As Talal Asad informs us in Genealogies of Religion, the modern notion of 'religion' is a precarious endeavor. Instead, Asad posits Religion as an artificial construct that is antithetical to the Secular and highlights a debate that has been ongoing in Western intellectual thought for a few decades.
Asad directs his criticism at Clifford Geertz, who describes religion as a
System of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
Asad problematizes Geertz's delineation between the 'system of symbols' and their representations; he opts instead to focus on the disciplinary practices, religious and otherwise, that shape and mold these symbolic systems and their representations. These debates emerged due to changes occurring within Western intellectual thought in modernity and, therefore, belie a strictly 'modern' concern. At the core of this debate is the contention between religious dogma (doctrine) and pragma (practice): which comes first and which ultimately dictates the character and spirit of a religious tradition?
When I was first exposed to this 'argument of the century' between Asad and Geertz in my graduate studies, I chose to concentrate on a different aspect of the problem; instead of the competition between dogma and pragma, what of the perplexing interaction between religious symbols and their representations: where, when and how is the former translated into the latter?
Most important for this discussion is that Geertz himself describes the purpose of religious symbols as to
Formulate a congruence between a particular style of life and a specific (if, most often, implicit) metaphysic, and in so doing sustain each with the borrowed authority of the other.
Muslim sages of the past, such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi and Mulla Sadra al-Shirazi were all deeply invested in how the spiritual, disembodied and intelligible interacts with and exercises its influence upon the material realm. While these three sages - and numerous others - had drastic differences in their approaches, we may posit a central theme common to all of them: the presence of some form of intermediary between the metaphysical and material realms.
Ibn al-ʿArabi, also known as the Greatest Master and Reviver of the Religion, is perhaps to be credited most for developing the concept of ʿālam al-khayāl (mundus imaginalis). As a barzakh (isthmus/liminal space), Ibn al-'Arabi informs us that this realm is where spirits are corporealized and bodies are spiritualized. It is also the dihlīz of Ghazali; the threshold and meeting place between the various roads that go to and fro. Most importantly of course, it is also rooted scripturally in the Qurʾan as the meeting place between two seas.
However, Ibn al-ʿArabi also posits the entire cosmos as an imaginal realm of sorts, between absolute wujūd (being/existence) which is al-Ḥaqq (the Real), the divine presence in its absoluteness, on the one hand, and utter ʿadam (non-existence) that which is absolute void, on the other hand. Everything in between these two poles is in turn a liminal confluence, a perplexing ocean of 'being' to varying degrees.
It is precisely at this powerful juncture of the grand drama of divine creation that man comes to the scene. For sages like Ibn al-ʿArabi, al-insān (human being) is the singular entity that has the potentiality to envelop, actualize and manifest this auspicious divine creativity in his very own being. This potentiality, once fully actualized to perfection, makes one an insān kāmil tāmm (a perfect and complete human being).
It is within such a fully actualized body that Geertz's and Asad's dilemma is simultaneously sorted out and complicated; for that is the nature of perplexity. If one were to ask Ibn al-ʿArabi, he would 'point' out that the 'point' is not to actually reach a solution but rather to maintain the contention, debate and argument; for that in itself is creative. While Asad's argument correctly highlights the absence in Geertz's definition of the social construction of metaphysical symbols and their representations; Ibn al-ʿArabi and the other sages direct us to the individual human who, at once, creatively engages this metaphysic, shapes and molds its representations in the social sphere and forms a quintessential component of its communal disciplinary practices.
It is this pivotal role of the individual, as a microcosm of the cosmic imaginal realm, that is lacking in the contemporary religious consciousness. Calling this process taḥqīq (self-realization and actualization), James Morris describes in Orientations that taḥqīq was part and parcel of the world's religious practice in pre-modern times. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment and, as Asad informs us above, the reduction of religion - Islam included - to the status of a political ideology, what was once a journey of knowing God through knowing the world and oneself became instead a shell and shadow of its former self.
This niche of the human subject in the cosmos juxtaposes nicely with the niche in one's own microcosmic being, the qalb (heart). This mutaqallib (fluctuating) organ of the human being, alongside other faculties such as ʿaql (intellect), is the only inner isthmus that allows us to engage the perplexity of the numerous cosmic symbols and their representations in the world; including our very own abyssal selves.
Through this connection between the niche of the heart and cosmos, our vision may further expand to include the metacosm; the source of higher truth present in both man and the universe. That this journey of self-realization is of paramount importance for religious subjects today should be somewhat clear by now. It is a daunting but necessary endeavor of re-engaging humanity with its own collective self as an emblem of Truth and Reality.