In contemporary western society there is a religious dichotomy. On one side there is the religion of modernism, materialism, on the other the world of ‘pure’ religion which is concerned with matters of the dimension beyond.

Materialism is strongly confident that this world is all there is and that what cannot be touched, tasted, heard or smelt does not exist. What is real is what is concrete and measurable. This is the religion of the dominant groups in western bureaucracies and institutions. It is the way of thinking of those who make decisions on government, on the economy and who decide what issues will become the main ones in the media and the research topics which will get funding. In this sense, western society is post-Christian and post-Judaic.

Those in public life who espouse religion, apart from the clergy, seem motivated more by concerns about career and position than the other world, for religious ideology does not enter into their decision-making to any noticeable degree.

The dominance of this materialist-scientist religion is in part related to the western view of spirituality, which is embedded in the religious attitudes of the culture. Alija Ali Izetbegovic in an article “Moses-Jesus-Muhammad” writes of this Christian approach to religion: According to Christianity, human energy must not be broken down into two opposed directions:

Toward heaven and toward earth. ‘No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.’ (Matt 6:24).

Tolstoy picks up on this thought and carries it further: ‘One cannot care for one’s soul and for worldly goods at the same time. If one hopes for good, he gives up worldly goods. Otherwise, one could be torn and would have neither one nor the other..’

This road of ‘pure’ religion in Christianity is ‘a shelter one must climb into in order to leave behind the emptiness of an unrepairable world governed solely by Lucifer’. It is only for the truly devoted.

All religions which take this extreme position, the very antithesis of materialism, have one path for the elite and another one for the masses. The ordinary people are not expected to be able to measure up. In Buddhism there is the ‘Mahayana’ the ‘great road’ severe and difficult, reserved only for the elite and the ‘Hinayana” ‘the small road’ for the common people.

In Christianity there is the path for the clergy, particularly for the monastic orders, and the way for the laity. Some sections of Christianity hold to celibacy for the clergy, or a section of clergy, the true solution, while permitting marriage as a compromise for other believers. According to Izetbegovic, ‘When the Quran says: “God places on no soul a burden greater than it can bear” (Quran 2:286) it is clearly aiming at Christianity.’

The Announcement (the Gospel) of Jesus brought a turning point in human history, for Jesus was indeed ‘a sign to the world’. This Announcement brought with it awareness of the divine and growing consciousness of the value of humanity, yet it did not affect the world as profoundly as we might expect. For example, the position of the Roman Emperor was, if anything, enhanced by Pauline Christian teachings and the gratitude of the church hierarchy for his protection. Even such unimaginable anti-human entertainments as gladiatorial contests continued for 100 years after the Empire accepted Christianity as the State religion.

While clear in its rejection of materialism, such ‘pure religion’ leaves the pathway to dominance open to the materialists, those for whom religion is either meaningless superstition or window-dressing for personal ambition. The weakness of ‘pure religion’ is that it assumes worldly power will belong to Lucifer or his slaves. The Gospel according to John carries this ideology, reporting that Jesus said: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (18:36).

Passivity in the face of worldly power was one of the basic tenets of Pauline Christianity from the beginning. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, while the authorities were deeply and aggressively pagan:

“You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God’s decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. Good behaviour is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear…The State is there to serve God for your benefit.” (Romans 13:1-4)

The separation of the spiritual from the secular is clearly enunciated in Christian teachings according to Paul, making it clear that religion and worldly life are poles apart. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God'” has been used millions of times to argue for the separation of the teachings of Jesus from the behaviour of the States which govern Christian majorities. Church leaders have in the past decade forced priests to draw back from campaigns for land reform in feudal countries, as such worldly matters are not considered spiritual and thus not the concern of the followers of Christ.

From within this world view, matters spiritual deal directly with the inner world of mental discipline, with religious ritual and with dogmatic belief. The truly spiritual person is one who devotes himself or herself to ritualistic ‘spiritual’ exercise, aimed at increasing inner awareness of the divine. Denial of the world, denial of the demands of the flesh, submergence in the ‘Great Soul’ or unity with God through total inner submission, the freeing of the rational mind into the sphere of ‘intuitive knowing’, the life of holy contemplation, are all acceptable aims for the ‘spiritual’ being.

The Last of the Prophets, Muhammad, fasted, he went to the cave of Hira and contemplated and prayed for guidance. He was a mystic, a ‘hanif’. He began to receive revelations when still in Mecca and we trace many chapters of the Quran to this period of his life. However the Islamic calendar is dated from the Hijra to Medina, where Islam was put into effect.

This is the profound development brought by this last stage of Islam, when our way of life was completed by the revelation of Quran and illuminated by the practice and behaviour of Muhammad. It marks the conjunction of the inner world, the world of God-awareness, with the material world. Alija Izetbegovic expresses it in these words: “Muhammad had to return from the cave. If he had not returned, he would have remained a hanif. Since he came back, he became a preacher of Islam. That was the meeting of the inner and ‘real’ world, mysticism and reason, meditation and activity. Islam started as mysticism and ended as a state. Religion accepted the world of facts and became Islam.”

The bipolarity of the Pillars of Islam

Izetbegovic discusses the inner and outer aspects of the five pillars to illustrate the dual nature of Islamic spirituality. The five pillars of Islam are:

  1. Belief that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.
  2. Fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  3. Performing the five daily prayers (salah) at appointed times.
  4. Charity (zakat) and
  5. Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

With each one there is that inner aspect, assisting the individual to come closer to God through clear demonstration of submission to Him, while there is also the outer aspect which relates to the social and physical requirements of the way of Islam. They complement each other and are not in contradiction.

The profession of faith, shahadah, by which one becomes Muslim, is performed before witnesses. The Muslim family, is a total community, with both the inner spiritual and the outer social aspects of life encompassed. To join a religion, no witness is necessary as this is between the individual and God, but the world of Islam is more than this. There are moral obligations as part of the spiritual obedience, but there are also legal ones as part of the Muslim community.

The expression of faith, that there is no object of worship other than Allah and that Muhammad is the Apostle and Messenger of Allah, incorporates not only the most profound spiritual truths but also political truths. Izetbegovic writes in “Moses-Jesus-Muhammad”:

The two essential dogmas of Islam (Allahu Akbar – God is the greatest, and the famous al’-aqidah – la ilaha illallah: There is no deity but God) are at the same time the two most revolutionary devices in Islam. Sayyid Qutb rightly holds them to be a revolution against a worldly authority which has usurped the fundamental prerogatives of divinity. According to him, they mean that ‘the power is to be taken away from the priests, the leaders of the tribes, the wealthy and the rulers, and returned to God.’ Therefore, as Qutb concludes: ‘ There is no deity but Allah’ is abhorrent to those who are in power in any age and place.’

Observance of Ramadan, which has profound spiritual benefits for the individual, benefits recognised by all religions, has also a community aspect. It is seen as a social obligation, expressing the solidarity of the Muslim community and public violation of this duty is regarded with hostility.

Salah (Islamic prayer) is invalid unless the individual has performed ablution. “God loves those who keep themselves pure and clean” (Quran 2:222).

Salah (prayer) involves the whole body as well as the mind. It involves the first prayer before sunrise and the last prayer well after sunset at night, effective devices against excessive regard for comfort. This is quite distinct from certain monastic orders in Christianity and Hinduism according to which the disregard and even active neglect of the body can reinforce the spiritual component of prayer. ‘The less the physical is present, the more the spiritual is stressed’.

Salah, which is performed facing the Qiblah (Mecca or sometimes spelt as Mecca), and at certain times of the day, by its very nature is located in worldly space and time. It encourages the development of accurate time-keeping and of direction-finding. Thus the introduction and spread of salah (prayer) gave great impetus to the development of astronomy and other sciences amongst the Muslims. The spiritual is thus shown to have direct relation to the development of the material sciences.

Zakat, a voluntary giving to the poor in the early period of Islam, became a legal obligation once Islam was established in Medina. Izetbegovic argues that the institutionalising of zakat is aimed at destroying deprivation, the external side of poverty and at the curbing of the internal or spiritual evil which permits its existence. Izetbegovic writes:

“Zakat eliminates poverty among the poor and indifference among the rich. It reduces material differences between people and brings them closer to each other. The goal of Islam is not to eliminate riches but to eliminate misery.”

The frequent mentioning in the Quran of the obligation or recommendation to generosity led to a gentle revolution in Muslim societies. The establishment of waqf (giving to the Muslim community for the sake of Allah), while not referred to in the Quran, occurred everywhere in the Muslim world as a result of awareness of the importance of zakat.

There is no parallel in non-Muslim communities for this type of trust to which property or funds are given to serve the common welfare. Market forces economic theory cannot explain this phenomenon but even today, in this comparative Dark Age of the Muslim world, there is talk of waqf being able to sustain social welfare in modern Islamic societies.

Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Kabah in Mecca, like the other pillars of Islam, has both inner and outer aspects. It is a spiritual exercise of great difficulty, requiring spiritual preparation, concentration and sacrifice of material resources. It is so great an exercise that it is required only once in a Muslim’s life. It is also a great world gathering of Muslim individuals once a year, at which goods, information and ideas can be exchanged. It is a means of keeping all parts of the Muslim world in touch with each other.

The material and spiritual worlds

Islam is indeed a ‘middle way’. It is a bridge between that ‘spiritual religion’ which demands what is beyond the capability of most human beings and the world of the material, what the ‘spiritual’ see as the world controlled by the forces of evil. Islam teaches that, while we must spend our lives in a disciplined way and that we must observe the requirements of prayer and fasting, zakat and both inner faith and outward expressions of that faith, we can be confident that what is expected of us is not beyond our capabilities.

We can also be confident that the world is a beautiful creation which is to be cared for and enjoyed, not something evil from which we must retreat.

Islam is not a way of life for a tiny devoted spiritual elite. It is a way of life that anybody can follow.

Islam provides for both our inner spiritual needs and our needs for a decent and civilized life, free from fear of oppression, from fear of miserable poverty and from exploitation. Muslims can analyze and combat evil in the world without giving way to despair or to the notion that Satan is in control. God has provided us with the guidance which we are free to use if we wish to deal with this evil.

It is this dualism of Islamic spirituality which is its great strength. Militant materialism, whether the pagan humanism of the Renaissance, the search for the goddess Reason in the Enlightenment or the Dialectical Materialism of Marxism, has been a feature of western societies because of the ethereal, world-shunning nature of Pauline Christian spirituality. It has its complement in the Buddhist approaches of the east, where materialism, albeit to a lesser extent, has made a deep impact. The similarity of the Pauline Christian and Buddhist attitudes to spirituality explains to a large extent the popularity of that philosophy in post-Christian western societies. It is a spirituality with which those brought up in a western culture are comfortable.

The cost in human terms of this spiritual-secular dichotomy has been profound. Although western thinkers and west-worshippers in the Muslim countries argue that the separation of the religious and secular, the spiritual from the material, is evidence of a high stage of ‘human civilization’ it is a fact that even in the current Dark Age of the Muslim world, Islamic culture has been strong enough to resist the introduction of this mind-poisoning dichotomy into the popular consciousness.

The Islamic rebirth we are witnessing, in which Islam is being seen as the vehicle to overcome neo-colonialism, intellectual and military oppression, exploitation of the poor and social alienation, views life as a whole. There is no separation between the religious and the real in the Islamic world view and it is this profound ideological and cultural difference which many post-Christian Westerners find so hard to comprehend. It also explains the vibrant strength of Islam as we move into the 21st century of the Common Era.