Tag Archives: Scripture

The Qur’anic Conception of Apostleship

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

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

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNIVERSAL CONCEPTION OF RISALA

The key verse in the Qur’an is 16.36:

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

And also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE QUR’ANIC CONCEPTIONS OF APOSTLES BEFORE MOHAMMAD

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

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

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

MOHAMMAD AS THE APOSTLE OF GOD

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

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

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

By the Qur’an

Full of wisdom –

Thou art indeed one of the Apostles,

on a straight way.

It is a revelation sent down by Him,

The Exalted in Might,

Most Merciful,

In order that thou mayest

Admonish a people,

Whose fathers had received no admonition,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MUSLIM CREED ABOUT APOSTLESHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APOSTLESHIP (RISALA) AND PROPHETHOOD (NUBUWWA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUR’ANIC TERMINOLOGY

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

THE PROPHET/APOSTLE AS A TEACHER

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

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

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

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

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

There is no god but God,

and Noah is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Abraham is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Moses is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God,

and Jesus is an Apostle of God.

There is no god but God.

and Mohammad is an Apostle of God.

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

Recommended: 

Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Karen Armstrong on Mysticism

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

Spiritual Humanism – Syed Hasan Askari Speech

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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.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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