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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The model of religious cycle: theory and application

Sergeev Mikhail Yur'evich

Professor, the department of Liberal Arts, University of Arts

19102, United States, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, S. Broad Street 320






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The subject of this article is the historical evolution of the three world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The author analyzes the development of these religions based on the model of religious cycle, which is common to the majority of historical religions, in other words, the religious systems formed after the invention of writing. According to the author’s concept, each of the indicated religions has undergone the six stages of development – initial, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post-critical. Throughout their evolution, the religions experiences the two type of crises – structural and systemic. The main conclusion of the conducted research lies in the statement about the functional identity of historical development of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam regardless of their doctrine and ritual practice. The author’s special contribution consists in formulation of the abstract model of religious cycle, which he applies to evolution of the aforementioned religions.  

Keywords: Christianity, Buddhism, systemic crisis, structural crisis, sacred tradition, scripture, religious cycle, evolution of religion, Islam, comparativist studies


In modern times there have been numerous attempts by scholars to theorize about religion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Western thought produced major theories on the subject, which are still debated in American universities as classical illustrations of scholarly work in the field.

My theory of religious cycles[1] is different from those scholarly projects. First, it is not my intention to discover the origin of religion or reduce it to other forms of social activity. Second—and this is the cornerstone of my approach to religion—any religious system, either archaic or modern, Eastern or Western, theistic or not, in my view, is primarily a semantic structure that creates a net of meanings whose origin is not available to ordinary human beings.

In as much as religion generates a semantic field, its most important task is to preserve the true meaning of its original teachings and to transmit it to the following generations. In order to accomplish this task, religions that have been created after the invention of writing, develop sacred scriptures which are complemented by the sacred tradition whose main purpose is to interpret the primary texts. No matter how explicit or detailed, the scriptures are never exhaustive and call for interpretation because of the peculiar nature of religious experience that is rooted in the transcendent.

Both sacred scriptures and sacred tradition constitute the backbone of a religious system whose development depends on the proper interaction between the two components. In the course of its evolution, and independently of its doctrines and practices, a religious system goes through a certain number of stages or phases. Based on a particular correlation between scriptures and tradition, I distinguish six such stages: early or formative, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post-critical. Each phase brings about a new paradigm in the interplay between the two most important factors in the development of religion.

The early or formative phase in the evolution of religious system contributes to the formation of its scriptural canon and the establishment of its sacred tradition. The orthodox phase cements the traditional foundations of religion by fighting heretical movements and their alternative scriptural interpretations. The classical phase reformulates sacred tradition by adding new interpretations to the canon. Reformists, on the contrary, purify tradition from the accumulated interpretations in order to get back to the core of sacred teachings and restore the original faith.

Each phase in the evolution of religion offers its own answer to the misbalance of sacred scriptures and sacred tradition that result in the structural crisis of religion. Structural crises, which challenge sacred tradition, are usually resolved by the appearance of new branches or divisions within the existing religions. In contrast to structural crises that question tradition, systemic crisis of religion shakes up the foundation of the system itself, namely its sacred scriptures. Systemic crisis marks a fundamental challenge to religious authority that can be overcome only by the introduction of new religious systems with their own scriptural texts. During this critical phase, mother-religions usually produce their offshoots in the form of new religious movements. The appearance of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism, the rise of Christianity in the midst of Judaism, and the emergence of the Bah’ Faith from Islam all provide fitting examples of such transformations.

After the critical phase religious systems do not deteriorate but renew and reconfirm their foundations. The birth of a new religious movement from its mother-faith sparks competition between the two, which is vital and healthy for both traditions. As a result, age-long religions flourish alongside their younger counterparts by reorganizing their sacred tradition and restoring the authority of primary scriptures.

Chart 1 – Model of religious cycle

That was the case with Judaism, which, after the Roman army destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, completely reinvented itself. By the end of the first Christian century the rabbis formed the Hebrew scriptural canon and later established a new interpretation of the Mosaic Law in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Those rabbinic reforms created the necessary conditions for the survival of the Jewish people in the post-Biblical times of the second exile that lasted for almost two thousand years.

Another case in point is the evolution of Hinduism after the appearance and spread of Buddhism in India. To the challenge of Buddhism, Hindus responded with the rise of Orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, the creation of famous Hindu epics, and the flourishing of bhakti devotional cults. After centuries of mutual influence and competition, Hinduism completely displaced Buddhism from India and since the twelfth century has remained the sole national religion of the Indian people. To sum up, the post-critical phase of religion, which is the last in the cycle of its evolution, does not necessarily signify the demise of the system as a whole. It is often followed by the resurrection of the old faith, which survives under new circumstances of competition and cooperation between the old and new religious movements.

In the following sections of the paper, this model of religious cycles will be applied to the evolution of three major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Cycle of Buddhism

The religion of Buddhism was conceived in the midst of a systemic crisis of its mother-faith Hinduism. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama, was raised as a Hindu and the traditional account of his upbringing to some extent follows the pattern of the four stages of life in Hinduism. The future Buddha was born in 560 BCE, a son to the king of the warrior tribe of Śākyas. Trained in his father’s religion, he went from the stage of the studenthood to the stage of the householder when the Buddha’s father arranged for his marriage and his wife bore him a child. As the story goes, sheltered from suffering, young Siddhārtha once saw an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. He realized during those moments that even his father, the king, was powerless against aging, illness, and death.

When the prince was twenty-nine years old, he decided to leave the royal palace and his family to become an ascetic wanderer—thus transitioning to the next stage of life known as the stage of withdrawal. After seven years of severe austerities, which he practiced under the guidance of various gurus, he finally reached the state of inner liberation and became the Buddha or the awakened one. This event marked his transition to the fourth and last stage of life, which is called the stage of renunciation that is associated with spiritual fulfillment.

From the outset, Buddhism asserted its superiority over the mother-religion of Hinduism. According to tradition, the Buddha did not have the intention to teach enlightenment. But the Hindu god Brahma, who dwelled in the divine realm, descended from its heights and begged the Buddha to spread his message because even gods did not have the ability to transcend the wheel of samsara—the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Hinduism, in its turn, viewed the Buddha as one of the Hindu avatars—the intermediaries between the divine and human worlds, similar to popular heroes of the Hindu faith, Rama and Krishna. In order to defend its teachings against the heterodox systems of Buddhism and Jainism—another alternative religion that arose in the sixth century BCE—the devotees of Hinduism developed complementary scriptural texts and various schools of Hindu religious philosophy whose purpose was to uphold the religious truth of Hinduism by means of rational proof and argumentation.

The critical phase of Hinduism lasted for approximately six centuries and added to the scriptural canon of the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the earliest Upanishads a variety of other scriptural texts, including the famous Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, sutras on different social and political subject matter, and also puranas, or books of popular mythology that narrated the adventures of Hindu gods. Overall, the critical phase of Hinduism proved instrumental in laying the foundation of classical Hindu culture and creating the fabric of Hindu social life, religious observances, and personal spirituality. In the following post-critical stage, Hinduism flourished side by side with Buddhism up until the twelfth century CE when it pushed its competitor-religion from India—thus securing its status as the national religion of its people. By the sixteenth century, all Buddhist sects had entirely disappeared from India and continued elsewhere.

In the meantime, the development of Buddhism also followed the evolutionary pattern of religious cycles. In fact, by tracing the progress of the first world mission we can appreciate the essential importance of meaning and interpretation for the progression of religion. The Buddhist teachings originated from the Buddha’s personal experience of enlightenment. The Buddha taught that life is impermanent and involves suffering; that our attachments and egocentric impulses are the ultimate cause of suffering; that suffering can be eliminated; and that in order to achieve this goal a person must follow the eightfold path of the right views, motives, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditation. The Buddha reportedly did not appoint his successor but said that after his death, Dharma, or his teaching, would guide the followers.

As the Buddhist chronicles tell us, right after the death of the master in 483 BCE, the first Buddhist council took place in Rājagŗha. There the monks settled on the doctrinal foundations of Dharma and the rules of conduct for monks and nuns known as Vinaya. The Buddhist community suffered the first sectarian split at the second council that was held in Vaiśālī one century later, in 383 BCE, when the Mahīsaṅghīkas broke away because of the differences over monastic discipline. The difference between the two major forms of Buddhism—Theravāda Theravāda and Mahāyāna—can be traced back to that split. The Mahīsaṅghīkas sects would eventually give rise to the Mahāyāna version of Buddhism while the remaining Sthavira body of believers would claim to have remained faithful to the tradition of the days of the Buddha and would later continue as Theravāda or the Teachings of the Elders.

About two hundred years after the Parinirvāņa—the Buddha’s ascension into the state of nirvāņa—the next schism occurred when the group of personalists, or Pudgalavādins, split from the Sthaviravādins. Unlike the Sthaviravādins who defended the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self, the dissenting personalists argued for the existence of the self (pudgala) that is neither eternal and self-sufficient nor identical with the phenomenal world and, therefore, undergoes annihilation. The Pudgalavādins asserted that it is that self which transmigrates and enters nirvāņa. They also maintained that the wheel of samsara or phenomenal existence is related to the enlightenment of nirvāņa as fuel is related to fire. The sect of Pudgalavādins survived for over a thousand years [11, p. 69].

In 250 BCE at the next Buddhist council at Pāțaliputra, the remaining body of believers underwent yet another split. The conflicting factions were the Vibhajyavādins and Sarvāstivādins. The council decided against the Sarvāstivādins who defended, among other things, the doctrine of pāramitās, or perfections, that would later become essential for Mahāyāna Buddhist teaching. They argued that the Buddha in his previous lives had mastered the perfections of giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom, and encouraged believers to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps. After the split the Sarvāstivādins also continued for another thousand years [11, p. 70].

Overall, the formative phase of Buddhism lasted for about four centuries and came to an end with the completion of the Tripitaka scriptural canon and the formation of Theravāda as an orthodox branch of the Buddhist religion. According to tradition, the canonical texts of Tripitaka were written in Pali language around the first century BCE [11, p. 64]. They contained the three collections or “baskets” of scriptures. The most important was the Sutta Pitaka, which consisted of the Buddha’s discourses with his disciples. Next was the Vinayana Pitaka that explained the rules of monastic life and conduct in relation to the circumstances in which the Buddha formulated each rule. Finally, the Abhidhamma Pitaka systematized the Buddhist doctrines in the works of philosophy and psychology, which were composed by Buddhist scholars.

Around the same time in the first century BCE, new Buddhist sūtras that had no counterparts in the established Theravāda canon began to emerge. Those additional texts promoted the doctrines that, in the eyes of their followers, had been taught or approved by the historical Buddha. The composition of those sūtras, which would become the cornerstone of Mahāyāna Buddhism, continued from the first century BCE through the third century CE. Perhaps the earliest Mahāyāna texts, according to contemporary scholars, were the Prajňāpāramitā or the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, whose composition dates back to the period between the first century BCE and the fourth century CE [15, p. 40]. Another significant document that should be mentioned is The Lotus of the Good Law, which presented the key doctrines of Mahāyāna and was written around the end of the second century CE.

The scriptural differences between Theravāda and Mahāyāna are typical for the divergence between the orthodox and classical phases of religion. Both orthodox Theravāda and classical Mahāyāna believe in the Buddha, his enlightenment, and the four Noble Truths of suffering, causes of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to it. Both claim to have preserved the original teachings of the Buddha in their unvarnished purity. But Theravāda Buddhists believe that the scriptural texts of Tripitaka reflect the full version of what the Buddha had entrusted to his followers. They reject any additions or deviation from that canon. In full accordance with the spirit of orthodoxy, the Theravādins freeze the development of scriptures that had been established during the formative age of religion and built their sacred tradition on that foundation by refusing any interpretative innovations.

Chart 2 – Religious cycle of Buddhism

Mahāyāna Buddhists, on the contrary, accept the Tripitaka canon as authoritative but not as final or complete. Mahāyāna believers hold that the later scriptural texts reveal higher insights into the Buddhist teachings, which are complementary but not opposite to the writings of Theravāda. The name of Mahāyāna means the Greater Vehicle or path toward salvation in contrast to Hīnayāna—the Lesser or Inferior Vehicle—whose main representatives are Theravāda Buddhists. The sacred tradition of Mahāyāna is broader and more inclusive because it relies on an expanded set of scriptures. Also, when it comes to doctrinal issues, the difference in the sacred traditions becomes far-reaching and compelling.

The origins of the Theravāda and Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism can be traced back to the split between the Sthavira and Mahīsaṅghīka sects. Their views differed significantly with respect to the status of monks and the value of monastic life, and also to the nature of the Buddha, humanity, and enlightenment. The same conceptual and practical divide came centuries later, between Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed along the lines of their predecessors.

Like Sthavira believers, the Theravādins recognized the authority of monks in the Buddhist community and held that only those who practice monasticism can achievefull enlightenment or arhantship. As Robinson and Johnson point out in their study of the Buddhist religion, the “arhant monks formed an elite guild in the early Saṅgha and alienated many other monks and laymen by insisting that they alone knew the True Dharma and were qualified to pronounce on the correctness of views and the holiness of others” [11, p. 68]. The Mahīsaṅghīkas, on the other hand, like the later Mahāyāna Buddhists, were generally less restrictive and more inclusive to the lay-people and non-arhant monks. “They kept the earlier open, permissive structure as against the bureaucratic exclusivism of the Sthaviras,” Robinson and Johnson continue, “and they refused to gild the lotus of arhantship” [11, p. 68].

In addition to scriptural and organizational differences, Theravāda and Mahāyāna supporters disagreed on a variety of doctrinal issues, including, most importantly, the nature of the Buddha and of enlightenment. While Theravādins thought of the founder of their faith as an extraordinary but not supernatural being, Mahāyāna Buddhists deified the Buddha and considered nirvāņa to be the attainment of his transcendent nature. Also, in contrast to the Theravādins who focused on individual spiritual progress, Mahāyāna Buddhists emphasized compassion as the key human virtue. A truly enlightened being or bodhisattva, they argued, while completely free from samsara, would, nevertheless, go through reincarnation again by their own volition in order to help others in their quest for spiritual liberation.

For many centuries, the Theravāda and Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism peacefully coexisted with each other. Theravāda and Mahāyāna monks lived side by side, often in the same monasteries until Buddhism completely disappeared from its motherland. They did not get involved in politics and power plays, which may have been one of the main reasons for the mutual respect and tolerance that the Theravādins and Mahāyānists displayed toward each other.

Along with most of the ancient world, the Buddhists’ political philosophy advocated the notion of the “righteous monarch”—a pious ruler who uses his kingly powers for the material and spiritual benefits of his subjects. In the Buddhist religion, the perfect example of such a king was Ashoka (304–232 BCE) who reigned two centuries after the death of the Buddha. Ashoka is remembered as the champion of Buddhism who facilitated the development of the religion both inside and outside India. But no matter whether the ruler supported, promoted or even persecuted the followers of the Buddha, the monks had always spread their teachings peacefully, without coercion, while regarding secular authorities as secondary when it comes to spiritual matters.

In the course of its evolution and maturation the two main divisions of Theravāda and Mahāyāna eventually grew apart, especially when Buddhism was forced out of its native land. Theravāda planted the seeds of its teachings in the Southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Myanmar (former Burma), Thailand, Laos, Kampuchea (former Cambodia), and Vietnam. Mahāyāna Buddhism was developed in China and later in Japan, the two countries that became the main centers of this form of Buddhist religion. It was also from the northern part of India that Mahāyāna Buddhism was carried to Tibet where it formed the third major tradition, which is now practiced in Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and also some parts of India, China, and Russia.

Because of its origin, Tibetan or Vajrāyāna Buddhists consider their branch of the Buddhist faith to be part of Mahāyāna. Western scholars, for the most part, agree with this self-definition [5, p. 167]. However, Vajrāyāna can also be seen as a separate division that represents the reformist phase of Buddhism. The following features of Vajrāyāna serve, in my view, as important indications, which may lead to that conclusion.

To begin with, the Vajrāyāna form of Buddhism has its own distinct name that juxtaposes it not only with various Mahāyāna denominations like Zen and Pure Land, for example, but also with both Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna themselves. Vajrāyāna means the “Diamond Vehicle,” the perfect road to enlightenment in contrast to the “Lesser Vehicle” of meditation in Hīnayāna or the “Greater Vehicle” of compassion in Mahāyāna. Second, Vajrāyāna established its own scriptural canon that is different from both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna branches of Buddhism. As Robinson and Johnson point out, the Tibetan scriptural canon that was formed by Butn (Bu-ston, 1290–1364 CE) in the fourteenth century CE, consisted of “two collections: the Kanjur (Bka’-‘gyur) which comprises the Vinaya, Sūtras, and Tantras, and the Tenjur (Bstan-‘gyur) which contains treatises, commentaries, and works on auxiliary disciples such as grammar, astrology, and medicine” [5, p. 190].

The reform Vajrāyāna promoted did not consist of coming back to the original teaching and replacing the existing sacred tradition with a newly constructed one. Instead, Tibetan Buddhists reached for the authentic spirit of Buddhism by accumulating previous traditions to which they provided some additions of their own. Tibetans received instruction and started their lineages directly from the Indian masters. They translated the scriptures from the original Indian manuscripts, and the accuracy of their translations is duly noted [5, p. 188]. At the same time—following the example of Mahāyāna—Vajrāyāna Buddhists did not reject the later sūtras, but incorporated them into their own sacred tradition while adding unique elements that did not exist in either Hīnayāna or Mahāyāna. I am referring to the Tantric texts and practices that originated in India, guided their followers to revere feminine deities, and became an inalienable part of the Vajrāyāna scriptural canon. Tantrism in Vajrāyāna Buddhism was defined “as a means to channel the energy of desire and transform the experience of pleasure into realization of enlightenment.” But such a self-identification with tantric gods did not presuppose their external worship because those deities served as the “archetypes representing the tantric practitioner’s own deepest nature” [10].

Consequently, and this is the third characteristic feature that distinguishes Vajrāyāna from other branches of Buddhism, its religious requirements include the observances of both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna with the addition of complex esoteric techniques, which are believed to have been encouraged by the Buddha himself as the culmination of the Buddhist path toward enlightenment. Complementing the Hīnayāna meditation and Mahāyāna compassion, Vajrāyāna Buddhist practitioners used the tantric or “deity-yoga” in order “to construct an indestructible ‘diamond-body’ for themselves that will allow them physically to sustain entries into the intense energies of higher levels of consciousness” [5, p. 168]. They believe that this advanced training will speed up the achievement of enlightenment, which, with its help, could be reached within the span of a single life.

The Cycle of Christianity

The evolution of the Christian faith serves as the perfect illustration of my theory of religious cycles. The history of Christianity is typically divided into three periods: early, medieval, and modern. The early period, which lasted for the first four centuries and was crucial for the development of the Church, represents the formative phase of Christianity. The medieval period, which resulted in the split of the Christian Church into two coexisting branches of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, saw the rise of Christianity’s corresponding orthodox and classical phases. Finally, during the modern period, two new movements were initiated—Protestantism and the Enlightenment—which marked the reformist and critical phases of the Christian religion. In this section we will mostly discuss the initial four stages of Christianity while the analysis of the Enlightenment as its critical stage will need a separate and thorough discussion.

During the first four centuries of its existence, the Christian faith came a long way since its inception in Palestine to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century it had successfully formed its organizational structure, formulated its creed, canonized its scriptures, routinized its ritualistic practices, and was already embraced by the majority of the population of the Empire [2, p. 53].

Chart 3 – Religious cycle of Christianity

The establishment of a scriptural canon was, perhaps, the most important among those accomplishments, since the development of scriptural texts constitutes an essential part of the formative age of any religion. It took nearly four centuries for the Church to achieve consensus with regard to the sacred scriptures. The Christian Bible was compiled in the course of intense ideological strife that produced numerous heresies condemned by the Church leaders. The books that have been finally included in the Bible reflected the orthodox Christian doctrines, which were reasserted by becoming part of the canonized texts.

The first recognized historical attempt to create scriptural canon was made by a second-century Christian theologian, Marcion of Sinope. Marcion’s views were close to Gnosticism, a widely spread heresy of the time. Gnostics taught that a malevolent god created the world, and Jesus came to save humanity from it by delivering special mystical knowledge. According to Marcion’s doctrine, it was the Jewish god who was an evil, angry, and ever-punishing god of creation while Jesus represented a different kind of deity—the Christian god of love, wisdom, and compassion. In his version of the New Testament, Marcion included only one gospel, the Gospel of Luke, and several letters of the Apostle Paul.

It was in response to this and similar views that the leaders of the Church decided to incorporate the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian canon in order to emphasize the continuity of Judeo-Christian tradition and to assert the essential oneness of the God of both Testaments. By the end of the first century CE, the Jewish rabbis had already settled on the Hebrew scriptural writings of the Tanakh, which later found their way into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. As for the New Testament, Biblical scholars agree that its books were mostly completed in the first two Christian centuries. The Revelation, which is the last book of the Christian canon and, as the Christian tradition contends, was written around 95 CE by the Apostle John, was also one of the latest to be accepted as part of the sacred scriptures. For a long period of time Revelation remained a very controversial text, which many Christians were reluctant to include into the canon [6, p. 517]. By the end of the fourth century consensus was finally achieved, and in 367 CE, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, in his Easter Letter listed all twenty-seven books of the New Testament as authoritative and canonical [6, p. 19].

After the boundaries of the Old and New Testaments were fixed and the scriptures canonized, Christianity moved to the next phase, which consisted in the formation of sacred tradition. To be sure, the Christian tradition developed right from the beginning of the new era. The prophetic teachings of its founder, the missionary journeys of the apostles, and the establishment of the church communities in the Roman Empire all attest to that. Hence, the well-known saying that the scriptures are the written tradition and the tradition is the living scripture.

However, the proper development of the sacred tradition is impossible without the written texts whose interpretations become foundational for the growth of tradition. Furthermore, whoever is in charge of the interpretation also controls the sacred tradition. In the early Christian Church it was the function of general ecumenical councils to produce interpretations that were considered authoritative and binding upon all Christians. As the formal head of the Church, the Emperor convened and presided over those councils, which included representatives from both the Eastern and Western Churches. From the fourth to the eighth centuries, numerous councils took place to debate and reach an agreement on various controversial doctrines in Christianity.

The first such council was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE in the city of Nicaea. The issue at stake was Arianism—a teaching that denied the divinity of Christ. Arius (256–336 CE) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, who argued that since there is only one God, Jesus Christ did not share his Father’s nature and was essentially distinct from him. The decisions of the council outlawed the Arian heresy, confirmed the divine nature of Christ, and issued the Creed of Nicaea to that effect.

The second ecumenical council took place in 381 CE in Constantinople and was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius who is known in the history of Christianity for establishing the faith as the state religion of the Roman Empire. The decisions of the council promulgated the doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is one in essence that manifests itself in three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this way, “Every divine action begins with the Father, proceeds through the Son and is completed in the Holy Spirit” [3, p. 174].

The third ecumenical council, which took place in Ephesus in 431 CE, settled the problem of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. The next council of Chalcedon in 451 CE adopted a series of documents that reaffirmed the Trinitarian theology, according to which Jesus possessed “two natures [that existed] without confusion, without change, without division or without separation” [3, p. 183]. The fifth and sixth ecumenical councils, which took place in Constantinople in 553 CE and 680–81 CE respectively, fought against the heresies of monophysitism, monergism and monotheletism, in other words, the beliefs that Christ had a single nature, single energy, or single will. The sixth council issued a decree, which confirmed that in Jesus Christ “there are two natural wills and modes of operation without division, change, separation or confusion…His human will follows without any resistance or reluctance but in subjection, his divine and omnipotent will” [3, p. 186].

Finally, the seventh ecumenical council, which marked the completion of the Orthodox Christian tradition, took place in the city of Nicaea in 787 CE and it dealt with the issue of iconoclasm. The aim of the iconoclastic movement was to suppress the worship of sacred images or icons and the relics of saints. The iconoclasts were convinced that those objects were not as holy as the cross, the Bible, or the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and that the worship of them would lead believers into idolatry. Responding to iconoclastic charge and drawing inspiration from the theological defense of icons by eighth-century Christian thinker John of Damascus (c. 676–749 CE), the council sided with the Damascene by differentiating between worship and veneration and by permitting the adoration of sacred images in the same way as the Bible and the cross.

The decisions of seven ecumenical councils became foundational for Orthodox Christianity, which is also known as the “Church of the Seven Councils.” At the same time, the tension and division between Eastern and Western Christendom, which went back to the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) with its decision to grant more administrative authority to Constantinople, grew stronger over the following centuries. The fall of the Roman Empire, political separation between its Western and Eastern parts, and cultural and linguistic differences—along with various doctrinal and administrative factors, including diplomatic misunderstandings—contributed to the eventual breakaway and mutual excommunication between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While the actual split occurred in 1054 CE, the most significant disagreement, from a religious standpoint, was over the interpretation of scriptures, the authority of sacred tradition and, more importantly, about who had the legitimate power to alter or transform it.

For the Orthodox Christians, the ultimate authority lies in the decisions of the ecumenical councils and for that reason they froze the sacred tradition and rejected any subsequent change or alteration that came from elsewhere. Since no ecumenical councils could conceivably be convened after Orthodoxy and Catholicism had parted ways in the eleventh century, no modification to the tradition was possible either. As for Catholicism, it developed a sacred tradition of its own, which Catholics only partially shared with the Orthodoxy.

The beginning of the Catholic tradition dated back to the last centuries of the Roman Empire when the bishops of Rome laid a claim to their superiority over the rest of the Christian leadership. As Catholic Church historian Thomas Bokenkotter notes, “Pope Damasius (366–84) at a council in 382 [already] seems to have claimed formally the possession of a primacy over all other churches in virtue not of conciliar decisions but of the Lord’s promise to St. Peter” [2, p. 78]. Damasius’ successor, Pope Siricius (384–99 CE) went even further by implicitly assuming “[i]n his letters…now called Decretals …the right to make decisions, with universal application in matters both doctrinal and disciplinary” [2, p. 78].

In the fifth century, Pope Leo I (440–61 CE), as Bokenkotter writes, “formulated a doctrine of papal primacy that was to…guide the policy of all subsequent Popes. Leo [argued that] Peter was “the Rock” on which the Lord built his Church; his successors, the Popes, were merely his temporary and mystical personifications.” On the basis of this premise, Leo contended that “the Pope had the plenitude of power over the universal Church: He was its supreme ruler, its supreme teacher, and its supreme judge. All other bishops only shared in his responsibility for the whole Church” [2, p. 79]. It is important that the rise of papal power occurred in parallel with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which led to the weakening of civil authorities. In the midst of social and political turmoil, the Christian Church was the only institution that maintained order and stability. Naturally, the Popes promoted and strengthened the system of papal monarchy that was based on the Roman imperial model. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE) “established the Popes as de facto rulers of central Italy [and] strengthened the papal primacy over the churches in the West” [2, p. 92].

The alliance between the papacy and the Franks, which resulted in the establishment of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century, paved the way for the Popes to claim both spiritual and temporal authority by virtue of them crowning the kings. Even more so, in the ninth century Pope “John VIII (d. 882 CE) advanced the cause of papal primacy by successfully asserting the right of the Popes not only to crown but also to choose the Emperor” [2, p. 100]. Pope Gregory VII seems to have achieved the highest point in these theocratic aspirations in the eleventh century when in “his famous Dictatus papae (1075) [he defended] an unqualified view of papal authority, [including] the right to punish and even depose disobedient rulers, for the papacy was to the Empire as the sun to the moon” [2, p. 105].

By the time Christianity suffered a split in 1054 CE, both Orthodox and Catholic Churches had already successfully developed their corresponding sacred traditions while remaining very similar to each other in many other respects. And it was the Catholic tradition—which represented the classical phase of the Christian religion—that the Protestant reformers would later rebel against. We should remember, however, that attacks against the high concentration of Popes’ power and the resulting abuses of sacred authority were initiated well before the dawn of the Reformation.

The doctrine of papal “absolute and universal supremacy” in religious affairs rested largely on the so-called “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals , which were drawn up around 850 [and] contained a clever mixture of forged and authentic papal and counciliar documents [that] falsified the history of papal relations with the other churches” 2, p. 111]. Part of this collection was the “Donation of Constantine”—the text in which Emperor Constantine supposedly granted to Silvester I (d. 335 CE), then head of the Roman Church, supremacy over all other Church leaders and even the secular rulers in Western Christendom. With the revival of classical learning during the Renaissance, this and many other religious texts, including the original Greek writings of the New Testament, came under the scrutiny of scholars. Armed with the new methods of linguistic and literary analysis, they reconstructed historical timelines, recovered the original meaning and confirmed or denied the authenticity of translated works. Those scholarly efforts contributed to the eventual deconstruction of the Catholic tradition, which was finally rejected by Protestant reformers. An Italian humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla (1407–57 CE), proved, for example, that the “Donation of Constantine” was a forgery thus challenging papal claims to unqualified power.

Another factor that contributed to the rise of the Reformation was the persistence of heresies, which presented a challenge not only to the Catholic dogmas but also to the medieval Church hierarchy and organization. The Waldensians or the followers of Peter Waldes in the twelfth century, for instance, rejected the authority of the clergy and promoted a simple lifestyle of preaching in order to purify Christianity. Many Waldensian beliefs would later become part of the Protestant movement.

When the Protestant Reformation was finally sweeping Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it signaled the beginning of the third phase of the Christian religion, which may appropriately be called reformist. It was a response to the structural crisis of Christianity and it aimed at resolving this crisis by coming back to its scriptural roots. The central tenet of Protestantism was the justification by faith alone. Martin Luther (1483–1546), the founder of the Reformation, arrived at this key belief as a result of undergoing a severe spiritual crisis.

An Augustinian monk and a priest, he was suffering from the lack of certitude about his own salvation. He learned from the Catholic theology of the day that as a sinner he deserved punishment. In his own reinterpretation of scriptures, Luther came to a different conclusion about God’s justice, as it is written in the Gospels that the “one who is righteous will live by faith” [9, Rom. 1.17]. According to Luther, instead of punishing sinners God justifies them by granting faith, which they do not deserve on their own merits. As a gift from God, faith became for him the only true sign of salvation and certitude.

With this new interpretation Martin Luther overcame his doubts and restored his trust in God. He then searched for the source of faith. It could not have been the Catholic tradition of indulgences and self-sanctification by means of good deeds. It could only be the grace of God, which was accessible through Christ and revealed in scriptures. In the end, Martin Luther came back to the scriptural basis of Christianity in order to renew and reinvigorate this religion.

Sola scriptura became the motto of the Reformation and Luther himself produced the German translation of the Bible from its original languages. It was the first full translation of scriptures into any European language since the Latin translation of St. Jerome in the fourth century that the Catholic Church had been using for more than a millennium. By rejecting the supremacy of the Popes or the infallibility of ecumenical councils, Martin Luther invested all the authority into those Biblical texts. He questioned the existing Christian interpretations and ended up creating a sacred tradition of his own.

The doubt in the existing sacred traditions marked the structural crisis of Christianity. Like any structural crisis of religion, it was resolved by the formation of a new mode of interpretation within the existing religious system. The eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, which initiated the age of modernity, posed an entirely different challenge.

The Enlightenment thinkers questioned the very foundation of the Christian religion—its scriptural texts. The Enlightenment initiated a systemic crisis of Christianity that in the next two centuries affected all major cultural and religious traditions and as a result turned into a global crisis of religious consciousness. While remaining an inalienable part of Christian history, it extended well beyond European or Western civilization, and as such, it should be discussed separately.

The Cycle of Islam

Islam is the third world religion to arrive at the global stage after Buddhism and Christianity. The Prophet Muhammad (570–632 CE) founded Islam in seventh-century Arabia as a monotheistic faith that aimed to renew and spread the message of one universal God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Today, ranked by the number of members, Islam is second only to Christianity, with nearly one and a half billion adherents all over the world [8].

The main scriptural text of Islam is the Holy Qur’ān and it contains the theological and legal foundations of the Muslim tradition. The Qur’ān’s theology can be summed up in the so-called six fundamentals of faith. According to those fundamentals, all Muslims should believe in the oneness of God or Allah, in God’s angels, in God’s messengers (Moses and Jesus among them), in God’s books (including the Torah and the Gospels), in the Day of Judgment, and in the divine decree or the ultimate power of God to decide the outcome of events.

As for the legal portion of the Qur’ān, it includes the Five Pillars of Islam, which regulate the relationships of believers to their God and to those within the community. The Five Pillars consist of the profession of faith, obligatory prayers and fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage. The Qur’ān also contains other legal material pertaining to marriage, inheritance, social rules and regulations.

In Islam the Qur’ān fulfills the same function as the Torah and the Gospels in Judaism and Christianity. According to the Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad was not the author of this book but rather a transmitter of revelation that came down to him through the angel Gabriel. As the direct word of God, the Qur’ān is the sacred scripture of Islam that has unquestioned authority and is absolutely binding upon the community of believers.

Unlike the Torah or the Gospels, the completion of the Qur’ān did not require a long process of selection and canonization. Biblical scholars contend that the priests prepared the final edition of the Torah around the fifth–fourth centuries BCE, long after the Exodus, which is dated back to the thirteenth century BCE. It took less time for the four canonical Gospels to be composed and become part of the Christian scriptures. Still, they were completed by the end of the first century CE and canonized in the next couple of centuries. As for the Qur’ān, the existing records of the Prophet Muhammad’s recitations were collected after his death to be accurately preserved. In a few decades all previous copies of Muhammad’s revelation were destroyed, and the final version of the Qu’ranic text established. Since then, the Qur’ān has never been changed, and modern scholarship does not question its authenticity [1].

In addition to the Qur’ān, Muslims also believe in the authority of the Hadith or traditional reports about the Prophet Muhammad’s character and life, his sayings and actions, and what he approved and disapproved. The first authoritative collections of the Hadith started to appear around the ninth century CE. As American historian of Islam, John Esposito, reports, “Six collections came to be accepted as authoritative: those of Ismail al-Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875), Abu Dawud (d. 888), al Nisai (d. 915), al-Tirmidhi (d. 892), and ibn Maja (d. 896).” Among those, the first two held “an especially high status as authoritative sources” [4, p. 81]. Although Western scholars question the historical validity of the Hadith, it is still believed to be an indispensable part of the scriptural canon and of the sacred tradition by the Muslim community. According to my theory, the rise of the Hadith was an indication that Islam has completed its formative phase and was ready to move on to the next stages of its development.

Since its historical beginnings, Islam has split into two major divisions—the Sunni and the Shia. The term “sunna” means a manner of living or customary practice, which refers to the example of the Prophet. The name “shia” refers to a separatist party that remained an uncompromising minority in the Muslim faith. Today eighty to ninety percent of Muslims belong to the Sunni tradition, which is spread all over the world. And only ten to twenty percent identify themselves as Shia Muslims most of whom live in Iran [13]. In order to understand the nature of this division and the reasons for it, we have to revisit the origins of Islam and its early history.

One of the major differences between Islam and the two other world religions of Buddhism and Christianity is that Muhammad, unlike the Buddha or Jesus Christ, was not only the religious but also the political and military leader of the Muslim community. After his migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, along with a handful of his followers, the Prophet Muhammad engaged in a series of military campaigns that eventually established him as a ruler of most of Arabia. Muhammad’s death in 632 CE created both a religious and a political vacuum within the community.

Chart 4 – Religious cycle of Islam

The political successors to Muhammad’s office or heads of the Muslim state were called the caliphs—meaning “successor” or “deputy” of the prophet of God. The first four of those rulers were companions of Muhammad, and they are known in the history of Islam as the Four Righteous Caliphs. It is to that period that Shia Islam, as one of the two major branches of this religion, traces its beginnings.

The fourth righteous caliph was Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Ali ibn Abi Talib was murdered by the Kharijites who represented “the earliest example of radical dissent in Islam and [also] the first, in a series of movements, to offer a different concept of the nature of the community and its leadership” [4, p. 43]. According to the Kharijites, both Muslim scriptures and tradition should be interpreted literally and “any action contrary to the letter of the law constituted a grave sin that rendered a person non-Muslim, subject to excommunication…warfare, and death unless the person repented” [4, p. 44]. As Esposito explains, “The occasion for the Kharijite secession from the main body of the community was Ali’s submission to arbitration in his struggle with Muawiyah.” The Kharijites believed that since “Muawiyah had challenged the legitimate authority of the caliph, this grave sin rendered him an apostate or infidel.” Instead of waging jihad against Muawiyah, Ali agreed to arbitration, and that, in the eyes of the Kharijites, made him “guilty of a grave sin and no longer the legitimate head of the community” [4, pp. 43-44].

Muawiyah was the nephew of the third caliph, Uthman, and a governor of Syria. His revolt against Ali initiated the second civil war in Islam after Ali crushed the rebellion led by Aisha, Muhammad’s widow and the daughter of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. In the struggle with Muawiyah, Ali did consent to arbitration, which nevertheless failed to produce conclusive results and instead allowed the dissident governor to retain his seat. After the Kharijites murdered Ali, Muawiyah managed to seize power in the caliphate and established the absolute rule of the Umayyad dynasty.

The Umayyad monarchy lasted for less than one hundred years, from 661 to 750 CE. Politically and militarily it was an immediate and phenomenal success. As Esposito points out, in the short period of its rule “the Umayyads completed the conquest of the entire Persian and half the Roman (Byzantine) empire… [They] captured the Maghreb (North Africa), Spain, and Portugal…and extended the empire’s borders to the Indian subcontinent” [4, p. 42]. In the midst of such impressive international advances, the empire suffered from domestic disturbances. “During the reign of Muawiyah’s son, Yazid,” as Esposito explains, “another round of civil wars broke out. One of these, the revolt of Ali’s son Husayn, would lead to the division of the Islamic community into its two major branches, Sunni and Shii, and shape the worldview of Shii Islam” [4, p. 45].

Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, was married to “Fatima, the only surviving child of Muhammad and [his first wife] Khadijah, with whom he had two sons, Hasan and Husayn.” The supporters of Ali known as Alids, “believed that leadership of the Islamic community should remain within the family of the Prophet and that, indeed, Muhammad had designated Ali as his rightful successor and heir” [4, p. 39]. When the son of Muawiyah, Yazid, became the next Umayyad caliph in 680 CE, a group of Alids convinced the son of Ali, Husayn, to head a rebellion. Unfortunately for Husayn and his followers, the Umayyad army soon crushed them. As Esposito writes, the “memory of this tragedy…provided the paradigm of suffering and protest that has guided and inspired Shii [Muslims for whom] the original injustice [of successorship was] repeated, thwarting the rightful rule of the Prophet’s family [4, p. 45].

The period of the Four Righteous Caliphs also gave rise to the Sunni branch of Islam, which in contrast to Shia orthodoxy represents its classical stage, and, as is the case with other world faiths, enjoys the majority of adherents and serves as the model of Muslim spirituality. As Esposito points out, the rule of the righteous caliphs was “especially significant not only for what they actually did, but also because the period of Muhammad and the Rightly Guided Caliphs came to be regarded in Sunni Islam as the normative period” [4, p. 38]. The second caliph, Umar, established a new procedure for political and military succession in the Islamic state that was to guide the selection of the next two caliphs: “…a process of consultation, nomination and selection by a small group of electors who, after pledging their allegiance, presented the caliph to the people for acceptance by public acclamation” [4, p. 40]. With the rise of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 CE this practice was replaced by a hereditary rule that would extend to the subsequent Abbasid caliphate as well.

The Muslim caliphs exercised absolute power both in political and military affairs. They were also regarded as religious leaders of the community who reigned in the name of Allah and whose purpose was to spread the law of Islam by sword and conquest. At the same time, the interpretation of the Qur’ān, especially of its legal portions, was beyond their sphere of authority. It was a separate group of people, the religious scholars called ulama, who developed the Islamic law of Sharia on the basis of scriptural sources, rational interpretations and the consensus of community. By the tenth century CE both the scriptural canon and the system of Islamic law were finally completed and accepted as authoritative by the Sunnis.

In the course of the following evolution of the Muslim faith, its Sunni and Shia branches each developed its own distinct vision of religion, politics, and history. Central to those differences was the notion of the Shia imamate in contrast to the Sunni caliphate. The caliphate allowed for a degree of separation between religion and politics. The caliph exercised political power while religious scholars provided authoritative interpretations of Islamic law.

In the Shia idea of the imamate, this distinction was completely erased in the figure of the Imam who was supposed to be the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad in both the political and religious spheres. The Imam had the authority to rule the people and to produce interpretations of the scriptures. According to Shia views, Ali was the first Imam and the line of succession should have remained within the descendants of Ali and his son Husayn. As Esposito puts it, in Shia Islam, the figure of the Imam stands as “the divinely inspired, sinless, infallible, religiopolitical leader of the community…a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali…the final authoritative interpreter of God’s will as formulated in Islamic law” [4, p. 45].

Sunni and Shia Muslims also have different views of Islamic history. For Sunni Muslims, the early successes and military expansion of the caliphate reaffirmed that Islamic community lived in accordance with the will of God who supported them. For Shia Muslims the rise of the caliphate meant the betrayal of Islamic teaching and resistance to God’s will. They identified themselves with the Biblical David and his fight against Goliath whose initial victories may seem impressive but whose ultimate defeat is inevitable. Inspired by the examples of Ali and Husayn, Shia Muslims viewed “history [as] the theater for the struggle of an oppressed and disinherited community to restore God’s rule on earth over the entire community under the Imam” [4, p. 46].

The Shia community itself, however, suffered from a series of splits. The three largest Shia groups were the Twelvers, the Zaidis, and the Ismailis, each claiming their own Imam as the legitimate successor to Ali and Husayn [12]. Some of those Shiite communities have been able to establish independent political states. “The Zaydis,” for example, who “claimed that Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Husayn, was the fifth Imam…were the first Shii to gain independence when Hasan ibn Zayd founded a Zaydi dynasty in Tabaristan on the Caspian, in 864.” A Zaydi state was also created in 893 CE in Yemen where it survived until 1963 [4, p. 46].

By the ninth century CE, the hereditary succession of Imams was interrupted in the largest Shia community, that of the Twelvers. As a result, they developed a belief in the “hidden” Imam and his return as the future savior, Mahdi “at the end of the world to vindicate his loyal followers, restore the community to its rightful place, and usher in a perfect Islamic society in which truth and justice will prevail” [4, p. 47] Until the Imam returns, the community recognized as authoritative the interpretations of Islamic law by ulama.

In the meantime, some of the Shia groups still believed in the continuation of the Imamate and kept founding alternative Shiite dynasties. In the tenth century, for example, one of the splinter groups, the Ismailis, established the “Fatimid dynasty [which was] named for Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, from whom the ruler [who proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi] claimed descent” [4, p. 47]. Ruled by infallible and hereditary Imams from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, the Fatimid caliphate “successfully competed with a weakened, fragmented Abbasid [Sunni] empire, spreading their influence and rule across North Africa, Egypt, Sicily, Syria, Persia, and Western Arabia to the Sind province of India” [4, p. 48].

In addition to the its two major Shia and Sunni branches, Islam has also developed a faction, which, historically speaking, is relatively new but may still exemplify a reformist stage of the Muslim faith. I am referring to Wahhābism, a movement that was founded in the eighteenth century by Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (1703–92) and since then has served as a model for other versions of Muslim revivalism.

There is an essential difference between Wahhābism and later nineteenth-century revivalist movements, on the one hand, and Islamic responses to modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the other.As Esposito points out, “premodern revivalist movements were primarily internally motivated, [while] Islamic modernism was a response…to the external political and religiocultural threat of [European] colonialism.” Islamic modernists were mostly preoccupied with the issue of “the compatibility of Islam with modern Western thought and values” [4, p. 124].

The difference between Wahhābī revivalism and later Islamic modernism runs parallel to the difference between the Lutheran Reformation and the following European Enlightenment in Christianity. Wahhābism closely followed the spirit of the Protestant Reformation but applied it in accordance with the theological doctrines and historical practice of the Muslim faith. That is why, in practical terms, I discuss it as the third branch of Islam.

The self-proclaimed goal of Wahhābism consisted of stripping Islam of all innovations, which had been accumulating over the centuries in Muslim tradition and which Wahhābī supporters considered as deviations from true faith. The purification of Islam, Wahhābīs argued, was necessary in order to return to the straight path of faith that was drawn by Muhammad and his early followers. Similarly to Martin Luther, who proposed a return to Christian origins and to the Bible, al-Wahhāb promoted a vision of Islam that is renewed by the example of the Prophet and the Sunni.

Since the lives of the founders of Christianity and Islam were so different, the results of the respective reforms in both religions turned out to be opposite to each other. Following in the footsteps of Muhammad, al-Wahhāb envisioned a social and moral transformation by means of jihad—a militant revolution against the enemies of Allah and false doctrines. He joined forces with a tribal chief, Muḥammad ibn Sa‛ūd (d.1765), and together they launched “a religiopolitical movement that waged holy war [and] viewed all Muslims who resisted as unbelievers, enemies of God who must be fought” (117–18). In the end, the Wahhābī “reformation” of Islam resulted in the founding of Saudi Arabia as a modern Islamic monarchy that is governed by Wahhābī ideology and Sharia law— soon followed by the establishment of other revivalist Muslim states in African countries such as Nigeria, Libya and Sudan.

Remarks in Conclusion

I began this paper with the hypothesis that religions share a common pattern in their historical development. In order to trace those commonalities, I formulated an abstract model of religious cycles, which was based on the idea that any historical religion—a religion centered on written scriptures—represents a semantic system whose evolution depends on the interpretation of its key texts. The development of a religious system, then, can be understood in terms of the interplay between its revelatory and interpretive elements, or, in other words, between its sacred scriptures and sacred traditions. Based on a distinct correlation between the first and the second, I distinguished six common phases in the evolution of religion, namely, its formative, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post-critical stages.

In the course of its development a religious system undergoes two types of crises that shake its structural or systemic foundations. The structural crisis poses a challenge to the sacred tradition or scriptural interpretations within an established religion and results in the formation of new and alternative confessions or denominations within the system. The systemic crisis represents a challenge to the foundation of the religion itself by way of questioning its sacred scriptures. Such a crisis is usually resolved with the inception of new religions in the midst of their mother-faiths.

When applied to the world’s spiritual traditions, this model of religious cycles reveals astounding similarities among various faiths. To begin with, traditional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam follow a nearly identical pattern in their development by passing through all six stages, from the formative through the post-critical. In all those cases the establishment of new sacred traditions was related to the creation of additional scriptural texts or at least alternative interpretations of the existing scriptures. Also, in all of those cases different sacred traditions that corresponded to various stages of religious evolution did not cancel each other out but instead co-existed, stimulated, interacted with, and often enriched each other.

The systemic crisis of religion usually leads to the rise of new religious movements and their eventual split from and rivalry with their mother-faiths. However, even a crisis of such proportions does not result in the disappearance of older, spiritual ways of life. After giving birth to new faiths, older religions not only recuperate but even experience a revival of their own traditions and successfully compete with younger challengers. Two cases in point—the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism, and also the one between Judaism and Christianity. In the language of theology, we might say that God never forgets his previous commitments and always keeps his part of the bargain while creating new covenants with humanity.

Finally, the evolution of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam was such that the systemic crisis of those spiritual traditions occurred almost simultaneously, starting with the eighteenth century when European thinkers formulated the ideology of the Enlightenment, which in the following two centuries spread all over the globe. The systemic challenge that affected those three religions reached its peak in the twentieth century, and as a result, our contemporary spiritual condition can be characterized as a total crisis of religious consciousness, which is well attested to in modern art and literature.


Phases of Religion: A Comparative Table




Formative Phase:



(until 9th-10th c. BCE)

Oriental Orthodoxy

(Armenia, Ethiopia, Eritrea)

Kharijite Islam

(North Africa, Oman)

Orthodox Phase:

Theravāda Buddhism

(Thailand, Cambodia Myyanmar, Laos )

Eastern Orthodoxy (Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe)

Shi’ite Islam

(Iran, Iraq, Bahrain)

Classical Phase:

Mahāyāna Buddhism

(China, Japan)


(Europe, Canada, Latin America)

Sunni Islam

(Indonesia, Africa, Middle East)

Reformist Phase:

Vajrayana Buddhism

(Tibet, Mongolia,




(Germany, England, Scandinavia, America)

Wahhabi Islam

(Saudi Arabia)

Critical Phase:

Modern Buddhism


Deism, Unitarian-Universalism

(Europe, USA)

Modern Islam


Post-critical Phase:

Soka Gakkai – Society for the Creation of Values


Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses

(USA, Europe,

Latin America)





Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition in World Religions

Sacred Scriptures

Sacred Tradition


Primary scriptural texts or sruti , which consist of the Vedas and Upanishads

Secondary scriptural texts or smrti, which consist of sutras,

epics and puranas


Hebrew scriptures or Tanakh, which include Torah, Prophets and Writings

Rabbinic texts of Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash


The Tripitaka canon, which includes Vinayana Pitaka (rules of monastic life), Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (works on psychology and metaphysics)

The decisions of the Buddhist Councils and additional sutras written by the founders of various Buddhist sects


The Bible, more specifically, the New Testament, which includes the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation

The writings of the Fathers of the Church and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils


The Qur’an and the Hadith, which is the record of the deeds of the Prophet

The development of Islamic law and jurisprudence known as the Sharia Law

[1] This article is a revised version of the first chapter of my book Theory of Religious Cycles: Tradition, Modernity and the Bah’ Faith, www.brill.com/products/book/theory-religious-cycles , (Leiden – Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2015) .

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