If research and reflection be pushed far enough it becomes clear that the universality and uniformity referred to are due to the fact that at one time, long back in the world’s past, there existed or was implanted in the minds of the whole human family… a Proto-Evangelium or Root-Doctrine in regard to the nature and destiny of the soul of man and its relation to the Deity. (p.203).
W.L. Wilmshurst, The Meaning of Masonry
Islam is in agreement with Freemasonry that humanity was initially guided by a sophisticated, single religion from which people deviated, and of which all known religions in the world derived and retain visages thereof. This is contrary to the evolutionary view on the origin of religion, which maintains that religions started off primitive and employed the use of myth and superstition to explain natural phenomena then later religious beliefs and rituals became more advanced and sophisticated over time. As many perennialists, anthropologists, and scholars of comparative religion will point out, there are many parallels between religious beliefs and practices across the world’s religions. Recurring themes such as the primal golden age of man, the fall of man, and the redemption of man appear in various religious traditions, using the literary tropes familiar to their local cultures. Thus, local expressions of the primordial religion differed based on locality and time. Below, I will discuss this original religion of mankind using the tools of the Qur’an and the Arabic language.
The Natural Religion
Wilmshurst notes that the etymology of the word religion in the English language comes from the Latin re-ligare, meaning “to bind back” (p.206) or “to rebind” or “tie back to.” This implies that the ancient concept of religion was one that connected people back to an original state. Muslims would call this original state the fitrah, the natural inclinations that God has implanted into every human being.
There is a scene from the Qur’an that describes God’s creation of Adam (عليه السلام) and the souls of all people to come. At the moment of our creation we took a pledge in which we acknowledged the existence of God and His right to be worshipped.
And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” (Qur’an 7:172)
Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) declared that: “Every child is born on the fitrah. It is his parents that makes him a Jew, Christian, or Zoroastrian. Similarly, an animal gives birth to offspring intact. Have you ever seen one born in pieces?” In this statement, we find that the spiritual tendencies are inborn, but the religious identity or expression of those tendencies are determined by the parents and by extension the environment. Moreover, the Prophet’s metaphor insinuates that the various religious identities are but fragments of a parent religion. Were the child to remain in this state, he would be adhering to the religion of his nature.
Islamic Terms for Religion
In Arabic, there are four main terms that can refer to religion. Each word has its unique etymology and particular usage in the Qur’an. Likewise, they have their particular interpretations based on the way they were understood throughout history.
Din (pronounced deen) is the most common Arabic word that is used for the concept of religion. It carries connotations of lowering, subduing, and exercising power. Some scholars of Islam and the Arabic language have defined it in the following ways:
- Whatever a person adheres to.
- A divine word deterring the lower self; resisting and preventing it from persisting on what was instilled in it.
- Dominion and power.
- To lower or subdue something. (Nuzha, p. 295-296)
In the famous hadith known as the Hadith of Jibril (عليه السلام) in which the Angel Gabriel or Jibril approached the Prophet Muhammad () and asked him questions about the religion he was teaching. At the conclusion, he states that din is essentially three things:
Islam is explained as the shahada (testament of faith), establishing regular prayer, paying charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to the Ancient House in Mecca if one has the ability to do so.
Iman is explained as belief in the oneness of God, belief in His angels, His scriptures, following His messengers, belief in the Last Day, and God’s measure and decree (predestination).
Ihsan is explained as worshipping God as if you see Him, or if that cannot be achieved, then worshipping God with the knowledge that He sees you.
To Muslims, these are the three elements of a complete religion:
- islam, the outward religious laws and practices, which makes your environment peaceful, sound, or whole
- iman, which makes your thinking and beliefs certain and free from defects and contradictions
- ihsan, which refines your morals, to beautifies your character, and makes your soul pure again.
The Qur’anic term, ummah, is a word with a wide range of meanings. According to Lane’s Lexicon, it is derived from a word meaning to direct one’s aims toward among other things (p. 88). Other words in Arabic that share its origin are umm (mother), amaam (in front of), and imam (leader). It is commonly used to refer to the global Muslim community and occasionally to Jewish and Christian communities. Abu’l Faraj Ibn Jawzi (Nuzha p. 142-143) gathered the following meanings for the word:
- a class of individuals or groups
- A time period
- A spiritual leader
- A religion
- A physical stature
The following verse from the Qur’an uses the word ummah to mean religion within a particular time period. Here it refers to the primordial religion:
Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (Qur’an 2:213)
The word millah is another Qur’anic term used for religion. It is exclusively used to mean religious path or spiritual law. The word is mentioned several times in the Qur’an most often referring to religions of the past, particularly that of Abraham (عليه السلام), which is called hanif.
Hanif is a word most often used in the Qur’an to refer to the religion of Abraham. Its root meaning is to incline or decline. The word hanaf describes the condition of talipes or club foot, in which the two feet of an individual curve upward so that they end up walking on the sides of their feet. Historically, the people of Arabia who inclined to monotheism, performed ritual circumcision, meditated in caves, and made pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca were known as Hanifs. It was said that these were the only rites they had retained from the religion of Abraham. Though there were Jews, Christians, and other monotheistic faiths present in the Arabian peninsula at the time the Hanifs were not members of those communities. Therefore the Hanifs did not adhere to any religious law or study of scripture.
The community and practices of the Hanifs was that of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) prior to his prophetic mission. From a historical point of view, we know much about the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), the Arab society prior to Islam, and the early Muslim community, but relatively little about the Hanifs. As it seems, the Hanifs held remnants of an ancient religion that pre-dated Judaism and Christianity, which is proclaimed to be their parent religion, as Abraham (عليه السلام) was both a genealogical and ideological ascendent of the practitioners of those faiths. Were we to establish a link between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries it would be through knowing who were the Hanifs.
Yet several questions remain about this faith group that adhered to none of the known faiths at that time:
What was the religion that Abraham taught? How did these teachings arrive to remote regions of the Arabian peninsula such as Becca and Yathrib? Can anything more be gleaned from their practices that sound similar to the practices of the Ancient Mysteries?
So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. (Qur’an 30:30)