Herein lies one of the major distinctions between the Islamic and Christian points of view, one that makes it difficult for many Westerners to understand the nature of the Islamic perspective. Christianity is essentially a mystery which veils the Divine from man. The beauty of Christianity lies in the acceptance of God as a mystery, and in bowing before this mystery, in believing in the unknown as St. Augustine said. In Islam, however, it is man who is veiled from God. The Divine Being is not veiled from us, we are veiled from Him and it is for us to try to rend this veil asunder, to try to know God. Our intelligence is not a Luciferian faculty but a God-given instrument
whose ultimate object is God Himself. Islam is thus essentially a way of knowledge; it is a way of
gnosis (ma`rifah). It is based on gnosis or direct knowledge that however cannot by any means be equated with rationalism which is only an indirect and secondary form of knowledge. Islam leads to that essential knowledge which integrates our being, which makes us know what we are and be what we know or in other words integrates knowledge and being in the ultimate unitive vision of Reality.
Man needs revelation because although a theomorphic being he is by nature negligent and forgetful; he is by nature imperfect. Therefore he needs to be reminded. Adam, the first man, was also the first of prophets. Prophecy is thus necessary for mankind and begins with the first man himself. As Adam needed prophecy so do all men who are his progeny. Man cannot aloneuplift himself spiritually. He must be awakened from the dream of negligence by one who is already awake. Man is thus in need of a message from heaven and must follow a revelation in order to realize the full potentiality of his being and have the obstacles which bar the correct functioning of his intelligence removed. Intelligence does lead to God but provided it is wholesome and healthy (salim), and it is precisely revelation, this objective manifestation of the Intellect, that guarantees this wholesomeness and permits the intelligence to function correctly and not be impeded by the passions. Every man needs to follow a prophet and a revelation unless he is himself chosen as a prophet or in certain other very exceptional cases which are only exceptions that prove the rule and demonstrate that 'the Spirit bloweth where it listeth'.
The most profound reason for the need of revelation is the presence of obstacles before the intelligence which prevent its correct functioning, or more directly the fact that although man is made in the 'image of God' and has a theomorphic being he is always in the process of forgetting it. He has in himself the possibility of being God-like but he is always in the state of neglecting this possibility. That is why the cardinal sin in Islam is forgetfulness. It is negligence (ghaflah) of what we really are. It is a going to sleep and creating a dream world around us which makes us forget who we really are and what we should be doing in this world. Revelation is there to awaken man from this dream and remind him what it really means to be man.
Man is in absolute need of religion without which he is only accidentally human. It is only through participation in a tradition, that is, a divinely revealed way of living, thinking and being, that man really becomes man and is able to find meaning in life. It is only tradition in this sense that gives meaning to human existence. Many thinkers of the Enlightenment and the age of rationalism who theoretized against religion did not realize the profound need of man for religion or for meaning in an ultimate sense, and could not foresee that once deprived of a divinely revealed religion man, rather than becoming content, would begin to create pseudo-religions and the spiritually dangerous eclecticisms which have been showering mankind for the past century or two.
The privilege of participating in the human state, in a state which contains the opportunity and possibility of becoming 'God-like', of transcending the world of nature, and of possessing an immortal soul whose entelechy lies beyond the physical world, carries with it also a grave responsibility. This trust or responsibility of having the freedom to accept or reject faith is beautifully expressed in the Quranic verse: 'Lo! We offered the trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. and man assumed it. Lo! He hath proven a tyrant and a fool.' (Sura 33, verse 72)
The supreme symbol of this trust, this precious burden which God has placed on the shoulders of man, a burden which if he bears safely grants him eternal felicity, is in Islam the black stone of the Ka'ba. There is in Mecca in the house of God a black stone which is in fact a meteor. In the Islamic tradition, this stone which fell from heaven, symbolizes the original covenant (al-mithâq) made between man and God. God taught man the name of all the creatures as we are told in the Quran as well as in the Old Testament. This means that God gave man the possibility of dominating over all things for to possess the 'name' of a thing means to exercise power over it. Man has the right to breathe the air about him, to eat and drink to satiate his bodily desires, to walk upon the earth. None of these has man created himself. Man is moreover given life and a freedom to accept or deny the Creator Himself. This is in itself a miracle, a part of existence which can deny Being. We exist and yet there are men who deny Being, the source of all particular existence. Only men can become existentialists. Animals also exist but they are not existentialists.
It is itself a miracle that human existence is given the possibility of denying its own source. But man is given all this and much more in return for something which God wants of him and the black stone is the symbol of this covenant made between man and God. The idea of covenant is an aspect of religion often forgotten in modem times but it is essential in Islam and is of course strongly emphasized in the Old Testament. There, however, the covenant is made between God and a chosen people, the people of Israel, whereas in Islam it is made between God and man as such not a particular race or tribe.
Man by acceping the covenant has in turn certain duties to perform. He has, first of all, to make his intelligence conform to the Truth which comes from the Absolute, and then to make his will conform to the Will of the Absolute and his speech to what God wants of man. In brief, in return for all the blessings and gifts that God has given man, man must in turn remember his real nature and always keep before him the real goal of his terrestrial journey. He must know who he is and where he is going. This he can do only by conforming his intelligence to the Truth and his will to the Divine Law. A person who does not fulfil his religious obligations falls short in Muslim eyes on the simplest moral plane. He is like a man who has rented a house and refuses to pay the rent. Man has accepted a covenant with God but simply refuses to live up to his side of the agreement.
To accept the Divine covenant brings up the question of living according to the Divine Will. The very name of Islam is intimately connected with this cardinal idea. The root 'salama' in Arabic, from which Islam is derived, has two meanings, one peace and the other surrender. He who surrenders himself to the Divine Will gains peace. The very idea of Islam is that through the use of intelligence which discerns between the Absolute and the relative one should come to surrender to the Will of the Absolute. This is the meaning of Muslim: one who has accepted through free choice to conform his will to the Divine Will.