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“Hasan Askari of Osmania” by Kenneth Cragg

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.”

The following chapter is used here by the kind permission of publisher Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group provided to Musa Askari for use on this blog.

Bishop Kenneth Cragg writes:

I

img027“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.

Syed Hasan AskariHasan 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.

II

Hasan Askari/Robert Runcie
Hasan Askari/Robert Runcie

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.

III

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.

img030If, 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

IV

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).

pictures-of-swami-053He 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.

V

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”.

VI

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.

VII

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.

VIII

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.

Hasan AskariFew 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 :

The Real Presence of Jesus in Islam , Religion and State , The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

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The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

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

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

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNIVERSAL CONCEPTION OF RISALA

The key verse in the Qur’an is 16.36:

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

And also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE QUR’ANIC CONCEPTIONS OF APOSTLES BEFORE MOHAMMAD

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

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

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

MOHAMMAD AS THE APOSTLE OF GOD

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

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

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

By the Qur’an

Full of wisdom –

Thou art indeed one of the Apostles,

on a straight way.

It is a revelation sent down by Him,

The Exalted in Might,

Most Merciful,

In order that thou mayest

Admonish a people,

Whose fathers had received no admonition,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MUSLIM CREED ABOUT APOSTLESHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APOSTLESHIP (RISALA) AND PROPHETHOOD (NUBUWWA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUR’ANIC TERMINOLOGY

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

THE PROPHET/APOSTLE AS A TEACHER

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

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

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

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

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

There is no god but God,

and Noah is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Abraham is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Moses is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Jesus is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God.

and Mohammad is an Apostle of God.

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

Recommended: 

Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism

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

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari Speech

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Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism 1984

Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008), inter faith pioneer, responds to Karen Armstrong’s engaging interview (audio) from 1984 on the Sufi Mystical Experience,  Whirling Dervish dance inspired by the Sufi mystic Rumi, Zikr (Remembrance of God). The need for Religious diversity and much more.

The dialogue begins with the question, “What is the aim of a Sufi Mystic?”

Syed Hasan Askari one of the eight important Muslim thinkers Whirlin Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen & the Faith” writes, “Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as 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.”

Selected quotes of Syed Hasan Askari from the above interview:

Zikr :“Remembering God in His attributes, in His Mercy and Power and Love.”

“We remember that God is the Greatest and thereby we deny everything else as great. And then we say that He is One, there is no other. And then we say the Praise and then we say He is Sublime, He is above all we say about Him.”  

“The ultimate goal of Zikr is to transcend Zikr itself.” 

“Doctrine is a conscious individual statement of one’s own form of belief about the ultimate.”  

“Dogma is an embodiment of a particular theological crisis and how it was resolved at a given time in the history of religious thought. There are creeds in Christianity and creeds in Islam which represent those crises in theological thought. But religious life is far ahead of dogmatic statement. For instance when I [Hasan Askari] stand in prayer I don’t say that here stands a “Muslim” with a particular belief statement on his lips…in ritual prayer we don’t enact the dogmatic what to speak of the mystical where the dogma is left behind.” 

“In very high levels of religious life a word becomes an eye and thereby we obtain a new sense, a new vision. But not with the physical eye, not with the eye of the body…..the rational mind is only analytical. It doesn’t give us a totality. One needs an intuition, a sense of partaking in the wholeness of being. Then perhaps we arrive at the level of true words which are also true visions.”

“Dogma is more a matter of institutional identity, continuity and solidarity in any religious life whatsoever. Whereas the mystic is concerned with the religious person, the individual. If man becomes alone before God then he becomes a truly religious person.”

“On one hand I feel, I know and I notice the unity of religious experience transcending image and symbol and dogma and institution and culture and language. And on the other I notice a variety, a diversity, a differential dynamics both between religions and one particular religion. And therefore I have to affirm the mystical value of diversity.”

“I would say that if we who say that we believe in God who is Sublime and Infinite and Transcendental and Almighty…how could that God be equated with one form of one religious belief?”

“Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”

“There is a world religion, namely, the Mystical.”

“I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago [1960s] in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque. A man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say that a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”

 (apologies for the sound quality however it is hoped you will still find the conversation deeply interesting)

The Dialogical Relationship between Christianity and Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading at http://www.sierraf.org/articles/Askarieh.pdf