By Musa Askari
Delivered at “Happiness & Wellbeing Conference” Birmingham, UK. 16th June 2018.
I would like to begin with one of the happiest moments in my life, nearly a quarter century ago. It was in 1995, in the city of Hyderabad, India. Syed Hasan Askari, my late father-teacher, delivered his speech on Spiritual Humanism, an alternative to secularism and religious fundamentalism, charting his life journey as a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and the pursuit for the revival of the classical discourse on soul.
From that speech I share his words as follows:
“Each one of us sitting now in this hall shares without qualification a principle. Irrespective of age, race, gender, culture, language or religion. And that principle is so obvious and self-evident that we don’t even look at it. When you don’t look at it you become unconscious of it but philosophers start with the obvious…..The principle which all of us share without qualification, without exception is that of “Life”. Just reflect on the word Life!”
Hasan Askari continues:
“The first definition of life according to Aristotle is that all life somehow involves voluntary movement however undeveloped or developed. As soon as you raise your hand, such an ordinary taken for granted image, you have given testimony to voluntary Life. This voluntary life is not the characteristic of any material principle. It should come from a non-material source. In other words it should have a meta-physical origin. That is the first proof that all of us have a soul which is both one and many at the same time.”
“You meet someone on the pavement passing by you, you meet someone in the corridor you look at him he looks at you; both are Soul-Beings.”
“First Jesus, then later the Prophet of Islam and much earlier Buddha in India. These three taught us how to greet one another. When you say Salam, when you say Peace, when you say Namaste one soul greets the other soul. You are paying tribute to your mutual recognition as the miracle of self- conscious organic thinking Life.”
It was an honour to have been there with him at that time.
The voluntary act of greeting another for me is an occasion of happiness. In its essence, when uttered with sincerity, what else could it be but happiness to consider the well-being of one’s neighbour.
For me the idea of a “neighbour” is also spiritual. One of the interpretations to “love thy neighbour” may be understood to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, language or religion. Equally on the inner plane, on a deeply personal level, there is a “neighbour” who in principle also is free of such identifications.
“It is a neighbour we take for granted. 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. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition in ourselves and in our neighbour. 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, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest. Our true next of kin. A kinship that bonds us to each and every human being. A wondrous kinship that breathes through all divisions, through all diversity. It is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity.”
This “kinship” being our spiritual trans-national connection.
Spiritually for me gratitude for “Life” itself is a state of happiness. A gift. Being grateful innerly, in the act of prayer, in the act of remembrance of God, in everyday life for “Life” itself is tremendously moving.
I have found it generates a state of well-being independent of physical wellbeing. And depending upon the degree to which one is grateful it can help us transcend and overcome the difficulties of life. The experience of wellbeing, coming out of a sense of gratitude, despite moments in my outer life of great strain and heartache, has never abandoned me. It remains available irrespective of outer circumstances that are either favourable or otherwise.
Ingratitude for Life for me is one of the sources of unhappiness.
Hasan Askari reflects in his book “Alone to Alone” that,
“Gratitude is faith. It is the cornerstone. It is the bridge. Without gratitude there is no strength in patience and no pleasure in remembering. Gratitude is for both material and spiritual gifts, but there is another far higher gratitude, gratitude to the Supreme who is all possessing and yet, what is in reality His, He calls it ours.”
The Quran reminds the reciter:
“And unto everyone who is conscious of God, He always grants a way out of unhappiness, and provides for him in a manner beyond all expectation, and for everyone who places his trust in God, He alone is enough.”
One of the most deeply moving examples of gratitude, trust and patience we find in the words of Imam Hussain, son of Imam Ali b Abi Talib from whom sufi traditions draw their spirituality. Imam Hussain being the grandson of the Prophet of Islam.
Anyone who knows the story of Hussain and what transpired cannot help but be moved. Despite the intervening thirteen hundred years the power of the story of Hussain continues to resonate.
Thirteen hundred year ago on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, on the plains of Karbala, Iraq, the cavalry advances to Imam Hussain’s camp wherein are his family and companions.
Imam Hussain calls upon God:
“O Allah, it is You in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, no matter how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish my hope in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in everything and have revealed its significance to me. You are the Master of all Grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.” (The Book of Guidance, al-Mufid)
Here I would like to draw attention to the words of Plotinus (mystic-philosopher) who writes about the Soul of the Proficient:
“As for violent personal sufferings, he will carry them off as well he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off. And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.”
From the revelatory to the religious. From the mystical to the philosophical qualities of gratitude, trust and patience carry great significance. Thereby, providing multiple sources to help awaken within us such qualities.
Is it not so occasions which are outwardly and innerly so painful are also important sources of comfort and inspiration throughout our lives? As in world history so to in our personal history.
Perhaps by the very fact of living through them, of surviving as it were, carries within it the remedy.
Therefore, on a personal note I would like to take you back to another an occasion in my life for which I remain eternally grateful. An occasion that has become a high water mark in my spiritual life. It remains a constant source of thankfulness and support to me. The occasion was deeply sad. I was honoured to have been there at the end.
It was in the early morning of 19th February 2008, around 7am. I was holding the hand of my late father. He was passing away. I thanked him deeply. I told him do not be afraid, do not worry, kissed his hand and wished him farewell.
I am utterly indebted to him for all that he offered me and showed me.
It is due to the course of his spiritual life I am able to be with you here today. It was the least I could do to be there with him as he breathed his last.
The following day we buried him. I thanked him again for everything. I knocked three times upon his coffin and tearfully spoke to him bearing witness and testifying that he had lived a great life. I said it was a Life worthwhile. I testify as such again today about a mystic who was my teacher and friend. Some considered him a Sufi.
In his 1984 interview on mysticism Karen Armstrong asks Hasan Askari, “Can anyone become a mystic and have a mystical experience?”
Hasan Askari responds, “Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”
Hasan Askari continues, “I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque… a man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
I come now to what I consider to be the heart of the mystical life.
For the Mystic, for the Sufi, Love of the “Beloved” is the irresistible undercurrent to the Act of Contemplation upon the Oneness of God, and the Act of Remembrance of God.
It is in recalling the kindness of my father that I am drawn inevitably to perhaps the most important aspect of spirituality. Namely, Love. The font of happiness and wellbeing.
It is a “constant” in that it is never failing and all embracing, crossing all categories of identification and limit.
It is “non-material”. I do not consider it a physical thing to be found in one place to the absence of it in another place. It is available to all at one and the same time despite differences in expression. It is One Love.
Leading to my third thought, one cannot speak of Love without “Remembering” one’s Being as non-material also, namely Soul. Love is an insignia and spark within the Soul which is pure “Longing”.
It is love within the Soul that compels it to yearn for and remember its Source. It is a “returning home”. A fullness of Being.
As the Qur’an reminds, “We are of God and unto God we return”.
Love is also to perhaps “forsake love”. To give it up at the final stage of Soul’s journey. After much wandering and longing, love has brought Soul from shore to shore, over still and raging oceans realising there can be no duality. “Do not say two. Say One!” recalling my teacher’s words. To return the soul as it was given, “empty” of all projections.
Remembering the Quran, “Wheresoever one looks, one sees the Face of one’s Glorious and Majestic Lord.”
It is in giving up the image we turn to the Original where Love is complete, simple, a Unity of all unities. Leading to my sixth thought, love is “pure”. After such purification of the soul there is only one thing to do. Be humble with bowed head, to wait in patience for the “Beloved” to arrive.
At that threshold one does not enter by one’s will for personal will was left far behind in the earlier stages of the journey. One is invited to enter at the behest of the Beloved – to be “in” Love.
Here, in that state of patience, the summit of zikr (remembrance) takes place in the soul. To rise one’s zikr to this station and let patience continually envelop one’s being.
And for that invitation, for that recognition, one would wait an eternity if one had to. For there is no other to turn to.
One may be wondering why I have not referred to Beauty. Ah, but what to speak of Beauty at this stage. All is Beautiful. And that is my seventh thought; “Beauty” itself.
It drew me from the First and draws me to the Last.
Plotinus, the mystic philosopher, father of Neo-Platonism, writes powerfully about the state of a Proficient Soul:
“Once the man is a Sage, the means of happiness, the way to good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him.…. Adverse fortune does not shake his felicity: the life so founded is stable ever.”
With such a vision, with love considered with Soul, one can engage with the world, with family, relationships, friends, neighbours, “strangers” (in truth there are no strangers to the Soul), seeing that behind all such relationships is the same Love, one-many. “In Love” there is no such thing as the “other”.
All are One. Then one may say with utmost sincerity;
“Your soul and my soul are one Soul. Your God and my God is One God.” (Hasan Askari).
How to start this quest? How to re-orientate one’s identity so to speak? Can one seek happiness within and without collective identities?
This is I how I have answered these questions to myself:
• I prefer to hold on to any identity lightly rather than tightly. It informs my thinking but is not essentially who I am.
• Spiritually, I cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually I may let go of them and what remains is the undivided individual sitting patiently at that threshold.
And finally, for the avoidance of doubt. I am saying we are “more than” our outer identities of nationality, culture, race, ethnicity and religion to name but a few. For me the peak of that “more than” aspect is that we are a Soul. Immaterial, invisible, indivisible, immortal. The same Soul before birth, in life and after death.
However, for those to whom this aspect (Soul) many seem problematic I make the following appeal. Let us consider the possibility that we are at least something “more than” the sum of collective identities, even if we, for the moment, leave it unnamed.
So that in meeting one another as human beings, as travellers, seekers, peace makers and spiritual-humanists on the path we may be drawn to learn about the other before us, abolishing otherness, by transcending outward identities. It is possible.
That to me holds tremendous promise and hope. That to me is “encounter”. That to me is the foothills of Transcendence.
Fellow Contributors to Happiness & Wellbeing Conference:
(1) Emerita Professor Linda Gask (University of Manchester) “Why I’m happy to be sad”. (2) Professor Richard King (University of Kent) “From Buddhist meditation to modern secular therapy: an analysis of mindfulness in ancient and modern contexts. (3) Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah (University of Birmingham) “Understanding happiness and wellbeing: a Hindu perspective. (4) Dr David McLoughlin (Newman University) “Jesus charter of happiness”. (5) Mr Vishal Soni (Light Hall Academy, Solihull) The science of happiness: a personal journey through chronic illness. You can watch Vishal’s speech here (6) Emerita Professor Paula McGee (Birmingham City University) Happiness and health.
Spiritual Human is honoured to present by renowned scholar Bishop Kenneth Cragg his chapter on the work of Muslim inter-faith pioneer Professor Hasan Askari from Bishop Cragg’s 1985 book “The Pen and the Faith – Eight modern Muslim writers and the Qur’an”. Bishop Cragg “writes from a long academic and practical concern for Islam and its Scripture.”
Professor Hasan Askari “was appointed to the Chair of Sociology at Osmania University (Hyderabad, India) at the early age of 25.” Having taught Sociology for some twenty years Professor Askari took his career in to the field of Inter-Religious Dialogue which brought him to teach and lecture in the West making his home in the United Kingdom. A journey he talks about eloquently in his 1995 speech “Spiritual Humanism” on his final visit to Hyderabad.
Professor Jane I Smith (Harvard Divinity School) writes of Hasan Askari, “Those who have known him through the years find it no surprise that the noted interpreter of Islam, Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg, has acknowledged Hasan Askari as one of the eight prominent Muslim thinkers of this century in The Pen and the Faith. A philosopher, a mystic, an historian and a social scientist, Askari pleads with religious persons everywhere to transcend the limitations we have placed on ourselves and to move together to new levels of understanding.”
Bishop Kenneth Cragg writes:
“The true greatness of a religion is only obvious when you do not regard it as a religion,” we will find Kamil Ramzi observing in Najib Mahfuz’s Maraya, after that author’s familiar cryptic manner.1 Whatever his immediate intention in that character sketch, it is a sentiment often encountered among interpreters anxious to reserve what they see as the deep spirituality and intellectual stature of their faiths from the toll of their institutional, dogmatic or popular expression. Such apologists are to be found in all traditions. What they identify as the essence, or reality, or ultimate intention, of their faith may be sharply at odds with its general image in history or even with its seemingly categorical expression according to its structure of received authority, whether scriptural, credal or liturgical. But a personal appeal to conscience, intuition, or spirit, avails to override, or reinterpret, these traditional constraints and the resulting issues can be entrusted, with all sincerity, to patience and the future. Verdicts of this order against “religion” on behalf of “religion”, ventures in disavowal as deepest loyalty, tend – not unnaturally – to belong with efforts after “inter-faith” and mutuality across religions frontiers.
Hasan Askari has for many years exemplified what such initiatives entail and achieve from within Islam. In his Inter-Religion, he remarks: “For a religion to remain a religion it should be inter-religious”2. He has given notable impetus to Islamic exploration of what such readiness might mean vis-à-vis the Christian faith. His reading for the Qur’an suggests lively possibilities of Muslim-Christian kinship and, so doing, central areas of interior questioning for both. Some may find them at once too bold and too sanguine, admirably conceived for the spiritually minded but for that reason scarcely fitted to master the prejudiced in their strongholds of institutional assurance. Such incapacity is no discredit. It belongs with the very nature of the enterprise. But, like “time’s winged chariot” warning the tardy about delay, it must always be in mind if right spiritual incentives are to keep faith with their total task – a task which must be forever aware of how perverse to “religion” the religious constituency can be.
The content of Hasan Askari’s scholarship is shaped by three evident factors.These are the Indian context, the field of sociology, and sustained activity in Muslim-Christian relations in the West. Like numerous other notable institutions of Islamic learning, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Deccan, experienced the trauma of adjustment to Indian statehood after the partition of the subcontinent and the Hinduisation of university life. The acceptance of minority status divested Indian Muslims of their traditional and instinctive reliance on the political arm. The creation of the separate state of Pakistan symbolised the forfeiture, for them, of that shape of Islamic destiny and threw them back, with aggravated finality, on Muslim-Hindu coexistence. The coexistence, the majority community reasonably argued, must mean the end of sectarian dominance of educational institutions hitherto regarded as communal symbols. The violent circumstances of Hyderabad’s absorption into India were a sharp dismissal of the prestigious past. Though the state was predominantly Hindu in population, the Nizam was Muslim and ruled absolutely. Osmania was the state university, founded in 1918, and enjoying an envied reputation. Urdu was its official language of instruction. Islamic theology was required for all Muslims enrolled, and Islamic ethics for all non-Muslims. Islamic Culture, published there, earned, and still retains, a high reputation as a medium of Islamic research. Syed Abdel Latif, President of its Academy of Islamic Studies and translator of the Qur’an and of part of Maulana Azad’s Quranic Commentary, was one of its most distinguished sons. The university’s Bureau of Translations, because of its policy in the use of Urdu, was the means to numerous translations into that language from Western sources. All in all, it could be said that Osmania underwent all the psychic and academic tensions implicit in the transition to “secular” India. Certainly, Islam, in that permanent minority role, had to analyse, and maybe discover, within itself, what due Islamic response might be to the fundamental changes in its status, prospects and resources after 1947.
Teaching there in the sixties, Hasan Askari developed his personal response, inwards and professional, in the field of sociology. It has sometimes happened in the West also that penetrating and perceptive theologies have been generated within this discipline.3 Its practitioners are disencumbered of the cautious traditionalism of the professional dogmatists, with their stock in trade of Tafsir, Kalam, and – it may be – Taqlid. These tend to obscure the deeper issues of obfuscate the mind. Custodians habitually confine their study to secure authority and safe precedent. There is the danger they may never raise the questions which take them behind their lines. Defensively, it is just that danger they instinctively ignore.
The sociologist, by contrast, is made keenly aware of religion as a phenomenon, whose workings he must study and compare, as a factor in the scene, a feature of the human landscape, a function in the social order, properly to be assessed by considerations other than, or perhaps indifferent to, its truth claims. He needs to be alert to a collective psyche, to face criteria which may well relativise, or neutralise, the elements, dear to the dogmatist, which prize finality, uniqueness and authority. He may suspect that these are moderated, if not discounted, by a sociological alignment of the workings of religion, however competitive their doctrines or contrasted their cults. Sociology focuses attention on the motives which underlie beliefs and takes the “interests” that supply the motives to be more vital than alleged reasons or doctrines. It examines how a concern for identity and security dominates a human community and may go far to account for the strength of the religious faith by which the community is defined. It also claims to interpret the role in the community fulfilled by official custodians of faith and ritual, whether imams or shaikhs or clergy. What it finds that role to be may well differ from the suppositions of those who play it as to authority and sincerity. In all these ways, sociology is calculated to suggest radically different angles on religious beliefs and institutions from those of the theologians.
That is not to say that sociological assessments of religion are always to be trusted. Sociology can be liable to abstraction as much as some theology. But it is to say that it can prove a very salutary discipline in alerting and sifting thought about faith, when allied with the will for iklas, or sincerity, which the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon the Muslim.4 For at least it uncovers areas and tests of such sincerity which, sociology apart, might never be acknowledged.
It is, however, his deep involvement in inter-faith endeavour which most fully explains Dr Askari’s thought about religion. Since its inception in 1976 he has been closely engaged in the concepts and work of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, at the Selly Oak Colleges, in Birmingham, England. Prior to its initiation, he had been active in the World Council of Churches’ Unit on Dialogue and Witness, participating in its pioneer consultation at Ajaltoun in 1970.5 His name has become a household word in circles committed to Muslim-Christian understanding in Asia, the Middle-East and Europe and in the United States. He was one of seven eminent Muslim thinkers to contribute to Dr Youakim Mubarac’s Verse et controverse, in which responses were made to the focal points at issue between the two faiths. His sustained commitments in the field of dialogue, against the background of his sociological expertise, have given him a stature of leadership as a uniquely formative thinker from within Islam. His work in the dynamics of symbolism and his familiarity with Western existentialism – especially Soren Kierkegard – ensure that his personal voice from within Shi’ah Islam is alert, patient and compassionate.
Before exploring his main themes and emphases, it is well to reflect further on the way in which the prerequisites of inter-faith relationship tend to generate themselves in the very pursuit of it. It may well be a case of “seek and ye shall find”, and of the paradox “to him that hath shall be given”. Certainly what is needed only comes about in the going. It cannot be had in the abstract. The will to personal relationship between “differing” believers requires a certain “abeyance” of assertion and denial in the credal or ritual realms, since insistence on these items of divisiveness would impede or exclude the willed relationship. That conscious “abeyance” of things dogmatic or particularist may cause a sense of disquiet, or even compromise. This is not shelved or ignored and certainly not resolved. But it is held in creative suspense because the will to relationship has its own authentic impulse and plainly requires such suspension of what denies it. That very suspension – given that it is not disloyal and it warranted by its spiritual intent – may itself refine the loyalty that rises to it, by setting the doctrinal themes of loyalty in a new and possibly liberating light. “What do they know of England who only England know?” is a familiar question. Perhaps we have only partly known either our Islam or our Christianity, if we have only known them in their mutual isolation. There is perspective in the view from the other side. Our exclusivisms, seen from a different angle, are obliged to question themselves, and, if appropriate, justify themselves, by criteria to which – open relationships apart – they could not and would not be susceptible.
This is no easy path. But it can be a liberating road. Muhammad al-Nuwaihy, of Cairo, certainly walked it in respect of Christian understanding of the Cross of Jesus. To him as a Muslim, he insisted it remained inacceptable, indeed repellent. But he recognised generously that it was, for the Christian, the most compelling and magnificent focus of the mystery of transcendent power and grace. He could allow that, for the Christian, “God was in Christ reconciling the world”. For the Christian. There, of course, was his reservation of the Islamic position. But dialogue and, even more, personal friendship had brought him to the point of realising a “Christian’s truth”. Comparable realisations have come to Christians relating, for example, to the sacramental sense of things in the Qur’an, the God-centred habit of praise, the profound relevance of the meaning of Tauhid and Shirk.6
Such realisations may well suggest, or imply, a distinction between truth for and truth of. The New Testament will be truth for Christians, the Qur’an truth for Muslims, irrespective – in the mutual situation – of the truth of either for the other. This is obviously not a final or an ultimately satisfying position. Indeed, the distinction could be a profoundly treacherous one. In any event, it is not one at which to stay. But it may represent an important waymark on the road away from bigotry and towards finality. It has been invoked by Jews concerned to accommodate Christianity in some way within an election that excludes Gentiles.7 It has been affirmed by Christians eager to concede unbroken Jewish exceptionality and to understand their Christianity as being for Gentiles only.8 Buddhists and Christians could work out equally feasible alignments of “approval”. Yet they will all have continuing spiritual and intellectual obligations to what is at issue between the two propositions “for” and “of” in respect of truth.
That, of course, is the unfinished task of dialogue. Some would insist that it is a hopeless one, that mutually complementing and mutually contradicting “truths” are all we have and, given sociological and language predicaments, all we can expect. Those who accept that impasse will be in danger of declining into supine tolerance. Those who mean to surmount it will need the equipment of mind and soul. Which, albeit as a halfway house, it furnishes and yields. If we are ever to get beyond it, we must live within it. For, in present situations of national passion, of hemispheric tension and of spiritual alienation, it is the only hope we have. It is this fact which warrantsa salute of gratitude to Hasan Askari as an outstanding Muslim practitioner of the art of Christian appreciation. Only by such a tribute of mind can a Christian critical appraisal of his thought properly develop and press the points of continuing question which it leaves at issue.
It will do so in the knowledge that these concern the nature of Islam as much as they belong with the self-understanding of Christians. For one of these characteristics of such dialogue – and it is notable in the case of Hasan Askari – is that it tends to idiosyncratic views of the faith out of which it speaks. Indeed, the interpretation of Islam is as much at stake here as the Islamic appraisal of Christianity. Perhaps that is proper and inevitable. But it will be important that pioneers in Islamic initiatives reaching into Christianity should not part company too radically with the Islam broadly understood as normative among Muslims. That the latter is often hard to identify with consensus is no warrant for not registering its pull as a rope whose tether must determine our range. The Qur’an itself may be invoked for this metaphor when it refer to “the rope of God”, to which believers must cling in a solidarity which does not break up into divisions (3.103). Pioneers seeking open relationships across traditional borders may often be found affirming a strongly personal version of the faith. This is doubtless necessary to their openness. But it would be a dubious openness which lost sight of its own character. For it is just the closedness to each other of popular religions and traditional faiths that constitutes the heavy task of the open-hearted.
Hasan Askari’s thought is rooted in the basic concern of Islam “not to allow the Godness of God to suffer in men’s belief about Him”.9 That, of course, is the central point of Tauhid, divine unity, God’s immunity from all false notions, whether these are plural, or superstitious, or representational. Shirk, which must always be anathema, is the name of these wronging, falsifying, derogations of the divine nature and reality. “They did not esteem God as He should be esteemed,” Surahs 6.91, 22.74, and 39.67, say of mushrikin. This deep passion for the true “Godness of God” informs all that Dr Askari writes.
The phrase itself opens up a fascinating vista of thought. For it indicates that “God” may be a doubtful ambivalent, term, needing to be rescued, safeguarded, exempted, from all that would impugn true “Godness”. There, of course, lies all the onus of theology. The mystery, even the struggle, about “the Godness of God” underlies the Book of Job, which has an important part in Askari’s case. What are the worthy thoughts, the proper praises, the authentic cognisances of God within our human competence? The question is in no way academic. For the falsehoods, the unworthy notions, if we have them, will distort not only our thinking but our worship. They will mean that we are idolaters. We shall be guilty in them not merely of improper thoughts but of existential travesty. It goes without saying that this issue is the common menace, and therefore also the unifying ground, of all religion. “Let God be God” is never a denominational, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jewish, a Baha’i, or any particularist summons in which zeal for the authentic is unilateral. The question is the criterion to determine the authentic.
Here, Hasan Askari is one with all Muslims in relying on the final criterion of the Qur’an. Tauhid, reinforced by the anathema on Shirk, means the absoluteness of God. From that absoluteness Islam is forced to exclude all that is earthly. It has to deny any divine character incompatible with the single principle of utter transcendence. What is clearly incompatible, on this reckoning, is anything “earthly”. Askari, with qualifications to which we will come in his Christian relationships, is committed to that immunising dimension of the absolute which, from the first anti-idolatrous preoccupations of Muhammad, has consistently prepossessed the Muslim mind. However, he adds that “in a secondary manner it need not deny that the relative is in God, for it admits the divine attributes”.10
The Christian, of course, would grasp this paradox much more confidently. For paradox it remains. Yet it is a paradox inseparable from creation – in which the Qur’an altogether believes – and from revelation – which the Qur’an believes itself to comprise – and from all theology and worship, which necessarily involve the “absolute” “Godness of God” in the relativity of language denoting and addressing Him.
The clue would seem to lie in tackling that characteristically Islamic instinct for the immunising of the divine from earthly, and from human, involvement. Why this reluctance, given that, necessarily, the very word “God” is a relational term? Like the word “friend” it has significance only in cognisance of relationship. This is not to say that the being of God is exhausted in the human relation: it is to say that, such relationship apart, Tawhid and Shirk, and, in their being at issue, the very “Godness of God”, would not exist. If we are truly saying, as Muslims are, “Let God be God”, then, clearly, in that sense, God has to be “let be”, and humanity is where it happens. And it happens, or otherwise, as the central issue of humanity itself.
If, as we must surely concede, this situation within creation and divine law is by divine design, then it would seem to follow that there is no divine reluctance to involve divine ultimacy within the human relation. God must be understood as that sort of absolute, which is only another way of saying that “God is Love”. Must we not make the paradox central, rather than accommodating it, regretfully and – in effect – inconsistently, as the proposition does which excludes all that is earthly from the divine absolute while not denying that, in a secondary manner, the relative is in God? Will that “secondary manner” in some way reduce the divine quality of the divine “relative”? If so, this was just the reduction which the Christian faith in the divinity of “God in Christ”, in Jesus as the divine Word, was intended to exclude. As the Islamic sense of the “uncreatedness of the Qur’an” is designed to ensure, we need to be certain that, when we have to do with God in those areas which are necessarily “relative” to us, we have not been deprived of what He is in His absoluteness. For, were we to be, how would we have “Him” at all? And what would have happened to Tawhid, which forbids all disparities in God? Would we not have stood Shirk on its head by disallowing, for our theological reasons, that all-inclusive reach and competence of God? Would we not, in fact, be limiting the divine omnipotence as drastically as the idolaters? May it, therefore, be right to conclude that Islamic thought about God has stayed too long under the dominance of the necessary anti-idolatry of Islam’s origins in a milieu of paganism which demanded a rigorous dissociation of God from human notions? Such proper disassociation needs to be distinguished from that divine-human association which is inseparable from transcendence itself, as theism – with creation and revelation – believes it to be. Hasan Askari’s thought may yet help to this end.
We are on easier ground when we come to his focus on the theme of praise. In happy harmony with fellow theists, he sees the world as a sanctuary. It has a “theophanic character”. This is his reading of the steady insistence of the Qur’an on the “signs of God” in nature, which everywhere constrain the intelligence to investigate and the soul to wonder and give thanks.11 But tradition, too, can be invoked. “If”, he writes, “the Prophet . . . said that he loved women, perfumes and prayer”, this “invokes an inter-related order of beauty, love and sanctity”.12
Moreover, such awareness of all worldly experience as a sanctuary, a “dwelling in the house of the Lord”, as Psalm 23 has it, must mean a passionate concern for social righteousness and religious integrity. Whatever its outward forms in ritual, prayer must always have this personal integrity, without which external expressions are hollow. “The principle of all praise to God . . . is also a principle of constant vigilance over, and criticism of, one’s position within one’s tradition and in history.” If the world is a holy place, then worship has to be a kind of perpetual “prophecy” against its distortion and corruption. “By rising to pray, we contradict our age to save it”.13
This at once takes Askari’s thought into the theme of Islam and secularity. Unlike many contemporary Muslim writers, he does not shed the issue of the secular by blandly insisting that Islam, as a religion, covers all of life. He does not opt for the position expressed, for example by Sayyid Husain Nasr, that any concern with secular ideologies or empathy with secular attitudes, must be scouted by genuine believers in “God’s religion”.14 He does not adopt the view that somehow secularity is “the headache of Christianity”, as the religion responsible for, and antecedent to, the Western culture it has overtaken. True theology and right worship must always be concerned for, and involved with, the search for a true and right society. Shirk, for Hasan Askari, must be understood to mean anything that flouts the divine will for man, since the divine order itself is bound up with man’s due dignity and rights. Shirk, then, may be defined as “the unequal distribution of knowledge, wealth and power”. “The call to worship one God is also a call to transform the social order.” It is anti-monotheistic to make legitimate any inequality or to ignore any suffering. Only monotheism, as distinct from monolatry (which may be quite nationalistic) can undergird and achieve social justice. Therefore, to be a monotheist is to be a revolutionary, wherever that status quo is unjust or tyrannical or apathetic.15
In the Indian, any many another, context, this leads to the issue of Muslim minority status. For the response to secularity in moral, social terms has there to be made within the “secular” state (in the legal sense of “secular”) dominated by a different religion. Here, Askari’s thought, responding to the deep dilemmas of Indian Islam, is strongly conceived and, in measure, quite idiosyncratic. He believes that the Muslim community within India, since partition, has hardly begun to face the question of the social implications of its monotheism. Like many minorities elsewhere, its ruling concern has been for sheer survival. What should it mean to Indian Muslims that “God is not one to let your faith go to waste”, as Surah 2.143 might be rendered.16 Muhammad was there comforted in the crisis of the change of Qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca, with all the inner disquiet or perplexity it inspired among his hard-pressed followers. In the comparable disorientation, or reorientation, of secular India, with Pakistani options permanently excluded, which should Indian Muslim confidence in the divine assurance require of their faith in concrete terms? The question, he said, had hardly yet been put.
As we will note later, he holds that the religious manifold is a source of knowledge other than one’s own. Coexistence should mean a recognition of diversity within the human whole and within the variety of symbolic, cultural systems of expression which ought not to be exclusified. But his most radical point is the belief that Islam had never established, or meant to establish, a political order. He writes:
The question of the relation of religion to the state is one to the solution of which Islam has least applied itself. For Muslims in the course of their history this has been at once a source of vigour and of weakness. It has sundered Islam into two major sects, Sunnis and Shi’ah. In my view this has done harm to their spiritual and religious development. Even those Muslims who are animated by the best intentions have, on this question, been victims of illusion. In this domain, all the ambiguities that exist come from the claim that in Islam there is an indisputable unity between what is political and what is religious.
My profound conviction is that the Prophet of Islam did not create a state. Consequently, the controversy between Sunni and Shi’ah over the question of knowing who should succeed the Prophet is without foundation. It follows that the principles of the Caliphate and the Imamate are not Quranic. My belief is that Islam can survive without political power, without statehood.”17 (Hasan Askari from Y Moubarac, Verse et controverse: les musslmans (Paris 1971), translated from French by K Cragg).
He adds that his statement of view is strictly personal and develops it as a plea for what he calls the eschatological dimension in Islam. Its current problems, he says, are neither economic, nor political. They have to do with its vision of history and of the last judgement, its awareness of the perennial human crisis.
Contemporary technology necessitates an eschatological reach of apprehension and herein is a common religious task. “Before repairing again to Medina, it is necessary to dwell long at Mecca.” He goes on: “Islam ought perhaps to disappear as a historical and political institution, as a structure of community. Only then will the true Muslim be able to be manifest.”18
The courage and scope of this conviction are splendid and exciting. But what should they mean when they return us to the inescapable immediacies of politics and economics? Eschatology deals, by definition, with the last things in ultimacy but leaves us with intermediate things in chronology. That “God is not such as to let faith go in vain” must needs to be a present as well as an eschatological confidence, informing a present programme within the actual strains of majority-minority tensions and the given sectarianisms of popular religion.
In his focus on the human crisis per se behind all the exigencies of politics and programmes, Hasan Askari gives notable expression to Islamic prescripts alongside a lively sense of the Christian’s relevance. He sees the issue of man in society not, essentially, as one of remaking, or of “conversion”, but rather of “recollection” and “recall”.
In Islam, there is no such thing, in principle, as conversion, but restoration, a returning and a remembering . . . The greatest challenge upon this earth is not so much to explore a God, as to remember that there is one.19
This is the meaning of that central Quranic term Dhikr and it explains the nature and function of revelation and prophethood. This bringing back to mind and into operation, of the human destiny and calling is not correcting any merely mortal forgetfulness. It is not that man is negligent or oblivious merely within life situations now. It has to do with the “primeval dawn of creation”, with the situation often drawn from the sense of Surah 7.172 and God’s question to the seed of the children of Adam, “Am I not your Lord?” to which they all responded: “Yes, we so acknowledge.” This primal, original professed creaturehood of man within divine obligation is concealed by forgetfulness. The corollary of this is the “apparent hiddenness of God”, as Hasan Askari phrases it. It is to dispel this hiddenness that prophethood is sent, but only in recalling the content of that pledged obedience. In such revelation Muhammad is uniquely instrumental. To speak of him as “the seal of the prophets” means that in Islam human forgetfulness has been fully challenged. Thanks to the Qur’an, man has been made the argument against himself.
It is in this context that Hasan Askari’s discussion of the significance of the Cross in Christianity belongs. Yet the case he makes for that significance would seem, at least in Christian reckoning, to tell against the theme that associates revelation with “recollection”. For it would seem that obduracy in man – to which the Qur’an bears such strong witness – suggests something more radical, more heinous, than forgetfulness. It seems of indicate a deliberate defiance, a chronic capacity to know the right and yet to do the wrong, to be aware enough of God and His claim and yet to reject it. Much idolatry, Meccan and modern, seems of this order. Hasan Askari himself observes that, historically, Muslims have tended to externalise all crisis, shunning the interior significance of the history through which they pass. There is a feeling of self-justification, of always being in the right. Truth is with us.
Even so, he holds that meditation on the Cross should help Muslims in “crisis perception”. He sees it as an existential symbol of how tragic the relationship of man to God can be. That tragedy lies in how wilful and selfish men are in their violation of faith. Whether this view can be associated with Kamil Husain’s theme of Good Friday epitomising “the sin of the world”, is not altogether clear. Certainly, in the Qur’an and Islam, Jesus is “a sign of how deeply man can deceive himself in the name of God”20. On a Qur’anic view that “deception” might well include the faith of Christians about the divinity of Jesus. But credal faith apart, the crucifixion of Jesus supremely embodies the dialogical relation between God and men. It sets rejection over against reminder. It is the point where men choose to flout, in the sharpest terms, the sign of recollection that Jesus represents. Jesus has indeed “become the Word”. As such, he disallows the complacence, if such it be, of the believer in the Word as Qur’an – that is to say the Muslim who, possessing the manual of written direction, does not continue in “perpetual openness before his Lord”.
This understanding of the significance of “the Word made flesh” in Jesus, as Christians understand, belongs with Askari’s exposition in Verse et Controverse of the respective theologies of revelation. He prefaces this by regretting how, normally, Muslims take the Qur’an as requiring an anti-Christian stance. Responsively to a Christian “forthcomingness” about the Qur’an, he wants Muslims to see Quranic criticisms of Christian belief not as a repudiation of something alien but as within a complex of faith having that in common which can contain and reconcile disparity.
Elaborating this viable “unity” across alternative Scriptures, he suggests that in the Qur’an God addresses man. This is a verbal revelation, divine speech. Scripture is there primal and definitive. Ya ayyuha-l-nas, “O ye people”, Qul, “say” – these are the notes of the Qur’an, God commanding, exhorting, recalling, the human community.
Jesus, however, is “the Word made flesh”, the Word as personality. Qur’an and Christ, as the Word, are essentially one. The New Testament, though, in Askari’s view, is “man speaking to God”. The Apostles describe, interpret, memorialise the Word in Jesus, the events of his life, his works and deeds, his words, the manner of his death and the mystery of his Resurrection. All this he calls “the address of man to God”. He continues:
I consider this address to be authentic, honest and true. It is just here that Christians and Muslims fail to appreciate the implications and meaning of their respective claims. When Christians call in question or put in doubt the Qur’an, it is in fact Jesus as the Word of God whom they reject and call in question. To accept Jesus as the Word of God must imply that one accepts all revelation of God, all speech of God addressed to all men of all times. Likewise, when Muslims reject or put in doubt the authenticity of the New Testament, in fact they put in doubt and reject their due response to the God who speaks in the Qur’an . . . The Islam of Muslims and the Scripture of Christians are then one and the same thing. Each is response to the Word of God, symbolising man speaking to God.21
Both parties need to beware of idolatry, on the one hand of the written Qur’an, and on the other of Incarnation.
This formulation serves well to distinguish between the Qur’an as definitive revelation qua Book and the New Testament as derivative from the primary revelatory fact of Jesus as the Christ. But it ignores several important issues belonging with just that dialogical relation between man and God in history which Hasan Askari has made so central to his understanding of man and evil.
The New Testament is, indeed, derivative from the primary fact of Jesus as Himself “the Word”. But does such derivation warrant its description as “man addressing God”? The New Testament community constitutes response to God addressing man no less than does Islam responding to Qur’an. The New Testament is not analogous to the Book of Job, where anguish and faith cry out for light. The New Testament sees and interprets itself as “the community of recognition”, proceeding upon the received Word and translating that receiving into the idiom of daily life within a heathen Roman society.
What it is recognising and translating, in its definitive way, has to do with the events, as Askari sees, of the life, ministry and suffering of Jesus. Its confidence in the fact of revelation belongs with its sense of the significance of history. In this it follows the Biblical, Judaic, instinct to identify in pivotal event authentic experience, and therefore knowledge, of God. Jesus avails them as the divine Word by means of that situational context all the way from Galilee to Gethsemane and what lay beyond Gethsemane. It is “Him there” as Matthew has it, so graphically, in the supreme hour (Matt, 27:36), as always.
The Qur’an, too, is situational. The Book, as Hasan Askari rightly insists, is qua Book the revelation. But that direct scriptural quality (making it unlike the New Testament) does not preclude the context of time and place. On the contrary, there are the asbab al-nuzul, the occasions of revelation. There is a gathering story, a sequence of prophetic encounters, a climax of decisive action, a Hijrah with prophethood into power. Askari might have us stay long in Mecca rather than rejoin Medina. But there is no doubting that Hijrah happened and that Quranic meanings, albeit given into the text by direct meditation of divine speech, are bound up with situations and events apart from which divine address could not find us.
Does not the direct-speech quality of the Qur’an, then, involve it in a human viability, of the same order as the New Testament, though in its actual content so sharply contrasted? The fact of a historicity is common: the shape of the history quite disparate. Must we not reckon with this before we can say that the Word of God, Qur’an and Jesus, is “one”? For Badr and Gethemane have nothing in common. Have not many Muslims in fact appealed to the different context of Quranic situations to commend them as involving more total, more representative experience of life, in power, statehood, war, politics and action, than was comprised in the contrasted history of Jesus, who neither fought nor reigned, but merely ministered and suffered? It would seem there are issues here which need to be faced before equations of revelation are invoked.
Symbolism, of course, aligns with events and scriptural contexts, and, though it may be transcended, as Hasan Askari argues, in a larger unity within which it moves, it nevertheless perpetuates and enshrines the situational history from which it springs. It cannot well, then, be always read as a unifying element simply because it is a common factor. Its power through the imagination will tend to give emotional sanction to what is disparate in its historical associations and may perhaps fortify satisfaction, rather than arouse awareness, in respect of these.
There are, it is suggested, perhaps two ways in which this issue of the history in which revelation is sited may be resolved. One is the general truth that all religions are a sort of metaphor and it is wise to seek beyond the fact sphere in which their overall meaning is housed. The contemporary crisis in the world ought to free us from issues of historical expression because of its urgent quality confronting us all. In the light of current problems it would be idle and false to press abstract disparities located in the far past.
The other consideration is Hasan Askari’s appeal to intention, not to historicity, in identifying religious meaning, whether of Islam or Christianity. He develops this point primarily in relation to a discussion, among Qur’an exegetes, of the Quranic narratives and whether or not they correspond with actual history in so far as research or archaeology may be able to ascertain. This thought of intention qua meaning, not accuracy qua history, is, of course, a familiar point also in Biblical studies. It can be extended to cover not only points of feasible historical verification in detail but the overall character of a prophethood. The circumstantial details of Muhammad’s career are part of a perhaps inescapable Sitz im Lebon. One must go beyond this to the intention – the sole Lordship of God, the reality of judgement, the repudiation of idols, and the claim of social right.
In my opinion, this question [of historical accuracy] is totally inapplicable within a religious perspective. There are two sorts of authenticity, one of fact, the other of intention. The authenticity of all Scriptures falls within the category of intention, which is to arouse the sense of God in the life of persons and of nations. Authenticity of intention is there alike in the literal verses of the Qur’an and the symbolic. Scientific demands which require to base scriptural accounts of events on factuality fail to reckon with the realm of religious intention.22
Whether this distinction between fact and intention can be applied overall, rather than simply in narratives of the Seven Sleepers, or Yunus (Jonah), and the like, is not clear. But the principle is surely extendable and could help to redeem inter-faith controversy from tedium, and home it on to what truly matters. But where revelation is intimately bound up situations – as it cannot fail to be if it is to reveal – central fact cannot well be excluded from the shape of intention. For events fulfil intention and so disclose what is exemplary and definitive within it. Moreover, in Tradition, events – and so to a degree their factuality – come to condition how intention is to be admired, received, confessed and reproduced. Scriptures that are rooted in contextuality cannot well serve without it. Nevertheless, a focus on the intention of religious documents would go far to deepen and sweeten the converse of their peoples.
The final area of Hasan Askari’s thought is his question “What is the religious implication of the multi-religious world?” If God, in the words of Surah 2.143, is not such as to let our faith go in vain, how is its vindication to be related to its “competitors” (if we so see them), its coexistents, its partners, or its dissociators? Perhaps religious diversity is mystically one, though mysticism, he thinks, may evade the challenge of communal relationships between majority and minority faiths in the concrete. He sees a basic unity of revelation, culminating in Islam as Din Allah, “the natural religion” for which God fashioned man (Surah 30.30). But this ultimacy is capable of being consistent with diversity, and even contradiction, if these are held within the emotive cultural dimensions of faith and/or the cognitive systems by which they proceed.
Each has to recognise the vocation to interrelationship, pursuit of which must itself generate the solutions, intellectual and spiritual, which it requires. The sense of universality emerges from experience subsequent to the formulations in origins. Relating means a struggle within the self-consciousness of each. In this connection the concept of bid’ah, or heresy, or innovation, must be watched since it may stifle sensitivity. Nor must we plead too readily a sort of Jahiliyyah, sharply exempting debts and contrasts from our story, past and present.
It may be remarked here, in parenthesis, that the Qur’an and the New Testament differ in respect of this feature about ongoing experience within the very definition of religion. The Qur’an passes definitively into the future of Islam. It was complemented by Tradition of Muhammad and by Qiyas and Ijma. But, while these operated strictly within its prescripts, they were outside its contents. By contrast, the New Testament enshrines, in its Gospels and Epistles, the active assimilation by its communities of the significance of Jesus as “the Word”. Such assimilation participates vitally in the documentation itself and, though much work in Christian faith formulation was transacted beyond it, the creative part happens within it. It follows that whereas urgent theological and moral issues arose for Islam outside the given text of the Qur’an, the basic Christian ones are incorporated in the Scripture itself. This results, of course, from the difference on which Askari comments so perceptively, between “the Word as Book” and “the Word as Personality”.
The parenthesis apart, how are we to envisage the present and future interaction of Muslims and Christians? Hasan Askari believes there is an inherent mutual attraction between the two religions, indeed between all religions. “Distance” and “repulsion” arise from symbols rather than from essentials. Symbols can be regarded as mainly functional and not, therefore, worthy to justify or retain postures of enmity. Even antipathy over symbols may coexist with empathy and amity. We must realise that historical revelations, with their “intention”, are necessarily within cultural particularity. They employ given languages and presuppose given mores. Through sustained and mutual openness these can be transcended so that, while transacting meanings, they do not imprison these and so perpetuate enmity.
Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as a strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society. Yet there are puzzles that persist. For him, “the Christian answer about omnipotence and suffering resolves the paradox of Job, but at the cost of the transcendental aspect of God”. “Did Islam, restoring the transcendental aspect, bring back the contradiction?” For, in Islam, “God is not negated by negation, nor proven by proof, nor delighted by obedience, nor displeased by sins, nor merciful to the believer, nor disgusted with the forgetful . . . nor hostile to the arrogant. He is above all associations.”23 How, then, is He Al-Rahman, how is He Al-Shakur, how is He Al-Quddus? Can we not rather be sure that what is transcendental and what is relational, in God, are indeed one? Then omnipotence is not compromised in love, and love is not foregoing omnipotence. Paradox, either way, there must needs be. The paradox of compassion is to be preferred to the paradox of exemption and aloofness. Or so it would seem, if indeed God is of such sort as to justify our faith (2.143).
By Hasan Askari available on this blog :
In 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.
It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here
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.”
Clare Short formerly MP UK Parliament 1983 until 2010 and Secretary of State for International Development 1997 until 2003 when she resigned from the Gov’t over the Iraq war. Clare Short’s areas work include “slum upgrading in the developing world, transparency in oil, gas and mining, African-led humanitarian action, destitute asylum-seekers in Birmingham, Trade Justice for the developing world and for a just settlement of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict.”
Sincere thanks to Clare Short for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: ROLE OF WOMEN. The following quote is by my late father Prof Syed Hasan Askari about the Indian Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya, “I used to hear, amidst all that poverty when we had nothing in our house, not even a loaf of bread, my mother saying to me: “Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world”
The example of Nizamuddin speaks of a beautiful bond with his mother. We hear too little about such bonds situated in conditions of poverty. Their stories at risk of being lost behind a statistical narrative which can dwarf issues of the heart. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on what more needs to be done to support women in the poorest parts of the world and why this is so important in helping people out of poverty?
Clare Short: Kofi Annan said some years ago poverty has the face of a woman and her children. The evidence on how best to generate development in society is very clear, educating girls is the most powerful force for development. No one is of course advocating excluding boys from school but in poor countries girls tend to be kept at home to help with household tasks. Girls who have been to school marry later, have fewer children who are more likely to survive and are better at accessing healthcare and increasing the family income. So a commitment to universal primary education, including girls as a first step to full educational opportunities for all is the most important force for beneficial change. This is why it was one of the leading Millennium Development Goals. Of course we should never just do one thing to promote development but the key role that girls and women play is exemplified by this reality.
Musa Askari: GLOBAL NEIGHBOURHOOD. Through various forms of international aid it is possible for people of moral conscience to help improve the welfare of one’s “neighbour”, local to international. As humanity we are each other’s neighbour and this category of “neighbourhood” for me is one of the common grounds where secular and sacred traditions of the world can meet working together for the common good. To what extent in your view have the Millennium Development Goals helped to raise the level of awareness about a “global neighbourhood”? What further needs to be done to foster this sense of universality?
Clare Short: In the years of hope at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, there was a real growth in support for a more just and evenly developed world where all people could live with hope and dignity. And when, at the UN, they started to look for an appropriate way of marking the new millennium, all the countries of the world came together to agree that the systematic reduction of poverty across the world should be the cause that united humanity. In these years spending on defence and security declined considerably. Then, after September 11, 2001, the obsession with security and military spending overtook the idea of a better safer world of equal development. There is no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was very serious crime they killed 3000 people. But the response was irrational. It does not make sense to spend as much on the military as at the height of the Cold War to try to capture a man in a cave in Afghanistan and to persuade people that his ideas are ugly and wrong. President Eisenhower, who was a Second World War general and a Republican President warned that the American people in his retiring presidential address to beware the military industrial complex. My view is that the military industrial complex faced a set back at the end of the Cold War and used the attack on the Twin Towers to take over again and is reducing the world to a dangerous state and marginalising the commitment to a world that is safe because all have the chance of a decent and dignified life. This major shift to a massive emphasis on military solutions and the generation of hate and fear has not wiped out the work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and there has been significant progress across the world. Currently negotiations are being finalised to replace the MDGs, which expire this year, with new Sustainable Development Goals. So the battle is not lost and the effort must continue but the stress on military solutions has been a major setback.
Musa Askari: RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY. On affirming religious diversity Muslim inter-faith dialogue pioneer Prof Syed Hasan Askari writes, “I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder..I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself..I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form..The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable..To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
How is the affirmation of global religious diversity reflected in the Millennium and Sustainable development goals please? Should there be a specific goal attributed to affirming religious diversity not only as a sociological fact but also to help foster inter-faith spirituality and dialogue?
Clare Short: There is no commitment to religious diversity in either the MDGs or the proposed SDGs but respect for the human rights of each person obviously means respect for their religious sensibilities. And the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which is supported, at least in theory, by almost all countries in the world declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” There were a big group of British theologians who declared back in the 1980s that all the world’s major religions are equally valuable routes to God. Unfortunately in these times religious labels are getting mixed up with the sense of identity and reflect little of the goodness of the best of religious teaching in all the main religions. Terrible things are being done in the name of religion. There are ugly currents of fanaticism in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. We need to reflect on why this is happening.
Musa Askari: JUSTICE & FAIRNESS. In your recent lecture “Does international Aid work?” you talk about,
“How to make the world safe & sustainable for everybody? A more just & fair world where everyone has a fair chance is also a safer world for everybody.” What do you see as the major obstacles to justice and fairness and what kind of change in thinking needs to take place in your view to begin to overcome the challenges?
Clare Short: I think that international leadership is in a terrible state and is making the world more dangerous and unhappy. There is of course need sometimes to use military force to contain and reverse the misuse of violence, in fact I think it is necessary to enlarged the authority of UN peacekeeping missions in for example eastern Congo so that everyone knows that the writ of the UN will be enforced and justice will prevail. But if peace is to come to the Middle East then the international Community must uphold International law in relation to all the countries of the region. Israel is in grave breach of international law according to the judgement of the International Court of Justice and yet nothing is done. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and Egypt are in gross breach of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and yet they are treated as great friends of the west. I am afraid that the days have a long gone when are just settlements for Israel/Palestine would transform the atmosphere in the Middle East but it would start to make a significant difference. In relation to Russia, I believe that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders and suggesting that Ukraine should join NATO and the EU was provocative and would have enraged any Russian leader. This does not mean that Russian aggression should be ignored but it just compromise should be sought rather than a continuing drive to invent a new cold war.
Musa Askari: VISION. In 1995, on a visit to India, Prof Askari delivered a speech on Spiritual Humanism “Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions of people do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies. In Eastern Europe, in the collapsing Soviet Union, in Asia, in Africa and in India as well. In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty. When the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill; to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision.”
Would you agree we need a new visionary approach, a revival of hope that takes into account the concerns raised above by Prof Askari? Do you see any opportunities please for an alternative narrative to positively address such concerns from either the left or right of the current political landscape?
Clare Short: Yes see my arguments above. The only way to make the world safe is to give up the idea that one country should dominate – what the neoconservatives in the US see as America’s unipolar moment. This is dangerous with a rising China. We need to learn the lessons of the First World War (which was really the cause of the Second World War) where a rising Germany and a declining Ottoman empire was so badly managed that the world ended up in a dreadful conflagration. We need to reinforce the UN by updating the membership of the Security Council and streamlining and making more efficient the UN development agencies. All must agree to abide by international law with no double standards and we must renew our commitment to International Development and make sure that we meet the objective outlined in the draft Sustainable Development Goals that extreme poverty is eliminated from the world by 2030.
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.
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.
Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), is currently Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Williams is a highly respected scholar, theologian, poet, translator, social commentator to name but a few of the reasons why he is held in such great regard.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with a quote from your book “Faith in the Public Square” (section: Religious Diversity and Social Unity), “To be concerned about truth is at least to recognise that there are things about humanity and the world that cannot be destroyed by oppression and injustice, which no power can dismantle. The cost of giving up talking of truth is high: it means admitting that power has the last word. And ever since Plato’s Republic political thinkers have sought to avoid this conclusion, because it means there is no significance at all in the witness of someone who stands against the powers that prevail at any given time.” (Dr. Rowan Williams)
The following a quote from my late father, Professor Syed Hasan Askari, on “The Platonic Illusion“: “the directors of the October Revolution suffered from what we call the Platonic Illusion from which all ideologies, whether religious or secular have suffered, namely to create a protective state to guard what they hold as true. Plato had thought as he watched his dear Socrates being put to death, by the City of Athens, that by creating a Republic he would protect the free quest for truth, a state governed by the wise and the enlightened, under which no other Socrates would be silenced. Plato failed to notice that by the manner Socrates accepted his death he had showed how he regarded himself and his soul as indestructible, that he did not require any other means than of himself and his awareness in order to protect what he stood for.”
How significant do you sense it is for the individual, the individual witness, to avoid losing one’s individuality? In other words keeping intact an inner differentiation, guarding against collective hypnosis. Also to what extent would you agree it is problematic when those in power seek to institutionalise or “create a protective state to guard what they hold as true”?
Rowan Williams: Keeping an inner freedom is essential. We need to be aware of who it is or what it is that we are truly answerable to, rather than assuming that our final judges are those who happen to have power and influence in our immediate context. It must always be possible to ask, ‘is the majority right?’ And this is why a genuine democracy protects freedom of conviction and expression; it will encourage robust public debate and give a place to religious conviction as part of that. It will of course make decisions, but will also leave room for conscientious dissent.
Musa Askari: I would like to offer you two views on the term “spiritual” and invite your comment.
First from my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 Professor Chomsky is quoted, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t”.
Second from my interview with Professor Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad who commences his comments with, “The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations.”
What does the term “spiritual” mean to you and I would be grateful if you would offer some clarification which Professor Chomsky talks about? And is it unusual in your experience for both humanist and believer to share what appears to be a similar perspective on the term “spiritual”?
Rowan Williams: I rather share Tim Winter’s doubts about the word ‘spiritual’, as it is so often used simply to designate someone’s feeling of a moment’s significance without posing any questions about the nature of reality or the possibilities of change in society. I understand the word very much against the background of a Christian scriptural use which sees ‘spirit’ as that which connects us to God and one another, that which gives us relation with God and the possibility of life together in peace and justice. Hence the Christian scriptural imagery of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – the products of God’s indwelling seen as love, joy, peace, patience and so on. To Professor Chomsky’s remarks, I’d respond by saying that the essence of belief in God as I understand it is not belief in values or imperatives but in the actual (though mysterious) presence of an immeasurable agency whose action is directed towards our life and well-being. Such a belief gives me not only assurance but also a sense of being under judgement for my failures to reflect that utterly generous orientation to the Other in my own life and actions.
Musa Askari: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (Plotinus – The Enneads)
These words from the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus, introduced to me by my late father-teacher, have long been, along with other things, a cherished part of my spiritual life. Yet perhaps within the inner life of a believer there needs to be awareness of a kind of spiritual complacency. Would you agree to simply memorise a set of words, a prayer perhaps, or even a whole scripture, or the universal declaration of human rights appears to be not enough? How would you advise we guard against at times the familiarity of words we utter from becoming a mask over the reality of what the words are but a signpost toward, “a journey not for the feet”?
Rowan Williams: Plotinus’s words are echoed by those of the great Christian thinker Augustine (who knew Plotinus’s work) when he says that God is ‘more intimate to us than we to ourselves’. God is always nearer than we could imagine. Sometimes we need familiar words to use to remind ourselves of this – I think here of the prayerful recitation of the Names of God or the invocation of the Name of Jesus. If we are careful to punctuate our thinking and speaking with silence, words will begin to recover their original depth. We need always to be aware of our words as ‘nets let down to catch the sea.’
Musa Askari: On universal validity of mystical experience Professor Syed Hasan Askari writes, “There are some who question the universal validity of mystical experience as an expression of one universal ultimate reality. But we do not normally question the universal presence of life, beauty and love which inspire diverse forms of art, music, song and poetry. Nor do we normally question the universal presence of intellect which is the common foundation of different and conflicting theories of science and philosophy. But why is it that as soon as we refer to the universal validity of mystical experience people leap upon us from all sides insisting that mystical experience is subjective experience determined by one’s culture, theology, and personal psychological history. In every other case they seem to remain unperturbed by the co-presence of the objective and the subjective, the universal and the particular – as, for example, in regard to the human body, where there is one objective science of human anatomy and physiology upon which the entirety of medical science is based, and yet there are individual variations as to the state of health and nature of sickness. It is obvious then that the tendency to object to mystical experience’s claim of its inherent universal validity is influenced by a bias that if it is conceded, the next step would be to admit that there is a universally objective source of religious revelations. The objection is motivated by unphilosophical reasons. But it does not mean, however, that all mystical experiences are valid, and that there are no influences from the subject’s milieu and psychic constitution towards the experienced mystical state.”
I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts in response to the above quote on “mystical experience”. How has your inner life been influenced by the presence of more than one religious witness in the world? Is it easier to encounter the other socio-religiously, almost inevitable, even involuntary given the instant nature of global communications? However, to encounter our spiritual neighbour perhaps involves invoking another kinship. One laid out for example in the great mystical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, how do we recognise each other as not only culturally-religiously co-present, upholding all the wondrous diversity, but also spiritually mystically deeply significant to one another, transformative?
Rowan Williams: The idea of universal recognition is crucial here: we see in one another something of the same desire, the same journey, the same drawing onwards – and if we truly believe that our humanity is one at the end of the day, then this is hardly surprising. So I don’t find difficulty in learning from the spiritual explorations of those who do not share my exact convictions. Of course my prayer and understanding depend to a degree on where and who I am and what specific beliefs I hold; I’m not in favour of any attempt to construct a universal system above and beyond the particular religious traditions. But I also think that the more securely you are rooted in your own tradition, the more hospitable you will be to the deepest life in other places. You will see the other, in their otherness, as a gift to you for your growth and maturation.
Musa Askari: I would like to turn now to issues with respect to revelatory communication, the scientific age and quest for alternatives. First, some context by way of the following selection of quotes from Professor Syed Hasan Askari (Discourse on Soul, from Towards A Spiritual Humanism, 1991).
“Let us begin with those people who went through a cataclysmic experience which altered their own self-understanding and which they identified as revelation, as an experience transcending their empirical or functional self. For them, and also for those who said “Yes” to that experience and who entered in to discipleship with such people, and for those who were more reflective in their understanding, the central question was: how could the human mind or the human self become a receptacle, or a vehicle or recipient of an experience, of a revelation, of a transcendental communication – unless, between the source of communication and the recipient there is a common link. Unless there is such an ontological parity between one who communicates and one who receives, the communication will not be obtainable…….It is this problem which was at the heart of the controversy between philosophers and theologians. Izutsu, the Japanese philosopher and an expert in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, suggests in his analysis of the Quranic discourse that unless there is an ontological parity between the two partners in communication, communication is impossible…….whether you take St. Augustine or Immanuel Kant, you have the same thrust, the same emphasis about the mystery of the human recipient…….Taking hints and clues from medieval insights based upon the edifice of knowledge we have accumulated, I am striving to formulate an alternate anthropology, a substantial alternative to Darwin, Marx and Freud. We have to ask if the anthropology we have held as sacred in modern times is the whole truth or is it not already a dogma. A dogma perhaps more dangerous than the dogmatics of the ancients and medieval peoples because, at that time at least, the conflict between theology and philosophy and between theology and mysticism was very sharp. In our times, the dogmatics of a scientific understanding of man has swept across the whole world and there appears to be no rival to it. Moreover, whoever tries to rival it is considered as either pseudo-scientific or not to be taken seriously at all. Heretics in the past enjoyed a certain prestige, and they became in posterity the great pioneers of human thought. Does the scientific age of our times allow our heretics to become future founders of thought? I am doubtful.” (Syed Hasan Askari)
I welcome your thoughts in reply to the above quotes. In particular do you support revival of the classical discourse on soul as a means to help explain not only revelatory communication between the Supremely meta-physical (Beyond Being, The One/The Good as Plotinus refers) and the material aspect of a human being but also communication between individuals in our everyday lives? That the principle of “Soul” (non-material, indivisible, invisible companion, one-many all at once) is the ontological parity. And finally what do you see as the great opportunities before us for meaningful, mutually respectful, engagement/dialogue between religion/spirituality and humanism? Can we start to talk about what Hasan Askari advocated, a move towards a Spiritual Humanism?
Rowan Williams: Hasan Askari is absolutely correct in saying that a proper account of our relation with the Infinite God requires us to see ourselves differently. The Christian teacher Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century CE says that if we understand that we cannot ever come to the end of understanding God, neither can we come to an end of understanding the human person. So we must always approach the human person with absolute reverence – this human individual is a reality we shall never completely contain, control, explain, reduce, and so we have an endless task before us, which is loving and serving them, not explaining them! And for religious believers, there is therefore a close connection between recognizing the infinite mystery of God and reverencing humanity properly. Lose the one and you will sooner or later lose the other. Humanism in the fullest sense requires an acknowledgement of God. A ‘soulless’ humanity, understood simply in terms of mechanical processes, does not have any obvious claim on our kindness, our service, our veneration. We may not be able to say with complete clarity what we mean by the word ‘soul’, but we know that it stands for our capacity to be in relation with God, and thus for all that belongs with our freedom and dignity.
(Many thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for his kind permission on use of above photo)
Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog.
Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH
Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”
In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”
On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?
Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning. Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)
Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe. I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family. The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.
When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.
Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?
We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context. But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making. As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.
It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.
Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.
Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.
Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples” is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith. Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas.
When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit. More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol, tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening.
Over the years the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others. Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.
Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.
However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?
Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral. People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill.
For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present.
The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.
Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”
The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”
Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer.
On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?
Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question. The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need. These are counter intuitive expressions of love.
When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.