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God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam

May 3, 2012

Paper time…an essay from a World Religions class:

Introduction

            In the 1970’s, the famous postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard in effect (if not in intent) announced the death of the metanarrative.[1]  Up to that point, for centuries, humanity had sought to explain its existence—and the existence of all things—by situating itself within a grand story or worldview that would bring cohesiveness to existence and explain where we are going and meant to go.  Whether the ancient myths of the Egyptians, the myths of the Greeks, or the emergence of monotheistic religious traditions, humanity, seemingly from its inception, has struggled to make sense of existence and has sought to explain such existence through placing itself in a larger story—a story that could explain the most fundamental questions of human existence:  where did I come from?  Why do I exist?  What is the goal of my existence?  And of course, what happens after I die?[2]

With the rise of postmodernism, however, the idea that there is one, universal, and overarching narrative (a narrative to explain all narratives) was called into question and even denounced, hence Lyotard’s death-knell.  Instead, the condition we find ourselves in is one of pluralism—where local, or even individualized explanations about existence are considered equally valid.  Religious traditions that claim to express “universal truth” are discarded in favor of personal and subjective truth.    In postmodernism, with no metanarrative to provide cohesiveness, these questions continue to be asked, but answers are difficult to be found beyond the “believe what feels right.”

And yet, for all of the resistance[3]—indeed rejection—of the idea of an overarching worldview, the announcement by Lyotard was premature.  Both philosophically and existentially, a strong case can be made that the fundamental questions of human existence are to be answered in light of grand story, a story that can make sense of our individual, social, moral, and spiritual existence.  In the minds, and more importantly, in the hearts of many thinking people, there is the intuition that humanity is part of something much bigger, and that individual lives and the projection of human history itself is heading toward some purpose—a grand “The End.”[4]

From the beginning, religious narratives have fulfilled this purpose, and in spite of an “incredulity” toward them as expressed by Lyotard, the major religions each still provide a narrative that offers humanity answers to the questions of its existence.  Yet, in our age of pluralism and skepticism toward any one religious worldview being true, we must admit that there is a “plurality of narratives” to decide from.  So, must we agree with Lyotard and other postmodernists that all of them are equally valid (or invalid)?  I do not believe so, and I offer a quote from a Muslim philosopher as a response

Endeavors to identify normative guidelines that may help humanity lead a better life will fall short of their goals if there is no sound conceptualization of the objective of human existence.  A belief system specifying the ultimate goal of human existence is therefore essential, as such a system provides a sense of direction and harmony without which human efforts are prone to frustrating disconcordance [emphasis mine].[5]

It seems reasonable to assume that either consciously or unconsciously, human beings will gravitate toward a metanarrative that gives cohesion to their existence.[6]  Therefore it also seems reasonable that a conscious exploration of competing worldviews, in how they answer the major questions of existence, is both necessary and good.  I aim to begin such an exploration in this essay.

The Scope of this Essay

To explore all major metanarratives in their entirety would require a book-length treatment.  Therefore, in order to narrow the focus, I have chosen to limit an initial exploration to the one of the predominant religious worldviews today:  Islam.[7]  I have also chosen to focus on one aspect of this worldview:  a doctrine of humanity.  While a doctrine of God precedes and informs a doctrine of humanity in the monotheistic religions, and will obviously play a necessary role, I am more interested, at this point, in exploring questions such as:  Why do human beings exist?  What is their role in creation?  What is his/her purpose or goal?  What is his/her nature?  And so forth.

My goal in such an exploration is two-fold.  First, I will attempt to articulate an understanding of the Islamic faith that is faithful to it and is represented positively to a western audience.  This is as much an exercise in increased objectivity (as much as possible) as it is for the purpose of this paper.  As an adherent to the Christian faith, I am aware of how predisposed I am to giving the best possible picture of my own faith tradition, while often not giving due consideration to other alternatives.  Thus, this is an exercise in seeking understanding for the purpose of religious dialogue.  Second, after exploring the Islamic metanarrative and the theology that informs and answers the questions of existence, I will conclude by briefly offering how the Christian metanarrative differs regarding its understanding of God and humanity. Though there is much that is similar between these two faiths, there is a great deal that is vastly different.  This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in how each faith answers the question, “For what purpose did God create man?”  In Islam, the most obvious conclusion is that Allah creates man to serve Him, much like a trusted advisor does a king, and worship him as Creator and master.  Though these are certainly part of an understanding of humanity in the Christian metanarrative, they only find their fulfillment in the ultimate purpose of being created to share in the divine love that exists eternally in the Triune God.[8]  To put it over simplistically, in Christianity the possibility of intimate relationship between God and man is imminent and designed; in Islam, it is virtually absent.  We now proceed to the “narrative” of Islam.


[1] By metanarrative is meant a grand “story” or worldview that provides cohesiveness to all existence and is binding upon all peoples.   According to Lyotard and other postmodernists, what we now have in place of a metanarrative is a “plurality of narratives and viewpoints, none of which can claim to be absolute.”  See, Laurence W. Wood, Theology as History and Hermeneutics: A Post-Critical Conversation with Contemporary Theology (Lexington, KY:  Emeth Press, 2005), 86.

[2] I am not suggesting that religious traditions emerge solely from the need to explain existential matters.  It could indeed be the opposite—we have existential concerns precisely because we are part of a grand story.  Yet, either way, we do have basic questions of existence and our answers have usually come from embracing some sort of metanarrative that brings cohesiveness to our existence.

[3] Some of this resistance was greatly needed in light of the faulty assumptions that guided the modernist metanarrative.

[4] In fact, when one considers that even in naturalism, there too is a beginning and an end—though the narrative itself admits that the story is meaningless—one cannot escape the fact, that one way or another, we are involved in a metanarrative.

[5] ‘Abd al Majid Najjar, The Viceregency of Man, Between Revelation and Reason: A Critique of the Dialectic of the Text, Reason, and Reality, translated by Aref T. Atari (Herndon, VA:  The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2000), xix.  Randall Robertson, in writing of how the identity of Black Americans was crushed through slavery makes this fascinating statement:  “No people can live successfully, fruitfully, triumphantly without strong memory of their past, without reading the future within the context of some reassuring past, without implanting reminders of the past in the present.”  In The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Penguin Group, 2000), 27.  How much more does this apply to human history?  We must have a sense of past in order to know a sense of future.  This is precisely why a metanarrative is essential to our existence.

[6] Consider the case for many Americans.  Though many do not claim a religious metanarrative, is not our obsession for material gain not a concession to a metanarrative of American capitalism or Western ‘progress’?

[7] In my view, there are three major metanarratives vying for prominence:  Christianity, Islam, and Naturalism/Materialism.  Two are theistic, one is non-theistic.

[8] The concept of the Trinity in Islam is precluded from the beginning by Islam’s concept of tawhid or the absolute oneness of Allah.  This is unfortunate, because while it serves as the most foundational doctrine in Christianity—it literally informs every other theological doctrine of Christian faith—it is “outlawed” from the outset by Islamic belief.  We will discuss the importance of the concept of a Triune God in its relation to the nature of humanity later.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. kat permalink
    May 3, 2012 11:29

    world religions?—your point of view seems “western” not global.
    1) Plurality of metanarratives has always been a part of the East and it is here in the East that 60% of the 1.6 billion Muslims live!
    2)The rejection of a Christian metanarrative is a particularly “western” phenomenon born out of its own historical struggles and does not apply to other “World religions”
    3) From my perspective—Christian narrative is about what God does for Man whereas Islam asks the question–What can Man do for God?.
    4) In Islam, Tawhid is the basic concept from which all other values of morality/ethics, equality, justice, compassion…..etc spring from.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      May 4, 2012 7:54

      Kat,

      Thanks for commenting! I didn’t think anyone read these things. 🙂 You are right, my perspective for this paper is very western. That is certainly my context and one from which I feel comfortable writing. The class itself, though, was a study of the major religions both western and eastern. And I agree with points 2-4. I wonder though if the “incredulity” toward metanarratives does in fact apply to other world religions as globalism spreads and western materialism becomes the dominant story that people unconsciously embrace. I could be wrong.

  2. kat permalink
    May 4, 2012 10:11

    I am a Muslim from S.E.A. Here in the East where the population is dense and still growing, multireligious communities have to co-exist—but this co-existence is something that has been going on for thousands of years. During this time Civilizations in the East have seen both progress and decline—so the present technological, scientific and economic progress is part of the cycle of history. “Western materialism” creates a focus on outer achievements taking away the focus on inner achievements of character and spirituality—this is seen clearly in the systemic corruption that appears in all the countries in the East—-Yet perhaps surprisingly, globalization is creating an “identity crises” here in the East as it is in the West—here people gravitate towards their “cultural” identity—which is intertwined with their religious identities—unlike in the West where “enlightenment” values separated the religious and secular identities.

    However, the story is still in the process of unfolding here and time will tell which direction we will end up…………..

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      May 4, 2012 10:54

      Thanks Kat for sharing some of the context of eastern culture! It is a pleasure to meet you. I have attempted in this essay to present a faithful understanding of Islam that dispenses with many of the stereotypes westerners have towards it as a worldview. I certaintly invite your feedback as I proceed–it would be greatly appreciated!

      Blessings,
      Jonathan

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