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The Meaning of Religion (din), Islam, and Shi'ism



Religion: There is no doubt that each member of the human race is naturally drawn to his fellow-men and that in his life in society, he acts in ways which are interrelated and interconnected. His eating, drinking, sleeping, keeping awake, talking, listening, sitting, walking, his social intercourse and meetings, at the same time that they are formally and externally distinct, are invariably connected with each other. One cannot perform just any act in any place or after any other act. There is an order which must be observed.

There is, therefore, an order which governs the actions man performs in the journey of this life, an order against which his actions cannot rebel. In reality, these acts all originate from a distinct source. That source is man's desire to possess a felicitous life, a life in which he can reach to the greatest extent possible the objects of his desire, and be gratified. Or, one could say that man wishes to provide in a more complete way for his needs in order to continue his existence.

This is why man continually conforms his actions to rules and laws either devised by himself or accepted from others, and why he selects a particular way of life for himself among all the other existing possibilities. He works in order to provide for his means of livelihood and expects his activities to be guided by laws and regulations that must be followed. In order to satisfy his sense of taste and overcome hunger and thirst, he eats and drinks, for he considers eating and drinking necessary for the continuation of his own happy existence. This role could be multiplied by many other instances.

The rules and laws that govern human existence depend for their acceptance on the basic beliefs that man has concerning the nature of universal existence, of which he himself is a part, and also upon his judgment and evaluation of that existence. That the principles governing man's actions depend on his conception of being as a whole becomes clear if one meditates a moment on the different conceptions that people hold as to the nature of the world and of man.

Those who consider the Universe to be confined only to this material, sensible world, and man himself to be completely material and therefore subject to annihilation when the breath of life leaves him at the moment of death follow a way of life designed to provide for their material desires and transient mundane pleasures. They strive solely on this path, seeking to bring under their control the natural conditions and factors of life.

Similarly, there are those who, like the common people among idol-worshippers, consider the world of nature to be created by a god above nature who has created the world specially for man and provided it with multiple bounties so that man may benefit from his goodness. Such men organize their lives so as to attract the pleasure of the god and not invite his anger. They believe that if they please the god, he will multiply his bounty and make it lasting and if they anger him he will take his bounty away from them.

On the other hand, such men as Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Muslims follow the "high path" in this life for they believe in God and in man's eternal life, and consider man to be responsible for his good and evil acts. As a result, they accept as proven the existence of a day of judgment (qiyamat) and follow a path that leads to felicity in both this world and the next.

The totality of these fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of man and the Universe, and regulations in conformity with them which are applied to human life, is called religion (din). If there are divergences in these fundamental beliefs and regulations, they are called schools such as the Sunni and Shi'ite schools in Islam and the Nestorian in Christianity. We can therefore say that man, even if he does not believe in the Deity, can never be without religion if we recognize religion as a program for life based on firm belief. Religion can never be separated from life and is not simply a matter of ceremonial acts.

The Holy Qur'an asserts that man has no choice but to follow religion, which is a path that God has placed before man so that by treading it man can reach Him. However, those who have accepted the religion of the truth (Islam) 1 march in all sincerity upon the path of God, while those who have not accepted the religion of the truth have been diverted from the divine path and have followed the wrong road. 2

Islam etymologically means surrender and obedience. The Holy Qur'an calls the religion which invites men toward this end Islam since its general purpose is the surrender of man to the laws governing the Universe and men, with the result that through this surrender he worships only the One God and obeys only His commands. 3 As the Holy Qur'an informs us, the first person who called this religion "Islam" and its followers "Muslims" was the Prophet Abraham—upon whom be peace. 4

Shi'ah which means literally partisan or follower, refers to those who consider the succession to the Prophet—upon whom be blessings and peace—to be the special right of the family of the Prophet and who in the field of the Islamic sciences and culture follow the school of the Household of the Prophet. 5
1 Editor's note: Speaking as a Muslim religious authority, the author has mentioned Islam in parentheses as "the religion of the truth" without, however, in any way negating the universality of revelation asserted in the Qur'an. For a Muslim quite naturally the "religion of the truth" par excellence is Islam without this belief detracting from the verity of other religions to same of which the author himself has referred in this and other work. Sea S. H. Nasr "Islam and the Encounter of Religions" The Islamic Quarterly, vol. X, nos. 3 and 4. July and December 1966 pp. 47-68.

2 "The curse of Allah is on evildoer, who debar (men) from the path of Allah and would have it crooked, ..." (Qur'an, VII, 44-45) (This and all subsequent citations of the Qur'an are from The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, An Explanatory Translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, New York, New American Library, 1953).

3 "who is better in religion than he who surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing goad (to men) and followeth the tradition of Abraham, the upright?" (Qur'an, IV, 125). "Say: 0 People of the Scripture! Come to an agreement between us and you: that wa shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him and that none of us shall fake others for lords beside Allah. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him) [muslimun] (Qur'an, III, 64) "0 ye who believe! Come all of you into submission unto Him)..." (Qur'an, 11, 208).

4 "Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee" (Qur'an, II, 128) "The faith of your father Abraham (is yours). He hath named you Muslims." (Qur'an, XXII 78).

5 A group of Zaydis who accept two caliphs before 'Ali and in jurisprudence follow Abu-Hanifah are also called Shi'ite because in contrast to the Umayyads and 'Abbasids, they consider the later caliphate as belonging solely to 'Ali and his descendants.

Adapted from: "Shi'ah" by: "Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i"

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