Tag Archives: Faith

The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

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

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

Professor Askari writes:


“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 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 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 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Religion and State

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

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

Professor Askari writes:

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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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


The unity of the religious and the political 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.


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:

“The Dialogical Relationship Between Christianity & Islam”

“Spiritual Humanism” speech from 1995

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

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

Spiritual Human Interview with Linda Woodhead

Prof Linda WoodheadProfessor Linda Woodhead MBE  DD teaches sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her work delves in to the relationship between religion and society. Co-founded the Westminster Faith Debates which fosters debate and discussion aided by the latest research.

Sincere thanks to Linda Woodhead for agreeing to this interview.


Musa Askari: “It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whom I first met in 1965 and then again in 1968 at a seminar in Bangalore, who gave me the insight and direction I was seeking. When I attended that seminar….I had no idea that it would open a new path for me and bring me into the very heart of the interfaith dialogue across continents. Smith’s distinction between faith and belief provided me with a foundation to relate positively to “the other”. While belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s life, to all those whom one encounters, faith being a vast world in which all can participate. Faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without fear. I now had the spiritual basis to respect and listen to others.” (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari – Solomon’s Ring)

In your opinion what do people mean by the words “faith” and “belief”? From surveys commissioned of public opinion is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” recognised and how is this distinction expressed within the field of sociology of religion?

Linda Woodhead: I think the general perception would be that ‘faith’ means something personal, existential and ‘inner’, whilst ‘belief’ has more to do with external religious formulations. To that extent, there is an overlap between the faith/belief distinction and the spirituality/religion one. Moreover, where ‘beliefs’ seem to define particular religions and distinguish them from one another ‘faith’ is a more inclusive term (despite Christian associations). I was speaking to a university chaplain the other day who told me that when they renamed the ‘Chaplaincy’ ‘Centre for Faith and Spirituality’ the number of people coming through the doors almost tripled!

Another way of looking at it is that there are two dimensions of religious identity – the collective identity which I inhabit, and the inner dimension of that identity which, to some extent, is private to me alone. People may be able to pigeonhole me in terms of the collective identity, but my personal identity is part of my inner life, and – a religious person might say – ‘known to God alone’.

Musa Askari: Professor Askari in his 2004 article, From InterReligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism discusses the threefold need to revive the classical discourse on soul: theological, philosophical and psychological.

As well as understanding the number and various sub-set distribution of those who identify themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious” does reference to “soul” feature in the studies and opinion polls you have conducted? What is meant by the word “soul” and are the various definitions people offer contextualized depending on which faith or spiritual attitude the person belongs or ascribes to?

Linda Woodhead: There are plenty of surveys which show that belief in the soul has been growing in the UK – despite the fact that other elements of religious belief, including belief in God, have been declining. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by ‘soul’, and my interviews and talks with people suggest that different people mean different things. But the word seems to help people express their intuition that there is ‘more’ to me – and other humans, and possibly animals as well – than mere flesh and blood. This ‘something’ may be hard to pin down, but it can include the belief that people have a unique, irreplaceable value, and that that value is never completely destroyed – even by death. So the ‘soul’ names something of great value, something which transcends the mundane and utilitarian aspects of existence.

But people don’t always mean something eternal when they say soul – and often they make no reference to God at all (atheists can believe in a soul). Here soul may simply mean the essence of a person, their deep identity. It’s also interesting to note that souls are not necessarily good! We may say ‘poor soul’ of someone we pity. And ‘she has a beautiful soul’ of someone we admire. But we also say ‘he has no poetry in his soul’, or ‘his soul is in danger’ and ‘he is an unhappy soul’.

Musa Askari: If religion is a particular “faith body” then “spirituality” is its temperature reading varying in intensity from the individual to the collective. It is an impossible task perhaps to capture a spiritual reading through social attitude survey-opinion polls. We are perhaps using the wrong tools to grapple with that question. Would you agree to ask about spirituality, before we arrive at any expression of say religious faith, is to ask also more fundamental questions? Namely, “who are we” or “who am I”.

Can these be considered the cornerstones not of doubt but a deeply felt sense of spirituality? This couplet of questions, over and above all cultural-social-ethnic-national and religious identities is, would you agree, “The Identity Question”? It is from here we start our journey, consciously or otherwise. Some may even refer to it as the beginning of a spiritual quest. (for reference please see interview with Dr. Rowan Williams.

Linda Woodhead: The question of identity can certainly be the starting point for a spiritual or moral question. ‘Who am I?’, ‘what am I really like’ are questions which we all have to answer at some point in our lives, and which crises can precipitate. We can get stuck in a particular identity, including one which others want us to inhabit, but the construction of identity can also be an ongoing process. This is not to make it all sound like an individual or individualistic matter: we construct identity in relation to given social identities (‘a good daughter’, ‘a good Muslim’, ‘a respected professional’, ‘a tough man’) which are often conveyed by images and stories and real people we know. And we constantly negotiate our identities in relation to one another: how you feel and speak about me may shape who I am. For religious people, god, goddess, goods and holy places are important elements in this whole process.

Musa Askari: The question on knowing our place in the world, some would argue, is more than to ask about our physical existence as a planetary form of life. Is it not also, together with the physical, a spiritual non-material question which goes beyond our empirical existence? If “spirituality” is also that which expresses our longing for “transcendence” then humanity’s quest to know its place in the world, in the cosmos, the whole endeavour of human thought, has been and remains perhaps a super-trans-historical spiritual pursuit.

I would be grateful for your thoughts on if the hidden debate between all of us as communities, as one “Human Self” (sacred – secular, religion-humanists, spiritual-atheist, physical-metaphysical) is a spiritual one also and that such a term of reference requires admission into the continuing debate/dialogue between religion and humanism, towards a spiritual humanism? (for reference please see section on Human Nature by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari )

Linda Woodhead: To ‘Know my place in the world’ is a very good starting point – and perhaps ending point – for a humanist or a spiritual quest. How many of us really know our place? We can take up too much space, or too little space. To know one’s place is a very difficult and demanding task, and it means making proper allowance for the space that other people, creatures, plants, and other elements of the natural world occupy. We have to give space as well as take it, and in doing so we find out who we really are. I think this may be a point on which humanists, atheists, environmentalists and many religious people would agree. There are also powerful traditions within many theistic religions which speak of God having to withdraw Godself to make space for the created order.

Musa Askari: From his reflection, There are only Four Communities (Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision), Hasan Askari writes, “There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture….There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices….There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals….And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. ”

I am interested to understand if it is possible not only to enquire if a person identifies themselves as religious or otherwise, but if there is any work undertaken to capture an understanding of the outer and inner aspects of one’s religious, spiritual life and mystical life? Is the question asked on a recognition of inner and outer? For example take Islam where we have the outer enactments of faith, “salat”- canonical prayer, “Haj”-pilgrimage and so on all pointing to something beyond the outer act itself, a way to transcend as it were. On the other hand we notice a calling in the Quran to remember God, to contemplate and reflect in silence even outside of the prescribed rites of faith.

Linda Woodhead: I think we live in an age which is very focused on the external life – on how I act into the world, what material success I have, my relations with people and things. The price of this emphasis is often a neglect of the inner life. Mystical traditions saw nothing odd in a person dedicating the whole of life to exploring ‘inner space’ – a world which is invisible. Today many people would regard that as a wasted life, and think that such a person was being escapist, and retreating into an illusory world. At the same time, however, we all know that we have an ‘inside’ which we often find it hard to understand and articulate. We may need help – a friend or a therapist – to explore it. It is wonderful when we meet someone who can understand us, who can ‘see inside’. When this happens, the fundamental loneliness we al live with can be lifted in a miraculous way. Some people may experience this in prayer, some in nature, some with people they love, some watching movies or reading poems. You can call this ‘transcendence’, but it is a transcendence which at the same time roots us more deeply in who we really are.

Spiritual Humanism


Spiritual Human Interview with Don Page

Prof Don PageProfessor Don Page has taught since 1990 at the University of Alberta, in the Department of Physics. Professor Page is an expert in the field of “black holes”. He has studied at leading institutions, Caltech, USA; University of Cambridge, UK where he was research assistant 1976-1979. He has worked & collaborated with Prof Stephen Hawking co-authoring with him “Thermodynamics of Black Holes in Anti-de Sitter Space” in 1983. (photo by Anna Page)

 The following interview questions are taken from the brief reflection by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) entitled “Fireworks” where he enquires on the nature of the “Big Bang” & what if anything preceded it.

Sincere thanks to Professor Don Page for agreeing to this interview.


Musa Askari: If one talks of the original Big Bang, what sort of bang was it? An explosion where each piece that flies out becomes an occasion of further explosion (multiple Big Bangs)?

Don Page: We have very strong evidence that our universe was very much smaller, denser, and hotter about 13.8 billion years ago.  The explosion out from that hot dense state is call the Big Bang.  We are not certain whether this was the absolute beginning of the universe, or whether it was a bounce from a previous phase of contraction, or whether it was just the latest in a series of big bangs, or whether perhaps it does not make sense to say that there was any absolute beginning to the universe.

Musa Askari: The behaviour of the original particles and forces issuing from the Big Bang. Was this behaviour haphazard? Was it arrived at through trial and error? Was it pre-given?

UniverseDon Page: So far as we can reliably trace back the behavior of our universe back toward the Big Bang that was nearly 14 billion years to our past, it seems to have been very smooth, nearly homogeneous and isotropic. However, there are strong suggestions, based upon indirect evidence from the form of the small departures from homogeneity and isotropy, that before the time for which we have reliable fairly direct evidence, there was a time of very rapid exponential expansion, called inflation, that could have smoothed the universe out even if it had been more lumpy before (though there do seem to be limits on how lumpy and disordered it could have been before inflation started for it to occur and be able to smooth out the universe).

Some scientists speculate that there might have been many different big bangs, most of which did not lead to much life like ours, so that we are seeing one of a relatively small sample that occurred with a form suitable for life.  However, the type of big bang that we observe seems to be even much more special than what would be required simply for life like ours.  So one cannot fully explain all its properties as being due to the selection effect that observers can only observe conditions that permit observers to exist.

Musa Askari: What about “Laws” which seemed to immediately come into operation soon after the said explosion. Did laws also “explode” into existence along with the energy and matter they were supposed to govern and regulate? What about other laws which govern the properties of those elements which came into being much later, say carbon dioxide? And laws governing organic matter, life, consciousness, reasoning. Did they all explode with the Big Bang? Were they lying in suspense until those substances and forms arose which required them? Where were they lying in abeyance?

Don Page: If the universe did indeed have a beginning at some point in the past, using some measure of time within the universe, the laws for the
universe would not have applied before that beginning, using the time within the universe to define “before.”  But one might say that the laws have some Platonic existence beyond the existence of the universe itself, in a sense somewhat similar to the sense in which 1+1=2 can be considered to be a true theorem of arithmetic (a logical consequence of the axioms of arithmetic) even if there are no individual objects such that one could count one of them and another of them to get two of them.  However, there is the difference that theorems like the logical following of 1+1=2 from suitable axioms are logically necessary truths, whereas the laws of physics are just descriptions of a contingent concrete entity, the universe, so there is no logical necessity to laws of the universe as there are for theorems of arithmetic.

Musa Askari: In contemplating the Big Bang are we also reaching for the smallest possible unit of condensed matter?

planetDon Page: In classical general relativity (ignoring the Heisenberg principle that is believed to apply to gravity that we think is actually
quantized and so does not obey the classical equations of Einstein’s
theory of general relativity), there would be no limit larger than zero to how small the universe could be, so in principle it could have  expanded out from zero size (or at least it could have had any size greater than zero, though one might say that the limit at which the size goes to zero, as one goes backward in time, is not itself part of the spacetime of the universe).  In quantum gravity we do not yet know whether or not there is a positive limit on how small the universe might be.

Musa Askari: What held it in that state of intense density not allowing it to explode or expand?

Don Page: The point of infinite density would not really be part of the universe in the classical model in general relativity, so whenever the universe existed, it would be expanding, in this classical big bang model.  But even for a classical model, the universe could have had a bounce at large but finite density rather than an expansion from an arbitrarily small size and arbitrarily large density.  And in a quantum picture, it might not make sense to say how large the universe is as a function of time to be able to say whether or not the universe started expanding from an arbitrarily small size.

Musa Askari: What force of gravity within itself pulled it to itself that it retained its intense density?

Don Page: In the classical big bang model with an initial singularity (the limiting t = 0 time that is not really part of the universe), the
universe has always been expanding during its entire lifetime, for all  t > 0.  If we measure the time t that has existed within the universe,
that can be finite (perhaps roughly 14 billion years now), but the
idea is that time t cannot be zero.  t = 0 is only a hypothetical
limit, what is called a singularity, not a time within the universe,
since in the classical big bang model, time is only defined for t > 0.

Musa Askari: If it exploded at “x” time, why not before, why not later?

Don Page: We can measure what is the time interval that the universe has existed up to now, but it does not make sense to try to assign a definite time other than zero for the limiting “point” or initial singularity at which there has been no previous time.  In a classical model, time differences make sense (though even these may not be definite in a quantum model), but even in a classical model, only time differences after the initial singularity make sense, not any supposedly absolute time at which the singularity happened.  (Well, we can say that if the big bang about 14 billion years ago really did have a singularity, a limit beyond which one cannot go back in time and at which densities would go to infinity, then the singularity was 14 billion years in the past relative to us now, but there is no meaning to its time other than relative to events within the universe.)

Musa Askari: What suspended its internal gravity for an instant that the great bang was triggered?

Don Page: There is no instant at which the big bang was triggered.  There is only a limit at which one can say that t = 0, but this limit is not part of the existing spacetime.  Going back toward that limit, the density would diverge, meaning that it would get greater than any pre-assigned finite value, but one cannot say that it actually reached infinity as one goes back in time, since the universe only exists for t > 0, and not at t = 0.  Well, this is within a classical model of general relativity. Probably quantum gravity so alters the properties of time that the whole question of the time evolution of the universe becomes a meaningless concept.

Musa Askari: If the Big Bang is a result of an instant’s suspension or weakening of the force of gravity is in itself a hopeless question perhaps. Or, was it so that a force involving a greater force of gravity pulled out of the contents within that mythical mass with such force that an explosion occurred? What was that force? Could it be what we refer to now as “dark energy”?

Don Page: The “dark energy” is the name for whatever it is that is now causing the linear size of the universe to be accelerating with time, so that the rate of increase of the linear size with time is itself increasing with time rather than decreasing.  So the gravitational effects of the dark energy are a form of what might be called anti-gravity,
gravitational repulsion rather than attraction that would cause the
expansion rate of the universe to decelerate (slow down).  But it
doesn’t seem to make sense to say that the big bang explosion itself was caused by this dark energy.

Musa Askari: If there was any, does it then make the Big Bang a secondary phenomenon?

Don Page: In a quantum description, our Big Bang (the very hot dense phase nearly 14 billion years ago) might have been a secondary phenomenon, not the first big bang of our universe.  It might have been only the latest in a long sequence of successive big bangs.  Scientists speculate that quantum tunnelling in a pre-existing universe might have led to new big bangs.  Perhaps the new big bangs would wipe out the evidence for the previous ones, or perhaps they would not, so that one might be able to find evidence of earlier big bangs. However, so far no one has found any convincing evidence for big bangs further in the past than our Big Bang that occurred about 14 billion years ago.




Spiritual Human Interview with Dr. Rowan Williams

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Humanism

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Gregory A Barker

Gregory A. BarkerFormerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies, Uni of Wales, Trinity Saint David . Author, educator, coach.


Sincere thanks to Dr. Barker for this interview

Musa Askari: I would like to begin with your “spiritual quest” as a seeker of truth and understanding, its origins and movement from a Lutheran Pastor for many years to Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wales. What were the main, inner spiritual, factors influencing the move from being a pastor to entering the world of academia? Whilst it may not have been a conversion to another faith, was it perhaps an inner conversion, a conversion to “self”?

Greg Barker: It began with a death – the drowning of a 16-year-old boy in our church’s youth group. He had gone out diving with full gear, wet suit and oxygen tank, not far from the shore of our seaside town. There were three of them and he indicated that he was ready to return to shore. Instead of going together, he emerged to the surface alone.  All we can guess is that he was blind sided by a wave, choked on some water, struggled and drowned. This tragedy hit me more deeply than any event in my life. He was a wonderful person, full of life, dreams, aspirations.

In the days that followed, I committed myself to all of the necessary and proper pastoral duties.  Many people in the church had much to say about what happened such as “he is in a better place now…”, “this has happened for a reason…”, “In time we will all see what a blessing this has really been…”  I found myself infuriated with these statements. I was deep in grief and angry at what I felt were rationalizations of a terrible event.

In the coming days, I must have heard hundreds of these kinds of sentiments. I looked closely at the faces of those who uttered them and began to suspect that many of these words were not the result of a deeply held conviction tested in the crucible of life, but a nervous grasping for a ledge to hang onto in this precarious world.

It was the first time that I began to realize at a personal level that the things we say – even very spiritual sounding things – can represent not a searching for the truth, but an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, spirituality can be a very selfish affair covered by a thin veneer of pious language.  If good people in church could engage in religious language at this level, then how far did this go?  Could this invention of self-serving spiritual language extend to the liturgy, the sacred texts of my tradition? 

It was not a very comfortable place to be for the pastor of a church.    

Musa Askari: In the book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” by Hasan Askari/Jon Avery you write, “On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies. Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement…..Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.”

Please talk more on what “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” may have anticipated twenty years ago within context of the above quote? Specifically with reference to theological reformulations. In your experience could you please share if this is taking place more in some faiths than in others and if so why that may be the case?

Greg Barker: Walk into any bookstore and you will see, prominently displayed, the work of the “new atheists”: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling. These brilliant men (and I mean that sincerely) are engaged in sounding a loud “no” to religion and they do so in the most incisive and witty ways possible. When it comes to biblical literalism, fundamentalism and even liberal forms of belief, these writers point out the intellectual depravity of religious formulations and attitudes. 

Along with their rational critique of religious belief is the quite unscientific argument that our world will be a peaceful utopia, freed of violence once all forms of religious belief have been eradicated.  This strikes me as naïve in the extreme – though we can all say a loud “yes” to their elucidations of the sins of religious intolerance.  Not only does their approach raise the question of how we define religion (they define it as “belief”, whereas a sociologist would take a different tack), but, more importantly, it raises the question of who we are as humans and what religion truly represents as a human creation. 

Only recently have some atheist writers tried to articulate a “yes” to the creation and value of religion to balance the “no” which is so prominent in current media.  Imagine my delight to discover that this “yes” was being discussed more than 20 years ago by Hasan Askari and Jon Avery, two men very well aware of both the depravity and value of religious beliefs.  

Musa Askari:  Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task. Perhaps this engagement or “due encounter” may be possible ironically as a result of the self-questioning/ re-thinking you allude to in both world views. It might also be fostered by a positive working through of “doubt”, as a critical tool, which does not reject outright but more so seeks to explore – we may then even apply the word “quest” to both sacred and secular pursuits of knowledge and understanding.   

Would you agree with the connection between “doubt” and “quest” as framed above? Furthermore, do you see today greater possibility of due encounter (co -witness) between a person of faith and an atheist rather than the usual “for-against” arguments which lead us no further forward?

Greg Barker: When we travel, we are immediately given the opportunity to see a new place as a “cute” reflection of some aspects of our own culture that we find interesting – yet are expressed in an exaggerated (and ultimately “deficient “manner) by the culture we are visiting OR we can view what is around us as potentially revealing something we need to know, something that we missed, something that we may ignore only at our own peril.  Most middle and upper class western journeys are designed to give us the “cute” factor. This helps us feel secure in the world (a false security) and reinforces our cultural superiority.

However, to travel with the assumption that the other culture is always superior and always will make me a better person is also misguided, revealing perhaps a loathing or hatred for our own cultural achievements and background. We must find a way to love where we have come from as we attempt to love where we are going.

Between these two attitudes is the “doubt” and “questing” that you refer to.  And, yes, I very much love your connection between these words, though in reality it is a very difficult place to be. Difficult, but full of life.

You ask if there is a greater possibility of a deeper encounter today between a person of faith and an atheist than the usual “for and against” polemic celebrated in the media.  You are asking an important question but I can only say this: (a) to ask about a “greater possibility” raises a question of measurement and I am afraid we have only anecdotal evidence and (b) I would not like to contrast “person of faith” with “atheist” – as that is already a polemical differentiation. If we look at Durkheim or the French existentialists we will see that the need to make decisions in our lives ALWAYS runs ahead of the available scientific evidence, so, in a sense, we all need to live by some kind of faith.  There is a stepping out into the unknown that is guided by our heritage, our intuition, our relationships…one cannot avoid the unknown.  But we can tell our stories to each other so that we are a little less alone and a little more informed on the journey.

Musa Askari: Your book, which I highly recommend, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”, you bring together “leading thinkers from five religions” to “reflect on his meaning”, one of which is my late father Syed Hasan Askari. He concludes his essay, “The Real Presence of Jesus in Islam” as follows, “Religious and doctrinal formulations are like rivers, each crossing unique lands. Some of those rivers dry up before they reach the sea. But others make it to the ocean and when they merge with the ocean they leave their name and form behind. They have then become one with the One. It is my belief that the Christian and Muslim perspectives on Jesus are two such rivers. They are different from each other, crossing different lands. But now they are nearing the end of their journey. When they finally reach the ocean, what divides them will be lost. If we don’t understand this lesson, then the ocean will walk toward us and there will be deluge. We will then need a Noah’s ark. Not even the highest mountain of exclusivism will save us. So we have a choice. We can refuse to engage in the common life that we share, or we can learn from it and move toward the ocean, merging with it and becoming new spiritual beings. I beg Christians and Muslims to listen, as they have never before, to their complimentary witness about Jesus.”  

When a writer “begs” their reader I think it is a moment to take note. For a writer to “beg” they must have known “poverty” of some kind. Perhaps only those who have either known literal poverty or poverty of estrangement, to be forsaken almost and/or spiritual poverty can know deeply what it is to “beg” to listen. It is all these inner related aspects of poverty which to me, if reflected upon deeply, cannot help but prepare the individual, one hopes, to listen to a spiritual counterpart hearing a testimony about the an important “Sign” between them of friendship; Jesus.  

To talk about Jesus is no ordinary conversation in my view. It is a tremendous encounter, especially for Christians and Muslims due to their scriptural importance, where I have often felt one must come in a state of inner poverty to that conversation (and all such inter-faith conversations), recognizing that the other has something truly wonderful to offer. In other words only when we arrive in a state of inner poverty at the door of the other are we then perhaps, just perhaps, better placed to be “enriched” and transformed. I would stress in the type of encounter I am referring to we are far beyond any theological objections or social tolerance, we are in a state of “kinship”. We have put down our outer defenses of identity, as like leaving our worldly possessions at the entrance to an inner sacredness. We have “recognised” the other and in doing so we have removed the veil of “otherness”. That is how friends should meet in my view.  

In your opinion, has inter-faith dialogue delivered on it’s promise to bring faith communities together not only socially but also spiritually to “listen” to one another as Hasan Askari, a long time partner in Inter Faith dialogue, begs in this case Christians and Muslims to do? Beyond Christianity and Islam looking at the general world religious faith body have we reached the limit of what inter-faith dialogue can do in its present form and should we re-think and re-formulate this also?   

Greg Barker: Hasan’s writing above casts a spell over me!  Think of those rich images:  he sees religious formulations as rivers rather than rocks, moving through history in a winding way; he grasps that there is a movement toward something larger – that there is something shared in humanity that we desperately need to find.  I count myself a very fortunate editor to have had Hasan’s contribution in my book!  And I agree with him that religious thought is fluid and moving – despite the cries of those who believe that their truth has dropped down from heaven in tact for all time. I have actually never heard the truth of religious change expressed as eloquently as it has by Hasan.

Interfaith dialogue faces an often-unseen danger. The danger we first see is a fundamentalistic-literalistic-cultural intolerance.  Yet there is another danger:  a liberal theory that fits all of the religious component parts into an inclusive whole.  Many theologians and philosophers invent a rich and beautiful philosophy which harmonizes the religions.  Some times these theories are so intricately conceived and so inclusive in their reading of history that they seem to present THE WAY to view the meaning of all religion. But, for me, these “uber-theories” crush the dialogue, the doubt and the quest itself. Those who don’t hold to the harmonizing theory feel that it is a cultural and religious bulldozer and so back away from dialogue.  Those who do hold to these theories feel so wonderful about the theory itself that they do not feel that they actually need to really engage with religious adherents. Instead, they find only like minded pluralists or perennialists.

My own experience with Hasan was that he did not fit into either of these categories – he took an incredibly personal approach with me in our private discussions and I will never forget these moments for the rest of my life.

Yet, I have questions about the “ocean” that Hasan describes.  To what degree is this an “uber-theory” or a testimony to a truth larger than I can see right now? I am sure I am betraying my ignorance of Plotinus…And I wonder how much we can leave behind our identity.  Yet, I believe in what you are saying, Musa: there needs to be a sense of poverty and openness if we are ever to experience a moment of fellowship with another human being.  Rather than trying to “shed” identity as a butterfly would shed its former life as a caterpillar, I think we need to take our identity in with us to our encounter, put it on the table, feel it threatened, speak from our truth – and see what happens.  Perhaps you are saying the same thing? I suppose I see myself as a caterpillar and have no idea if that state is the end of my journey or not.  

Musa Askari: From your introduction to “Jesus in the World’s Faiths” you write, “….we cannot know who we truly are without encountering others. When those we encounter are from vastly different backgrounds than our own, the potential for growth and change is enormous.”  

I could not agree more with the spirit of your quote and end as I started with a question about your on-going “spiritual quest”. I would be grateful if you could share on a personal level how your spiritual journey has grown and changed in the light of encounter with people from diverse faith traditions?

Greg Barker: It took me decades before I realized that not everyone was a part of the “United Federation of Planets”, that there were other stories reflecting values I did not know about from my diet of childhood TV in the United States.  My study into the history of interpretations of Jesus began somewhat naively – I just wanted to know what others thought of a key figure in my tradition. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to hear how great my tradition was from those outside of it?  What I didn’t count on was that those I encountered had questions for me:

• Why do you and your tradition see us as inferior?

• Why have your co-religionists persecuted us, treating us so differently than the ways prescribed by your founder?

• Don’t you think that our focus on law (or awareness or asceticism or…) can help you be a better human being?

Sometimes these questions came through books and journal articles.  But the most powerful way they came was face to face – in awkward moments where I did not have an answer prepared, where I had to look my questioner in the eyes and choose to speak a platitude, change the subject or confess my confusion and ignorance. When I chose the latter, I would feel that I was falling off a cliff, but that the place I landed was better than I had been before.  I’ve fallen off that cliff with you…and it has made all the difference.

Spiritual Humanism

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Antony Thomas

“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.

Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.

In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.

His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…” (For more on the work of Antony Thomas please visit his website http://www.antonythomas.co.uk/ )

Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.

Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.

Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?

Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question.  “How do you know that God exists?”  “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films. 

What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.

Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.

Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama.  In the case of the latter, one is following a script.  It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming. 

I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan.   The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.  

After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.

Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9) 

Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.

As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?

Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this.  I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.

Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”

Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?

Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma.  What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system.  I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.   

The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago:  “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.” 

Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.

Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.

Antony Thomas: Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make.  There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us.  I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.

Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.

“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html

“It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/

Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?

Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.   

I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.