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Approaches towards Understanding Islam
Kamran Bashir Sheikh


For a common Muslim, there arise many questions in the mind when he tries to understand and practice the Islamic faith. Be it the early inclination towards the creed or the general tendency towards Islam, each stage carries or continues to carry with it various questions regarding religion. These questions take him to different sources of learning to find answers. The response to his questions generally results in two kinds of reactions. If he gets a convincing answer, he will regard that source as a reliable one; otherwise, he may reject this learned man for any religious guidance. Secondly, he may get doubtful over those concepts on which he does not find a satisfying reply; he may consider religion limited in scope because it does not answer all the questions. The fact of the matter is that our questions on Islam generally pertain to the specific category of knowledge which one scholar may be adept at answering whereas some other can only answer it superficially. But a common Muslim regards the one who answered to his satisfaction as the genuine fountain of inspiration and places the other lower in rank in terms of knowledge. What he fails to understand is the division of Islamic knowledge into different realms. If one can identify and keep in mind the relevant area to which his specific question belongs, he might be consulting multiple sources of knowledge to find the appropriate answers.

Like other fields of study, Islamic knowledge can be categorized into various sub-disciplines in which specialization can be pursued. However this division is mostly scholarl-based and not from the viewpoint of a common Muslim. Hermeneutics, Classical Arabic, Hadīth studies, Jurisprudence, Comparative Religion, etc are the sub-disciplines within Islamic Studies but these are mostly scholar-oriented rather than meant for an ordinary man. Therefore, for the general public these disciplines are of no interest. Moreover, the problem of finding the correct answer is even further worsened when a common Muslim, who is confronted with different questions while on the road to understanding and practicing Islam, takes the scholars and other learned men as the ones who must know each and every facet of Islam. In case he does not find the appropriate answer for his questions from a scholar, he either rejects the learned man per se or gets doubtful about religion. From a common man’s point of view, there can be another division within Islamic learning which can be more useful for him. In this regard, I shall discuss three approaches which can simplify this division and be helpful.

Considering the general and specific issues which a common man faces during his journey towards Islam, there can be three approaches towards finding suitable answers for the questions that pop up in the mind about Islamic beliefs and practices. One should understand the true nature of one’s question and refer to the specialist in these individual approaches for the answers. In this regard, the first approach can be called the philosophy-based approach. This approach, basically, addresses the hikmah aspects of the Islamic faith. The concepts of God, the Hereafter and man’s place in the universe are few of the many areas of thought to study in this approach. These and other allied aspects provide the theoretical basis of our religion. These concepts will make the larger canvass under which other disciplines and approaches flourish. Is the Universe created by God, or it occurred as an accident? If God exists then is He concerned about His creation or not? Is this world a place of trial or an opportunity to enjoy and die? Does God’s attributes have any meaning in our lives? These and many such questions form the very bases of our religious knowledge and subsequent actions. To add more, this approach also focuses on man-to-man relationships and the different scenarios that emerge consequently, for example our economic, social and political life. The philosophy-based approach actually gives the general premises and guidelines to start our journey of understanding Islam. So an ordinary Muslim must keep in mind the nature of his question. If he feels that the question is more of an intellectual nature than a practical one, he should try to find a scholar specialized in this area.

The second approach towards understanding our faith can be termed as application-based approach. This approach takes into account the application of general concepts and principles which form the true basis of the creed. It gives us ideas to look into specific situations to apply our theoretical knowledge. It invites us to focus on the nitty-gritty of human life and answer on the finer and daily routine aspects of human life. For example, it will address the details of various prayers and other forms of worshipping the Lord and their very rationale as well. We study the Prophet’s spiritual life in its minutest of details. Furthermore, we study the application of economic, social and political principles and the resultant systems that emerge in a particular period of time. We look into different scenarios that occur in man-to-man relationship and explore the rationale behind the minutest elements of religion. For example, we may want to know about different economic concepts and Islam’s guidance on such issues. We may like to learn about Islam’s stance on various social customs. Similarly, we may be interested to find Islam’s viewpoint on different political issues. This approach towards answering questions is the most difficult of the route to draw upon. Since the range of situations which can occur in our spiritual, economic, social and political lives are innumerable, so does the huge knowledge framework within which that approach asks us to operate. Therefore, if our query pertains to daily activities that we perform in different spheres of life, then a scholar well versed in such issues can be most helpful for answering to our satisfaction.

The third approach to finding satisfying answers for our questions on Islam may be called training-based approach. This approach, in fact, focuses on the issues that are faced by people when actually practicing religion. They may understand concepts and applications quite clearly and even have belief in these, but what really matters to them is the strength and regularity in their actions. The training-based approach addresses the problems that people face while saying prayers regularly, complying with moral code strictly in an immoral environment, or developing a strong and living relationship with their Creator. Having kindled a strong belief in God does not mean that one will come up to the expectations that such a belief carries. Believing in the evils of the interest-based system in an economy does not ensure one’s strict abstinence from this phenomenon. Understanding the spiritual promise that the saying of the prayer embodies does not guarantee our regular attendance for the occasion. These are few of the many practical problems that a common Muslim faces even after getting convinced of the truth of the Islamic creed. Those problems can owe their bases to many phenomena. However, the overriding influence is of the environment in which one is brought up and the atmosphere and ambience in which he works for his livelihood. In such a state of affair, the training-based approach keeps into account the psychological state of the people and comes up with such proverbial literature that strengthens the psychological fabric of people to follow the path of Islam. The specialist in this area is usually a strict follower of religion himself and is aware of the down-to-earth practical problems. Their method draws upon religious sources if these carry pieces of knowledge for the very problems. Otherwise their insights into human nature are usually amazing to help common man. They usually train people in a certain religious atmosphere so that they may be able to follow religion when they go back to their practical lives.

Reviewing the above discourse, we can analyze the difference between a scholarly approach and user approach towards understanding Islam. A scholar should study Islam based on the academic division of the discipline but when he addresses people, he should keep in mind the user approach. An academic approach should be focused and thorough even in trivial details. Whereas a user approach should be simple and taking into account the psyche of an individual. The three approaches discussed above, if understood properly, can really help people to find appropriate answers to their questions. The common blunder one commits is that he asks a philosophical question from a specialist in religious training or a person learned in applications. Similarly one may ask a practical problem from a scholar whose actual area of work is Islamic philosophy. An analogy here may help to elucidate the problem. The realm of business studies is a fast growing discipline these days. In this field of study, philosophy-based approach may take into account such subjects as the origins of business, business as a social activity, different schools of thought studying business, and the established principles to run a business organization. An application-based approach will give birth to many consultants who work with different business organizations on different functions, going into minor details on strategy and policy. A training-based approach quite differently will give birth to a breed of trainers who reach different employees in an organization and train them to solve the practical problems they confront in their day to day lives. One can easily understand the havoc one will play if he asks a trainer about the philosophy of business and then rejecting him on finding a not very convincing answer even if that person was a wonderful trainer of business executives.


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