Realising The Fitra: The Importance of Rationality and Personal Faith in Islam
Published in 'Alif: Traditional Wisdom In Review
It has become an automatic reflex of the Western mind — steeped in the ‘liberalism’ of modern secularity — to brand the Abrahamic religions as ‘mass religions’, and moreover to equate the concept of a ‘mass religion’ with blind submission to dogma and the loss of individual autonomy. Islam, arguably, suffers from this misconception to the severest degree of them all. The media’s fervent portrayals of aspects of the religion socially deemed as ‘oppressive’, such as the wearing of the hijab, are partly to blame for the almost axiomatic, and yet uninformed, consensus that the religion inherently subverts individual freedom.
Moreover, even if this narrative is not internalised by the more open-minded of its onlookers, Islam is not typically regarded in the public sphere as a faith which actively encourages the cultivation of a personalised relationship with God. This, in terms of scripture, is essentially a misapprehension which I here aim to dispel by reinstating the importance of two crucial tenets of classical Islamic theology: the overall notion of the intellect, embodied in the believer’s individual quest for Divine ayat or ‘signs’, and the doctrine of the fitra (the individual’s innate awareness of Allah that is eternally present). The latter is particularly important to the present discussion because it exists independently of organised religious practices, being perhaps the clearest designator of individual spiritual authority.
One reason for the lack of awareness of these key doctrines in Islam is perhaps the prevalence of other ‘Eastern’ religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism which, in contemporary culture, have been interpreted through an opposing — though no less imbalanced — lens. They (or, rather, modified versions of them) have become socially and culturally embraced for their potential to accommodate individualism. They are perceived as malleable to personal needs, exemplified by the popular practice of ‘mindfulness’ which has been extracted from its Buddhist context to suit the secular lifestyle. This is problematic in itself, fulfilling Nasr’s prediction in The Need for a Sacred Science of the West’s ‘deformation and profanation in bastard forms’ of Asian spiritual cultures (p. 74–75), but it also exacerbates Western misunderstandings of Islam because, as a tradition that has escaped a similar process of deformation and profanation, it appears diametrically opposed to these seemingly more liberal spiritual systems.
In writing this article, I am not attempting to modify this status or in any way initiate a deformation of Islam in the name of modernity.I do, however, wish to illuminate, particularly to a Western audience, Islam’s inherent potentiality to be a faith which very much inspires the pursuit of individual spirituality, even while retaining its status as organised and doctrinally prescriptive belief system (a situation which Westerners have long wrongly considered antithetical). The Noble Qur’an foregrounds this approach, telling us:
'We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth' (41:53).
'Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart — about all those [one] will be questioned' (17:36).
These passages, amongst a myriad of others, illustrate the utmost importance of individual autonomy and knowledge-seeking in Islam. Not only does the Qur’an repeatedly encourage the pursuit of finding ‘signs’ which appear to each individual person, but it explicitly shuns those who do not do so and merely conform to the exterior forms of religious practice:
'So woe to those who pray…but are heedless of their prayer…those who make show [of their deeds]…but withhold [simple] assistance' (107:4–7).
Knowledge as an individual pursuit can be thought as interlinked with the Islamic theological concept of The fitra. Deriving from the tripartite Arabic root consisting of the radicals ‘F’, ‘T’, ‘R’, the verb form of which meaning ‘to cleave’ or ‘to split’, it encapsulates the individual’s innate ability to know Allah as a result of being formed in his image (semantically corresponding with the concept of being drawn or ‘cleaved’ from the source). For those familiar with gnostic thought, it could be seen to parallel the The Divine Spark; the innate Divine quality within consciousness. What is so significant about the fitra in the context of knowledge is that it represents the object of intellection as coming from within.
While Islam can be taught prescriptively — and indeed, serves an important function as a path or tariqa, to invoke the Sufi term, that guides the way — the intuitive knowledge of God is ultimately independent of this, and this understanding is itself qualitatively Divine. Just as Allah created the fitra, the fitra too is capable of creation; a term which can be thought to envelope the notions of initiative, applied reasoning and the formation of theories about the external world. The 19th century Muslim scholar Muhammad Abduh summarises The Prophet’s own encouragement of this expression of creativity, which has constituted the Islamic intellectual movements that have significantly influenced Western science today:
'If it were upon the prophet to explain the natural and astronomical sciences, that would be the end of the activity of human senses and intellect, and that would spoil human freedom…The Prophet advised people succinctly to use their senses and intellect on whatever improves their welfare, broadens their knowledge and in the end advances their souls' (quoted in Islam’s Quantum Question, p. 141).
Baghdad’s famous House of Wisdom exemplifies the Islamic vision of the intimate link between religion and rationality. Constituting the nucleus of medieval scholasticism, its resident polymaths such as Al-Kindi — dubbed as ‘the Father of Islamic Philosophy — employed an extraordinary degree of invention and innovation in their work. The transmission of newly translated Greek philosophical material into Arabia lead to the careful application of Platonic and Aristotelian perceptions of the universe to Muslim contexts. Here, there was no inherent dissonance between the eternal truth of the Qur’an and the timely discoveries of science. Al-Biruni, one of the renowned scholars of the Islamic Golden Age, explicates the Qur’anic motivations behind such scientific pursuits, citing surah 3:191:
'Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire’ (quoted in Islam’s Quantum Question, p. 59).
Illustration of Baghdad’s ‘House of Wisdom’, the hub of Muslim science and philosophy
This notion of ‘giving thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth’ has expansive implications for rationalistic pursuits, which were consciously embraced by the kalam scholars. They represent this quest for God through a kind of cognition that can be understood as the unfurling of Divine knowledge, pre-existent in the fitra, through the application of reason to the world at hand. One could invoke Plato’s concept of anamnesis to understand this process. In his dialogue Meno in The Republic, an uneducated and illiterate slave boy is given a geometry puzzle which he is able to solve without being guided on how to do so. The crux of this allegory is that each soul, regardless of literacy of education, harbours the innate knowledge of geometry and, furthermore, the conceptual “World of Forms” which constitutes the blueprint of all reality.
What is crucial here, though, is the fact that this knowledge only becomes actualised once applied to a real life situation (in this case, the geometry puzzle that Meno is given). In knowing God, one has to apply their fitra or ‘Divine Spark’, so to speak, to the present world in order for it to be actualised. The present world, and I wish to emphasise this point, includes any new scientific discoveries which may arise, to which the individual reasoning must adapt.
Furthermore, the development of Sufism — the aspect of the Islam often defined as its ‘mystical branch’ or, for the twelfth century Persian mystic Suhrawardi, ‘the fruit’, ‘the soul’ and ‘the meaning’ pairing the tree, the body and the word of exoteric religion respectively — invited further insights into what it means to utilise the perceptivity of the intellect in the pursuit of knowing Allah through the activation of the fitra. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, one of the most renowned medieval Sufi thinkers, explored this in the context of Qur’anic tafsir (‘exegesis’). His treatise The Jewels of The Qur’an warns against gazing only at the lexical periphery or the ‘shores’ of scripture — echoing the sentiment of Qur’an 30:30’s condemnation of those who pray only ‘heedlessly’ — and guides the reader to delve deeper into the text’s esoteric dimensions, symbolised vividly in the following extract with the imagery of jewels and pearls:
Oh you who recite the Qur’an to a great length…who imbibe some of its outward meanings and sentences. How long will you ramble on the shore of the ocean, closing your eyes to the wonders of the meanings of the Qur’an? Was it not your duty to sail to the midst of the fathomless ocean of these meanings in order to see their wonders, to travel to their islands to gather their best produce, and to dive into their depths so that you might become rich by obtaining their jewels? Do you not feel ashamed of being deprived of their pearls and jewels by your persistence in looking at their shores and outward appearances? (p. 19)
Later in the same passage, Al-Ghazali refers to the kalam scholars preceding him who ‘waded through [The Qur’an’s] waves and thus gained red brimstone’ (p. 20), solidifying the notion that the most successful Islamic thinkers have been those who have carefully applied their own rationality and knowledge of their times to religious matters. Furthermore, what is crucial in these scenarios is the variance granted to each individual to see their own signs of God. The means to realising one’s fitra are as unique and individualised as one’s fingerprint, and for this reason we may well each find different varieties of ‘jewels’ in our interpretations of the Qur’an. Ibn ‘Arabi describes how signs ‘increase knowledge and open the eye of understanding’, but moreover how their reception will be highly individualised and ‘different [for different individuals] (p. 78, 81).’ I wish to emphasize that such mystical extrapolations are not merely derivative — their sentiment can be found once again to originate in The Qur’an, in particular 49:13 which addresses the importance of differences among humanity:
'We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.'
Moreover, any discussion of the paramountcy of individual reasoning in Islamic belief would be incomplete without a mention of Ibn Tufayl’s twelfth century literary work, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (also know as The Philosophus Autodidactus — the ‘self taught philosopher’). A piece of allegorical literature, the story follows an orphaned boy, Hayy, who is born on a fictional remote island accompanied only by wild animals. As Hayy grows up, he develops a natural inquisitiveness into the order of reality, applying rationality to matters such as death. He takes the initiative to dissect the bodies of deceased animals and, failing to find a singular organ which constitutes life, concludes that there exists a soul-like spirit to which ‘all parts of the body are simply its servants or agents’.
As Hayy grows older, he accumulates a vast knowledge of the natural world which he continues to synthesise with his logical reasoning. His observations of nature and the wider cosmos lead to what resembles a teleological argument; the necessity of a creator based on the seemingly perfect organisation of the universe (a realisation which, no matter how much we try to suppress with the fabrications of materialistic ‘science’, I would argue comes intuitively to everyone at some point or other). By the time he has matured, Hayy has become fully aware of God and cultivates a lifestyle of devotion to the Divine, becoming a Muslim ascetic through his own gradual realisation of the fitra over the course of his worldly life.
What this parable serves to illustrate is that the knowledge of the Divine and the forming of a relationship with God is a natural psychological progression which, like Plato’s anamnesis, unfurls from the innate potential within. In fact, the conclusion of the story reveals how the interference of other people is actually a hindrance to this spiritual process. When Hayy finally encounters two other human beings, he is completely unable to communicate his realisations to them — not unlike in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave, where the escapee is unable to communicate the brilliance of the sun to his former cave-dwellers— demonstrating how solitary contemplation is not merely beneficial, but in fact necessary to the pursuit of theological knowledge. Organised religion serves amongst other things as the ‘tree’ providing the individual with the nutrients, so to speak, for spirituality, but the fruit of religion itself equally requires cultivation through this personalised application of the fitra to the individual experience of the world.
This is not to say that Islam ought to be reduced to an exclusively private practice in a way that is palatable to the West and its designations of what is acceptably ‘spiritual’. A larger discussion of the hyper-individualist approach to faith in modern times is needed to clearly delineate the line between genuine spiritual autonomy and careless appropriation, but needless to say an interpretation of the aforementioned ideas is not an invitation to extract them from their context of traditional Islamic monotheism. After all, the ‘fruit’ of spirituality gains its primary nutrients from the ‘tree’ that is orthodox Islam, to invoke Suhrawardi’s metaphor once again. I do, however, hope to have conveyed the inherent power of spiritual autonomy that is encouraged within the Muslim faith. As I have illustrated, the emphasis on individual rationality and Divine instinct is embedded not only scripture, but in the centuries’ worth of theological and philosophical developments. These continue to be invoked by contemporary Islamic scientists, such as the 1999 Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail who stated “there is nothing in Islam that is fundamentally against the quest for knowledge.”
Only once this is understood can the misconception of Islam as a religion which inherently undermines autonomous spirituality be fully abandoned. In truth, the Islamic faith offers signs for everyone, everywhere and at every time — no matter their ‘tribe’ or gender, to remind ourselves of the importance of diversity expressed in 49:13 —and thus in every possible experience that the individual life may pose:
Indeed, in that are signs for everyone patient and grateful (31:31).