Inter-faith pioneer Prof. Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Rev Earl Hanna – 1988 radio show “An Endless Search”. A beautiful encounter through dialogue between spiritual seekers on topics such as : religious diversity, Oneness of God, theological challenges, critique of religious exclusivity, co-presence, mutual mission in dialogue, inner spirituality, the need for the Abrahamic witness. At the time of the interview Prof. Askari was Louise Iliff Visiting Professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Prof. Askari speaks also about his experiences of being engaged with inter-faith dialogue through his consultations with the World Council of Churches from the 1970s. On dialogue encounter Prof. Askari says, “For me dialogue is an occasion to be born spiritually as persons before each other, before God.”
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.
By Hasan Askari (Towards A Spiritual Humanism).
By joining both the hands in greeting the other, we greet in all our totality. In our wholeness of being, with our conscious and unconscious minds having become one mind, with our outer and inner realities having risen into one reality. When we greet the universe or a child, we say that our Soul is One Soul, that our God is One. Then we have abolished otherness we have abolished fear, we have all come home in each other. Then we know who we are, who is in us and in whom we are.
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.
Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad is lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, UK, which trains imams for British mosques. In 2010 he was voted Britain’s most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. His most recent book is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (2012). Abdal Hakim Murad regularly leads Juma prayers at the Cambridge central mosque, and has preached in major mosques in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States. Recordings of his khutbas and lectures are widely available in Islamic bookshops. His articles have appeared in The Independent, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Catholic Herald, Islamica, Zaman, Neue Zrcher Zeitung and Prospect. He is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4s Thought for the Day.
Sincere thanks to Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad for this interview.
“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad
Musa Askari : What does the term “spiritual” or “spirituality” invoke within you? Despite various manifestations of spirituality in the world do you sense at the heart of “spirituality” itself some common ground where people of different faiths or none may encounter each other? Do you recognise such a thing as “trans-spiritual”?
Abdal Hakim Murad: 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. If we try to use the term more exactly, we may find that the use of the word to indicate the action of the spirit – either God’s or our own – breaks down when we admit, as most religions do, that everything in existence is in fact the operation of the spirit. Again, the word typically leads us to confusion. It’s probably better to be Platonic, and speak in terms not of ‘spirituality’ but of beauty, which is ‘the splendour of the Truth’ – wherever beauty is discerned, the spirit is engaging in authentic perception, intuiting, whether we admit it or not, that beauty in the world is the sign of the sacred. That includes beautiful conduct, as well as physical or aural beauty. This would bring us closer to the semantic range of the Islamic word ihsan.
On that kind of category we can of course speak of the possibility of forms of mutual recognition between adherents of outwardly very disparate paths. No sacred tradition has ever marginalized beauty. On a rudimentary level we agree that modernity has replaced beauty with a love of newness and originality; and our leaders normally lament this as a disaster. That is a significant, although rather negative, basis for unity and mutual comprehension. More subtly, it is interesting how the recognition of beauty in, say, music or architecture, very often leaps over formal religious boundaries. Buddhists can feel transformed in cathedrals; and American Catholics admit that they are moved when they visit the Taj Mahal; and so on.
Musa Askari: At times I have, innerly – intuitively, been moved to tears by either reading aloud or remembering the beautiful verse in The Quran, “We are of God and unto God we return” (sura 2: ayat 156) At some inner level something is stirred within the soul (a memory perhaps) and those tears are as gifts, the after effects, powerful but secondary. The primary effect is with the soul, our non-material, invisible, indivisible companion, catching a glimpse of the coat tails of this beautiful verse on “returning” and following it. I recall Hasan Askari sharing the metaphor of a child at play upon hearing the voices of it’s parents calling, leaves the play and rushes to greet them. It is perhaps in that swing from the heart to soul we move from the outer meaning to the inner meaning, from the manifest to the hidden. From the particular to the universal, from multiplicity to unity.
I found it moving and a deeply spiritual statement where in your 2010 interview with The Independent you referred to your conversion to Islam as, “the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home”. I would be grateful if you could share more about the feeling of “coming home” and perhaps consider relating it to the verse quoted above on returning to God or any other verse you feel relevant?
Abdal Hakim Murad: To enter Islam is to repeat the Shahada (the Testimony of Unity and Prophecy); and the Shahada is really nothing less than a testimony to our Source which is also our native land: our point of origin and our place of return (mabda’ wa-ma’ad).
Rumi says in his Divan: ‘We were with the spheres, among the angels – let us return there, friend, for that is our native city.’ This is another universal kind of statement. In the context of the Holy Qur’an (7:172), it is the Primordial Covenant which was the ‘big bang’ moment at which the points of reflected divine light we call souls came into being and were summoned to testify to their Lord. The Black Stone in the Great Sanctuary is said to contain, in a mysterious way, that covenant; it is ‘God’s right hand on earth’. This is in a homily by Imam Ali: ‘when God took the covenant from all souls, He fed it to this Stone, which testifies to the believer’s faithfulness, and to the betrayal of the rejector.’
The five canonical Prayers are an enactment of this: the shahada during the prayer, said facing the House, affirms the House’s representation of the eternity of God, and also our remembering of the Primordial Covenant. In that sense the Prayer is ‘the pillar of Islam.’ It is our formal act of love and obeisance, and our highest dhikr – recollection of the Beloved. ‘Give us peace, Bilal’, the Holy Prophet would say when he wanted the Call to Prayer to be heard; and he said ‘the coolness of my eye is in prayer.’ The Hajj is a different kind of reenactment, taking the form of a symbolic journey from the periphery to the centre. Like the Prayer, it recalls the Ascension of the Holy Prophet, in which he left his earthly city for the Heavenly Abode.
It is that Abode which is, as the Qur’an reminds us, our ‘refuge’ (ma’wa), and our Abode of Peace (dar al-salam). The Garden is our home; but we can experience an intoxicating breath of its fragrance on earth, if we love and recognize the Gardener, and love and care for His garden and its other guests. The only true disaster for us in this place of wonders and signs is to look around us, and allow the demon within to say: ‘There is no gardener; this is only energy and matter’. From that expression of the ego’s defiance, all sin, without exception, flows. Put differently, it is also the true source of our alienation. In a sense the lover of God is always at home, because he feels around him the traces of his Beloved, on all side, in every moment. Love is to be at home, as well as to long for it.
This is why the true Qur’anic believer follows the counsel of the Holy Prophet: ‘wherever he finds wisdom, the believer has the most right to it.’ He knows that although outward adherence is essential; inward adherence may recognize value and beauty in the most unexpected places and people. Wherever the Beloved is yearned for sincerely; the believer will be respectful, for Beauty and sincerity are always to be honoured. This is the meaning of Sufi ‘tolerance’ – it is not a political or doctrinal category – for God’s Law is always to be revered; it is an acknowledgement, rooted both in scripture and in our social experience, of the reality of inward transformation in people of other traditions.
I believe that your father, rooted in the ancient and nuanced sapiential world of Hyderabadi mysticism, made that the basis of his interreligious work. One starts not with the One, but with the Many – for that is where we find ourselves and in the context of which we build our relationships. Great Muslim cities – and in the days of the Nizams, and for some time thereafter, Hyderabad was certainly one of the greatest – maintained a cosmopolitanism that sat easily with inward sagacity, an urbane and literate courtesy, and also with a passion for the outward resources of Islam. Your father was a product of that world, a representative of a classical Islamic deepness and certainty which is fast disappearing today. The young, although desperately in need of an awareness of the sanctity of religious others, often have no idea it ever existed. In today’s multicultural world, fundamentalism and xenophobia seem to be replacing humility, empathy, and the courage to learn from others. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of our times.
Musa Askari: In this clip you read aloud an excerpt of the story “Read in the Name of thy Lord” by Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision”
It is the story of a mother’s devotion to The Quran, the inner etiquette with which she approaches the scripture, the silence of the moment and being moved to tears by the beauty of the calligraphy. She was a “conscious soul”. Hasan Askari concludes the story with, “The entire world stood still at this amazing recital without words, without meaning, without knowledge. With that touch a unity was established between her and the Quran. At that moment she had passed into a state of total identity with the word of God. Her inability to read the scripture was her ability to hear once again: Read! Read, in the Name of thy Lord.”
At times our calling upon God is not a shared experience. It is not as communities or as collective identities that at times we turn to the Almighty for guidance but in the company of solitude. As a muslim leaves their shoes outside upon entering the mosque so too one perhaps leaves at the threshold of the inner door – one’s inner sanctuary, collective associations (not abandoning them). It can be an experience or “moment” of utter helplessness, of being completely alone with oneself as slowly the “presence” of silence fills the room like a beautiful “fragrance” and there leaps forth from our heart and soul a “calling” upon God.
Can you please talk about what forms the “calling upon God” take within Islamic tradition? From the formal prayer (salat) to spontaneous heartfelt utterances? Also in your opinion to what extent does “silence” play a role in the spiritual life of Islam?
Abdal Hakim Murad: I often reflect, as I listen to sermons, that the virtue of silence is not sufficiently cultivated among my contemporary brothers in faith. Or, I might venture to add, among my sisters. Imam al-Ghazali, borrowing from Ibn Abi Dunya’s book of homilies, The Book of Silence (Kitab al-Samt), sums up very finely the Islamic teaching here. As always, a middle course is required. On the one hand, Almighty God, in whose image we are called to remake ourselves, speaks, and has done so often! Who can count the number of His words and scriptures? ‘Were the sea to be ink for the words of my Lord, the sea, and the like thereof, would run dry’. And His prophets, and most of His saints, speak. But their words are wisdom, springing from the Divine self-communication, Speech, Logos – which is from the Essence and is ultimately something so pure it was can be seen as uncreated, partaking in the Divine pre-existence (azaliyya).
A word can heal a soul, or save a marriage, or bring a saint to completion. But a word can also declare war, or break a heart, or send an innocent man to jail. ‘Whoever can guarantee for me what is between his lips, and what is between his legs; I guarantee Paradise for him!’ promises the Blessed Prophet. It sounds easy, but each of us knows how difficult it is. So the teeth, for the Sufis, are a cage, restraining a lethal beast; the Sufi teachers remind us also that God has given us two ears, but only one tongue. We should listen, and listen to ourselves as well. Very often what we say is to vindicate ourselves; only seldom is it to glorify God or to vindicate others. Hence the cage. But it is the ego which is the touchstone. Imam al-Junayd said: ‘If you crave speech, be silent; if you crave silence, speak!’
Your father’s story about the illiterate woman engaging with the Word of God is one I have used often, or at least once a year, in my Cambridge Islam course. It underlines something that non-Muslims forget: the saving, incantatory, brilliant presence of the uncreated Book, which ‘saves’ and ‘heals’ and ‘shows mercy’ even if not a word of it is formally understood. Most believers are shown, at some point of their lives, the miraculous nature of the Book, when it ‘moves in their hands’; these are the ‘bibliotheophanies’ which strengthen faith and increase our love and awe. I have seen non-Muslim students reduced to tears on reading the Qur’an, whose ‘wind bloweth where it listeth.’
Musa Askari: Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism: “I asked my self this question: Why? Why more than one religion? In other words I was asking for a theology of world religions. I was asking for a global understanding of religious diversity. Because the diversity was there staring into my eyes. It was there un-mistakably present. And therefore, that was the first stage of my journey; to ask a theological question about more than one religion. It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice? If we do so then that one religion becomes a god. And it is a blasphemy. As God’s Transcendence is ineffable, as His Might and Power is infinite, as His Attributes are countless and therefore, there should be as many forms of praising Him, worshipping Him, adoring Him, showing love and devotion to Him. And therefore I came home in a multi religious world. As a muslim it was easy for me to arrive at this position because the Quran is the first scripture in the world which started an inter-religious dialogue. It accepted the reality of revelation being given to all communities across the world. The Quran gave me the first clue to understand the theological enigma of more than one religion. “
When you met with Hasan Askari in the 1990s I expect this may have been one of the topics you discussed. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on religious diversity and how these have developed over time? I am asking I suppose the same question Hasan asked himself, “Why more than one religion?”
Abdal Hakim Murad: The Qur’an celebrates human diversity; indeed, it is unusual among monotheistic scriptures in doing so. Significantly, it does not include the Tower of Babel story. The ‘difference of your languages and colours’ is a sign of God. In this, the text, in its original distant Arabian cradle, is anticipating its gigantic global reach. More than any other premodern sacred culture, Islam embraced a diversity of worlds. Vincent Monteil, the late professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, and a committed Muslim and Sufi, wrote of the ‘five colours of Islam’, in a volume which was a tour de force of scholarship, dealing with the Islam of Africa, the Middle East, the Turkic world, the Perso-Indic world, and the Malay nusantara. In all these places a diversity of humanity has sought the shade of the Holy Prophet’s tree, and all those cultures burst into fruit and flowers when Islam reached them.
Religious diversity, however, is not necessarily part of this; because the Qur’an is also insistent on the absolute importance of truth. The God it describes, with the 99 Beautiful Names, is not just another possible account of an Ineffable Noumenon, it is a true God, and those Names describe Him truly. Hence the law of non-contradiction ensures that different religions, which insist on different accounts of deity, cannot simultaneously be true. To claim that their discourses should be regarded as purely relative, is to denigrate them. Humans have the right to expect that their beliefs will be taken seriously on their own terms, rather than just seen as a set of picturesque metaphors which help our inward transformation.
Musa Askari: From the book “Towards A Spiritual Humanism : A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue” 1991,(Chapter 2, page 24), Hasan Askari writes, “The basic concern for me is the way in which we can reconcile our modern discoveries and our ancient insights. For instance, I subscribe to the theory of evolution, say tentatively, but that theory pertains to the evolution of our physical form, of our physical entity, of our animal identity vis-a-vis the environment – it has nothing to do with our “being” as rational and self conscious. I mean our cognizing identity…………..as soon as we enter into known history we notice a very vast gap between the material evolution of our society, and our mental, philosophical and spiritual evolution. We notice a chasm between the material progress of communities and the great philosophical strides they made. Furthermore, we notice that every great leap in consciousness in the past four thousand years is both a leap in that moment and also an epitome of the entire history of the mental life of mankind. It is the meeting point of both the part and the whole. In no other manner could I explain the emergence of the Upanishads and the Gita in a civilisation that possessed a primitive technology. Similarly, in no other manner could I explain the emergence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a small mercantile economy. I am at a loss to explain the emergence of very penetrating insights and formulations into questions of metaphysics in backward civilizations. Consider for one moment the emergence of Muhammed on the Arabian peninsula. Whatever one says, either for or against him, he was nevertheless a phenomenon. How could a primitive nomadic Bedouin culture produce a mind like his capable of transforming world history – it is simply bewildering…………..it is the phenomenon of the individual leap in evolution which to me contradicts the entire theory of materialistic evolution.”
Where do you see opportunities for non-ideological co-operation/dialogue between secular humanists and people of faith not only in terms of human rights but also on re-examining issues relating to our origins as human and spiritual beings as the above quote from Hasan Askari attempts to do?
Abdal Hakim Murad: Well, there are several questions here. One is the frequently overbegged question of whether ‘human rights’ should be understood through the lens of one culture alone. We speak of ‘universal human rights’ when in reality the rights concerned, for instance in the various generally impressive UN declarations, are those which were acceptable to Western or Westernised intellectuals in a particular historical period. John Gray’s Straw Dogs contains an amusing and rather shattering discussion of this. In fact, the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Lebanese Catholic intellectual who founded the Phalangist militia which massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. And recently we have seen how most Americans have failed to protest against torture, black sites, special rendition, and state surveillance of civilians, as part of the ‘War on Terror’. In practice, the authors of these declarations promptly set them aside when it suits them to do so.
There may be a disturbing and deep cause for this. It seems to me that one of the weak points of the modern discourse is the disjuncture between ‘humanism’, with its often lofty ideas about the human capacity for altruism and nobility, and the hard Darwinian paradigm of the ‘selfish gene’, which holds that we are the consequence of a billion years of blind selfishness. Hitler was a much more consistent Darwinian than are liberal democrats. This unpleasant truth about the implications of strict materialism has not been honestly faced.
The question of the emergence of Islam as an abrupt paradigm shift in history has attracted much attention. It is hard to find another historical event which changed so much so swiftly. Thanks to the profound love and fellowship among the Companions, a new human type seemed to be created overnight, and great civilizations quickly followed. This does, I think, challenge mechanical understandings of the human species as being reducible ultimately to the ‘selfish gene’ and natural selection over immense periods of time. We have the right to be a little Hegelian here: there are ‘world-historical individuals’ through whom astonishing things are accomplished. Hence Carlyle’s inclusion of the Holy Prophet as perhaps the most salient chapter of his book Heroes and Hero-worship. As Hans Küng has written: ‘Muhammad is discontinuity in person’. Here, more than in any other historical event, we find a challenge to evolutionary reductionism; I think your father was being very wise here.
Science is steadily turning into scientism: a rampant total Theory of Everything, which increasingly either patronises or demonises religion. Believers, whatever their tradition, should help scientists to recognize that a true humanism will be alert to ultimately irreducible, personal, aesthetic and ethical dimensions of human consciousness, and will resist, to its dying breath, the reduction of the sons and daughters of Adam to ‘meat machines’.
by Musa Askari
originally published in InterReligious Insight – July 2012
If we are going to address ourselves to the issue of terrorism let us state the obvious and most important at the outset: the threat of nuclear weapons. The weapon announced its arrival to the world by unleashing its horror over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stayed within our collective consciousness during the cold war and now, due to the one-sided debate on group terrorism, faded into the background. But it remains nonetheless real. It is impossible to comprehend fully the potential horror of such a weapon unleashing terror across the planet faster than any virus mutating across national boundaries.
The weapon and its fallout, like a virus, ignore national boundaries, recognising neither friend nor foe, neither oppressor nor oppressed. It does not discriminate. It is non-ideological. The hypnotic pull of the weapon is in the illusion of power it offers those in possession of it. Furthermore, the hypnosis is so far reaching we remain reluctant to be rid of it. The ultimate paradox is that we are protecting ourselves by sustaining a weapon which holds within its capability the destruction of its creator, humanity itself.
A call from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be understood as a call to humanity to wake up from the spell of collective hypnosis:
“We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man (sic), whose continued existence is in doubt.”
The threat to humanity’s continued existence from weapons of mass destruction, stated by Russell-Einstein, is the canopy of “terror” under which humanity has been conducting its affairs for the last seventy years or so. It is a threat that has become embedded in our consciousness to such an extent that it assumes fantastical and mythical proportions. As Hasan Askari puts it: “After all, what is a myth? A myth is a public dream. What is a dream? A dream is a private myth.” It is a dream one remembers dreaming but cannot recall the details fully upon awaking.
More immediate and urgent than ecological concerns, if not on a par with them, humanity needs to be free from the terror of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. To fulfil this extra-ordinary call, heeding the warning of Russell-Einstein, we need an equally extra-ordinary response of freeing ourselves from the grip of collective hypnosis. Unless we give up the old habit that by violence one can defeat violence we may not be able to save any innocent child’s life, born or unborn, now or years from now.
The nuclear weapon has no loyalty to either democratic or totalitarian nations. Is it not utterly shocking that the human intellect which unlocked the science to create such a weapon has resulted, through its proliferation, in creating a situation where the weapon can now destroy its creator? If this is not hypnosis then what is hypnosis? This is the unconscious terror under which we live and dare not look in the face: to behave in such ways where we believe we have freedom of choice when in reality our choices are governed by hypnosis.
To refer to Einstein once more: “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” We may now add: humanity does indeed play dice. What dangerous game of chance is it where the bet being waged is the continued existence of humanity? Whether one describes oneself as spiritual or a secular humanist, what is the value of that spirituality and humanism when such a weapon exists and we do not address ourselves to it? On this greatest of questions for human survival we require a combined, wholehearted, sustained spiritual-humanist response. When we talk of terrorism should it not be a minimum requirement to talk about the greatest threat humanity faces?
The real achievement of collective hypnosis is in its being hidden from our consciousness; by denying its own existence it continues to exist. At least a stage hypnotist asks for consent from an audience and removes the hypnosis at the end of the act. Collective hypnosis, on the other hand, neither asks for permission nor considers removing its influence. Let me cite again Hasan Askari:
“When I spoke in India after the atomic bombs were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I said then (1950) that the ideology was dead, the weapon had surpassed it all. A quarter million people were destroyed in a couple of minutes. Man had acted against his own survival. Oppenheimer, the architect of the first nuclear device, while watching the mushroom cloud, had shouted that he had become the destroyer of the world. He then spoke on behalf of those governments of the world who could go on producing more and more deadly weapons, thinking that these weapons would give security and peace to the nations of the world. The irony is that the very ideological division in whose context the weapon was invented had vanished. But the weapon remains. The knowledge that produced it remains. Its potential users are all there. All these years I have waited for that idea that will surpass the weapon of mass destruction and the philosophy and the technology that produced it and that dark psyche which may use it. Hence, whichever ideology claims to meet the challenges of the world at this critical hour must call upon all mankind to rise to abolish weapons of mass destruction and abolish war altogether and every violent means to achieve any national or ideological ends. We then require a total commitment to honour and uphold each individual life. We have limitless resources within our soul to repel evil by the good, repel violence with non-violent means knowing that the truth has its own might to defend and protect itself.”
On one level the general debate seems fundamentally flawed, reduced to questions of power and control. On the one hand, it lends itself easily to rightly denouncing acts of violence carried out by interest groups, while on the other hand it is inconsistent in that equal attention is not paid to similar, if not worse, acts of aggression and violence linked to conflicts past and present by those in political power. A life lost is a life lost despite the ideology that inspires the act of violence. A life lost from either a suicide attack or a guided missile launched from thousands of feet is a precious life. At both ends of the spectrum of violence there is a person, family, neighbourhood, a child, hopes and aspirations. Thus any discussion of terrorism which does not look at the greater issue, loss of human life from any form of violence, is bound to fail due to its one-sided character, and this in turn perpetuates illusions, self- righteousness and collective hypnosis.
SPIRITUAL CRITIQUE REQUIRED
A noticeable omission, so it appears to me, in the general news media is we are yet to be presented with some meaningful insight into the thinking of individuals, charged with or suspected of allegedly trying to commit horrific acts of violence. There is much news and information on movement between countries, occupations, academic backgrounds, other general details and so forth. One may track, locate and stop those who are committed to doing something deadly serious. However, beyond this physical security-led approach an attempt to present a spiritual critique becomes relevant when we come to religiously inspired group terrorism.
We may never know the inner psychological make up of each individual case. What we do know is that so-called religiously inspired terrorists, of whatever collective religion and political persuasion, present themselves as people of faith and that opens up the possibility of a spiritual response which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make together. Humanists cannot afford to wait on the sidelines and not participate in a joint spiritual-humanist critique of terror acts. A rationalist critique only of organised religion from humanists will not do. The time to revisit that is later.
We require a spiritual-humanist response addressed to the individual committed to acts of violence. The focus of our attention in any response must have at its heart the individual who would carry out a devastatingly merciless act of violence. If that means humanists and religious people need to go down the path of inquiring about spirituality together, so be it. It is in the individual where the hypnosis of terror takes hold, as it tempts individuals (and consequently nations) to respond to violent acts of terror with ever more violence, believing that “terror” has a physical locality – that if it is defeated by physical means in one place it will be defeated in every place. Let us admit that once and for all such an approach is absurd. We should have listened more attentively to those who were advocating an alternative to ever more violent responses to terrorism.
It is a trap we have fallen into it and tragically so many individual lives have been lost – individuals who make up a neighbourhood, city and country going about their daily lives. Whether it was Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Vietnam or Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Palestine, Chile or apartheid South Africa, Afghanistan or Iraq – a suicide attack by a Kamikaze pilot or a bomb exploding in some busy street – who can deny that in every instance the loss of individual lives is tragic beyond measure?
It is individuals related by family or friendship who are left to suffer tremendous sorrow and heartache. They cope in their own way, with immense courage, to somehow carry the grief of their loss. As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely. Should we notice the grief and hear the testimony of mourners we are humbled. Should we hear one story of heartache surely we must also recognise and pay tribute to all such stories across the world, regardless of circumstance, political grievance, national and religious boundaries.
Why are we not permitted to hear, in her own traumatised voice, in her own language, the pleas of a mother in Afghanistan cradling her new born child who was alive only moments ago and now is no more? Why do our news media, for example, seem to insist in having an intermediary to that grief by placing their reporter on the television screen between the victim and ourselves? Who other could do justice to that grief but the grief-stricken themselves?
I am reminded of the 2011 January 25th protests in Egypt where a man turns to the camera with his mouth bloodied saying: “Here is blood, there is terrorism”. Behind him on that night in Cairo we see crowds rushing for safety at the advance of security forces while the sound of gunshots can be heard. It is frightening watching it and one can only wonder what it must be like to have been there. What shall we say of any purpose behind violent acts of aggression by terrorist groups or states?
By “purpose” I imply something greater, universal, a goal to which every member of the human race can feel akin. A purpose which recognises that humanity’s past, present and future is both secular and sacred. Such a purpose excludes all forms of violence. A purpose which is a conscious self-thinking act by humanity. This to me is a purpose worth striving for in all peace. This to me is for the “common good”. What could be more common between each and every human being than “life” itself? What further good between us could there be than to honour the life of each and every self? Why should we not take a new direction and outdo one another in ever more greater acts of kindness, compassion and generosity upholding the common good, the principle of life?
With regard to so-called religiously inspired terror acts I would suggest that what is required is the shattering of religious self-righteousness. If one believes in a merciful and compassionate God, the Lord of “heaven and earth”, then is the mercy and compassion which characterises that Lordship to be understood as limited to a particular religion, region or piece of land, or is it not properly to be understood as universally transcending all divisions which we have created between us? We may need to take into account not only how a person perceives themselves socio-religiously but also “spiritually” – through what I would term “spiritual self-perception”.
By considering individual spiritual self-perception, asking questions about it, by altering the direction of our inquiry, we may yet steer a course away from a troubling development – a development which is another trap of collective hypnosis – that is, identifying the whole terrorist motivation of a small group of religiously motivated individuals with all of the followers of that religion worldwide. By doing so we do an injustice and miss the individual altogether, amplifying the effects of the physical horror, converting it into a general social suspicion of a faith body. Spiritual self-perception is a means to avoid all such developments, keeping our focus on the individual, thereby saving us from demonizing the other.
The ultimate responsibility for an act of terror cannot lie anywhere else but with the individual who commits it. Not a community, not a collective identity but simply and clearly the individual in sharp focus. An individual is more than a representational mix of collective identities. Let us not fall in to the trap laid by collective hypnosis of collective recrimination, isolating communities from each other.
The act has an actor. The script and stage may be controlled and set by others in power (groups/states). However, we cannot deny that the actor, as an individual, still has a choice to play the part or not. The sniper hiding in the rubble and the suicide bomber, both as individuals, have a choice to withdraw from the act. The choice, if it comes at all, may come very late, perhaps only moments before the act, or build up within the conscience of the individual. It is there, within the individual, that the sharp edge of terror, entering the world in a physical form, is born. It is to that moment of individuality that a narrative of spiritual self-perception attempts to speak to. How shall we speak to that individual?
Let us “speak” to that mind-set not just socially, morally, legally but also spiritually. Let us “ask” that individual to see others as individuals and think again.
It would be a mistake in my view, when preserving life is the prime motive, to neglect the question, “what is the individual spiritual self-perception foundation of any religiously motivated act of violence?” There should be no substantive objection to the word “spiritual” when we are attempting to use it in terms of preventing life from being taken prematurely. The value of the word is not whether a secularist agrees with the concept of spirituality or not. The value is in the potential for presenting a critique to religiously inspired terror – a critique which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make independently or together.
Why should there be any objection to the word “spiritual”? Why should we not together bring to bear the whole of human experience (secular, religious, scientific, mystical and spiritual) on problems? As one could say to any religious extremist, “do you worship your religion as a god or do you worship God?”, so one could ask a secular humanist who objects to the word spiritual, “which is more important; your world view or saving Life?” We cannot afford the luxury of conflict between secular, religious and spiritual outlooks when trying to pursue all peaceful avenues for preserving life.
The individuality of the individual, however submerged and drowned out by collective identities, still remains; perhaps latent but not absent. Otherwise how can one seek to explain the phenomenon of those who were once terrorists but speak now against the dogma they once believed, unless they had come to assert some form of individuality? That trace of individuality can also be noticed when we learn of soldiers who are or have been conscientious objectors and refuse to serve any longer. Quoting Hasan Askari, “unless one becomes a universal being one remains below humanity.”
In the arena of universal individuality we may have a chance to appeal to those more valued principles shared by much of everyday humanity. Rebel against that foisted identity and come out of that collective hypnosis which sees violent reprisals as the only effective means. The focus of this reflection is on honouring the most universal of things, individual human life and the common good. For that principle of life to be universal it must sit outside, over and above, all ideology and collective identity.
Outwardly, to “love thy neighbour” may be understood as to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, creed, language, race or religion. However, before the outer comes the inner. Before a thought there comes the thinker of that thought, the individual. Therefore, on the inner plane, there is another “neighbour” who both secular and faith-based humanists could have no disagreement about. It is a neighbour we take for granted far too often. Only when it has moved from its proximity to ourselves do we notice its absence. We abuse it, terrorise and torture it. We pay lip service to it and do not value it universally. It is all about us, it is all within us. Without this neighbour even our negligence of it is not possible. We raise countless tributes to it openly, only to betray it in secret. We honour it at one moment and in one place, at the same moment in a different place we dishonour. Through it all, throughout millennia, throughout all the wars humanity has conducted it has remained by our side. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition.
Who is this “neighbour” which has every right to seek justice for every injustice? It is simply and wonderfully, Life! From the sunrise of humanity to its sunset, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest, our true next of kin. It is a kinship that bonds us to each and every human being on the planet. What a wondrous kinship it is indeed where it breathes through all outer kinships, through all divisions, through all diversity; it is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity. As my late father used to say, “just reflect on the word Life!” I ask anyone contemplating any act of terror toward their fellow human beings to reflect on the word Life!
To repeat: as individuals we are more than any personal or collective identity; we are more than a nationality, creed, race or ethnicity, religion, caste or sect. May I suggest as humanists we cling to our identities lightly but not tightly: that such identities may inform our thinking but it is not essentially who we are. Spiritually, I would suggest we cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually we may let go of them so that what remains is the undivided individual. One un-differentiated self.
Nameless, we are born from our mother’s womb, unique and mysterious. In an attempt to identify that mystery, we are named. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is a moving experience when the names of those who have died are read aloud at remembrance gatherings throughout the world. How many names are forgotten? How many children have perished in acts of violence? Let us pay tribute to that mystery of life universally so that when we remember the innocent victims of one attack in one place we remember all such victims in all places, from people living under oppression to those in so-called free societies.
When we claim our individuality do we really mean it? Or do we think of ourselves as individual representations of a collective identity. That individual representation can become, under the spell of collective hypnosis, very easy to ridicule and dehumanise. We have seen it in the past, we are seeing it now. When one stops “seeing” the other as an individual another kind of birth mentally has taken place: the birth of the oppressor.
Where pride in collective identities, in extreme cases, takes on an exclusive one-sided face there we are entering a hypnosis which, in preservation of that identity, can readily ignore the injustices inflicted upon others. A self conscious good takes hold. In preserving any collective life by oppressive means, psychological and physical, it begs the question: where is the individual when gripped by collective hypnosis? Quoting Hasan Askari again:
“Jung was critical of world events, and he put forward the notion of the collective consciousness or the collective hypnosis created by religion, race, culture and language. In that sense, I believe that what Freud calls illusion, what Marx calls the opium of the masses, what Durkheim calls collective representation, and what Jung calls collective hypnosis, all sum up the phenomenon of collective history restricted to one particular formulation.”
In recent times one of the most powerful symbols of individual non-violent responses to terror has been the image of “The Tank Man” from Tiananmen Square; a lone citizen making an unarmed stand against the march of tanks. The footage is deeply moving. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. Outwardly on one side there is the “Tank Man”, alone. On the other side there is a line of tanks, a symbol of state military power. Inwardly, what in my opinion is also spiritual, the “Tank Man” has a far greater number standing behind him and beside him. They are invisible to the naked eye. They are to be found in every age and culture and in every place where people live under oppression and terror. They are the “individuals”.
We should recall there were two “Tank Men” that day. One standing before the tank and the other hidden from view driving the lead tank. What transpired between those two individuals staring at each other on that afternoon we will never know. What was he saying? Who was he? It is a mystery. At least this image is known. What of the unreported and ignored lives of those equally brave individuals standing up peacefully to terror and oppression all across the world? We saw them and we heard them during 2011 in what has become known as the Arab Spring. They continue their struggle.
The recognition of suffering and grief in order to be a true recognition must, as a consequence, involve the recognition of suffering and grief of all people everywhere. The people concerned cannot look the other way. One can only imagine what immense heartache they undergo and even after such imagining and empathy there is still perhaps an abysmal gulf between our imagination and their reality. A spiritual-humanist response to all forms of terrorism starts not in the world out there but instead within the heart and mind of each individual. To quote Hasan Askari:
“In my view, there should be a two-fold response to idealistic and ideological developments which result in self-complacency or collective hypnosis. First is a sociological response which helps people or the communities involved in knowing why a particular idealism / ideological formulation is becoming relevant to people at one time in history. The sociological critique would liberate us from a collective hypnosis and lead us into an objective self-understanding.”
“The second corrective is, in my view, a psychological critique that this one-sidedness has far reaching consequences for the human personality because here its humanity will be deformed, will be partialised, will be fragmented. In order to create a synthesis of the sociological and the psychological critiques we have to enshrine in our understanding and in our reflection another category, not just of attitude, but also the very characteristic of the truth we are seeking, namely openness, or willingness to listen to the other in his or her otherness.”
A Spiritual-Humanist response to all forms of terror, as well as being a questioning of power, oppression, violence and war, is also a journey to seek the truth of our inter-connections as individuals. It will be a multi-faceted journey with many co-travellers: secular and faith based humanists being co-present recognising one another, bearing co-witness for the mutual goal of preserving and valuing LIFE in all its diverse and wondrous manifestations. The best among them being the Life of a child who expects the world to save it from the worst of what humanity has done in the past and who hopes for a different future.
Finally, concluding these, admittedly broad, reflections let me re-state the greatest threat to human survival: the nuclear weapon, which, in my view, is a crime against every single living individual human being. As we worry rightly about handing over to future generations the problems of ecological disaster, let us not also hand over to a future humanity an inheritance which includes the terror of weapons of mass destruction. The taking of any life anywhere, regardless of who comes to know about it, through any form of terror act, is a crime against the whole “single cell” of humanity. A humanity richly diverse is a wonder and mystery – secular and religious, material and spiritual, physical and meta-physical. As Hasan Askari put it, humanity “stands for a hidden, universal unity across all physical and racial boundaries.”
Article VI – NPT Treaty “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Sincere thanks to Professor Gregory A. Barker on the following book review.
“Towards A Spiritual Humanism” is as a result of many hours of dialogue sessions between Hasan Askari and Jon Avery in June 1989. Hasan and Jon met one another at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado where Hasan was the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor. Jon writes in the introduction, “Hasan’s openness, warmth and erudition were engaging, especially in his informal discussions with students after class.” It is with the aspiration for that same sense of openness “SpiritualHuman” is proud to present this book review by Professor Gregory A. Barker.
When The Atheist Met The Mystic
A Dialogue Joke?
Did you hear about the Muslim Mystic who found common ground with an American Atheist? That question sounds like the beginning of a joke. It isn’t.
A very unusual book, first published in 1991, brings us a series of discussions between the celebrated esoteric Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and the American humanist Jon Avery.
The book is unusual because these dialogue partners are interested in exploring common ground beyond obvious differences toward metaphysical beliefs.
In popular media, religion and atheism are viewed as locked in debate: religion represents revelation, dogma, and traditional values; atheism champions truth, science, honesty and innovation. Each charges the other with immorality, violence and repression of the human spirit, with atheism currently gaining the upper hand for many with its “slam-dunk” arguments against traditional belief.
Yet many are currently questioning this simple opposition. On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions. At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies. Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement.
Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time
Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.
Don’t worry: this volume does not end up as a set of vague platitudes or a mutual admiration of liberal social principles. The encounter between these men produces heat as well as light.
Askari describes himself as an esoteric Muslim mystic who utterly rejects the dogmatism that holds contemporary Islamic movements in a “collective hypnosis”, blind to the deeper spiritual unity of the human race. Yet he will not surrender his conviction that there is a transcendent, non-material dimension to the cosmos, a force that unifies and enlightens every human being.
Jon Avery, an atheist, rejects this notion but sees it as a possible corrective to a rationalism that denies the emotional and aesthetic sides to human personality. He also shares Askari’s view that literalist-traditional theologians have created dogmatic approaches to theology that oppress rather than liberate the human spirit.
Thus, the central disagreement over the non-material transcendent dimension is accompanied by a central agreement over the “sin” of reducing human beings to theological slavery, rationalist one-sidedness or rabid consumers of western products. The two men bring this agreement and disagreement to a host of vital subjects: religion, psychology, the problem of evil and contemporary challenges such as the environment and the threat of nuclear war. Let’s look at just a few of the central concerns.
A Materialistic Universe?
Askari begins by clarifying the nature of his own adherence to Islam. He seeks to locate his own position between a thoroughgoing rationalism on the one hand, and a religious literalism on the other. He has found his own answer in a mystical or esoteric approach witnessed to by a host of thinkers from Plotinus to Carl Jung. A significant shift on his journey came when he accepted the notion that symbols from various world religions witness to unity and transcendence, a position he calls “poly-symbolism” rather than “polytheism”. This view, he says, mitigates against making absolute any one religion and relativizes any claim to “revelation” in terms of a strict set of doctrines and rules. It also challenges, for Askari, the reduction of life to that which can be seen with the physical eyes.
As one might guess, a chasm opens up between the two men on this final point.
Avery agues, “…only matter exists (as long as this matter is understood as evolving and dynamic) is more conducive to happiness than the language of a soul that is separate from the body.” (30) Avery, rooted in his humanist tradition, wants to see humans freed from superstition and religious fanaticism so that they can live in harmony with their physical environment – something, he says, that religious traditions have not always championed.
Askari is concerned that Avery’s view of religion is little more than a superficial ideology, a projection of materialist scholars about the content and direction of religion rather than a serious attempt to reconcile ancient and abiding insights with modern discoveries.
It is clear, says Askari that our intellectual lives operate on a different level from the material systems governing our physical lives.
Avery insists, however, that there is no need to introduce a dichotomy between the soul and the body – they are the same reality. The two then move into a complex argument about motion, with Avery arguing that material movement is self-caused and Askari that all motion is, ultimately, caused by non-material forces. Through this discussion, Avery is concerned that a religious determinism will remove humans from being properly concerned about the material world. Yet Askari argues convincingly that the idea of “self caused motion” is itself a metaphorical interpretation of reality rather than a scientific statement – to which Avery agrees.
Is There A Soul?
Both men use the word “soul” but, predictably, with different meanings. For Jon Avery the soul is a “metaphor for the source of human values” (46); this leads him to define God as the earth and “the soul is the earth in us.” (47). For Askari these definitions are inadequate as they leave humans subject to collective social hypnoses that are destructive to human life; there must be a source beyond ourselves he insists.
The two men are able to agree on the importance of human responsibility, the danger of the doctrine of “original sin” and the idea that human identity is not exhausted by individual consciousness.
Both men are fascinated by Carl Jung and see much promise in the idea that there is a shared humanity, the collective unconscious that unites humans at a deeper level than ideology. Yet, Avery contends that there is a rationalistic explanation for Jung’s archetypes: they are a product of a specific functioning of the human mind, rather than stemming from a mystical source. In other words, the fact that similar categories of thought emerge between otherwise disparate cultures is not necessarily an argument for transcendence but may simply be how the human body works. Still, Avery appreciates the wider view of consciousness provided by a psychoanalytic viewpoint.
At this point Askari passionately declares:
“We need such a unifying principle (i.e. the soul), which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality. Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give to it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today. What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race, or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psychic and the physical realms.” (65)
Avery admits that a rationalistic suppression of the emotional and aesthetic dimensions has limited human life and contributed to an exploitation of the earth’s resources. He accepts that there needs to be a human “integration” that accompanies positive progress.
A Spiritual Government?
The dialogue takes a fascinating turn when Askari reflects on attempts to fuse or separate spirituality in politics. Bearing witness to Islamist movements, Askari makes the point that the state inevitably is divinized when it is viewed as a necessary arm of religion. In other words, the state is equated with spirituality and becomes nothing less than an idol that oppresses humanity.
But Askari does not stop here. He believes that America has produced an equally devastating problem through the separation of church and state. By privatizing spirituality, the state becomes free to create powerful ideologies that are immune to spiritual criticism. Here, too, the state is divinized.
At first, Avery objects to this criticism of the United States and champions the justice that has come from the separation of church and state. However, after some further interchange, he admits that the state needs a corrective from a non-ideological point of view.
Askari accuses America as having fostered nothing less than “schizophrenia” between private spirituality and public ideology which leads to an imbalanced soul. His solution is that there should be a unity between our private and public lives — which, for Avery, is best captured by the term “dialectic”. However, for Avery there are forces other than the state that lead to dehumanization; for example, the uncritical use of technology.
A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?
Shining through these pages is the fact that both of these men are “Humanists”: each hold human life to be precious, and are convicted about the need to resist the threat to human welfare that comes from war, inhumane actions and the irresponsible use of the environment. However, these men are at odds with their definition of the term “evil”.
This critical difference means that they take a different attitude to human suffering.
For Avery, evil is anything that prevents life from flourishing. He identifies with the “meliorism” of William James: our task it so reduce human suffering as much as possible. However, Askari locates the source of suffering in human ignorance of the underlying unity of life, an ignorance fought against by leading spiritual figures through the ages.
Thus, the book ends with the same tensions introduced at the beginning. Askari is, ultimately, informed by a religious or spiritual vision of life and Avery tends to think that this vision has done more harm than good for human beings.
Askari’s point of view leads him to the striking attitude of questioning that all suffering should be eradicated. Suffering is, he says, a part of the structure of human life. The main enemy is not physical death but absolutizing our own narrow images and ideas about life and holding these as a sword over the heads of others. His vision of “poly-symbolic” pan-spirituality rooted in notions of the divine realm testified to by Plotinus is recommended as an antidote to religious sectarianism and the collapse of the human soul into superficial trends. Scientific reason is not alone going to be able to combat the forces that pull humans into blindness and ignorance, he insists.
But Avery will not so quickly be lured away from his conviction about alleviating all human suffering. Furthermore he sees dangers in superficial spiritual solutions promoted by New Age approaches. Yet, he acknowledges that the answer to the question, “What is the basis for human rights?” must draw upon a different type of reasoning than that normally provided in the rationalist-humanist tradition and he thanks Askari for helping him to seeing that some thinkers from religious traditions have answers to this question that can complement a humanist perspective.
The Meeting Ground
Despite all of these differences, Avery refers to having broken new ground as a result of this dialogue:
“If human rights are an expression of these higher reaches of humanity beyond the physical and dogmatic level in the creative and trans-human levels, then I would agree with you that human rights have a spiritual foundation.” (121).
The use of the term “spiritual” by an atheist is but one of the many features of this dialogue which puts it decades ahead of its time.
Anyone who is not satisfied with polarized portrayals of atheists or religionists will find this book to be a rare gem.
-Gregory A Barker
More on the work of Professor Barker: http://gregbarkercoaching.com/
* See also “Human Nature” above for extract from Towards A Spritual Humanism
*See also “Spiritual Humanism” above for speech transcript by Hasan Askari
*See also “InterReligious Dialogue” above an article by Hasan Askari
The following is the brief introduction to a small book, Seers & Sages (1991), compiled by Hasan Askari and David Bowen. Further below extracts from the book.
Seers & Sages (600 BC to 1850 AC) “We present here under 40-year cycles from the sixth century B.C. to the nineteenth century A.C the names of both the well-known and lesser known sages, mystics and sufis drawn from all over the world, and also mention, wherever necessary, the schools and the orders they or their followers created. By looking at one cycle, one can notice names from East to West and discover how at one and the same time there were people, scattered in different parts of the world, yet all united in their work to bring to mankind a higher level of awareness. For centuries we were locked up in one particular spiritual geography and history. Now is the time to move from all modes of narrow spiritual patriotism and participate in a broader communion with the elevated souls of all humanity.
We may then realise that we must hesitate before making any exclusive claims on our access to truths that are universally attainable. Now we stand at the threshold of a new cycle, not a new symbol or name, but of an inter-relationship, a neighbourhood, a kinship of spirit, a real community; and the individuals who figure under these “cycles” may therefore be considered as transparently one and many at the same time.
“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.
Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.
In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.
His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…” (For more on the work of Antony Thomas please visit his website http://www.antonythomas.co.uk/ )
Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.
Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?
Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question. “How do you know that God exists?” “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films.
What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.
Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.
Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama. In the case of the latter, one is following a script. It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming.
I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan. The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.
After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.
Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9)
Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.
As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?
Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.
Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”
Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?
Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma. What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system. I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.
The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago: “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.”
Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.
Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.
Antony Thomas: Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make. There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us. I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.
Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.
“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html )
“It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/ )
Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?
Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.