For the next few weeks, God willing, I’ll be going through a sort of introduction to Islam, focused on the six pillars of belief. I’m basing all this (loosely) on Imam Nick Pelletier’s After Shahada Project classes at the Islamic Center of Irving, both to keep the information fresh in my head and heart, and to maybe give a few readers of this blog a different view into Islam than what they might usually get.
I planned to jump straight into the first pillar, but then I started writing. Before I knew it, I had enough words on belief in general to constitute a stand-alone post rather than the introduction it started out to be, so I guess I own an apology: what follows gets a bit rambling and probably goes too far and/or not far enough. If there’s any benefit in it, that benefit comes from God alone. All errors and omissions and oversteps are my own.
Belief is important. It’s important in religion, to be sure, and, indeed, it’s necessary for for many other parts of life, for participation in society and in interpersonal relations. You have to believe, for example, that other drivers want to get where they’re going and are, at minimum, not interested in dealing with insurance companies and/or a wrecked car, and so it’s likely that the person driving that car is going to a) stay in his lane, b) at his present rate of speed or thereabouts, and c) with some attention paid to surroundings. This is, of course, violated with some regularity: people change lanes without looking or signaling, brake abruptly for little or no reason, and read, text, fiddle with the radio or air conditioner, and do all sorts of things
while instead of driving. Most of the time, though, we all get where we’re going without much muss or fuss, and we all complain about those “bad drivers” who go against what we believe about driving.
Out in the marketplace, we believe all sorts of things, mostly for no good reason, and without any verification: that scales are calibrated accurately; that a sale will offer savings; that products are safe for their intended use (in the short term, anyway). If we didn’t believe these things, we wouldn’t shop, stores would close, and western economies would disintegrate. Here in the US, weights and measures are enforced by statute and checked quasi-regularly and there are fairly strict laws about what can be sold, as well as various mechanisms for redress should we end up buying something broken or dangerous, and so it seems that our belief is not really borne out in practice, but then we believe that the weights and measures person was sober and attentive and did his job properly, and we need to fill the car up with gas or pick up a couple pounds of potatoes anyway, so we just get on with it.
In a less serious vein, we also believe that the soda vendor loaded the machine in such a way that the button for Cherry Coke will deliver a Cherry Coke, that Sprite will deliver Sprite, and that Diet Coke won’t, for example, spit out a Budweiser. Back in college, in a course on Free Will, I used this example all the time, and to illustrate I came to class with a Cherry Coke almost every day. I stopped at the same soda machine in the basement of the Library at UIS often enough that one day, I pressed the Cherry Coke button and received… a Sprite. Imagine the odds… I don’t drink much soda these days, but when I patronize vending machines, I still believe that the button I press will return the object I requested: if it was all random, I would patronize these machines less often than I do, and they probably would cease being profitable for the vendors.
Such beliefs—more properly ‘faith,’ perhaps—is sometimes is largely unconscious and regularly proven wrong, but it’s nevertheless necessary if you’re going to navigate the streets and highways, go out shopping for clothes or groceries, or purchase a soda from the vending machine in the break room. I want to claim that Religious belief is of a different order. I started to say “we often can’t see or directly experience what we’re asked to believe in, but we still believe it” as if that’s any different than the above: it’s not. I can’t see the Cherry Coke in the machine, but I still hit the button and expect a Cherry Coke to drop. I can’t see God, but I still believe He can see me, and I struggle to keep that thought in my head as I go about my day, and may God forgive me.
So what makes religious belief different? Well, with beliefs that keep us moving through the world, day today, our belief depends on something we can experience directly: I believe the guy driving that F350 dually with the Confederate flag painted on the tailgate is going to suddenly swerve into this lane, so I slow down a bit and leave him plenty of room; I believe the corporation wants me to continue to buy clothes from it, so I trust that its clothes won’t fall apart too quickly and guess that the sale price is fair enough, and I suspect that if it’s not on sale, it’s probably overpriced by at least 25% and won’t buy it unless I really really need it and can’t get to a rival store quickly enough or wait on delivery; I believe the vending machine stocker person loaded Cherry Coke in the correct tube. With religious belief, though, we don’t have direct, physical access to the object of our belief, and instead rely on something else.
Growing up in the Christian tradition, some of the questions I had about the creed were answered with ‘just believe.’ I often found that insufficient, but then I was very young. There’s John 3:16, after all, and there’s no suggestion of something more, of verification, of insight, of examination, of pondering, or of anything else: “he who believeth shall not perish and shall have everlasting life.” As I grew older, this made me suspicious, because there are a few things in Christian doctrine that don’t make sense to me at all. (To be fair, the doctrine makes sense to most members of my family and to much of the Western world, and so I probably missed something.) But in Islam, belief should only arise from examination, reflection, and reason: we examine the world, we reflect on the word of God and our experiences in the world, and we use our reason and understanding to arrive at belief.
There is simply no blind belief in Islam.
Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, illustrates this:
…when the night covered him [with darkness], he saw a star. He said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “I like not those that disappear.” And when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray.” And when he saw the sun rising, he said, “This is my lord; this is greater.” But when it set, he said, “O my people, indeed I am free from what you associate with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah.”
Abraham experienced the world, reflected on it, and used his reason to arrive at belief in God, much to the consternation of his community. He didn’t just take what others told him, he didn’t just believe, and certainly not in the sense found in John. When something didn’t make sense to him, Abraham poked at it until he found an answer. He used the faculties God granted him to arrive at belief.
This is what we’re supposed to do in Islam, this is what belief is in Islam. There is no “just believe.”
I see now that I never answered my own question: how is Religious belief different from the unconscious beliefs we hold to help us navigate the world? Well, maybe it’s not. With both, we believe, and if we’re conscious about it, we test our beliefs against the world and revise either our understanding of the world or our understanding of our beliefs. The big difference is that Religious belief has some relevance in this life and after death. It’s not going to matter whether or not Cherry Coke drops the next time I press the button,* what matters is how I worship God, how I treat the people I interact with, how I take care of the parts of the planet He entrusted to me.
As I go forward with this project, if I write anything that doesn’t make sense, please call me on it, ask, go and research. I’m no prophet. I struggle with my belief sometimes and struggle with worshiping God properly. As always, anything that I write or say or do that is good or provides benefit comes always and only from God, and anything that I write or say or do that is wrong or causes harm is only from my ego, the devil and his little buddies.
*Well, the Cherry Coke might matter in the next life in three ways:
- God has given us these bodies on loan… He’s going to ask our eyes what we looked at. He’s going to ask our tongues what we said. He’s going to ask our skin where we went and what we did, and our eyes, tongues, skin will testify for or against us. Pouring Cherry Coke down my gullet is probably not the best way to treat this gift, and may God forgive me for all the harm I cause this body.
- Second, when God asks our limbs about what we did with them, I wouldn’t want to be the soda machine vendor who deliberately stocked Sprite into the Cherry Coke slot (though if it was by accident, there would be no problem),
- and third, I wouldn’t want to be a person who received a Sprite instead of a Cherry Coke and then flipped out, screaming and cursing and smashing things: we have to watch what we do.