Prof. Syed Hasan Askari speech on Spiritual Humanism 1995 – Hyderabad, India
Within a couple of days I leave this city and it is very crucial that I should speak to a few of my friends before I leave. In my life’s journey I have gone through several decisive stages. At the present moment I stand with you at the most decisive one.
We all stand today at the threshold of the 21st century. Within five years we shall be writing 2000, year 2000.
When this century began, I mean in the year 1900, the world was full of hope, full of great idealism. The Darwinian idea of evolution. The Bergsonian idea of creative evolution. The Nietzchean idea of Will to Power. The Spencerian idea of social evolution. The great socialist vision of Karl Marx and of the Fabian Society of England and the great dreams which dreamers dreamt in Paris commune in 1890. And the great trust which the English and the French and the Dutch had in the democratic ideology. And there was across the world a great aspiration towards economic and political independence, in Asia and Africa. The century began with a great vision. With a great aspiration. With mighty ideas affecting both thought and action of millions of people across the world.
In 1905 Einstein gave his special theory of relativity. That made the world enter the post Newtonian Age. By 1936 the atom was split. By 1940 the Copenhagen school gave the quantum mechanics challenging the Einsteinian equations leading the world, the philosophical world, the sub-nuclear world, into the area of mathematical probability as the only scientific basis of “matter”. Until 1940 the world was being re-made by ideas and dreams across the world. At the same time the dreams were shattered. The democratic institutions were eroded in Spain, Italy and Germany.
The great statesmanship of Britain was being crippled by the rise of inner contradictions of the British economy. Only America continued to grow economically and politically. But with Trumans’ decision to drop atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sent a wave of disillusionment across the world that even the most powerful democracy in the world, enshrined in the Bill of Human Rights, was not reliable. And yet the century was firm. Asia and Africa were moving towards freedom. China was free on its march to become a mighty nation in Asia. That was the 20th Century.
Now only five years to go to conclude this century. On the eve of the 21st century the entire world stands at an abyss, a vast ideological vacuum. All secular ideologies have collapsed. The most powerful expression of secularism, namely Marxism, its edifice has fallen. State communism is no more reliable, it’s a spent force. Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions of people do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies. In Eastern Europe, in the collapsing Soviet Union, in Asia, in Africa and in India as well. In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty. When the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill; to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision. And therefore the theme of this evening, Spiritual Humanism as an alternative ideology.
An alternative ideology to secularism and religious fundamentalism. To racism and to ethno-centricism. Because there is no other way left for humanity but to come together as one indivisible spiritual unity.
The idea began in 1989 when I was teaching in Denver, Colorado. And in my seminars a young man used to come and sit, he was not a student but he was interested to listen to me. He was a lecturer in philosophy and later he declared himself as an agnostic as a humanist as a secularist. But philosophically a very good mind. And he offered to talk to me and he was interested to be challenged by my spiritual religious approach. So we did, we talked for nearly forty hours over a week’s time and we recorded that tape. And the tape script was edited and this book came out in 1991.(Towards A Spiritual Humanism : A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue)
It was then for the first time that I used the word spiritual humanism. Because America following the Swiss and the English model was having several societies called humanist societies. They were agnostic scientific people, they were not religious, they were not Christian, they were not Jew. They were those who followed the liberal scientific tradition of the nineteenth century. They were romanticists, but they were also very clear practical thinkers. They doubted every religious scriptural idea as either fantasy or based on illusion. So my dialogue with Jon Avery, this American philosopher, became a unique event because never before a man from a religious background had so extensively talked to a humanist.
I was referring earlier on to my life journey and let me share with you as my fellow citizens. The word citizen I am using in the sense that we are the people of the city of Hyderabad. I am using the word citizen in its Latin sense as used in Rome or in Athens. So I clearly see three stages in my journey, very clearly. And this is perhaps a journey which all of you have unconsciously made, all of you have innerly covered the same ground. But the only difference between some of you and myself is that I have covered this journey quite consciously.
It was in mid-sixties that I made a simple discovery which was infact quite obvious. Namely, that my religion was one among many in the sub-continent. I had a choice to go to Pakistan, to go to Canada to go to Great Britain but I didn’t. I decided religiously to remain within India. Within a multi-religious society. I decided to come home as a muslim in a society which was not predominantly muslim. I took the challenge of religious diversity quite seriously. For me personally it was not a political challenge, personally it was not an economic challenge because I was a lecturer by 1956. And family wise it was not a challenge. Historically, collectively it was a challenge. But for me the challenge was spiritual. The challenge was religious. For me the challenge was basically theological. I asked myself then and later in 70s, throughout in my consultations in Middle East and Europe; Why? Why we have more than one religion on our planet? Why?
Well one sociological reason was, that was always given, that people were scattered. They didn’t have any communication so religious traditions and cultures sprang up spontaneously across the world depending on conditions both economic, moral and psychological. But that explanation to me was only socio-historic. I had discovered the limits of social science. I was moving towards philosophy and meta-physics.
I asked my self this question: Why? Why more than one religion? In other words I was asking for a theology of world religions. I was asking for a global understanding of religious diversity. Because the diversity was there staring into my eyes. It was there un-mistakably present. And therefore, that was the first stage of my journey; to ask a theological question about more than one religion. It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion.
How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice? If we do so then that one religion becomes a god. And it is a blasphemy. As God’s Transcendence is ineffable, as His Might and Power is infinite, as His Attributes are countless and therefore, there should be as many forms of praising Him, worshipping Him, adoring Him, showing love and devotion to Him. And therefore I came home in a multi religious world. As a muslim it was easy for me to arrive at this position because the Quran is the first scripture in the world which started an inter-religious dialogue. It accepted the reality of revelation being given to all communities across the world. The Quran gave me the first clue to understand the theological enigma of more than one religion.
It took ten years for me to convince the Muslims across the world, to make them agree to come to consultations and dialogue and to speak with Christians, Jews and Hindus and Buddhists without inhibition without hesitation. And by 1980s we did succeed. The movement of inter-religious dialogue is now a global phenomenon.
The second stage in my journey was in the late 80s and that connects with what we now have before us. My main anchor was the West after 1977. I was rubbing shoulders with theologians and professors and thinkers across the world. So by mid 80s teaching in England and Europe I discovered that in-spite of great advancements in Christian theology and in Christian philosophy there was a deep vacuum. You know quite well that Christians are very cleaver in theological constructs. They write very abstruse theologies and they are very profound at times. From Paul Tilich to Carl Bath you have got a tremendous leap of Christian theological thought. But that was empty. Because the Christians after reformation from 16th century onwards lost touch with the mystical dimension of their own faith. There was no Soul.
There were Darwinian anthropologists, there were Freudian psychologists, there were Jungian counsellors and still they remained Christian. So I challenged them, I asked them what is your anthropological foundation? What is your theory of Man when you talk about God? You all know whether you take the Upanishads or whether you take the Quran first you have the understanding of the human principle; what is Man? And from there we move on to approach the ultimate, namely God.
It was at that moment that I decided to revive the discourse on soul. And then I realised whether you take Christian theology of the middle ages or the Muslim theology of its golden age, or whether you take the Indian philosophy, everyone begins with the understanding of the human soul. What the human principle is. And I had to make a decision where to begin because I was ignorant. I had to learn my own lessons, so as everyone turns to ancient Greece I turned to Plato and to Plotinus; those great thinkers who influenced the West and also the Islamic world as my teachers. So in late 1980s I decided to revive what we in philosophy call the classical discourse on soul.
The third stage, the last stage which marks the event this evening on a historical level because it will go down in history as the first meeting on Spiritual Humanism, consciously speaking, took place at the close of the twentieth century, in the city of Hyderabad. As soon as you talk of the soul you talk of the whole of humanity. There is no other conclusion. And that is why the Quran commences its message by narrating the creation story of Adam into whom God breathed his own spirit. Even Muslims have forgotten how to introduce the Quranic anthropology into their theological, moral, spiritual understanding of men and women at large. So for a few minutes I shall explain the connection between the soul and spiritual humanism.
Each one of us sitting now in this hall shares without qualification a principle. Irrespective of age, race, gender, culture, language or religion. And that principle is so obvious and self evident that we don’t even look at it. When you don’t look at it you become unconscious of it but philosophers start with the obvious. Where ordinary people ignore they stare and reflect upon the obvious. The principle which all of us share without qualification, without exception is that of “Life”. Just reflect on the word Life!
The first definition of life according to Aristotle is that all life somehow involves voluntary movement however undeveloped or developed. As soon as you raise your hand, such an ordinary taken for granted image, you have given testimony to voluntary Life. This voluntary life is not the characteristic of any material principle.
It should come from a non material source. In other words it should have a meta-physical origin. That is the first proof that all of us have a soul which is both one and many at the same time. Look at your body, you have a vegetative level your nails grow without your personal will, you have an organic level your food is digested without your knowledge, your metabolism is controlled by your brain without anything you knowing about it. Then your rational level then you are conscious, depending on your knowledge, upon your discipline upon your concentration. All three levels belong to the soul. You meet someone on the pavement passing by you, you meet someone in the corridor you look at him he looks at you; both are soul-beings.
First Jesus, then later the Prophet of Islam and much earlier Buddha in India. These three taught us how to greet one another. When you salam, when you say peace, when you say namaste one soul greets the other soul. You are paying tribute to your mutual recognition as the miracle of self conscious organic thinking Life. As I said the other day three weeks ago to a small group when you have the science of physics, when you have the medical science which treats our bodies on universal terms, scientific terms, now we have psychology which is at the present moment materialistic and pseudo meta-physical because of Jung. Why should not we have a universal psychology, a universal psychology on a spiritual foundation? The word “psyche” in Greek means soul and “logi” means science; knowledge of.
In other words what I am saying is that a meta-physical psychology is the foundation of Spiritual Humanism; that all of us are members of one meta-physical psyche. Then, then we shall come together because we speak different languages, we need to learn each others language. We need to translate one to the other, we shall do it. And similarly religions are also languages of the soul. When the soul spoke in different lands and different climbs, so that as soul beings we meet we shall learn about each others religious language. And even when we conflict we shall not give up the confidence that we are souls. Because according to Plotinus opposition is maximum difference. So it is in the creative power of the soul to create in the human mind maximum differences of opinion and belief. We are not dwarfed by opposition and conflict.
And therefore, Spiritual Humanism has three postulates:
1) Humanity is one organic ecological whole as a planetary form of life.
2) Already we believe in it, we hear it, humanity is one economic political whole. Because of modern revolutions in information technology.
3) Humanity is one indivisible spiritual whole and therefore a slight whisper here, a slight touch here, a small gentleness shown to someone, a small act of charity will affect the entire world of humanity. Or similarly a small injury, a small insult, a small act of malice can be blown of gigantic proportions across the world. Such is our psychic unity.
So tonight as one of you I have brought my life journey to a point where I had, I had to admit to myself that unless one becomes a universal being one remains below humanity, one becomes some half-being. All religions in the world, their great teachers, their vision was to liberate man from his narrow, crippling identity of race, region, language and now I should include in the modern usage of the word religion as well. Religion as well.
Now people ask me in Europe Hasan you want to take away everything. I said I am not taking God away from you, I am not taking soul from you. Because I believe in the soul I believe in God.
….and likewise other religions have also become tribes, clans, cults. So religious dogmatism and secular dogmatism are both kindred in spirit. Because both cripple and narrow the human soul. Therefore I pray that if you are a scientist, discover your soul and be a Spiritual Humanist. If you are religious, whatever religion you practice; and I know that you must practice it sincerely and wholeheartedly but do not remain a narrow, limited, enclosed, imprisoned, deformed, lop-sided human being, be a universal human being. So Spiritual Humanism is not replacing religion by a new ideology. Spiritual Humanism is enlightening the religious tradition to rise above closed identities and share.
Dr Nizam asked me why India first. There are only two civilizations in world history, the third was Islamic for four to five hundred years; longer than Greece, but as initiators of the philosophy of the soul there were only two civilizations in world history. One Ancient Greece another Ancient India. From Mahavir to Shankaracharia and even today, India is the only ancient civilization where the philosophy of the attma or soul is still continuously lived and taught. I tell you one incident which is the mother of this evening. It was 24th of Feb (1995) we were on a train from Madras to Hyderabad. We were five travelling together the other two were a couple. The lady was reading from a magazine, a Gujarati magazine to the man. In the early hours of the morning 45 minutes before we arrived at Secundrabad (named after Alexander) I heard her using the word attma (soul) several times. So I gently interrupted and asked her to let me know what she was talking about. Would you believe that for 25-30 minutes that Jain lady gave me the most transparent discourse on soul. She told me in quite clear terms that there is no other pursuit for humanity except to understand its noble origin as soul. And she also said to me now I don’t look at people as Hindus or Muslims or Christians I look at them souls pure, impure and I pray when they return from this world they have purified their souls. I was wondering whether I was sitting at the feet of Mahavir or of Plato or of Bu Ali Sina or of Farabi or of Mullah Sarradin Shirazi I had no clue. On that morning I said well still there is light in this country. And perhaps we should begin from here again. Because in the Indian tradition no other culture today talks about the soul so clearly and so continuously as India does. And we know when a word is frequently used in a given culture it becomes empty as the word God became empty in the West, we know, but the fact remains.
The second reason of beginning in India is that to this mighty discourse on attma came Islam in to this country which is clear, simple transparent, transcendental faith in one universal God. And you know very well that our journey ultimately is from soul to God. Pure is your soul, purer is your approach to God. And therefore in a country where the monotheism of Islam and the soul doctrine of Vedanta meet that country should again give a new ideological call to the entire world. And therefore, with very little resources at the moment a few of us have instituted the centre of Spiritual Humanism where Hindus and Muslims could come together in humility and tell each other what they know about the meta-physical origin of Man, the meta-physical journey of the human soul. Learn each others language.
As you notice in the objectives of the centre I am even asking Hindu friends to learn Arabic, because they should learn the Quranic Arabic, and a Muslim should learn Sanskrit and both together should learn the Greek language where you will find the philosophical doctrines explained much more systematically. Then a day will come that through this dialogue a kind of atmosphere will be generated. A strength which is so needed at a time when there is so much vacuum.
And finally, on a religious level. As soon as you realise that you are a soul, more than your corporeal bodily self, you have no idea what strength what courage what fearlessness you possess. The soul is an indivisible impartible un-seeable entity. You will not find it located in any part of your body. As Plato so beautifully said; it is not the soul in the body, it is the body which is in the soul. Its coming and going no physical eye can see. But its presence is supreme. When a Muslim says “innan illahi wa inna alaihi rajaoun” (we are of God and unto God we return) this is the utterance not of the physical body but of the human soul. We are of God and unto God we return, only souls can say that. Now what prevents a Hindu and a Muslim to say together: we are of God and unto God we return? And in this returning we are through this world. Once we were disembodied we are embodied now and very soon we shall be disembodied again but the soul remains supremely meta-physical. Before birth, in body and after death. With such a vision a new civilization can come to birth a new understanding can come to birth. I am looking forward to a day when Spiritual Humanism becomes a part and parcel of school curriculum, of training colleges of civil servants and police officers. And also the soul discourse becomes the foundation of psycho therapy, family counselling and inter personal understanding of man and woman, parent and child, teacher and student.”