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Q / A
Answering Common Misconceptions

19. Is Spiritual Evolution Possible

Question:

Is human evolution believed to be possible in Islam? Is Man perceived as being able to evolve in such a way as to no longer need promises of reward or threats of punishment to stay on the right path? Do you think this kind of inner transformation is possible?

With the little I know about Islam, it seems to me that the answer should be no. Otherwise, why is there such an intolerant attitude towards the sinner? In some cases the great sinner must be put to death—and the power of repentance/ transformation is denied.

I am not judging this way of organizing society, but I am trying to understand the philosophy behind it. I think the main difference between Christianity and Islam is that the former teaches that everyone can transcend the limits of earthly life and grow closer to God by ego annihilation through love, while the latter tends to consider that Man is not able to find God inside himself and shouldn’t try to, for it may be “risky.”

Christianity would thus be a more “loose” religion, allowing variation between the darkest depths and highest realms, while Islam—by showing Man all he needs to know to lead a good life—would maybe be more efficient on the whole. But it would tend to consider Man in a perpetual state of “childhood” and allow him to progress mostly on the horizontal. Once again, I am not making judgments but I am trying to verify my perception of the two.

However, Islam had its own mystics and philosophers. But how are they viewed by official Islam teachers? My personal feeling is that there is a common base for most religions and that it is precisely on the esoteric ground that they can rediscover it.

Thank you very much for your answer.
 

Answer:

Evolution of humankind is not only “possible” but is the main purpose and outcome of believing and practicing Islam. This was essentially the same for all messages predating Islam though, alas, their original teachings and doctrines were partly lost and partly corrupted or re-invented. The approach of Islam to elevate the human self and get it closer to God is: “Realistic”, “Comprehensive”, “Rational and “Direct”.

A- Realistic Approach:

Mankind is a complex – though marvelous - creation of the Almighty All-Wise God. Needless to say it is only the Creator Who could know precisely the intricacies of the human soul, and how to elevate it far and beyond. Divine messages (of which, the only remaining undistorted is: Qur’an) are like “Users’ Manuals” of this creation . Such “Manuals” are essential to understand and proceed on the path of human elevation.

Evolution, however, is limited by the very nature of human creation, a blend of sublime intellectual spirituality together with the material essence and earthly desires and weaknesses. Human life and history has always been a continuous struggle between these lifting and declining motives. Also, both the individual and society mutually and reciprocally interact. Man cannot undergo inner transformation independent of his social environment, which in turn is the resultant of the individual’s strife towards spiritual evolution.

The strength and effectiveness of Islam stems from its coping with these basic facts. Only divine guidance can strike the proper balance between the body and the soul, and between the individual and his society. Its moderate approach saves humanity from the pitfalls of over-emphasizing the soul e.g. as in Buddhism, Yoga, Christian monasticism, or magnifying the bodily desires e.g. materialistic ideologies in general, Existentialism, Freudianism …etc. Similarly, Islam avoids over-emphasizing the role of individual reform at the expense of social and world reform as in Christianity, and rejects as well the opposite totalitarian models such as Marxism.

B- Comprehensive Approach:

Islam is a comprehensive “Manual” of life, whose basic aspects combined (faith and worship, moral teachings and law) offer the most intensive and effective means to:

-         Know God and love Him

-         Purify the soul and refine his human qualities

-         Establish a communal feeling of love, devotion and solidarity.

1- Worship:

i-                    Qur’an: Reading, reciting and contemplating the Qur’an provides the Muslim with a clear vision and love of God and His Universe and Creatures, as well as keys to supreme morality. The text of the Qur’an is inimitable in its meanings, structures, rhetoric and rhyme that motivates both the intellectual and the uninitiated. Reciting the Qur’an or praying to God using its wonderful phraseology, as well as other supplications taught by the Prophet of Islam, is a permanent wealth of direct communication with God.

ii-                  Prayers: Muslim prayers are preceded (purification by washing the face, arms, and feet, and wiping the head) that physically refreshes the body and mind to concentrate on the direct communication with God that follows. Prayers are performed five times around the clock, plus highly recommended prayers, specially night prayers. During prayers: standing (towards a common direction for all Muslims around the earth), bowing and prostrating; all human faculties (tongue, ears, intellect and limbs) are concentrated and devoted in glory of the Creator. Muslims around the globe stand (in prayers) closely in straight rows towards a common center (Mecca, geographically located at the center of the combined continental land mass). This builds in the souls a unique sense of equality, solidarity and love of each other, irrespective of social status, race, color or tongue. Hence, Muslim prayers offer a matchless formula of intellectual meditation, spiritual devotion, moral elevation and physical exercises all combined.

iii-                 Zakah (dutiful charity giving): literally (in Arabic) means purification of the money of the owner as well as purifying his heart of both greed and selfishness, replacing them with content, thankfulness, love and willingness to sacrifice for the others. Similarly, the needy recipients’ hearts are filled with satisfaction and warm wishes to the rich instead of class hatred and malicious envy.

iv-                Fasting: is abstaining from eating, drinking and sexual activities from dawn to sunset, during the whole lunar month of Ramadan, as well as recommended fasting in certain days and occasions (or any other day) around the year. Fasting is a major exercise of patience, devotion to God, control of physical desires, moderation, physical and moral endurance feeling of unselfishness, brotherhood and communal unity.

v-                  Pilgrimage to Mecca: Assembling there, together with millions of Muslims, all in the simplest of garments is a living unforgettable glorification of mankind to their God, and a reminder of the ultimate grand assembly of all generations in the Hereafter.

2- Moral teachings, touching on the most intricate aspects of human psychology. In Islam these are not mere “do and don’t do” type of commandments, but are an extensive guidance of moral elevation rich in linguistic splendor (as of the Qur’an), linked and interwoven with facts and logics of faith, figurative examples and comparisons; and guarded with a protective framework of social legislation, to block all venues to moral degradation or human pitfalls.

3- Legislation: Similarly, legal doctrines of Islam are not a mere set of monolithic rules, but are one aspect of a comprehensive system, whose elements are:

·        Faith that we all live in the Kingdom of God who cares for us, guides us and watches us in order to protect us from physical and moral evils.

·        A closely knit society based on love, preference, solidarity and care for all humanity, and other creatures.

In such a society, there should be no excuse for crimes of any sort. Penalties are not applied to revenge the sinner, but are used to deter the individual and protect the whole society:

However, no penalty could be applied if there was any slight probability of innocence. The rule is: “Doubtful criteria should avert penalties”.  Similarly, penalties should be suspended if there was any impelling social or human excuse, e.g. theft is forsaken in cases of extreme poverty, widespread famine or public

Many a mischief is forgiven by repenting and good deeds like charity, fasting …etc. Doors of repentance are widely open, without mediators (no clergy or church-like authority in Islam):

·        And when My bondmen ask you concerning me, then, surely I am near; I answer the invocation of the invoker when he invokes Me; so let them respond (to) Me, and let them believe in Me, so that possibly they would respond right-mindedly. (English meaning of  Qur’an 2: 186).

God forgives all sins, except denying Him or taking other partners as deity or part of a deity with Him, and accepts repentance of anybody – Muslim or non-Muslim. This is repeatedly asserted everywhere in many verses and chapters of the Qur’an:

·        Say, “O My bondmen who have been extravagant against themselves (in sins), do not feel despondent of the mercy of Allah! Surely Allah forgives guilty (deeds) all together; surely He, Ever He, is The Ever-Forgiving, The Ever-Merciful. (English meaning of Qur’an 39: 53)

At-Tawwab (The “Superbly-Relenting”) is one of the prominent Attributes of God repeatedly mentioned therein:

C- Rational Direct Approach:

Belief is based on intellectual grounds that prove that Qur’an is the direct message of God (see suggested links). In response, belief and practice does not need a mediator (church, clergy, saints …etc). Hence, following the Muslim practice is the only authentic venue for self-elevation and direct approach to God. In contrast to Christianity, Buddhism and many of the deviated mystic groups, faith and practice in Islam are not based on cleric dogmas, illusionary meditation sessions, rhythmical bodily movements or repeated utterances; culminating with symptoms of ecstasy or imaginary visions or sounds …etc.

Regarding the stance of Muslim scholars towards mystic groups (Sufism), they accept those practices that abide with the guidance of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (prophetic teachings) without any further human inventions or additions. Yet, it is meaningless to give such a practice a unique name (Sufism) or to practice it through a special sect, as Islam readily offers a much wider, more realistic rational vision and effective means of human elevation. By the testimony of history, generations rich examples of  model individuals and communities have been witnessed, several centuries before the rise of the mystic groups and the term: “Sufism”. Such sects have first appeared as a response to the gradual weakness of spirituality and to the indulgence in material pleasures. Their honorable aim was simply to reform the society by bringing the individuals back on the original pure track of Islam, through devotion, piety, love and full submission to God. However, deviations that crept to most of these movements with time are unacceptable or even condemned by Muslim scholars. These deviations include systems of hierarchy, taking sheikhs or sect leaders as mediators, absolute obedience to them, and introducing invented verbal and physical rituals, special dresses …etc.

Finally, we agree with you regarding the “looseness” of the current Christianity. It has nothing to offer except chewing words of “Christian love” and claims of salvation through belief in the alleged crucifixion of the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), alleged to be God and son of God, and thus fulfilling the atonement of all human sins. This approach is not only false but also too far from positive. In its present form (deviated away from the original teachings of Jesus in the lost “Injeel”), Christianity is too loose to offer any effective, rational, comprehensive nor realistic substitute to Islam, the only remaining authentic Message of God.

Suggested links:

Proving Quran is the Word of God

Be Convinced

Islam for Everyone

Islam and Sufism

What does Islam say about Sufism؟

The spiritual aspects of Islam

Should religion be spiritual؟