Recommended: “O Light of Lights – a prayer”
19th April 2007, Lickey Hills, Birmingham
It was late in the day. The sky was still bright and clear with its canvas of blue enveloping the earth in a gentle embrace. The sun where unhindered by the trees was warm and loving. The slight chill in the air was bearable. He walked, not knowing what else to do, towards a rise in the ground taking his seat upon a solitary bench shaded by a tree. Children were playing with their parents down below to his left. For a passing moment their innocent laughter was uplifting. He plucked a leaf from a near by tree and held it for a while. He looked to the sky. He looked about his feet and took to hand a bare branch slim and strong. Its bark wet to the touch. He rose and walked again with staff in hand. To sit still made it all the more unbearable. Thoughts of sorrow racing through his mind at the passing of his and his brother’s mother the day before.
Though this happens daily, the sun has seen for eons, and the earth has accepted back since the beginning, the passing of mothers and fathers and the closest of kin, it was, however, knowingly for him, the first time. It was tremendous and shattering. He was in that half way house of darkness between the extinguishing of one candle and the lighting of another. That moment where all that which is familiar is no longer visible. Where in that darkness you reach out your hands and find nothing to hold and ask for guidance.
It was then he remembered the recital taught by his teacher who spoke words from the sacred scripture:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth
The Parable of His Light is as if there were a niche
and within it a Lamp
the Lamp enclosed in Glass
the glass as it were a brilliant Star
Lit from a blessed tree; an olive tree
neither of the east nor of the west
whose oil is well nigh luminous
though fire scarcely touched it.
Light upon Light!
Allah Guides to His Light whom He pleases
And Allah sets forth parables for men, and
Allah is the Knower of all things
He climbed higher away from the openness and drawn to the shelter of the woods to walk among the trees. There a slender path made by the footsteps of others before him was etched out. The give of the ground on the path was different. The earth below foot was soft to walk upon. His feet sank a little each time as the earth gave way a little. The greenery on either side of the path was dense. The trees seemed countless. A bird call rang out here and there and the faint rustle of small creatures could be heard and then stop. He looked piercingly but listened more to hear the sound of the rustling. There in front of him only a few feet away, camouflaged by the foliage, was the small figure of a squirrel with hands joined holding a morsel of food. They looked at each other for a few moments. He smiled and the creature raced away. He whispered, “Go, go, climb higher, go.”
He walked on with thoughts of sorrow returning eventually coming to a stop. He was standing at a bank that slopped away steeply. He looked again at the sky and through the dense leaves the sun was breaking through. The light only broken by the swaying of the leaves. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the sun lapping his face and he could feel the waves of emotions building. Which shore would these waves break upon now?
He thought of her life. He thought of motherhood. He thought of her name. He thought of all the care she showered upon him. He closed his eyes recalling the memory of witnessing her body the night before, lying as if only sleeping. He recalled the coldness of touch as he bowed to kiss her forehead tearfully uttering,
“No more pain now, do not worry. The life to come will be better than the one just lived. Be at peace. Salam alia kum, salam alia kum mere ma”.
Opening his eyes he wailed out in despair in to the silence. He looked about him finding himself amongst countless trees. They looked and felt alive as people with intense concentration. He felt their presence as they stood there tall and magnificent. He raised his hands and asked the trees and all of creation to join with him as he recited the zikr for his mother, for the journey her soul was to make.
“O my Lord. Let my entry be in truth and sincerity, and my exit be in truth and sincerity, and grant me from Thy Presence an authority to support me.
There is no god but God. That is One. There is no other.
To That belongs the Creation To That belongs the Command To That belongs the Praise And That is powerful over all things. God is enough for us: God is the Best of Protectors Best of Guardians Best of Helpers”
He then kneeled on the ground and placed his right hand into the earth. He beckoned the earth to hear him and rise up and hear his words of pleading now for the soul of Liaqat Begum. He spoke aloud to the earth:
“You who are created by the Highest Soul which in turn emanates from the very Mind of God, who by His Grace gives life to all that you cradle, you who are the “mother” of all that is Nature on this earth are about to receive the body of a wife, mother, sister, grandmother, mother in-law and daughter. Who in this life was known as Liaqat Begum bint Aga Mumtaz Hussain. Do not call her back; let her soul continue to the higher ground. Let her soul travel in Light. Let it not look back and long for the care and worry of those left behind. Let her forget all that tormented her and even all that gave her happiness. Let her soul’s memory be only of the “original memory”; that it is of God and unto God it must return. Let her soul not be attached to this realm by the briefest of times in this incarnation. Oh Earth you who recite the recital of your Lord in ways unknown to humanity, send her soul from your realm to the greater realm safely. Let her soul Fare-Well. I need no witness for this plea save God Himself.”
He raised his hands in prayer once more:
“SubhanAllahhai, walhamdulillahai, walaillahaillallaho wa Allah hu Akbar”
The sun was lower on the horizon as he descended from where knelt he yet the light seemed brighter to him than when he had set foot upon those hills earlier that April evening.
As months passed he looked for signs of his plea and prayer having been accepted. He looked for it in the faces of people he encountered in daily life. He looked for it in the passing of clouds and seasons. He looked for signs in dreams that visited him. He looked for it in the faces, voices and words of his family. His wife and children. His brothers and their families. He looked for it in the words of his mother’s brother and sisters.
He took his plea to his father-teacher and recounted to him the time spent upon the hills. He listened to his father enlighten him once again. He rested with this advice and stopped looking. If he was to know at all, he realised, he would not find it. “It” would find him.
30th August 2008, Mother’s room, past mid-night.
He rose from his slumber while his wife and children were deep in sleep about him in the room. He rose to perform the zikr in the room within the house where his childhood and youth had been spent. The room which was a repose and sanctuary for his mother. There and then he felt compelled to perform the zikr of remembrance of The Lord of the Heavens and Earth.
He began slowly, almost inaudible. He recited every syllable with deep concentration trying to connect with how they would have been uttered for the very first time centuries ago by a man known as a Mercy to Mankind. A man who used to withdraw in to the sanctuary of solitude to be found beneath the starry heavens or within a cave.
He continued past the opening of the zikr and in to the phase on entry. Each line passing beyond his lips as if for the first time. He wept and struggling with emotion continued into the phase of recital of remembrance itself and repeated this phase countless times. Time itself was forgotten. He knew not how long he sat there in remembrance. He then stopped and waited. He felt a “presence”. With eyes remaining closed he raised his face.
She stood before him as if standing in another world. She stood as Vision Complete. She was all that Grace, Beauty, Love and Compassion could endow upon the world. If but those that weep could see how She was now? They would weep anew for what She was now. Such tears that replace anguish with Pure Longing of the highest order which cleanses not a little but entire leaving no corner of grief untouched. As tall as the sky itself. As slender and elegant as the beautiful hands of her wedding day. One hand gently overlapping the other.
She was young but with none of the naïve innocence of youth. She was wise beyond any measure of wisdom we could offer. She was commanding with no want of any adoration. She was awe inspiring and yet displaying a welcoming comfort to those enchanted by her.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
An Ideal Form. The Archetype of Motherhood. An archetype that exists by the Grace of its Prior Principle, Divine Intelligence -The Mind of God, The Light of God. Which itself orbiting about the very Source of All, The One -The Supremely Absolute One. The Un-Nameable. The Good. She was in a realm that is intangible, immaterial and placeless. A realm without which this sensible world of matter is nothing. This world a pale reflection of that which is within the Universal Soul entire. The One Soul which gives of itself through Ideal Forms to a world that is entranced by what it receives but does not know why.
Her hair long and black, sweeping though flowing in the breeze never losing its essential form. Words fail to describe not only the Vision to behold but, most importantly, her Presence before him was one of the most real things he had ever experienced. She was more real to him in that moment than when she was embodied. Though his eyes were closed he felt her before him standing tall. He felt as if he could reach out and touch her. A Reality unquestionable and true.
She was one of the perfections of Intellect. A perfection more than ideal symmetry could express. Where only The Light of The Divine has the Power to crown with what is truly noble; Beauty!
First and Last he was awestruck with how beautiful she appeared.
Her Beauty was Mighty.
A beauty which even the ancient writer Homer, on the enchanting Aphrodite, would have bowed towards, just as the magicians of Pharaoh had bowed in the presence of Moses to a Higher Reality.
She appeared untouched and unmoved by anything that we in body suffer from. What we would call as important she would not consider even as a passing thought. However her commanding presence, her gaze was upward. Her profile he would etch upon his mind forever.
She was not self-conscious. She knew there was a Mightier Power above. She bowed to it eternally. A bowing that is neither toward the east nor the west.
Perfect though she was in what she was; she longed yet for a Higher Life. To shed this greatest of lives and “Be” simpler still.
She longed for the very essence of what endowed her with Beauty. She was longing for the One from which Beauty emanates eternally. She still recited “innan lil la hai wa inna alia rajoun” but in a completely superior way to what we do here con-joined with body.
Time and his own identity had stood still for him. Was it minutes or hours he knew not. Time and his very consciousness of presence to himself were absent. As he titled his head up, with his eyes remaining closed, to witness innerly the Vision of her, a mother in this life. Her eyes were clear as crystal waters. Did she even know how magnificent she was? Did she have any idea of her commanding presence?
He felt briefly another presence behind her of his father who by now had also passed to the other side.
Her complexion was fair. She was dressed in a sari which shimmed and glistened strangely. It rippled with streams of silver, white and satin. From being draped over her shoulder to the trails at her feet it shimmered relentlessly. One moment one colour then another. Then all three at once flowing from her left shoulder diagonally down towards her right.
As the pace of the colours slowed she lowered her face toward him. Her face moving from left to right downwards and then her eyes fixing their gaze upon him. Impossible to express what now was the movement within his very soul. She smiled a little and lowered her right hand and placed her palm upon his head. Impossible to express the very state of his soul. With bowed head he sobbed for what seemed an eternity for even being noticed let alone recognised.
He raised his hands and took her hand and kissed it. The coldness of touch from the last time he had seen her was no more than a distant cloud of a memory as he felt the warmth of her hand in his. She had fared well.
Years later, approaching the tenth anniversary of his mother’s passing, he recalled the words his teacher-father (Syed Hasan Askari) had written about the great Sufi Mystic Nizamuddin Auliya and his spiritual connection with his mother who says…
“Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world.”
See also “A Day Like Any Other” about the passing of beloved Liaqat Begum.
Spiritual Human is honoured to present by renowned scholar Bishop Kenneth Cragg his chapter on the work of Muslim inter-faith pioneer Professor Hasan Askari from Bishop Cragg’s 1985 book “The Pen and the Faith – Eight modern Muslim writers and the Qur’an”. Bishop Cragg “writes from a long academic and practical concern for Islam and its Scripture.”
Professor Hasan Askari “was appointed to the Chair of Sociology at Osmania University (Hyderabad, India) at the early age of 25.” Having taught Sociology for some twenty years Professor Askari took his career in to the field of Inter-Religious Dialogue which brought him to teach and lecture in the West making his home in the United Kingdom. A journey he talks about eloquently in his 1995 speech “Spiritual Humanism” on his final visit to Hyderabad.
Professor Jane I Smith (Harvard Divinity School) writes of Hasan Askari, “Those who have known him through the years find it no surprise that the noted interpreter of Islam, Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg, has acknowledged Hasan Askari as one of the eight prominent Muslim thinkers of this century in The Pen and the Faith. A philosopher, a mystic, an historian and a social scientist, Askari pleads with religious persons everywhere to transcend the limitations we have placed on ourselves and to move together to new levels of understanding.”
Bishop Kenneth Cragg writes:
“The true greatness of a religion is only obvious when you do not regard it as a religion,” we will find Kamil Ramzi observing in Najib Mahfuz’s Maraya, after that author’s familiar cryptic manner.1 Whatever his immediate intention in that character sketch, it is a sentiment often encountered among interpreters anxious to reserve what they see as the deep spirituality and intellectual stature of their faiths from the toll of their institutional, dogmatic or popular expression. Such apologists are to be found in all traditions. What they identify as the essence, or reality, or ultimate intention, of their faith may be sharply at odds with its general image in history or even with its seemingly categorical expression according to its structure of received authority, whether scriptural, credal or liturgical. But a personal appeal to conscience, intuition, or spirit, avails to override, or reinterpret, these traditional constraints and the resulting issues can be entrusted, with all sincerity, to patience and the future. Verdicts of this order against “religion” on behalf of “religion”, ventures in disavowal as deepest loyalty, tend – not unnaturally – to belong with efforts after “inter-faith” and mutuality across religions frontiers.
Hasan Askari has for many years exemplified what such initiatives entail and achieve from within Islam. In his Inter-Religion, he remarks: “For a religion to remain a religion it should be inter-religious”2. He has given notable impetus to Islamic exploration of what such readiness might mean vis-à-vis the Christian faith. His reading for the Qur’an suggests lively possibilities of Muslim-Christian kinship and, so doing, central areas of interior questioning for both. Some may find them at once too bold and too sanguine, admirably conceived for the spiritually minded but for that reason scarcely fitted to master the prejudiced in their strongholds of institutional assurance. Such incapacity is no discredit. It belongs with the very nature of the enterprise. But, like “time’s winged chariot” warning the tardy about delay, it must always be in mind if right spiritual incentives are to keep faith with their total task – a task which must be forever aware of how perverse to “religion” the religious constituency can be.
The content of Hasan Askari’s scholarship is shaped by three evident factors.These are the Indian context, the field of sociology, and sustained activity in Muslim-Christian relations in the West. Like numerous other notable institutions of Islamic learning, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Deccan, experienced the trauma of adjustment to Indian statehood after the partition of the subcontinent and the Hinduisation of university life. The acceptance of minority status divested Indian Muslims of their traditional and instinctive reliance on the political arm. The creation of the separate state of Pakistan symbolised the forfeiture, for them, of that shape of Islamic destiny and threw them back, with aggravated finality, on Muslim-Hindu coexistence. The coexistence, the majority community reasonably argued, must mean the end of sectarian dominance of educational institutions hitherto regarded as communal symbols. The violent circumstances of Hyderabad’s absorption into India were a sharp dismissal of the prestigious past. Though the state was predominantly Hindu in population, the Nizam was Muslim and ruled absolutely. Osmania was the state university, founded in 1918, and enjoying an envied reputation. Urdu was its official language of instruction. Islamic theology was required for all Muslims enrolled, and Islamic ethics for all non-Muslims. Islamic Culture, published there, earned, and still retains, a high reputation as a medium of Islamic research. Syed Abdel Latif, President of its Academy of Islamic Studies and translator of the Qur’an and of part of Maulana Azad’s Quranic Commentary, was one of its most distinguished sons. The university’s Bureau of Translations, because of its policy in the use of Urdu, was the means to numerous translations into that language from Western sources. All in all, it could be said that Osmania underwent all the psychic and academic tensions implicit in the transition to “secular” India. Certainly, Islam, in that permanent minority role, had to analyse, and maybe discover, within itself, what due Islamic response might be to the fundamental changes in its status, prospects and resources after 1947.
Teaching there in the sixties, Hasan Askari developed his personal response, inwards and professional, in the field of sociology. It has sometimes happened in the West also that penetrating and perceptive theologies have been generated within this discipline.3 Its practitioners are disencumbered of the cautious traditionalism of the professional dogmatists, with their stock in trade of Tafsir, Kalam, and – it may be – Taqlid. These tend to obscure the deeper issues of obfuscate the mind. Custodians habitually confine their study to secure authority and safe precedent. There is the danger they may never raise the questions which take them behind their lines. Defensively, it is just that danger they instinctively ignore.
The sociologist, by contrast, is made keenly aware of religion as a phenomenon, whose workings he must study and compare, as a factor in the scene, a feature of the human landscape, a function in the social order, properly to be assessed by considerations other than, or perhaps indifferent to, its truth claims. He needs to be alert to a collective psyche, to face criteria which may well relativise, or neutralise, the elements, dear to the dogmatist, which prize finality, uniqueness and authority. He may suspect that these are moderated, if not discounted, by a sociological alignment of the workings of religion, however competitive their doctrines or contrasted their cults. Sociology focuses attention on the motives which underlie beliefs and takes the “interests” that supply the motives to be more vital than alleged reasons or doctrines. It examines how a concern for identity and security dominates a human community and may go far to account for the strength of the religious faith by which the community is defined. It also claims to interpret the role in the community fulfilled by official custodians of faith and ritual, whether imams or shaikhs or clergy. What it finds that role to be may well differ from the suppositions of those who play it as to authority and sincerity. In all these ways, sociology is calculated to suggest radically different angles on religious beliefs and institutions from those of the theologians.
That is not to say that sociological assessments of religion are always to be trusted. Sociology can be liable to abstraction as much as some theology. But it is to say that it can prove a very salutary discipline in alerting and sifting thought about faith, when allied with the will for iklas, or sincerity, which the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon the Muslim.4 For at least it uncovers areas and tests of such sincerity which, sociology apart, might never be acknowledged.
It is, however, his deep involvement in inter-faith endeavour which most fully explains Dr Askari’s thought about religion. Since its inception in 1976 he has been closely engaged in the concepts and work of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, at the Selly Oak Colleges, in Birmingham, England. Prior to its initiation, he had been active in the World Council of Churches’ Unit on Dialogue and Witness, participating in its pioneer consultation at Ajaltoun in 1970.5 His name has become a household word in circles committed to Muslim-Christian understanding in Asia, the Middle-East and Europe and in the United States. He was one of seven eminent Muslim thinkers to contribute to Dr Youakim Mubarac’s Verse et controverse, in which responses were made to the focal points at issue between the two faiths. His sustained commitments in the field of dialogue, against the background of his sociological expertise, have given him a stature of leadership as a uniquely formative thinker from within Islam. His work in the dynamics of symbolism and his familiarity with Western existentialism – especially Soren Kierkegard – ensure that his personal voice from within Shi’ah Islam is alert, patient and compassionate.
Before exploring his main themes and emphases, it is well to reflect further on the way in which the prerequisites of inter-faith relationship tend to generate themselves in the very pursuit of it. It may well be a case of “seek and ye shall find”, and of the paradox “to him that hath shall be given”. Certainly what is needed only comes about in the going. It cannot be had in the abstract. The will to personal relationship between “differing” believers requires a certain “abeyance” of assertion and denial in the credal or ritual realms, since insistence on these items of divisiveness would impede or exclude the willed relationship. That conscious “abeyance” of things dogmatic or particularist may cause a sense of disquiet, or even compromise. This is not shelved or ignored and certainly not resolved. But it is held in creative suspense because the will to relationship has its own authentic impulse and plainly requires such suspension of what denies it. That very suspension – given that it is not disloyal and it warranted by its spiritual intent – may itself refine the loyalty that rises to it, by setting the doctrinal themes of loyalty in a new and possibly liberating light. “What do they know of England who only England know?” is a familiar question. Perhaps we have only partly known either our Islam or our Christianity, if we have only known them in their mutual isolation. There is perspective in the view from the other side. Our exclusivisms, seen from a different angle, are obliged to question themselves, and, if appropriate, justify themselves, by criteria to which – open relationships apart – they could not and would not be susceptible.
This is no easy path. But it can be a liberating road. Muhammad al-Nuwaihy, of Cairo, certainly walked it in respect of Christian understanding of the Cross of Jesus. To him as a Muslim, he insisted it remained inacceptable, indeed repellent. But he recognised generously that it was, for the Christian, the most compelling and magnificent focus of the mystery of transcendent power and grace. He could allow that, for the Christian, “God was in Christ reconciling the world”. For the Christian. There, of course, was his reservation of the Islamic position. But dialogue and, even more, personal friendship had brought him to the point of realising a “Christian’s truth”. Comparable realisations have come to Christians relating, for example, to the sacramental sense of things in the Qur’an, the God-centred habit of praise, the profound relevance of the meaning of Tauhid and Shirk.6
Such realisations may well suggest, or imply, a distinction between truth for and truth of. The New Testament will be truth for Christians, the Qur’an truth for Muslims, irrespective – in the mutual situation – of the truth of either for the other. This is obviously not a final or an ultimately satisfying position. Indeed, the distinction could be a profoundly treacherous one. In any event, it is not one at which to stay. But it may represent an important waymark on the road away from bigotry and towards finality. It has been invoked by Jews concerned to accommodate Christianity in some way within an election that excludes Gentiles.7 It has been affirmed by Christians eager to concede unbroken Jewish exceptionality and to understand their Christianity as being for Gentiles only.8 Buddhists and Christians could work out equally feasible alignments of “approval”. Yet they will all have continuing spiritual and intellectual obligations to what is at issue between the two propositions “for” and “of” in respect of truth.
That, of course, is the unfinished task of dialogue. Some would insist that it is a hopeless one, that mutually complementing and mutually contradicting “truths” are all we have and, given sociological and language predicaments, all we can expect. Those who accept that impasse will be in danger of declining into supine tolerance. Those who mean to surmount it will need the equipment of mind and soul. Which, albeit as a halfway house, it furnishes and yields. If we are ever to get beyond it, we must live within it. For, in present situations of national passion, of hemispheric tension and of spiritual alienation, it is the only hope we have. It is this fact which warrantsa salute of gratitude to Hasan Askari as an outstanding Muslim practitioner of the art of Christian appreciation. Only by such a tribute of mind can a Christian critical appraisal of his thought properly develop and press the points of continuing question which it leaves at issue.
It will do so in the knowledge that these concern the nature of Islam as much as they belong with the self-understanding of Christians. For one of these characteristics of such dialogue – and it is notable in the case of Hasan Askari – is that it tends to idiosyncratic views of the faith out of which it speaks. Indeed, the interpretation of Islam is as much at stake here as the Islamic appraisal of Christianity. Perhaps that is proper and inevitable. But it will be important that pioneers in Islamic initiatives reaching into Christianity should not part company too radically with the Islam broadly understood as normative among Muslims. That the latter is often hard to identify with consensus is no warrant for not registering its pull as a rope whose tether must determine our range. The Qur’an itself may be invoked for this metaphor when it refer to “the rope of God”, to which believers must cling in a solidarity which does not break up into divisions (3.103). Pioneers seeking open relationships across traditional borders may often be found affirming a strongly personal version of the faith. This is doubtless necessary to their openness. But it would be a dubious openness which lost sight of its own character. For it is just the closedness to each other of popular religions and traditional faiths that constitutes the heavy task of the open-hearted.
Hasan Askari’s thought is rooted in the basic concern of Islam “not to allow the Godness of God to suffer in men’s belief about Him”.9 That, of course, is the central point of Tauhid, divine unity, God’s immunity from all false notions, whether these are plural, or superstitious, or representational. Shirk, which must always be anathema, is the name of these wronging, falsifying, derogations of the divine nature and reality. “They did not esteem God as He should be esteemed,” Surahs 6.91, 22.74, and 39.67, say of mushrikin. This deep passion for the true “Godness of God” informs all that Dr Askari writes.
The phrase itself opens up a fascinating vista of thought. For it indicates that “God” may be a doubtful ambivalent, term, needing to be rescued, safeguarded, exempted, from all that would impugn true “Godness”. There, of course, lies all the onus of theology. The mystery, even the struggle, about “the Godness of God” underlies the Book of Job, which has an important part in Askari’s case. What are the worthy thoughts, the proper praises, the authentic cognisances of God within our human competence? The question is in no way academic. For the falsehoods, the unworthy notions, if we have them, will distort not only our thinking but our worship. They will mean that we are idolaters. We shall be guilty in them not merely of improper thoughts but of existential travesty. It goes without saying that this issue is the common menace, and therefore also the unifying ground, of all religion. “Let God be God” is never a denominational, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jewish, a Baha’i, or any particularist summons in which zeal for the authentic is unilateral. The question is the criterion to determine the authentic.
Here, Hasan Askari is one with all Muslims in relying on the final criterion of the Qur’an. Tauhid, reinforced by the anathema on Shirk, means the absoluteness of God. From that absoluteness Islam is forced to exclude all that is earthly. It has to deny any divine character incompatible with the single principle of utter transcendence. What is clearly incompatible, on this reckoning, is anything “earthly”. Askari, with qualifications to which we will come in his Christian relationships, is committed to that immunising dimension of the absolute which, from the first anti-idolatrous preoccupations of Muhammad, has consistently prepossessed the Muslim mind. However, he adds that “in a secondary manner it need not deny that the relative is in God, for it admits the divine attributes”.10
The Christian, of course, would grasp this paradox much more confidently. For paradox it remains. Yet it is a paradox inseparable from creation – in which the Qur’an altogether believes – and from revelation – which the Qur’an believes itself to comprise – and from all theology and worship, which necessarily involve the “absolute” “Godness of God” in the relativity of language denoting and addressing Him.
The clue would seem to lie in tackling that characteristically Islamic instinct for the immunising of the divine from earthly, and from human, involvement. Why this reluctance, given that, necessarily, the very word “God” is a relational term? Like the word “friend” it has significance only in cognisance of relationship. This is not to say that the being of God is exhausted in the human relation: it is to say that, such relationship apart, Tawhid and Shirk, and, in their being at issue, the very “Godness of God”, would not exist. If we are truly saying, as Muslims are, “Let God be God”, then, clearly, in that sense, God has to be “let be”, and humanity is where it happens. And it happens, or otherwise, as the central issue of humanity itself.
If, as we must surely concede, this situation within creation and divine law is by divine design, then it would seem to follow that there is no divine reluctance to involve divine ultimacy within the human relation. God must be understood as that sort of absolute, which is only another way of saying that “God is Love”. Must we not make the paradox central, rather than accommodating it, regretfully and – in effect – inconsistently, as the proposition does which excludes all that is earthly from the divine absolute while not denying that, in a secondary manner, the relative is in God? Will that “secondary manner” in some way reduce the divine quality of the divine “relative”? If so, this was just the reduction which the Christian faith in the divinity of “God in Christ”, in Jesus as the divine Word, was intended to exclude. As the Islamic sense of the “uncreatedness of the Qur’an” is designed to ensure, we need to be certain that, when we have to do with God in those areas which are necessarily “relative” to us, we have not been deprived of what He is in His absoluteness. For, were we to be, how would we have “Him” at all? And what would have happened to Tawhid, which forbids all disparities in God? Would we not have stood Shirk on its head by disallowing, for our theological reasons, that all-inclusive reach and competence of God? Would we not, in fact, be limiting the divine omnipotence as drastically as the idolaters? May it, therefore, be right to conclude that Islamic thought about God has stayed too long under the dominance of the necessary anti-idolatry of Islam’s origins in a milieu of paganism which demanded a rigorous dissociation of God from human notions? Such proper disassociation needs to be distinguished from that divine-human association which is inseparable from transcendence itself, as theism – with creation and revelation – believes it to be. Hasan Askari’s thought may yet help to this end.
We are on easier ground when we come to his focus on the theme of praise. In happy harmony with fellow theists, he sees the world as a sanctuary. It has a “theophanic character”. This is his reading of the steady insistence of the Qur’an on the “signs of God” in nature, which everywhere constrain the intelligence to investigate and the soul to wonder and give thanks.11 But tradition, too, can be invoked. “If”, he writes, “the Prophet . . . said that he loved women, perfumes and prayer”, this “invokes an inter-related order of beauty, love and sanctity”.12
Moreover, such awareness of all worldly experience as a sanctuary, a “dwelling in the house of the Lord”, as Psalm 23 has it, must mean a passionate concern for social righteousness and religious integrity. Whatever its outward forms in ritual, prayer must always have this personal integrity, without which external expressions are hollow. “The principle of all praise to God . . . is also a principle of constant vigilance over, and criticism of, one’s position within one’s tradition and in history.” If the world is a holy place, then worship has to be a kind of perpetual “prophecy” against its distortion and corruption. “By rising to pray, we contradict our age to save it”.13
This at once takes Askari’s thought into the theme of Islam and secularity. Unlike many contemporary Muslim writers, he does not shed the issue of the secular by blandly insisting that Islam, as a religion, covers all of life. He does not opt for the position expressed, for example by Sayyid Husain Nasr, that any concern with secular ideologies or empathy with secular attitudes, must be scouted by genuine believers in “God’s religion”.14 He does not adopt the view that somehow secularity is “the headache of Christianity”, as the religion responsible for, and antecedent to, the Western culture it has overtaken. True theology and right worship must always be concerned for, and involved with, the search for a true and right society. Shirk, for Hasan Askari, must be understood to mean anything that flouts the divine will for man, since the divine order itself is bound up with man’s due dignity and rights. Shirk, then, may be defined as “the unequal distribution of knowledge, wealth and power”. “The call to worship one God is also a call to transform the social order.” It is anti-monotheistic to make legitimate any inequality or to ignore any suffering. Only monotheism, as distinct from monolatry (which may be quite nationalistic) can undergird and achieve social justice. Therefore, to be a monotheist is to be a revolutionary, wherever that status quo is unjust or tyrannical or apathetic.15
In the Indian, any many another, context, this leads to the issue of Muslim minority status. For the response to secularity in moral, social terms has there to be made within the “secular” state (in the legal sense of “secular”) dominated by a different religion. Here, Askari’s thought, responding to the deep dilemmas of Indian Islam, is strongly conceived and, in measure, quite idiosyncratic. He believes that the Muslim community within India, since partition, has hardly begun to face the question of the social implications of its monotheism. Like many minorities elsewhere, its ruling concern has been for sheer survival. What should it mean to Indian Muslims that “God is not one to let your faith go to waste”, as Surah 2.143 might be rendered.16 Muhammad was there comforted in the crisis of the change of Qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca, with all the inner disquiet or perplexity it inspired among his hard-pressed followers. In the comparable disorientation, or reorientation, of secular India, with Pakistani options permanently excluded, which should Indian Muslim confidence in the divine assurance require of their faith in concrete terms? The question, he said, had hardly yet been put.
As we will note later, he holds that the religious manifold is a source of knowledge other than one’s own. Coexistence should mean a recognition of diversity within the human whole and within the variety of symbolic, cultural systems of expression which ought not to be exclusified. But his most radical point is the belief that Islam had never established, or meant to establish, a political order. He writes:
The question of the relation of religion to the state is one to the solution of which Islam has least applied itself. For Muslims in the course of their history this has been at once a source of vigour and of weakness. It has sundered Islam into two major sects, Sunnis and Shi’ah. In my view this has done harm to their spiritual and religious development. Even those Muslims who are animated by the best intentions have, on this question, been victims of illusion. In this domain, all the ambiguities that exist come from the claim that in Islam there is an indisputable unity between what is political and what is religious.
My profound conviction is that the Prophet of Islam did not create a state. Consequently, the controversy between Sunni and Shi’ah over the question of knowing who should succeed the Prophet is without foundation. It follows that the principles of the Caliphate and the Imamate are not Quranic. My belief is that Islam can survive without political power, without statehood.”17 (Hasan Askari from Y Moubarac, Verse et controverse: les musslmans (Paris 1971), translated from French by K Cragg).
He adds that his statement of view is strictly personal and develops it as a plea for what he calls the eschatological dimension in Islam. Its current problems, he says, are neither economic, nor political. They have to do with its vision of history and of the last judgement, its awareness of the perennial human crisis.
Contemporary technology necessitates an eschatological reach of apprehension and herein is a common religious task. “Before repairing again to Medina, it is necessary to dwell long at Mecca.” He goes on: “Islam ought perhaps to disappear as a historical and political institution, as a structure of community. Only then will the true Muslim be able to be manifest.”18
The courage and scope of this conviction are splendid and exciting. But what should they mean when they return us to the inescapable immediacies of politics and economics? Eschatology deals, by definition, with the last things in ultimacy but leaves us with intermediate things in chronology. That “God is not such as to let faith go in vain” must needs to be a present as well as an eschatological confidence, informing a present programme within the actual strains of majority-minority tensions and the given sectarianisms of popular religion.
In his focus on the human crisis per se behind all the exigencies of politics and programmes, Hasan Askari gives notable expression to Islamic prescripts alongside a lively sense of the Christian’s relevance. He sees the issue of man in society not, essentially, as one of remaking, or of “conversion”, but rather of “recollection” and “recall”.
In Islam, there is no such thing, in principle, as conversion, but restoration, a returning and a remembering . . . The greatest challenge upon this earth is not so much to explore a God, as to remember that there is one.19
This is the meaning of that central Quranic term Dhikr and it explains the nature and function of revelation and prophethood. This bringing back to mind and into operation, of the human destiny and calling is not correcting any merely mortal forgetfulness. It is not that man is negligent or oblivious merely within life situations now. It has to do with the “primeval dawn of creation”, with the situation often drawn from the sense of Surah 7.172 and God’s question to the seed of the children of Adam, “Am I not your Lord?” to which they all responded: “Yes, we so acknowledge.” This primal, original professed creaturehood of man within divine obligation is concealed by forgetfulness. The corollary of this is the “apparent hiddenness of God”, as Hasan Askari phrases it. It is to dispel this hiddenness that prophethood is sent, but only in recalling the content of that pledged obedience. In such revelation Muhammad is uniquely instrumental. To speak of him as “the seal of the prophets” means that in Islam human forgetfulness has been fully challenged. Thanks to the Qur’an, man has been made the argument against himself.
It is in this context that Hasan Askari’s discussion of the significance of the Cross in Christianity belongs. Yet the case he makes for that significance would seem, at least in Christian reckoning, to tell against the theme that associates revelation with “recollection”. For it would seem that obduracy in man – to which the Qur’an bears such strong witness – suggests something more radical, more heinous, than forgetfulness. It seems of indicate a deliberate defiance, a chronic capacity to know the right and yet to do the wrong, to be aware enough of God and His claim and yet to reject it. Much idolatry, Meccan and modern, seems of this order. Hasan Askari himself observes that, historically, Muslims have tended to externalise all crisis, shunning the interior significance of the history through which they pass. There is a feeling of self-justification, of always being in the right. Truth is with us.
Even so, he holds that meditation on the Cross should help Muslims in “crisis perception”. He sees it as an existential symbol of how tragic the relationship of man to God can be. That tragedy lies in how wilful and selfish men are in their violation of faith. Whether this view can be associated with Kamil Husain’s theme of Good Friday epitomising “the sin of the world”, is not altogether clear. Certainly, in the Qur’an and Islam, Jesus is “a sign of how deeply man can deceive himself in the name of God”20. On a Qur’anic view that “deception” might well include the faith of Christians about the divinity of Jesus. But credal faith apart, the crucifixion of Jesus supremely embodies the dialogical relation between God and men. It sets rejection over against reminder. It is the point where men choose to flout, in the sharpest terms, the sign of recollection that Jesus represents. Jesus has indeed “become the Word”. As such, he disallows the complacence, if such it be, of the believer in the Word as Qur’an – that is to say the Muslim who, possessing the manual of written direction, does not continue in “perpetual openness before his Lord”.
This understanding of the significance of “the Word made flesh” in Jesus, as Christians understand, belongs with Askari’s exposition in Verse et Controverse of the respective theologies of revelation. He prefaces this by regretting how, normally, Muslims take the Qur’an as requiring an anti-Christian stance. Responsively to a Christian “forthcomingness” about the Qur’an, he wants Muslims to see Quranic criticisms of Christian belief not as a repudiation of something alien but as within a complex of faith having that in common which can contain and reconcile disparity.
Elaborating this viable “unity” across alternative Scriptures, he suggests that in the Qur’an God addresses man. This is a verbal revelation, divine speech. Scripture is there primal and definitive. Ya ayyuha-l-nas, “O ye people”, Qul, “say” – these are the notes of the Qur’an, God commanding, exhorting, recalling, the human community.
Jesus, however, is “the Word made flesh”, the Word as personality. Qur’an and Christ, as the Word, are essentially one. The New Testament, though, in Askari’s view, is “man speaking to God”. The Apostles describe, interpret, memorialise the Word in Jesus, the events of his life, his works and deeds, his words, the manner of his death and the mystery of his Resurrection. All this he calls “the address of man to God”. He continues:
I consider this address to be authentic, honest and true. It is just here that Christians and Muslims fail to appreciate the implications and meaning of their respective claims. When Christians call in question or put in doubt the Qur’an, it is in fact Jesus as the Word of God whom they reject and call in question. To accept Jesus as the Word of God must imply that one accepts all revelation of God, all speech of God addressed to all men of all times. Likewise, when Muslims reject or put in doubt the authenticity of the New Testament, in fact they put in doubt and reject their due response to the God who speaks in the Qur’an . . . The Islam of Muslims and the Scripture of Christians are then one and the same thing. Each is response to the Word of God, symbolising man speaking to God.21
Both parties need to beware of idolatry, on the one hand of the written Qur’an, and on the other of Incarnation.
This formulation serves well to distinguish between the Qur’an as definitive revelation qua Book and the New Testament as derivative from the primary revelatory fact of Jesus as the Christ. But it ignores several important issues belonging with just that dialogical relation between man and God in history which Hasan Askari has made so central to his understanding of man and evil.
The New Testament is, indeed, derivative from the primary fact of Jesus as Himself “the Word”. But does such derivation warrant its description as “man addressing God”? The New Testament community constitutes response to God addressing man no less than does Islam responding to Qur’an. The New Testament is not analogous to the Book of Job, where anguish and faith cry out for light. The New Testament sees and interprets itself as “the community of recognition”, proceeding upon the received Word and translating that receiving into the idiom of daily life within a heathen Roman society.
What it is recognising and translating, in its definitive way, has to do with the events, as Askari sees, of the life, ministry and suffering of Jesus. Its confidence in the fact of revelation belongs with its sense of the significance of history. In this it follows the Biblical, Judaic, instinct to identify in pivotal event authentic experience, and therefore knowledge, of God. Jesus avails them as the divine Word by means of that situational context all the way from Galilee to Gethsemane and what lay beyond Gethsemane. It is “Him there” as Matthew has it, so graphically, in the supreme hour (Matt, 27:36), as always.
The Qur’an, too, is situational. The Book, as Hasan Askari rightly insists, is qua Book the revelation. But that direct scriptural quality (making it unlike the New Testament) does not preclude the context of time and place. On the contrary, there are the asbab al-nuzul, the occasions of revelation. There is a gathering story, a sequence of prophetic encounters, a climax of decisive action, a Hijrah with prophethood into power. Askari might have us stay long in Mecca rather than rejoin Medina. But there is no doubting that Hijrah happened and that Quranic meanings, albeit given into the text by direct meditation of divine speech, are bound up with situations and events apart from which divine address could not find us.
Does not the direct-speech quality of the Qur’an, then, involve it in a human viability, of the same order as the New Testament, though in its actual content so sharply contrasted? The fact of a historicity is common: the shape of the history quite disparate. Must we not reckon with this before we can say that the Word of God, Qur’an and Jesus, is “one”? For Badr and Gethemane have nothing in common. Have not many Muslims in fact appealed to the different context of Quranic situations to commend them as involving more total, more representative experience of life, in power, statehood, war, politics and action, than was comprised in the contrasted history of Jesus, who neither fought nor reigned, but merely ministered and suffered? It would seem there are issues here which need to be faced before equations of revelation are invoked.
Symbolism, of course, aligns with events and scriptural contexts, and, though it may be transcended, as Hasan Askari argues, in a larger unity within which it moves, it nevertheless perpetuates and enshrines the situational history from which it springs. It cannot well, then, be always read as a unifying element simply because it is a common factor. Its power through the imagination will tend to give emotional sanction to what is disparate in its historical associations and may perhaps fortify satisfaction, rather than arouse awareness, in respect of these.
There are, it is suggested, perhaps two ways in which this issue of the history in which revelation is sited may be resolved. One is the general truth that all religions are a sort of metaphor and it is wise to seek beyond the fact sphere in which their overall meaning is housed. The contemporary crisis in the world ought to free us from issues of historical expression because of its urgent quality confronting us all. In the light of current problems it would be idle and false to press abstract disparities located in the far past.
The other consideration is Hasan Askari’s appeal to intention, not to historicity, in identifying religious meaning, whether of Islam or Christianity. He develops this point primarily in relation to a discussion, among Qur’an exegetes, of the Quranic narratives and whether or not they correspond with actual history in so far as research or archaeology may be able to ascertain. This thought of intention qua meaning, not accuracy qua history, is, of course, a familiar point also in Biblical studies. It can be extended to cover not only points of feasible historical verification in detail but the overall character of a prophethood. The circumstantial details of Muhammad’s career are part of a perhaps inescapable Sitz im Lebon. One must go beyond this to the intention – the sole Lordship of God, the reality of judgement, the repudiation of idols, and the claim of social right.
In my opinion, this question [of historical accuracy] is totally inapplicable within a religious perspective. There are two sorts of authenticity, one of fact, the other of intention. The authenticity of all Scriptures falls within the category of intention, which is to arouse the sense of God in the life of persons and of nations. Authenticity of intention is there alike in the literal verses of the Qur’an and the symbolic. Scientific demands which require to base scriptural accounts of events on factuality fail to reckon with the realm of religious intention.22
Whether this distinction between fact and intention can be applied overall, rather than simply in narratives of the Seven Sleepers, or Yunus (Jonah), and the like, is not clear. But the principle is surely extendable and could help to redeem inter-faith controversy from tedium, and home it on to what truly matters. But where revelation is intimately bound up situations – as it cannot fail to be if it is to reveal – central fact cannot well be excluded from the shape of intention. For events fulfil intention and so disclose what is exemplary and definitive within it. Moreover, in Tradition, events – and so to a degree their factuality – come to condition how intention is to be admired, received, confessed and reproduced. Scriptures that are rooted in contextuality cannot well serve without it. Nevertheless, a focus on the intention of religious documents would go far to deepen and sweeten the converse of their peoples.
The final area of Hasan Askari’s thought is his question “What is the religious implication of the multi-religious world?” If God, in the words of Surah 2.143, is not such as to let our faith go in vain, how is its vindication to be related to its “competitors” (if we so see them), its coexistents, its partners, or its dissociators? Perhaps religious diversity is mystically one, though mysticism, he thinks, may evade the challenge of communal relationships between majority and minority faiths in the concrete. He sees a basic unity of revelation, culminating in Islam as Din Allah, “the natural religion” for which God fashioned man (Surah 30.30). But this ultimacy is capable of being consistent with diversity, and even contradiction, if these are held within the emotive cultural dimensions of faith and/or the cognitive systems by which they proceed.
Each has to recognise the vocation to interrelationship, pursuit of which must itself generate the solutions, intellectual and spiritual, which it requires. The sense of universality emerges from experience subsequent to the formulations in origins. Relating means a struggle within the self-consciousness of each. In this connection the concept of bid’ah, or heresy, or innovation, must be watched since it may stifle sensitivity. Nor must we plead too readily a sort of Jahiliyyah, sharply exempting debts and contrasts from our story, past and present.
It may be remarked here, in parenthesis, that the Qur’an and the New Testament differ in respect of this feature about ongoing experience within the very definition of religion. The Qur’an passes definitively into the future of Islam. It was complemented by Tradition of Muhammad and by Qiyas and Ijma. But, while these operated strictly within its prescripts, they were outside its contents. By contrast, the New Testament enshrines, in its Gospels and Epistles, the active assimilation by its communities of the significance of Jesus as “the Word”. Such assimilation participates vitally in the documentation itself and, though much work in Christian faith formulation was transacted beyond it, the creative part happens within it. It follows that whereas urgent theological and moral issues arose for Islam outside the given text of the Qur’an, the basic Christian ones are incorporated in the Scripture itself. This results, of course, from the difference on which Askari comments so perceptively, between “the Word as Book” and “the Word as Personality”.
The parenthesis apart, how are we to envisage the present and future interaction of Muslims and Christians? Hasan Askari believes there is an inherent mutual attraction between the two religions, indeed between all religions. “Distance” and “repulsion” arise from symbols rather than from essentials. Symbols can be regarded as mainly functional and not, therefore, worthy to justify or retain postures of enmity. Even antipathy over symbols may coexist with empathy and amity. We must realise that historical revelations, with their “intention”, are necessarily within cultural particularity. They employ given languages and presuppose given mores. Through sustained and mutual openness these can be transcended so that, while transacting meanings, they do not imprison these and so perpetuate enmity.
Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as a strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society. Yet there are puzzles that persist. For him, “the Christian answer about omnipotence and suffering resolves the paradox of Job, but at the cost of the transcendental aspect of God”. “Did Islam, restoring the transcendental aspect, bring back the contradiction?” For, in Islam, “God is not negated by negation, nor proven by proof, nor delighted by obedience, nor displeased by sins, nor merciful to the believer, nor disgusted with the forgetful . . . nor hostile to the arrogant. He is above all associations.”23 How, then, is He Al-Rahman, how is He Al-Shakur, how is He Al-Quddus? Can we not rather be sure that what is transcendental and what is relational, in God, are indeed one? Then omnipotence is not compromised in love, and love is not foregoing omnipotence. Paradox, either way, there must needs be. The paradox of compassion is to be preferred to the paradox of exemption and aloofness. Or so it would seem, if indeed God is of such sort as to justify our faith (2.143).
By Hasan Askari available on this blog :
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:
“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.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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)
- 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)
- 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,
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:
- 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.
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.
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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:
INTRODUCTION: 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.
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.
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:
“Spiritual Humanism” speech from 1995
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The following essay by, inter-faith pioneer ,the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari is used here by the kind permission of the publisher Orbis Books and Gregory A Barker from the 2005 book, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”. Barker is a published author with Oxford University Press, an Educator, Consultant & Visiting Research Fellow, University of Winchester. Orbis Books have been involved in religious based publishing since 1970.
“Islam is the only religion, outside Christianity, where Jesus is again really present. In other religions Jesus is not a part of their sacred scriptures, but may appear quite substantially in recent eclectic reflections. In Islam Jesus is the “Word of God” and “a spirit from Him” (Q 4:171) and is revered highly as a unique Apostle and sign of God. I disagree when Christians say that Jesus in the Qur’an is not the same Jesus who is in the Gospels. It is the same Jesus – with a different interpretation. After all, you can find different interpretations of Jesus in the canonical and apocryphal Gospels. In Islam he is really present in the life of the people primarily through the Qur’an – that is extended and enriched by theosophical thought, mystical poetry, folklore, and a widespread love in the Muslim world for the names of Jesus and Mary.
Jesus and the Central Tenet of Islam
Before one can appreciate Jesus in the Qur’an one must grasp the central witness of Qur’anic faith: the oneness and transcendence of God. Muslims trace this witness back to Abraham and see it uniting the greatest prophets in the world’s faiths. One way to express this truth is to say, “Do not worship the sun or the moon, but worship God who created them.” The sun in the sky, or the moon, a hero here or a prophet there – these are not gods – they are signs of God. That is the Qur’anic temperament.
This central thrust is not, in itself, a polemical argument because within the Qur’an the critique of Christian Christology is co-present with an affirmation of the miracle of the birth and ascension of Jesus. The Muslim interpretation of Jesus did take on a hard polemical edge with the arrival of Protestant missionaries to India and Iran in the nineteenth century. For nearly thirteen hundred years before this, a serenity and respect marked Islamic appraisals of Jesus: Jesus was a great prophet to be listened to and honoured. Then, when missionaries arrived with their exclusivistic message about the superiority of Christian faith, this serenity eroded into an argument. Many Muslims demanded from Christians the same level of respect for Muhammad that they had for Jesus. When this respect was refused, Muslim arguments about the role and place of Jesus became more pointed than they had ever been before. Perhaps now that Christians themselves critique their own creeds, we can return to a mutually critical and informative dialogue about identity and meaning of Jesus.
Mutual Mission and the Teaching of Jesus
Islam has a mission for Christianity: reminding Christians that God transcends both number and image. And Christians have a mission to Muslims: reminding Muslims that even a strict monotheist could be self-righteous. Both Christianity and Islam will become arrogant if they do not listen to each other’s critical witness. Each mission is a moment when there can be an opportunity for growth. When both moments are joined together, each influencing the other, an engagement occurs! This engagement between Muslims and Christians needs to happen now more than ever before.
In addition to this moment of engagement, the Muslim need not shy away from the area of mutual learning. The Sermon on the Mount, which sums up the teaching of Jesus, should occupy a primary place.
Is Jesus experienced only by Christians? In other words, is Jesus the same Jesus experienced by this or that group? Further, if Jesus is “love,” is love experienced so differently as to contradict one experience and another? Beliefs about experience may be conflicting, but not the experience itself. What is the Jesus experience? Can one refer to it through ones theological and religious self-consciousness? One of the reasons to study the Sermon on the Mount from an Islamic point of view is to examine whether the experience of Jesus and his teaching could be expressed outside the Christian fold. But again, whether Christian or Islamic, the Jesus experience, apart from the theological testimony of Christianity and Islam, can best be had if one brings to bear upon it the spiritual life of both Christians and Muslims, and not merely their beliefs about Jesus.
In our time everything is broken: families, sexes, generations. In our time everything is fragmented: knowledge, imagination and feeling. In our time everything is polarized: men and women, parents and children, teachers and pupils, experts and laymen. In our time, man is broken, fragmented, polarized. The Sermon is a promise of the wholeness of man. The Sermon is therefore a very grave critique of our institutions and organisations that capitalise over our brokenness. The Sermon says: be the whole man again, for wholeness is love, grace, Godfulness.
The Sermon on the Mount has a mystical root and ethical branches. By mystical route I mean that foundation upon which one is transformed or reborn. By the ethical branch I mean the spontaneous act of such a transformed person. It must be kept in mind that the type of actions that Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount are based on an inner transformation already having happened. Without this understanding the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a set of moral injunctions that oppress the disciple. Transformation must precede action.
The hint that the Sermon on the Mount is a witness to the transformed life is found in the Lord’s Prayer. In Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is sometimes called a “postbaptismal prayer”; only a baptized Christian is allowed to pray like this because he has already had the transformative experience of knowing that he is the child of God. This is the moment of deep experience. Now one knows that he is from a source far beyond this world: God. This knowing is perhaps an immediate reminiscence of a vision seen by him a long time ago. He sees it again in a passer-by, in a Jesus, in a child; he has the same vision. He has seen it again. It is all here. He is reborn – for each encounter of such a magnitude is also a rebirth.
Jesus himself experienced this transformation, this encounter with a transcendent God. This spontaneity to call God “Father” springs from the course of one’s being; namely God himself. It must be obvious that the Lord’s Prayer is not saying “Father” in the familial sense. This is reinforced by the full address of the calling; “Father in heaven” and also by the words which follow: “hallowed be thy name.” The immanence of the Lord’s Prayer (God as “Father”) is immediately balanced by transcendence (God is holy). Both the intimacy and the awe concerning God, as found so beautifully placed side by side in the Lord’s Prayer, is also part and parcel found in Islam. The following Qur’anic verse sums up the beauty and love of this dimension: “Call on me, I shall answer your call” (Q 40:60).
A Plea for Unity
In Denver I was teaching one morning and I saw a man in shorts standing, waiting for me. He introduced himself, “I am a Christian preacher from Alaska. Can I walk with you?” Then he said to me, “I just want to thank you. Until I heard you speak I was a very dogmatic Christian, but you have changed me. I am not that any longer. That morning in your session, I felt I was in the presence of Almighty God – God was everywhere; no religion, no culture, no race can possess it.”
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 towards us and there will be a 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 never have before, to their complementary witness about Jesus.”
Recommended: Hasan Askari’s interviews with : Karen Armstrong and Rev Earl Hanna. Hasan Askari’s speech from 1995 on “Spiritual Humanism”. Gregory Barker’s book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” and his “Spiritual Human” interview.
Please note spiritualhuman[dot]wordpress[dot]com is not responsible for content on links to sites external to this blog.
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