief save for those declarations made of the most heinous and despicable creatures seeking to define themselves as men of God. I recognize the tumult of history has contained within it many instances of those who say these same words and yet persecute as unbelievers their contemporaries for purely philosophical disagreement, but I will hold myself to the standard such that those who justify and commit no wrongful violence in the name of God shall never be declared unbelievers lest they declare it of themselves. Among those who do commit such violence, we must judge of them to the best of our abilities who among them believe and who disbelieve according to their ways.
At this point in my quest, I see the two precepts related in The Primordial Faith as the ground from which the end of our inquiry may at first be characterized. It is my aspiration that the end of this brief treatise should leave the reader with knowledge of, at the very least, one man’s theory of the Way of God as a universally accessible path of righteousness known to every creature, the Law written on their hearts. It is a further hope that the various scriptures of the world religions may be evaluated on account of their perhaps-innumerable worthy qualities, and that their virtues may be assimilated into the lives of those who fortune graces with their influence. The only errors which shall be banished from our midst are those which have become quite clear, for as the Koran states, this has been accomplished, and God has sent many messengers to the world’s peoples, some of whom have been made known by the Koran, and some of whom have not been made known by the Koran.
*In fact, infringement against tawhid forms somewhat the basis of my reservations over the co-eternality of the Koran.