In this book we try to pry open the door to the Islamic universe. We are not interested in evaluating Islam from within those dominant perspectives of modern scholarship that make various contemporary modes of self-understanding the basis for judging the subject. Instead, we want to portray Islam from the perspective of those great Muslims of the past who established the major modes of Koranic interpretation and Islamic understanding.
This is not to say that we will simply translate passages from the classical texts in the manner of an anthology. The classical texts ask too much from beginning readers. They were not written for people coming from another cultural milieu. Rather, they were written for people who thought more or less the same way the authors did and who shared the same world view. Moreover, as a general rule they were written for those with advanced intellectual training, a type of training that is seldom offered in our graduate schools, much less on the undergraduate level.
The classical texts did not play the same role as contemporary textbooks, which attempt to explain everything in a relatively elementary format. On the contrary, they were usually written to present a position in a broad intellectual context. Frequently the texts would present only the outline of the argument—the rest was supplied orally by the teacher. Students did not borrow these books from the library and return them the following week. They would often copy the text for themselves (by hand, of course), and spend several months or years studying it word by word with a master. We ourselves have attended sessions in which classical texts were being studied in the Islamic World, and we can attest to how easily a good teacher can choose a word or a sentence and draw out endless meaning from it.
We are perfectly aware that many contemporary Muslims are tired of what they consider outdated material: they would like to discard their intellectual heritage and replace it with truly “scientific” endeavors, such as sociology. By claiming that the Islamic intellectual heritage is superfluous and that the Koran is sufficient, such people have surrendered to the spirit of the times. Those who ignore the interpretations of the past are forced to interpret their text in light of the prevailing world view of the present. This is a far different enterprise than that pursued by the great authorities, who interpreted their present in the light of a grand tradition and who never fell prey to the up-to-date—that most obsolescent of all abstractions.
The introductory texts on Islam that we have encountered devote a relatively small proportion of space to the Muslim understanding of reality. The reader is always told that the Koran is of primary importance and that Muslims have certain beliefs about God and the afterlife, but seldom do the authors of these works make more than a cursory attempt to explain what this means in actuality. Usually the reader encounters a short history of Islamic thought that makes Muslim intellectuals appear a bit foolish for apparently spending a great amount of time discussing irrelevant issues. More sympathetic authors try to explain that these issues were important in their historical context. Rarely is it suggested that these issues are just as important for the contemporary world as they were for the past, and that they are constantly being discussed today in our own culture, though with different terminology.
We like to think that the Islamic tradition provides many examples of great answers to great questions. The questions are those that all human beings are forced to ask at one time or another, even if contemporary intellectual predispositions tend to dismiss them as irrelevant or immature or unanswerable or self-deconstructing. We have in mind the great whys and whats that five-year-olds have the good sense to ask—though they soon learn to keep quiet in order to avoid the ridicule of their elders. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where did we live before we were born? Where do we go after we die? Where did the world come from? Where does God come from? What are angels? Why is the world full of evil? What are devils? If God is good, why did he create Satan? Why does God allow good people to suffer? How can a merciful God predestine people to hell? Why do I have to go through all this?
Texts on Islam often tell the reader, in extremely cursory fashion, what Muslim thinkers have concluded about such issues; what they do not address is the universe of discourse that informs Islamic thinking and allows the conclusions to make sense. Studies usually highlight the differences of opinion; what they do not clarify is that the logic of either/or is not always at work. Perspectives differ in accordance with differing interpretations of the sources, and the perspectives do not necessarily exclude each other. We are told that people took sides, for example, on free will and predestination. But any careful reading of a variety of texts will show that the common intuition was that the true situation is neither/nor, or both/and. The extreme positions were often formulated as intellectual exercises to be struck down by the thinker himself, if not by his followers.
Readers need to be warned at the outset that this book is not designed to provide the “historical acts.” In the last section of the book, we will say something about the Islamic view of history. That will help explain why the concerns of the modern critical study of history are not our concerns. To write history, after all, is to read meaning into the events of the past on the basis of contemporary views of reality. The events themselves cannot make sense until they are filtered through the human lens. If the Koran and the Islamic tradition are read in terms of contemporary scholarly opinions or ideologies, their significance for the Islamic tradition is necessarily lost to sight.
Naturally, we as authors have our own lenses. In fact, some people may criticize us for trying to find Islam’s vision of itself within the Islamic intellectual tradition in general and the Sufi tradition in particular. But it is precisely these perspectives within Islam that provide the most self-conscious reflections on the nature of the tradition. If we did not take seriously the Muslim intellectuals’ own understanding of their religion, we would have to replace it with the perspectives of modern Western intellectuals. Then we would be reading the tradition through critical methodologies that have developed within Western universities. But why should an alien perspective be preferable to an indigenous perspective that has survived the test of time? It does not make sense to us to employ a methodology that happens to be in vogue at the moment and to ignore the resources of an intellectual tradition that is still alive after a thousand-year history.