Dr. Mohammad Fadhil Jamali (third from left) at the Grand Mosque, Bandung.

There are many ways of describing Islam. One of the more profound personal testaments is a letter from Muhammad Fadhl Jamali, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Iraq in the 1950s. As a top government official, he was imprisoned after the July 1958 Revolution in Baghdad and for a year and a half lay under a death sentence. While in prison he wrote the following letter (dated 25 March 1961) to his son, ‘Abbas, at the University of Beirut. The translation from Arabic is by Dr. Jamali.

Dear ‘Abbas,
After presenting you my good greetings, I pray for your safety, success and guidance…. I have read again your letter, dated February 11. In it you say: “What is religion? Let us take Islam as an example of religion. I do not believe that it is an easy matter to define the Islamic religion, as you can hardly find two groups of people who agree in their opinion about it.”

I answer you with the following:

1. I have already referred in a pervious letter to what I think is the meaning of religious experience, as well as to the evolution of religions and their development, and I told you that the highest stage which the spiritual evolution of a man has reached is faith in God, the One and Only, the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace on them all. Islam is “… the faith of your father Abraham: he named you Muslims before…” [Surah 22:78]

2. Islam, as I understand it, is not blind fanaticism and sectarianism. It is not doctrinal squabbles and philosophical and theological argumentation. It is not laziness and negligence in development and construction, moral and material. It is not intellectual stagnation and superstition. It is not charlatanism and quackery. It is not hypocrisy or sycophancy, asceticism and self deprivation, or poverty and disease, or dirt and ugliness. It is not indulgence in sensual pleasures and hareems. None of these belong to Islam.

If you dismiss all these forms from the field of Islam you will find that Islam is clear and simple, easy to understand, and no two who are guided by God and whose hearts have been enlightened by the light of faith could disagree about it.

3. Literally Islam means man’s surrender of himself to God and his complete submission and resignation to the guidance of God. If man submits and surrenders to the will of God, the Almighty, spiritually, intellectually, psychically, and in action, then he is a Muslim in the literal sense.

4. In legal terms a Muslim is one who says, “I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” On this all Muslims are agreed.

5. Realistically Islam is a divine order which directs the life of the Muslim in all its phases, spiritual, social, political, and economic. For it consists of: (a) a creed, (b) rituals, (c) a social order, (d) morality.

I may describe the religion of Islam as a totalist religion which is liberal and liberating. It differs from those religions which care for the spiritual aspects subject to external influences.

It also differs from all political totalitarian systems like Fascism, Nazism, or Communism, which are despotic towards the individual and which make the individual subject to the leader or the Party. All these totalitarian systems try to control the individual by external pressure. They limit his freedom, unlike Islam, which liberates the individual from any external authority of material greed. Unless man trespasses against his brother man, he fears nobody but God, and, as long as man obeys the commands of his Creator and accepts His prohibitions, he enjoys complete freedom.

Islam is a democratic system with no excess. It controls individuals without subjugation, Islam liberates man from fear and need, guarantees freedom of conscience and calls to social inter-dependence. Besides all this it is the religion of peace- peace that is founded on right and justice between individuals and nations…

I do not believe that a person with an enlightened outlook faces any obstacle which could not be surmounted. Muslim youth today could be directed towards Islam and imbued with its upright principles. I hereby transcribe for you verse 177 of the Surah [2], The Cow.

“It is not righteousness that you turn your face towards the east and the west, but righteousness is this- that one should believe in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin, and orphans and the needy and the way farer and the beggars, and far (the emancipations of) the captives, and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rates: and the fulfillers of their obligation, when they undertake one, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflict- it is these who are sincere and God-fearing.”

This verse contains the bases of creed, rituals, and some of the important aspects of social and moral life of the Islamic religion.

In conclusion, I ask God to grant us all the blessings of faith and to save us from the slippery path of the philosophers and theologians and from the argumentations of the atheist-materialists.

Excerpt from Kenneth Cragg and R. Marston Speight, Islam from Within: Anthology of a Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1979).