It is obvious to all, including perennialists, that perennial philosophy is completely at odds with orthodox Islam. Those perennialists who claim to be Muslims do so whilst claiming to believe that the esoteric, metaphysical realisation of the faith confirms the ‘transcending’ of the ‘dogmatism’ or ‘formal theology’ of Islam through ‘spiritual conversion from within’, i.e. by retaining the outer ‘form’ of Islamic practices (in whatever vague form they practically give to such an allegiance to the ‘law’). Perennialists uphold the ‘transcendent unity’ of ‘true religions’, but oppose ‘religious pluralists’ (who seek to do away with the distinctive ‘forms’ of each religion on a ‘horizontal’, i.e. worldly, level) and ‘modern syncretistic cults’ (who seek to form new, idiosyncratic religions considered false even by perennialists). ‘True religions’ are portrayed, by perennial philosophy, as being:
“graphically represented by points on the circumference of a circle, with each point being connected with the centre, that is, with God, by a radius. The points stand for the outward aspects of the religions [namely, the exoteric], whereas each radius is the esoteric path which the religion in question offers those who seek a direct way to God in this life.”
These ‘true religions’ of the present time, according to the perennialists, certainly include Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Native American faith. Perennialism is the explicit rejection of the ‘exclusivist idea that there is only one valid religion.’ Perennialism does not so much dismiss ‘the orthodox dogmas’ of the various religions, but it effectively dismisses its importance by seeing these ‘dogmas from the universal point of view’ as:
“a series of points of reference, conceptual orientations opening out to, or ‘intending’ realities that transcend the dogmas. What can be affirmed is thus the consummation of the orientations, practices, and aspirations set in motion by the beliefs in question: they are ‘true’ insofar as they can lead one to the ‘real’.”
In this statement above, we have a natural acknowledgement of the problem of conflicting dogmas between the various religions. Thus David Ray Griffin, in his debate with the perennialist Huston Smith in Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology, sets out what any fair-minded person would conclude when looking at the fundamental differences in dogma between various religions:
“It does not seem plausible to me, in any case, to think of the various great religions as equally embodying revelations of the same divine reality. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are oriented primarily to a personal deity, while much of Buddhism and much of Hinduism, especially Advaita Vedanta, are oriented toward an impersonal, infinite, absolute reality. To say that the devotees of both types of religion are really worshipping the “same God” does not seem illuminating. Not sharing Smith’s belief that the personal God is really derivative from, and hence less ultimate than, the impersonal absolute, I cannot agree that the God who inspired the ten commandments, liberation of people from sociopolitical captivity, and the Sermon on the Mount is really the same as the divine reality to which Shankara and Nagarjuna were oriented. To say that all religions are equally adequate for salvation seems equally un-illuminating. That statement implies that the salvation sought by, say, Moslems and Mahayana Buddhists is the same. But meditation on Emptiness and submission to Allah seem to produce strikingly different types of people. While the inclusive doctrine that “we are all on the same path” seems appealing in comparison with the exclusivist claim that “there is no salvation outside of our church,” it is not illuminating of the empirical realities.”
Now the theology of Islam is taken to be based upon the complete understanding of all the texts of the Qur’an and Prophetic sayings (ahadith, sing. hadith), as passed down from the Prophet’s Companions to every subsequent age en masse in every generation, without an interruption in that mass transmission at any generational point; hence the overwhelming number of Muslims have always held the same comprehension of Islam’s finality. To essentially dismiss the creed passed on by a mass of people in each generation from the Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) (tawatur), whereby the chance of being mistaken is nil, is to effectively accuse the whole collective of being mistaken, or involved in deception or to have spoken in complete allegory to the point that the overwhelming number of their listeners completely failed to make sense of the message – may God forgive us for pointing out these preposterous notions!
It is akin to the challenge that Ghazzali put in chapter five of Fada’ih al-Batiniyya when disputing the idiosyncratic interpretations of the Batinites. He said that if the Prophet ﷺ had to divulge these secrets, then why did he not? Especially when God says in the Qur’an (3:187): “You must make it clear to the people and not conceal it.“ Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ would not have been ignorant of such a truth; and he would never have allowed himself to have been misunderstood, knowing that people would take his words literally. By way of example, I can here add the following saying of the Prophet ﷺ reported in Sahih Muslim: “By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, any person of this Community, any Jew, or any Christian who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with will be an inhabitant of hell,” (trans. Keller).
One perennialist argument is that the ‘particularist, exclusivist’ (‘normative Islam’) and the ‘inclusivist, metaphysical’ (perennialist) understandings of the Qur’an are interpretations which are “one of an indefinite number of meanings that are all ‘intended’ by God to be derived from the words” of the Qur’an; and that “no one interpretation can therefore be put forward as right and true to the exclusion of all others.” This recourse to an interpretation as a way of maintaining an Islamic identity is interesting, especially in light of a non-perennialist’s argument that perennialism was not anti-Islamic, but merely “a rather novel interpretation,” “rooted…in the Qur’an” and “rarified [sic] metaphysical considerations that are better pointed out as heterodoxies that fall into a category of opinion and interpretation.” Furthermore, the non-perennialist asserted that perennialism be deemed a mere ‘innovation’ due to it simply being a ‘ta’wil’, or interpretation, and scholars are careful of declaring disbelief in such circumstances, despite the author accepting that the four schools of Islamic law consider it disbelief (kufr) to oppose the orthodox understanding on this specific question (as illustrated above). This well-intentioned attempt by a non-perennialist to retain perennialism as an Islamic heterodoxy, i.e. ‘Islamic’, in so much as it is not other than Islam, seems to result from a literalist understanding of ta’wil, as can be seen from numerous scholars of repute.
An interesting case study for beginning to test the question of whether denying Islam’s finality is disbelief or a mere heterodox interpretation is the Shifa’ of Qadi ‘Iyad, which has elaborate theological discussions contained therein, and which highlights where such an understanding of perennialism as a heterodox interpretation might be developed, yet seem to miss the nuance associated with the point.
The relevant material of the Shifa’ for our purposes comes in the third chapter: on the ruling of one who insults/reviles (sabb) God Most High, and His angels, Prophets, Books, and the people (al), wives and Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad] ﷺ. The second section (fasl) of the chapter opens with a discussion that, in part, covers the fact that the teaching (qawl) of Malik and his Companions differs (wa’khtalaf) on the issue of those who ascribe to God what is not befitting by way of interpretation (qualified by Mulla ‘Ali Qari in his commentary as ‘false’ (al-fasid) interpretation). Lengthy discussions are then presented over the course of the second section into the third section. What is clear from these discussions is that the central controversy here is with relation to the established sects that have emerged amongst the Muslims, such as the Khawarij and the Mu’tazilah. The fact that this discussion of the disagreement concerning the anathematization of those with ‘false interpretation’ is not related to the idea of denying Islam’s finality not being heresy is categorically clarified by Qadi ‘Iyad at the end of the third section (with “Q” designating the commentary by ‘Ali Qari):
“…it is disbelief for one who does not declare the disbelief of a Christian, a Jew and all of those separate to the religion of the Muslims, or hesitates in declaring their disbelief or has a doubt (al-shakk).
Qadi Abu Bakr [Q: Baqillani] said the unambiguous Sacred transmission [al-tawqif; Q: that is, by hearing from the God and His Messenger] and the Consensus (al-ijma’) agree about the disbelief (kufr) of them. Therefore whoever hesitates in that has disowned (kadhdhaba) the text (al-nass) [Q: of the Qur’an] and the unambiguous Sacred transmission [Q: from the Sunna that is correct], or doubts it; and disowning or doubting does not come to pass except from a disbeliever (kafir).”
Muhammad Shafi, in his commentary of the Qur’anic verses 41:40-46 in Ma’riful Qur’an, states that “scholars and jurisprudents have clarified” the meaning of not declaring a muta’awwil (a false interpreter) as a “kafir or Non-Muslim” as being “subject to the condition that the interpretation in matters relating to the self-evident elements (Daruriyyat-ud-din) should not be against their definite (qat’i) meanings.” He adds that ‘false interpretations’ of such definitively-established matters are not included under excusing such an interpreter, because such a person “is actually denying the teachings of the Holy Prophet ﷺ.” Shafi establishes a distinction in this issue between false interpretations that are disbelief and those that can be deemed unlawful innovation, through recourse to a statement from Shah ‘Abdal-‘Aziz Dehlawi: firstly, false interpretation of “definite, unambiguous texts of the Qur’an or of the mutawatir ahadith [mass-transmitted beyond any doubt in every generation] or of an absolute consensus of the ummah [Islamic nation]” are kufr; yet, secondly, “an interpretation against the texts that are, though clear and semi-certain, are not certain or definite in absolute terms,” then such is not kufr, but “fisq and misguidance.”
Furthermore, Ghazzali, in Faysal al-tafriqa, mentions that “disbelief” (kufr) is a designation of the Sacred Law (hukm shar’i), and it therefore has legal consequences. In essence, it is accusing the Prophet ﷺ of lying (takdhib) about something he brought; and faith (iman) is the belief in everything that he brought. The proof of the ruling of disbelief is established by explicit Sacred text (nass), as is the case with the establishment of the disbelief of the Jews and the Christians; or through analogical reasoning (qiyas) with what has been explicitly stipulated (‘ala mansus). Regarding false interpretation, Ghazzali states that kufr is not designated upon such an individual as long as his interpretation does not pertain to the foundational tenets of belief (usul al-‘aqa’id); yet one does charge with disbelief one who interprets against an important, foundational tenet of belief away from its externality (zahir) without a categorical proof (burhan qat’i).
In Fada’ih al-Batiniyya (section two of the eighth chapter), Ghazzali discusses the ‘unambiguous disbelief’ (kufr sarih) of challenging the descriptions of the Garden and the Fire which the Prophet ﷺ described with “clear utterances” (alfaz sarih); and such a refusal to accept is to accuse the Prophet ﷺ of lying (takdhib) and cannot be considered an interpretation (ta’wil). Therefore, again, we see that not every interpretation is free of being considered an accusation of lying against the Prophet ﷺ.
Ghazzali, in Faysal al-tafriqa, specifies that the foundations of faith (usul al-iman) are three: belief in God, in His Messenger ﷺ and the Last Day; he, furthermore, argues that anything else is from the ‘branches’ (furu’); and one can only charge disbelief in the face of a person’s rejection of a ‘branch’ when it is the rejection of one that has been established and narrated through mass-transmission that is beyond doubt, and impossible to have been connived through lying or conspiracy (bi’l-tawatur). Ghazzali then adds that the denial of one of the three foundations of faith or a mass-transmitted “branch” of faith would amount to an absolute accusation of lying (takdhib mahd) against the Messenger ﷺ.
Concerning the Prophetic narration, “If one of the Muslims accuses his companion of disbelief, [the accusation] returns to one of them,” (narrated in Sahih Muslim), Ghazzali argues, in Faysal al-tafriqa, that it relates to what the accuser knows of the accused. Hence if the accuser knows the accused to be a believer, then the accuser falls under the charge of disbelief; however, if the accusation of disbelief is based upon the supposition that one has accused the Messenger ﷺ of lying, but it is an [honest] error on the accuser’s part concerning the condition of the accused, then this would not be disbelief for the original accuser.
In the same way we have expounded on the profundity underlying the classical authorities on the issue of false interpretation of Scripture, one should likewise have a rounded – and not superficial, no matter how politically or personally expedient such superficiality might be – approach to understanding such statements as the one attributed to Abul-Hasan Ash’ari in Dhahabi’s Siyar a’lam al-nubala’: “We do not anathematise anyone from the community of believers; rather, these are semantic issues upon whose meanings we differ”; or the words of Ibn Taymiyya quoted in the same latter work: “We do not anathematise anyone who guards his wudu, as the Prophet said, ‘Only a believer guards his wudu.’” Good sense and good manners mean that we should refrain from placing a post-modern relativism and false representation upon these statements, which are both insulting to the utterers themselves as well as intellectually dishonest. It appears clear that these were uttered in relation to the sects amongst the Muslims, and were not intended to be applied against those who deny core Islamic beliefs.