Essence and Perception:  Changing the Perception of Islam in the West
Posted May 30, 2010

Essence and Perception:  Changing the Perception of Islam in the West by Rehabilitating the Essence and Practice of Religion

by Dr. Robert D. Crane


      The biased perception of Islam, common especially in America, results not only because extremist Muslims resort to reactionary violence and claim that this is Islamic, but because other Muslims fail to explain the essence of Islam in ways that Americans can understand. 

Biased perceptions about Islam and Muslims result also, especially in Europe, from bias against all religion, because in European history religion has usually been a cause rather than a cure for conflict.

Changing the perception of Islam in the West requires education about the essence of all religions, as well as credible demonstration of this essence in practice.  Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others must join in solidarity to rehabilitate the role of religion in the world, in both essence and practice, by providing a new paradigm of faith-based, compassionate justice for public policy guidance. 

The following four questions must be asked and answered.

I.  Do Faith and Religion Have a Future? 

      In a secular world, many people ask whether there is a future for faith and religion.  One should distinguish between the two.  Faith is belief in the unseen, in transcendent reality, in the ghaiba.  This is part of human nature and has provided purpose to human life since the first appearance of sentient life on earth.  Faith is universal and eternal and therefore has a future.  Faith is the essence of religion. 

Religion is the response to faith in both individual and community life.  Religion is the pursuit of knowledge about higher truth and the translation of knowledge into moral practice. 

There are many religious paths in the search for absolute truth, and there are many forms of practice, but all are designed for the same purpose, which is to worship the Absolute in thought, word and deed, whether we call it God or Gott or Dios or Allah. 

God tells us in Surah al Ma’ida 5:48, “Unto every one of you have we appointed a [different] governing system of law (shir’ah) and a [different] way of life (minhaj).  If Allah had so willed, all humanity would have been a single community.  God’s plan is to test you in what each of you has received [in both scriptures and inspiration].  So strive as in a race in all virtues.  The goal of all people is to God”.

Put differently, the future of faith and religion is the difference between essence and appearance.  Many scholars distinguish between Christianity as essence and Christendom as what one sees.  Christianity is both a faith and an ideal system of practice, whereas Christendom may differ radically from Christianity itself. 

The same is true of Islam and Islamdom.  I recently wrote a 77-page chapter on “The Spread of Islam” for the 710-page, two-volume textbook, Islam and Muslims, prepared by Mohammad Ali Chaudry and myself for the Center for Understanding Islam.  I found that the faith of Islam spread most rapidly when the Muslim empires were weak and slowly when they were strong.  They spread most successfully in places like Indonesia where there were no Muslim empires and where the rulers actually opposed the spread of Islam.

The reason may have been that Islamdom often was un-Islamic, just as it is in many places today.  Islam as a faith is spreading in America today precisely because it faces so many obstacles, just as it did 1444 years ago when the Angel Gabriel first revealed to Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, that he was to be a Prophet and Messenger of God.

II.  What Is the Core of the Essence?

The future of Islam is up to Allah, but the future of Muslims is up to every person through one’s observance of the first two essentials in the universal Islamic creed.  These two, known as taqwa and ‘adl, are the core of the essence of Islam as a religion.  Taqwa is loving awe of Allah in response to Allah’s love of every person.  Taqwa is also submission to Allah as the source of truth, love, and justice.  ‘Adl is love of compassionate justice as a framework for expressing our love for each other.

The Prophet Muhammad emphasized the importance of seeking truth and justice, but he posited the motivation for the search in the constant Qur’anic emphasis on love, as developed in my book published in January, 2010, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective.  A favorite prayer of Prophet Muhammad, salla allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, and of Imam Ali,  ‘alayhi al salam, and of millions of Muslims ever afterwards, was Allahumma, asaluka hubbaka wa hubba man yuhibbuka wa hubba kuli ‘amali yuqaribuni ila hubbika, “O Allah, I ask you for your love, and for the love of those who love you, and for the love of everything that can bring me closer to your love.”

Islam is known as a religion of peace, salam, which comes from submission to the only Being worthy of human submission, namely, God.  In classical Islamic thought, as developed from the third through sixth Islamic centuries, peace as the essence of Islam results from justice, and justice is merely the expression of truth. 

The most profound verse in the Qur’an as a source of faith-based justice is Surah al An’am 6:115, kalimatu rabbika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The Message of your Lord is completed and perfected in truth and in justice.” This teaches that justice is an expression of truth and that truth originates in the transcendent order of reality, indeed from the Being of God, not in man-made law.

Perhaps the second most profound verse is Surah al Shura 42:17, which emphasizes the concept of balance, known as mizan.  This is central to all classical Islamic thought in every aspect of both personal and social life.  “It is God Who has bestowed revelation from on high, setting forth the truth, and [thus given man] a balance [wherewith to weigh right and wrong].”  This verse of the Qur’an teaches that divine revelation through the various prophets in human history is considered to be a balance, an instrument placed by God in our hands by which we can weigh all issues of conscience.

A third profound teaching of the Qur’an is the importance and power of choice, of which the most important instance is freedom of religion and the freedom to interpret divine guidance in the practice of justice.  The concept of choice is central, because, without freedom to choose, neither balance nor justice would have any meaning.  The power to choose between good and bad is the greatest gift from the Creator to the created, but it is also a profound test for every person, every community, and nation, every civilization, and humanity itself.

The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of the basic power to choose between purposes or higher paradigms of thought, because the choice shapes the governing agendas of both persons and communities and thereby controls action.  According to the Qur’an, the choice that has determined the rise and fall of entire civilizations throughout human history is between the pursuit of transcendent justice and the pursuit of material power as an ultimate goal in life.


  The balance to be maintained in every civilization as embodied in every world religion is among order, justice, and freedom.  This paradigm of balance teaches that order, justice, and freedom are interdependent.  When freedom is construed to be independent of justice, there can be no justice and the result will be anarchy.  When order is thought to be possible without justice, there will be no order, because injustice is the principal cause of disorder.  When justice is thought to be possible without order and freedom, then the pursuit or order, justice, and freedom are snares of the ignorant.

A key to traditionalist American thought, based on the spiritually-based Scottish Renaissance, which was the opposite of the secularist Renaissance in Europe, is the distinction, now almost forgotten, between freedom and liberty.  This fundamental distinction in thought, symbols, and action is portrayed in David Hackett Fischer’s monumental 851-page tome, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, Oxford University Press, 2005.  In classical or traditionalist American thought, freedom implies positive action to pursue higher values as the essence of justice, as distinct from mere liberty, which refers negatively to rejection of restraints on freedom of action.  The Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence lists five purposes.  Justice comes first, followed by domestic order, the common defense, and prosperity, and lastly comes liberty, which is merely the result of the first four.

Without consensus on the proper nature of order, and of justice and freedom as essential parts of a single whole, rather than as independent pursuits, no civilization can continue to exist.  The twin roles of religion in all of its traditionalist manifestations, including the monotheistic and “revealed religions”, and especially Islam, are the spiritual well-being or happiness of every person and the maintenance of consensus on the responsibilities and rights necessary to live in an ordered society.

Students of comparative legal systems differ on whether there is an essence to any particular religion and to any given legal system, or whether each religion is an accumulation of human practices and every legal system is a composite of accidentals developed in response to changing exigencies.  Relativists, including even self-styled progressivist Muslims, would like to contextualize Islam out of existence.

Islam is by far the best example of a religion that has very self-consciously developed a sense of its own essence and sharply distinguished this from any perverted interpretation and practice by self-professed Muslims.  Whereas in Christianity the essence is considered to be love, in Islam the essence is considered to be justice as a derivative of love.

III.  What is the Role of Normative Jurisprudence in the Essence of Islam

In Western positivist law, which by definition is entirely manmade, law exists only to the extent that it is enforced.  In Islam, if the law has to be enforced it has failed, because the purpose of Islamic law is primarily educational as a set of guidelines for action.

What are these guidelines?  Some of the best minds in human history developed this set of guidelines over a period of many centuries.  These guidelines are known as the maqasid al shari’ah or purposes of the shari’ah, or as the kulliyat or universal principles, or as the dururiyat or essentials.


  Very briefly, these may be categorized as eight irreducible purposes, about each of which I have written a separate chapter in my almost finished book, Rehabilitating the Role of Religion in the World: Laying a New foundation on Faith-Based, Compassionate Justice.  The first is haqq al din (freedom of religion), haqq al nafs (respect for the human person and human life), haqq al nasl (respect for marriage and human community), haqq al mahid (respect for the physical environment), haqq al mal (respect for the universal right to ownership of productive property), haqq al hurriyah (respect for the universal right of self-determination or political freedom), haqq al karama (respect for human dignity, especially gender equity), and haqq al ‘ilm (respect for the rights to free speech, publication, and association).

For more than three decades, ever since I first encountered the normative law of the shari’ah as a set of human responsibilities and rights, I considered that these norms or guidelines constitute the essence of Islamic jurisprudence.  They provide a sophisticated methodology for understanding the Qur’an and evaluating the ahadith, so that the rules and regulations or ahkam can be applied justly according to their purpose.

Recently, however, I have come to the conclusion that there are two essences, one formative and the other derivative, and that they must be maintained in a dialectical balance.  I was thinking of human rights as the intellectual essence, but this is an essential derivative of a prior essence, which is love, both hubb and ‘ishq, coming from beyond the human intellect.  In systems terminology, there is an input/output balance.  The input is transcendent, known as the batin, and the output is immanent, known as the dhahr.

This is similar to the dialectic in all of creation, from the atom all the way to black holes, but especially between the theory and practice of law.  In the intellectual processing of what Christians call moral theology but Muslims call merely normative law, the theory should influence the practice, but the practice should also influence the theory.  In Islamic jurisprudence and in Islamic thought generally, the theory itself comes from the transcendent source of divine guidance, as best human beings can understand it in the open-ended search for truth.  But this

understanding must also reflect the experience of practice in a changing space-time universe.  The essence is indeed unchanging, but its application is or should be in constant flux, because that is the nature of reality.

The controversial question then arises, is there really a difference between thought and law, since transcendent law is the basic framework of reference in Islamic thought, whereas in the Western positivist paradigm human thought is the framework for law?

One might look at this new perspective on the shari’ah by using the analogy of the hourglass.  The shari’ah is like an hourglass which transmutes the transcendent into the immanent by means of the art of intellectual processing.  This processing from input to output is what Allah in the Qur’an refers to as the jihad al kabir or “great jihad,” the intellectual jihad, which is the only jihad mentioned in the Qur’an, Surah al Furqan 25:52, wa jihidhum bihi jihadan kabiran, “struggle with it [divine revelation] in a great jihad.”  The other two, the jihad al akbar and the jihad al saghrir, are mentioned only in the ahadith.

The shari’ah would have two essences, the input of love and the output of human rights.  Without eternal input there will never be any lasting output, since, as Rumi puts it, love is the reason for the creation of the universe.  Quite simply, who would care about justice unless one were motivated by love?  This, of course, would explain why in recent times justice has gone out of style.

In all of this we should remember the wisdom of “the throne verse,” the Ayah al Kursi, Surah al Baqara 2:255, Ya’alamu ma bayna ‘aydihim wa ma khalfahum; wa la yuhituna bi shayin min ‘ilmihi illa bi ma sha’a, “He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to any of His knowledge except what He wills [them to attain].

IV.  Can Muslims Change the Perception of Islam

through a Grand Strategy of Paradigm Management?

The perception of Islam in America can be changed only if Muslims think big through what I call paradigm management, and only if the paradigm to be managed is American.

Policy making in America consists of balancing special interests in the pursuit of power, but this balancing takes place in pursuit of agendas formed largely in the think-tanks and in the media.  These agendas, in turn, are shaped by paradigms formed primarily in academia.  Muslims usually start at the wrong end of the policy process, usually by lobbying against something after the policies have been set and can no longer be changed.

The two opposite poles of paradigmatic management are power and justice.  The NeoCons exemplified the power paradigm, whereby everything was measured in terms of the unilateral imposition of American power, mainly military, to prevent chaos in the world.  This approach was based on fear and on reaction to real or perceived threats to global stability.

The opposite paradigm is justice, which is best exemplified by President Barack Obama, though he cannot escape the power of those whose only goal is power.

A year ago in Cairo President Obama gave a remarkable speech despite the firm resistance of practically everyone in his Administration.  He had to bulldoze his way to even mention the word justice in this first major foreign policy address to the world.  Six times the speechwriters took the word justice out of the carefully managed speech, but each time he put in back in.  When he read the final version of the speech on the flight to Cairo he found that again the word justice had been deleted, so without prior clearance he put it back in with spades by using the word seven times.

A week ago, on May 22nd, at the Westpoint graduation ceremonies he issued another revolutionary call for justice as the framework for American policy, both domestic and foreign.  Although he focused on the role of the military, he made it clear that “we will be stronger if the world is just”, and he spoke of an “international order of liberty and justice”. 

Perhaps he has concluded that he must introduce a new paradigm before he can move the ship of state to follow up through action.  The paradigm of justice calls for pursuing justice as the route to order, and not the other way around.  The justice paradigm warns that attempts baldly to impose order produce only more disorder and make justice impossible.

The day before yesterday, President Obama released a 52-page National Security Strategy paper, as required by Congress, in which he reiterated several times the main points of his Westpoint address.  He pointedly rejected George W. Bush’s focus on counter-terrorism as the organizing principle of security policy.  He pointedly avoided the use of the word “Islamic” anywhere in this 52-page paper and stated that “efforts to counter violent extremism are only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America’s engagement with the world.”

In his personal introduction to the document, President Obama wrote that, “Our long-term security will come not from our ability to instill fear in other peoples, but through our capacity to speak to their hopes.” 

The document on its first page noted that in recent times “inequality and economic instability have intensified” as threats to “the universal aspiration for freedom and dignity.”  He called for “renewing American leadership” through “moral example” and stated that, “The most effective way for the United States of America to promote our values is to live them”.

President Obama’s first formal national security report called for the pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” through “an international order based on rights and responsibilities”.  Most significantly it stated, “We recognize economic opportunity as a human right”.  In Islamic teachings this is possible in the modern capital-intensive world only by removing the institutional barriers to broadened capital ownership, so that every person as a basic human right would have access to earnings both from wages and from profit dividends.

President Obama emphasized throughout his first national security report the importance of never compromising American values in the pursuit of security.  “Our struggle to remain true to our values and Constitution” he said, “has always been a lodestar, both to the American people and to those who share our aspiration for human dignity, … for if we compromise our values in pursuit of security we will undermine both.”

Perhaps the most important single statement was his promise and call for global justice: “Our engagement will underpin a just and sustainable order – just because it advances mutual interests, protects the rights of all, and holds accountable those who refuse to meet their responsibilities; sustainable because it is based on broadly shared norms and fosters collective action to address common challenges”.

Muslims can change the perception of Islam in the West, first of all, by addressing the goal of so-called “grand strategy”, which is to manage the paradigms of thought that shape history.  Muslims by heritage are well equipped to shape paradigmatic thought because historically Muslims have developed justice into a framework ideally suited for the modern world, even though Islamdom often has not practiced it any better than has any other civilization.

Secondly, Muslims can change the perception of Islam by helping to renew America.  Lobbying for Muslim interests will not spread better understanding of Islam, even though such lobbying is necessary.  Policymakers and their advisers will listen to Muslims only if Muslims can contribute to pursuing what is best for America’s enlightened interests.  They can best do so by working with the visionary American leaders, like President Barack Obama, to carry out their visions. 

We can change the perception of Islam, and indeed of all religions, only by rehabilitating the essence and practice of religion not as the cause of injustice, but as the only cure.  In politics, visionary leaders can overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles and barriers of special interests only if and to the extent that Muslims, Christians, and Jews cooperate in solidarity to turn the essential vision of all religions into reality, in sha’a Allah.


Universal Muslim Association of America
Eighth Annual Convention, May 29-30, 2010
Tysons Corner, Virginia
Convention Theme
Changing the Perception of Islam in the West