“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?”: The Democratized Utopia of Scriptural Understanding

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“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

Being a graduate student of the study of Religion, every day is an eye-opener for me – a stark reality check – about how much there is to learn and how negligible a proportion of it I have managed to know so far. Clearly, a two-year long degree programme was not going to make me an expert on the intricate matters of faith and, most certainly, I will not pretend that it has. However, perhaps not everybody shares my degree of self-doubt. Recently, I heard one of my class-fellows voice his opinion in the class to this effect: “We need to take the legal tradition of Islam from the scholars who have monopolized it and give it to the ordinary people.” This got me to ruminate the entire day on how problematic I find this opinion to be. This article is precisely a cathartic outlet to that very rumination.

I would like to believe that the speaker’s opinion came from a well-meaning place, but I wonder who is this ‘we’ who’s bent upon snatching the tradition away from the scholars? Is it not an alarming case of intellectual hubris when individuals in their 20s, with barely two to three semesters of training in a religious studies degree based in a Western institution not only deem themselves fully qualified to take the Islamic tradition away from the scholars but also believe that scholarly contributions to the tradition can be bypassed in favor of individual efforts and interpretations. Presumably, the aim of this endeavor is the democratization of knowledge. It is needless to say that this is not a novel suggestion. The Protestant idea of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, and the modernist emphasis on breaking the chains of centuries worth of scholarly tradition in order to eradicate the intellectual stasis is echoed on the other end of the spectrum of modern madness when enraged accountants and engineers convince groups to go on killing sprees based on their ‘interpretations’ of the book. The increasing radicalization in the Muslim world in the past century is the very fruit of unqualified individuals interpreting scripture on their own, without the requisite tools, bending it to all sorts of devious and heinous ends.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concede that that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not a monopoly of the select few but a collective inheritance of the believers. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that that there has to be a systematic ethic with which this inheritance is to be viewed. Quran and hadith comprise not only of unequivocal general ethical exhortations but they also contain specific, legal, and deeply perplexing content, to comment on which scholars traditionally received training for decades within multiple religious sciences before they considered themselves qualified. And since everyone does not have the temperament, ability, or desire to possess these requisite tools, it is encouraged that when seeking clarity on crucial matters one asks those who do.

Certainly universal ethical principles can be consumed individually, but Quran and hadith are not entirely composed of ethical principles. How do ‘common people’ derive clear doctrinal precepts from scripture? Have they historically done so without utilizing the heritage of the scholars? Commenting on the verse 16:44 wherein the Prophet is reminded that Quran is sent down to him so that he may ‘explain it to the people,’ Taqi Usmani writes that “Had the interpretation of even this type of subjects (doctrinal issues) been open to everybody irrespective of the volume of his learning, the Holy Quran would not have entrusted the Holy Prophet with the functions of ‘teaching’ and ‘explaining’ the book.”

Even after the Prophet, Quran clearly encourages one to ask those who know and explicitly reminds that not everyone ‘knows’; undoubtedly, everyone is not at the same station of knowledge.

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

“Question the people of the Remembrance, if it should be that you do not know..” (Q 16:43)

“And these similitudes We mention before the people. And nobody understands them except the learned.” (Q 29:43)

“Rather, the Qur’an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. ” (Q 29:44)

The classical intellectual heritage of Islam owes its existence to the works of committed scholars. In my modest opinion, a handful of self-styled modern religious ‘scholars’ who use and abuse religion for political ends must not lead one to discredit an entire tradition standing on the efforts, commitment, and wisdom of those authentic scholars – classical, post-formative, and present – the ‘heirs of the Prophet’ according to the famous hadith – who worked sincerely and relentlessly to preserve the integrity of this extremely rich and beautiful tradition.

Not only is Quran a difficult book, the hadith and sunnah are even harder: Ibn Wahb (d. 813), an Egyptian jurist who travelled to Medina to study with Malik ibn Anas, noted that he learnt so many hadiths that they began to confuse him, and if it weren’t for Malik through which God rescued him, he would have destroyed himself. Malik used to guide him to study some hadiths and leave some.

Islamic tradition has been and will remain, if any meaningful understanding of it has to be acquired, a tradition learnt under the guidance of teachers – under the shadows of the scholars. One of the modern sages who’s been my constant source of inspiration quoted these Arabic verses recently which I find most germane to this issue under discussion:

العلم انتقل من الصدور الئ السطور / ولكن بقي الرجال مفاتيح لتلك السطور

(at some point) the knowledge was transferred from the breasts to lines (of books) / but humans still remain keys to those books

And Allah knows best.


“Kill them wherever you find them”: Violence in the Quran? The wise speak only of what they know…

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Following is the set of verses in Surah al-Baqarah, Chapter 2 of the Quran, that is often cited to highlight the so-called ‘controversial’ and potentially violent character of the Quran:

2:191: And slay them wheresoever you come upon them, and expel them whence they expelled you, for strife is worse than slaying. But do not fight with them near the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you there. But if they fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. 2:192: But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.

Many exegetes have suggested that these verses were revealed against the backdrop of Treaty of Hudaybiyah when many Muslims feared an attack from the Meccans. So these verses laid out the guidelines for a prospective combat. For instance, even though fighting was forbidden in and near the Sacred Mosque, Muslims were enjoined to fight back if they were attacked near the Mosque. It has also been argued that these verses are describing the limits of warfare by emphasizing 2:194: “So whosoever transgresses against you, transgress against him in like manner as he transgressed against you…” as a reminder that this is an authorization for a commensurate response to aggression, rather than a license for inordinate carnage. Aforementioned verses also appear strikingly similar to another set of verses from Surah al-Nisa:

4:89: They wish that you should disbelieve, even as they disbelieve, that you may be on a level with them. So take them not as protectors till they migrate in the way of God. But if they turn their backs, then seize them wherever you find them, and take no protector or helper from among them. 4:90…. If they withdraw from you, and do no fight you, and offer peace, God allows you no way against them.

Arguably, these verses were also revealed in a very specific context when a group of ‘hypocrites’ in Medina acted like war traitors, and thus their alliance was to be avoided. Again, the qualifier in 4:90 reiterates that if these deserters are not fighting against the Muslims, then peace should be extended.

Since these verses were revealed in very specific contexts, breach of a treaty or the imminence of a war, they have no universal import and hence they cannot be invoked during times of peace in order to justify the initiation of aggression. However, these ayat remain problematic because of what Lesley Hazleton refers to as the “yellow highlighter” version of reading the Quran: cherry-picking of isolated verses leading to misunderstood perceptions causing fear of Islam on one end of the spectrum, and the abused, de-contextualized misunderstanding of the text to justify violence, on the other. These are particular context-based verses which arguably come in contradistinction with the more universal principles such as the sanctity of human life (5:32, 6:151). This observation gives rise to questions about any measures taken by the traditional Quranic exegetical sciences to resolve tensions when a universal principle comes in conflict with a particular verse. Moreover, the presence of such verses also highlights the possibility that scripture in general, not just Quran, can be a dangerous text if approached without formal instruction, adequate interpretive tools, or historical background. As Huston Smith aptly notes in his ‘World’s Religions’ that Quran is not the kind of book that you would just casually decide to curl up and read by the window on one rainy evening. Traditionally, Suyuti (d. 911/1505) listed 12 disciplines that must be mastered for an individual to be considered qualified as a Quranic exegete: 1. Lexicology 2. Grammar 3. Morphology 4. Etymology 5. Semantics / Linguistic Pragmatics 6. Imagery and Figurative Language 7. Rhetorical Embellishments 8. Modes of Recitation 9. Theology 10.Legal Methodology 11.Circumstances of Revelation 12.Abrogation. This makes one wonder to what extent a modern, novice reader of this text is qualified to interpret its intricacies with the only  tool at his disposal being prejudiced ignorance and unapologetic hubris.

In this context, it also needs to be asked whether or not can the Protestant idea, of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, be extended to Quran as well.

I argue that the role of supplementary exegetical guidance is absolutely indispensable for Quranic readers, Muslims or non-Muslims, if they are seeking to develop any meaningful understanding of it or its so-called ‘controversies’ that do not live up to their 21st century sensibilities. The sciences of fiqh have developed stipulations such as asbaab (causes), shuroot (conditions), mawaana’i (restrictions), rukhas (licenses), and azaayem (firmness) to determine whether or not a decree in the Quran holds applicability in any given situation: khitaab-al-wada (the situational discourse). The necessity of these complementary interpretive tools ought to be all the more imperative when it comes to studying the Quranic decrees widely held ‘controversial’ because they highlight the historical character of the so-called ‘verses of the ‘sword in the Quran as well as the restrictions on their applicability outside of the context of their revelation.

Interesting, Quran itself seems to acknowledge the idea that the readers of the text can use it to do both good and evil; that the same message can both guide and mislead. 2:26: “… He misleads many by it, and He guides many by it, and He misleads none but the iniquitous.”  So, without the informed historical context and well-developed interpretive tools, most readers are likely to insert their own values, biases, and motives into the text, ending up potentially misguided and misguiding.

Jesus Christ & a Religion Based on Empathy

Drawing credits: Me , Text reads a verse by Faiz: Tera husn dast-e-Isa, teri yaad ru-e-Maryam

Even though the Christian Bible is filled with Jesus’ acts and words urging selfless behavior and unconditional love towards righteous and sinner alike, I identified an overwhelming emphasis on the virtue of empathy in his model and teachings, even though the word empathy itself has not been mentioned anywhere explicitly in the text but implied: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Empathy is generally defined as attempting to understand someone’s situation or feelings by identifying oneself with them, or imagining oneself in their place. So, empathy is evident even in the terms a command as basic as “love thy neighbor” has been formulated: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”” (Galatians 5:14).  It is interesting to note that this urges not just to love your neighbor in any extent, for that could have been understood to mean that even loving slightly or being faintly concerned about them was enough. But this adds an empathetic sense to the command by stressing that one’s love and concern for the neighbor should be matched by one’s concern for one’s own comforts.

The following formulation “do not do unto others what you would not want to be done unto you” has been attributed to Jewish rabbis as well as Confucius’ thought. However, it is interesting how Jesus takes this formulation and transforms it from a command to refrain into a command to act: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). One can spend a life of inaction and become complacent, deeming oneself to be virtuous on account that one is not causing anybody else any harm. Thus, merely avoiding action which causes others harm is not enough, but you should proactively work and seek to benefit them in ways you want to be benefitted, even if it means suffering to bring good for others: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). This attitude is clearly evident in Jesus’ own lifestyle whereby he not only sympathized with the helpless (“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36)) but also went around helping the weak and curing the sick: “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17). In fact, it can be argued that the whole idea of Jesus suffering for the sins of others is grounded in the virtue of empathy: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). An act of empathy would also include that instead of preoccupying oneself with one’s own salvation, one should also encourage others to do good and thus effect their salvation as well: “and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrew 10:24-25). Thus, the principle of empathy can be identified working behind almost all aspects of social ethic preached by Jesus.


The Analogy of Water in Tao Te Ching


In Tao Te Ching, Tao is described as a “deep pool that never dries” (ch.4). In some places, it appears that Tao, though incomprehensible, refers to an Ultimate Reality behind all existence; in other places it appears as a way of life or ‘the highest good’ that individuals are encouraged to inculcate by imbibing the power of the former Tao. For me, the most interesting metaphor in Tao Te Ching was the analogy of water to describe Tao and to illustrate the model of ideal Taoist behavior.

I identified two, distinct yet interrelated, facets of the aforementioned water metaphor. Hence, water becomes a symbol of: i) virtues of humility, benevolence and inactivity ii) leadership and governance methods, and the ability to overcome obstacles.

  1. i) “The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near to the Way” (ch.8). Thus, selflessness and willingness to be indiscriminately useful to others can be considered one of the highest goods. Moreover, highest good entails not being over-assertive, not striving to appear on the fore, or not obsessing with getting ahead, but effortlessly adapting to one’s surrounding and surrendering oneself to natural forces (force of gravity in case of water) and being satisfied with being on a low ground, ever-humble, at the same time effectively providing essential support to everyone. The sage avoids positive action “working only through the power of Tao, which alone cuts without wounding” (ch.2). From this I understood to mean that the wise person avoids acting in attention-seeking ways but still manages to make a significant mark in the world. Nonetheless, letting oneself go does not entail being ineffective or purposeless: “The sage just because he never at any time makes a show of greatness in fact achieves greatness” (ch.34) and “By this very inactivity, everything can be activated” (ch.48).[1] Thus, from water, one can learn virtues of a soft yielding nature that seem to bring inner contentment at the personal or individual level. Fascinatingly, stillness of water is concomitant with its clarity: “which of you can assume such murkiness, to become in the end still and clear” (ch.15), which can be correspondingly seen as a reference to the stillness of mind and senses, as in meditation, leading to clarity of thought.
  2. ii) The second aspect of water metaphor seems to have a firmer quality and a social dimension to it in that it seems to teach about the ability to overcome obstacles (by flowing around them) and an effective method of governance (following or remaining low). “What is of all things most yielding, Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.”(ch.43). “Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it” (Ch. 78). This verse highlights the fascinating paradox of water that despite being the most yielding substance, it can cut through mountains through perseverance. For instance, in case of an obstacle in its way, the water continues to flow around it forming new channels at the same time eroding the edges of the obstacle and altering its shape in the process, and in the end it is the water that prevails. Attempting to translate this symbolism into human social conduct, the first example that strikes to me is that of overlooking or forgiving a person even if he advertently caused the most serious damage or loss to you, which may perhaps melt his heart and make him regretful of his actions and desirous of being friends with you (deeply reminiscent of Quran 41:34). Water can also be instructive in demonstrating leadership qualities: “How did the great rivers and seas get their kingship over the hundred lesser streams? Through the merit of being lower than they; that was how they got their kingship” (ch.66). This chapter explains that in order to be above the people, one must act in ways whereby one appears lower than the people. Also, a good general “fulfils his purpose but without violence” (ch.30). Thus a good leader can emulate the non-arrogant and non-violent qualities of water and still be able to achieve his purposes; a humble and kind ruler will draw the love of his followers which is arguably more enduring than evoking fear (though Machiavelli would disagree).

In conclusion, water seems to illustrate virtues with both a soft/individual and a firm/social dimension, although the latter appears to be derived from and built on the former. Taoist advocacy of inactivity cannot be seen either as an end in itself or as a resigned passivity, but as a means towards the end of activating inner powers that affect the world in imperceptible ways. This appears to be a world quite different from our own which increasingly values continuous perceptible activity as a sign of progress.

[1] I could not help but be reminded of these verses, which now strike as quite Taoist, from my favourite poem by Robert Frost: “Beware of coming too much to the surface / And using for apparel what was meant/ To be the curtain of the inmost soul.”

Filial Piety in Analects: Importance, and Ethical and Political Dimensions


Coming from a Muslim background, I had been under the impression that Islamic tradition’s emphasis on respecting one’s parents is strikingly exacting: for example certain Quranic verses (such as 17:23) enjoin the reader to not even utter a spoken expression of exasperation (“uff” in Arabic) while conversing with one’s parents. To my surprise, Confucian tradition’s instructions, as laid out in the Analects, for dealing with parents turned out to be overwhelmingly more emphatic than any tradition I have previously read about. A man of excellence is described as someone “who exerts himself to the utmost in the service of his parents and offers his person to be service of his lord” (I:7). This significance attached to service of one’s parents makes it look like almost an article of faith, not just good behavior. Confucius directs his disciples: “What is difficult to manage is the expression on one’s face. As for the young taking on the burden when there is no work to be done or letting the old enjoy the wine and the food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be called filial” (II:8). “Managing the expressions on one’s face” can be implied to mean interacting with one’s parents with a polite countenance instead of annoyed or angry facial expressions (a directive certainly a degree higher than merely controlling verbal expressions of frustration). Clearly, for Confucius materially providing for parents is worthless without being being kind and reverential towards them even in conscious and unconscious body language. To me, this was not only a profound suggestion but also one displaying incisive insight into human nature, and awareness of the incredible patience required when living with aging parents. Against these observations, it was interesting to note that one could trace an ethical as well as, remarkably, a political dimension in Confucius’ stress on filial reverence. Ethical: i) Confucius believes filial reverence to be a mark that distinguishes humans from animals: “Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?” (II:7). ii) It is also apparent that Confucius teaches love and respect for parents out of moral concerns of gratitude and reciprocity. For instance, in (XVII:21), when Yu articulates his displeasure with the custom of three years mourning period in the wake of parents’ death as too long, Confucius expresses his disapproval by rhetorically asking whether or not Yu was given three years’ love by his parents. iii) One can also deduce that Confucius suggests parents, on account of their old age, deserve comfort and a sense of security: “Give your father and mother no other cause for anxiety than illness.” (II:5). The following teaching appears to me remarkably specific in the context of staying connected to parents and keeping them informed: “While your parents are alive, you should not go too far afield in your travels. If you do, your whereabouts should always be known” (IV:19).

Political: Even more interestingly, Confucius seems to add a larger societal or political dimension to being an obedient son: “Simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers a man can exert an influence upon government. In so doing a man is, in fact, taking part in government.” (II:21). This appears to imply that since the purpose of the government is to keep order in the society, one could work towards that larger end by starting with being an obedient or ‘good’ son at home.  In the same vein, “he is good as a son and obedient as a young man [will not have the inclination]… to start a rebellion.” (I:1).  Children who develop the temperament to respect and not transgress authority at home, certainly of the parents, will grow up to be citizens with no penchant for inciting rebellions in the society or causing anarchy of any kind.

To conclude, one can identify an ethical aspect in the Analects’ emphatic teaching of filial piety wherein it can be seen as an end in itself: individuals are to cultivate excellence and benevolence within their own character to be true gentlemen. However, one can also view a political dimension in these teachings whereby filial reverence is seen as a means towards another end: a well-ordered society wherein children’s deference for parents will be reflected in citizens’ respect for order and authority. Thus, it can be interpreted as an attempt to reform the character of the society by reforming the character and conduct of the individuals at the familial level.


Postscript: It has been pointed out to me that the Quranic verse I refer to in the article does not merely speak of the ‘speech aspect of good treatment of parents’ but has wider connotations. To this I fully concede. To clarify, I focused on the second part of the verse فَلَا تَقُلْ لَهُمَا أُفٍّ which particularly deals with spoken expression; whereas the first part of the verse says بِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا ‘ihsaan’ being ‘beautiful treatment’ which encompasses a wide range of behavioral goodness in addition to speech. After my initial encounter with the Analects, I suppose I was just struck by the incredible ‘frequency’ with which filial piety is mentioned in the Confucian tradition; but the ‘scope’ of this piety might not be much different from what is commanded in the Islamic tradition. Last year, when I mentioned to one of my teachers that I feel like the emphasis on filial piety in Confucian tradition appears overwhelmingly more forceful than Islam’s, he said: “That is not accurate! Confucianism hoists up the idea of heaven to be a source of virtue and moral order overruling human efforts, and Islam simply places it under the mother’s feet!” 

Ideas of Non-attached Action and Focusing of Mind in Bhagavad Gita



Two themes in Bhagavad Gita that I found pertinent even in the context of modern age and valuable for a reader who may not even be from a Hindu religious tradition are: i) advocacy of the idea of detached action as opposed to inaction as a means to the goal of self-realization and ii) the importance of focusing and controlling mind to find oneself integrated and at peace. It is evident, as we shall also see shortly, that one may not be well-versed in Hindu theology, or may find it baffling to perceive metaphysical notions such as the all-pervasive Brahman or the mind-body duality; one may still find these themes applicable within one’s own contexts.

In contrast with Upanishads wherein the sages seemed to urge renunciation as a means to attain unity with Brahman, Krishna in Bhagavad Gita encourages action rather than inaction: “so perform action which is restrained, for this action is better than non-action; and even the working of your body would not succeed without action” (p. 38). Krishna suggests that action cannot be avoided and there is no possibility of life without it; however the action that he prescribes as correct is in line with one’s dharma and also “restrained” or “without clinging”: neither attached to the outcomes of the action nor directed to please ones sensual desires or ego. Gita appears to teach that such attitude can be developed through devotion to Brahman or Krishna (Brahman is Krishna’s “womb” (p. 155)) and transcending bodily concerns. Krishna discourages renunciation by implying that people may renounce out of confusion, pain, or fear (p. 186) which makes renunciation selfish or “based on desire” (p. 185). Acting without a desire or “giving up of all fruit of action is called letting go” (p. 185). This prescription of detached action makes it more practicable than renunciation because of the ever-present necessity of earning a livelihood. Moreover, in current age wherein most individuals oftentimes find themselves amidst aggressive competition and challenges, the idea of detached action whereby the individual cultivates the serene mindset through which he strives only to do well without either excessively obsessing about winning or attaching his self-worth to the result of his actions may be helpful in curbing the routine anxieties. Such attitude may bring a feeling of mental ‘liberation’ – even if not in the spiritual sense of the realization of an eternal divine acting through the person.

Krishna teaches the importance of self-discipline achieved through meditative exercises to attain not only union with Brahman but also an eternal state of bliss: “who is peaceful in mind, whose passions are calm without evil, of one being with Brahman, reaches the highest joy” (p. 77), and “for one whose thought does not ever go elsewhere, who eternally remembers me … who practices yoga… I am easy to find” (p. 96). In the modern age wherein technological inroads have deeply impacted the human mind, even my personal experience at meditating has more often than not been thwarted by multiple distractions, ever-present in the mind and oftentimes trivial, caused by electronic gadgets, social media notifications, information overload, insurmountably distracting thoughts, and concerns about important emails or deadlines to meet and so forth. These battles a modern person faces against the scattering influences that damage the unity of the mind were surprisingly voiced by Arjuna’s relatable concerns when he pointed out the difficulties in the way of focus caused by “the mind’s instability” and “the mind is ever straying, troubling, strong and unyielding; I think holding it back is as hard to bring about as holding back the wind” (p. 79), to which Krishna assures that “straying mind, without doubt, is hard to hold back – but by practice… it is held back… …it is possible to reach yoga for one whose self is reined in by striving in skilful ways” (p. 79-80). Thus Krishna assures, to Arjuna but also to a modern reader, that focus, elimination of distractions, and single-mindedness of meditation is possible by skill and perseverance. Even if not to realize union with Brahman, a modern person may find this assurance of successful meditation (by devoting thoughts to a single point of focus or any higher power) helpful in the interest of self-integration as well as a peaceful and focused mind.

Schleiermacher’s Theory of Religion: Feeling, in Relation to Knowledge and Activity, and how it can inform the study of religion


Note: I am reproducing this article which I originally wrote as a report over one my course readings. Friedrich Schleiermacher was a German theologian and philosopher; he wrote this book in 1893 to address the Western European intellectuals’ criticism towards religion. I particularly enjoyed his conception of religion and reflected on how it can inform our study of religion in the modern age.


“The sum total of religion is to feel that, in its highest unity, all that moves us in feeling is one; to feel that aught single and particular is only possible by means of this unity; to feel, that is to say, that our being and living is a being and living in and through God” (p. 50). Schleiermacher puts feeling or intuition – of unity with God – at the heart of religion such that “religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling” (p. 22). In this paper, we will examine the argument behind Schleiermacher’s conception of the essence of religion as a feeling and piety, its relation with knowledge and activity, and analyze how this conception differs from and impacts the popular understanding and examination of religion.

Religion as a feeling: Schleiermacher is not interested in tracing the historical origin of religion as certain anthropological, psychological, or sociological approaches to religion attempt to do, instead he maintains that in order to truly understand religion, one “must transport oneself into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration. In the very act you must understand the production of light and heat in a soul surrendered to the Universe” (p. 18). Thus for Schleiermacher, religion is this ‘surrender to the Universe’ and not a system, in that he does not consider the theological and doctrinal frameworks erected around the religious feeling to be real religion. “Blame those who corrupt religion, who flood it with an army of formulas and definitions, and seek to cast it into the fetters of a so-called system” (p. 55). By highlighting the dissimilarity between true religion and mere systems, Schleiermacher addresses the critique of religion developed by the ‘cultural despisers’ who, according to Schleiermacher, are only criticizing the systems of religion, which may or may not be truly representative of the kernel of religion. By emphasizing on religion as an experiential category, a feeling or intuition, Schleiermacher has been evidently keen to disentangle it from the domains of knowledge/perception and activity/morality. After establishing that religion is not particularly a way of thinking or acting as asserted by its ‘despisers’, Schleiermacher goes on to suggest that religion is essentially contemplative

but this contemplation is not turned, as your knowledge of nature is, to the existence of a finite thing, combined and opposed to another finite thing… The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal… Yet religion is not knowledge and science, either of the world or of God. Without being knowledge, it recognizes knowledge and science. In itself it is an affection, a revelation of the Infinite in the finite, God being seen in it and it in God. (p. 36).

This sums up Schleiermacher’s view that religious contemplation is not finite as scientific contemplation might be, rather it is marked by an immediate feeling, and an affection or feeling oneness with the Infinite, Eternal or God. Even though knowledge may be informed by religion or piety, religion is not to be deemed as any form of knowledge. Religion can thus be seen as the mediatory force between theoretical and practical, between finite and Infinite, but not a combination of the two.

Description of piety: An immediate but fleeting feeling with the infinite world, for Schleiermacher, is the true sphere of religion (p. 41). He describes piety as an immediate union with the Divine which dissipates as soon as the individual becomes conscious of it. This feeling of God-consciousness as well as the oneness with the Infinite universe, rather than parochial particularism or ego-centric conduct, is what Schleiermacher deems as piety. “Your feeling is piety in so far as it is expresses the being and life common to you and to the All. Your feeling is piety in so far as it the result of the operation of God in you by means of the operation of the world upon you” (p. 45).

Relation with knowledge and activity: Both knowledge and activity, the interplay of which constitutes human life for Schleiermacher, are marked by “a desire to be identified with the Universe through an object.” (p.44). Objects pressing upon us to create perceptions is knowledge whereas activity is when we leave our impress upon the world and reflect ourselves in the objects. Thus for Schleiermacher scientific life springs out of knowledge and moral life out of activity. Piety on the other hand is a rejuvenating impulse for both these domains of knowledge and activity; for Schleiermacher, religion is a third sphere whose existence is essential; it is neither entirely independent of, nonetheless, nor identical with science and ethics (p. 41). Schleiermacher makes a remarkable distinction between religion and the knowledge about religion which means theological or doctrinal principles: “These feelings are exclusively the elements of religion… wherefore it follows that ideas and principles are all foreign to religion… if ideas and principles are to be anything, they must belong to knowledge which is a different department of life from religion” (p. 46). Viewing the products of religion as science and religion at the same time, for Schleiermacher, leads to what he considers vain mythology (p. 49). Schleiermacher is of the opinion that “scientific treatment of religion” is merely knowledge about religion and not religion itself, because if theological ideas are not a reflection of a person’s own feeling, they must be externally imposed, forcefully learnt and hence rendered void and stripped off of the true essence of religion, as per Schleiermacher. It is important to appreciate Schleiermacher’s distinction between religion and knowledge in order to understand his claims of difference between religious feeling and religious systems. Just as Schleiermacher distinguishes between knowledge and religion, he also separates activity from religion, such that any acts, moral or physical, committed in the name of religion would not be considered religious by him. He maintains that religion, by virtue of being pure feeling, does not urge humans to activity at all; piety or the feeling of consciousness of the Infinite is passive as opposed to the active concerns of morality. Piety has also a passive side. “While morality always shows itself as manipulating, as self-controlling, piety appears as a surrender, a submission to be moved by the Whole that stands over against man” (p. 36)

Ends of religion: For Schleiermacher, the goal of religion is not establishing a just society, a perception of immorality among individuals, or attempting to conceive God; such attempts for him are “seldom entirely pure and always inadequate… Religion is in the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal in the immortality of religion.” (p. 101). Since religion, for Schleiermacher, is grounded in feeling, he makes his point that each individual would access this feeling in his own unique way, hence for him in religion there is no place for “the bald uniformity which would destroy this divine abundance” (p.55). For Schleiermacher, even philosophy brings its followers to common knowledge, however “there is in religion such a capacity for unlimited manysidedness in judgment and in contemplation as is nowhere else to be found…Religion is the natural and sworn foe of all narrow-mindedness” (p. 56). It is interesting to note how Schleiermacher reconciles universality and particularity by terming religious feeling as a feeling of union with and surrender to the Universal and the Whole, and also allows individuals unique and particular ways to experience that feeling. According to Schleiermacher, the charges of narrow-mindedness advanced towards religion are, again, a consequence of confusion between religion and theology, the former being a feeling and the latter a mere branch of knowledge.

Approaching religion: Schleiermacher’s approach towards religion is inward as opposed to outward, as he suggests to view the “interior of a pious soul” to understand religion, by which he suggests the individual experience as truly representative of religion. This differs from the mainstream method of examining religion through either studying doctrines and commentaries, or critiques of religion as well as propositions of its historical origins developed by non-religious philosophers. Schleiermacher would not discourage this approach per se, but he would insist that this is only a way of acquiring more knowledge, and it should not be considered as if it enhances understanding of the essence of religion. Since all other disciplines are studied as they are, Schleiermacher would contend that similar treatment should be advanced towards religion as well instead of approaching it as if it were science. This can be taken to suggest that if one wants to examine religion, one needs to understand it first, and this understanding is more effective if it comes from within i.e. the individual feelings and motivations behind the experience of religion, rather than without i.e. critiques of externally imposed constraints in the name of religion. Schleiermacher would suggest that studying the critiques of religion contributes nothing towards understanding religion, because these critiques are in fact only a product of confounding systems of religion with the true religion, and that these critiques have been advanced by the remote observers of the religious traditions and not by those who have experienced the religious feeling first-hand.

Whereas most approaches towards religion in the beginning of twentieth century attempted to trace the historical origin of religion, and viewed it as a result of an encounter with the external world, Schleiermacher seems to propose a different approach to studying religion whereby he accepts religion to be a necessary, essential and eternal part of human existence, which, instead of tracing the historical or anthropological explanations of religion, focuses its attention on human and his religious experiences. This can perhaps be termed as subjective or traditionalist approach to studying religion. Schleiermacher’s view of religion also goes against modernist approaches to religion that – because of their viewing the world through the lens of rationalism – tend to deny or doubt everything that appears to be supernatural or non-rational. Schleiermacher seems to accept, as the starting point of understanding religion, the supra-rational nature of religion, as he talks at length about religion being the expression of human’s subconscious and non-rational thought, and abstract, metaphysical principles such as union with the Infinite, and the universal state of consciousness as the religious feeling. This conception of religious feeling may be diametrically opposed to popular psychological or anthropological explanations of feelings that view emotions as self-seeking, rational, or inward-looking.

Whereas some popular approaches to religion tend to view it as a means to the attainment of certain social ends such as perception of immortality amongst individuals, or justice and morality in the society, Schleiermacher, on the other hand, considers the notion of religion having a purpose beyond itself as “degradation” (p. 20). For him, religion has no outer task or utility but it is an end in itself: and that end is to create, among individuals, a “sense for the unity of the original source of life” (p. 55) and the “love for the World-Spirit” (p. 65). Interestingly, for Schleiermacher, it is true that moral action springs from piety, but that is incidental, and morality is not the purpose of piety. Schleiermacher’s conception of religion as a feeling – of a merger with the Divine- which mediates between Universal and the particular can also inform the study of religions in that all religions can be viewed as trajectories springing from the same Divine source, but manifesting in different ways.

In sum, we have examined Schleiermacher’s conception of religion as a feeling and described, at length, the nature of that feeling from which the notion of piety entails. We have then looked at Schleiermacher’s distinction between religion, activity and knowledge, which is important because this distinction has helped Schleiermacher distinguish between religion and systems of religion, and also helped him to establish that the ends of religion are not to be considered to lie in the sphere of activity or morality. In the end, we attempted to view how Schleiermacher’s approach towards religion is different from other popular methods, and how his approach gives us an insight into looking at religion differently as an experiential category.


Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Trans. John Oman. New York: Harper, 1958. Print.