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Book Review: Faith and Belief

by Hassan Gai Eaton

By Hassan Gai Eaton

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The whole text is by Sh Hasan Gay Eaton, irrespective of font colour.

This is a fascinating, illuminating and, at times, infuriating book.

Dr. Cantwell Smith has an extremely important point to make, and he makes it at great length and with considerable subtlety. It would not be unreasonable to say that no one, from now on, has the right to employ the word "belief" in its accustomed usage, and we are obliged to think carefully -and in terms of a clearer understanding -about the terms we employ to define adherence to a religion.
The author's principal contention is simple and, once stated, undeniable.

The word "belief" does not mean what it once meant, indeed it means something quite different. We still regard it as interchangeable with the word "faith" and equate it with religious conviction which, in its turn, relates to "certainty", at least on the subjective level. In modern usage, however, it implies uncertainty. A simple illustration may suffice. Suppose that I am about to board a flight to Jeddah. A man laden with suitcases comes up to me and asks: "Does this flight go on to Karachi?". If I know that is so, I will answer "Yes" but, if I am not entirely sure, I will say, "I believe so". I have then suggested to my fellow passenger that he might be well advised to check with someone else. I have not committed myself. and yet the term "belief", in the context of religion, is supposed to imply inward conviction and outward commitment.

This trivial example goes a long way to proving Dr. Cantwell Smith's point and, in the Islamic context, it suggests that the translation of the term Mumin as "believer" is incorrect and misleading. Unfortunately the English language does not offer any single word that would serve. From "belief" we derive "believer", but we can derive no comparable term from "faith" unless we ... use the rather clumsy phrase "Man (or woman) of faith". ... We shall probably continue to translate Mumin as "believer" but, henceforth, with a sense of uneasiness. Since the majority of Muslims do not understand Arabic, the question of translation of key terms in the Qur'an is of the utmost importance and affects the spiritual destiny of millions of men and women.

In origin the word "belief" relates to love and commitment to the beloved rather than to the notion of holding certain particular opinions, as we can see from the dictionary definition of the word "lief" (which has only recently fallen out of use): "dear", "precious", "desired". It derives from the Old English leof or liof with which there was a cognate and more or less parallel form, lufu, meaning "affection" and suggesting passionate longing. ... The word "belief" has come to mean "the holding of certain ideas", and [he adds that] one might interpret it as the intellect's translation - might we not say "reduction"? -of transcendence into "ostensible terms", the conceptualisation in a particular way of the vision that, metaphorically, one has "seen". It should be noted in passing that he is using the term "intellect" in its modern and decadent sense. In medieval scholastic philosophy Intellect is the faculty of direct vision of the transcendent, a vision that is then translated by the mental faculties into concepts that can be expressed in human language. Dr. Cantwell Smith, however, seems to imply that the process of "conceptualisation" is a personal matter rather than something given by God through revelation; or, to put this another way, he appears to question the conviction inherent in religious faith that God has Himself supplied the forms in which this faith is conceptualised and practiced.

Although the author is fully aware of the subjectivism and relativism characteristic of the modem age, a certain flavour of ambiguity permeates the book, almost as though he had not entirely escaped from these errors which have, indeed, a tenacious hold upon all of us born into the 20th. century. He says, for example that "it is the faith of Muslims that has made the Qur'an the Word of Allah". It hardly needs stating that, for Muslims, the Qur'an would still be the Word of Allah even if no living creature had faith in it. Subjective factors or inclinations can have no effect whatsoever upon objective truth. Again, in speaking of the religious traditions -the World Religions -he says that "it is faith that generates the tradition in the first place". Yet these traditions are, from the religious point of view, "given", revealed, not merely generated by the human intellect and imagination. To suppose otherwise is, precisely, to fall into the trap of subjectivism, a fact which the author himself appears to recognise elsewhere in the text. He [the author] is walking a tightrope, and there are moments when he seems on the point of falling. The superficial reader might assume that what he is saying is something like this: It does not matter what you believe or in what concepts you formulate your belief so long as your faith is sincere and fervent. One may be sure that this is not what he means, but writers -particularly those concerned with religious faith -need always to keep in mind that very few readers follow an argument with meticulous attention and only a minority take the trouble to read appended notes (half this volume is made up of notes and references).

He makes the important point that the Latin word which stands at the very centre of the Christian faith - Credo ("I believe") - indicates, not a hypothesis which some may accept and others reject, but the acknowledgement of a fact, it is virtually equivalent to the statement, "I see that ..." Credo indicates allegiance to a perceived truth. The man or woman of our time asks, "What truth?", expecting this to be set out in a set of formulations similar to those in which scientists state what they suppose to be the truth today (but not necessarily tomorrow, since scientific "knowledge" is assumed to "progress"). The Christian of earlier times, like the Muslim throughout history, was concerned with a truth which could not be exhausted by any formulation, for - says the author - truth is also Power, Wisdom, Mercy, Beauty and Goodness. None of these terms can be defined with the precision that science requires and the modern mentality expects. Propositions, he adds, "are human constructs that serve as a means to lead us to the end, which is God."

He equates Credo with the Hindu word sraddha, meaning "I set my heart ..." and points out that its basic meaning in classical Latin combines the ideas of "heart" and "action", in the sense of "entrusting" or "committing" oneself, or in matters of finance, "lending" (a usage which servives in the English term "credit"). A secondary meaning was to "rely upon". In early Christianity "creeds" were at first liturgically and only later doctrinally used. The person to be baptised was not asked if he "believed" in God or Christ or the Church before being asked solemnly and ceremoniously to pledge his allegiance.

In its original meaning, then, "belief" is an act rather than a subjective state of mind but, in relation to modern usage, it seems reasonable to ask whether the distinction the author makes between "belief" and "faith" is valid. The blight of subjectivism has affected all the terms employed in religious discourse. Faith, belief, thought have all been cut loose from the notion of ascertainable objective truth; they have been reduced to a matter of current intellectual fashions and personal feelings. "I believe in God" has come perilously close to meaning, I feel there must be a God but, of course, I don't know". and this "don't know" implies that "no one knows". The Muslim however might say that faith is an acknowledgement of the truth, belief adherence to the truth, and thought validated only in so far as it reflects the truth.

"Believing", says the author, has come to mean that "an opinion is held about which the person who holds it.... leaves theoretically unresolved the question of its objective intellectual validity". Such a notion is, he points out, entirely foreign to the Muslim's perception of the Qur'an, and he adds that the idea that religious people are expected to "believe" this or that is "a modern aberration". The very notion of "belief" as it is now understood is, he says, entirely absent from the Qur'an, whereas words for knowing are 'frequent and emphatic". A mu'min is not a "believer", but someone who makes an act of faith, and faith "is something that people do more than something that people have". His definition of kufr is certainly to the point; it is not - he says - "unbelief" but, rather, "refusal", even "a spitting in Allah's face when He speaks out of His infinite authority and vast compassion... It is man's negative response to this spectacular divine initiative". When the Muslim makes the Shahada, he is not making an affirmation of belief. He is bearing witness, "corroborating an observable objective fact". The response of the "Yes-sayer" to the truth is not "belief" but "recognition".

The Muslim is, in effect, saying "I see that this is true and I commit myself to the truth", and the fact that - in the author's words - "there is indeed a God and He has spoken and so on" is presupposed equally in both the "Yes" and the "No" cases. Kufr presupposes this outlook no less than does iman. On the other hand, zanna, he suggests, is "pretty much what the term belief has come to signify in the modern world. It means to form an idea or opinion or assessment; to conceive, leaving open the question of the validity or correctness of the conception". Faith (in the Qur'an) is, he says, closely correlated with knowledge; therefore zanna is in clear opposition to knowledge as such. In the Qur'an, he says, "knowledge comes first and is central, being given by Allah; faith is the positive response to it, zanna is the pitiful and puny alternative to it". In Qur'anic terms, "the truth is given, is clear, is known", whereas modern "believing" as a concept "implies that truth, in the religious field, is not known". He then makes the profound comment that modern "believing" is an "anthropocentric concept", whereas the Qur'an world-view is "theocentric", adding that "it is entirely logical, and indeed natural, entirely legitimate and indeed inescapable, that when Allah is speaking men's opinions are assessed and interpreted in the light of His truth". This leaves no space for "our human epistomological bewilderments".
One is tempted to add: QED or hadtha huwa!

And yet, precisely because the author has put his finger so firmly upon the errors and ambiguities of contemporary Western thought, one wishes that he could have done so more simply and more succinctly. Brevity would have given greater force to his argument, even if certain nuances were neglected. Our "epistemological bewilderments" need to be exposed starkly, and the curse of academic writing, particularly American academic writing, seems to be an inability to take up a hammer and hit the necessary nails on the head. Dr. Cantwell Smith does this in a number of isolated sentences, but these striking statements tend to be lost in a sea of words. The theme that has to be dredged from this sea is -so it seems to this reviewer - …
… the loss of Knowledge (with a decisive capital 'K') or, to put it another way, the loss of the knowledge that true Knowledge is within the realm of human possibility. This loss is expressed theoretically in terms of subjectivism, the supposition that only subjective states of thought have any ultimate validity. But this supposition remains theoretical. In practice everyone believes that his or her ideas and convictions correspond to an objective truth which does not change with the changing seasons of human history.

But the problem remains. This is the problem faced by all religious people in our time unless they are sheltered from what might be called the "cosmopolitanism" of the age. The doctrines, the dogmas and the formulations in which the "believer" has faith cannot be absolute Truth since they are situated on the level of relativity. This is something perceived only too readily by the sceptical mind of contemporary man, who then draws the wrong conclusions from this fact and assumes that there is no such thing as Truth per se or else that this Truth is beyond the reach of human awareness and therefore irrelevant.

Dr. Cantwell Smith has had the courage to venture onto this difficult and dangerous ground and, perhaps, to hint at possible answers to the problem. Although he does not make use of the term employed by Frithjof Schuon -the "relatively absolute" -he might not find it unacceptable. The infinite cannot be encompassed by the finite. That is self-evident. But the great mystery -a mystery of clarity, not of darkness -is that

Truth as such is reflected in relative truths which, although they can never aspire to totality, which is a property of Allah alone, are none the less far more real, far more solid and therefore more objective than any purely subjective concept could ever be. Doctrines and dogmas given, as they are, from above are adequate despite their limitations. They are keys, pointers, indications for "those who understand" (a phrase which occurs repeatedly in the Qur'an).

They may be grasped as a means to an end, indicating a Truth which cannot be conceptualised, let alone expressed within the confines of human language. But the fact that something cannot be conceptualised does not mean that it cannot be perceived. Even the beauties we see around us in this world resist the skills even of the greatest poet: their full significance, since it is of divine origin, cannot be conveyed from one person to another in the way that mathematical formulae are passed from hand to hand.

The Qur'an tells us that we live our daily lives among things which are more than they appear to be; they are "signs" pointing towards their Creator and therefore conveying messages to those whose hearts and minds and eyes are awake and open. Though objective reality may be veiled and elusive to the gasping mind, we are not in truth imprisoned in our private subjectivities. As Dr. Cantwell Smith seems to be saying, the ancients were right; the moderns are wrong. For this and for its wealth of insights into some of the most complex question troubling the minds of "men and women of faith" in our time this book deserves serious and even dedicated study.

Hasan Gai Eaton

This review is was published in the Islamic Quarterly and
also in the Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs.

Faith and Belief is publ. at Princeton University Press.
Ed. exchanged the name of 'God' with 'Allah'.



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