If there is something in the world that has long been subjected to the worst kind of misunderstanding, it is religion in general, and Islam in particular.
The primary reason for this misunderstanding is the modern "scientific" worldview, which is based on the modern scientific approach of restricting existence to its material, visible dimension. As a result, a human being is seen only as a material or biological entity. Such a view ascribes all human intellectual products and spiritual experiences to one's physical and biological composition, thus reducing a human being to only his or her physique. In addition, since this approach labels as unscientific that which cannot be established in the laboratory, religious facts and beliefs have no scientific truth. This leads to the assertion that religion is a set of dogmas that only demand belief, whether they are scientifically true or not.
This approach has caused knowing and believing to be separated from each other. According to it, something is known when it is established in the laboratory. In other words, knowledge is that which has been established and obtained in the laboratory through experimentation. This scientific attitude limits our ability to research ourselves, and put insurmountable limits to existence. If only it had admitted that there may be truths outside its reach!
By presenting whatever is outside its reach as impossible to establish scientifically and therefore devoid of any truth, science has made the universe the subject matter of, say, physics or chemistry or astronomy, and humanity the subject matter of biology and materialistic psychology.
A human being is no longer a being composed of a body, spirit, and soul. Whatever people conceive of, think and feel, as well as their emotions and beliefs, are products of their biological composition. In addition, the subject matter of psychology is human behavior only, which does not accept any meta-physical dimension of human existence. By doing so, the modern scientific approach has promoted itself to the rank of being the sole criterion of truth, and has reduced existence to the field of its study. It was natural for this approach to see religion as a human product, and so it did.
The second fatal blow was delivered to religion by Darwin's theory of evolution. When this biological theory was applied to humanity's history and products-as if there were and could not be an eternal, unchanging dimension of human existence containing certain perennial values and principles that govern human life-religion was subjected to this evolutionist approach.
According to modern Western assumptions, which are based on scientism and evolutionism, humanity is in a continuous, irresistible, and irreversible movement toward what is better. During this progress, it has gone through certain stages of intellectual and civilizational development. Many people have studied the origins of religion. Anthropologists have concentrated on the theory of the evolution of religion. For some, such as Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), religion's origin can be found in magic; others proposed animism or preanimism, totemism, fetishism, or polytheism. Later anthropologists concentrated more on religion's role in society than its origin. Social anthropologists saw religion as part of society and concentrated on field studies of particular tribes or analyzed myths, rituals, and symbols. Cultural anthropologists saw it as a set of beliefs, rites, and institutions.
To illustrate the differences of opinion that arise among such "experts," Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, a famous thirteenth-century Muslim Sufi, made this analogy: Some blind persons encounter an elephant and, on touching different parts of its body, offer their partial and contradictory definitions of what an elephant is: one finds it to be a heavy, thick column, while another thinks that it is a hard, flexible pipe, and so on. This is the situation in which Western scholars who study the origin of religion find themselves.
Just as anthropologists drew different conclusions, sociologists also put forward different opinions about the origin of religion.
The sociology of religion found its leading analysts in Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920). The former stressed religion's social functions by considering it a stabilizing factor created by a given society to express its ideals and unify itself. Weber, more dynamic and positive, saw religion's prophetic side as an instrument that could shape and change society, and tried to discern what aspect of Western religious attitudes or culture gave birth and then shaped capitalism. Other sociologists focused more on particular religious groups and institutions.
The psychology of religion centers upon the individual and personal religious experience. William James (1842-1910), one of its main exponents, described the "religion" of the healthy-minded and the sick soul, the "religion" of the once-born and the twice-born, and the psychological basis of prayer, meditation, mysticism, and conversion.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), whose research was based on theories of infantile sexuality and opposed by friends, patients, and medical colleagues, emphasized the importance of childhood sexual experiences and regarded religion as necessary illusions (delusions) and projections. He also argued that dreams, like neuroses, were disguised manifestations of repressed sexual desires.
More recent work in the psychology of religion has centered upon such issues as how different religious people or institutions really are, what is mature religious faith, what are the spiritual potentialities of human nature, and what are the stages of religious development in children and adults.
The common denominator in any Western analysis of religion is that religion was invented by people either to project repressed desire or weakness, or to represent an individual or collective effort to systematize a particular community's beliefs and rites. The corollary is the following: As science develops, humanity's need for religion will continue to decrease and eventually disappear. According to Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), religion is a dogma contradicted by modern society's fire and life insurance policies, railways and steamships, military forces and industrial schools, theatres and science museums. Karl Marx (1818-83) proclaimed that it is the opiate of the masses and inevitably will become a thing of the past.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) divided human history into three eras. The first era is the period of religion, when primitive people feared natural events and forces, and so needed to believe in a Supreme Being. The second era is the period of metaphysics, when humanity reached a considerable level of intellectual maturity. And the last era is the period of science, in which there is no room (or need) for religion, because reason and science will solve all human problems. Some people may continue to follow a reduced religion, comprising very basic moral and spiritual principles, to satisfy their emotional and spiritual needs and lead an upright life. But religion should not transgress its limits, and must not interfere in society's collective-especially political-life.
According to Ferdinand Buisson (1841-1932), the secular approach to life will not wipe out religion altogether, but will diminish it considerably and destroy the force of its dogmas and the basis of its doctrines.
Before proceeding to criticize Western (materialistic and evolutionist) views of religion, we should summarize other definitions of religion by various Western thinkers or philosophers.
Georg Hegel (1770-1831) maintained that religion is a certain view of the universe. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), an Italian follower of Hegel, defines religion as a philosophy that is incomplete. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) deals with religion from the viewpoint of social morality, and thinks that religion means considering all of our responsibilities as Divine ordinances. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) sees religion as no more than a feeling or excitement, an emotion or noble sentiment, felt for eternity. According to Ralph Otto, a contemporary theologian, religion is a mysterious fear combined with awe that causes people to tremble and yet attracts them to itself.
The positivistic and materialistic view of religion, promoted by modern Western attitudes and directed by the dogmas of science and technology, is highly questionable. The positivist line, which regards the West's sociological and economic, as well as its military and political, levels as the ultimate human achievement, has been criticized severely even by Western thinkers. Such a view engenders existential tension and anxiety. Toward the end of his life and despite his view of religion as a mode of thinking or being belonging to the second (long past) era of human history, Comte tried to establish a humanistic religion. This shows that religion is not something to be denied or dismissed as belonging to some long past phase of human development.
Also, despite the huge recent advances in science and technology, extreme sexual freedom, high living standards and education levels, there is a growing global interest in and turning to religion. We have seen the emergence of new, primitive religions such as devil worship, as well as the quest for contentment through certain authentic or such false supernormal phenomena as telepathy, necromancy, sorcery, and fortune-telling.
Moreover, as Erich Fromm puts it, we still see the pursuit of security and guarantees for the future through increased association with insurance companies and trade unions, mighty governments, and holdings and pacts. We have seen the almost-global collapse of communism and a return to religion in those countries.
All of this shows that the scientific theories of Western researchers in the field of religion have proven to be false. These events and trends also demonstrate that, whether sociological or anthropological or psychological, Western studies of religion are based on wrong premises.
Whereas religion is a rising global value and more and more people are turning to it, modern Western civilization is being questioned severely and shows signs of inward decay while outwardly it is at the peak of its dominion. Like many others, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), a famous German sociologist, prophesied the collapse of this civilization with all its skyscrapers, huge metropolises and railways, and foretold that it would be an ethnographic museum.
Such "refined" Western intellectuals and scientists as Rene Guenon, Alexis Carrel, Max Planck, Boris Pasternak, and James Jeans (1887-1946) have argued that religion would allow humanity to live in another era of happiness.
Also, the ongoing re-emergence of missionary churches in increasing numbers in Christendom and the return to Islamic values all over the Muslim world, despite the stern measures taken against Islam by native governments for several decades, demonstrate that it is almost impossible to defeat religion.