Revisiting Murata and Chittick’s ‘The Vision of Islam’

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Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

On my recent visit to ‘Kitab Mahal’ (KM), Lal Bazar Srinagar, Sheikh Waseem gifted me two books, and among these was Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick’s ‘The Vision of Islam’. First published in 1994, by I. B. Tauris, London, the book has been (re) published by KM in 2018. It is gratifying to see such kind of works being published, at an affordable price, from Kashmir.
It is interesting to note here that I first came to know about this book during my PG at University of Kashmir (2006-08), while studying one of the courses on Tassawwuf (Sufism). I remember that in this course, I was assigned to write (as ‘Assignment’) on the concept of ‘Ihsan’, and the books that I consulted for it were: Thomas Patrick Hughes, The Dictionary of Islam, Cyrill Glasse, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, and most importantly, Sachiko Murata & William C. Chittick’s The Vision of Islam. Being an important exposition of Islam as ‘Din’, especially through the triad of ‘Islam, Iman, and Ihsan’, the present write-up is dedicated to highlight the importance and significance of this book. Also, it is worthy to mention here that back in May 2017, I published a write-up, in Kashmir Reader (parts 1&2, dated, 23&24 May’2017), on “Islam, Iman, and Ihsan—The Triad of ‘Islam’ as Din (Faith, Religion, and Way of Life)”.
Written by husband-wife team, Chittick and Muarta are well-established and globally renowned scholars of ‘Sufism’ and Asian Studies. The book is divided into 4 parts and consists of 10 chapters, preceded by a Preface (pp. ix-xiii) and Introduction (pp. xiv-xxxix), and ends with Glossary, Appendix, Notes, and Index.
Part 1, “Islam” covers two chapters, viz. ‘The Five Pillars’ and ‘The Historical Embodiment of Islam’; Part 2, “Iman” covers chapters 3-6, viz. Tawhid, Prophecy, The Return, and The Intellectual Schools; Part 3, “Ihsan” consists of chapters 7&8 namely ‘The Koranic Roots of Ihsan’ and ‘The Historical manifestation of Ihsan’; and the last part is entitled as “Islam in History” and consists of chapters 9&10, namely: ‘History as Interpretation’ and ‘The Contemporary Situation’.
The book tries to explore Islam in the triad of Islam, Iman, and Ihsan, which are translated by the authors as submission, faith, and doing what is beautiful, respectively. This is based on, what is generally referred as ‘The Hadith of Gabriel [AS]’, which states, on the authority of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) that once a man came to Prophet (pbuh) and asked him many questions, among others about Islam, Iman, and Ihsan: the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) defined these, respectively, as: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and to perform the prayer, give zakah, fast in Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House if you can find a way”; “Iman is to believe in Allah, His angels, His inspired Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and in destiny, it’s good and evil”; and “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you”.
In the (preliminary) explanation of this hadith, Murata and Chittick add that it “provides us with a picture of the religion of the followers of Muhammad [pbuh]”, especially based on the definitions of the first three elements, viz. Islam, Iman, and Ihsan. They call these elements of Islam as the “dimensions”—the dimension of submission, faith, and doing what is beautiful (pp. xxvii-iii). Later, they built their thesis of ‘Three Dimensions of Islam’—the focus of this book. They define Islam as “‘submission to God’ as an undeniable fact of existence” (p. 3); Iman, for them stands what Prophet (pbuh) defined it: “Faith is a knowledge in the heart, a voicing with the tongue, and an activity with the limbs”, involving, thus the activities of “knowing, speaking, and doing” (p. 37); and the term Ihsan, for them, is a verb which means “to do or to establish what is good and beautiful” (p. 269).
For them, the discussions on the first dimension, that is, islam, is on “activity”; while those on iman “look closely at understanding”, and of ihsan—which is the ‘deepest dimension’ as well—is on “human intentionality” (p. 267). The book helps in understanding, in a better way, the concepts of Islam, Iman, and Ihsan, their inter-connection and relation, as well as their importance.
A glimpse of the significance of this book can be clearly perceived from its ‘Description’ and from the ‘Reviews’/ ‘Endorsements’, which put succinctly the theme and focus and position of this book in the broader context of Islamic history and thought: “Covering the four dimensions of Islam as outlined in the Hadith of Gabriel [AS]—practice, faith, spirituality, and the Islamic view of history—The Vision of Islam draws on the Koran [Qur’an], the sayings of the Prophet [Ahadith] and the great authorities of the tradition … and introduces the essential of each dimension”. On the ‘Back Cover’ of this book, one can see the excerpts of three reviews/ endorsements—by M. Swatz (Choice), Seyyed Hossein Nasr (George Washington University), and Willaim Graham (Harvard University)—which give a glimpse of its recognition and reception in clear terms: “This lucid and compelling account of Islam is written from what might be called a phenomenological perspective. …present[ing] Islam as a living faith from a Muslim perspective a reflected in the classical texts of Islam”; “one of the most successful introductions to Islam… [and a] comprehensive study”; and “It describes and elucidates extremely well the integrity and coherence of Muslim faith and piety and how they relate to practice and culture”.
In sum, Murata and Chittick’s The Vision of Islam is a well-researched classical work and a master piece which presents a better explanation/ description of Islam through the triad of Islam, Iman, and Ihsan. And this Indian Edition, published by Kitab Mahal, Srinagar, makes it accessible to a wider audience here in our society. It is a must read for knowing and understanding, very clearly and comprehensively, the concept and history of Islam (as a living faith) and as reflected in the classical texts of Islam.

—The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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