Wilfred Cantwell Smith

For those of us who have been reading about Islam for decades, it is somewhat of a shock that one of the classic studies, Islam in Modern History, by the noted historian of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is now half a century old. Based on personal experience in Pakistan in addition to masterful knowledge of sources, Smith put “modern” Islam on the intellectual map. For a book written so long ago by a humble scholar aware of the pitfalls of political prophecy, you might wonder why such an obviously out-of-date analysis is worth reading and re-reading. I suggest that despite the spate of recent books on Islam, many of them well worth reading and rereading in their own right, a return to Smith’s penchant reading of Islam is well worth the time and effort, no matter how you view the infinitely debatable notion of the divine.

Perhaps the following excerpts will persuade you…

“To begin with, Islam is a religion.

To say this is to say a great deal – more, in fact, than perhaps any one of us can really understand. It is the fundamental fact from which discernment in this field must start. For one thing, all religions, and most clearly the great world faiths, are literally infinite. There is no end to their profundity; nor to their ramification, their variety. For each religion is the point at which its adherent is in touch, through the intermediary of an accumulating tradition, with the infinitude of the divine.* It is the chief means through which Gold takes hold of the person, in so far as that person will allow. Whatever it may be as a systematic ideal, and whatever too, its external details may be sociologically, Islam is also, empirically, the personal religious life, shallow or deep, distorted or magnificent, sinful or saintly, of every individual Muslim.

From the transcendent and deeply personal nature of religion two things follow for the outside observer. One is the fairly obvious point that we falsify any religion if we give attention only to its external form. It is the chief window through which the adherent sees whatever he does see of the meaning and purpose of life, the final significance of himself and his fellows and their mutual relations. The student, accordingly, must not only observe the shape and construction of the window, but try also to ascertain what further vision it affords to those who worship at it. In matters of behaviour, the student must descry not only what the religions do, but what they deem worth doing and why. To know Islam, as to know any religion, is not only to be apprised of, even carefully acquainted with, its institutions, patterns, and history, but also to apprehend what these mean to those who have the faith…

Manifestly Islam could never have become across the centuries one of the four or five great world religions had it not, like the others, had the quality of having something profound and relevant and personal to say directly to all sorts and conditions of men, of every status, background, capacity, temperament, and aspiration.

Islam, then, is a religion. Like the other world faiths it overflows all definitions both because it is open at one end to the immeasurable greatness of the Divine, and because also it relates itself at the other end to the immeasurable diversity of the human.

Nonetheless, Islam is not merely religion; it is a particular religion. It is distinct; and – like the others – though it cannot be defined, it can be characterized… It will be recognized that for the outsider anything in this realm is a hardy venture. The abstraction will be necessarily partial and inadequate, if not actually distorted. Yet, following our convictions already expressed that an understanding of the present condition of the Muslim community is impossible without an understanding of Islam, we have felt that we must make the attempt – with genuine apologies for the inevitable failures, but in the hope that this imperfect interpretation might yet be a contribution in the direction of valid expression…

The modern period of Islamic history, then. Begins with decadence within, intrusion and menace from without; and the worldly glory that reputedly went with obedience to God’s law only a distant memory of a happier past.”

* [Footnote:] “It has become fashionable in Western academic circles to insist that interpretations of phenomena, including social and human ones, must be in exclusively ‘objective,’ positive, non-transcendent terms. Those who adopt this may find the above sentence difficult, because of its final phrase. We believe, however, than any explanation must be inadequate that leaves out of consideration one of the basic and most pertinent factors involved; and accordingly that people who deny the reality of God (whether of not they recognize Him by that term) preclude themselves from adequately understanding the history of religion. This does not mean, however, that other factors are not also involved, such as those with which anthropologists, psychologist, and others deal. (Those who believe in God are also precluded from understanding that history, in so far as they deny or are unaware of the reality and relevance of those other factors.) Our position is that religion houses the interplay of these various factors; our attempt to delineate what we understand by it as an attempt to do justice to all these. We hope that even those who disagree with us as to the transcendence of what we call the divine, may nonetheless be able to follow our argument by recognizing that that factor is there, however they may interpret it. The above sentence would presumably be acceptable to, for instance, Durkheim, since he would acknowledge our term, though interpreting it sociologically. He recognizes that the worshipper is in touch with something…”

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (New York, Mentor Book, 1957, pp. 15-16, 46.

Note: A quick check on Amazon indicated that there were used copies as cheap as $1.74, which is cheaper than a cup of coffee these days.