Insights into the Muhammadan Phenomenon

~Frithjof Schuon 

Like Christianity, Islam teaches that Jesus had no human father, that he is the “Word of God”, that he was born of a Virgin, and that he and this Virgin-Mother have the unique privilege of not having been “touched by the devil” at the moment of their birth, which is an indication of the Immaculate Conception; now as it is impossible, even from the Muslim point of view, that all of these incomparable privileges carry only a secondary meaning, or should have occurred only “in passing” without leaving any decisive traces, Christians will ask how it is that Muslims can without contradiction reconcile these sublime facts with faith in a later Prophet. To understand this –all metaphysical arguments notwithstanding- one needs to take into account the following: integral Monotheism comprises two distinct lineages, one Israelite and the other Ishmaelite; now whereas in the Israelite lineage Abraham is renewed and replaced, as it were, by Moses –in the Sinaitic Revelation being like a second beginning of Monotheism- for the sons of Ishmael Abraham continues to remain the primordial and unique Revealer. The Sinaitic miracle called for the Messianic or Christic miracle: it is Christ who, from a certain point of view, closes the Mosaic lineage and completes the Bible, gloriously and irrevocably so. But this cycle, proceeding from Moses to Jesus, or from the Sinai to Ascension, does not in fact encompass all of Monotheism: the Ishmaelite lineage, which is still Abrahamic, was situated outside of this cycle and remained in certain fashion open; it called in its turn for a glorious completion, the character of which would not be Sinaitic and Christian, but Abrahamic and Muhammadan and, in a certain sense, “of desert” and “nomadic”.

Abraham came before Moses; hence Muhammad had to appear after Jesus; the “miraculous cycle” extending from Sinai to Christ finds itself as if encompassed – in temporal terms- by another parallel cycle of a distinctly different character, one marked more by the one monotheistic Truth, with all the absoluteness and saving power inherent in its nature, and deeply attracted to primordial simplicity and “Platonic” transcendence; Islam and Abrahamism are fundamentally the religions of ahistoric nomads, burned by an ever-present and eternal Divine Sun. Man is nothing before this Sun; that the Caliph Omar should conquer of the ancient world or that the Prophet should milk his goat amounts practically to the same thing; in other words, there is no “human greatness” in the profane and titanic sense; there is thus no humanism to incite man in the pursuit of vain glories; the one lasting grandeur allowed is sanctity, and this belongs to God.

Islam has perpetuated up until our times the Biblical world which Christianity, once it had been Europeanized, could no longer represent; without Islam, Catholicism would have soon invaded all the Middle East and this would have involved the destruction of Orthodoxy and other Eastern Churches, and the Romanization –thus the Europeanization- of our world up to the borders of India; the Biblical world would have been dead. One can say that Islam had the providential role of arresting time –thus of excluding Europe- in the Biblical part of the globe and stabilizing, while universalizing, the world of Abraham, which was also that of Jesus; Judaism having emigrated and been dispersed, and Christianity having been Romanized, Hellenized, and Germanized, God “repented” –to borrow from Genesis- of this unilateral development, and out of the desert, the ambiance or background of original Monotheism, He brought forth Islam. One encounters here a play of equilibrium and compensations that the different exoterisms are not capable of situating, and it would be absurd to require them to. It is said in Islam, not only that the Muslim religion is the completion of the preceding religions and that, owing to this, Muhammad is the “Seal of Prophecy” (Khatam an-nubuwwah), but also that earlier prophetic missions –those of Abraham, Moses and Jesus- were carried out under a “Muhammadan mandate”; now this means not only that in Islam Muhammad is identified with the Logos as such –no religion does less with its founder- but also that earlier Prophets exercise a type of function within the framework of Islam itself, a function of example and, sometimes, of esoteric inspiration.

In order to show in what way the Muslim religion considers itself to be the completion and synthesis of earlier monotheisms, we must first of all recall that its constitutive elements are al-imam, al-islam and il-inhsan, terms that can be rendered, not literally but nonetheless adequately, as “Faith”, “Law”, and “Way”. “Faith” corresponds to the first of the three monotheisms, that of Abraham; “Law” to the second, that of Moses; and the “Way” to the third, that of Jesus and Mary. In Abrahamism, the elements “Law” and “Way” are as it were absorbed by the element “Faith”; in Mosaism, it is the element “Law” that predominates and that, as a result, absorbs the elements “Faith” and “Way”; and in Christianity, it is the element “Way” that absorbs the two other elements, Islam, for its part, intends to contain these three elements side by side, thus in perfect equilibrium, whence precisely its doctrine of the three elements imam, islam and ihsan.

Al-imam, “Faith”, comprises basically the two Testimonies, that of the Unity of God and that of the prophetic quality of Muhammad; al-islam, the “Law”, comprises the five ritual obligations: the two Testimonies just mentioned, canonical Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, Pilgrimage. As for al-ihsan, the “Way”, its central or quintessential support is the “Remembrance of God” (dhikru’Llâh), the modalities of which pertain finally to the “science of the inward” (‘ilm al-batin); this means that one cannot define the content of the “Way” in exoteric terms. Al-ihsan is the domain of the Sufis, not of the “doctors of the outward” (‘ulama az-zahir).

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