A Critique of Ismail Faruqi’s Metareligion and Ethical Analysis of Christianity. Part 1/3

I. Methodology

Ismail Faruqi (1921-1986) is regarded as one of the most trenchant scholarly critics of Christianity in recent times. This estimation is attested by his post-doctoral project on Christian Ethics: A Historical and Systematic Analysis of Its Dominant Ideas (1967). Its 333 pages indicate detailed familiarity with Christian thinkers ranging from Augustine to Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr. His later books on Divine Transcendence and Its Expression (1983), Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life (1982), Islam and Other Faiths (1998) and Selected Essays (2018) demonstrate that he is well-versed in matters of Western philosophy and they are replete with sharp criticisms of Christianity. Undoubtedly, his sustained engagement with Christianity is a product of his life experiences, as a Palestinian Arab in Lebanon and subsequently as an American scholar in Harvard University and McGill University. Perhaps he also felt compelled to respond to the vigorous intellectual enterprise among Christian missionary scholars in his time. We shall analyze critically Faruqi’s work as it provides a rare opportunity for Christians to respond to Islamic misunderstanding of Christianity at the level of sophisticated scholarship.

Faruqi is critical of Christian or Western scholarship on comparative religion. He finds fault with Christian scholars like Stephen Neill and A.C. Bouquet for operating from an obviously Christian framework of religions and writing with evangelistic intent. He rejects the view of Hendrik Kraemer who argues that a presuppositionless and disinterested investigation of religions is problematic. Suspension of judgment or epoche is both impossible and unnecessary. Kramer emphasizes that the judgment of everyone is inescapably conditioned by one’s existential situation which for Kramer himself would be Christianity. Faruqi argues to the contrary and insists that a phenomenological epoche is both possible and necessary. Faruqi understands the term epoche to be a reflection on the structures of one’s consciousness as the means to arrive at the essence of the object under investigation. The achievement of the epoche, however, assumes an epistemological framework, a metareligion, that is capable of grasping the “essence of religion” . Faruqi asserts,

Metareligion, then, is necessary, not because objectivity is impossible but because having understood a religious notion, there is still the need to relate it to human life, to evaluate it. . . but it is a different matter from understanding a religion, where epoche and internal and external coherence are the only principles. Kraemer’s mistake lies precisely here, in that he takes the second activity which is no doubt existential and evaluative as constitutive of the first, of the understanding (CE 40).

Faruqi claims that while Kraemer categorically denies “essence of religion” as a valid concept which functions as a “norm of religious truth”, nevertheless Kraemer surreptitiously smuggles in the revelation of Christ as a norm for all other religious truth. As a counter-proposal, Faruqi offers the following criteria for understanding in comparative religion: 1) the principle of internal coherence which necessarily precludes recourse to paradox as a theological principle, 2) the system or view presented must cohere with cumulative human knowledge, and 3) all revealed truths must cohere with the religious experience of mankind.

Proceeding further he suggests six principles which would constitute an objective framework (metareligion) for evaluating religions: 1) Being is of two realms: Ideal and Actual, 2) Ideal Being is relevant to Actual Being, 3) Relevance of the Ideal to the Actual is a Command, 4) Actual Being is as such good, 5) Actual being is malleable, that is, man “ is susceptible, in addition to the blind determination of ontological reality, to a determination of another order, to the moving appeal of values, to determination by the ideal valuational realm of being” (CE 30), and 6) Perfection of the Cosmos is only a human burden, that is, “the realm of actual being may be moulded into the pattern of the ideal, but it can be so moulded only by man…That is man’s cosmic status: to bring about such necessarily ‘potent’ world into likeness with the realm of ideal being, to perfect the world by deflecting its causal potency to ends which embody values” (CE 31).

Faruqi asserts that there is an incontestable, self-evident truth, namely,

that being is of two levels or realms, the actual and the ideal, the is and the ought, fact and value…Denial of [the two realms] involves one either in thorough going skepticism, or in self-contradiction the moment he ‘cognizes’ or ‘evaluates’…Since the ideal realm acts as principle of classification, of the order and structure of actual being, it follows that it provides the pattern by which the actual is or is not what it is, the standard by which the actual is or is not valuable (CE 22-23).

Faruqi concludes that since God addresses the actual as a command, the realm of the ideal being comprises a theoretical and valuation order for the actual being. The consequence is elaborated in the fifth principle, “that the realm of real being is malleable means that obedience to God’s command is possible, that ethical felicity can be real actuality, that man and world do not stand forever beyond perfection, i.e. beyond salvation, but within the reach of paradise”. This is summed up in the sixth and final principle, “To obey God’s command, to perfect His creation is to be moral and thus to fulfill the requisite of the human viceregency of God on earth” (CE 31).

Faruqi admits that his metareligion exemplifies an Islamic spirit, but it should still be acceptable because the spirit of Islam is none other than rationality itself since “in Islam, faith or iman means conviction based upon certainty of evidence” (CE 33). Whether these principles of metareligion are as neutral as Faruqi claims will be clear in due course. Indeed, Faruqi’s writings exude in polemics rather than empathy because his metareligion imposes a procrustean framework on other religions. We cannot miss how Faruqi stresses that his religious philosophy not only permits and develops a full-fledged epoche for understanding another religion; he further asserts that his concept of metareligion is the only competent judge of itself and the other religions. It is ironic that while Faruqi advocates the suspension of all dogmatic theology which only serves to hinder rapprochement between religions, he nevertheless claims that his metareligion, being theology-free is adequate for challenging all men to agree on what constitute ethical duties before God. “By accepting a theology-free metareligion, Islam is in fact pleading with the religions: “Let us drop our old questions regarding the nature of God, which have brought nothing but deadlocks; and let us turn to man, to his duties and responsibilities which are, in fact, none other than God’s will. Let God he Whom He may; is it not possible-nay, necessary-that all men agree to establish divine will first?…The discernment that is here in question is not theoretical truth, but of value.” (CE 33).

I agree with Faruqi that any study on religions should lay out clearly its presuppositions. Whether such presuppositions are sufficiently neutral and objective to uncover the “essence of religion” is another matter. However, in my judgment it is doubtful that Faruqi succeeds in setting out such an objective instrument. Indeed, to pretend to be able to do so is to entertain a methodological illusion highlighted by recent hermeneutics which draws from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s insight that all logical formalism presuppose an interpretative horizon or religious tradition. It is often the case that the criteria of rational adequacy for logical formalism are taken as evident because they are supported by the plausibility or belief-structures of the sociological context itself. There is no formal metareligion which does not have some material presuppositions embedded in religious institutions concerning the nature of religion and ultimate reality.

Equally problematic is the manner in which Faruqi applies his criteria in a rigid and reductive manner in his evaluation of religious truth and authenticity. Consequently while Faruqi is quick to judge Kraemer for being unable to set aside a Christian theological framework, he himself either inadvertently or surreptitiously smuggles the distinctive values of Islam into his metareligion. In this regard believers in other religions will inevitably disagree with his formulation of metareligion. For example, a Indian monist will find his dualism of the Ideal and the Actual to be misguided. Faruqi’s assertion that it is possible to evaluate religious reality only on grounds of law and ethic represents a false dichotomy between theology and ethics, truth claims and obedience of the command. Indeed, it may be argued that ethical evaluation presupposes ontological truth and ethical action flows from specific preconceptions of truth.

The central role assigned to ethical criteria in Faruqi’s metareligion shares affinities with the priority of praxis in determination of truth claims advocated by recent Marxist and liberation theologians. Faruqi’s metareligion completely subsumes dogmatics under ethics. However, in an unguarded moment Faruqi acknowledges that metaphysics is prior to ethics (CE 85). But his insistence that comparative religion should basically be grounded in law and ethics reflects a bias which springs from his prior commitment to Islam. Faruqi’s restriction of evaluation in comparative religion to the realm of law and ethics is not accidental if we bear in mind that the genius of Islam is not so much theology as law. Not surprisingly, his metareligion skews his analysis of religion so that it inherently puts Islam in a better light than Christianity.

Coming from his Islamic tradition which denies the Fall of sinful humanity, it is natural that Faruqi claims that actual being (man) can fully actualize the divine commands and fulfil the human burden of the perfection of the cosmos. However, Faruqi is able to maintain his optimism only by deliberately ignoring contrary evidence that is pervasive in normal human experiences – when criminals attack their defenceless victims, when rich industrialists exploit the poor underclass, and when self-serving politicians manipulate the masses to perpetrate communal violence. The contradiction between Faruqi’s lofty ethical ideals and the tragic realities of life calls into question the adequacy of the foundational principles of Faruqi’s metareligion.

As a matter of fact, Faruqi is inconsistent in the application of his metareligion when he comes to his own religious philosophy. While earlier he stressed the need for religious claims to cohere with cumulative human knowledge, he rejects the need to test his the claims of his own religion by elevating his religious claims to be above the vicissitudes of human experience and language. Faruqi even claims absolute perfection and non-developmental qualities for the foundation of his beliefs by attributing them to be “intuition of the transcendent without anthropomorphism, and yet without allegorical interpretation”. Not surprisingly, he judges this possibility as a “miracle” of the history of ideals” (DTE 37). And miraculous it must be indeed, if the formulation of his own religious belief is immune from the changes and adaptations which characterize all human languages and cultures. In effect, he has effectively claimed a methodological privilege and immunity from the need to test his beliefs according to the rational criteria of his metareligion.

Abbreviations of books by Ismail Faruqi.

AT: Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992.
CE: Christian Ethics: A Historical and Systematic Analysis of Its Dominant Ideas. McGill UP, 1967.
DTE: Divine Transcendence and Its Expression. ABIM, 1983.
IC: Islam and Culture. ABIM. 1980.
IOF: Islam and Other Faiths. Islamic Foundations & International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1998.
SE: Selected Essays. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2018.

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