From Religion to Religions, Explaining the Concept of World Religion

  • Gholam Ahya Hoseini
  • Wednesday, 26 December 2018 09:01
  • Published in Interfaith Dialogue
  • Read 104 times

 The Meeting

"From Religion to Religions, Explaining the Concept of World Religion” was held by the Research Institute of Mashhad.

Introduction by Dr Morvarid; Former Director of Research Institute of Mashhad.  

Today it is our pleasure to host Dr. Bashir Sa'ada. He is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Sterling and an expert on Farabi’s Works. Today's talk is a comparison between two concepts of religion that are addressed by al-Farabi through his works and philosophical views of Islam, and the notion of religion in the West. The Interfaith Dialogue Group of Mashhad Research Institute has invited Dr. Sa'ada to express his scholarly opinions in this regard. In addition, questions and comments are welcomed at the end of the meeting.

Dr. Sa'ada:

In the Name of Allah.

 I am very glad to be invited to Iran and the holy city of Mashhad. I hope I can present my research findings within the specified time. I would also apologize to the attendees since probably most of you are educated and more knowledgeable than me.

The topic of my presentation is World Religion. First, I want to inform you about the lexical root and historical evolution of this concept. When this term has been created? What does necessitate discussing such issues? What functions we may assume for this talk in today's world?

The concept of World Religion was formed in Europe in 17th century. Before that, there were terms such as Islam, Christianity, and so on, but there was no such thing as the world of religion. Religion or Din derives from the Latin word "Religio", a person who observes specific practical traditions and thus has adopted a particular way of life; for example, a Christian’s  life style and the way of living are the embodiment of the ideology of Christianity.

At first, the Europeans did not recognize followers of Islamic doctrine as Muslims; instead, they used different names like immigrants and Mohammadans to identify them. This did not mean that various Muslim groups who were residing in different places represented a single religion. In the 19th century and with the onset of the colonial era, the concept of religion moved towards globalization.

Therefore, the Europeans did not create the concept of universal religion, but rather formed this issue in a specific manner. After this concept had been generalized from individuals and small groups to all Muslims, it reached other groups as well. With the advent of modernity and the rise of communication technology, this question raised that what are the functions and necessity of the concept of religion. In other words, what is the difference between Muslims and Christians?



With the outbreak of World War II and Jews came into power, the concept of world religion became more highlighted as the ruling power supported a religion and the concept of religion was transmitted from individuals to nation. Since this brought everyone under the banner of one country, therefore heated and intense debate over this concept was provoked, so that through defining the matter of world religion the national integrity would be preserved.

Accordingly, it seems that two factors have contributed to the formation of World Religion:

  1. 1. The colonialists, in the face of colonialized countries, were forced to create such concepts in order to make things easier for themselves. As an example, they call all Indian people Hindu so that they would be able to correspond them all to one category of rites and customs.
  2. Changing of the concept of inner confrontation between religions and schools of thoughts, which occurred because ruling power favored and supported a particular type of religion.

With this introduction, we may begin to address the Farabi's work regarding world religion. Farabi is a philosopher, mystic and one of the great scholars. What makes him unique is the definitions he has provided of terms such as nation, religion, school of thought, and tradition. In addition to defining these concepts, he also uses these words in special meanings; however, these concepts are not properly used in modern society. His two books are called Al Millah and Ahl al-Madinah al-Fadhilah. In the following, we would outline the semantic differences between the application of these words during Farabi era and today.

Al-Farabi's book Al Millah is translated into English by the title of “The book of religion”. Has the word –Millah- used in the same sense as the one used by al-Farabi?

It seems that there is a difference between the intended meaning of the word ­AlMillah used by Farabi and the word religion, in that religion is much more general. ­AlMillah means traditions and followers. Within this definition, two notions of individual or social group in addition to religious teachings of the community are integrated.

Although today religion is deeply integrated with the concept of faith, but al-Farabi did not use much words such as faith or religion in this book. On the contrary, he employed the concept of rulership; therefore, we should discover the relationship between leadership and faith /religion.

One of the commentaries of book AlMillah claims that Farabi's books are related to political science and hence the issue of rulership has been used in different parts of the book. Nevertheless, we will prove that Farabi's political science is the same as the one we discuss i.e. religion; since in Farabi's writings the notion of rulership does not merely hint at political authority, but guardianship and governance are also included. Al Farabi does not limit the matter of rulership to a particular social relationship, but even extends it to the relationship between father and son or a servant and his owner. It should be noted that these authorities do not enjoy absolute authority, but have the skills and experiences that make them well qualified to run and control the affairs of others. Prophets and Messengers of God are at the peak of the Pyramid of Guardianship –Velayat.


However, why the concept of Guardianship has played a pivotal role through the Book of AlMillah? In response, we should say that Velayah is the objective, and faith is a practical behavior through which one can reach the various levels of Guardianship. One of the most interesting sentences of this book is: " AlMillah is similar to the philosophy” meaning that AlMillah which refers to the social sciences is similar to philosophy." In the past, philosophy had been considered as a way of life, and has since experienced categorization so that today it is limited to pure intellectual sciences. In addition, philosophy here does not imply mere intellectual sciences, but also constitutes ethics, which on the one hand address the ruler, and on the other, all people of the community.

The result is that the word AlMillah in the book is not a specific and contemporary word; rather, it has the connotation of Velayah that is counted as an end and destination for ethics and one should implement that through his relationships.

Al-Farabi in his book posits different meanings for the word AlMillah such as people, city, nations, and even the super-nation. Likewise, in Ahl al-Madinah al-Fadhilah he adds another meaning - that is family- since he deals with the smallest instant of AlMillah as well as its greatest one. The most complete example of AlMillah is the “city”. In this, each city has its own ruler while all the rulers or Guardians are related to each other.


The other word that needs consideration is Nation-State, that includes the word city as a subset. Although the city has its own laws, but it is under the control of the nation-state. In spite of the fact that this concept is not used directly in Farabi's works, but we see that, today many people are identified by the titles, such as being an Iranian, a French, etc. Yet, in the past people used to differentiate themselves according to their professional backgrounds.

Accordingly, through the works of Farabi, the concept of religion is utilized with the word AlMillah which emphasizes accepting Guardianship. Meanwhile, the Arabic root for the word “Medina” which means “city” is very close to the notion of accepting Guardianship since it is intertwined with obedience and compliance.

Given these interpretations, we realize that concepts such as the AlMillah and Ummah have had more precise meanings in the past. Now if one asks whether the empires like Iran, Rome, have been a considered Millah or not, we may give a negative response; because their authority or Velayah was limited to receiving tax and protecting the country against the enemies. However, we implement the notion of Millah in all levels and spheres. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were called Millah  of Kurds so that all of them would be considered a single body, regardless of their religion and faith.


So far it became clear how we can move from a single Millah  (Millah of Abraham) toward the concept of World Religion. At first, everyone accepted other cultures and nations! But gradually the differences resulted in customs of each Millah  being disguised as the identity of individuals. Hence, a Muslim would say to himself, "As a Muslim, the customs and rites that I observe should be different from the Christian practices and customs." Eventually, this difference led to religious pluralism, and each Millah   found an independent entity.

Finally, I would like to thank the attendees. Now, I am eager to hear your views and questions.

Questions & Answers

 Dr. Sheibani: you have stated that religion is derived from the root “ Religio”  and includes all religions that were divided later and reached pluralism. Can we say that World Religion is as the same as “way of living”? The other question is that does such a universal religion exist?

Dr. Bashir Sa'ada: Yes, in fact, lifestyle is a proper meaning for World Religion. But with respect to the existence of such concept in the real world; although there are individuals who believe so, but still they do not have a specific identity.

Again, I would like to thank the attendees and especially Dr. Morvarid for giving me such an opportunity.


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