Religion has been defined variously as ‘human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience’ (Oxford dictionary) and ‘the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto’ (William James). These are fairly straightforward, inoffensive definitions and the majority of people (particularly in the West) generally hold to them, consciously or not. There are slightly more philosophical definitions such as Hegel’s ‘universal mind’ idea, where all minds in the universe are an aspect of the ‘Geist’, or Otto’s idea of the ‘Holy’, or Martin Buber’s idea of experiencing the ‘Thou’. But whatever the definition, it will never fully satisfy every religion in the world. Many religions don’t accept the idea of the supernatural. For these traditions, religion is entirely natural; the old religions of Europe, for example. The Scandinavian myths don’t have a supernatural aspect. Their gods and giants are as much a part of the natural world as humans, they are just other races that exist along with us. But this is as much religion as the major religions around the world today and members of these religions will be rather offended by our claims that what they practice is not religion at all. Another obvious exception to our definitions is Buddhism. It has no central deity (although James gets around this problem by talking about the ‘unseen order’, which in Buddhism may be translated as karma) and is not even superficially similar to any Western or mid-Eastern religion. I will attempt to prove a few of the most commonly-held definitions of ‘religion’ as being inaccurate and incomplete and restricted by holding them against, mainly one religion (Islam), with little comparisons with other religions here and there.

The various definitions of religion suggested by scholars and academics have many problems and shortfalls but there is one thing we can all agree on- religion is about group worship, community, shared ideas and traditions. The morality of a group of believers in one tradition derives from traditional sources, either a holy book or a set of codes and traditions passed down thru a familial line of descent. There are no personal religions- this is an oxymoron. Etymologically, the word itself, ‘religion’ comes from the Latin term ‘re ligares’, meaning binding together. Community, social groupings of people with similar ideas. However, being as this is a Latin term, it is a Western idea and probably excludes hundreds of religions around the world which we know absolutely nothing of. There are religions which encourage individual worship and coming to God or whatever, Nirvana as in the aforementioned Buddhism. Or, for another instance, certain kinds of Christianity. Many Christians do not consider their religion as ‘religion’, but rather as a relationship between themselves and God. They refuse to live by another person’s moral code as it defeats the entire purpose of Christianity, to be saved thru Jesus and so forth, and when Christians feel they have taken on the Holy Spirit, they feel converted and that God is telling them directly what His plans and intentions are for the life of the converted. Living by a holy book would be a contradiction to this. Catholicism is a good example of this idea (and there is an obvious paradox in this, but it goes beyond the scope of my essay). And this is something we can agree on, that religion is basically communal. Anybody who finds ‘God’, however you define it, thru solitary and individual acts does not consider themselves part of a religion because there is not the aspect of the community or the shared ideas. It is entirely individual with Buddhists, Christians, Native Americans, &c. and these do not consider themselves religious. But from the outside, looking in, and applying some of the above definitions, these are all religions.

Now, do Muslims consider their religion a religion? Well there is no similar concept of religion as it is understood in the West in Islam. Classically, I mean- East and West have been communicating for centuries and both sides have assimilated certain ideas and aspects of the other’s culture, but classically, there is no similar idea within Islam. Most Muslims would rather describe what they practice and follow as ‘deen’. I cannot think of a suitable Western definition for this term but simply put it is a belief that concerns every aspect of the life of an individual and of a society- Deen, etymologically comes from an Arabic root word which means submission (especially to an authority). If a Muslim believes in the Qur’an as the ultimate Authority, he will believe everything contained within it as the absolute and literal word of God- therefore he will accept every law contained within the book. Everything is included and Islamic law covers everything, from legal matters such as divorce and criminal law to methods of ritual and hygienic washing, correct types of food one may eat, &c. In the West we have this idea (albeit a recent innovation) of the separation of church and state, but in Islam, the state’s laws are based on the code laid down in the Qur’an and Hadith (quotes of Muhammad). In theory, at least. Modern Islamic states are more inclined towards secularism, perhaps for the sake of modernism. This secularism is not so much for religious pluralism, however, as Islam got there first with the laws regarding treatment of foreigners and followers of different religions within an Islamic state. This pluralism is itself based on the Qur’an, another example of how all-encompassing Islamic laws are. We have this idea over here of religion being a small part of a person’s life, however significant. In Islam, religion IS a person’s entire life.

Given the definition of a religion as a social group first and foremost, however, Islam is certainly a religion, as many of the main forms of worship and ceremonies are very social. Salat, for example- mainstream Islam says that this may be performed individually. However, the best kind of salat, say mainstream Islamic scholars, is performed in Jamaat, is congregational. Every ceremony is similarly social and entire communities get together to mark important events in the lives of individuals- weddings, funerals, &c. However the various sects differ, they all generally agree on the social aspect of Islam. This is due to the fact that Islam was borne out of a culture where society was considered very important. The Arab people were originally desert nomads, and many of them still are. Their customs built up over time to allow them to live the most practical lives possible in a situation where they never had a static home. Placing so much emphasis on family and the society as an extended family ensured that they would always remain together as a group. Judaism began in a very similar way. The first Jews (maybe not the original tribe which would eventually become today’s Jews, but Moses’s people) were desert people too. Perhaps this is why there seem to be many similarities between Islamic and Jewish laws; maybe Muhammad felt a sense of brotherhood with the Jewish people, being descended from desert people himself. The laws within the Torah, for example those regarding ritual purity and meat laws, came about with practical desert living in mind- pork, for example, is notorious for its abilities to carry every disease known to man and in the desert where they had no refrigeration, it is only practical to outlaw it. Many of the Jewish laws were designed with this end in mind, to keep the tribe alive long enough to eventually reach the promised land.

So Islam is more of a socio-cultural thing than what we in the West would recognise as a religion, with our tradition of the separation of Church and State, secular laws, &c. But it does have many religious aspects that we would find very familiar. There is worship, there is a God, there are rituals and traditions. However, it differs enough from most other religions (with the exception of Judaism) to warrant a new definition.

So what does Islam have in common with every other religion in the world? It is simply this, that it is social. David Barrett, in ‘The New Believers’, defines religion as ‘a social construct encompassing beliefs and practices which enable people, individually and collectively, to make some sense of the Great Questions of life and death’. He is pretty much the only major academic who includes the social aspect of religion in his definition.

Maybe in all of this we are forgetting the most important question: is it even meaningful to try to define ‘religion’? Does this word even mean anything? John Smith evidently didn’t think so. In ‘Imagining Religion’ he writes ‘There is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study.’ It is entirely meaningless to speak of religion as a universal, definable concept, something we can label and definitely pinpoint. What we recognise as religion is thousands of individual phenomena that perhaps have no common element. But, we know we can define religion, because every one of these individual phenomena, we can judge them by some standard we seem to have inherent in us. What we lack is a clearly-defined set of criteria by which we can objectively measure ‘religions’ by, and this is what many scholars and academics aim for. But the flaw in their method of going about solving this problem may be that religion is completely subjective. Maybe it must be experienced firsthand to understand at all. Maybe, as outsiders, we will never be able to recognise certain traditions as religious. Every culture and every society and every nation is different, because every culture around the world largely grew up shut off from the rest of the world, closed off to other nations except to trade. Being as they grew up and developed in isolation, they also developed their own language, their own customs, their own traditions; and trying to find some common source between all world religions is like trying to find a common ancestor for our race and any extraterrestrial race that may be out there- if E.T. races exist, then they would most probably have evolved under different conditions from ours and would therefore be radically different, so much so because the base from which the evolution of their race would have evolved would be radically different from what we evolved from, like how our religions around the world are so different in every culture. But I am compelled somehow to continue linking every religion around the world using this one, simple label: religion. It is illogical to speak of a definition of religion but it is impossible to speak of them at all without one.


Rudolph Otto, ‘The Idea of the Holy’ Martin Buber, ‘I and Thou’ David Barrett, ‘The New Believers’ H. A. Guerber, ‘Myths of the Norsemen’ R. Maqsud, ‘Islam’

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.