Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia—March 2004
The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’ or surrender, but the root is derived from the Arabic ‘salam’, meaning peace. Islam thus enjoins surrender and submission to the will of God, the surrender of the ego and the cultivation of the virtues of charity and compassion. There are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today-one out of every five persons on our planet is a Muslim-and Islam is probably the world's fastest growing religion. But for most outside the faith, very little is known about its beliefs and practices, beyond old prejudices and new spectres of religiously inspired political extremists.
The basic theological concepts of Islam, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 6th Century Arabia are, with a few striking exceptions, virtually identical with those of Judaism and Christianity, its forerunners. It is said that Muhammad was sent not so much to establish a new religion as to revive and re-establish the existing ones. The Quran says:
Say, we believe in God and in that which has been revealed to us, and in that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac and Jacob and the Tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and in that which was given to the Prophets from their Lord. We do not make any distinction between any of them and to Him do we submit.
[2:The Cow, Verse 136]
While Muslims can be found in every country of the world and differ greatly in language, race, culture and tradition, there are some basic principles that guide all their lives and forge a common bond. These are the Five Pillars of Islam, the foundations upon which the religion is based. The first is:
The confession of faith, the ‘kalma’ or ‘shahada’ which is a central tenet of the faith. At least once during his or her lifetime, a Muslim must say the ‘kalma’ aloud, correctly, with full understanding and conviction. Every religion contains professions of faith that are its building blocks. Islam's is brief, simple and explicit:
There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.
This concept of ‘Tauheed’ (the Oneness of God) is the most important aspect of Islam. The Islamic God is a formless being, a principle that cannot be measured, personified or even completely understood. This Divine principle is present in all creation and God himself is ‘Nur’ or Light. This Light can be compared to Pure Consciousness and is the goal to which all aspire.
On this foundation rest the other pillars.
Muslims are told to be constant in prayer, its chief content being praise, gratitude and meditation. Five times a day Muslims all over the world stand to face the holy city of Makkah and worship their Creator. The prayer is preceded by a ritual purification to cleanse the body in the same way as the soul is about to be cleansed by the act of prayer.
Every year during the month of Ramadan, able-bodied Muslims who are not ill or involved in making a journey refrain from eating or drinking during the hours of sunrise to sunset. After sundown, they may partake in moderation. The purpose of this is twofold. To teach self-discipline is the obvious purpose. Fasting also teaches compassion and makes one aware of the rigours suffered by the less fortunate. But there is another deeper purpose. Fasting is said to underscore our dependence on God. Human beings, it is said, are as frail as rose petals; nevertheless, they assume airs and pretensions and make themselves out to be more important than they are. Fasting calls one back to one's frailties, makes us aware of our ego and teaches us that we must control it and sublimate our desires in order to progress on the Path.
Islam, being a pragmatic kind of religion, wastes no time speculating on the causes why some people have so much in terms of material wealth and others so little. Instead, it turns to the issue of what should be done to redress the balance. The answer is simple: those who have should give to those who do not. The foundations of the modern welfare state were thus set out in the Quran as a graduated tax on the haves to benefit the have-nots. The Quran stipulates a figure of 2.5% of all one's holdings (not just income) to be distributed in charity. At one level, this is a simple and practical exercise, but as with most things in Islam, there is a deeper meaning. The underlying purpose of charity — to please God — lifts this to the level of mysticism. Everything belongs to God, regardless of who is temporarily acting as its holder. Thus by giving the giver moves further along the Path by practising detachment from material things.
The fifth pillar of Islam is pilgrimage. Once during his or her lifetime every Muslim who is in a position to do so is expected to make the ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to Makkah, where the Word of God was first revealed to Muhammad. The basic purpose of the pilgrimage is to heighten devotion to God but it also serves as a powerful reminder of human equality and brotherhood. Upon reaching Makkah, pilgrims remove their normal clothing and other indications of rank and status and don two simple sheet like garments. Prince and pauper alike approach their God undivided by bars of wealth, class, creed or colour. Islam thus enjoins a complete way of life on its followers, a path of submission and mercy that will eventually lead to enlightenment and the Truth.
Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help.
Guide us on the right path, the path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favours,
[1: The Opening, Verses 4-6]
It seems appropriate, in these troubled times, to briefly touch upon one other aspect of Islam that is sometimes referred to as ‘The Sixth Pillar’. This is the concept of ‘Jihad’. Contrary to popular (and erroneous) belief, the word means only ‘effort, exertion and struggle’ but has taken on the meaning of a Holy War. In fact, Islam's concept of a Holy War is virtually identical with the Just War concept in Christianity, right down to the belief that martyrs in both are assured of a place in heaven. Again, in both cases, the war must be defensive or fought to right a manifest wrong. The least possible damage must be inflicted, hostilities must cease when the mission is accomplished and retaliation is disallowed.
Defend yourself against your enemies, but do not attack them first: God hates the aggressors.
[2: The Cow, Verse 190]
But there is another, more important, meaning of Jihad that is completely unknown to the West. Islam believes that the battle with evil within one's own heart and the fight against the temptation to do wrong ranks above the battle with external enemies. This is the Greater Jihad, the battle within ourselves, and it is far more important than the Lesser Jihad, or conflicts with outer enemies. Islam believes that the most essential Jihad is the spiritual struggle of the soul to ascend to unity with God. External warfare is a temporary defensive measure to assure the safety to live a good life in surrender to God. Thus the struggle to reach a state of enlightenment is what Jihad is all about. It is unfortunate that this particular aspect of the religion has been distorted for political purposes.
Even a superficial comparison of Theosophy and Islam will reveal marked similarities. The bond between adherents of Theosophy (Theo-Divine, Sophia-Wisdom) or gnostic wisdom (hikmat-al-marifa) in Islam is the common aspiration, the search and living of the path leading to truth. This can only be realised by meditation, by the practice of selflessness and by service to humanity.
The Proem to The Secret Doctrine lists three fundamental propositions. The First speaks of ‘An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable PRINCIPLE on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception ...’. The Quran speaks of this principle as ‘The Knowing All and the Pervading All’ [2,115] and continues to say:
He is the First, He is the Last, also He is the Outer, He is the Inner too;The Manifest and yet the Unmanifest, the Lord, Ordainer, Knower of all Things.
[57: The Iron, Verse 3]
The Second proposition speaks of the ‘absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed’. This Law of Cycles is mentioned in the Quran as in ‘And you were without life and he gave you life? Again, He will cause you to die and again bring you to life, then you shall be brought back to Him’ [2: The Cow, Verse 28]. This clearly demonstrates that birth is considered a going forth and death a return, which is described as a renewal.
The Third fundamental proposition speaks of the ‘fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul ... and the obligatory pilgrimage for every soul’. The Quran speaks of ‘the Knower of the Unseen and the Seen, the Mighty, the Merciful, Who made beautiful everything that he created, and he began the creation of man from dust ... then He made him complete and breathed into him of his Spirit ...’ [32: The Adoration, Verse 7]. This thought is then completed in the Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad who said ‘Oh Man! Thou has to go back unto God, thy God, thy Self, with labour and with pain, ascending stage by stage, plane by plane.’
In The Secret Doctrine mention is also made by HPB of generations of seers who have served as messengers of the Wisdom teachings. The Quran speaks of the conviction that ‘we believe in Allah and in that which has been revealed to us ... We do not make any distinction between any of them and to Him do we submit.’ [2: The Cow, Verse 136]
The principle of Universal Brotherhood is stressed time and time again in the teachings of Islam, as it is in theosophical teachings. The Quran says:
O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other
[49: The Apartments, Verse 13].
The verse clearly demonstrates that the principle of the brotherhood of humanity is laid down in very specific terms. The address here is not to believers, but to people in general, who are told they are all, as it were, members of one family, and their divisions into nations, tribes and families should not lead to estrangement from, but to a better knowledge, of each other. Since Theosophy espouses the same teachings, it becomes apparent that both it and Islam share similar views.
The religion of Islam involves prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and also almsgiving. Political upheavals, fueled by extremists with their own prejudices and agendas, will ultimately fade away. But this should not be allowed to overshadow the message of brotherhood, equity and faith that Islam and other faiths have to offer. The ideas of Islam reach out beyond its own community and offer a genuine message of peace, love and tolerance. It is to be hoped that the turmoil it currently finds itself embroiled in will pass in time.
Blavatsky, H.P., The Secret Doctrine, Volumes 1 and 2, The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles California, USA, 1947.
Smith, Huston, The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., San Francisco, 1991.
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Zehra Bharucha works at the National Headquarters of the TS in Australia. She is a fifth generation TS member, born in Pakistan.