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The Absence of Revivalists Outside Islam

wayBy Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Nadwi

We find extremely few persons who have revived and renovated other religions. The absence of such teachers for hundreds or rather thousands of years in other religions is striking enough. There has hardly been any renovator who could pull down the innovations and deviations which had found their way into other religions, restore the original purity, give a call to shed the accretions, decry the foreign elements, rites and customs, wage a war against the inroads of materialistic and pleasure-seeking ideas and enlighten the hearts of his co-religionists by his faith, true spiritualism and a personal example of ennobling sacrifice for his cause.

Christianity can particularly be cited as a case in point. It deviated from its path in the middle of its first century and deteriorated from a monotheistic faith to a polytheistic cult – such an early retrogression is not to be found elsewhere. It became an admixture of the Greek and Buddhist religious thoughts, and, what is noteworthy, this happened through the hands of its greatest mentor and teacher, St. Paul (10-65 A.D.). The transformation was really from one world to another, changing its shape and content to such an extent that only the name and a few rites of the former could survive in the new religion. Ernest De Bunsen describes the mutilation undergone by Christianity in these words:

The doctrinal system recorded in the new Testament is not that which Jesus Christ has solemnly preached by word and deed. Not in Jesus, but in Paul, the Jewish and Christian dissenter, with his hidden wisdom, with his figurative interpretation of the Scriptures as being full of types and prophecies of future things, lies the principal reason for the existing dissension between Christians on the one side, and Jews and Mahomedans on the other. Following Stephen, the promulgator and developer of Essenic doctrines, Paul has brought the author of Christianity in connection with Buddhist traditions. Paul has laid the foundation to that amalgamation of antagonistic traditions which can be traced in the New Testament Sciptures, and which has presented to the World an essentially non-historical image of Christ. Not Jesus, but Paul and the later gnostics have framed the principal doctrines which during the eighteen centuries have been recognised as the foundation of Orthodox Christianity (De Bunsen: p.128).

During all these years, and even today, Christendom has been treading the path shown by St. Paul. It could not produce a man who would have revolted against the antagonistic traditions which were made a part and parcel of Christianity by St. Paul. No body tried for centuries to bring back the religions of Jesus Christ to the point where the exalted teacher and his disciple had left it. At last Martin Luther (1488-1546) raised the banner of Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century, but even his effort was limited to certain specific issues; the movement did not aim at bringing back the Christendom to the teachings of Jesus Christ nor did it represent a revolt against the wrong direction that Christianity had been forced to adopt. This Christianity could not produce any revolutionary, and, at the same time, a successful movement for its reformation for about fifteen centuries. Christian scholars too admit the face that no mentor or movement could manage to accomplish a reformation of Christianity during the first fifteen hundred years of its career.

J.B. Mullinger writes in his article on “Reformation” in Encyclopedia Britannica:

If, however, we endeavor to assign the causes which prevented the Reformation from being carried even to but partial success long prior to the 16th century, we can have no difficulty in deciding that foremost among them must be placed the manner in which the medieval mind was fettered by a servile regard for precedent. To the men of the Middle ages, whether educated or uneducated, no measure of reform seemed defensible which appeared in the light of innovation” (E.B.R.: Vol. XX, p.320).

The same writer continues at another place in the same article:

The complete failure of these successive efforts to bring about any comprehensive measure of church reform is a familiar fact in European history” (Ibid, p.321).

And again:

Not a few, and some very measurable, efforts had been made before the 16th century to ring about a reformation of doctrine, but these had almost invariably been promptly visited with the censure of the church” (Ibid, p. 321).

After Martin Luther, no other person raised a voice against the senseless doctrines of the church and papal supremacy, even to the limited extent that Luther did in the sixteenth century. Christianity thus continued its journey uninterrupted on the path it was forced to tread. At last, the Church lost the influence it wielded on the Christendom and gave place to crass materialism. The religion of the West today is nothing but materialism, yet, Christianity has been unable to bring forth a single individual who could have combated the evils of materialism, brought back the West to the fountain-head of true religion, restored faith in true Christianity and upheld the moral and spiritual values against utilitarian, pleasure-seeking norms of the present-day sensate culture. Instead of accepting the challenge of the modern age and finding out solutions to the present problems within the religious view of life and the world, the West appears to have lost all hope in Christianity itself.

Almost the same story was repeated in the East also. Hinduism lost its way by asundering its relation with the Creator of the Universe, giving up its simplicity and depriving itself of the moral and spiritual vitality. It became more an impracticable and complicated system of speculative thought by losing the chord of unalloyed monotheism and equality of mankind; for, these are the two basic tenets on which any religion can flourish, with its roots deep into the soul of man and branches providing shade and solace to the human beings.

Upanishadic writers tried their level best to put a stop to this contamination by totally discarding the rituals that had gained a foothold into Hinduism, and replacing it by philosophical doctrines – a conceptual interpretation of the faith. These elucidations being grounded in pantheistic monism or attaining unity through plurality were acclaimed in the literary and intellectual circles but the masses, who were intellectually at a lower level and yearned for rituals and practical manifestation of the monistic doctrines, remained unimpressed by the idealism of the Upanishads. The result was that Hinduism gradually lost its vitality; dissatisfaction and incredulity gained ground and the revolt against the Brahmanic order found expression in Buddhism in the sixth century B.C.

Buddha founded a new religion (if it can be so named, for Buddhism eliminated the concepts of Divinity, Hereafter and requital – the essential ingredients for any religion) which opposed the then prevalent caste system and Brahmanic ritual order, sought annihilation of human misery through suppression of all desires – the will-to-live and will-to-possess – and commanded moral behavior, right mental attitude, non-violence, kindness and social service. It rapidly spread to south-east Asia and a few other countries.

Buddhism, however, soon deviated from the teachings of its founder. Incorporating into its system the idol worship and ritualism against which Buddhism had started its career, there remained nothing to distinguish it from Hinduism except the numerous categories of gods and goddesses to which the latter owed allegiance. Buddhism was ever willing to adapt itself to the environment of local conditions where it spread; it was divided into numerous sects; incorporated superstitions, complicated ideas and concepts and degenerated into a cess-pool of moral corruption. Prof. Ishwar Topa observes in Hindustani Tamaddun:

“…the Kingdom that was established under the patronage of Buddhism began to present a vast scene of idolatry. The atmosphere in the monasteries was changing and heretic innovations were being introduce one after another (Dr. Ishwar Topa; Vol. I, pp.137-138).

The degeneration of Buddhism has been described thus by Jawahar Lal Nehru in the Discovery of India:

Brahmanism made of Buddha an avatar, a god. So did Buddhism. The Mahayana doctrine spread rapidly, but it lose in quality and distinctiveness what it gained in extent. The monasteries became rich centres of vested interests, and their discipline became lax. Magic and superstition crept into popular forms of worship. There was a progressive degeneration of Buddhism in India after the first millennium of its existence. Mrs. Rhys Davis points our its diseased sate during that period: ‘Under the overpowering influence of these sickly imaginations the moral teachings of Gautama have been almost hid from view. The theories grew and flourished, each new step, each new hypothesis demanded another; until the while sky was filled with forgeries of the brain, and the nobler and simpler lessons of the founder of the religion were smothered beneath the glittering mass of metaphysical subtleties…(Taken from Radhakrishnan’s ‘Indian Philosophy’). There were several bright periods subsequently and many remarkable men arose. But both Brahmanism and Buddhism deteriorated and degrading practices grew up in them. It became difficult to distinguish the two” (Nehru: pp. 141-142).

In none of the countries in which Buddhism had spread a person was born during the long period of its rule, who could reform the degenerated Buddhism, infuse the breath of new life into it and bring it back to the teachings of Gautama.

Hinduism gradually absorbed Buddhism into itself and finally Sankaracharya banished it almost totally from India in the eighth century by reviving the old Hindu faith. Hardly any trace of Buddhism was left in India; wherever it still survived, it was little more than a decadent, local cult of no importance. On the other hand, Sankaracharya, endowed with intelligence, courage and religious fervour succeeded in eliminating Buddhism from India but he could not or perhaps never intended to revive the ancient Hindu religion in its original and pristine purity by inculcating faith in the unity of the Supreme Being, direct relationship between man and God, equality and social justice. As a result, both the Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, still survive with the sickly characteristics of their decadent state viz. superstitious beliefs and rituals, idolatry and caste system. V.S. Ghate, the late Professor of Sanskrit in Elphinstone College, Bombay, writing on Sankarcharya in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics says that ‘the greatest object of Sankara’s labours was the revival of the system of religion and philosophy taught in the Upanishads‘ (E.R.E.; p. 186). Sankara, succeeded in putting down the heterodox system and establishing the doctrine of pantheistic monism, as presented in the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita, but he ‘did not attack or destroy idolatry’ (E.R.E.; p. 189). Sankara, condemned all ritualism and Karama and at the same time defended the worship of popular gods, which was to him a ‘symbolism rather than idolatry’ (E.R.E.; p. 186). Sankara considered idolatry a necessity at one stage of religious growth which is either given up or suffered to remain from its harmlessness when the religious spirit is mature. Thus Sankara allowed idols as symbols of the great infinite for those who cannot rise themselves to the comprehension of the one, changeless, non-qualified Brahman’ (Ibid).

In this way all the efforts made from the time of Sankaracharya down to Dayanand Sarswati and Mahatma Gandhi to reform the eastern religions proved fruitless to renovate Hinduism and Buddhism in a manner to make them compatible with revelation, religious urge of humanity and the requirements of changing times. These religions have, as a result of this stagnation, succumbed to materialism; the vast areas of human life and behaviour have drifted beyond their reach while they have themselves taken shelter behind temples and shrines, soulless rituals and traditions. Any number of obscurantist movements working for the revival of the ancient Indian languages and culture can be seen at work in the country today but none is capable of giving a soul-stirring call inviting people back to religion by reinterpreting the true content of religious and moral faith in the light of current needs.

No religion can maintain its vigour for long and offer a satisfying answer to the questions of ever-changing life unless it can produce guides and standard-bearers who can infuse a breath of new life into its followers through their personal example of unflinching faith, moral and spiritual excellence, immaculate sincerity, heroic sacrifice, self-confidence, ardent zeal, intellectual eminence and erudite scholarship. Life always poses new problems, temptations of flesh are ever on its side, materialistic urge in man always impels him to take the ways of self-indulgence and licentiousness, and, at the same time, we have always had men who were ardent and zealous supporters of the epicurean view and affluent living, materialistic brilliance and worldly success. Therefore, unless a religion also gets indefatigable defenders, renovators and redeemers who can face the challenge of atheism and materialism, it cannot hope to remain a living force for its followers for long.

Defense Against Heresy

History bears a testimony to the fact that there has never been a spell, however brief, during the past one and a half thousand years when the message of Islam was eclipsed or its teachings were engulfed by heresy, and the Islamic conscience became dormant enough to accept a contaminated faith. Whenever an effort was made from any quarter whatsoever to distort the tenets of Islam, pervert or falsify its teachings, or it was attacked by sensist-materialism, someone invariably came forward to accept the challenge and fight it out to the grief of Islam’s adversary. History records many a powerful movement in its day, which posed a danger for Islam but now it is difficult to find out even the true impact of its thought. Only a few people know today what Qadriyah (Rationalists believing in free will), Jahmiyyah (Determinists), ‘Itizal (Dissenters), creation of the Qur’an, Existentialist Monism, Deen-i-Elihu, etc., exactly mean, although these represented, at one time or the other, very important schools of thought and, with the most powerful imperial powers of their day and some extremely learned and able persons at their back they had threatened to stifle Islam. Finally, however, it was Islam which gained ascendancy over these contending forces. These powerful movements are known today as simply different schools of thought and are to be found now in philosophical and dialectical treatises. This tradition of struggle against un-Islam, the spirit to preserve and renovate the pristine teachings of the faith and the effort to infuse people with a revolutionary spirit to re-assert the divine message are as old as Islam itself.


Extracted from the prologue of Saviours of Islamic Spirit published by Islamic Research and Publications, Lucknow, India.

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