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Old Wednesday, July 27, 2005
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Default The Function Of Muslim Philosophy


Traditional Muslim philosophy, we know, had its inception in an atmosphere thoroughly charged with Greek ideas. These ideas were then being officially introduced into the Muslim culture through translations, commentaries, and so on, with such bewildering rapidity and at such large scale that no one could fail to be influenced by them. The Muslim philosophers -- Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd among them -- were awed by this Greek worldview and they tried, in general, to reconcile with it the principles and doctrines of Islam. They had in view the rational mode of knowledge duly recommended, or rather enjoined, by the Qur'an:1 so, they thought, if the Greeks had used logic and argumentation for the solution of various problems there was nothing un-Islamic either about this method or about what this method logically discovered. On the other hand, Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyya and a few others revolted against various aspects of Greek philosophy and, in some sense, also built up a reasoned position regarding their own points of view. In both these cases the overwhelming socio-cultural context was one and the same, whether the Muslim philosophers were positively or negatively oriented towards it.

Relevant to modern times, and specifically in the Indo-Pakistan environments, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's philosophy is an attempt of the same character. He observed that just as the learned people of the earliest times of Islamic history had tried to reconcile orthodoxy with Greek philosophy,

in the present age we are in need of a modern ilm-ul-kalam by which we may either refute the doctrines of modern sciences or declare them to be doubtful or show that the articles of Islamic faith are in conformity with them. . . . Those who are capable of the job but do not actually try their utmost to do it . . . are sinners all of them, surely and definitely. . . . There is none at present who is aware of modern science and philosophy and (in spite of this awareness) does not entertain in his heart of hearts doubts about the doctrines of Islam which are today accepted as such . . . though I am equally sure that it does not, in the least, affect the original glory of Islam.2

Thus, according to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, essential principles of Islam contained in the Qur'an are in conformity with the conclusions reached by the contemporary natural sciences. As the physical universe is the work of God, whereas the Qur'an is the word of God; how can there be a contradiction between the two! Islam is Nature and Nature is Islam"3 is the title of one of his essays, and in fact the burden of his entire philosophy of religion. Elsewhere, he remarked that in a way God Himself holds on to naturalism: He can initially enact any laws of nature He likes, but once they are so enacted absolutely nothing can happen against them.4 Under the aegis of these and similar observations, he built up a comprehensive point of view, explaining away the so-called supernatural component in phenomena like miracles, prayers and their acceptance by God, mystic illuminations, prophetic visions, angels, paradise, hell, and so on. This religio-philosophical thought of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan is relevant for our present purposes, because it prefaced a whole chain of moorings and speculations -- particularly in the Sub-continent -- which, during the 20th century, consciously or unconsciously sought to interpret Islam in such a way that it stood reconciled with the current scientific fashions. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Khalifa Abdul Hakim, Allama Inayatullah Mashriqi, Ghulam Gilani Barq and Ghulam Ahmad Parvez have all had ample sympathies for naturalistic reason and for the conclusions of positive sciences.

Broadly speaking, there is nothing unusual in recognising and giving due weight to one's cultural environment. How can a thinker avoid inhaling his or her own 'climate of opinion',5 just as no living person can help consuming oxygen from the air around; one environment is always seriously to be reckoned with. For that matter, contemporary Muslim thinkers justifiably are bringing out the veracity of religious phenomena in the face of certain recent movements in Western philosophy, like atheistic existentialism, logical positivism, dialectical materialism, psycho-analysis, and so on. They have learned that passive resistance is not enough and that arguments must be countered with arguments alone; logic must be met with logic. It was essentially this requirement, we remember, that had compelled Ash'arite theologians of the seventh century a.d to reason out their standpoint despite a strong opposition by Muslims who regarded arguing in religious matters as an innovation and a heresy.6

One essential aspect of the function of Muslim philosophy, has not been adequately recognised. Muslim philosophers have avowedly been Muslims first and philosophers later. To all appearances they professed the Islamic 'point of view' with which they claimed to look at the contemporary thought-fashions in order either to accept or reject them, but they failed sufficiently to analyse the 'point of view' itself. With only a rudimentary and vague concept of meaning of the Qur'anic propositions, Muslim philosophers -- with very few honourable exceptions -- generally rush to judgement as to whether a particular idea is, or is not, in accord with the will of the Qur'an. There is seldom realisation that, before thus reacting to the 'climate of opinion' to which he belongs he must have a thorough understanding of his 'local weather' i.e., his attitude which, ex-hypothesi, comprises the teachings of the Qur'an. Seyyed Hossein Nasr very appropriately recommends that "contemporary Muslims",

should be realist enough to understand that they must begin their journey in whatever direction they wish to go from where they are. A famous Chinese proverb asserts the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Now this first step must necessarily be from where one is located. And that is as much true culturally and spiritually as it is physically. Wherever the Islamic world wants to go, it must begin from the reality of the Islamic tradition and from its own real, and not imagined, situation. Those who lose sight of this fact actually do not travel effectively at all. They just imagine that they are journeying.7

In other words, the meaning of the Qur'an must first be understood by all Muslims who intend to philosophise. Clarity on the basic issues having been attained, Muslim philosophy, worthy of its name, could then develop as a well-grounded, well-organised school of thought and build up a metaphysics that suits its native temperament.
Incidentally, it may be objected that the concepts of Muslim philosophy' and Islamic philosophy' have been confused here, and in fact are appellations of two distinct states of affairs generally it is observed that it is properly the characteristic function of Islamic philosophy to understand and interpret the meaning of the Qur'an and to translate its descriptions into the language which the contemporary man understands. Muslim philosophy, on the other hand, would comprise the philosophical speculations of the one who is a Muslim by convention: these speculations themselves might well be nihilistic and un-Islamic in character. This distinction, however, is not entirely justified for Muslim philosophy, in general, cannot possibly afford to be un-Islamic. If, in a particular case, it actually happens to be so, it may be the philosophy of this or that particular person or even, if one likes, the philosophy of this or that particular Muslim, but it will not be Muslim philosophy' properly speaking.

Actually the distinction between the two concepts is only one of relative emphasis. In Islamic philosophy the emphasis is on Islam' while 'philosophy' is secondary in significance, meaning only a sort of rational understanding. In Muslim philosophy the characteristic terminology of philosophy in vogue at a particular period in history is visibly the dominant factor, because it is in that terminology that the meaning of the Qur'an is to be expressed and conveyed to others. Due to this the traditional problem of the reconciliation between philosophy and religion is, and has been, a problem of Muslim philosophy', rather than of Islamic philosophy'.

Muslim philosophy' and Islamic philosophy' can be shown to be mutually fitting in another way also. A Muslim, we understand, can profess his religion at two levels: either he may hold only to the ritual and moral principles enunciated by the Qur'an and thus be a good Muslim in the socially acceptable sense of the term; or he may identify himself with the essence of Islam and so interiorise the ideals set forth by the 'Book of God'. The second meaning can be expressed no better than by an incident relating to the Holy Prophet (peace be on him). When someone asked Hazrat Aisha about his moral character, replied that his character was the Qur'an itself. Now when a Muslim is stationed at this level -- more or less, all his activities without exception will be Islamic'. Even his apparently ordinary and purely worldly behaviour will be 'religious' in the fullest and most genuine sense of the term. Specifically, for our present purposes, when he speculates consistently about any matter whatsoever, his philosophy will be no less Islamic philosophy' than Muslim philosophy'. It will be impossible to make a distinction between the two concepts.

Thus, ultimately, it is a matter of choosing a point of view, acquiring a vision of life and values. In the history of philosophy we encounter a number of godless, heretical doctrines. There is definitely nothing wrong in knowing and understanding these doctrines: Knowledge is virtue", Socrates is reported to have said. What he meant obviously was that a recognition -- with the deepest concern and conviction at one's disposal -- of what virtue is irresistibly would lead one to the virtuous action. It can be complementarily added here that knowledge of vice is a virtue too because the more sincerely and honestly we are convinced that something is vicious, the more we shall tend to avoid it and, correspondingly, act virtuously. Analogically, given an organic assimilation of the Islamic spirit by one of faith, a study of even atheistic and naturalistic philosophies will fail to do any harm, but rather would put one to a test for which one is bound to qualify and as a result thereof to become a still better person in the scale of moral and spiritual values. Thus, it is the subjectivity of the person which is basically important.
Physical sciences today have, by and large, an entirely naturalistic worldview whose validity is not questioned. The man of science has a firm belief in sense-experience as the only source of knowledge, and in human reason as the adequate instrument of manipulation. The ground of this belief is not the principles of naturalism itself for this belief could be the discovery neither of sense-experience nor of reason. In reality, it has been occasioned by the vested motive of implementing a forced and artificial separation between the worldly and the religious, the natural and the supernatural -- the former to be reserved for so-called specialised scientific treatment and the latter placed under the suzerainty of the spiritual, the mystical and even the mythical. This unfortunate watertight distinction is not at all recognised by the Qur'an, whose epistemology as well as metaphysics is comprehensive and total. It lays great emphasis on the observation of nature and its exploitation by humans for their own benefits; but, at the same time, it holds that there are signs of God in various facts of sense-experience. Nature comprises no less than the habits of God. Knowledge of nature," says Iqbal, "is the knowledge of God's behaviour. In our observation of nature we are virtually seeking a kind of intimacy with the Absolute Ego."8

The Qur'anic concept iman bil ghaib, which is one of those essential qualifications without which a person would simply be incapable of getting guidance from the Qur'an,9 implies this metaphysical dimension of a study of the physical universe. It means that the spatio-temporal aspect of the world of ordinary observation is not the be-all and end-all of everything and that there is also a 'world beyond'. Just as the realm of life presides over the realm of matter and the realm of mind presides over the realm of both life and matter, so the mo'min has a strong conviction that at the highest level there is the realm of the Divine which permeates and presides over all the lower realms of existence -- matter, life and mind. Thus there is no absolute separation and no polarity between the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. Conviction in this state of affairs was the rationale of the earliest Muslim pioneering interest in scientific studies, despite infatuation with the idealistic metaphysics of the Qur'an.

How does one determine the meaning of the statements which I have already described as the primary function of Muslim philosophy? It is illustrative to refer here to a distinction drawn by philosophers of language between primary and secondary meanings of words. The primary meaning of a word is its literal meaning, its lexical or reportive definition. Secondary meanings, on the other hand, are the various shades of significance of a word that it acquires during its lifetime i.e., its actual usage in situations of diverse characters. We can take up any dictionary to confirm this fact. This, really, is the economy measure woven into the very nature of conventional language so that a separate word need not be coined for every individual situation that one encounters. The Qur'an makes a distinction, which it is relevant to mention here, between the muhkamat and the mutashabihat among its verses.10 The former ones are basic and fundamental to the overall objectives of the Qur'an. Being thus of primary importance, their meanings are fixed and determined, and are the same everywhere and always. The latter, on the other hand, are amenable to various interpretations in accord with differing environmental situations, needs of people and even levels of human intellect and understanding. Being allegorical in nature, they have many layers of meaning, at least one of which must be relevant to a particular spatio-temporal context. Thus they ensure that the Qur'an is a book of guidance for everyone and for all times to come.

How should one interpret the allegorical verses which relate incidentally to the metaphysics of the Qur'an? There is a special inherent difficulty in the language of the Qur'an. It is truly believed that the Qur'an is the word of God: it is God's speech.11 After having 'sent down' His speech, He has taken upon Himself to preserve its originality and save every syllable of it from any possible human interference and corruption.12 On the other hand, it is also a plain fact that the Qur'an is couched in human language which Arabs developed over a period of time. Those thinkers who have exclusively stressed the latter position have been encouraged to understand the entire Qur'an literally i.e., in the sense in which we human beings would normally understand the meanings of words and propositions. For instance, God is described as hearing, moving, sitting on the throne, having eyes, a face and so on.13 These attributes of God were consciously or unconsciously accepted almost exactly in the same way in which they are employed as regards human beings. Similarly, angels for them were creatures with wings who flew here and there, sometimes assuming a human form. Heaven and hell were localities with all the actual paraphernalia ascribed to them in the Qur'an. And so on.14 These thinkers were the mujassimah, who wanted, in their own way, to remain closest to the word of God.

However this approach has never fitted in well with the requirements of a theistic religion and invariably has led to linguistic confusions. For example, when a human is called 'good' it is meant that he submits to the moral law or that he resists temptations, etc. When this epithet with these conventional meanings is applied to God, immediately we observe the oddities involved in our position. A God who is required to obey an alien moral law or who may harbour evil intentions is not at all the Supreme God of Islam Who deserves our unqualified obedience and Who is the Grand Ideal of all moral and spiritual endeavours. God is unique; so all His attributes are singular and have no proportion to the apparently corresponding human attributes.

Those philosophers, on the other hand, who have emphasised the essentially and exclusively Divine character of Qur'anic language, tend to believe that religious symbols are totally unmeaning marks insofar as ordinary human comprehension is concerned: they have no cognitive content for man. It is observed that religious statements are not statements worth the name because they do not mark out any one state of affairs. They are taken by the religious person to be compatible with any and every human situation. Specifically, our knowledge of objects and events has nothing to do with our knowledge of God's character. For instance, when we see floods, tempests and earthquakes upsetting human habitations, innocent persons dying in wars and accidents, or small children being snatched away by death from their parents, we still tenaciously hold on to the assertion that God is kind, loving, just, and so on. In this regard, a parable was developed by Antony Flew from a tale told by John Wisdom:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, 'Some gardener must tend this plot'. The other disagrees: 'There is no gardener'. So they pitch their tents and set to watch. No gardener is ever seen. 'But perhaps he is an invisible gardener'. So they set up a barbed wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. . . . But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the believer is not convinced. 'But there is a gardener invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves'. Al last, the sceptic despairs: 'But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?'15

Substituting God for gardener, the above is the celebrated 'argument from falsification' against the reportive and descriptive character of religious propositions. This argument has been criticised on many counts. For our present purposes we may simply point out that the assertion of a proposition and the falsification of its opposite cease to be complementary to each other specially when we are dealing with two different levels of existence. When we assert the attributes of God, we are describing a transcendental reality and our language is symbolic, but when we have to deny the opposites of these attributes we are dealing with the world of our normal experience and our language is literal. The words that we use in both these cases may be the same, but still their meanings are widely different because of the different universes of discourse to which they belong. Hence no comparison can be made between them nor can they stand at par with each other. However, to a layman or even to a rationalist for whom faith in God is extremely relevant to everyday life and for whom the Qur'an is the book of guidance in all departments of life, such a dissociation of normal experience from the Qur'anic metaphysics is simply unthinkable.

We have explained two extreme points of view regarding the meaning of religious language and have seen reasons to reject the claim of each one of them to exclusive truth. But, as both do have some elements of truth in them, the correct state of affairs must lie somewhere between them. The Muslim philosopher should set before himself the task of determining and delineating that middle state of affairs. He must search out the meaning of religious language which takes care of its Divine origin as well as its human context. How is this to be done? How and at what platform is a meeting between man and God to be arranged?

The way usually recommended in this connection and unwarily followed by laymen is the method of analogy. To understand what analogy is let's take the word 'healthy'. Normally this characteristic is attributed to a living organism. But then we also say about a complexion that it is healthy or that a particular drink or habit is healthy and so on. Similarly, we attribute sweetness to sugar, a smell, a song, a breeze or a little baby. This is the basis of an argument by analogy. Sugar, a smell, a song, a breeze or a little baby are sweet, not exactly in the same sense and not absolutely in different senses. Each one is sweet but so only according to its own specific nature. On this pattern, when we say about God that he is knowing, powerful, kind, just, or that He sees, hears, and so on, we usually understand these attributes on the analogy of verbally the same attributes in human beings. Man possesses them according to his nature and God would possess them according to His own nature.

But what God's nature is we don't know. It is obvious that unless we already know God to some extent analogy cannot operate fruitfully for a comprehensive understanding of His character. So the entire reasoning is misleading. Analogy is tolerably effective as long as all the analogates belong to the sensible nature. But the moment we talk about supersensible realm we are involved in a circle: in order to know God we must use analogy and for the use of analogy itself we must already know God's nature. However, if, for a moment, we do not take into account this 'unknown nature of God', the reasoning ultimately results in a position which is not very different from anthropomorphism.

Due to these difficulties some philosophers of religion have, instead, recommended what they call analogy of grace. According to this kind of analogy it is the characteristics of God that are ontologically first; their human analogues are derivative and secondary. It is by virtue of the grace of God that a liaison, a community, is established between Himself and human so that it is rendered possible for us to talk of Him in human terms. One cannot possibly talk about God in divine language, but He can condescend, if He chooses, to communicate with human in their language. "If," for instance, "we know about God as the creator, it is neither wholly nor partially because we have a prior knowledge of something which resembles creation. It is only because it has been given to us by God's revelation to know Him, and what we previously thought we knew about originators and causes is called in question, turned around and transformed."16 In the religious -- specifically, mystical -- literature of Islam, taufiq of God is pretty equivalent to the grace of God mentioned here. Ghazali calls it nur-e-Ilahi (light of God). In his autobiography Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal,17 Ghazali writes:

This (i.e. the truth) did not come about by systematic demonstration or marshalled argument, but by a light (nur) which God, Most High, cast into my breast. That light is the key to the greater part of knowledge. Whoever thinks that the understanding of things Divine rests upon strict proofs has in his thought narrowed down the wideness of God's mercy. . . . From that light must be sought an intuitive understanding of things Divine. That light at certain times gushes forth from the springs of Divine generosity, and for it one must watch and wait.18

However, this 'watching and waiting' for Divine generosity' is not an entirely passive expectancy, but rather an acquisition with a positive content. In order to establish the credentials, the genuineness and authenticity of this state, which the Qur'an describes by the term iman or, more appropriately, iman-bil-ghaib a lot of concerted effort is required. Faith indicates an attitude of receptivity and preparedness to accept the will of God. The man of faith may be put on trial out of which invariably he emerges successful with a receptivity keener still and so a stronger and more indomitable faith. Even death in the way of God', the shahadah,19 would be incurred with a smiling face. It earns for the shaheed eternal life and constant companionship with God.

The grace or light of God as available to the man of faith necessarily requires that we establish a direct personal encounter with Him. By virtue of this encounter ultimately one is steeped in divinity so as to be able to look at everything, including the language of the Qur'an, with Divine effulgence and thus discover the true significance of His revelations. Canonical prayer, which is an effective instrument of encounter, has been given very great importance among the duties enjoined by the Islamic shari'ah. The Qur'an mentions it no less than 80 times. In the mystic literature of Islam, it is pointedly described as spiritual ascendance par excellence for the believers.

There is no special way for the realization of this encounter. A mystic who struggles hard to realise his own selfhood (I-amness), a natural scientist who gets involved in the study of the physical universe, a historian who tries to discover the principles of the rise and fall of nations, a moralist who is in search of higher and higher ideals involved in human nature, and so on -- all are equally legitimate candidates for a meeting with God provided they are honest in their intentions, sincere in their efforts and strongly committed to the faith that beyond this world of space and time there is also a supersensuous and supernatural reality. According to the verdict of the Qur'an itself, the signs of God are spread everywhere in the universe: "And Allah's is the East and the West, so whithersoever you turn, thither is Allah's face."20

What I have said concerning the function of Muslim philosophy appears to have a family resemblance with that known in the modern Anglo-American world as 'philosophical analysis'. The traditional philosophers, we know, had raised certain questions about the constitution of the universe, its relationship with appearances, etc. They laboured hard to answer these questions of supreme significance, but failed to arrive at any answer on which they could all agree. The modern linguistic philosophers are firmly of the opinion that the failure was due not to any defective reasoning on the part of these thinkers, but rather to their inability to evaluate the status of the questions themselves. These questions, it is now believed, were pseudo-questions and could not in fact admit of any answer: that is why even the most thorough investigations of the philosophers turned out to be futile and fruitless. Thus the language of the questions is to be analysed and their logic understood so that they can be dealt with properly. The philosophers of today are not only reformulating and rephrasing the questions; they are, in general, making efforts to construct a model language free from the ambiguities and vaguenesses that usually infest the ordinary, conventional language. Philosophical analysis is neither more nor less than "an obstinate pursuit of clarity in our meanings and in the way our meanings are expressed through language." However, as must be evident from above, the operation proposed here is different. Linguistic analysis in the West has been inspired by Logical Positivism, an empirical, naturalistic and anti-metaphysical movement which thrived on the idea that a truth in order to be genuine and valid must be either analytically or empirically verifiable. But as the language of the Qur'an is a revelation from God, every syllable has an avowed metaphysical context. It has to be given a special kind of treatment, as detailed above.

God-consciousness, I reiterate, is of immense significance for the truest and the most authentic comprehension of the Qur'anic language. For the inculcation of God-consciousness what is required further is the purification of the self and bringing out its essential nature by eradicating from it all that is redundant and accretive. This, however, is the ideal and, like all ideals, is not completely realisable: it has to be approximated as much as is humanly possible. The more free from all contamination is a person's self the clearer becomes one's vision and the better equipped one's not only to see things in true perspective but also to act in a truly moral manner. One then attains a super-rational, mystical understanding of God, His will and His entire scheme of things, which is the subject-matter of the Qur'anic text.


1. For instance, the Qur'an says:

Do they not reflect on the Qur'an? Or, are there locks on their hearts? (47:24)
Surely the vilest of beasts, in Allah's sight, are the deaf, the dumb, who understand not (8:22).
And they (i.e., the residents of hell) say: Had we but listened or pondered, we should not have been among the inmates of the burning Fire (67:10).

2. Altaf Hussain Hali, Hayat-e-Javed, p. 274.
3. Muhammad Ismail Panipati, ed., Maqalat-e Sir Sayyid, vol. 3, p. 16.
4. Ibid., vol. 13, p. 4.
5. This phrase has been quoted from Whitehead by Professor Stebbing who has herself coined the cognate phrase "local weather". See L.S. Stebbing, A Modern Introduction to Logic, p. 291.
6. Cf. Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, Risala Istihsan al-Khawdh fi Ilm al-Kalam. This book has been translated into English by Richard J. McCarthy, The Theology of al-Ash'ari, pp. 120-130.
7. Al-llikmah (Lahore: Research Journal of the Department of Philosophy, University of the Punjab, 1975), vol. 6, p. 63.
8. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 57.
9. The Qur'an, 2:2-3.
10. The Qur'an says: "He it is who has sent down to thee the Book. In it are verses basic or fundamental (muhkamat); they are the foundation of the Book; others are allegorical (mutashabihat)."
11. The Qur'an, 48:15, etc.
12. Ibid., 15:9.
13. See the Qur'an, 20:39, 28:75, 2:272, etc.
14. This state of affairs has, by one stretch of imagination, encouraged the concept of God as a mystery and as essentially unknowable. Of course, we do not know God as we know objects in nature, but we do have faith in Him and this faith is no less than the most intimate awareness of Divine existence and an organic concern with Him. It has also occasioned a wrong view of the barakah of the "Book of God". Its entire worth, it is sometimes believed, lies in reciting it and in using this recitation for healing various mental, physical, spiritual ailments and for magically realizing various objectives, both desirable and undesirable.
15. See Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology, pp. 96-99.
16. Quoted from Barth by John Macquarrie, Twentieth Century Religious Thought, p. 323.
17. This book has been translated into English by W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali.
18. Ibid., p. 25.
19. Shahadah is literally 'testimony' or 'bearing witness to'. The person laying down his life for the Divine cause bears witness to his commitment to one God and to His scheme of things. The proclamation of faith in Islam is also a shahadah. The man of faith says: I bear witness (ashhada) that there is no god but God and that Muammad (peace be on him) is His messenger. This formula is announced by the official announcer to prayers (Mu'azzin) at the highest pitch of his voice five times a day.
20. The Qur'an, 2:115.
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