To deliver the Gifford Lectures is a great honour and privilege for any scholar working in the general field of ‘religion,’ and I am deeply grateful to the Trustees of the Gifford Lectures for having invited me to speak in Edinburgh in the spring of 1992—an experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yet at the same time, the lecturer overwhelmed by the names of his or her illustrious predecessors is troubled by the question of whether one can really do full justice to the chosen topic—in this case, a phenomenological approach to Islam. It probably seems preposterous to give a sweeping survey of different aspects of Islam, a religion which has been much studied much misunderstood and sometimes accused by historians of religion as being rather primitive. At the same time however scholarly study of Islam has in recent years attracted more and more people spurred on by the political developments in the Muslim world and in other areas increasingly populated by Muslims. Needless to say many of these political and sociological studies have little interest in the ‘spiritual’ values of Islam, instead ranging from questions of religious authority to the position of children in medieval Muslim society; from Muslim responses to Western education to the changing role of the Sufis; from the mechanics of conversion to the formation and functioning of the biosphere in the Koran; and concerning the question of human rights and their implementation in the modern world. Indeed it was this ever-growing amount of literature which made me decide to avoid lengthy and elaborate references and to mention in the Bibliography only works actually cited in the text or the notes. I beg the reader's indulgence for this way of handling the material.
The Lectures have grown out of a lifelong occupation with the languages and values of Islam and from innumerable discussions with Muslim friends whether highly learned and sophisticated scholars in the Muslim lands and in the diaspora, or simple illiterate villagers, particularly women in Pakistan, India, and Turkey. They owe much to the inspiration of my academic teachers in Islamic Studies—Richard Hartmann Hans Heinrich Schaeder and Ernst Kühnel in Berlin, to mention only the most important ones—but even more to my collaboration with Friedrich Heiler, who opened the world of the history of religions to me. These Lectures are dedicated to his memory. Similarly I would like to thank my students in Marburg, Ankara, Bonn, and Harvard, as well as my friends and all those who have patiently listened to my lectures in Europe, North America, and the Near and Middle East, and who have alerted me to new aspects of Islamic thought art and poetry. I am very grateful to Dr Shams Anwari-Alhoseyni Cologne for adorning the book with his calligraphic renderings of Koranic verses. I also express my gratitude to my ‘writing angel’, Christa Sadozay, MA in Cologne, who typed the manuscript, and to Mr Ivor Normand ma in Edinburgh for his careful and meticulous copy-editing of the text.
The Swedish Lutheran bishop and Islamicist Tor Andrae to whom we owe some of the most sensitive works about the Prophet Muhammad as well as about early Sufism once remarked:
Like any movement in the realm of ideas, a religious faith has the same right to be judged according to its real and veritable intentions and not according to the way in which human weakness and meanness may have falsified and maimed its ideals.
Trying to approach Islam with this in mind, I hope that the Lectures may help to clarify some of me structures underlying life and thought in Islam. Depending on their field of interest and specialization, readers will no doubt be able to add numerous parallels and influences both from Islamic sources and from other religions. However, when such parallels are drawn here, it is not with the intention of dwelling on the ‘Reste arabischen Heidentums’ again, as does Julius Wellhausen's classic of that name (1897); nor do I want to prove or suggest that this or that external influence has determined me development of Islam. Nobody denies that such influences exist in Islam; for no religion can grow in a vacuum, and the religious leader, founder, or prophet can only ever use the language to which his listeners are—at least to a certain extent—accustomed, and whose images and symbols they understand. Without soil, air, rain, and fertilization by insects, no tree—and we may well compare religion to a ‘good tree’ (cf. Sūra 14:24)—could ever grow strong enough to house birds or to provide shade and luscious fruit to those who come close to it (as Mawlānā Rūmī says in the story of Daqūqī in his Mathnawī III 2005ff.). But these influences are not absolute values: a religion takes into itself only those ideas, customs, and tendencies which are in one way or another compatible with its innermost essence. Furthermore, as every religion has an outward and inward aspect, any sentence, proposition, or legal prescription may be understood and interpreted differently by different people. Age-old similes come to mind: the water takes the colour of the glass or else the ‘white radiance of eternity’, the colourless Light becomes visible only in its reflections in ever-changing colours.
My aim is to point to the colourful reflections Goethe's ‘farbiger Abglanz’ or, in Koranic words, to try to decipher some of me signs or āyāt which through their infinite variety point to the One Truth.