Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, in From the Depth of the Heart in America, noted that “Islam is more sensitive than any other faith . . . Its limits are marked out very clearly.” This sentiment has remained true until our day, even in western universities that teach Islam. Despite the modern attack on religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, whereby they are made to be nebulous and far from structured (especially away from traditional articulations), there is still a meaning to “Islam”; hence an author or university is forced to still conform to certain parameters when defining the religion, in spite of the academic habit of sub-division which has made certain prefixes to “Islam” seem more acceptable, such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “fundamentalist,” “political,” or “classical.” The normative way of defining Islam, even whilst acknowledging these recent trends and descriptions, is to uphold those scholarly authorities that gained academic and social acceptance amongst the traditional Muslim societies. Therefore this article will present a Sunni understanding of the question of Islam’s finality, which is for people to accept or reject, whether through a Sunni discourse or a heterodox one.
Like Muhammad Legenhausen, in his essay entitled “Islam and Religious Pluralism,” it is important to note that the discussion of Islam’s finality, or “correct faith” (in Legenhausen’s words), is a distinct topic to the notion of salvation. The idea of salvation has some more details, and it is not my subject matter here. [Those seeking interesting reads on the question of Islam and salvation, in particular regarding the Other, the following English resources will be of interest: Mohammed Hassan Khalil’s PhD entitled “Muslim Scholarly Discussions on Salvation and the Fate of ‘Others’” (University of Michigan, 2007), Tim Winter’s essay entitled “The Last Trump Card: Islam and the Supersession of Other Faiths”; and Mohammed Fadel’s essay entitled ‘“No Salvation Outside Islam: Muslim Modernists, Democratic Politics, and Islamic Theological Exclusivism,’ to be included in the forthcoming Islam, Salvation and the Faith of Others (ed. Mohammed Hassan Khalil).]
Perennial philosophy will be touched upon, in essence, due to its challenge to the orthodox understanding of Islam’s finality; and due to its patient attempt to clandestinely establish itself within the orthodox community, despite opposing a belief that is considered so foundational and absolute to Muslims. Moreover, it has a tone that is very much in accord with a modern sentiment towards religion, hence it is highly seductive; therefore it is of interest to discuss its arguments in light of an orthodox discourse. The perennialists have laid claim to a Sufi lineage, but most of the greatest Sufis of all time have explicitly rejected their claims about Islam, most notably – as we shall see – from arguably the Sufi with the greatest standing in Islamic history, Abu Hamid Ghazzali. [A good historical overview of perennial philosophy can be gained from Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.]
In an age where celebrity and show business are often given more value than rational argument and non-partisanship, I’ve decided to omit, on occasions, certain contemporary western names in the course of the discussion. This is in the hope of not presenting any distraction that might obscure any argument, where preoccupation with a person takes the place of seeing the point at hand. In this regard, it is apt to quote the saying attributed to ‘Ali radi Allahu ‘anhu (may God be pleased with him) in Ghazzali’s al-Munqidh min al-dalal: “Don’t know the truth by men; rather, know the truth, then you shall know its people.” Ghazzali says that the state extolled by ‘Ali is the way of the intelligent (al-‘aqil) and explains the virtue of this path, which is partisanship to the truth, not to personalities. May God make us of the wise people; success is only from God.
Scott Lucas, in his PhD entitled “The Arts of Hadith Compilation and Criticism: A Study of the Emergence of Sunnism in the Third/Ninth Century” (University of Chicago, 2002), asserts: “most Muslim and non-Muslim scholars consider Sunnism to be the normative manifestation of Islam.” In opposition to Lucas (and his faithfulness to Marshall Hodgson on this point), it is appropriate to view Sunnism as the “orthodoxy” of Islam, for a number of reasons: the fact that Sunnism characterises the overwhelming majority of Muslims over the course of Islamic history, and this status quo has been maintained to our current time; and, consequently, one sees the great past and modern institutions of Islam in the Muslim lands adhering to a broad Sunni method, with its agreements upon the fundamentals and universally-agreed matters of the faith. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable that writings on Islam respect the parameters of broad Sunnism.
In practice, one naturally sees the utilisation of scholars and works that are recognised by all aspiring-Sunni groups, despite perhaps disagreeing with subsidiary points of law or theology. Thus one sees Shariah-orientated Sufis and salafis, to take two generally Sunni groups from almost polar opposites of Sunnism (although there are self-professed salafis and so-called Sufis who cross, or stray close to, the boundaries of orthodoxy, either in isolated matters or in essential points), relying on the Qur’anic exegesis found in the works of Tabari, or the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim and their respective commentaries by Ibn Hajar and Nawawi, or the theological work of Abu Ja’far Tahawi, or utilising and discussing the points of law raised by the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali schools, to take some essential examples. In terms of jurisprudential foundations, the science of usul al-fiqh has well defined parameters in Sunnism, and disagreements that are tolerated within Sunnism.
Therefore the discussion of Islam is best served, from academic and social points of view, through the scholarship of Sunnism. Hence the question of perennial philosophy’s position in regards to Islam will be tested within a Sunni framework. Heterodox readings of the Islamic faith are open to those who view Islam’s authenticity as being defined by such traditions; but, in truth, such minority attempts have never succeeded the test of time, and they tend to be relegated to the footnotes of history, while Sunnism continues to be the story of the Muslim people. In this light, it was not considered necessary to speak of any adjective before Islam due to the orthodoxy of Sunnism; whereas any heterodox reading of the faith should be bound to either qualify itself or use a completely separate name for itself, depending on the severity of the intellectual break with Sunnism.
Notwithstanding this identification of Islam or designation of something as Islamic in terms of orthodoxy or Sunnism, Ghazzali in Fada’ih al-Batiniyya has elucidated how every contravention of orthodoxy need not result in the denial of the religion or disbelief (kufr). Ghazzali discusses how being mistaken (takhti’a) in certain branches (furu’) of the religion can ascend, in seriousness, to misguidance (tafdil), to being considered a sinner (tafsiq) and the accusation of unlawful innovation (tabdi’); and then the final level of deviation whereby the contravention of Islam requires that the perpetrator be accused of disbelief (takfir or anathematization).
In order to show how Ghazzali distinguishes between tafdil, tafsiq and tabdi’ on the one hand, and takfir on the other, he illustrates the example of someone who believes that ‘Ali should have been the Caliph before Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman (ra). Such a heterodox position, Ghazzali acknowledges, is a contravention of “the consensus of the people of the religion” (ijma’ ahl al-din), but such a contravention does not render one a non-Muslim, but merely means that one is a Muslim who unlawfully innovates. A Ghazzalian understanding of what constitutes an act requiring takfir will be explored later.
The Proofs and Unanimity of Islam’s Finality
There are numerous verses of the Qur’an that Islamic orthodoxy has used as a basis for establishing that Islam is God’s final religion, and the only valid one in this age after the coming of the Final Messenger Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him):
This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion (5:3).
And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers (3:85).
In order to clarify the above verses, in light of some contemporary discussions about whether the “Islam” mentioned is “islam” with a small “i”, i.e. literally the “submission to God” regardless of the religious form, as opposed to the historical Islam of the Messenger Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him), the following verse is noteworthy:
Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures (98:6).
Ghazzali sums up the orthodox creed in his Ihya’: God sent the Prophet ﷺ to the whole world with His message (bi-risalatihi ila kafa al-‘arab wa’l-‘ajam); and through the Islamic Sacred Law abrogated the previous Sacred Laws, except for what Islam confirmed; and He has denied the perfection of faith (mana’a kamal al-iman) to one who declares God’s Unity but fails to attest to the Prophet being the Messenger of Allah.
The Sunni schools of Islamic law – Hanafi (Ibn ‘Abidin), Maliki (Dardir) and Hanbali (Bahuti) – concur with the following statement from Nawawi of the Shafi’i school:
Someone who does not believe that whoever follows another religion besides Islam [today] is an unbeliever (such as Christians), or doubts that such a person is an unbeliever, or considers their sect to be valid, is himself an unbeliever (kafir) even if he manifests Islam and believes in it (Rawda al-talibin, 10.70). [Trans. N Keller ]
Ghazzali, in al-Iqtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, represents the “Sunni consensus” on the question at hand:
“The Jews, Christians, and the followers of all the religions, whether Zoroastrians, idol-worshippers or others, are all to be considered unbelievers [kafir] as is specified in the Koran and agreed upon [ijma’] by the Muslim community [umma].” [trans. Winter, “Last Thrump.”]
[For a contemporary declaration of Islam’s finality in light of challenges to the orthodox position, which have even reached the Muslim lands, one can read the appendix entitled “Unification of Religions” that Abu ‘Aaliyah added to his translation of Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaymeen entitled Tenets of Faith. The appendix is the legal verdict (fatwa) of the Council of Senior Scholars of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.]