In the Islamic community, I frequently hear Muslims saying that “Islam is not a religion…it is a way of life!”
But, the first time I remember hearing this sort of statement, I was a youngster and it was said by Evangelical Protestants. They were saying exactly the same thing of their faith: “Christianity is not a religion…it is a way of life!” There are members of the Greek Orthodox denomination who say the same of Greek Orthodoxy.
I have heard from Jews who state quite assuredly, “Judaism is not a religion…it is a way of life!” You will also find plenty of Hindus saying, “Hinduism is not a religion…it is a way of life!” And Buddhists who say, “Buddhism is not a religion…it is a way of life!”
You can verify this for yourself by searching on the World Wide Web using the phrases “not a religion” and “way of life” together. You will find nearly every religion making this claim. It practically goes without saying that various New Age religions say exactly the same thing. (The one religion that has not had this said about it is the Roman Catholic Church. Does that mean all the others are defining themselves in opposition to Catholicism? Could the Latin origin of the word religion be of significance·-·so that Catholics will not disavow it?)
As far as I can tell, the apologists for each of these religions honestly believe they are stating something uniquely theirs which sets their religion apart from all the others. The faithful of every religion earnestly believe in their own exceptionalism. But when we look at all of these claims together, objectively, what conclusion can we draw?
Something must have gone wrong with the whole concept of “religion” in the modern world! It is as though people have decided to dump all the negative associations of religion into the word “religion” and drive it out of their fold, as the “scape goat” was used by the ancient Israelites. Each of them redefines “religion” as The Other and therefore inferior. The positive side of their faith that they wish to emphasize is then blessed with the phrase “way of life,” which must now be thought of as preferable, more appealing to the Zeitgeist. The implication is that all the other religions are mere “religions,” hence inferior·-·while ours is better because it’s a “way of life.” This semantic shift has probably occurred because the materialism of the modern world has put all religions on the defensive, trying harder and harder to justify their existence in the face of skepticism and indifference, or to attract new converts. This is evidence of the threat from the modern world having forced religious believers into a retreat, implicitly accepting the blame placed on “religion” for all kinds of ills, making them feel forced into denying that their religion has anything to do with such problems.
I would say enough is enough. What’s wrong with admitting that your own religion is, in fact, a religion? There is nothing wrong with the word in its origins. From the Latin re + ligare, it means that which reconnects humans with God, with the Origin. That had always been the supreme goal of existence in the traditional world. Perhaps the recent emphasis on “way of life” is meant to convey that the faith has comprehensive, practical applications in worldly life. But in the traditional, orthodox view, that is, of course, implicit in the whole picture. Everything good in life·-·good thoughts, good speech, good actions·-·is meant to be comprehended in the religious worldview, and made to serve on the way to the supreme goal of existence. Something is missing from the understanding of religion if believers feel it necessary to represent their faith otherwise. Somehow, it became fragmented by the impact of the modern world.
Nowadays, there are Islamic revivalists who call Islam an “ideology.” But this word and concept are of modern European origin and foreign to traditional Islam. The essential reality of Islam is a spiritual path bringing humans back to God. Everything adjunct to that in this world·-·establishing justice, performing good works, reforming society·-·should be seen as subordinate to the supreme purpose of the religion. Good works take place on the plane of the will and love of God is on the plane of the soul. Both of these are comprehended in the fullest meaning of religion. Realization of the ultimate Reality is on the plane of the Intellect and that, too, is religion in the profoundest sense.
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