In 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
A Changing Perspective on Life
by Mahjabeen Fathima
My perspective “life” has considerably changed on this trip to the UK. To support my answer I quote these words from the book Alone to Alone by Hasan Askari, author of many books on spirituality, “God is the Friend and a Protector of those who believe. From the depths of darkness He will lead them forth in to Light. But there are those who deny that there is an Unseen Dimension to this sensible world.”
I came here all the way crossing over continents solely of the intention of spending a lovely time with my sister’s family and exploring the beauty of English soil. I am awed at the beauty of this land which the Almighty had crafted. I fully succeeded in my goal. But with it, my perspective of life or rather my viewpoint has shifted from the materialistic world to the spiritual; from the outer to the inner; from awareness to vision. To live with a purpose and not to get drowned in the mundane routine chores but to awake, arise, ponder and reflect – like a diamond which requires a lot of wear and tear to reach its final destination to rest and be decorated on the jewellers showcase.
I would like to thank my brother-in-law Musa Askari for his enlightening talk on self, soul and spirituality. His sharing of the quote from Rumi suffices to support my enhanced perspective on life, “The Lamps are many but the Light is One!”. My personality is now more at peace. The calm and peace were due to Musa’s motivation on meditation. My heart, soul and body were in complete union during the zikr (remembrance) chant of “Allah Hu”.
I will go back to my country, India, with full awareness to concentrate on the Higher Unity of my “self” and my “soul”. We are a soul together and each one of us is a soul within One Self.
The words of Plotinus from the Enneads herald my perspective of life going forward. “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.”
*See also :
The following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed Hasan Askari entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters. Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.
Introduction narrated by Musa Askari
“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.
The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.
There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.
At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.
It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.
The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.
It was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989 – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari
For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:
The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.
Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), is currently Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Williams is a highly respected scholar, theologian, poet, translator, social commentator to name but a few of the reasons why he is held in such great regard.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with a quote from your book “Faith in the Public Square” (section: Religious Diversity and Social Unity), “To be concerned about truth is at least to recognise that there are things about humanity and the world that cannot be destroyed by oppression and injustice, which no power can dismantle. The cost of giving up talking of truth is high: it means admitting that power has the last word. And ever since Plato’s Republic political thinkers have sought to avoid this conclusion, because it means there is no significance at all in the witness of someone who stands against the powers that prevail at any given time.” (Dr. Rowan Williams)
The following a quote from my late father, Professor Syed Hasan Askari, on “The Platonic Illusion“: “the directors of the October Revolution suffered from what we call the Platonic Illusion from which all ideologies, whether religious or secular have suffered, namely to create a protective state to guard what they hold as true. Plato had thought as he watched his dear Socrates being put to death, by the City of Athens, that by creating a Republic he would protect the free quest for truth, a state governed by the wise and the enlightened, under which no other Socrates would be silenced. Plato failed to notice that by the manner Socrates accepted his death he had showed how he regarded himself and his soul as indestructible, that he did not require any other means than of himself and his awareness in order to protect what he stood for.”
How significant do you sense it is for the individual, the individual witness, to avoid losing one’s individuality? In other words keeping intact an inner differentiation, guarding against collective hypnosis. Also to what extent would you agree it is problematic when those in power seek to institutionalise or “create a protective state to guard what they hold as true”?
Rowan Williams: Keeping an inner freedom is essential. We need to be aware of who it is or what it is that we are truly answerable to, rather than assuming that our final judges are those who happen to have power and influence in our immediate context. It must always be possible to ask, ‘is the majority right?’ And this is why a genuine democracy protects freedom of conviction and expression; it will encourage robust public debate and give a place to religious conviction as part of that. It will of course make decisions, but will also leave room for conscientious dissent.
Musa Askari: I would like to offer you two views on the term “spiritual” and invite your comment.
First from my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 Professor Chomsky is quoted, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t”.
Second from my interview with Professor Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad who commences his comments with, “The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations.”
What does the term “spiritual” mean to you and I would be grateful if you would offer some clarification which Professor Chomsky talks about? And is it unusual in your experience for both humanist and believer to share what appears to be a similar perspective on the term “spiritual”?
Rowan Williams: I rather share Tim Winter’s doubts about the word ‘spiritual’, as it is so often used simply to designate someone’s feeling of a moment’s significance without posing any questions about the nature of reality or the possibilities of change in society. I understand the word very much against the background of a Christian scriptural use which sees ‘spirit’ as that which connects us to God and one another, that which gives us relation with God and the possibility of life together in peace and justice. Hence the Christian scriptural imagery of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – the products of God’s indwelling seen as love, joy, peace, patience and so on. To Professor Chomsky’s remarks, I’d respond by saying that the essence of belief in God as I understand it is not belief in values or imperatives but in the actual (though mysterious) presence of an immeasurable agency whose action is directed towards our life and well-being. Such a belief gives me not only assurance but also a sense of being under judgement for my failures to reflect that utterly generous orientation to the Other in my own life and actions.
Musa Askari: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (Plotinus – The Enneads)
These words from the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus, introduced to me by my late father-teacher, have long been, along with other things, a cherished part of my spiritual life. Yet perhaps within the inner life of a believer there needs to be awareness of a kind of spiritual complacency. Would you agree to simply memorise a set of words, a prayer perhaps, or even a whole scripture, or the universal declaration of human rights appears to be not enough? How would you advise we guard against at times the familiarity of words we utter from becoming a mask over the reality of what the words are but a signpost toward, “a journey not for the feet”?
Rowan Williams: Plotinus’s words are echoed by those of the great Christian thinker Augustine (who knew Plotinus’s work) when he says that God is ‘more intimate to us than we to ourselves’. God is always nearer than we could imagine. Sometimes we need familiar words to use to remind ourselves of this – I think here of the prayerful recitation of the Names of God or the invocation of the Name of Jesus. If we are careful to punctuate our thinking and speaking with silence, words will begin to recover their original depth. We need always to be aware of our words as ‘nets let down to catch the sea.’
Musa Askari: On universal validity of mystical experience Professor Syed Hasan Askari writes, “There are some who question the universal validity of mystical experience as an expression of one universal ultimate reality. But we do not normally question the universal presence of life, beauty and love which inspire diverse forms of art, music, song and poetry. Nor do we normally question the universal presence of intellect which is the common foundation of different and conflicting theories of science and philosophy. But why is it that as soon as we refer to the universal validity of mystical experience people leap upon us from all sides insisting that mystical experience is subjective experience determined by one’s culture, theology, and personal psychological history. In every other case they seem to remain unperturbed by the co-presence of the objective and the subjective, the universal and the particular – as, for example, in regard to the human body, where there is one objective science of human anatomy and physiology upon which the entirety of medical science is based, and yet there are individual variations as to the state of health and nature of sickness. It is obvious then that the tendency to object to mystical experience’s claim of its inherent universal validity is influenced by a bias that if it is conceded, the next step would be to admit that there is a universally objective source of religious revelations. The objection is motivated by unphilosophical reasons. But it does not mean, however, that all mystical experiences are valid, and that there are no influences from the subject’s milieu and psychic constitution towards the experienced mystical state.”
I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts in response to the above quote on “mystical experience”. How has your inner life been influenced by the presence of more than one religious witness in the world? Is it easier to encounter the other socio-religiously, almost inevitable, even involuntary given the instant nature of global communications? However, to encounter our spiritual neighbour perhaps involves invoking another kinship. One laid out for example in the great mystical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, how do we recognise each other as not only culturally-religiously co-present, upholding all the wondrous diversity, but also spiritually mystically deeply significant to one another, transformative?
Rowan Williams: The idea of universal recognition is crucial here: we see in one another something of the same desire, the same journey, the same drawing onwards – and if we truly believe that our humanity is one at the end of the day, then this is hardly surprising. So I don’t find difficulty in learning from the spiritual explorations of those who do not share my exact convictions. Of course my prayer and understanding depend to a degree on where and who I am and what specific beliefs I hold; I’m not in favour of any attempt to construct a universal system above and beyond the particular religious traditions. But I also think that the more securely you are rooted in your own tradition, the more hospitable you will be to the deepest life in other places. You will see the other, in their otherness, as a gift to you for your growth and maturation.
Musa Askari: I would like to turn now to issues with respect to revelatory communication, the scientific age and quest for alternatives. First, some context by way of the following selection of quotes from Professor Syed Hasan Askari (Discourse on Soul, from Towards A Spiritual Humanism, 1991).
“Let us begin with those people who went through a cataclysmic experience which altered their own self-understanding and which they identified as revelation, as an experience transcending their empirical or functional self. For them, and also for those who said “Yes” to that experience and who entered in to discipleship with such people, and for those who were more reflective in their understanding, the central question was: how could the human mind or the human self become a receptacle, or a vehicle or recipient of an experience, of a revelation, of a transcendental communication – unless, between the source of communication and the recipient there is a common link. Unless there is such an ontological parity between one who communicates and one who receives, the communication will not be obtainable…….It is this problem which was at the heart of the controversy between philosophers and theologians. Izutsu, the Japanese philosopher and an expert in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, suggests in his analysis of the Quranic discourse that unless there is an ontological parity between the two partners in communication, communication is impossible…….whether you take St. Augustine or Immanuel Kant, you have the same thrust, the same emphasis about the mystery of the human recipient…….Taking hints and clues from medieval insights based upon the edifice of knowledge we have accumulated, I am striving to formulate an alternate anthropology, a substantial alternative to Darwin, Marx and Freud. We have to ask if the anthropology we have held as sacred in modern times is the whole truth or is it not already a dogma. A dogma perhaps more dangerous than the dogmatics of the ancients and medieval peoples because, at that time at least, the conflict between theology and philosophy and between theology and mysticism was very sharp. In our times, the dogmatics of a scientific understanding of man has swept across the whole world and there appears to be no rival to it. Moreover, whoever tries to rival it is considered as either pseudo-scientific or not to be taken seriously at all. Heretics in the past enjoyed a certain prestige, and they became in posterity the great pioneers of human thought. Does the scientific age of our times allow our heretics to become future founders of thought? I am doubtful.” (Syed Hasan Askari)
I welcome your thoughts in reply to the above quotes. In particular do you support revival of the classical discourse on soul as a means to help explain not only revelatory communication between the Supremely meta-physical (Beyond Being, The One/The Good as Plotinus refers) and the material aspect of a human being but also communication between individuals in our everyday lives? That the principle of “Soul” (non-material, indivisible, invisible companion, one-many all at once) is the ontological parity. And finally what do you see as the great opportunities before us for meaningful, mutually respectful, engagement/dialogue between religion/spirituality and humanism? Can we start to talk about what Hasan Askari advocated, a move towards a Spiritual Humanism?
Rowan Williams: Hasan Askari is absolutely correct in saying that a proper account of our relation with the Infinite God requires us to see ourselves differently. The Christian teacher Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century CE says that if we understand that we cannot ever come to the end of understanding God, neither can we come to an end of understanding the human person. So we must always approach the human person with absolute reverence – this human individual is a reality we shall never completely contain, control, explain, reduce, and so we have an endless task before us, which is loving and serving them, not explaining them! And for religious believers, there is therefore a close connection between recognizing the infinite mystery of God and reverencing humanity properly. Lose the one and you will sooner or later lose the other. Humanism in the fullest sense requires an acknowledgement of God. A ‘soulless’ humanity, understood simply in terms of mechanical processes, does not have any obvious claim on our kindness, our service, our veneration. We may not be able to say with complete clarity what we mean by the word ‘soul’, but we know that it stands for our capacity to be in relation with God, and thus for all that belongs with our freedom and dignity.
(Many thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for his kind permission on use of above photo)
Sincere thanks to Dr. Barker for this interview
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with your “spiritual quest” as a seeker of truth and understanding, its origins and movement from a Lutheran Pastor for many years to Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wales. What were the main, inner spiritual, factors influencing the move from being a pastor to entering the world of academia? Whilst it may not have been a conversion to another faith, was it perhaps an inner conversion, a conversion to “self”?
Greg Barker: It began with a death – the drowning of a 16-year-old boy in our church’s youth group. He had gone out diving with full gear, wet suit and oxygen tank, not far from the shore of our seaside town. There were three of them and he indicated that he was ready to return to shore. Instead of going together, he emerged to the surface alone. All we can guess is that he was blind sided by a wave, choked on some water, struggled and drowned. This tragedy hit me more deeply than any event in my life. He was a wonderful person, full of life, dreams, aspirations.
In the days that followed, I committed myself to all of the necessary and proper pastoral duties. Many people in the church had much to say about what happened such as “he is in a better place now…”, “this has happened for a reason…”, “In time we will all see what a blessing this has really been…” I found myself infuriated with these statements. I was deep in grief and angry at what I felt were rationalizations of a terrible event.
In the coming days, I must have heard hundreds of these kinds of sentiments. I looked closely at the faces of those who uttered them and began to suspect that many of these words were not the result of a deeply held conviction tested in the crucible of life, but a nervous grasping for a ledge to hang onto in this precarious world.
It was the first time that I began to realize at a personal level that the things we say – even very spiritual sounding things – can represent not a searching for the truth, but an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, spirituality can be a very selfish affair covered by a thin veneer of pious language. If good people in church could engage in religious language at this level, then how far did this go? Could this invention of self-serving spiritual language extend to the liturgy, the sacred texts of my tradition?
It was not a very comfortable place to be for the pastor of a church.
Musa Askari: In the book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” by Hasan Askari/Jon Avery you write, “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…..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.”
Please talk more on what “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” may have anticipated twenty years ago within context of the above quote? Specifically with reference to theological reformulations. In your experience could you please share if this is taking place more in some faiths than in others and if so why that may be the case?
Greg Barker: Walk into any bookstore and you will see, prominently displayed, the work of the “new atheists”: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling. These brilliant men (and I mean that sincerely) are engaged in sounding a loud “no” to religion and they do so in the most incisive and witty ways possible. When it comes to biblical literalism, fundamentalism and even liberal forms of belief, these writers point out the intellectual depravity of religious formulations and attitudes.
Along with their rational critique of religious belief is the quite unscientific argument that our world will be a peaceful utopia, freed of violence once all forms of religious belief have been eradicated. This strikes me as naïve in the extreme – though we can all say a loud “yes” to their elucidations of the sins of religious intolerance. Not only does their approach raise the question of how we define religion (they define it as “belief”, whereas a sociologist would take a different tack), but, more importantly, it raises the question of who we are as humans and what religion truly represents as a human creation.
Only recently have some atheist writers tried to articulate a “yes” to the creation and value of religion to balance the “no” which is so prominent in current media. Imagine my delight to discover that this “yes” was being discussed more than 20 years ago by Hasan Askari and Jon Avery, two men very well aware of both the depravity and value of religious beliefs.
Musa Askari: 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. Perhaps this engagement or “due encounter” may be possible ironically as a result of the self-questioning/ re-thinking you allude to in both world views. It might also be fostered by a positive working through of “doubt”, as a critical tool, which does not reject outright but more so seeks to explore – we may then even apply the word “quest” to both sacred and secular pursuits of knowledge and understanding.
Would you agree with the connection between “doubt” and “quest” as framed above? Furthermore, do you see today greater possibility of due encounter (co -witness) between a person of faith and an atheist rather than the usual “for-against” arguments which lead us no further forward?
Greg Barker: When we travel, we are immediately given the opportunity to see a new place as a “cute” reflection of some aspects of our own culture that we find interesting – yet are expressed in an exaggerated (and ultimately “deficient “manner) by the culture we are visiting OR we can view what is around us as potentially revealing something we need to know, something that we missed, something that we may ignore only at our own peril. Most middle and upper class western journeys are designed to give us the “cute” factor. This helps us feel secure in the world (a false security) and reinforces our cultural superiority.
However, to travel with the assumption that the other culture is always superior and always will make me a better person is also misguided, revealing perhaps a loathing or hatred for our own cultural achievements and background. We must find a way to love where we have come from as we attempt to love where we are going.
Between these two attitudes is the “doubt” and “questing” that you refer to. And, yes, I very much love your connection between these words, though in reality it is a very difficult place to be. Difficult, but full of life.
You ask if there is a greater possibility of a deeper encounter today between a person of faith and an atheist than the usual “for and against” polemic celebrated in the media. You are asking an important question but I can only say this: (a) to ask about a “greater possibility” raises a question of measurement and I am afraid we have only anecdotal evidence and (b) I would not like to contrast “person of faith” with “atheist” – as that is already a polemical differentiation. If we look at Durkheim or the French existentialists we will see that the need to make decisions in our lives ALWAYS runs ahead of the available scientific evidence, so, in a sense, we all need to live by some kind of faith. There is a stepping out into the unknown that is guided by our heritage, our intuition, our relationships…one cannot avoid the unknown. But we can tell our stories to each other so that we are a little less alone and a little more informed on the journey.
Musa Askari: Your book, which I highly recommend, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”, you bring together “leading thinkers from five religions” to “reflect on his meaning”, one of which is my late father Syed Hasan Askari. He concludes his essay, “The Real Presence of Jesus in Islam” as follows, “Religious and doctrinal formulations are like rivers, each crossing unique lands. Some of those rivers dry up before they reach the sea. But others make it to the ocean and when they merge with the ocean they leave their name and form behind. They have then become one with the One. It is my belief that the Christian and Muslim perspectives on Jesus are two such rivers. They are different from each other, crossing different lands. But now they are nearing the end of their journey. When they finally reach the ocean, what divides them will be lost. If we don’t understand this lesson, then the ocean will walk toward us and there will be deluge. We will then need a Noah’s ark. Not even the highest mountain of exclusivism will save us. So we have a choice. We can refuse to engage in the common life that we share, or we can learn from it and move toward the ocean, merging with it and becoming new spiritual beings. I beg Christians and Muslims to listen, as they have never before, to their complimentary witness about Jesus.”
When a writer “begs” their reader I think it is a moment to take note. For a writer to “beg” they must have known “poverty” of some kind. Perhaps only those who have either known literal poverty or poverty of estrangement, to be forsaken almost and/or spiritual poverty can know deeply what it is to “beg” to listen. It is all these inner related aspects of poverty which to me, if reflected upon deeply, cannot help but prepare the individual, one hopes, to listen to a spiritual counterpart hearing a testimony about the an important “Sign” between them of friendship; Jesus.
To talk about Jesus is no ordinary conversation in my view. It is a tremendous encounter, especially for Christians and Muslims due to their scriptural importance, where I have often felt one must come in a state of inner poverty to that conversation (and all such inter-faith conversations), recognizing that the other has something truly wonderful to offer. In other words only when we arrive in a state of inner poverty at the door of the other are we then perhaps, just perhaps, better placed to be “enriched” and transformed. I would stress in the type of encounter I am referring to we are far beyond any theological objections or social tolerance, we are in a state of “kinship”. We have put down our outer defenses of identity, as like leaving our worldly possessions at the entrance to an inner sacredness. We have “recognised” the other and in doing so we have removed the veil of “otherness”. That is how friends should meet in my view.
In your opinion, has inter-faith dialogue delivered on it’s promise to bring faith communities together not only socially but also spiritually to “listen” to one another as Hasan Askari, a long time partner in Inter Faith dialogue, begs in this case Christians and Muslims to do? Beyond Christianity and Islam looking at the general world religious faith body have we reached the limit of what inter-faith dialogue can do in its present form and should we re-think and re-formulate this also?
Greg Barker: Hasan’s writing above casts a spell over me! Think of those rich images: he sees religious formulations as rivers rather than rocks, moving through history in a winding way; he grasps that there is a movement toward something larger – that there is something shared in humanity that we desperately need to find. I count myself a very fortunate editor to have had Hasan’s contribution in my book! And I agree with him that religious thought is fluid and moving – despite the cries of those who believe that their truth has dropped down from heaven in tact for all time. I have actually never heard the truth of religious change expressed as eloquently as it has by Hasan.
Interfaith dialogue faces an often-unseen danger. The danger we first see is a fundamentalistic-literalistic-cultural intolerance. Yet there is another danger: a liberal theory that fits all of the religious component parts into an inclusive whole. Many theologians and philosophers invent a rich and beautiful philosophy which harmonizes the religions. Some times these theories are so intricately conceived and so inclusive in their reading of history that they seem to present THE WAY to view the meaning of all religion. But, for me, these “uber-theories” crush the dialogue, the doubt and the quest itself. Those who don’t hold to the harmonizing theory feel that it is a cultural and religious bulldozer and so back away from dialogue. Those who do hold to these theories feel so wonderful about the theory itself that they do not feel that they actually need to really engage with religious adherents. Instead, they find only like minded pluralists or perennialists.
My own experience with Hasan was that he did not fit into either of these categories – he took an incredibly personal approach with me in our private discussions and I will never forget these moments for the rest of my life.
Yet, I have questions about the “ocean” that Hasan describes. To what degree is this an “uber-theory” or a testimony to a truth larger than I can see right now? I am sure I am betraying my ignorance of Plotinus…And I wonder how much we can leave behind our identity. Yet, I believe in what you are saying, Musa: there needs to be a sense of poverty and openness if we are ever to experience a moment of fellowship with another human being. Rather than trying to “shed” identity as a butterfly would shed its former life as a caterpillar, I think we need to take our identity in with us to our encounter, put it on the table, feel it threatened, speak from our truth – and see what happens. Perhaps you are saying the same thing? I suppose I see myself as a caterpillar and have no idea if that state is the end of my journey or not.
Musa Askari: From your introduction to “Jesus in the World’s Faiths” you write, “….we cannot know who we truly are without encountering others. When those we encounter are from vastly different backgrounds than our own, the potential for growth and change is enormous.”
I could not agree more with the spirit of your quote and end as I started with a question about your on-going “spiritual quest”. I would be grateful if you could share on a personal level how your spiritual journey has grown and changed in the light of encounter with people from diverse faith traditions?
Greg Barker: It took me decades before I realized that not everyone was a part of the “United Federation of Planets”, that there were other stories reflecting values I did not know about from my diet of childhood TV in the United States. My study into the history of interpretations of Jesus began somewhat naively – I just wanted to know what others thought of a key figure in my tradition. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to hear how great my tradition was from those outside of it? What I didn’t count on was that those I encountered had questions for me:
• Why do you and your tradition see us as inferior?
• Why have your co-religionists persecuted us, treating us so differently than the ways prescribed by your founder?
• Don’t you think that our focus on law (or awareness or asceticism or…) can help you be a better human being?
Sometimes these questions came through books and journal articles. But the most powerful way they came was face to face – in awkward moments where I did not have an answer prepared, where I had to look my questioner in the eyes and choose to speak a platitude, change the subject or confess my confusion and ignorance. When I chose the latter, I would feel that I was falling off a cliff, but that the place I landed was better than I had been before. I’ve fallen off that cliff with you…and it has made all the difference.
The following is the brief introduction to a small book, Seers & Sages (1991), compiled by Hasan Askari and David Bowen. Further below extracts from the book.
Seers & Sages (600 BC to 1850 AC) “We present here under 40-year cycles from the sixth century B.C. to the nineteenth century A.C the names of both the well-known and lesser known sages, mystics and sufis drawn from all over the world, and also mention, wherever necessary, the schools and the orders they or their followers created. By looking at one cycle, one can notice names from East to West and discover how at one and the same time there were people, scattered in different parts of the world, yet all united in their work to bring to mankind a higher level of awareness. For centuries we were locked up in one particular spiritual geography and history. Now is the time to move from all modes of narrow spiritual patriotism and participate in a broader communion with the elevated souls of all humanity.
We may then realise that we must hesitate before making any exclusive claims on our access to truths that are universally attainable. Now we stand at the threshold of a new cycle, not a new symbol or name, but of an inter-relationship, a neighbourhood, a kinship of spirit, a real community; and the individuals who figure under these “cycles” may therefore be considered as transparently one and many at the same time.
“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.
Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.
In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.
His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…” (For more on the work of Antony Thomas please visit his website http://www.antonythomas.co.uk/ )
Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.
Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?
Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question. “How do you know that God exists?” “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films.
What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.
Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.
Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama. In the case of the latter, one is following a script. It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming.
I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan. The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.
After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.
Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9)
Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.
As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?
Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.
Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”
Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?
Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma. What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system. I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.
The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago: “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.”
Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.
Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.
Antony Thomas: Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make. There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us. I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.
Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.
“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html )
“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?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/ )
Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?
Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.