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Expansion and Contraction

A Comparative Analysis of Hinduism and Islam from a Religious Studies Perspective

Frank Gaetano Morales


    In its relatively short - and decidedly Western-centric - history, a wide variety of academic terms have arisen from within the discipline known as Religious Studies in the expressed order of assisting the field's specialists to more ably grasp the structure and outlook of religious sects and institutions. One pair of such terms that we encounter are the concepts of "Expansive" versus "Contractive". It is important to note that these two words are used, not with the intent of ascribing a superiority status to any one particular sect over another, or of denigrating any particular religious belief system, but with the aim of rationally understanding the functional and attitudinal aspects of differing religious institutions. In the following, I will illustrate the meaning of the terms Expansive and Contractive by examining two very different faiths: Hinduism and
Islam.

    Before we begin, however, it is important to first explain the difference between these two academic terms. An expansive religion is one which tends towards social and philosophical inclusiveness. Overall, such faiths tend to be both tolerant of internal differences of opinion, as well as open to positive contributions from outside the institutional bounds of the faith. Generally, they seek to embrace the social, political and philosophical realities that exist outside the sectarian confines of the religion. Expansive religions are inherently open, liberal, progressive and accepting. By marked contrast, a contractive religion is exclusivistic in nature. Members of contractive sects tend to view themselves as being thoroughly separated from non-believers by virtue of their own espousal of the one and only true faith. Unlike expansive faiths, contractive religions tend to be highly suspicious of both internal dissent, as well as of perceived external challenges. Consequently, such faiths will often suppress any attempts at reform, change and renewal from within, and will repeatedly wage both ideological and
martial war against other faiths whom they consider to be at odds with their own rigidly cherished notions of truth.


    It has been argued by numerous scholars and practitioners that the religion of Hinduism is radically expansive by nature. This expansiveness can be seen, first, in the realm of traditional Hindu philosophical and theological thought. The six schools of Hindu philosophy (Shad-Darshanas), while completely united in their assessment and acceptance of the basic philosophical foundations of Hinduism, are quite diverse in their respective approaches to moksha, or the ultimate spiritual attainment of liberation. For example, while the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy posits a dualistic ontology, juxtaposing the two distinct elements of purusha (spirit) and prakriti (matter), the school of Advaita Vedanta sees reality in purely monistic terms. For Shankara's Advaita, there is only one substance in reality: Brahman, or unbounded consciousness.

    For Vedanta, on the other hand, ritual is generally viewed as being merely a collection of symbolic rites, the efficacy of which is negligible in contrast with the attainment of brahma-vidya, or the knowing of Brahman; but for the Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy, ritual in accordance with Vedic injunction is the highest religio-philosophical activity that can be performed by human beings. Despite the diversity and freedom of opinion that has existed both within and between these many schools of Hindu thought, these schools have all peacefully co-existed in India for thousands of years, preferring to do battle in the realm of civil academic debate rather than on the bloody battlefields of supposed holy wars.


    In keeping with this respect for diversity of opinion and thought, hundreds of various sects, traditions and schools of thought have arisen within the tolerant framework of Hindu culture. So open-minded has the Hindu outlook traditionally been that it has been said by many Western academic observers of Hinduism that whatever your individual belief, concern or practice may be, there is (or at least has at one time been) a sect of Hinduism that embraces it. While this claim is certainly somewhat of an exaggeration, it does point to the fact that Hinduism is, indeed, a religion of tolerance, diversity and expansion.


    The atmosphere of tolerance traditionally encouraged by Hinduism is dramatically seen in how Hinduism has historically dealt with heterodox religious and philosophical movements. The religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are three religions that originated as offshoots from Hinduism. Both Buddhism and Jainism began as ascetically oriented movements within mainstream Hinduism in the fifth century B.C.E. Sikhism, which was founded by the great Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century C.E., was an attempt to synthesize the profound philosophical insights of Hinduism with the zealous martial spirit of Islam. While all three movements were founded as schools of thought within the greater rubric of Hindu culture, in time, all
three began to view themselves as religions distinct from the Vedic/Hindu world-view.


    Despite several major philosophical and religious differences between these three sects and Hinduism, however, most of the contention between these religions have remained on a purely philosophical level. At no time in Indian history did there occur such instances of persecution and bigotry between these religions as was witnessed in the Inquisition, Crusades or witch-hunts so well known in the sad history of Western religious expression. Consequently, while it is certainly true that no religion falls perfectly into either the expansive or the contractive category, it is probably rather safe to say that Hinduism does display more expansive characteristics than not.


    With the above caveat about the dangers of generalizing in mind, we will now explore a more contractive religion. Unlike the tolerance observed throughout the long and very illustrative history of Hinduism, Islam demands that its adherents follow a very rigidified code of beliefs, attitudes and practices. Every Muslim, for example, is required to uphold six sacred religious beliefs. Muslims must believe: a) that there is only one true god, whose name is Allah, b) in the existence of a vast repertoire of semi-divine beings called angels, c) in a specific number of recognized prophets (ranging from Abraham to Muhammad, and including Jesus and Moses) who were sent by Allah to reveal his commandments upon humanity, d) in the revelations given by Allah to these specific prophets, e) in a final Day of Judgment in which all beings will either join Allah in paradise or perish eternally in hell, and f) in the doctrine of predestination (the idea that Allah has already preordained who will be saved and
who will perish).

    In addition to these six obligatory beliefs, it is required that each Muslim perform five practical religious duties, known as the Five Pillars of Islam. These are: 1) Confession of the faith ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet"), 2) prayers five times daily, 3) fasting during the month of Ramadan, 4) Almsgiving, and 5) the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. All people who do not follow these commands of Allah are considered by Muslims to be unbelievers, and are subsequently subject to conversion to the one true faith of Islam.

    In Islamic theo-political theory, the non-Muslim world is divided into two broad categories: a) Dhimmis, or people of "the book", and b) Heathens, or subhuman non-believers. The Dhimmis - Jews and Christians - are considered to be people of the Covenant because they are followers of the earlier revelations of the prophets Moses and Jesus, respectively. Dhimmis were therefore historically given special protective status in the Islamic world. Despite this special treatment by Islamic rulers, however, Judaism and Christianity are still considered by Muslims to be religions that fall short of being true religion.

    Followers of all other religions that lie outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world-view, however, are looked upon as "heathens" by the Islamic religious law. Such "Heathens" include Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, and the followers of all earth-centered indigenous religions. "Heathens", up until the last few hundred years, were considered third class citizens in Islamic societies, and were subject to forced conversion, special taxation and persecution. The temples and sacred relics of such "heathens" were systematically destroyed, their priests, saints and sages were killed and their histories rewritten by Islamic scholars. Islam is considered by more liberal Muslims as being the most legitimate of all religions, and by its conservative elements as being the only true religion , all other forms of religious expression being but pale imitations of the glory of Islam.

    Not only are non-Muslim religions looked upon with a very high degree of suspicion by Muslims, but internal dissent is also rarely tolerated in Islam. Heterodox movements within Islam, such as the Shias, Druze and Alawites, are considered heretical and their respective followers have historically been persecuted and killed by the majority Sunnis. In addition, strict Islamic societies are usually guided by the Sharia, the rigid code of law and rules which governs the life and behavior of all Muslims. The strict demands placed upon believers, coupled with a lessor degree of tolerance than is exhibited in more expansive religions, make for a convincing argument that Islam would be considered a contractive religion by most objective observers.

   It is crucial that the many varied and diverse religions of the world be studied, as much as is feasible, on their own terms, and from an objectively sympathetic perspective. Like all the many attempts to analyze and categorize faith systems that have arisen from the field of Religious Studies, the Expansive/Contractive definition is but an attempt to better understand the differences between the many diverse religions of the world. These terms are certainly helpful pointers to a general understanding of the specific religions under observation, but they not wholely perfect instruments in making such assessments.

    It is my hope that these two terms have assisted the reader somewhat in gaining a more objectively focused glimpse into the psychological, philosophical and social distinctions that exist between two very different world-views.


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