Category Archives: Islam

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.

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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

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.

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad

Tim Winter Abdal Hakim MuradTim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad is lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, UK, which trains imams for British mosques. In 2010 he was voted Britain’s most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. His most recent book is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (2012). Abdal Hakim Murad regularly leads Juma prayers at the Cambridge central mosque, and has preached in major mosques in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States. Recordings of his khutbas and lectures are widely available in Islamic bookshops. His articles have appeared in The Independent, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Catholic Herald, Islamica, Zaman, Neue Zrcher Zeitung and Prospect. He is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4s Thought for the Day.

Sincere thanks to Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad for this interview.

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad

Musa Askari : What does the term “spiritual” or “spirituality” invoke within you? Despite various manifestations of spirituality in the world do you sense at the heart of “spirituality” itself some common ground where people of different faiths or none may encounter each other? Do you recognise such a thing as “trans-spiritual”?

Abdal Hakim Murad: 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. If we try to use the term more exactly, we may find that the use of the word to indicate the action of the spirit – either God’s or our own – breaks down when we admit, as most religions do, that everything in existence is in fact the operation of the spirit. Again, the word typically leads us to confusion. It’s probably better to be Platonic, and speak in terms not of ‘spirituality’ but of beauty, which is ‘the splendour of the Truth’ – wherever beauty is discerned, the spirit is engaging in authentic perception, intuiting, whether we admit it or not, that beauty in the world is the sign of the sacred. That includes beautiful conduct, as well as physical or aural beauty. This would bring us closer to the semantic range of the Islamic word ihsan.

On that kind of category we can of course speak of the possibility of forms of mutual recognition between adherents of outwardly very disparate paths. No sacred tradition has ever marginalized beauty. On a rudimentary level we agree that modernity has replaced beauty with a love of newness and originality; and our leaders normally lament this as a disaster. That is a significant, although rather negative, basis for unity and mutual comprehension. More subtly, it is interesting how the recognition of beauty in, say, music or architecture, very often leaps over formal religious boundaries. Buddhists can feel transformed in cathedrals; and American Catholics admit that they are moved when they visit the Taj Mahal; and so on.

Musa Askari: At times I have, innerly – intuitively, been moved to tears by either reading aloud or remembering the beautiful verse in The Quran, “We are of God and unto God we return” (sura 2: ayat 156) At some inner level something is stirred within the soul (a memory perhaps) and those tears are as gifts, the after effects, powerful but secondary. The primary effect is with the soul, our non-material, invisible, indivisible companion, catching a glimpse of the coat tails of this beautiful verse on “returning” and following it. I recall Hasan Askari sharing the metaphor of a child at play upon hearing the voices of it’s parents calling, leaves the play and rushes to greet them. It is perhaps in that swing from the heart to soul we move from the outer meaning to the inner meaning, from the manifest to the hidden. From the particular to the universal, from multiplicity to unity.

I found it moving and a deeply spiritual statement where in your 2010 interview with The Independent you referred to your conversion to Islam as, “the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home”. I would be grateful if you could share more about the feeling of “coming home” and perhaps consider relating it to the verse quoted above on returning to God or any other verse you feel relevant?  

Abdal Hakim Murad: To enter Islam is to repeat the Shahada (the Testimony of Unity and Prophecy); and the Shahada is really nothing less than a testimony to our Source which is also our native land: our point of origin and our place of return (mabda’ wa-ma’ad).  

Rumi says in his Divan: ‘We were with the spheres, among the angels – let us return there, friend, for that is our native city.’ This is another universal kind of statement. In the context of the Holy Qur’an (7:172), it is the Primordial Covenant which was the ‘big bang’ moment at which the points of reflected divine light we call souls came into being and were summoned to testify to their Lord. The Black Stone in the Great Sanctuary is said to contain, in a mysterious way, that covenant; it is ‘God’s right hand on earth’. This is in a homily by Imam Ali: ‘when God took the covenant from all souls, He fed it to this Stone, which testifies to the believer’s faithfulness, and to the betrayal of the rejector.’

The five canonical Prayers are an enactment of this: the shahada during the prayer, said facing the House, affirms the House’s representation of the eternity of God, and also our remembering of the Primordial Covenant. In that sense the Prayer is ‘the pillar of Islam.’ It is our formal act of love and obeisance, and our highest dhikr – recollection of the Beloved. ‘Give us peace, Bilal’, the Holy Prophet would say when he wanted the Call to Prayer to be heard; and he said ‘the coolness of my eye is in prayer.’ The Hajj is a different kind of reenactment, taking the form of a symbolic journey from the periphery to the centre. Like the Prayer, it recalls the Ascension of the Holy Prophet, in which he left his earthly city for the Heavenly Abode.

It is that Abode which is, as the Qur’an reminds us, our ‘refuge’ (ma’wa), and our Abode of Peace (dar al-salam). The Garden is our home; but we can experience an intoxicating breath of its fragrance on earth, if we love and recognize the Gardener, and love and care for His garden and its other guests. The only true disaster for us in this place of wonders and signs is to look around us, and allow the demon within to say: ‘There is no gardener; this is only energy and matter’. From that expression of the ego’s defiance, all sin, without exception, flows. Put differently, it is also the true source of our alienation. In a sense the lover of God is always at home, because he feels around him the traces of his Beloved, on all side, in every moment. Love is to be at home, as well as to long for it.

This is why the true Qur’anic believer follows the counsel of the Holy Prophet: ‘wherever he finds wisdom, the believer has the most right to it.’ He knows that although outward adherence is essential; inward adherence may recognize value and beauty in the most unexpected places and people. Wherever the Beloved is yearned for sincerely; the believer will be respectful, for Beauty and sincerity are always to be honoured. This is the meaning of Sufi ‘tolerance’ – it is not a political or doctrinal category – for God’s Law is always to be revered; it is an acknowledgement, rooted both in scripture and in our social experience, of the reality of inward transformation in people of other traditions.

I believe that your father, rooted in the ancient and nuanced sapiential world of Hyderabadi mysticism, made that the basis of his interreligious work. One starts not with the One, but with the Many – for that is where we find ourselves and in the context of which we build our relationships. Great Muslim cities – and in the days of the Nizams, and for some time thereafter, Hyderabad was certainly one of the greatest – maintained a cosmopolitanism that sat easily with inward sagacity, an urbane and literate courtesy, and also with a passion for the outward resources of Islam. Your father was a product of that world, a representative of a classical Islamic deepness and certainty which is fast disappearing today. The young, although desperately in need of an awareness of the sanctity of religious others, often have no idea it ever existed. In today’s multicultural world, fundamentalism and xenophobia seem to be replacing humility, empathy, and the courage to learn from others. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of our times.

Musa Askari:  In this clip you read aloud an excerpt of the story “Read in the Name of thy Lord” by Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness  to Vision” 

It is the story of a mother’s devotion to The Quran, the inner etiquette with which she approaches the scripture, the silence of the moment and being moved to tears by the beauty of the calligraphy. She was a “conscious soul”. Hasan Askari concludes the story with, “The entire world stood still at this amazing recital without words, without meaning, without knowledge. With that touch a unity was established between her and the Quran. At that moment she had passed into a state of total identity with the word of God. Her inability to read the scripture was her ability to hear once again: Read! Read, in the Name of thy Lord.”

At times our calling upon God is not a shared experience. It is not as communities or as collective identities that at times we turn to the Almighty for guidance but in the company of solitude. As a muslim leaves their shoes outside upon entering the mosque so too one perhaps leaves at the threshold of the inner door – one’s inner sanctuary, collective associations (not abandoning them). It can be an experience or “moment” of utter helplessness, of being completely alone with oneself as slowly the “presence” of silence fills the room like a beautiful “fragrance” and there leaps forth from our heart and soul a “calling” upon God.  

Can you please talk about what forms the “calling upon God” take within Islamic tradition? From the formal prayer (salat) to spontaneous heartfelt utterances? Also in your opinion to what extent does “silence” play a role in the spiritual life of Islam?

Abdal Hakim Murad: I often reflect, as I listen to sermons, that the virtue of silence is not sufficiently cultivated among my contemporary brothers in faith. Or, I might venture to add, among my sisters. Imam al-Ghazali, borrowing from Ibn Abi Dunya’s book of homilies, The Book of Silence (Kitab al-Samt), sums up very finely the Islamic teaching here. As always, a middle course is required. On the one hand, Almighty God, in whose image we are called to remake ourselves, speaks, and has done so often! Who can count the number of His words and scriptures? ‘Were the sea to be ink for the words of my Lord, the sea, and the like thereof, would run dry’. And His prophets, and most of His saints, speak. But their words are wisdom, springing from the Divine self-communication, Speech, Logos – which is from the Essence and is ultimately something so pure it was can be seen as uncreated, partaking in the Divine pre-existence (azaliyya).

A word can heal a soul, or save a marriage, or bring a saint to completion. But a word can also declare war, or break a heart, or send an innocent man to jail. ‘Whoever can guarantee for me what is between his lips, and what is between his legs; I guarantee Paradise for him!’ promises the Blessed Prophet. It sounds easy, but each of us knows how difficult it is. So the teeth, for the Sufis, are a cage, restraining a lethal beast; the Sufi teachers remind us also that God has given us two ears, but only one tongue. We should listen, and listen to ourselves as well. Very often what we say is to vindicate ourselves; only seldom is it to glorify God or to vindicate others. Hence the cage. But it is the ego which is the touchstone. Imam al-Junayd said: ‘If you crave speech, be silent; if you crave silence, speak!’

Your father’s story about the illiterate woman engaging with the Word of God is one I have used often, or at least once a year, in my Cambridge Islam course. It underlines something that non-Muslims forget: the saving, incantatory, brilliant presence of the uncreated Book, which ‘saves’ and ‘heals’ and ‘shows mercy’ even if not a word of it is formally understood. Most believers are shown, at some point of their lives, the miraculous nature of the Book, when it ‘moves in their hands’; these are the ‘bibliotheophanies’ which strengthen faith and increase our love and awe. I have seen non-Muslim students reduced to tears on reading the Qur’an, whose ‘wind bloweth where it listeth.’

Musa Askari: Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism“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. “

When you met with Hasan Askari in the 1990s I expect this may have been one of the topics you discussed. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on religious diversity and how these have developed over time? I am asking I suppose the same question Hasan asked himself, “Why more than one religion?”

Abdal Hakim Murad: The Qur’an celebrates human diversity; indeed, it is unusual among monotheistic scriptures in doing so. Significantly, it does not include the Tower of Babel story. The ‘difference of your languages and colours’ is a sign of God. In this, the text, in its original distant Arabian cradle, is anticipating its gigantic global reach. More than any other premodern sacred culture, Islam embraced a diversity of worlds. Vincent Monteil, the late professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, and a committed Muslim and Sufi, wrote of the ‘five colours of Islam’, in a volume which was a tour de force of scholarship, dealing with the Islam of Africa, the Middle East, the Turkic world, the Perso-Indic world, and the Malay nusantara. In all these places a diversity of humanity has sought the shade of the Holy Prophet’s tree, and all those cultures burst into fruit and flowers when Islam reached them.

Religious diversity, however, is not necessarily part of this; because the Qur’an is also insistent on the absolute importance of truth. The God it describes, with the 99 Beautiful Names, is not just another possible account of an Ineffable Noumenon, it is a true God, and those Names describe Him truly. Hence the law of non-contradiction ensures that different religions, which insist on different accounts of deity, cannot simultaneously be true. To claim that their discourses should be regarded as purely relative, is to denigrate them. Humans have the right to expect that their beliefs will be taken seriously on their own terms, rather than just seen as a set of picturesque metaphors which help our inward transformation. 

Musa Askari: From the book “Towards A Spiritual Humanism : A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue” 1991,(Chapter 2, page 24), Hasan Askari writes, “The basic concern for me is the way in which we can reconcile our modern discoveries and our ancient insights. For instance, I subscribe to the theory of evolution, say tentatively, but that theory pertains to the evolution of our physical form, of our physical entity, of our animal identity vis-a-vis the environment – it has nothing to do with our “being” as rational and self conscious. I mean our cognizing identity…………..as soon as we enter into known history we notice a very vast gap between the material evolution of our society, and our mental, philosophical and spiritual evolution. We notice a chasm between the material progress of communities and the great philosophical strides they made. Furthermore, we notice that every great leap in consciousness in the past four thousand years is both a leap in that moment and also an epitome of the entire history of the mental life of mankind. It is the meeting point of both the part and the whole. In no other manner could I explain the emergence of the Upanishads and the Gita in a civilisation that possessed a primitive technology. Similarly, in no other manner could I explain the emergence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a small mercantile economy. I am at a loss to explain the emergence of very penetrating insights and formulations into questions of metaphysics in backward civilizations. Consider for one moment the emergence of Muhammed on the Arabian peninsula. Whatever one says, either for or against him, he was nevertheless a phenomenon. How could a primitive nomadic Bedouin culture produce a mind like his capable of transforming world history – it is simply bewildering…………..it is the phenomenon of the individual leap in evolution which to me contradicts the entire theory of materialistic evolution.”

Where do you see opportunities for non-ideological co-operation/dialogue between secular humanists and people of faith not only in terms of human rights but also on re-examining issues relating to our origins as human and spiritual beings as the above quote from Hasan Askari attempts to do?  

Abdal Hakim Murad: Well, there are several questions here. One is the frequently overbegged question of whether ‘human rights’ should be understood through the lens of one culture alone. We speak of ‘universal human rights’ when in reality the rights concerned, for instance in the various generally impressive UN declarations, are those which were acceptable to Western or Westernised intellectuals in a particular historical period. John Gray’s Straw Dogs contains an amusing and rather shattering discussion of this.  In fact, the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Lebanese Catholic intellectual who founded the Phalangist militia which massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. And recently we have seen how most Americans have failed to protest against torture, black sites, special rendition, and state surveillance of civilians, as part of the ‘War on Terror’. In practice, the authors of these declarations promptly set them aside when it suits them to do so. 

There may be a disturbing and deep cause for this. It seems to me that one of the weak points of the modern discourse is the disjuncture between ‘humanism’, with its often lofty ideas about the human capacity for altruism and nobility, and the hard Darwinian paradigm of the ‘selfish gene’, which holds that we are the consequence of a billion years of blind selfishness. Hitler was a much more consistent Darwinian than are liberal democrats. This unpleasant truth about the implications of strict materialism has not been honestly faced. 

The question of the emergence of Islam as an abrupt paradigm shift in history has attracted much attention. It is hard to find another historical event which changed so much so swiftly. Thanks to the profound love and fellowship among the Companions, a new human type seemed to be created overnight, and great civilizations quickly followed. This does, I think, challenge mechanical understandings of the human species as being reducible ultimately to the ‘selfish gene’ and natural selection over immense periods of time. We have the right to be a little Hegelian here: there are ‘world-historical individuals’ through whom astonishing things are accomplished. Hence Carlyle’s inclusion of the Holy Prophet as perhaps the most salient chapter of his book Heroes and Hero-worship. As Hans Küng has written: ‘Muhammad is discontinuity in person’. Here, more than in any other historical event, we find a challenge to evolutionary reductionism; I think your father was being very wise here. 

Science is steadily turning into scientism: a rampant total Theory of Everything, which increasingly either patronises or demonises religion. Believers, whatever their tradition, should help scientists to recognize that a true humanism will be alert to ultimately irreducible, personal, aesthetic and ethical dimensions of human consciousness, and will resist, to its dying breath, the reduction of the sons and daughters of Adam to ‘meat machines’.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

Sincere thanks to Professor Gregory A. Barker on the following book review.

“Towards A Spiritual Humanism” is as a result of many hours of dialogue sessions between Hasan Askari and Jon Avery in June 1989. Hasan and Jon met one another at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado where Hasan was the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor. Jon writes in the introduction, “Hasan’s openness, warmth and erudition were engaging, especially in his informal discussions with students after class.” It is with the aspiration for that same sense of openness “SpiritualHuman” is proud to present this book review by Professor Gregory A. Barker.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

A Review of Hasan Askari and Jon Avery’s Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (1991)

Gregory A. Barker. Formerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies The University of Wales, Trinity Saint David

A Dialogue Joke?

Did you hear about the Muslim Mystic who found common ground with an American Atheist? That question sounds like the beginning of a joke. It isn’t. 

A very unusual book, first published in 1991, brings us a series of discussions between the celebrated esoteric Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and the American humanist Jon Avery. 

The book is unusual because these dialogue partners are interested in exploring common ground beyond obvious differences toward metaphysical beliefs.

Perhaps what is most striking about the volume Towards a Spiritual Humanism is that it sounds such a different note from the voices we typically hear in our polarized culture.

In popular media, religion and atheism are viewed as locked in debate: religion represents revelation, dogma, and traditional values; atheism champions truth, science, honesty and innovation.  Each charges the other with immorality, violence and repression of the human spirit, with atheism currently gaining the upper hand for many with its “slam-dunk” arguments against traditional belief.

Yet many are currently questioning this simple opposition.  On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies.  Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement.

Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time

Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.

Don’t worry: this volume does not end up as a set of vague platitudes or a mutual admiration of liberal social principles. The encounter between these men produces heat as well as light. 

Askari describes himself as an esoteric Muslim mystic who utterly rejects the dogmatism that holds contemporary Islamic movements in a “collective hypnosis”, blind to the deeper spiritual unity of the human race.  Yet he will not surrender his conviction that there is a transcendent, non-material dimension to the cosmos, a force that unifies and enlightens every human being.

Jon Avery, an atheist, rejects this notion but sees it as a possible corrective to a rationalism that denies the emotional and aesthetic sides to human personality.  He also shares Askari’s view that literalist-traditional theologians have created dogmatic approaches to theology that oppress rather than liberate the human spirit.

Thus, the central disagreement over the non-material transcendent dimension is accompanied by a central agreement over the “sin” of reducing human beings to theological slavery, rationalist one-sidedness or rabid consumers of western products.   The two men bring this agreement and disagreement to a host of vital subjects: religion, psychology, the problem of evil and contemporary challenges such as the environment and the threat of nuclear war. Let’s look at just a few of the central concerns.

A Materialistic Universe?

Askari begins by clarifying the nature of his own adherence to Islam.  He seeks to locate his own position between a thoroughgoing rationalism on the one hand, and a religious literalism on the other.   He has found his own answer in a mystical or esoteric approach witnessed to by a host of thinkers from Plotinus to Carl Jung.  A significant shift on his journey came when he accepted the notion that symbols from various world religions witness to unity and transcendence, a position he calls “poly-symbolism” rather than “polytheism”. This view, he says, mitigates against making absolute any one religion and relativizes any claim to “revelation” in terms of a strict set of doctrines and rules. It also challenges, for Askari, the reduction of life to that which can be seen with the physical eyes.

As one might guess, a chasm opens up between the two men on this final point.

Avery agues, “…only matter exists (as long as this matter is understood as evolving and dynamic) is more conducive to happiness than the language of a soul that is separate from the body.” (30) Avery, rooted in his humanist tradition, wants to see humans freed from superstition and religious fanaticism so that they can live in harmony with their physical environment – something, he says, that religious traditions have not always championed. 

Askari is concerned that Avery’s view of religion is little more than a superficial ideology, a projection of materialist scholars about the content and direction of religion rather than a serious attempt to reconcile ancient and abiding insights with modern discoveries.  

It is clear, says Askari that our intellectual lives operate on a different level from the material systems governing our physical lives.

Avery insists, however, that there is no need to introduce a dichotomy between the soul and the body – they are the same reality.  The two then move into a complex argument about motion, with Avery arguing that material movement is self-caused and Askari that all motion is, ultimately, caused by non-material forces.  Through this discussion, Avery is concerned that a religious determinism will remove humans from being properly concerned about the material world. Yet Askari argues convincingly that the idea of “self caused motion” is itself a metaphorical interpretation of reality rather than a scientific statement – to which Avery agrees.

Is There A Soul?

Both men use the word “soul” but, predictably, with different meanings. For Jon Avery the soul is a “metaphor for the source of human values” (46); this leads him to define God as the earth and “the soul is the earth in us.” (47). For Askari these definitions are inadequate as they leave humans subject to collective social hypnoses that are destructive to human life; there must be a source beyond ourselves he insists.  

The two men are able to agree on the importance of human responsibility, the danger of the doctrine of “original sin” and the idea that human identity is not exhausted by individual consciousness.

Both men are fascinated by Carl Jung and see much promise in the idea that there is a shared humanity, the collective unconscious that unites humans at a deeper level than ideology.  Yet, Avery contends that there is a rationalistic explanation for Jung’s archetypes: they are a product of a specific functioning of the human mind, rather than stemming from a mystical source. In other words, the fact that similar categories of thought emerge between otherwise disparate cultures is not necessarily an argument for transcendence but may simply be how the human body works.  Still, Avery appreciates the wider view of consciousness provided by a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

At this point Askari passionately declares: 

“We need such a unifying principle (i.e. the soul), which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality.   Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give to it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today.  What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race, or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psychic and the physical realms.” (65)

Avery admits that a rationalistic suppression of the emotional and aesthetic dimensions has limited human life and contributed to an exploitation of the earth’s resources.  He accepts that there needs to be a human “integration” that accompanies positive progress.

A Spiritual Government?  

The dialogue takes a fascinating turn when Askari reflects on attempts to fuse or separate spirituality in politics. Bearing witness to Islamist movements, Askari makes the point that the state inevitably is divinized when it is viewed as a necessary arm of religion.  In other words, the state is equated with spirituality and becomes nothing less than an idol that oppresses humanity.

But Askari does not stop here. He believes that America has produced an equally devastating problem through the separation of church and state.  By privatizing spirituality, the state becomes free to create powerful ideologies that are immune to spiritual criticism. Here, too, the state is divinized.

At first, Avery objects to this criticism of the United States and champions the justice that has come from the separation of church and state. However, after some further interchange, he admits that the state needs a corrective from a non-ideological point of view.

Askari accuses America as having fostered nothing less than “schizophrenia” between private spirituality and public ideology which leads to an imbalanced soul.  His solution is that there should be a unity between our private and public lives  — which, for Avery, is best captured by the term “dialectic”.  However, for Avery there are forces other than the state that lead to dehumanization; for example, the uncritical use of technology.

A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?

Shining through these pages is the fact that both of these men are “Humanists”: each hold human life to be precious, and are convicted about the need to resist the threat to human welfare that comes from war, inhumane actions and the irresponsible use of the environment.  However, these men are at odds with their definition of the term “evil”.

This critical difference means that they take a different attitude to human suffering.

For Avery, evil is anything that prevents life from flourishing. He identifies with the “meliorism” of William James: our task it so reduce human suffering as much as possible.   However, Askari locates the source of suffering in human ignorance of the underlying unity of life, an ignorance fought against by leading spiritual figures through the ages.

Thus, the book ends with the same tensions introduced at the beginning.  Askari is, ultimately, informed by a religious or spiritual vision of life and Avery tends to think that this vision has done more harm than good for human beings.

Askari’s point of view leads him to the striking attitude of questioning that all suffering should be eradicated. Suffering is, he says, a part of the structure of human life.  The main enemy is not physical death but absolutizing our own narrow images and ideas about life and holding these as a sword over the heads of others.   His vision of “poly-symbolic” pan-spirituality rooted in notions of the divine realm testified to by Plotinus is recommended as an antidote to religious sectarianism and the collapse of the human soul into superficial trends.  Scientific reason is not alone going to be able to combat the forces that pull humans into blindness and ignorance, he insists.

But Avery will not so quickly be lured away from his conviction about alleviating all human suffering.  Furthermore he sees dangers in superficial spiritual solutions promoted by New Age approaches. Yet, he acknowledges that the answer to the question, “What is the basis for human rights?” must draw upon a different type of reasoning than that normally provided in the rationalist-humanist tradition and he thanks Askari for helping him to seeing that some thinkers from religious traditions have answers to this question that can complement a humanist perspective.

The Meeting Ground

Despite all of these differences, Avery refers to having broken new ground as a result of this dialogue:

“If human rights are an expression of these higher reaches of humanity beyond the physical and dogmatic level in the creative and trans-human levels, then I would agree with you that human rights have a spiritual foundation.” (121).

The use of the term “spiritual” by an atheist is but one of the many features of this dialogue which puts it decades ahead of its time. 

Anyone who is not satisfied with polarized portrayals of atheists or religionists will find this book to be a rare gem.

-Gregory A Barker

More on the work of Professor Barker: http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

* See also “Human Nature” above for extract from Towards A Spritual Humanism

*See also “Spiritual Humanism” above for speech transcript by Hasan Askari

*See also “InterReligious Dialogue” above an article by Hasan Askari

The Dialogical Relationship between Christianity and Islam

By Professor Hasan Askari (published 1972 Journal of Ecumenical Stidies)

“It is sometimes easier to reflect with the aid of poetic metaphors, particularly when one has to tread the difficult space between two massive traditions. Where the conceptual finds the door solidly barred against all entry, the symbolic carves its way in. Where the theologian is confident within his boundaries, the poet takes the risk and leaps beyond. Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet, once said: 

“O for a friend to know the sign, And mingle all his soul with mine.”

“With the help of these two line, let us reflect on the “friend,” the “sign,” and the mingling of “all his soul with mine.” Is there any common sign between Christians and Muslims? Would they become friends? And would their souls mingle?”

“There are certain difficulties in the way. Dialogue is sometimes misunderstood by Muslims as a masked attempt at syncretism. The suspicion is not always without basis. The Muslim immediately becomes self-conscious of the differences that lie between Christianity and Islam. He often fails to notice the deep and vast changes the Christian faith, in its interpretation and expression, has been undergoing in almost every century. The notion of an evolving and expanding faith is somehow alien to the Muslim mind. It is however strange that evolution is often considered as betrayal and perversion of the original dogma. Herein lies, I suppose, that most serious disparity between the Christian and Muslim attitudes to questions of faith. Secondly, the political experience of Christianity, recently in the form of imperialism, hampers on both sides the openness and trust necessary for an informal encounter. Thirdly, the cultural experience of Christianity, particularly in the shape of science and technology, is usually looked upon as a threat to Islamic civilization. The Christian-Western influence is held responsible for secularization of culture and institutions. The intermingling of academic and religious traditions by Muslims is another aggravating factor. One often comes across an intriguing mixture of fantasy with fact, inquiry with apology. It appears that, more than the primary and fundamental differences in the dogmatic frame, the differences in historical experience and cultural development are responsible for incommunication and mistrust among Christians and Muslims.” 

“But equally grave are certain features in the Christian situation. Many a complex issue owe their origin to the scientific traditions as well. The speech of religion is being determined after the model of the speech of science. The process of secularization has already taken command paving the way for the priority of “word of man’ over “Word of God.” Above all, the entire theory of communication on which most of the theologians and philosophers rely is a historicist theory through and through. We are told that the first revolution in communication was brought about by scientific invention and mechanical engineering, and the heroes of this revolution were Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. At the heels of this revolution came another, the consequence of the theory of cybernetics headed by Norbert Wiener and Dichter. It was the discovery of the unity of communication and control. All communication to the giant computers seems to take place in an imperative mood. Wiener is afraid that this process might be reversed with immense consequences for the human civilization: The process of from man to machine might soon become from machine to man. A corrective against the cybernetic threat becomes imperative. The foundations of a third revolution have to be explored.”

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