To understand what religion is and what is its role in the life of men, we should first of all know its definition. Religion (din) is an all-round movement in the light of faith in Allah and a sense of responsibility for the formation of thought and belief, for the promotion of high principles of human morality for the establishment of good relations among members of the society and the elimination of every sort of undue discrimination. Man has been familiar with religion for such a long time that it covers the entire recorded history of human life and goes back into the depths of pre-historic times. The Holy Quran has described religion as man’s innate nature and Allah’s established order. It says: Islam is in harmony with nature which Allah has designed for man.
To understand what religion is and what is its role in the life of men, we
should first of all know its definition.
Religion may briefly be defined as under:
Religion (din) is an all-round movement in the light of faith in Allah and a
sense of responsibility for the formation of thought and belief, for the
promotion of high principles of human morality for the establishment of good
relations among members of the society and the elimination of every sort of
Keeping in view this definition, our need for religion and religious teachings
is absolutely clear. To be a little more elaborate, it may be said that we
require religion for the following reasons:
1. Sanction for the Principles of Morality
Religion provides a sanction for the principles of morality like justice,
honesty, righteousness, brotherhood, equality, virtuousness, tolerance,
sacrifice, help to the needy and other kindred virtues. These are the virtues
without which, not only our life will lose its order and normalcy but it is very
likely to be turned into a chaos. Of course, it is possible to acquire these
moral and social qualities without the aid of religion. But certainly in the
absence of firm religious belief, these values appear to lose their meaning and
become a series of mere unbinding recommendations, because in such a case they
do not amount to more than a piece of advice from a close friend in respect of
which we are at full liberty to accept or reject.
These qualities are rather based on an internal feeling and faith and are
naturally beyond the scope of ordinary law.
It is only faith in the existence of an Eternal Being, who knows man equally
from within and without and who has full control over him, that cultivates these
virtues within man and impels him to automatic righteousness and adherence to
duty, and if need be, to make sacrifices for the sake of others.
The well-known philosopher-cum-historian, Will Durant says in his book,
‘Pleasures of Philosophy’ that, without the backing of religion, morality is
nothing more than arithmomancy, as without it, the sense of obligation
2. Power to Endure Adversities of Life
Religion provides power for facing adversities and serves as a bulwark against
undesirable reactions of despair and hopelessness.
A religious man, with firm belief in Allah, and of His munificence, does not
find himself in utter desperation even in the worst moments of his life, because
he knows well hat e is under the protection of a Being who is Almighty. With
faith in the fact that every problem can be solved and every deadlock can be
resolved with His help, he can overcome every disappointment and hopelessness.
For this very reason, it very seldom happens that a truly religious man suffers
from the acute reactions of desperation like suicide, nervous breakdown or
psychic ailments which are products of frustration and defeatism.
The Holy Quran says:
"Surely those who are close to Allah, have no fear nor shall they grieve." (Surah
Imam Ja’far Sadiq (A) says: "A true believer can never commit suicide."
Thus, religious faith is, on the one hand, a motivating force, and on the other,
it is a factor which enables man to face hardships with courage and saves him
from the ill effects of failure and disappointment.
Following the downfall of the Nazis, says Bertrand Russell says there existed a
danger of intellectual and ideological revolt in Germany, but no doubt, religion
has been one of the biggest factors in that country’s return to stability.
According to Dr. Durant, behavior of a man who is not blessed with reliance on
religion suffers from special epicurean confusion, and the life which has not
the comforting support of religion, is an unbearable burden.
3. Encounter with Ideological Vacuum
Man cannot live in an ideological vacuum for long and as such his tendency
towards a wrong ideology and false values becomes definite. His intellectual
life is not filled with sound beliefs and healthy teachings. A superstitious and
even destructive ideas may find way into his spiritual firmament and may for
ever pollute his brain. Instances of man’s tendency towards idolatry, man
worship, diverse superstitions and credulity regarding the influence of
irrational things over destiny, can be witnessed even in the lives of world
intellectuals. All this originates from spiritual vacuum. It is religion which
can fill the ideological and intellectual vacuum with sound teachings and can
save one from a tendency towards absurdities and irrationalities.
Hence, true understanding of religion can play an important role in combating
superstitions, though it is true that even religion itself, if not understood
correctly, may promote superstitions.
4. An Aid to the Progress of Science and Knowledge
Religion with its firm and sound teachings can be an effective factor in
scientific progress, because its foundation has been laid on the solid bed-rock
of "freedom of will" and on the fact that everybody is accountable for his own
The Holy Quran says : "Everyone is entangled in the outcome of his deeds." (Surah
Faith in religion teaches that limitless knowledge is the source of this cosmos,
which is like a very grand book penned by an erudite scholar. Every page of it,
nay every line and every word of it, contains a glaring truth which stimulates
us to further study and contemplation.
This attitude towards the cosmos undoubtedly stimulates persistent thinking over
the mechanism of creation and consequently, helps in the advancement of science
In contrast, if we hold that this universe is the product of sheer mechanical
factors having no intellect, there remains no plausible reason why we should
make strenuous efforts to discover its secrets. In principle, a universe which
is the outcome of the working of an unconscious machinery, can neither be
well-designed nor mysterious.
Apart from giving a deadly blow to the advancement of science and knowledge,
such conception of cosmos negates the very fact that man’s instinct is basically
rooted in religion. Albert Einstein was very true when he pointed out why great
thinkers and discoverers are all interested in religion. He said that it was
hard to find anyone among the great thinking brains of the world who might not
have a sort of religious feeling peculiar to him. That feeling was different
from the religion of the man in the street.
It has the form of a delightful wonder at the marvellously accurate system of
the universe, which from time to time, unveils secrets in comparison with which
all organized human thinking and research are rather weak and stale. This
feeling illuminates the path of the life and efforts of a scientist and as he
gains success and honor, it keeps him free from the deadweight of selfishness
What a belief in the system of the universe and what a fascinating desire it
was, he adds, that enabled Kepler and Newton to suffer for years in isolation
and in complete silence in order to simplify and explain the laws of gravitation
and planetary motion! No doubt, it is this very religious feeling that enabled
the self-sacrificing and self-effacing men through long centuries, in spite of
their apparent defeats and failures, to rise on their feet again and make fresh
(The world as I see)
The contemporary scientist, Abernethy, says that science for its own perfection
should regard faith in God as one of its accepted principles. Thus a religious
man, following the true teachings of religion, can more than anybody else, carry
out research and discover the secrets of nature.
Fight Against Discrimination
Religion strongly opposes every discrimination based on color, race or class,
because it regards all human beings as God’s creatures and every country as
God’s country. According to it, all enjoy God’s love and kindness equally and as
such, all are equal.
According to the teachings of Islam, no man can be superior to another man on
the basis of his color, race, descent, language or class.
Islam recognizes only piety and knowledge as the touch-stones of superiority
.Allah says: "Man, we have created you from a male and a female, and we have
divided you into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another.
Surely the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is he who is most
pious."(Surah al- Hujurat, 49 :13)
Thus the role of religion in a world that has not yet been able even to solve
the color problem, the question of class apart, is quite clear.
Anyhow, it cannot be denied that every kind of religious thought or belief
cannot produce the de-sired results.
Like every other intellectual movement, religion also requires correct guidance.
Otherwise it assumes the form of superstition, monasticism, escape from positive
life and pseudo-agnostic negative tendencies, the examples of which can even now
be seen in the West, where people have become fed up with a mechanical life. It
is only in such an atmosphere that for want of correct knowledge, religion is
regarded as an obstructive factor.
Roots of Religious Sense
Man has been familiar with religion for such a long time that it covers the
entire recorded history of human life and goes back into the depths of
The Holy Quran has described religion as man’s innate nature and Allah’s
established order. It says: Islam is in harmony with nature which Allah has
designed for man. ( Surah al -Rum, 30 : 30)
Research carried out by sociologists and historians shows that places of
worship, either in their simple or elaborate and complex form, have always had
an influence on human life, and religion in its various shapes has been
interwoven with its history .
Dr. Durant, after a comparatively detailed discussion of atheism of certain
people writes that despite all that he has mentioned, these are exceptional
cases, and the old notion that "religion" is a phenomenon that generally extends
to all human beings, is true. The question of religion in the view of a
philosopher is one of the basic questions of history and psychology.
He adds that, from time immemorial, religion has always gone hand in hand with
human history. The idea of piety can never be removed from human heart. (History
of Civilization vol .1, pp. 88- 89)
From a psychological point of view, this time honored relationship between man
and religion proves that religious feeling is one of the basic human instincts
natural elements of the human soul.
It is obvious, that at a time, when the level of human thinking was low and the
sciences had not made any remarkable progress, this internal feeling was in an
incredible way mixed with superstition, but gradually with the progress of
sciences on the one hand ,and persistent efforts and teachings of the prophets
on the other, it was purified of adulterations and it regained its purity and
Anti-Religious Waves During the Past Centuries
In these circumstances it looks a little surprising that during the past
centuries, especially from 16th Century onward, a violent anti-religious wave
has hit the Western countries and many of the liberal minded Europeans have
dissociated themselves from the Church. Those who wanted to remain loyal to
religion turned to some Eastern religions or to a sort of gnosticism minus
religion, while a large number of people were attracted by materialism and the
But an inquiry into the roots of this subject indicates that in the special
circumstances prevailing Europe, this phenomenon was not unexpected.
Factors leading to anti-religious movements and tendency to materialism in
Europe should be looked for in the perspective of the policy which the Church
pursued with regard to the Renaissance and progress of natural sciences in
When the Church in the middle ages, especially during the 13th to15th centuries
started a campaign against science which continued even to the 16th and l7th
centuries and attempted to crush scientific movements through Inquisition,
issued a papal decree to condemn science dragged people like Galileo to
persecution and forced them to deny the motion of the earth. It is obvious what
the reaction of the scientists to such teachings could be. They, being at the
cross roads of sciences and religion (of course religion as it was understood at
that time and in that environment), naturally went for science, the firm basis
of which they had personally observed and tested.
Mistake in analogy and incorrect comparison of other religions to the special
position of the Churches in the middle ages induced certain scientists to start
a campaign against all religions and to reject them formally. They went to the
extent of innovating a doctrine known as discord between religion and science’.
But the study of scientific movement in Islam, which started from the very first
century and bore fruit in the second and third centuries of the Hegira era,
shows that in Muslim society the case was quite different. This movement soon
gave birth to the scientists like Hasan lbn Haitham, the well-known Muslim
Physicist, Jabir lbn Hayyan. whom the Europeans call Father of Chemistry, and
tens of others like them. Their books exercised considerable influence over the
Scientists like Roger Bacon, Johann Kepler and Leonardo da vinci. It is
interesting that all this scientific progress took place in the middle ages and
coincided with the Church’s violent opposition to the Renaissance and the
standard-bearers of the new scientific movement.
All historians in the East and the West, who have dealt with Islamic culture,
are unanimously of the view that it gave rise to a wide-spread scientific
movement whose influence over the Renaissance and the scientific movement of
Europe was remarkable.
Thus the factors which induced the liberal-minded in the West to dissociate
themselves from religion, did not exist in the case of Islam. On the contrary,
there were factors which worked in the opposite direction.
In short Islamic movement had a special connection with World scientific
movements, and for this very reason was the fountain-head of the vast
development of sciences and knowledge.
However it cannot be denied that disputes and dissensions among a section of
Muslim people which in intensity from the fifth century (Hijra) onward,
short-sightedness, non-realization of true teachings of Islam, apathy to
progress and indifference to the spirit of the time, resulted in the
backwardness of many Muslim countries.
Another factor which complicated the problem was that Islam in the real sense
was not introduced to the younger generation. Thus the constructive role of
Islam in various fields gradually diminished. Now the position is that many
young men think that Islam has always been in this present dismal state.
Any how, it is certain that with the revival of Islamic teachings and their
correct introduction, especially to the younger generation, it is still possible
to revive the spirit of early Islamic movement.
Religion and Philosophical Schools of Thought
All forms of religion censure every kind of materialism, whether it be in its
simple shape or in the garb of dialectic materialism, which forms the basis of
Marxism and Communism, because materialism maintains that this, universe is
merely a set of undesigned and aimless happenings.
Religion. in censuring materialism, relies on a number of principles which are
absolutely logical, because:
The interpretation of the order of the universe advanced by materialistic
schools is unscientific, for science in the course of its research, talks of
well calculated and precise systems, which cannot be interpreted by accidental
and chance happenings.
Science acknowledges that the maker of this machine of the universe is the
greatest physicist and chemist, most expert physician and the best
anthropologist and cosmologist, because while performing his job, he visualized
all scientific laws. Naturally he could not do so without having complete
knowledge of them. It goes without saying that natural factors and natural
developments can have no such knowledge at all.
Materialism has accepted the doctrine of compulsion as one of its basic
principles. It holds that every human action and every movement is the result of
a sequence of compulsory causes. On, this basis, according to the materialistic
point of view, all the efforts of man are like the movements of the wheels of a
machine. It is obvious that the acceptance of this view goes against the idea of
every social, moral or human responsibility.
In contrast, religion accepts the principle of obligation and responsibility and
thus lays the foundation of its teachings on the freedom of human will.
It cannot be contradicted that the acceptance of the principle of compulsion
gives a hard blow to dynamism and the sense of duty and responsibility. It also
directly contributes to the expansion of crimes and aggressions, because the
offenders can plead that they are not responsible for the crimes committed by
them, for they were forced by the compulsion of environment, time and the way
they were brought up. But there is no possibility of such evil effects if the
principle of free will is accepted.
With the acceptance of the domination of matter over all affairs of human life
and the restriction of value only to the material values, the materialists have
practically ousted moral values. They hold, that only material interests prevail
over all social and international interests. The effect of this way of thinking
is obvious for without adherence to such principles as philanthropy, tolerance,
sacrifice, sincerity and love, no problems at world level can be solved. Belief
in exclusive domination of matter obviously not compatible with these
Religion and Individual Freedom
Some people think that religion restricts individual freedom and disallows the
fulfillment of some desires, whereas, in fact, the aim of religious teaching is
not at all to put an end to logical freedom. Its aim is only to stop wastage of
human energies and assets and to prevent their flow into improper and worthless
For example, if religion forbids the use of intoxicants, gambling and improper
indulgence in sex, does so for the safety of the body and soul of the individual
and for the maintenance of social order.
This moral control is in keeping with the real spirit of freedom, for freedom
means only that man should be able to take full advantage of the assets of
existence to help in the evolution of the individual and the society. It does
not at all mean squandering God-given energies and indulging in immoderation and
Religion supports every kind of freedom that carries man forward towards
evolution in various fields. Only this, is what freedom, in the real sense,
means. Anything else is libertinism.
That is why religion allows man to use all good things in life, to wear any
reasonable dress, to relish any good food and to take part in any healthy
pastime. In short, it has allowed the use of all comforts and conveniences of
life, and does not ask anyone to give up any such things. The Holy Quran says:
"Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful things of Allah which He has produced for
His servants and the pure food ?"
Moreover, our religion calls upon us never to forget the exigencies and
requirements of time and to keep ourselves well-informed about the latest
developments in medicine, technology and industry.
The leader of Islam, Imam Sadiq (A) has said: "He who knows his time and its
requirements, shall not be taken unaware by the dark events of life."
Our religion tells us that out of the new ideas, customs and usages we should
choose what is useful and worthy and should discard what is improper and wrong.
We must not follow others blindly and must not adopt anything that is not
compatible with human dignity and the spirit of independent thinking.
The Holy Quran says, "Give glad tidings to my servants who listen to what is
said and follow the best thereof. They are those whom Allah has guided and those
who have good sense."
Selected Chapter from; Rationality of
Islam written under the auspices of Ayatollah Sayyid Abul-Qasim Al-Khoei