IRSHAD Statement on Religion by Dr. Alhawary

May 23, 2008

CHICAGO, IRSHAD OFFICE

Irshad, the Institute of Religious Studies, Humanities and Dialogue is a US organization based in Michigan with offices in several states as well as in Canada and overseas. The environment in which Irshad has developed was one that had no restrictions on thoughts, ideas, the understanding of religion as well as its application in life. It is that free environment that has allowed us to express our ideas and voice our opinions in different matters of religion and humanity without fear or reservation. It has allowed us to listen to each other and to respect our differences and learn to live together in peace, love and harmony.
It was quite evident that we were living an era in which the impact of religion on people’s lives, behavior and actions has diminished. Religion, as a belief and a practice, has been more or less confined to places of worship with minimal influence on our lives outside those boundaries. One can easily notice how speaking about matters of belief or principles of faith, for example at a work environment, can create an atmosphere of uneasiness and a feeling “like we should change the subject”. A lot of individuals these days feel uncomfortable discussing among each other their faith and its importance in their lives unless they belong to the same group or religious party. I would go further and say that discussions about religion can sometimes be even prohibited at many places and considered as a subject that can have a negative influence and a reason for arguments and division. The word “religious” itself has been associated in the minds of people with “restriction”, “lack of freedom”, “strictness”, “superstition”, “non liberal” and essentially “unhappy”. We see many individuals who have faith in religion and who practices their faith would rather describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” hoping that this term would be more appealing and more acceptable.  Why is religion, which is a word that should represent high moral principles, humanity and compassion be so much avoided and surrounded with a great deal of suspicion and reservation.
We believe that this attitude towards religion in civilized and culturally diverse societies is a consequence of actions by individuals and organizations that relate themselves to religion and justify their actions in this context. Those individuals and organizations exist today in every society and represent different religious and faith denominations. They are however more prevalent in parts of the world where people are suffering from oppression, lack of freedom and lack of education. This is understandable, as this eventually becomes the ultimate environment in which certain ideas can be forced to infiltrate people’s minds. At the same time, any effort by individuals or other organizations to correct and rectify these belief systems are easily suppressed and aborted. Fears of oppression, corruption and unjust control by individuals in power dominate these parts of the world and characterize these nations and societies.
Besides existing today, these societies have existed at different periods in human history, recent as well as ancient, and are their actions exist today in our memories. In our history wars were started, injustices were practiced, rights were violated and religious discrimination were all practiced in the name of religion.  Oppressive regimes at that time controlled people’s  minds and beliefs and these crimes were all committed by individuals who were sincere and strong in faith. Indeed, they believed that they were doing the right thing.
Anyone who has knowledge of this history can easily recognize the existence of the same societies and organizations today and their impact on our lives.  It is no wonder then that we find educated individuals trying not to relate themselves to these societies and what they represent, which is religion. The bottom line is, today, and for the major part, these organizations have taken control over presenting religion to the world through their ideas and actions.
Now, faced with that kind of situation, we find ourselves between two choices. One is to leave those individuals and organizations in control of representing religion, spreading their ideas and acting in the name of religion and controlling vulnerable societies. At the same time we will isolate ourselves from them. We will try to avoid using religion as the focus of our effort and instead of relating ourselves to religion, we will start calling ourselves “spiritual” or “humanitarian” organizations. In other words we will be leaving the table and will be ignoring the distortion of ideas and the disfigurement of religion.
Or we can start a global effort to show what religion represents and what it really stands for. We would carry the responsibility of proving that peace, love, tolerance, freedom and justice are values that are called for by every religion. We would be individuals who would defend religion and promote its values. Religion came into our lives to show that our existence is not just a mere coincidence and that there is a purpose of our creation and a reason behind our existence. Religion directs us to believe that our actions in this life, whether good or bad, does not go unnoticed, and are not insignificant. It teaches us that life does not come to an end when our bodies are no longer capable of physical survival.  It does not necessarily answer scientific questions about how, where or when life became, but rather answers the question why. It turns us into individuals with an alert conscience who differ from every other creation as we watch our actions and try to do the best and spread goodness. Our moral values are high and we strive to prove that our creation and our existence in this life was meaningful and worthwhile. Our goal is to live a gracious and fruitful life while seeking happiness and success in the Hereafter.
This is the meaning of religion as we understand it at Irshad. We believe hat these principles are shared by almost every religion on earth. It is a pity that we, as human beings, can have that much in common and yet still focus on our differences and make it a reason for our division. Even within one religion one can find different sects that share so much in common and yet instead of allowing it to bring them together, they would rather divide and fight about their differences. Why is tolerance a very rare entity among religious societies? Why is it so important for every religion or sect to prove that they alone are the most legitimate and that they alone have the correct understanding of religion? Don’t we all believe that our common faith in the creator, our belief in the Day of Judgment and the hereafter and our good deeds are what really count?
We believe that human beings were created as different nations and different cultures. It is therefore understandable and indeed expected to find differences in the way religion is understood or practiced, but the principals remain the same. However, there will be certain practices and certain rules that will be unique to every religion. Whether these practices are part of the religion or are merely cultural habits that have been practiced for centuries or thousands of years, is not important. It is up to the society in which we live in to decide whether these rules and these practices are suitable and acceptable. In no way would we consider this as abandoning religion and ignoring its rules. However, we as human beings, gifted with intellect, understand that certain rules and practices at some point in history and under certain circumstances, in a given society, may have had a completely different effect as compared to if it was applied today in the same way in our society. It would not then be rational to continue to apply these rules when its effect has changed with the change in society. We do not deny the existence of some of these rules or practices, which must have been to the benefit of the society at that time. Instead, we use it as a guide and try to achieve the same effect which may, at some instances, require us to modify and conform in order to adjust to our society. At other times, we may completely ignore certain practices if they prove to be harmful or socially unacceptable. Other than that, we encourage all people with different religions to freely practice their religious rules and rituals in their own unique way which serves to keep them attached to their faith.
In other words, we at Irshad believe that religion was meant to be a guide. The existence of religion in our lives, with its rituals and practices, gives life a meaningful value, teaches us self discipline and elevates us spiritually and morally. We understand that religion cannot be an obstacle in the way of achieving a better human life at any level. Furthermore, religion cannot make us ignore our intellect and hold us against understanding the secrets of life, making new discoveries or finding better solutions. Religion is not just a set of rules and practices included in a manual that we have to follow blindly and strictly while ignoring the greatest gift of our creation, our intellect. Rules put by religion were meant to be for the benefit of society. It is our responsibility to take these rules as a guide and have enough flexibility trying to achieve the same effect in a different period of time and under new circumstances.
And certainly, religious rules and practices cannot be a reason or an excuse to harm ourselves or our society in any way. Finally, religion cannot be substituted for by any man made, scientific belief system that ignores human spirituality, belief in the Creator, the Day of Judgment or the Hereafter.
This is the message of Irshad, at a global level, and we have taken the responsibility of delivering it throughout the world. We hope that it would be a reason to bring different religious as well as non religious institutions to work together in order to achieve common goals. We strive to spread peace, love, tolerance and justice among all human nations.
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Institute for Religious Studies, Humanities, and Dialogue Mission Statement: The free coexistence between human beings and the aspiration for building a better life based on love, justice, and worldly peace, and launching the movement of the mind in an aware and conscious reading of the universe, life and humanity.

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