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The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

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

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

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNIVERSAL CONCEPTION OF RISALA

The key verse in the Qur’an is 16.36:

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

And also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE QUR’ANIC CONCEPTIONS OF APOSTLES BEFORE MOHAMMAD

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

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

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

MOHAMMAD AS THE APOSTLE OF GOD

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

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

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

By the Qur’an

Full of wisdom –

Thou art indeed one of the Apostles,

on a straight way.

It is a revelation sent down by Him,

The Exalted in Might,

Most Merciful,

In order that thou mayest

Admonish a people,

Whose fathers had received no admonition,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MUSLIM CREED ABOUT APOSTLESHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APOSTLESHIP (RISALA) AND PROPHETHOOD (NUBUWWA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUR’ANIC TERMINOLOGY

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

THE PROPHET/APOSTLE AS A TEACHER

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

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

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

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

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

There is no god but God,

and Noah is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Abraham is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Moses is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Jesus is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God.

and Mohammad is an Apostle of God.

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

Recommended: 

Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism

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

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari Speech

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

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari’s Speech 1995 Hyderabad India

ISyed Hasan Askarin 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.

It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here

Musa Askari

Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism 1984

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

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

Syed Hasan Askari one of the eight important Muslim thinkers Whirlin Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen & the Faith” writes, “Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society.”

Selected quotes of Syed Hasan Askari from the above interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUMANITY

Syed Hasan Askari’s thoughts from “Towards A Spiritual Humanism”  (published 1991)

“Let us reflect further on this shared value of humanity because there is so much in it. I feel that both the humanist and religious traditions sound almost simplistic or monolithic when discussing this category, namely, the human.

Syed Hasan Askari
Syed Hasan Askari

Let me share a few perspectives to deepen this value because this holds the key for our progress in dialogue. Firstly, the humanistic view, namely, that we are first of all human, appears to me primarily an extension of one’s identity in space – from one’s own house to the entire planet, or to use the popular expression for the planet in our times – the global village. This is not enough for me, because it is an aspiration only in a spatial-physical mode of a greater aggregate,  whereas it may also be viewed as a metaphor for a sympathy across distances, between people, between all humanity. That sympathy cannot be a material bond, or even a bond which is merely psychological. It should be a spiritual bond.

This makes me bring in another dimension of the aggregate of humanity, namely time. Holding on to the same value of humanity, I should say that across time – across all time both past and unborn time, there should be the unity of the human self. As soon as we invoke time as a dimension of unity, the collapse of the material expression of unity is self-evident.  It is this which is celebrated in the religious, or to be very specific, in the Christian Catholic notion of communion, particularly the communion of saints.

Setting aside the religious connotations, on a purely pragmatic level, the unity of the humans both in space and time, presupposes an internal unity. So, I request my humanist friends to take their value of humanity more deeply and have the courage to draw all the conclusions possible, neither hampered nor tempted by any ideological options. Therefore, our criterion in this discourse is that no ideological criterion should come in the way of our celebration of human unity as a whole.

I have another perspective. I don’t see humanity, even when we take the dimensions of both space and time together, as one monolithic whole. We have many humanities within one humanity, and we have to be extremely careful in differentiating, deep within our own personalities, four humanities!

The first humanity is co-terminus with our physical status as material beings dependent upon water, air and food; the extension of this principle is our dependence upon urban water supplies and refrigeration; upon the technology we have created and all the comforts that principle involves and the culture which it creates. There are vast numbers of people who do not progress beyond this level.

The second humanity is also widespread, and it includes those who have fallen in love with the images they have created in their philosophies, in their religions, and in their doctrines. They are clever and self-conscious people. However, they are in a state of hypnosis. They cannot move from the outward profiles of their doctrines and religions  – yet they too are human.

The third humanity is free from the physical, free from outward profiles and forms; it is inward looking and holds onto its own essential being. It is this humanity which, in my view, holds the key to the sympathy, the resonance of feeling across space and time. It is this which creates philosophy universally, which creates science universally, which creates an intelligible discourse across races and cultures and nationalities, and which is to me the goal of humanity.

The fourth humanity is almost celestial, almost super-human, almost trans-human. It is one with the entire cosmos which is the ultimate principle of unity. It is like a spark of light in each one of us, even in those who are lost in the physical world, even in those who are wrapped up in the traditional profiles of identity, dogma and doctrine.

So, when I hear the word “humanity” I respond to it emotively because I hold that perspective, but at the same time I am disturbed, because we may lose sight of the hierarchy and differentiation, on account of our obsession with uniformity of the physical image of man. I am not subscribing to any elitist notion of an inner or hidden group of mystics. I am saying that both ontologically and psychologically humanity is a highly differentiated principle and it is because of this differentiation that it is human. If it is not differentiated it becomes a technological, mechanistic principle. It is in this sense I consider humanism as pointing to this differentiation, not submerging it. Otherwise, we become unfair or unjust to our own inner hierarchies.

Let us take this opportunity to point out that most so-called religious people also have a very simplistic view of humanity which is in one sense more dangerous that the simplistic view of popular humanism because they equate their humanity with their collectivity. For them, humanity is co-terminus with their particular religious congregation. For example if you are a Christian you will consider yourself human; if you are Muslim you will consider yourself human; but those who do not fall within the collectivity to which you personally belong are not fully human, they are sub-human or only potentially human. So, there is a greater danger in the ideological, doctrinal, religious or secularist understanding of humanity because such an understanding doesn’t allow for the idea of a spiritual differentiation between different levels of consciousness……Therefore, our quest is how to increase the life of humanity, not the vegetative life, not animal life, but the life of reason, the life of the spirit, the life of intuition.

This life has many sources outer and inner, both known and unknown. It is perhaps towards that humanity we are all moving.”

Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) 

 * See also on this blog:

“There are only Four Communities” , “When the Atheist Met the Mystic”

Spiritual Human Interview with MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog

Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH

Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”

In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”

On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?

Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning.  Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)  

Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe.  I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family.  The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.

 When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.

Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?

We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context.  But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making.  As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.  

It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.

Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”

Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.

Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.  

Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples”  is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith.  Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas. 

When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about  and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit.  More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol,  tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening. 

Over the years  the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others.  Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.

Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.

However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?

Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral.  People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill. 

For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present. 

The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.

Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”

The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”

Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer. 

On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?

Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question.  The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need.  These are counter intuitive expressions of love. 

When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Gregory A Barker

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

www.gregbarkercoaching.com/

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

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

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

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

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

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

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

A Dialogue Joke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time

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

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

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

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

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

A Materialistic Universe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is There A Soul?

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

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

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

At this point Askari passionately declares: 

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

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

A Spiritual Government?  

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

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

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

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

A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meeting Ground

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

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

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

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

-Gregory A Barker

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

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

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

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