Category Archives: Inter Faith

The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

By inter-faith pioneer the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari from his second contributory essay to the book “Islam in a World of Diverse Faiths” (1991) edited by Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok. The essay is used here by the kind permission of the publisher Palgrave Macmillan.

Professor Askari (1932-2008) figures as one of eight important Muslim thinkers of the last century in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen and the Faith”.

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION:

“And peace be unto those sent (by God), and praise be to God of all the worlds”. (Qur’an: 37: 181-82)

Risala (Apostleship), Nubuwwa (Prophethood), and Masihiyya (Christhood) are some of the conceptions which are employed to formulate in precise terms the basis of authority for the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. They possess both a general and a particular meaning, and each connotation involves a complex structure of thought.

The general meaning rests of the assumption that mankind is a unity (wahdat) and that God is One (wahid). The particular meaning refers to the fact that there are various communities which receive God’s Message in the language they speak and in the context they live and think. The universal is expressed through the particular, and the particular has universal implications. The religious history of mankind is an intricate matrix of the universal and the particular perspectives on the unity of man which is one of the ideas that transcends a particular humanity and by the same means prepares man to apprehend Reality, though expressed in the particular form of one or another religious life, and yet transcending it, for it is precisely in the act of being available in the particular and yet always rising above it that the Real is Real.

To apply this to the terms under study, we can say that there are several Apostles of God, and there is Apostleship of God; there are several Prophets of God, and there is Prophethood; and there are several Messiahs by the permission (idhn) of God, and there is the Messiahship. It is by virtue of the generalised concept that we are liberated from the particularity of each one of them, and also enabled to recognise the particular as this or that Apostle, Prophet, or Messiah. Furthermore, the general concept is not merely of an obviously inductive nature but also of great metaphysical importance which we shall take in to account towards the end of this study.

It is highly significant that the Qur’an contains all the concepts which are central here, and offers us a systematic framework of reference. As the Qur’an is involved both with the Jewish and the Christian conceptions in this area of study, even a simple and only Qur’anic description presupposes a dialogical mode of reflecting upon them. Let us begin with the basic formulations of the Qur’an.

THE UNIVERSAL CONCEPTION OF RISALA

The key verse in the Qur’an is 16.36:

And verily We have raised in every community a messenger (rasul) proclaiming: Serve God and shun false gods.

And also:

The people of Noah and the communities after them denied (their messengers) before these, and every nation purposed to seize their messengers and argued falsely, (thinking) thereby to refute the Truth.

“For every community there is a Rasul” is the central Qur’anic basis of God’s guidance for mankind. An apostle is one among its people, not an angel or a supernatural being:

God hath verily shown grace to the believers by sending unto them a messenger of their own who reciteth unto them His revelations, and causeth them to grow, and teacheth them the Scripture and wisdom; although before (he came to them) they were in flagrant error. (3.164)

An apostle is a mortal (17.94), a man like others (14.11), and conducts himself like the rest of mankind: “And they (disbelievers) say: what aileth this messenger of God that he eateth food and walketh in the markets? Why is not an angel sent down unto him, to be a warner with him? (25.7). And in principle there is no group or community which is exclusively adopted as the only recipient of God’s Message. He chooses whomsoever He likes and raises him as His envoy in whatever community He likes to favour or warn (42.51). And an apostle calls his community to God in their language (14.4).

So we have four principles involved here – (1) Risala is a means by which God guides mankind; (2) a Rasul is one among men, like other men, and communicates to them in the language his people understand; (3) for every community there is a Rasul with the central message to serve God and shun false gods; and (4) God is free to choose anyone from any community to be His apostle.

The very word, risala, (apostleship) implies a “sender” and the status and importance of one who is sent depends on who has sent him. An apostle is a “rasul” from “the Lord of all worlds” (7.61, 67, 104). “O mankind, the apostle has come to you with the truth from your Lord. Therefore, believe; it is better for you. But if you disbelieve, still, unto God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth. God is ever Knower, Wise” (4.170). The expression, arsalna, (We send) occurs 58 times in the Qur’an and underlines the basis of the authority of the apostles that they are not self-appointed but are sent by God.

The question who is really the one who is sent by God has two aspects, one pertaining to the apostle himself, how does he know beyond doubt that he is commissioned by God; and secondly, it pertains to the people to whom he is sent to accept or reject his claim. On both the aspects of this question we have sufficient evidence both from the Bible and the Qur’an to reach a few conclusions, at least to reduce the degree of uncertainty known to every student of religion in this highly problematic area.

Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)

We should concentrate on a limited number of very crucial references to this problem in our Scriptures. First and foremost is the phenomenon of the unexpected – Moses addressed all of a sudden from behind the burning bush; Mary approached by the Angel announcing the birth of Jesus; and Mohammad persistently asked to “Read, Read in the Name of thy Lord”. But the unexpected is preceded by a long and patient wandering, withdrawal, and contemplation. The unexpected event seems in every case to have uprooted one from the given world of the senses to be brought into contact with another world, another order of knowledge, or form of awareness. It is within this transformed state of awareness that the process we are accustomed to designate as “inspiration” or “revelation” starts to take place. If we identify it as God speaking to man, we are immediately alerted by the Qur’an:

It is not fitting for a man that God should speak to him except by inspiration (wahi), from behind a veil (hijab), or by sending of a messenger (rasul) to reveal (wahi), with God’s permission, what God wills: for He is Most High, Most Wise (42.51).

However indirect (from behind a veil) there is an extraordinary sense of both urgency and certainty about God’s inspiration, and that is enforced by giving to the Apostles “Our Signs” and clear authority (11.96), “criterion”, “book” and “scales” (37.25), and by the support of the Spirit (11.96). This is followed by a clear and concrete commission “Go forth to the Pharoah”, or “Rise and Warn”.

As far as the apostle himself is concerned, his certainty that he is being sent from God rests therefore on the following: (1) an Unexpected Event – Sinai, for Moses, “the Chamber towards the East” for Mary, and Hira for Mohammad; (2) the Transformed State of Awareness by which the Apostle is brought into contact with another order of knowledge which constitutes his “inspirations” and “revelations”; (3) He is given “clear signs” which further enforce his certainty that he is commissioned by God; and (4) He is plunged into a situation of direct confrontation with his people, the authority of the day, the “religion” of his times by the commission to “rise and warn”.

This leads to the Qur’anic conception of the purpose of the risala. One of the Qur’anic verses which brings out the purpose of risala is:

But We sent aforetime, among them, apostles to admonish them – then see what was the end of those who were admonished (but heeded not) – except the sincere and devoted servants of God. (37.72-74)

This commission to admonish is called “balagh” (5.99, 24.54), and it has three functions: “O mankind Prophet, Truly We have sent thee as (1) a Witness (shahid), (2) a Bearer of Good Tidings (mubashshir), and (3) a Warner (nazir) (33.45). An apostle is also sent to judge (54.31) and also to call to “that which quickens you” (3.24). He confirms that “which they possess” (2.101), and recites unto them from the “ayat” (verses). An apostle brings the Criterion (furqan), a light and a remembrance (21.48), and reminds them of their original creation and covenant. His function is summed up in the opening verse of Chapter 14 (Ibrahim) of the Qur’an:

A Book which We have revealed unto thee, in order that Thou mightest lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of their Lord – to the Way of (Him) and Exalted in Power, Worthy of all Praise (14.1).

One should note here the provision – “by the leave of their Lord” – for not everybody could rise and call mankind from darkness into light. It this provision that is constantly repeated and which forms the basis of both the authenticity and the authority of the commission of an apostle. The “light” is the testimony that “there is no god but God” and the “darkness” is the forgetting, denying or qualifying it. At a very extraordinary point in the Qur’an we read the following which sums up the purpose of the apostleship, their status with God, and how they wait for God to speak first:

Not an apostle did We send before thee without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no God but I; therefore worship and serve Him. And they say: “God Most gracious has begotten offspring”. Glory be to Him. They are but servants raised to honour. They speak not before He speaks, and they act in all things by His command. (21.25)

But the response of the people to the apostles is to doubt their sanity and call them sorcerers (51.52). They ridicule them (36.30), give lies to them and go to the extent of killing them (5.70). Concerning those who are slain because they call mankind to God, the Qur’an has this say:

And say not of those who are slain in the way of God, “they are dead”. Nay, they are living, though ye perceive it not (2.154).

As for those who respond with faith and affirmation of what is sent by God:

Our Lord, we have heard the Call of one calling us to Faith, “Believe ye in the Lord”, and we have believed Our Lord, forgive us our sins, blot out from us our iniquities, and take to Thyself our souls in the company of the righteous. (3.193).

THE QUR’ANIC CONCEPTIONS OF APOSTLES BEFORE MOHAMMAD

The principle that for every community that there is an apostle is applied to all “messengers”. In the Qur’anic prophetology, Noah, Ibrahim, Moses and Jesus stand out as supreme examples of the Apostleship of God. Let us consider a few Qur’anic verses in this connection.

  1. Say ye: “We believe in God, and the revelations given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all Prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one another of them: and we bow to God” (2.136, 3.84).
  2. We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Issac, Jacob and Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. Of some Apostles We have already told thee the story; of others We have not – and to Moses God spoke direct; – apostles who gave good news as well as warning, that mankind, should have no plea against God: for God is exalted in Power, Wise. (4.163-65)
  3. We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of Apostles; We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (2.87)
  4. This is the book (Qur’an); in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God; who believe in the unseen, and are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in the Revelations sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and have assurance of the Hereafter (2.2-4)

The reason for selecting four sets of Qur’anic verses is that each set is representative of a particular Qur’anic dimension in the Islamic understanding of the Risla. (1) It refers to the revelations given to every apostle; (2) It refers to the different modes of revelations; (3) The reference here is to the central concepts of “Book” and “Spirit”; and (4) This sums up the Muslim belief about revelations preceding those of Mohammad. Risala, as is clear from these examples, is inextricably linked with the concept of “revelation”, a dimension which we shall soon examine.

MOHAMMAD AS THE APOSTLE OF GOD

Mohammad is no more than an Apostle: many were the Apostles that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then turn back on your heels? (3.144)

And the Muslim testimony which is a part of salat (obligatory prayer) is: I bear witness that Mohammad is His servant and His Apostle. The reference to the “Prophet” – servanthood precedes the affirmation of his risala because abdiyya (servanthood) in its perfect sincerity and total submission is a prerequisite of the commission of risala. It is important to remember that the Muslim testimony centres on risala (Apostleship). Its relationship with nubuwwa (prophethood) will be discussed at a later stage.

The first aspect of the risala of Mohammad is in relation to his immediate community:

By the Qur’an

Full of wisdom –

Thou art indeed one of the Apostles,

on a straight way.

It is a revelation sent down by Him,

The Exalted in Might,

Most Merciful,

In order that thou mayest

Admonish a people,

Whose fathers had received no admonition,

and who therefore remain heedless (of the Signs of  God).  (36.1-6)

Like every other Apostle he was asked to “rise and warn” (74.2):

Say: “ I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your God is One God: whosoever expects to meet His Lord, let him work righteousness, and in the worship of his Lord admit no one as partner”.

The call by its very nature involved the entire mankind. The call to One God, One Real Lord, was a Mercy and a Light. Hence,

We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures (21.107)

As Mohammad brought by the leave of God a clear and unmistakable Message about the Unity, Universality, and Transcendence of God who in His Mercy unto mankind sent His Apostles to guide and warn all communities of men to expect to meet their Real Lord and admit no one as partner in worshipping Him, whoever comes after Mohammad has nothing to add nor anything left to make more clear. There were many after him and shall be many after us to call men to God, but no new “message” could be given. Hence:

…. he is the Apostle of God, and the Seal of the Prophets, and God has full knowledge of all things (33.40).

THE MUSLIM CREED ABOUT APOSTLESHIP

The Muslim belief concerning the Apostles is based on the Qur’anic text:

The Apostle believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one of them believeth in God, His angels, His books, and His Apostles. We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His Apostles’. And they say: “We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, Our Lord, and To Thee is the end of all journey’s (2.285)

The Muslim faith including that of the Hereafter is further elaborated in 4.136

O mankind ye who believe. Believe in God and His Apostle and the Scripture which He hath sent to his Apostle and the Scripture which He sent to those before him. Any who denieth God, His Angles, His Books, His Apostles, and the Day of Judgement, hath gone far, far astray.

It is obligatory upon the Muslims to bear witness to all the Apostles whose names are mentioned in the Qur’an. As the immediate addressees of the Qur’an were either the disbelievers of Mecca or the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), only those names of the Apostles figure in the Qur’an which were familiar to them. But as the Qur’anic conception of risala is comprehensive of all human communities and as it is not reasonable to hold that God did not at all send any of His Apostles to such vast communities like those of China, India, Africa and the Americas, the Muslim theologians are agreed in principle that there were God’s Apostles in every land at different times. This is again based on the Qur’anic text:

We did send Apostles before thee: of them there are some whose story We have related to thee, and some whose story We have not related to thee (40.78)

This is why in the Tradition the number of the Apostles sent to different lands and communities is as large as 124,000. Yet this great number is neither a matter of confusion nor of conflict because the many are in truth one sent by One with one revelation.

APOSTLESHIP (RISALA) AND PROPHETHOOD (NUBUWWA)

As an abstract noun, nubuwaa (prophethood) occurs five times in the Qur’an in three instances (3.79, 6.89, 45.16) it is linked with Scripture (kitab) and “command” (hukm), and in the other two (29.27, 57.26) it is associated with the House of Isaac and Jacob.

The general Muslim opinion is to link risala (apostleship) with Scripture and law-giving, and nubuwwa (prophethood) with admonishing and alerting mankind to the signs of God’s Presence and impending Judgement. But there is no clear Qur’anic evidence to support this distinction. The general usage, however, is that both terms are used interchangeably, and the unity between the two terms is further enforced because both dimensions obtain a perfect combination in the person and ministry of Mohammad. But there are, however, very clear conceptual distinctions between them:

Nubuwwa (prophethood) is derived from naba (news). There are types of “news” which a Prophet brings:

  1. Naba’l-azim (Great News) concerning Al-Akhira (Hereafter, Resurrection, Judgement);

2. Knowledge concerning another order of creation – other invisible beings, angels, jinn;

3. “News” concerning the former Apostles and Prophets – Naba’al-ghayb regarding Mary (3.44), Naba Ibrahim (26.69), Naba Nuh (Noah) -9.70, and Naba Musa (Moses) – 14.9

The “news” which a Prophet (Nabi) brings is bil’hae (in truth, true, from God, not out of one’s mind) is therefore different from poetry and ecstatic utterances of those who are “possessed” “An oracle” (kahin) is the antitype of a Prophet (Nabi) in the same sense as a king (malik) is an antitype of an Apostle (Rasul).

A Prophet gives a new structure of knowledge (ilm) whereas an Apostle works outs the full implications of this new structure. One is a direct threat to the opinions (zun) of his times, and another is a confrontation with the political system. A Prophet awakens mankind from its Unconscious state (ghafala) and an Apostle creates the right conditions to preserve the awakened mind. The Scripture (kitab) becomes a means to bring about both these ends. A Prophet, however, by the very nature of the “news” he brings almost stands outside of history, as if he were already standing in the Hereafter. Hence, he gives the impression of being “possessed” or beside himself. But an Apostle stands right within the historical context, challenges it and transforms it. There “believing” is the right response to a Prophet whereas “obeying” is what an Apostle requires. Hence, the Qur’anic imperative: “Follow God and His Apostle”. There will be no other Prophet after Mohammad as no new “news” is to be given now to mankind, but the call to transform society after a Godward orientation will continue to be given. Hence, the nubuwwa (prophethood) has come to an end but the mission to transform the human order as enshrined in the concept of risala is not ended. The term, rasul (apostle), also stops with Mohammad because it is the first of all a divine commission linked up with the Prophethood. If the latter is ended, the former also is ended. Hence, whoever imitates the Apostle is giving a similar call is now called a da’i (one who calls). The change of terminology is very central to the entire Islamic development of thought.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUR’ANIC TERMINOLOGY

It was said at the very outset of this study that the terms we are examining are some of those conceptions which are employed to formulate the basis of authority for the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. The fact that the Qur’anic scheme of risala and nubuwwa is so elaborate and clearly stated makes us ask whether there is something more significant about them than the question of authority. From the standpoint of authority it is obvious that the apostleship rests on a divine commission. But the Qur’anic insistence to refer to his extraordinary group of men as mursilin (apostle) and nabiyyin (prophets) and in no other terms seems to contain a very important dimension of thought which we shall try here briefly to unfold. The clue is provided by the Qur’an in referring to Jesus as an honourable “servant” (abd) and not as “son” (walad). There is a vital issue here, and it is not merely a matter of a particular expression being factual or metaphorical. The Qur’an, like other Scriptures, is full of metaphorical expressions. The polemical view that the Qur’an does not sympathise with the metaphorical expression of “sonship” when Christians themselves do not hold it to be factual in the sense of being actually begotten, seems to miss the whole Qur’anic concern. In one word, the Qur’an is against the very metaphorical mode of stating the God-Man relationship. Every metaphor has a bottom line of literality and a skyline of symbolic reference. The religious communities operate between these two lines in their use of the symbolic language. A metaphor which rests on a concrete reference at its literal end may not always be understood in it symbolic value. The matter is of theoretical interest in the general discussion about the symbols, whether religious or literary, but when it is a question of involving God, the Qur’an categorically rejects the ambiguity of a symbolic expression for two very serious reasons: (1) the metaphor brings God (Haq) to the level of Creation (Khalq), and (2) it brings Creation to the level of God, and when the metaphorical mode of expression is used between God and Man (who is barzakh – mediating between the spiritual and material domains) the danger is that one may end up Man-God and God-Man. It is this consequence which the Qur’an intends to forestall and prevent by giving a language that suffers from no such risk. Hence, the term, “servant” heads the list: abdiyya (servanthood) is the highest title Man can earn in his coming near to God, and the terms, rasul (apostle) and nabi (prophet), if we examine them again, involve in themselves nothing more than “one who is sent” and “one who informs”. It is the Sender and the Message which dominate the mind, not the persons who become the means. In this way, God remains God, and Man remains Man. The Qur’anic terminology is not only a reference to the question of authority but also to an equally important challenge, namely, to maintain the Transcendence of God. The ultimate testimony of Islam is however: subhan’allah (Glory be to God). The beginning of this glorification (tasbih) is takbir (God is Great), its middle is tawhid (God is One), and its end is tahmid (Praise be to God), and beyond that is the Transcendent Reality. When a Muslim says, “Glory be to God”, he is in fact referring to His Transcendence. When a Muslim says “I bear witness that Mohammad is an Apostle of God”, he is safeguarding the testimony, “There is no god but God”. The Qur’anic view of God determines the Qur’anic view of apostleship.

THE PROPHET/APOSTLE AS A TEACHER

Among you an Apostle of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in New Knowledge (2.151).

By virtue of the Message, an apostle is a Prophet. He not only delivers his Message but also explains it, and assumes the role of a Teacher. He recites His Signs: he fills the minds of his followers with a new content or a new mode of becoming aware of their physical and psychological worlds. The familiar things around them change their significance. The multiplicity is drowned under a tremendous sense of unity. The outer cleanliness (taharat) is like becoming aware of one’s body as a sign – “O mankind God, these hands I wash were not made by me but by You; this face I now put water over is not my doing but Yours; and I prepare thus to stand, bow, and prostrate before You, because it is all Yours – how can I dare refuse to bow my body before You – I watch mighty trees bowed down by the winds – You are not less than the wind, O mankind God”. But the outer cleanliness should be accompanied by inner purity (tazkiya), a self-emptying, a turning away of

thought from all creation unto the Creator, to stand, as it were, between one’s house and one’s grave. To die to the world and to stand in prayer is the height of purity. Before one asks anything through prayer, the very mode of prayer is a gift that excels anything that could be given from out of this world. From worship (ibada) one turns to knowledge (ilm) which is twofold, manifest and hidden – kitab as a symbol for the manifest, and hikma as the indication of the hidden. The key lies in the expression, “new knowledge”. We approach it not through what it is but how it is communicated: (1) from aqwal (spoken words), (2) from amal (actions), and (3) from ahwal (states). It is in respect of the latter two modes, a Prophet is distinguished from ordinary teachers. Hence, he occupies a special place in the world of knowledge. It is almost impossible to reconstruct the Teacher Aspect of a Prophet unless you are his contemporary. Most of us restrict ourselves to his aqwal (uttered teachings) but do not take in to account the two other modes, for it is through them the whole teaching is transmitted. His “states” were under the impact of “revelation”. Hence, a Muslim recites the Qur’an to have at least a fraction of that state (hal), because it is within this state that inspiration takes place, and the new knowledge of the revealed text is disclosed. But the amal (actions) are more difficult. As far as their outward form is concerned, they could be imitated. Muslims follow the sunnah of the Prophet. On the surface it is something quite obvious. But the act is preceded by “intention” (niyya), and this is again the level of purity: the intention to act only in the Way of God and for God only is not as easy as the reproduction of the Prophetic act. Hence, the spoken word is two-fold: the manifest meaning and the hidden meaning; the outward act is governed by an inner act, the intention; and the outward “state” is a result of an inner “knowledge”. When we say that a Prophet is a Teacher, we mean then that he is a Teacher by his inner self which is the seat of the discourse between himself and God.

In mystical terms, it is called sirr (secret). Hence, a Prophet is dearer to his followers that their own selves (6.33). In other words, the Prophet discloses to them the secret of their selves; or in more general terms, a Prophet is Man made Perfect in his awareness of God.

Unless we generalise, we are likely to end up with an exclusive testimony which was the threat foreseen by the Qur’an when it insisted on having a general framework of reference both for revelation and apostleship. Hence, when a Muslim says, “I bear testimony that Mohammad is an Apostle of God”, he is enacting all the testimonies which are to be given for every Apostle of God. The detailed testimony is:

There is no god but God,

and Noah is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Abraham is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Moses is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Jesus is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God.

and Mohammad is an Apostle of God.

The underlying principle is of crucial importance to all of us. It is, in fact, two principles sharing one perspective: (1) whoever bears witness to one Apostle, bears witness to all Apostles (it is of no importance here to know whether one is before or after another Apostle); (2) once the concept of apostleship is accepted as a true mode of communication between God and Man, the claim to the apostleship by one or another is primarily a claim to the validity of the principle, for a true apostle never keeps himself above the principle, namely, of his calling. This leads us to stress in very clear terms that to accept an Apostle from a tradition outside one’s own is largely a matter of what “theology” one has with respect to religion as a whole. It is not the religious question for it never figures as the central principle in the teachings of the Apostles we have been discussing.

CONCLUSION

The question of finality requires to be stated in some other way so as to have a unified understanding of God’s Revelations, and this depends how far we are prepared to work with different points of departure: for instance, (1) as for God there is no such thing as past and future, and all the Apostles are contemporary to Him (and is it tenable to ask whether they also are in some sense “contemporary” to one another?) and hence, to argue from the point of view of revelation in time and raise questions of “finality” is sometimes to run the risk of not fully realising that “time” is in the view of God. (2) When we come across such expressions as, “I am the Way, is it not rewarding to ask what the subject implies here – if it is the ego of the Prophet, he has put it beside God which is religiously impossible, and if not, he has then passed away, and the subject here points to God himself, for in truth He alone can say that He is the Way; (3) “finality” may be viewed more as a sign of authenticity and certainty of truth with respect to one or another claim, and not essentially a judgement of the other; and (4) the question of finality is a risky thing from another point of view; any undue stress on it will lead one to prejudge the freedom of God.

The Qur’anic conception of risala (apostleship) is one of those frameworks within which a fruitful theological discourse between Jews, Christians, and Muslims can take place, and it has the potential to include in its conceptual system other apostles and saints of God outside the Biblical and Qur’anic prophetology.

Recommended: 

Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism

An Endless Search – Syed Hasan Askari interview by Rev Earl Hanna

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari Speech

 Please note spiritualhuman[dot]wordpress[dot]com is not responsible for content on links to sites external to this blog.

Religion and State

By inter-faith pioneer the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari from his contributory essay to the book “Islam in a World of Diverse Faiths” (1991) edited by Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok. The essay is used here by the kind permission of the publisher Palgrave Macmillan.

Professor Askari (1932-2008) figures as one of eight important Muslim thinkers of the last century in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen and the Faith”.

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION: The unity of the religious and political is upheld on the basis of the principle that the religious life is an undivided whole. To say that religion is a private affair is to concede to the fragmented view of man and life. It is one of the inherent perspectives within each religion that it encompasses the entire existence, both mental and social. This may not be so at all times for all believing men and women, but as a principle it is beyond question.

RELIGION AND POLITICAL LIFE

One of the reasons for subscribing to a private view on religion is the attraction to the highly individualised character of contemporary man of the late Hellenistic “mystical” conception of spiritual self-realisation, in terms of which a disciple of Plotinus could seek his private salvation within himself and inside his “school”, while his society remained immersed in superstition and injustice. This has never been the case with the prophetic conception of religion: it implied both the individual and collective transformation. In the Islamic conception of prophethood the mystical and the political are joined and balanced so that the inner transformation from the slave of the world to the servant of God is the same as the outer transformation from “tribe” (based on kinship) to “community” (based on fellowship of faith).

The centre of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths is to witness God, the Real Absolute, amidst a situation which is beset with many a false absolute. To say and hear, Allah Akbar, is to live the takbir of God and denounce in word and deed the takbir of everything else. Unless one is confirmed in the negation of la ilah (there is no god), one is not sincere in giving the testimony of illal’ah (except God). The inter-play of negation and affirmation at the deepest level of contemplation and action goes on perpetually, there is no given, static and “systemic” establishment of this dynamic testimony – it has to be given every hour, every day. To say that the religious and the political constitute a unity is to point out that it is in the domain of the political that one discovers the threat of the false absolutes more than in any other domain. Hence, extraordinary care is required in postulating the unity of the religious and the political.

THE THEOCRATIC STATE

Having said that the religious and the political constitute a unity, does it then essentially follow that the only mode in which this unity is genuinely expressed and instituted is that of a theocratic state?

The question raised a set of highly challenging issues. The analysis I give here is of the “Islamic” state, a popular demand of several contemporary Muslim movements. It is not possible to offer within the span of this brief introduction a satisfactory analysis of even one aspect of the challenges involved here. I shall try to refer to only there most basis issues – the postulate that in a theocratic state sovereignty lies with God; the criterion that an “Islamic” state is one wherein Shari’a is implemented; and the problematics concerning the very concept of state.

Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)

We are told that in a theocratic state sovereignty lies with God. This is, to begin with, a very serious abuse of terminology. “Sovereignty” is a concept which has its proper place in a particular discourse, namely, political science. It is a concept referring to authority as a basis of power within the identifiable limits of a given society. It is a framework of reference within which political authority is legitimised. It can be metaphorically used for other contexts, and as such has no relationship with what it stands for in a discourse on political institutions. It cannot be used in the political sense of the word for God for three reasons: firstly, it limits God and reduces His transcendence to a political frame of reference; secondly, it is a violation of the Scriptural usage wherein, for reasons both earthly and heavenly, historical and eschatological, the proper words are God dominion (mulk) and God’s command (amar) which are spread over all creation and history, over both an Islamic “state” and “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – nothing is outside His dominion and power; and finally and more seriously, God identified with one particular social and historical institution, however close to His will, becomes a deity, and one should say here subhanaka (Glory be to Him) for He is above all such association. The dangers underlying the postulate that in a Islamic state sovereignty belongs to God can be clearly seen through a simple and straightforward example: imagine two states, one Islamic and another Christian, one beside the other, in a state of war, both fighting in the name of God, both having started with a similar conviction that in each state, being theocratic sovereignty lies in the hands of God. Apart from the issue who is in the right, whose theology is more correct, what has really happened is that God of the heavens and the earth, of the known and unknown worlds, of the vast innumerable galaxies in the firmament, and of millions of people who are not all Christian or Muslim has come to be understood vis-à-vis the Islamic and the Christian states as a Christian or a Muslim God, and this to me is the starkest instance of shirk, even of kufr (disbelief). Let me immediately offer the Quranic evidence in support of this assertion: It is verse 4 of chapter 30: “With God is the Command (amar) before and after”. The context of the Verse is that in one of the border raids between the Byzantines and the Persians the later has won, and this news reaches Mecca; the Quraish who identify the Prophet’s teaching as sympathetic to the Byzantine (or Christian cause) taunt him that it is a sign for the defeat of his followers. It is then that the verse cited here is revealed. Instead of taking sides either with one or the other party, the Quran rises above the particular and above both the parties in conflict and reminds its addressees that whether when the Byzantines were vanquished or later when they reversed their defeat, it was God who was in command, whether the victor was one of the other on the stage of history. Such is God whose sammadiyya (transcendence) and subhaniyya (sublimity) do not admit of any “politicization” (which is another type of “association” – shirk).

One of the criteria of an Islamic state is that it is a state which implements Shari’a (sacred law). It is one of those statements which quickly turn in to popular slogans. A slogan sums up in a highly condensed form a vast and complex set of emotions which characterise a particular turning point in the public life of a nation or community. The demand for a Shari’a state founded in the trust that it implements the laws given by God is a genuine and profound critique of the world situation tottering under the contradictions of moral relativism and “situational ethics”. As such its validity is unquestionable but if the Muslim theologians do not go beyond the symbolic value of this demand and persist in using it as a political slogan, they are not honestly discharging their duty as counsels to the community. The Shari’a presupposes that there is a Muslim community, that it believes in the Quranic laws, and that it obeys them because in obeying them it obeys God. Where does state come in? Only at two points; first, to execute the penal laws, and secondly, to provide the framework through education and mass media for the knowledge about Shari’a so that the community having known God’s Laws freely obeys them. Let us note that we have deliberately avoided the phase, implementation of Shari’a. The reason is that Shari’a as God’s Laws cannot be possibly implemented by a state for this will lead to a highly dangerous situation because it rests on an ambiguity with far-reaching consequences. Let us say this much at this stage, that the state, unlike a voluntary association, operates mostly through directly or indirectly inculcating fear. It is difficult to say whether in an Islamic state which is determined to implement God’s Laws, obedience to the imperative of the implementation as such is out of fear of the state, or fear of God. The Islamic state has then inadvertently turned a Muslim into a Munafiq (hypocrite). The key to obedience to Shari’a as God’s Laws is the niyya, the intention on the part of the Muslim who acts according to the Shari’a, and intention, being the internal and central dimension of Shari’a, cannot possibly be controlled by the state. What is at stake is not Shari’a as such but the attitude towards Shari’a. Instead of being identified with God’s will and pleasure, it gets identified with the will of the state.

“Islamic state” is a contradiction in terms. It is something very difficult to notice but as soon as one realises the nature of the tyranny of the abstraction, namely, the state, one sees: as if awakened from a dream, that “islam” which is submission to God alone, cannot possibly be linked up with submission to an abstraction which is the source of all lordships of man over man. The prophetic dynamics in history is a constant combat with what we now know as “state”, the source of the power of the finite over man, the addressee of the Infinite. State connected with government and yet different from government, associated with the concrete and the tangible exercise of power and yet not totally exhausted in it, based on the cultural and the social structure of norms and values and yet transcending them all. Integrated with the structure of economic relations and yet using them to sustain its abstract existence, obtains the status of one of the most difficult of the abstractions, an infinite within the finite, the spiritual in the material, the sacred in the secular. The attributes of good and bad are applicable to governments, not to state, for it is beyond all ethical judgements.

THE UNITY OF THE RELIGIOUS AND THE POLITICAL

The unity of the religious and the political is maintained at all levels. It is, however, a matter of the former being the critique of the later. One should constantly guard against the tendency that the unity in question may easily slip in to a total equation. One may be attracted to state the unity by using such terms of reference as belong to unrelated domains of discourse, thus damaging the Scriptural dimension and ultimately reducing the Transcendental to one of the variables in historical dynamics. To express the unity in terms of a theocratic state, as we have already seen, is a contradiction in terms. Our hope is that the unity of the religious and the political can be expressed in many other ways, valid and non-problematic. Why should we not use expressions like “justice”, “peace” and “service”? Instead of saying all the time “Islamic State”, why should we not say “Islamic Justice” or “Islamic Peace”? We can equally well live the unity of the religious and the political by struggling together for justice (adl), peace (aman), and welfare (falah), and it is in the process of struggle that the dynamic aspect of our shared testimony, there is no god but God, is brought to light.

As I prefer “justice” to the term “state”, to express the unity of the religious and the political, I would like to devote the rest of this study to introduce the Quranic concept of the struggle for justice.

Prophethood, in the Quran, is a critical factor in the history of a group. It is addressed to the corrupted intelligence of man, a corruption that results from forsaking the principle of One God and His Lordship, and constructing, out of psychological and social needs, a false pantheon. All justice is a function of true belief in God, and all injustice is a forgetfulness and corruption of this belief. Polytheism is disunity, irrationality, and imbalance. Monotheism is unity, wisdom and equilibrium. The relationship between them is that of disorder and order. The roll of the individual is important, but the collective order of a polytheistic or monotheistic character is decisive: mark both the positive and the negative plurals in the Quran, muhsinin and zalimin. The disorder exists on the plane of shirk (association of gods with God) leading to kizb (falsehood), kufr (denial), and takabbur (arrogance) which ensue from a social context of ifteraq (division) wherein each division starts believing that it alone is true and right. The total condition is called jahiliyya (ignorance) which responds to truth in terms if inkar (refusal). The form of thought characteristic of this condition is ghafala (unconscious state). In contrast to this, the principle of order exists on the plane of tawhid (unity) leading to sidq (truthfulness), shukr (gratitude), and sabr (patience), which follows from the social context of striving towards oneness wherein all that is true belongs to God and to no particular division of mankind. The love of each group for its heroes, culture and religion is replaced by love for God. Denial is replaced by gratefulness, ignorance by knowledge, hypocrisy by sincerity.

FAITH AND HISTORY

But a realm of order is not permanently secure in history. There is always the danger of order collapsing into disorder, of “islam” being overpowered by “jahiliyya”. It is here that history becomes one of the signs of God, and it is within the historical process that a faith has to be perpetually earned and lived. This can happen only when one has an internal awareness of the sources of zulm and when one overcomes the temptation to identify injustice as caused by extraneous factors only. Awareness of injustice is closely linked up with the awareness of the reality of history, and the historical reality is a reality of conflict whose resolution takes place in the on-going movement of history. The potentialities of order and unity in a social system are linked with how the conflict within that system is perceived and resolved. Islamic society, however, based on Shari’a is only potentially a just society. It only creates the preconditions of justice, namely, equality before law and objectivity of the sources of law. For real justice, a society should look within itself, in the internal order of interests, in the distribution of wealth, power and knowledge. This internal vision is offered in the Qur’an in the following verses; and the occasion is a dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors, on the Day of Judgement, blaming one another for their damnation:

Those who were considered weak will say to those who were proud, “Had it not been for you, we should surely have been believers.”

Those who were proud will say to those who were considered weak, “Was it we that kept you from guidance, after it had come to you, Nay, it was you yourselves who were guilty.”

And those who were considered weak will say to those who were proud, “Nay, but it was your scheming day and night, when you bade us disbelieve in God and set up equals to Him.”

And they will conceal their remorse when they see the punishment; and we shall put chains round their necks of those who disbelieved. They will not be requited but for what they did.

And we never sent a warner to any city but the wealthy ones thereof said, “Surely, we disbelieve in what you have been sent with.”

And they say, “We have more riches and children: and are not to be punished.”

Say, “Verily, my Lord enlarges the provision for whomsoever He pleases, and straitens it for whomsoever He pleases, but most men know not.” (34,31-36)

These Qur’anic verses, and not all cited in the modern discussions by Muslim writers on justice, seem to hold a totally different perception of social reality. The level of abstraction implied in these verses is quite surprising, and hence we should take notice of it. They do not refer to the tribal self-consciousness, and do not take sides in the conflict of the classes. A totality of social order is assumed wherein both the oppressors and the oppressed are equally responsible for injustice and oppression to continue – the oppressors and “the haves” due to their strength, self-adequacy and arrogance and the oppressed and “the have-nots” due to their acceptance of the state of oppression. The rich blame the poor, and the poor blame the rich. Neither do the rich mend their ways, nor do the poor rise up to overthrow the oppressive order. There seems to be an unwritten agreement seen from the points of view of both rich and the poor, as natural, inevitable and given. The active role is, however, assigned to “the haves”. It is they who “scheme night and day” that neither they nor those whom they dominate and oppress are able to see reality in any other way but as a system of inequality. Thus, “remorse” is a state of mind common to both the rich and the poor on the Day of Judgement. Both shall deserve a painful doom. Furthermore, the verses just cited imply that such a relationship between the rich and the poor perpetuates such moral and intellectual orientations as block the vision of truth and justice. The “disbelief” of the rich and the arrogant is the response of the entire social system based on oppression and inequality. Only a new relationship between the different classes of society could break the spell of oppression.

Now, when there is no more “revelation” to come, when the prophethood is all over with Mohammed, and when history holds the overall threat of weakening and decadence, and when the individual piety and enthusiasm shall not alter the structural conditions of inequality and oppression, what now remains to ensure a reorganised relationship between faith, truth and justice? The Qur’anic intention that the relationship between the rich and the poor be basically altered, though implied in the afore-cited verses, is made explicit in the following passage:

And what is the matter with you that you fight not in the cause of God and of the weak – men, women, and children – who say “Lord, take us out of this town, who people are oppressors, and make for us some guardian from Thyself and make for us from Thyself some helper. (4.75)

The first word which is basically important in the cited verse is mustaz’ifeen, the weak, the down-trodden, the helpless and the forsaken. It is not clear from the text how they come to be weak and helpless. Do they represent a more or less clear class of “the have-nots” who, because of their wretchedness, were dependent on the rich, and however capable they might be of seeing reality differently, saw it nonetheless through the medium of poverty?

Does the concept of mustaz’ifeen refer to the individuals (not to a class) who due to their individual actions of recklessness, irresponsibility, and lack of cleverness failed economically and slumped to a low level of social existence? Or does this word point to those Muslims, rich or poor, who just because they said that there was one God and that He was their Lord, became victims of the oppression of the Quraish? Before we give any hypothetical answer, let us refer to another concept in the verse, namely sabiel (way). The verse begins as thus: “What is the matter with you that you fight not in the way of God and the weak?” It is not just for the weak, for a particular group of the oppressed, but in the way of the weak. The concept of “way” or “cause” helps us to identify the intention of the verse that the cause of the oppressed is much more than redressing the difficulties of one or another oppressed group. It is the very phenomenon of being oppressed – the reality of men, women, children, being made victims of oppression. This condition of being oppressed in its generality, objectivity and continuity as a historical form is therefore coupled with the cause of God and the cause of the weak. One cause from within history becomes the counterpart of the cause that is beyond history. The religious and the sociological ends are thus put together. The gap between theology and sociology is removed. To establish the workship of one God and to establish justice become one and the same objective of the Islamic mission. As the word “mustaz’ifeen” coupled with God contains a general and historical character, so the reference in the verse to the “city of wrong” (qur’t al-zalim) though referring to Mecca becomes a symbol of all injustice whether it be of the eighth century or the twentieth century. Likewise, the two other concepts in the verse, wali (guardian) and nasir (helper) are not without significance. The weak pray: “Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and make us some guardian from Thyself, and make us from Thyself some helper”. The latter concept of nusrat (help) refers to the specific context of oppression and to the particular group struggling for liberation praying for assistance from a particular direction. This is the specificity of the process of freedom from oppression. But as the weak ask for some wali (guardian), they are referring thus to the continuity of the awareness of the challenges of oppression and injustice by invoking God to create in history a group which becomes the guardian of justice, and which emanates the consciousness of conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. This group is the wali of the word of God, of the identity between the cause of God and the cause of the oppressed. It is by virtue of this guardianship that the Qur’an continues to remain a living word of God capable of identifying both within and outside the Muslim society the ever-emerging forms of oppression and the ever-rising responses of protest and revolt against them. The particular act of nusrat flows from the general existence of the guardianship of the consciousness of liberation.

Islam thus becomes a dynamic process in history, continually aware of injustice and oppression and a willingness and a struggle to transform an unjust order into a just order, and it is in this way that Islam becomes one with the other global forces for the liberation of mankind. Justice in Islam is to struggle in the way of God and of the oppressed, and the latter is a category that surpasses religious and communal boundaries. No call for justice is valid unless it is addressed to the whole man and to all mankind.

CONCLUSION

The Qur’anic vision of “the people of the book”, as it rests on the unity of the biblical heritage, however differently understood, holds the promise, yet unrealised, of a common struggle to bring justice and peace to mankind. The Qur’anic dialogue, both critical and affirmative of the Jews and the Christians, presupposes a framework of free and equal communication which, in turn, asks for a socio-political structure which sustains it. A theocratic state, apart from the grave contradiction involved in its formulation, as we have already pointed out, assumes a political inequality between “the people of the book”, and hence threatens the Qur’anic perspective on the dialogical relationship between the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. We are therefore compelled to look for other models which do justice to the Qur’anic vision, and they are: justice, peace and service.

Also available on this blog by Hasan Askari:

“The Dialogical Relationship Between Christianity & Islam”

“Spiritual Humanism” speech from 1995

“There are only Four Communities” from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision”

Please note spiritualhuman[dot]wordpress[dot]com is not responsible for content on links to sites external to this blog.

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari’s Speech 1995 Hyderabad India

ISyed Hasan Askarin 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.

It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here

Musa Askari

An Endless Search – Syed Hasan Askari interview by Rev Earl Hanna

Inter-faith pioneer Prof. Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Rev Earl Hanna – 1988 radio show “An Endless Search”. A beautiful encounter through dialogue between spiritual seekers on topics such as : religious diversity, Oneness of God, theological challenges, critique of religious exclusivity, co-presence, mutual mission in dialogue, inner spirituality, the need for the Abrahamic witness.  At the time of the interview Prof. Askari was Louise Iliff Visiting Professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Prof. Askari speaks also about his experiences of being engaged with inter-faith dialogue through his consultations with the World Council of Churches from the 1970s. On dialogue encounter Prof. Askari says, “For me dialogue is an occasion to be born spiritually as persons before each other, before God.”

 

 

Alone to Alone – The Introduction

alonealoneThe following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed  Hasan Askari  entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters.  Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.

Introduction narrated by Musa Askari

“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.

The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.

There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.

At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.

It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.

The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.

Prof. Syed Hasan AskariIt was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989  – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari

For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:  

The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.

 

Spiritual Human Interview with Dr. Rowan Williams

Dr. Rowan WilliamsDr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), is currently Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Williams is a highly respected scholar, theologian, poet, translator, social commentator to name but a few of the reasons why he is held in such great regard.  

Sincere thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS

Musa Askari: I would like to begin with a quote from your book “Faith in the Public Square” (section: Religious Diversity and Social Unity), “To be concerned about truth is at least to recognise that there are things about humanity and the world that cannot be destroyed by oppression and injustice, which no power can dismantle. The cost of giving up talking of truth is high: it means admitting that power has the last word. And ever since Plato’s Republic political thinkers have sought to avoid this conclusion, because it means there is no significance at all in the witness of someone who stands against the powers that prevail at any given time.” (Dr. Rowan Williams)

The following a quote from my late father, Professor Syed Hasan Askari, on “The Platonic Illusion“: “the directors of the October Revolution suffered from what we call the Platonic Illusion from which all ideologies, whether religious or secular have suffered, namely to create a protective state to guard what they hold as true. Plato had thought as he watched his dear Socrates being put to death, by the City of Athens, that by creating a Republic he would protect the free quest for truth, a state governed by the wise and the enlightened, under which no other Socrates would be silenced. Plato failed to notice that by the manner Socrates accepted his death he had showed how he regarded himself and his soul as indestructible, that he did not require any other means than of himself and his awareness in order to protect what he stood for.”

How significant do you sense it is for the individual, the individual witness, to avoid losing one’s individuality? In other words keeping intact an inner differentiation, guarding against collective hypnosis. Also to what extent would you agree it is problematic when those in power seek to institutionalise or “create a protective state to guard what they hold as true”?

Rowan Williams: Keeping an inner freedom is essential. We need to be aware of who it is or what it is that we are truly answerable to, rather than assuming that our final judges are those who happen to have power and influence in our immediate context. It must always be possible to ask, ‘is the majority right?’ And this is why a genuine democracy protects freedom of conviction and expression; it will encourage robust public debate and give a place to religious conviction as part of that. It will of course make decisions, but will also leave room for conscientious dissent.

Musa Askari: I would like to offer you two views on the term “spiritual” and invite your comment.

First from my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 Professor Chomsky is quoted, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t”.

Second from my interview with Professor Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad who commences his comments with, “The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations.”

What does the term “spiritual” mean to you and I would be grateful if you would offer some clarification which Professor Chomsky talks about? And is it unusual in your experience for both humanist and believer to share what appears to be a similar perspective on the term “spiritual”?

Meeting RowanRowan Williams: I rather share Tim Winter’s doubts about the word ‘spiritual’, as it is so often used simply to designate someone’s feeling of a moment’s significance without posing any questions about the nature of reality or the possibilities of change in society. I understand the word very much against the background of a Christian scriptural use which sees ‘spirit’ as that which connects us to God and one another, that which gives us relation with God and the possibility of life together in peace and justice. Hence the Christian scriptural imagery of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – the products of God’s indwelling seen as love, joy, peace, patience and so on. To Professor Chomsky’s remarks, I’d respond by saying that the essence of belief in God as I understand it is not belief in values or imperatives but in the actual (though mysterious) presence of an immeasurable agency whose action is directed towards our life and well-being. Such a belief gives me not only assurance but also a sense of being under judgement for my failures to reflect that utterly generous orientation to the Other in my own life and actions.

Musa Askari: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (Plotinus – The Enneads)

These words from the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus, introduced to me by my late father-teacher, have long been, along with other things, a cherished part of my spiritual life. Yet perhaps within the inner life of a believer there needs to be awareness of a kind of spiritual complacency. Would you agree to simply memorise a set of words, a prayer perhaps, or even a whole scripture, or the universal declaration of human rights appears to be not enough? How would you advise we guard against at times the familiarity of words we utter from becoming a mask over the reality of what the words are but a signpost toward, “a journey not for the feet”?

Rowan Williams: Plotinus’s words are echoed by those of the great Christian thinker Augustine (who knew Plotinus’s work) when he says that God is ‘more intimate to us than we to ourselves’. God is always nearer than we could imagine. Sometimes we need familiar words to use to remind ourselves of this – I think here of the prayerful recitation of the Names of God or the invocation of the Name of Jesus. If we are careful to punctuate our thinking and speaking with silence, words will begin to recover their original depth. We need always to be aware of our words as ‘nets let down to catch the sea.’

Musa Askari: On universal validity of mystical experience Professor Syed Hasan Askari writes, “There are some who question the universal validity of mystical experience as an expression of one universal ultimate reality. But we do not normally question the universal presence of life, beauty and love which inspire diverse forms of art, music, song and poetry. Nor do we normally question the universal presence of intellect which is the common foundation of different and conflicting theories of science and philosophy. But why is it that as soon as we refer to the universal validity of mystical experience people leap upon us from all sides insisting that mystical experience is subjective experience determined by one’s culture, theology, and personal psychological history. In every other case they seem to remain unperturbed by the co-presence of the objective and the subjective, the universal and the particular – as, for example, in regard to the human body, where there is one objective science of human anatomy and physiology upon which the entirety of medical science is based, and yet there are individual variations as to the state of health and nature of sickness. It is obvious then that the tendency to object to mystical experience’s claim of its inherent universal validity is influenced by a bias that if it is conceded, the next step would be to admit that there is a universally objective source of religious revelations. The objection is motivated by unphilosophical reasons. But it does not mean, however, that all mystical experiences are valid, and that there are no influences from the subject’s milieu and psychic constitution towards the experienced mystical state.”

I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts in response to the above quote on “mystical experience”. How has your inner life been influenced by the presence of more than one religious witness in the world? Is it easier to encounter the other socio-religiously, almost inevitable, even involuntary given the instant nature of global communications? However, to encounter our spiritual neighbour perhaps involves invoking another kinship. One laid out for example in the great mystical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, how do we recognise each other as not only culturally-religiously co-present, upholding all the wondrous diversity, but also spiritually mystically deeply significant to one another, transformative?

Rowan Williams: The idea of universal recognition is crucial here: we see in one another something of the same desire, the same journey, the same drawing onwards – and if we truly believe that our humanity is one at the end of the day, then this is hardly surprising. So I don’t find difficulty in learning from the spiritual explorations of those who do not share my exact convictions. Of course my prayer and understanding depend to a degree on where and who I am and what specific beliefs I hold; I’m not in favour of any attempt to construct a universal system above and beyond the particular religious traditions. But I also think that the more securely you are rooted in your own tradition, the more hospitable you will be to the deepest life in other places. You will see the other, in their otherness, as a gift to you for your growth and maturation.

Musa Askari: I would like to turn now to issues with respect to revelatory communication, the scientific age and quest for alternatives. First, some context by way of the following selection of quotes from Professor Syed Hasan Askari (Discourse on Soul, from Towards A Spiritual Humanism, 1991).

“Let us begin with those people who went through a cataclysmic experience which altered their own self-understanding and which they identified as revelation, as an experience transcending their empirical or functional self. For them, and also for those who said “Yes” to that experience and who entered in to discipleship with such people, and for those who were more reflective in their understanding, the central question was: how could the human mind or the human self become a receptacle, or a vehicle or recipient of an experience, of a revelation, of a transcendental communication – unless, between the source of communication and the recipient there is a common link. Unless there is such an ontological parity between one who communicates and one who receives, the communication will not be obtainable…….It is this problem which was at the heart of the controversy between philosophers and theologians. Izutsu, the Japanese philosopher and an expert in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, suggests in his analysis of the Quranic discourse that unless there is an ontological parity between the two partners in communication, communication is impossible…….whether you take St. Augustine or Immanuel Kant, you have the same thrust, the same emphasis about the mystery of the human recipient…….Taking hints and clues from medieval insights based upon the edifice of knowledge we have accumulated, I am striving to formulate an alternate anthropology, a substantial alternative to Darwin, Marx and Freud. We have to ask if the anthropology we have held as sacred in modern times is the whole truth or is it not already a dogma. A dogma perhaps more dangerous than the dogmatics of the ancients and medieval peoples because, at that time at least, the conflict between theology and philosophy and between theology and mysticism was very sharp. In our times, the dogmatics of a scientific understanding of man has swept across the whole world and there appears to be no rival to it. Moreover, whoever tries to rival it is considered as either pseudo-scientific or not to be taken seriously at all. Heretics in the past enjoyed a certain prestige, and they became in posterity the great pioneers of human thought. Does the scientific age of our times allow our heretics to become future founders of thought? I am doubtful.” (Syed Hasan Askari)

I welcome your thoughts in reply to the above quotes. In particular do you support revival of the classical discourse on soul as a means to help explain not only revelatory communication between the Supremely meta-physical (Beyond Being, The One/The Good as Plotinus refers) and the material aspect of a human being but also communication between individuals in our everyday lives? That the principle of “Soul” (non-material, indivisible, invisible companion, one-many all at once) is the ontological parity. And finally what do you see as the great opportunities before us for meaningful, mutually respectful, engagement/dialogue between religion/spirituality and humanism? Can we start to talk about what Hasan Askari advocated, a move towards a Spiritual Humanism?

Rowan Williams:  Hasan Askari is absolutely correct in saying that a proper account of our relation with the Infinite God requires us to see ourselves differently. The Christian teacher Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century CE says that if we understand that we cannot ever come to the end of understanding God, neither can we come to an end of understanding the human person. So we must always approach the human person with absolute reverence – this human individual is a reality we shall never completely contain, control, explain, reduce, and so we have an endless task before us, which is loving and serving them, not explaining them! And for religious believers, there is therefore a close connection between recognizing the infinite mystery of God and reverencing humanity properly. Lose the one and you will sooner or later lose the other. Humanism in the fullest sense requires an acknowledgement of God. A ‘soulless’ humanity, understood simply in terms of mechanical processes, does not have any obvious claim on our kindness, our service, our veneration. We may not be able to say with complete clarity what we mean by the word ‘soul’, but we know that it stands for our capacity to be in relation with God, and thus for all that belongs with our freedom and dignity.

(Many thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for his kind permission on use of above photo)

Spiritual Humanism

Spiritual Human Interview with MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog

Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH

Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”

In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”

On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?

Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning.  Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)  

Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe.  I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family.  The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.

 When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.

Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?

We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context.  But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making.  As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.  

It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.

Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”

Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.

Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.  

Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples”  is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith.  Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas. 

When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about  and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit.  More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol,  tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening. 

Over the years  the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others.  Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.

Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.

However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?

Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral.  People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill. 

For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present. 

The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.

Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”

The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”

Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer. 

On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?

Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question.  The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need.  These are counter intuitive expressions of love. 

When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.