In 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.
It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here
Clare Short formerly MP UK Parliament 1983 until 2010 and Secretary of State for International Development 1997 until 2003 when she resigned from the Gov’t over the Iraq war. Clare Short’s areas work include “slum upgrading in the developing world, transparency in oil, gas and mining, African-led humanitarian action, destitute asylum-seekers in Birmingham, Trade Justice for the developing world and for a just settlement of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict.”
Sincere thanks to Clare Short for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: ROLE OF WOMEN. The following quote is by my late father Prof Syed Hasan Askari about the Indian Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya, “I used to hear, amidst all that poverty when we had nothing in our house, not even a loaf of bread, my mother saying to me: “Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world”
The example of Nizamuddin speaks of a beautiful bond with his mother. We hear too little about such bonds situated in conditions of poverty. Their stories at risk of being lost behind a statistical narrative which can dwarf issues of the heart. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on what more needs to be done to support women in the poorest parts of the world and why this is so important in helping people out of poverty?
Clare Short: Kofi Annan said some years ago poverty has the face of a woman and her children. The evidence on how best to generate development in society is very clear, educating girls is the most powerful force for development. No one is of course advocating excluding boys from school but in poor countries girls tend to be kept at home to help with household tasks. Girls who have been to school marry later, have fewer children who are more likely to survive and are better at accessing healthcare and increasing the family income. So a commitment to universal primary education, including girls as a first step to full educational opportunities for all is the most important force for beneficial change. This is why it was one of the leading Millennium Development Goals. Of course we should never just do one thing to promote development but the key role that girls and women play is exemplified by this reality.
Musa Askari: GLOBAL NEIGHBOURHOOD. Through various forms of international aid it is possible for people of moral conscience to help improve the welfare of one’s “neighbour”, local to international. As humanity we are each other’s neighbour and this category of “neighbourhood” for me is one of the common grounds where secular and sacred traditions of the world can meet working together for the common good. To what extent in your view have the Millennium Development Goals helped to raise the level of awareness about a “global neighbourhood”? What further needs to be done to foster this sense of universality?
Clare Short: In the years of hope at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, there was a real growth in support for a more just and evenly developed world where all people could live with hope and dignity. And when, at the UN, they started to look for an appropriate way of marking the new millennium, all the countries of the world came together to agree that the systematic reduction of poverty across the world should be the cause that united humanity. In these years spending on defence and security declined considerably. Then, after September 11, 2001, the obsession with security and military spending overtook the idea of a better safer world of equal development. There is no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was very serious crime they killed 3000 people. But the response was irrational. It does not make sense to spend as much on the military as at the height of the Cold War to try to capture a man in a cave in Afghanistan and to persuade people that his ideas are ugly and wrong. President Eisenhower, who was a Second World War general and a Republican President warned that the American people in his retiring presidential address to beware the military industrial complex. My view is that the military industrial complex faced a set back at the end of the Cold War and used the attack on the Twin Towers to take over again and is reducing the world to a dangerous state and marginalising the commitment to a world that is safe because all have the chance of a decent and dignified life. This major shift to a massive emphasis on military solutions and the generation of hate and fear has not wiped out the work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and there has been significant progress across the world. Currently negotiations are being finalised to replace the MDGs, which expire this year, with new Sustainable Development Goals. So the battle is not lost and the effort must continue but the stress on military solutions has been a major setback.
Musa Askari: RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY. On affirming religious diversity Muslim inter-faith dialogue pioneer Prof Syed Hasan Askari writes, “I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder..I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself..I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form..The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable..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.”
How is the affirmation of global religious diversity reflected in the Millennium and Sustainable development goals please? Should there be a specific goal attributed to affirming religious diversity not only as a sociological fact but also to help foster inter-faith spirituality and dialogue?
Clare Short: There is no commitment to religious diversity in either the MDGs or the proposed SDGs but respect for the human rights of each person obviously means respect for their religious sensibilities. And the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which is supported, at least in theory, by almost all countries in the world declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” There were a big group of British theologians who declared back in the 1980s that all the world’s major religions are equally valuable routes to God. Unfortunately in these times religious labels are getting mixed up with the sense of identity and reflect little of the goodness of the best of religious teaching in all the main religions. Terrible things are being done in the name of religion. There are ugly currents of fanaticism in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. We need to reflect on why this is happening.
Musa Askari: JUSTICE & FAIRNESS. In your recent lecture “Does international Aid work?” you talk about,
“How to make the world safe & sustainable for everybody? A more just & fair world where everyone has a fair chance is also a safer world for everybody.” What do you see as the major obstacles to justice and fairness and what kind of change in thinking needs to take place in your view to begin to overcome the challenges?
Clare Short: I think that international leadership is in a terrible state and is making the world more dangerous and unhappy. There is of course need sometimes to use military force to contain and reverse the misuse of violence, in fact I think it is necessary to enlarged the authority of UN peacekeeping missions in for example eastern Congo so that everyone knows that the writ of the UN will be enforced and justice will prevail. But if peace is to come to the Middle East then the international Community must uphold International law in relation to all the countries of the region. Israel is in grave breach of international law according to the judgement of the International Court of Justice and yet nothing is done. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and Egypt are in gross breach of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and yet they are treated as great friends of the west. I am afraid that the days have a long gone when are just settlements for Israel/Palestine would transform the atmosphere in the Middle East but it would start to make a significant difference. In relation to Russia, I believe that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders and suggesting that Ukraine should join NATO and the EU was provocative and would have enraged any Russian leader. This does not mean that Russian aggression should be ignored but it just compromise should be sought rather than a continuing drive to invent a new cold war.
Musa Askari: VISION. In 1995, on a visit to India, Prof Askari delivered a speech on Spiritual Humanism “Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions of people do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies. In Eastern Europe, in the collapsing Soviet Union, in Asia, in Africa and in India as well. In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty. When the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill; to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision.”
Would you agree we need a new visionary approach, a revival of hope that takes into account the concerns raised above by Prof Askari? Do you see any opportunities please for an alternative narrative to positively address such concerns from either the left or right of the current political landscape?
Clare Short: Yes see my arguments above. The only way to make the world safe is to give up the idea that one country should dominate – what the neoconservatives in the US see as America’s unipolar moment. This is dangerous with a rising China. We need to learn the lessons of the First World War (which was really the cause of the Second World War) where a rising Germany and a declining Ottoman empire was so badly managed that the world ended up in a dreadful conflagration. We need to reinforce the UN by updating the membership of the Security Council and streamlining and making more efficient the UN development agencies. All must agree to abide by international law with no double standards and we must renew our commitment to International Development and make sure that we meet the objective outlined in the draft Sustainable Development Goals that extreme poverty is eliminated from the world by 2030.
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 in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen & the Faith” writes, “Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society.”
Selected quotes of Syed Hasan Askari from the above interview:
Zikr :“Remembering God in His attributes, in His Mercy and Power and Love.”
“We remember that God is the Greatest and thereby we deny everything else as great. And then we say that He is One, there is no other. And then we say the Praise and then we say He is Sublime, He is above all we say about Him.”
“The ultimate goal of Zikr is to transcend Zikr itself.”
“Doctrine is a conscious individual statement of one’s own form of belief about the ultimate.”
“Dogma is an embodiment of a particular theological crisis and how it was resolved at a given time in the history of religious thought. There are creeds in Christianity and creeds in Islam which represent those crises in theological thought. But religious life is far ahead of dogmatic statement. For instance when I [Hasan Askari] stand in prayer I don’t say that here stands a “Muslim” with a particular belief statement on his lips…in ritual prayer we don’t enact the dogmatic what to speak of the mystical where the dogma is left behind.”
“In very high levels of religious life a word becomes an eye and thereby we obtain a new sense, a new vision. But not with the physical eye, not with the eye of the body…..the rational mind is only analytical. It doesn’t give us a totality. One needs an intuition, a sense of partaking in the wholeness of being. Then perhaps we arrive at the level of true words which are also true visions.”
“Dogma is more a matter of institutional identity, continuity and solidarity in any religious life whatsoever. Whereas the mystic is concerned with the religious person, the individual. If man becomes alone before God then he becomes a truly religious person.”
“On one hand I feel, I know and I notice the unity of religious experience transcending image and symbol and dogma and institution and culture and language. And on the other I notice a variety, a diversity, a differential dynamics both between religions and one particular religion. And therefore I have to affirm the mystical value of diversity.”
“I would say that if we who say that we believe in God who is Sublime and Infinite and Transcendental and Almighty…how could that God be equated with one form of one religious belief?”
“Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”
“There is a world religion, namely, the Mystical.”
“I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago [1960s] in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque. A man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say that a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
(apologies for the sound quality however it is hoped you will still find the conversation deeply interesting)
The following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed Hasan Askari entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters. Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.
Introduction narrated by Musa Askari
“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.
The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.
There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.
At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.
It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.
The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.
It was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989 – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari
For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:
The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.
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.
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”
Professor Linda Woodhead MBE DD teaches sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her work delves in to the relationship between religion and society. Co-founded the Westminster Faith Debates which fosters debate and discussion aided by the latest research.
Sincere thanks to Linda Woodhead for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH LINDA WOODHEAD
Musa Askari: “It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whom I first met in 1965 and then again in 1968 at a seminar in Bangalore, who gave me the insight and direction I was seeking. When I attended that seminar….I had no idea that it would open a new path for me and bring me into the very heart of the interfaith dialogue across continents. Smith’s distinction between faith and belief provided me with a foundation to relate positively to “the other”. While belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s life, to all those whom one encounters, faith being a vast world in which all can participate. Faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without fear. I now had the spiritual basis to respect and listen to others.” (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari – Solomon’s Ring)
In your opinion what do people mean by the words “faith” and “belief”? From surveys commissioned of public opinion is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” recognised and how is this distinction expressed within the field of sociology of religion?
Linda Woodhead: I think the general perception would be that ‘faith’ means something personal, existential and ‘inner’, whilst ‘belief’ has more to do with external religious formulations. To that extent, there is an overlap between the faith/belief distinction and the spirituality/religion one. Moreover, where ‘beliefs’ seem to define particular religions and distinguish them from one another ‘faith’ is a more inclusive term (despite Christian associations). I was speaking to a university chaplain the other day who told me that when they renamed the ‘Chaplaincy’ ‘Centre for Faith and Spirituality’ the number of people coming through the doors almost tripled!
Another way of looking at it is that there are two dimensions of religious identity – the collective identity which I inhabit, and the inner dimension of that identity which, to some extent, is private to me alone. People may be able to pigeonhole me in terms of the collective identity, but my personal identity is part of my inner life, and – a religious person might say – ‘known to God alone’.
Musa Askari: Professor Askari in his 2004 article, “From InterReligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“ discusses the threefold need to revive the classical discourse on soul: theological, philosophical and psychological.
As well as understanding the number and various sub-set distribution of those who identify themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious” does reference to “soul” feature in the studies and opinion polls you have conducted? What is meant by the word “soul” and are the various definitions people offer contextualized depending on which faith or spiritual attitude the person belongs or ascribes to?
Linda Woodhead: There are plenty of surveys which show that belief in the soul has been growing in the UK – despite the fact that other elements of religious belief, including belief in God, have been declining. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by ‘soul’, and my interviews and talks with people suggest that different people mean different things. But the word seems to help people express their intuition that there is ‘more’ to me – and other humans, and possibly animals as well – than mere flesh and blood. This ‘something’ may be hard to pin down, but it can include the belief that people have a unique, irreplaceable value, and that that value is never completely destroyed – even by death. So the ‘soul’ names something of great value, something which transcends the mundane and utilitarian aspects of existence.
But people don’t always mean something eternal when they say soul – and often they make no reference to God at all (atheists can believe in a soul). Here soul may simply mean the essence of a person, their deep identity. It’s also interesting to note that souls are not necessarily good! We may say ‘poor soul’ of someone we pity. And ‘she has a beautiful soul’ of someone we admire. But we also say ‘he has no poetry in his soul’, or ‘his soul is in danger’ and ‘he is an unhappy soul’.
Musa Askari: If religion is a particular “faith body” then “spirituality” is its temperature reading varying in intensity from the individual to the collective. It is an impossible task perhaps to capture a spiritual reading through social attitude survey-opinion polls. We are perhaps using the wrong tools to grapple with that question. Would you agree to ask about spirituality, before we arrive at any expression of say religious faith, is to ask also more fundamental questions? Namely, “who are we” or “who am I”.
Can these be considered the cornerstones not of doubt but a deeply felt sense of spirituality? This couplet of questions, over and above all cultural-social-ethnic-national and religious identities is, would you agree, “The Identity Question”? It is from here we start our journey, consciously or otherwise. Some may even refer to it as the beginning of a spiritual quest. (for reference please see interview with Dr. Rowan Williams.
Linda Woodhead: The question of identity can certainly be the starting point for a spiritual or moral question. ‘Who am I?’, ‘what am I really like’ are questions which we all have to answer at some point in our lives, and which crises can precipitate. We can get stuck in a particular identity, including one which others want us to inhabit, but the construction of identity can also be an ongoing process. This is not to make it all sound like an individual or individualistic matter: we construct identity in relation to given social identities (‘a good daughter’, ‘a good Muslim’, ‘a respected professional’, ‘a tough man’) which are often conveyed by images and stories and real people we know. And we constantly negotiate our identities in relation to one another: how you feel and speak about me may shape who I am. For religious people, god, goddess, goods and holy places are important elements in this whole process.
Musa Askari: The question on knowing our place in the world, some would argue, is more than to ask about our physical existence as a planetary form of life. Is it not also, together with the physical, a spiritual non-material question which goes beyond our empirical existence? If “spirituality” is also that which expresses our longing for “transcendence” then humanity’s quest to know its place in the world, in the cosmos, the whole endeavour of human thought, has been and remains perhaps a super-trans-historical spiritual pursuit.
I would be grateful for your thoughts on if the hidden debate between all of us as communities, as one “Human Self” (sacred – secular, religion-humanists, spiritual-atheist, physical-metaphysical) is a spiritual one also and that such a term of reference requires admission into the continuing debate/dialogue between religion and humanism, towards a spiritual humanism? (for reference please see section on Human Nature by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari )
Linda Woodhead: To ‘Know my place in the world’ is a very good starting point – and perhaps ending point – for a humanist or a spiritual quest. How many of us really know our place? We can take up too much space, or too little space. To know one’s place is a very difficult and demanding task, and it means making proper allowance for the space that other people, creatures, plants, and other elements of the natural world occupy. We have to give space as well as take it, and in doing so we find out who we really are. I think this may be a point on which humanists, atheists, environmentalists and many religious people would agree. There are also powerful traditions within many theistic religions which speak of God having to withdraw Godself to make space for the created order.
Musa Askari: From his reflection, “There are only Four Communities“ (Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision), Hasan Askari writes, “There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture….There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices….There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals….And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. ”
I am interested to understand if it is possible not only to enquire if a person identifies themselves as religious or otherwise, but if there is any work undertaken to capture an understanding of the outer and inner aspects of one’s religious, spiritual life and mystical life? Is the question asked on a recognition of inner and outer? For example take Islam where we have the outer enactments of faith, “salat”- canonical prayer, “Haj”-pilgrimage and so on all pointing to something beyond the outer act itself, a way to transcend as it were. On the other hand we notice a calling in the Quran to remember God, to contemplate and reflect in silence even outside of the prescribed rites of faith.
Linda Woodhead: I think we live in an age which is very focused on the external life – on how I act into the world, what material success I have, my relations with people and things. The price of this emphasis is often a neglect of the inner life. Mystical traditions saw nothing odd in a person dedicating the whole of life to exploring ‘inner space’ – a world which is invisible. Today many people would regard that as a wasted life, and think that such a person was being escapist, and retreating into an illusory world. At the same time, however, we all know that we have an ‘inside’ which we often find it hard to understand and articulate. We may need help – a friend or a therapist – to explore it. It is wonderful when we meet someone who can understand us, who can ‘see inside’. When this happens, the fundamental loneliness we al live with can be lifted in a miraculous way. Some people may experience this in prayer, some in nature, some with people they love, some watching movies or reading poems. You can call this ‘transcendence’, but it is a transcendence which at the same time roots us more deeply in who we really are.
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.