Islam at the Corssroads

Selections from the Book: Islam at the Corssroads

By: Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss)


What I had in mind when I wrote this book was a re-awakening of the Muslims' consciousness of their being socially and culturally different from the all-powerful Western society, and thus a deepening of their pride in, and their desire to preserve, such of their own traditional forms and institutions as would help them to keep that essential "difference" alive and make them once again culturally creative.

In 1922 I left my native country, Austria, to travel through Africa and Asia as a special correspondent to some of the leading Continental newspapers, and spent from that year onward nearly the whole of my time in the Islamic East. I saw before me a social order and an outlook on life fundamentally different from that of the Europe. From the very first, there grew in me sympathy for the more tranquil, I should rather say, more human ­ conception of life, as compared with the hasty, mechanized mode of living in Europe. This sympathy gradually led me to an investigation of the reasons for such a difference, and I became interested in the religious teachings of the Muslims. At the time in question , that interest was not yet strong enough to draw me into the fold of Islam, but it opened to me a new vista of a progressive -human society, organized -with a minimum of internal conflicts and a maximum of-real brotherly feeling.

I realized that the one and only reason for the social and cultural decay of the Muslims is the fact that they had gradually ceased to follow the teachings of Islam, in spirit. Islam was still there; but it was a body without a soul.

I have been asked, time and again: "Why did you embrace Islam? What was it that attracted you particularly?" I must confess that I do not have any single satisfactory answer. It was not any particular teaching that attracted me, but the whole wonderful, inexplicably coherent structure of moral teaching and practical life-programme. I could not say, even now, which aspect of it appeals to me more than any other. Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking; the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure. It is this feeling that everything in the teachings and postulates of Islam is "in its proper place" had created the strongest impression on me.

I was able to compare most of the different religious and social views prevalent in the Islamic world in our days. Those studies and comparisons created in me the firm conviction that Islam, as a spiritual and social phenomenon, is still, in spite of all the drawbacks caused by the deficiencies of the Muslims, by far the greatest driving force mankind has ever experienced.

Islam is not just a mental and spiritual direction that can be modified to accommodate different cultural environments but, rather, an integrated system with unparalleled clear cultural and social guidelines. When the influence of a foreign civilization extends to us and causes certain changes in our cultural life, we must ascertain whether this foreign influence is taking place in the direction of our cultural capabilities or the opposite of them.

Because Islamic civilization is essentially religious, we must try to define the general function of religion in human life. What we call religious inclination is a natural consequence of the mental and organic composition of the human being. Man is unable to know the secrets of life, birth, death, eternity and infinity, so he must choose between one of two directions, with no third choice:

The first choice is to stop every attempt to understand life, in general. In this case, he has to rely on the evidence of external experiences alone, so his understanding of life is limited by his experiences and, thus, he can understand individual aspects of life that can increase according to the increase in human knowledge of nature; They will remain limited because the full knowledge of life in general will remain out of reach of the means and tools of the perception of the human mind.

The second choice is to choose the path of religion, arrived at through a subjective experience inspired by sentimental solutions to life in believing that there is a supreme creative force that governs the universe according to an eternal appreciation that human understanding alone does not realize.

Having a religious orientation is the only option for understanding life as a whole by understanding how the origin and goals of life unite in harmonious purpose.

A religious person knows that everything that happens to him or from him is impossible to be the result of a blind game of unreasonable forces and without an end; He is sure that all exists by God’s will alone according to His knowledge of His creation and universal cosmic ability. With this knowledge, man can resolve the intense conflict between the human soul and the world of facts and appearances called nature.

The great benefit that religion brings to man is that he sees life as series of highly valued units of movement of being. The mental result of this realization is a deep feeling of psychological security that balances hopes and fears and distinguishes between the religious and the non-religious.

Although religions share their moral claim that the human being should surrender to God's supreme will, Islam alone goes beyond the theoretical statement, as its teachings do not stop at the unity of life. Islam shows us the practical way for each of us to experience - according to his energy - unity of thought and presence in consciousness.

Islam, in reality, is neither imaginary thought nor philosophy. Rather, it is an organization of life in line with what God has decreed to be the nature of His creation; The perfection of its creativity a perfect harmony between the spiritual and material aspects of human existence.

This is what I believe is behind the distinction of Islamic prayer, where the reverence and physical movements are consistent with it. Prayer in Islam consists of focus of the heart and physical movements, since human life is made up of both features, and because we must communicate with God with all the powers that God blessed with us with.

To further clarify this matter, we consider the circumambulation, where every Muslim entering the holy city of Makkah (for Hajj and Umrah) must walk seven times around the Kaaba. We ask ourselves: What does this mean? Is it necessary to show our religiosity in this formal way?

The Kaaba that every Muslim faces towards in prayer symbolizes the oneness of God. The physical movement of the pilgrim in the circumambulation symbolizes the activity of human life – not ritual worship alone, but all aspects of life. Our actions and intentions should revolve around the oneness of God as the center of activity according to the saying of God Almighty: {And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship [Me]}

Worship in the Islamic religion differs from worship in any other religion, because worship in Islam is not limited to ritual acts of worship, such as prayer and fasting, but extends to all human life as well. If the overall goal of our lives is to worship God, then we must view this life as an integrated moral responsibility.

Islam teaches us that worshiping God in all aspects of human life is the true meaning of life. It is impossible to achieve this if we divide life into two parts (material and spiritual); rather, they must be linked together in our thinking and actions.

Another difference between Islam and other religions is that the teachings of Islam involve the metaphysical relations between man and his Creator, as well as the earthly relations between the individual and his social environment.

Islam alone among all religions declares that individual human perfection is possible in this worldly life; it does not delay achieving this until the physical desires are suppressed.

Thus, whether a person is an ascetic or one who enjoys the pleasures of life, whether a nomad traveling in the desert, or a wealthy merchant, as long as he is submissive to God’s law, he is free to live his personal life according to his natural inclination.

The rule of this freedom in Islam is that a person is naturally truthful and good, contrary to the prevailing belief among Christians that man is born in sin, and contrary to Hindu teachings that the origin of man is degraded and unclean and he must take painful steps in a long chain from the shifts in the direction of achieving the goal of purity. The law of Islam confirms that a person is born pure, then he has the ability to achieve human perfection. God Almighty says: {We have created man in the best form}.

A person can preserve his original purity, which God created him in, if he worships God alone and sincerely follows His laws.

The concept of original ​​sin is contrary to the law of Islam. Rather, a person acquires sin of his own free will if he misuses the individual capabilities that God created for him and bestowed upon him. Rather, Islam permits a person to enjoy all legitimate worldly pleasures without losing his religious orientation.

In Islam, we do not acknowledge the existence of an inherited sin because this idea is counter to the justice of God Almighty; God does not hold a child responsible for the decisions of his parents.

Just as there is no inherited sin in Islam, there is also no proxy salvation for humankind; salvation and sin in Islam are two individual experiences; Each Muslim is responsible for the salvation of himself, and he carries in his heart all the potential for his success or failure based on whether or not he accepts and follows the law of God. God Almighty says: {[The soul] gets what it has earned, and is responsible for what it has acquired [from sins]} And God Almighty said: {man has nothing but what he sought}.

Islam differs in its outlook on this worldly life from the Western view that loves this life just as a person with food cravings loves food. As for Islam, it encourages us to look at life calmly and respectfully - not worship it, but to regard it as a necessary stage on the way to a higher life.

Islam leads a person to feel moral responsibility for all his actions, small and large.

Every Muslim individual must consider himself responsible, to a certain extent, for everything that is happening around him, and strive to achieve the truth and nullify the falsehood at all times, as stated in the verse from the Book of God {You were the best nation that was brought out to people}. This is the moral justification for the powerful effectiveness of Islam.

The conquest of the forefront of Islam was sometimes expansionary, and was not driven by a love of control; It had nothing to do with economic or national transcendence, nor with greed to increase the welfare of the Muslim at the expense of others, nor did it aim to coerce the infidels to accept Islam, but was aimed before and after to cultivate a better environment for human evolution.

Virtue lives and dies as much as the human endeavor to achieve its victory on Earth.

In Islam, moral considerations are above everything and define everything. The modern West is governed in all its activities by considerations of practical benefit.

There is a big difference between a Muslim’s understanding and a Westerner’s understanding of the value of human progress. The modern West believes in the potential of the social and moral development of mankind as a whole through its practical achievements.

As for the Muslim viewpoint, it is counter to the Western view, which is limited by material movement. Islam considers the moral potential of mankind, in general, because it is implanted in the entity of human nature since the beginning. Islam defines the origin of human nature, which is the human soul, not a biological substance.

In Western thought, increased material knowledge and physical well-being is equated with human moral development, and this is a mistake resulting from the application of the laws of matter to immaterialities. The roots of this error extend to the modern Western belief that there is no such thing as the soul. As for Islam, which is based on absolute metaphysical awareness, the existence of the soul is above doubt or suspicion. Although spiritual and material progress are not one thing because they are attached to two different aspects of human life, they can develop together.

While Islam clearly encourages and calls for human collective material progress, it also denies the possibility of the spiritual development of mankind through these accomplishments. It is imperative that everyone should strive for the religious goal of the development for the soul.

It is the duty of society to regulate the phenomenon of life so that the individual finds his path free of obstacles to achieving his spiritual ambition. Islamic law addresses both the religious and worldly aspects of a Muslim's life, as well as the individual and collective aspects of life. This balance is achieved only by believing in the existence of the soul and the existence of an unseen goal of salvation that governs human life.

What we call religious commitment is based on the belief that a comprehensive Sharia exists, and that we humans are obligated to abide by the orders of this Sharia. Modern Western civilization does not recognize the necessity of human commitment to anything other than economic, social and national requirements, and its devotion is not related to religion but to personal and social material success. It’s philosophy of life is evident in the quest to achieve strength and power, all inherited from Roman civilization.

Perhaps the most important intellectual factor preventing religious revival in Europe was the belief that Jesus was the son of God. There were, however, among philosophical minds, those who did not take the idea of ​​sonship to God literally, but they understood that God showed his mercy in a human form. Others are the majority of the Christians who took the word “son” literally in its true meaning. This led them to a fictional humanistic idea of ​​God himself, and they depicted him in the form of a great, great sheikh with an abundant beard. On accepting the human god-father idea ... then they rejected the idea of ​​God the Creator and true religion itself.

In addition to that, the dawn of the industrial age and its glorious manifestations of material progress began to direct people to new concerns in deliberate antagonism to every religious form embraced by man.


In Western thought and philosophy, whether it be it democrat, fascist, capitalist or communist, only one religion is known, which is the worship of material progress, and the belief that we have no goal but to make life easier and more enjoyable. The temples of this religion are the mega factories, the cinemas, chemical laboratories, and dance halls and the chaplains of this religion are bank owners, engineers, film representatives, industry heads, and distinguished athletes. The inevitable consequence of this passion for power and pleasure is the creation of heavily armed hostile groups, insisting that they eliminate each other when and where their interests clash.

In the extreme transformation of social life in the West, utilitarian ethics is becoming more and more evident. All the virtues related to the material welfare of society, such as technical competence and patriotism, are encouraged and developed. The old morals, governed by ethics such as family love and chastity, gradually lost their importance because they do not provide a material interest to society and were replaced by an unlimited individual freedom of the human body.

The first and most important goal in Islam is the moral advancement of a person. Thus moral considerations are superior to considerations of pure benefit.

The orientalists, in their writings, start by describing Islam as a suspect who must be condemned and the result of this unjust procedure is a strange distorted image of Islam.

Europe benefited a lot from its struggle with Muslims in the Crusades. The Renaissance in which the revival of European art and science was marked by influence from Muslim sources (especially Arabic) was largely due to the physical contact between East and West.

As long as Muslims continue to view Western civilization as the only force capable of resurrecting their stagnant society, they destroy their self-confidence and indirectly support the claim that Islam is a consuming power.

There is no doubt that religious belief lost its stability among our intellectuals who prefer Western values and the explanation for this phenomenon is not so much that the Western science that they have accepted has presented them with a mental argument against the reality of our religious teachings, but that the intellectual climate of modern Western society is so anti-religious that it strongly imposed itself on the religious potential of the new Muslim generation.

History proves beyond a reasonable doubt that no religion has granted scientific progress as much incentive as Islam.

Knowledge itself is neither Western nor Eastern, but rather global, just as the facts of nature are universal, however, the perspective from which these facts are presented and viewed from them varies according to the cultural characteristics of nations.  

The preference of one culture and civilization over another is not based on its scientific knowledge, but rather on its ethical practices, and on the extent of its ability to interpret and balance the various aspects of human life. In this regard, Islam is above every other culture.

Only very superficial people can believe that it is possible to imitate a civilization in its outward appearance without being influenced by its spirit. Civilization is not an empty form, but rather a dynamic entity. Whenever we begin to embrace the external forms of this being, its innate tendencies and active effects begin to gradually affect us.

In order for the revival of the Islamic world to succeed, every Muslim must live with his head held high and realize and cherish his distinction. He must strive to preserve this distinction as a valuable asset.

This does not mean that Muslims should isolate themselves from every voice emanating from abroad; it is possible that they will receive beneficial new influences from a foreign civilization without abandoning their own.

Islam is not only a belief in the heart; it is also a program for individual and social life, but it’s great clarity can be diminished by linking it with a foreign culture based on non-Islamic moral values.

A Muslim today is like a traveler who has reached a crossroads. He may choose to stand at this crossroads, and this means death by starvation. He may choose the path indicated by a sign to Western civilization, and this means his departure from his past forever, and he may choose the path to the truth of Islam. This path alone is what attracts those who believe in the past of Islam and its ability to transform our present in to a successful future.

To think that the general orders and prohibitions in the Qur’an are specific to pre-Islamic Arabs at the time of the revelation, and not to intellectuals in the twentieth century is a misconception.

Islam leads man to unify all directions of his life in devotion to God.

There is no place in Islam for selective acceptance. Whether the teaching comes from the Qur’an or from the Sunnah of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, it must be accepted in its entirety, otherwise there is no value to claimed belief.

An impartial person will not claim that there is something in the Qur’an that contradicts reason even though there is no doubt that in the Qur’an there are metaphysics that go beyond the limits of our present understanding.

We do not need to prove that human understanding is very limited in its capabilities – this should be understood. The mind is not able to understand the idea of ​​the collage; it may be able to perceive the details of things alone, but we do not know the meanings of eternity and infinity. In matters of religion based on metaphysical foundations, we need evidence that has more thinking than ordinary minds do, and more than the personal rationality that each of us possesses. As long as we believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, we are obligated - morally and mentally - to absolutely follow this guidance.

We do not see the doctrine of Islam as one of the ways, but rather we see it as the only path, and that the man with whom God has guided us is not one among a number of guides, but he is the only guide.

History tells us that all human cultures and civilizations go through all the stages of organic life: they are born, grown up, reach their greatest intensity, and in the end they diminish and perish.

We believe that Islam is not just a culture among a number of cultures, and not just a human thought among a number of ideas. It is a productive force of culture. God Almighty has revealed a law for mankind to follow in every time and place even if the point of view towards it changes completely. What appears to be weakness in Islam is nothing but death and emptiness in hearts that have become so ignorant and divine that they are unable to hear the voice of eternal truth.

There is no indication that humanity in its present state today has transcended Islam, as it has not been able to produce a moral system that is better than what Islam teaches. It has not been able to apply the idea of ​​human brotherhood on a practical basis as Islam did, and it has not been able to find a structure as socially tolerant as that found in the laws of Islam. Furthermore, it has not been able to uphold the dignity of the human being and his sense of security and eschatological hope, as well as his happiness, as Islam has.

We do not need to reform Islam, because God has completed it for us; What we need to reform is our attitude towards religion.

Change is imperative, but it must be a change within ourselves, and it should be towards Islam, not away from it.

We must avoid the innovation of apologizing for Islam, which is a feature of defeatism, and merely a cover for our weak trust in it.

We must follow our firm awareness of the way of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, which is the practical application of the teachings of Islam. By implementing this, we will establish the optimal standard for distinguishing between what can be taken from the incentives of Western civilization and must be rejected.

We will not advance again unless we restore our confidence. God has shown us the way in his clear book: {For you had a good example in the Messenger of God for those who hope for God and for the Last Day and remember God much.]

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