In the name of Allah, (Almighty God), the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Allah says in the Qur'an,
"And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it will never be excepted of him, and in the hereafter, he will be one of the losers". (3:85)
This verse is often understood by Muslims to mean that those who are Muslims are in the right, and non-Muslims would likewise interpret this to mean that, according to The Qur'an, non-Muslims are destined for hell. Amongst ultra-conservative Muslim sects it is indeed often seen this way. It has become common place for us to see the world as Muslims vs. Kufar (disbelievers). We readily hear Muslim parents warning their children about "playing with those kufar kids" or worrying about sending their kids to "kufar schools". I once was working in a warehouse in Columbus, and on this particular day I was unloading a truck with two other men. One of them was a middle aged Somali (Muslim) man and the other was an older white American (non-Muslim) man. As the day progressed we engaged one another in conversation as most co-workers do. We weren't talking about anything of great importance really, just small talk to make the day go by faster. We all laughed and joked with each other and got along well. At one point when the non-Muslim American man was away, the Somali man said to me, "you know he's a very nice man, too bad he's a kafir (disbeliever) going to hell".
This small conversation perfectly illustrates the mentality than many of us Muslims have. We have degenerated being a believer in "laa ilaha ila Allah" into just being "part of a club". A club in which we don't eat pork, drink, we pray five times a day, and where woman cover themselves. In many masajid (mosques) around the world, material available to non-Muslims and new Muslims mainly focus on Aqeedah (creed; manners of behavior) more so than tasawwuf (spirituality; ones personal relationship with the divine).
Salafis/Wahabbis expound that the basis of their entire ideology is Tawheed or the absolute oneness of Allah (God Almighty; The Divine). However, simple understanding of this principal is not what is meant by the verse
"And I did not create man and jinn except to worship me" (51:56)
Worship is only worship when the worshipper has three things; Iman (faith and proper belief in Allah), Islam (submission to Allah's will), and Ihsan (sincerity). In a famous hadith or prophetic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that "ihsan" is to "worship Allah as if you see Him, even when you don't see Him, but know that He sees you".
This begs the question 'what does it really mean to worship Allah as if you see Him'? Ultimately it means that in order to truly worship Allah, one must first have a very personal, one on one relationship with Allah. One must see Allah not just as an arbitrary idea that we focus our religiosity on, but Allah is a living being, THE living being that upon whom we all depend, upon whom all the universe belongs and depends, the one who is the owner of all the most beautiful of attributes, and the one who is the ONLY one truly capable of helping you or causing you harm. Allah, to the true worshipper, is one's master, true love and best friend all wrapped up into one. Without this relationship with Allah, worship is hollow. Without this relationship fasting is just starving yourself. Without this relationship Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is just a really gruelling vacation. Without this relationship your salaah (ritual prayer) is just a really boring dance. Without this relationship recitation of the Qur'an is just singing.
So, when we focus our understanding of our religion so heavily on outward things, we must ask the question, are we really worshipping Allah, or are we worshipping our "religion"? Have we actually made the religion of Islam itself an idol besides Allah?
It is funny that in the above verse, "and anyone who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him..." when we translate this into English, usually we translate every word into English except the word "Islam". Why not translate that word too since it is an Arabic word. When we do it sounds like this
"And anyone who seeks a religion other than complete willful and peaceful submission and subservience to the divine, it will not be excepted of him and in the hereafter, he will be one of the losers".
When we translate the verse in this way, we can get a much different picture of what it really means.
Throughout the history of mankind, there have been many forms of religion that have risen and fallen as ways for man to explain that which he did not understand. Some peoples worshipped nature, a form of religion known as Pantheism. In this form of religion people saw "spirits" in all things around them including animals, trees, mountains and the land itself, wind, water and storms, and saw nature and the "creator" as one in the same. Primitive forms of this kind of religion are found amongst Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Native African tribes such as the Maasai, and ancient European cultures such as the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Normans. Other types of religion are more religious civilizations. Entire civilizations that are built around the worship of some deity. Sometimes this deity could be something like the sun or the moon, and in others it can be a man such as the king himself such as in ancient Egypt where Egyptians worshipped the Pharaoh as a living god. People in ancient times largely believed in these things because proper understanding of science and the natural world had not come to fruition yet. Now that we do understand much about the natural world, we in the developed world know for example that it's not some magical spirit that makes the rain fall from the sky but rather we know that water evaporates off of the earth's surface, the water vapor collects in the sky in the form of clouds, and when the dew point is reached, the water liquefies and falls to earth as rain. We also know that certain stories that are the center of religious civilizations such as the Christian belief that the Earth was literally created in six days, and is only several thousand years old, is not accurate, but rather the Earth is billions of years old and was created over the course of millions of years. This disproving of age old religious traditions created in developed nations religious movements such as Secular Humanism and Atheism. Secular Humanists don't necessarily reject the existence of The Divine but reject supernatural or faith based beliefs as being the basis of morality. Atheists reject the existence of The Divine entirely, as with all other forms of the supernatural, and thus also reject such beliefs and faith as the basis of morality. Both religious traditions rely on ethics and reason as the basis of morality. Such traditions base their devotion to such ideas on the fact that it cannot be proven that God, or The Divine actually exists, and there is no physical, tangible way to test "faith". Thus, they reject faith as an archaic idea that basically only existed as a means for our ancient ancestors to mentally and emotionally deal with the natural world. However, there is one major loophole in this thinking. It is true that faith cannot really be measured nor can it be vindicated through any kind of testable fact and therefore at face value there isn't much difference between what we know as major religious traditions such as Christianity and ancient mythology such as that of the Greek gods and goddesses. However, it likewise cannot be proven in a physically tangible way that The Divine does not exist either. Therefore, Secular Humanists and Atheists also rely on some form of "faith" to justify their beliefs. We can therefore say that we as humans are hard-wired and destined to be people of faith. In reality faith is at the core of what we are because we are a rational being who contemplates our existence in the universe. As such, we will always be subject to faith as being as natural to us as eating and sleeping.
So, how do we know which path is the correct one? Well, that's the million dollar question. But, allow us to reflect on the story of Abraham (peace and blessings be upon him), as told in the Qur'an. It is said that Abraham was the son of an idol maker. His father carved wooded idols that the people of that day worshipped. Abraham abhorred this behavior as he could plainly see that these idols did not serve or protect anyone. They were just wood. His beliefs led to his eventual exile from his home. While alone at night he looked to the sky and saw a star and thought to himself "perhaps this is my god". Then, however, the star disappeared and Abraham said, "truly I don't not like a god that disappears". Then he saw the moon, and how it illuminated the land at night and again said, "perhaps this is my god". Then however the moon disappeared over the horizon and Abraham said, "truly I don't like a god that disappears". Then the next day he saw the sun and how it warmed the earth and he once again said, "perhaps this is my god". When the sun set Abraham said,
"Oh my people! Indeed I am free from all that you join as partners in worship with the truly divine! Indeed I have turned my face to He that CREATED the heavens and the earth, The Divine is and can only be ONE (infinate source of creation), and I am not of those who associate such partners in worship!".
What Abraham actually did, in a reasonable and rational way, was he PROVED the existence of The Divine by realizing that all things that we experience in this world and this universe is finite (with beginning and end). He realized that the finite cannot be the ultimate source of other things finite. Only something infinite can be such a source. Another way of looking at it is the phenomenon of infinite regression. If there is nothing infinite, no divine, then the process of finite creating finite, as it does through natural processes, would keep going back and back and back and back, with no beginning...infinite regression. Therefore, there MUST, rationally and reasonably speaking, be an ultimate infinite source from which all of these processes started. Like if we say life was created out of the primordial ooze, then the earth created the primordial ooze, then the earth was born of the sun, and the sun was born of the center of the galaxy, and the galaxy was formed in the big bang, and the big bang happened because the entire universe was once a very small very dense bundle of mass and it exploded, well then what created that bundle of mass? What caused it to explode? Whatever created that bundle of mass, what created it? And then what created that? So on, and so on. It is unreasonable, irrational, and physically impossible for that to be the case. Also, the infinite and divine, MUST consequently be a single force. If there were multiple forces they would simply compete and by there very nature anything that one created the other would destroy. If you have two infinitely powerful forces than one force will always be infinitely capable of annihilating anything the other does and the same visa versa. So, that infinite force, The Divine, not only must only, but CAN only be ONE.
Therefore, the only TRUE religion. Is simply the recognition of that infinitely powerful, Divine force, and recognition of this fact leads one to the only logical action which is to submit oneself to that force. Not just because one wants to, but because one recognizes that we are in that Divine infinite forces grasp whether we recognize it and submit to it or not. If we conclude that the Divine necessarily exists, and that the Divine is and can ONLY be one, then the only true religion that we can credit with being "accurate" is one that directs the rational and thinking human being back to that fact. Any form of religion that calls humans towards anything else, is quite simply....nonsense. That's not to say that there aren't valuable lessons and morals in other religions, but they are deviations nonetheless if they call human beings toward worship or veneration of anything but The Infinitely Divine. So, if the only correct path is that which leads us directly to The Infinitely Divine, then does that path exist today? If so what religion is it? I know Muslims will say ISLAM! ISLAM! (like a kindergartner saying "oooo pick me! pick meeeee!). To that I'll say this......yes and no. What? Blasphemy you say?
Like I said, any and all religion that calls people to venerate or worship anything besides The Infinitely Divine is utter nonsense; whether it's Egyptians worshipping Pharaoh as a living god, Greeks worshipping stories of Zeus, Native Americans worshipping trees, Aboriginals worshipping a mountain, Secular Humanists and Atheists worshipping themselves, Jews worshipping their rabbis and priests, Christians worshipping Jesus Christ (peace and blessings be upon him) or.....ready.....MUSLIMS WORSHIPPING THEIR IMAMS (leaders) AND THEIR RELIGIOUS SYSTEM AS A WHOLE!
This is why you see Muslims rioting in the streets when someone makes a stupid cartoon of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh)! This is why Muslims blow themselves up in mosques during Friday prayers for stupid political nonsense! This is why Muslim women are subjected behind a wall when that was NOT the practice of the prophet! This is why we care more about how long a man's beard is or how short his pants are then how sincere our own prayers are! We have in many ways become a people who worship the "idea of being Muslim". We look to our religious system with its sciences and it's rules and regulations and worship that. All the while, we have forgotten what it REALLY means to worship The Infinitely Divine. By the way the literal translation of the term "The Infinitely Divine" into the Arabic language is "Allah". This is why that infinitely divine being referred to itself with that name in the Holy Qur'an. Allah has communicated the message of His Absolute Oneness throughout human history. As the Qur'an says...
"And for every nation there was a messenger..." (10:47)
From the first man Adam, to all the prophets that we know of and those that we don't know of, Allah has communed with his creation. He has called us back time and again. Through our father Adam, through Noah and the flood, through Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, through Abraham and his gift of reason, through Moses and his gift of the Law, through David and his gift of song, through Jesus Christ the Messiah and through his mother Mary the most honored of all women, and through Muhammad the seal of prophecy to all mankind, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon them all. All of these individuals toiled their life for only one cause; one idea. To direct their people back to worship and communion with The Infinitely Divine; Allah. Not ONE of them called their people to worship them or anything BUT Allah.
So what was that verse again?
"And whosoever seeks a religion other than complete willful and peaceful submission and subservience to the Divine, it will not be excepted of him, and in the hereafter, he will be a loser"
Look into yourself; as I look into myself. Are we really sure that we are practicing Islam? Are we really sure that we are worshipping Allah and not just the idea of being Muslim? Are we really sure that the people in the church down the street aren't? Or in the synagogue across town? Or, might they actually be doing just that, submitting themselves to that Divine force, in the only way they know how?
About the People of the Book, the Christians and the Jews, Allah says in the Qur'an,
"Not all of them are alike. A party of the people of the book stand for right, they recite the verses of Allah in the wee hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer. The believe in Allah and the Last Day. They enjoin good and forbid evil, and they hasten in good works and they are among the righteous. And whatever good they do, nothing will be rejected of them. For Allah knows well those who are God fearing/God conscious" (3:113-115)
Remember my brothers and sisters, that the world is not all black and white. Not all non-Muslims are kufar, and likewise not all those who are called Muslims are really as such. Remember that worshipping Allah is not about our "religious system". It's not about what language we speak or where we come from. It's not even about where we worship. It's about finding that "proof" of Allah in our mind, and then seeking Allah in our heart, and seeking to commune with Allah. Close your eyes and imagine that image of "worshipping Allah as if you see Him". The next time you pray, visualize not only your master and owner, but Allah as your true love (Al Wadud) and your best friend (Al Wali) and feel his comforting embrace, for he tells us that to his servant, he is closer than our jugular vein. (50:16)
...And Allah Knows Best...