Fitrah: Are We Born Believers?

There is a concept in Islam called the fitrah which refers to the primordial state of belief in Allah. Muslims believe all people are born Muslims, at least in the sense that the human is born with an innate knowledge of the oneness of Allah; We are simply taught something different, Christianity or Hinduism, for example, by our parents or society. Fitrah is often translated as “nature”, as in it is our nature to believe in the one God Allah.

I don’t believe we are all born Muslims. Children are not born into any religion. I view this idea as a simple attempt by organized religion to monopolize the religious tendencies of all humankind, right up to and even before birth. Perhaps the parallel would be Christianity’s claim that we are all born into sin and therefore must have an avenue for redemption. This line of reasoning cements the idea, at least in the mind of the believer, that their particular religion is the correct one; that even all of nature and the very essence of humankind somehow bows to the tenets of religion. This idea is very strong in Islam and numerous verses can be found in the Quran and hadith conforming to this concept.

As I said, I disagree with the idea that we are all born Muslims, but are we born believing in God?  Rather, let’s frame the question in a more universal way. Since true monotheism is a rather new idea on the historical timeline of human religion, it doesn’t make sense to purport that we are essentially monotheistic. Yet, religion does seem to be culturally universal. Is there something in our nature, or even in our very DNA which gives us the propensity to believe? Some researchers think there is. Some articles here and here demonstrate that the human mind has a propensity to believe  in God, or at least to engage in the religious experience. There are even best-selling books written about this concept such as The God Gene. Neuroscientists and psychologists like Andrew Newberg , Michael Parsinger and many others  have empirically studied what happens to the human brain (namely the thalmus, parietal and temporal lobes) when engaged in some type of religious rite such as meditation  or intense prayer along with changes that take place during an ecstatic  religious experience.

As science is showing us, the brain does appear to be structured in a way to allow for religious experience: There seems  to be a correlation between neurological changes and religious experience.  In other words, our brains have evolved with an innate ability to experience religious states. And as evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have pointed out, religion does serve an adaptive purpose.  In fact, research also shows that believers are better equipped to handle adverse life situations and tend to be more happy overall than their atheist counterparts.

But while all of this certainly gives us insight into truths about the human experience, the conclusions one draws from it rely heavily one’s own worldview and beliefs. The non-believer might take a very materialistic, naturalistic position and say that this evidence is further evidence that God can be explained by simple brain chemistry. That God is simply a construct of evolutionary adaptation. Conversely, the believer would interpret the evidence as proof that God exists; That God has built us with the ability to believe in him and belief is natural and intrinsically human.

Thoughts?

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33 Comments

Filed under Islam, religion, science, Uncategorized

33 responses to “Fitrah: Are We Born Believers?

  1. You raise some interesting points. I don’t know if the kinds of transcendent experiences for which our brains are wired are necessarily religious experiences. Certainly people experience these states both with and without religious meaning. You can meditate with or without religious meaning. I think religion is cultural and learned.

    The study that religious people are happier caught my eye and I clicked on the link, but was not satisfied. How was the study structured? What questions and in what manner were asked? Not enough information to convince me that what this study is measuring is really “happiness” or even “religious.” It seems like some very secular societies — Iceland, Denmark — repeatedly rank high in the happiness rankings. Mind you, most Danes claim to be believers; but I doubt their own avowed Lutheran Church would consider them to be so given a strict inquiry into their actual beliefs. My personal, entirely nonscientific anecdotal evidence leads me to think that religion is probably not the deciding factor in happiness. I know some bitterly unhappy religious people and some really mellow, happy atheists — and vice versa.

    I’m a believer. Don’t know that it affects my happiness per se. I don’t know that I was ever a Muslim prior to being baptized Catholic at 2 weeks old.

    Anyway, to respond to your last paragraph, I wonder if humans are way more concerned with how God looks at us than He is. I tend to doubt that the Infinite is especially worried about our belief in, worship of, or even acknowledgement of Him. He’s beyond that.

    (I am a respectful onlooker to your process of enquiry. I didn’t mean to be flippant about being a Muslim; just couldn’t resist the joke. Please take it out if it crosses the line.)

  2. I wonder if we are born with religion. My seven year old still doesn’t understand the difference between religion and nationality. When my daughter was little she wondered why we have two parents and only one God. So I don’t know if humans are born with monotheistic tendencies.

    • my nine year old still doesn’t entirely understand the difference between nationality and religion. My five year old went through a stage which can only be described as atheist–she was adamant that there was absolutely no God. It’s as if that entire idea was completly foreign to her. And this is a child that was raised in a Muslim household.

  3. almostclever

    Are we born believers? There is no way to ever know, because by the time we are old enough to comprehend we have already been exposed to the religious concepts in our cultures and in our languages. If we could watch someone grow up in a vacuum, with no outside influence, and then see if they begin to hold ideas about a greater entity, only then would we ever know if there really is a “God gene.” Unless, that is, scientists are able to find the actual gene, just as they have found the breast cancer gene. And if we did find that gene, what would it mean? We would still have no idea. Like you said, worldviews would decide what that means.

    I’ve read about people who are very deep into meditation, being able to regulate their temperature, and also feel no pain during procedures with no anesthesia. I think the mind is a resource still largely untapped by us. Is it God? Well, it would certainly be comforting to say yes.

    I think the biggest thing that proves religion ridiculous (sorry this is off subject) is the fact that these “experiences” happen to all types of people and groups, across the globe. So, if there is a God, this God is obviously not choosing sides, as the “chosen peoples” would like to think. It is a universal experience, so whether it is just our mind, or truly a higher being, one thing is for certain: God isn’t choosing only one religious group to give these experiences to.

  4. Charlene

    I’ve been wondering about this for some time. Growing up in a family of (evangelical Christian) preachers and missionaries, of course I read all the books about how everything in the world points toward Christianity as the “right” way to believe. I no longer “believe” much of anything at all. Some things I experience or have experienced, many things I have not experienced, and beyond that I just don’t know.

    My experience of the world is definitely not entirely explained or acknowledged by materialistic science. Whatever is non-material in my experience I tend to call “spiritual”, but it’s rather more like the primitive “belief” (as anthropologists term it) that people and animals and plants and rocks have a spirit (or are at least partially made of spirit–non-material being), and communicate with each other that way. No diety required. Also, not everyone experiences the world this way. Maybe everyone CAN, if they want to (I’m not sure about that, but tend to think so), but for me it’s an integral part of how I have always experienced the world. This may be what some people are referring to when they say we’re born with a propensity to religion, but if so, they’re using the term “religion” much differently than I understand it.

    Also, and this may have some bearing on the discussion, it’s interesting to note that many (maybe even most or all) “primitive” cultures use psychoactive plants in ritual and medicine. As sacred beings who “help open our eyes” or something like that, generally. Animals use them too, though since the animals don’t “talk”, nobody has yet been able to reliably ask them why or what they get out of it. My personal experience with these is that they do tend to give an experience of the spiritual side of all living things. As I said above this experience is integral to my experience of the world. I find I don’t really need the psychoactive plants for it, though I firmly believe in the right of people to use them if they want to. So long as they respect the plant. Though the plants can, and will, take care of themselves.

    • I was actually thinking about psychoactive plants/chemicals when I wrote this post. It’s quite interesting that spontaneous mystical experiences often compare with those that are induced and it’s no wonder some cultures used plants to bring them about.

      Perhaps the term “spirituality” would have been a more appropriate one to use in this discussion, but I also think spiritual experiences are originally what give rise to religion. I’ve often thought that the prophets (of all faiths and cultures) were simply men with a propensity for the mystical. And indeed the descriptions in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic scriptures of how God approached his “messengers” often sound very much like a powerful, mystical experience (with or without the use of psychoactives 🙂 )

      Also, are you familiar with the term pantheism? It reminds me a bit of the way you describe your own spirituality and is a concept I’m attracted to.

      • Charlene

        Are institutional religions, then, non-mystical interpretations of mystical experiences?

        Yes, I know the term “pantheism” and I suppose it does describe my experience as well as any term out there. Some days I feel rather more atheist. Probably it depends on who I’m talking to and how they define “God”. One of my friends posted a quote on FB (ages ago, or I’d go look it up and see who it’s attributed to) saying, “most of us are atheists with regard to most of the deities mankind has ever worshiped”, or something to that effect.

        • “Are institutional religions, then, non-mystical interpretations of mystical experiences?”
          I’m kind of leaning towards that. The prophets were either men with deep mystical experiences and wished to tell the world, control freaks who wished to control the world through their teachings, or lunatics. Maybe all three.

          • Oh and Dawkins said: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. ”
            Actually he got that from someone else, but I can’t remember the original quote or speaker.

  5. Anne

    I’ve definitely heard the argument that everyone is born Muslim, hence why some people prefer the term “revert” instead of “convert”. I sort of agree with this concept; I believe that we are born “muslim”, with a lowercase M, meaning that we are born in a state of submission to ALLAH (the literal translation of the word “muslim”). Looking at it this way, everything ever created is “muslim” in that they follow the laws of nature. A “Muslim”, on the other hand, is a person who recognizes this fact and chooses to consciously submit to ALLAH. “Muslim” and “muslim” are therefore two different concepts; I think being “Muslim” requires thought and cognitive acceptance, while being “muslim” is simply a state of being that doesn’t require any thought. For this reason, I prefer to call myself a convert rather than a revert because I consciously made the decision to accept Islam; before saying the shahadah I was only a “muslim”, never a “Muslim”. It’s the same deal with the Qur’an calling all the prophets before Muhammad (saw) “Muslims”. They weren’t “Muslims” in the modern sense (i.e. following the five pillars with the Qur’an and hadith as guidance), but they were “muslims” in the sense that they accepted ALLAH as the one and only God and received messages that were consistent with the principles of what would become Islam as we know it today.

    • This is how I understand the concept of fitrah also. Except I disagree with it. I’m not sure humans are born with any type of monotheistic tendencies. If that were true, then it stands to reason that from very early on, the religions that sprang from various societies across the globe would be monotheistic. And yet, monotheism didn’t enter the equation until later. Most ancient cultures were polytheists. I agree, humans have a propensity for religion and belief in unseen dieties, just not the One, or Allah as Muslims call It.

  6. I agree with you that we are not born into a religion, not born Muslim. However, I believe we are all born muslim. Meaning we are born in a natural relationship with the Universe that has not yet been defined by our culture (which includes whatever religion or other beliefs our parents socialize us into).

    • I guess I object a bit to the use of the term “muslim” (big or little m) to describe this idea. Why attach any type of religious connotation? If by saying we are born muslims (with a little m), are you suggesting that we are born as indiciduals who submit, as muslim is often translated. I’ve never know it to be translated as simply a natural relationship with the universe. In the case of submission, I’m not sure we naturally submit to anything. I do think we are born with a certain nature as defined and limited by our physiology and boundaries of our consciousness. I would just call this human nature or conscious or maybe Freud was right and we are all just born with needs and the selfish urge to fullfill (Id).

      • almostclever

        Steph, That is how I understand the term muslim also. It is said that all things are muslim, all animals, plants, people. Of course, this is still a monotheistic viewpoint, as it is also described as everyone being a slave, or submitter, to the one true God. I think traditional American Indians, for example, would have a real problem being told they are muslim. So, this is definitely still defined within the realm of monotheism, and that is definitely a new concept in regards to ancient native religious beliefs and worldviews. My point being, even muslim is a Muslim concept.

        Zuhura, I love your idea of what muslim means, but what literature did you find this in? I have read “The Vision of Islam” by Muratta and Chittick, which is where I learned what muslim means to Muslims and within Islam.

        • That’s my own thinking, as of today. Especially if you include animals, plants, etc. as muslim, then it makes sense that it doesn’t (simply) mean ‘submitter’ in the sense Muslims normally understand. To me ‘muslim’ with a little m doesn’t have a religious connotation (in the sense of being limited to one religion, that of Islam). The Vision of Islam was one of the first books I read about Islam, too, and it seemed to present Islam in a way that is more universal than other books I’ve read.

          • almostclever

            Yes, Vision of Islam is an excellent read, and one of those books that makes one feel so good about being Muslim. What makes muslim still a Muslim (or monotheistic) concept (not universal) is that it is explicit in saying we (even animals and plants) submit to the one True God. However we see the term “submit” does not really matter, it is about the notion that there is one true God. If this was a universal concept, how would we fit non monotheistic peoples into this? Even Muratta and Chittick (both of whom are very fair in their views and also not Muslim), present this term (muslim) in this manner. Also, considering that pagans and non monotheists are looked down upon in the Quran (and Bible and Torah), why would we even try to say muslim is a universal concept?

            Or, would the argument be that we all start out as monotheists, but then we veer off on the wrong path?

          • This is a reply to almostclever below. I take it that there is one Truth that goes by many names. The universalness is that all religions are trying to approach that Truth although they may do so in different ways. I don’t see polytheism as much different than saying God has many names (or Truth has many names). Although I think if polytheist believe in anthropomorphized gods then (to me) that’s just as far off from the Truth as monotheists who believe in one anthropomorphized God. I don’t know what to make of pagans and non-monotheists being looked down upon in religious texts, other than that it suggests/reflects human influence on the texts. I wouldn’t buy the veering off on the wrong path argument.

  7. It does seem to be natural to believe in supernatural agents. I read “The God Instinct” (or “The Belief Instinct” I think it is titled in America) by Jesse Bering last year and I found it to make a lot of sense about why we believe. I found that very validating even though I no longer really believe.

  8. Stephanie, I first have to say how beautiful I find your writing. I really admire the way your get things down in words and express yourself.

    I hold with this: “The non-believer might take a very materialistic, naturalistic position and say that this evidence is further evidence that God can be explained by simple brain chemistry. That God is simply a construct of evolutionary adaptation.” I think we, as humans, clearly have the capacity for all kinds of emotional experiences.

    Also, the research that shows that “believers are better equipped to handle adverse life situations and tend to be more happy overall than their atheist counterparts”? I have a hard time swallowing that one. Happiness is such a subjective thing, I’m not sure how it can be quantified for purposes of a study. I’m also not sure how capacity to handle adverse life situations can be measured. Perhaps there are statistics, but people vary widely, whether believers or not, and it seems to me that capacity to cope, capacity for resilliance, even capacity for happiness, have much more to do with genetics, upbringing, and live experiences overall, than with “believer” or “non-believer.” In my personal experience, I’m surrounded by a lot of very religious people, and they certainly don’t seem to handle their problems and better or worse than I do, nor do they seem any happier or more fulfilled overall.

    • I linked to the study earlier in the comments. It is difficult to quantify such a subjective idea such as happiness, but as with any research it would be of the upmost importance to have valid instruments to measure the concepts being studied. I would think the researchers would have fairly sophisticated methods of keeping the validity of their scales high. I haven’t had time to look at the study in detail.

      However, it has occured to me, that perhaps people who suscribe to atheism or are areligious are of a personality type that succumb more to deep thinking or have non comformist tendencies, etc. which might effect happiness or satisfaction. Kind of the brooding intellectual or tortured artists types. I’m not talking about individuals, but groups as a whole. Obviously there will always be individuals who differ.

      • Charlene

        Yeah, I have to wonder if the stereotyped unhappy atheist is unhappy because he/she does not believe, or if he/she does not believe because religion was a lot of work and it didn’t make him/her happy anyhow.

  9. Sarah

    when people say Children are born muslim they dont mean born into the religion Islam. They mean they are born in a state of being Muslim meaning submitting to God’s will. That is why you will never find a child who is an athiest, also children are pure and have no ill feelings exactly how God wants them to be so they are what God wants and that is how they are Muslims. they simply submit because they don’t have this disease in adults which is “why should i?” etc..

    • Charlene

      From spending time with my sister’s six children, I gather that some are born submissive (wanting to please the authority figures in their lives) and others seem to come out of the womb rebellious (it’s just harder to see before they learn to walk and talk). Are only the submissive types born “muslim”, then?

  10. SOLIDSOUL

    Fitra or Islam is not what I think, you think, we think or they think…Islam and fitra is what Allah in Quran, sunnah of hadeeth and the prophet (sas) thinks.
    If a non believer in Islam who doesn’t believe in Allah and prophet thinks what they think is fitra and Islam, it’s just like a “still alive bride mad fish out of water” yelling in a fish market.

  11. I haven’t read all the comments yet, so my apologies if I repeat something written above. Right before my apostasy, I was reflecting alot on my personal experiences with intuition, answered prayers, energy fields, all that stuff that’s considered to be new age-y. I wondered if it’s possible to live without a god and do we even need him/her(although in religion, god is a almost always a construct of the male mind so I’ll stick with ‘him’). I made a last ditch attempt to find answers within Islam on the human soul and energy fields. But of course there aren’t any answers because religion isn’t designed to answer those types of questions. But I wasn’t sold on the concept of atheism because the thought of just being physical bodies is too limiting for me.Personally, I’ve had experiences that say that there is something greater than that. And, as you state, humans seem to have an instrinic need to worship something.

    As history has proven, this need manifests itself into worshiping all sorts of things: trees, rocks, the sun, the moon, other people, animals, statues, we all know the list is very long. My belief is that everyone has a soul and these physical bodies are nothing more than expressions of the soul(or a vehicle) which we can experience life. If every soul were to be brought together and connected, then that is God. This means we are all godlike and why we always have a sense of something greater because it resides in every soul. There is no sin, only right and wrong. Right and wrong evolves as time evolves, this is one reason man-made religion can never be satisfactory as a belief in greater beings. Religion doesn’t evolve, only souls do.

    I do believe there is a universal language that is being spoken all the time, one that we are unaware of, especially when we just focus on the physical nature of the human body. Religion further depresses the ability for the soul to receive input because it locks people into a certain thought pattern that doesn’t allow them the ability to see anything beyond what they are taught. Humans then become a slave to limitations which is the direct opposite of why the soul chose life which is to explore possibilities. I know this people may think it impossible for there to be this “cosmic” type of experience going on all the time but I say think about times when your inner voice saved you from danger, or instructed you to call a family member, or let you know something just isn’t right. There is a intricate system of communication going on all the time that facilitates this ability to navigate life and unfortunately, much of the human race has tuned it out for the sake of religion. The interconnection of souls is god therefore everyone is god-like. Understanding this, recognizing it, and not abusing it is what will help people satiate the feeling to know what is greater than human life(IMO).

  12. I have been coming across the reference to “muslim” Vs “Muslim” a lot recently. It intrigued me and I find it an interesting concept. However, the Islamic (or islamic!) concept that we are all born as muslim is the same to me as we are all born as Muslim since there are no capital letters in Arabic (M(m)uslim and I(i)slam being Arabic words) 😀 Hehe.

    • Right, but that means in the Qur’an it could be referring to muslim in the wider sense (since it refers to muslims who lived before Islam existed). I haven’t had time to research it yet; are there times when muslim in the Qur’an can *only* be interpreted as Muslim? Even if so, one could argue that there are some things in the Qur’an that are universal for all muslims and others only relevant to Muslims. The capital letter is not the crucial thing; the point is that in Arabic the word has at least 2 meanings, so writing them differently in English helps to differentiate them.

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