extracts from “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” – 1991
by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari
HASAN ASKARI: “For many years, I have reflected over my encounters with people of other faiths and ideologies both in the West and in the East, and in the Middle East in particular. I have reflected both hopefully and painfully as a seeker of the spiritual meaning of life and of the mystery of man in particular.
The challenge has always been….how easily each one of us can slip and does slip into a collective identity. Not to speak of the other, one loses touch with one’s own core of being, one’s self ceasing to be a person, thus creating a situation of collective make-believe. This I have seen both in history, and in conferences and consultations on dialogue, and I have been strugglingto put my finger on the sole basic cause of this collective identification. I am not denying the sociological reality that there are collective identities, that there are groups and institutions – validly so – that are there in order to meet certain ends, to embody certain functions, values, aspirations, and even certain aspects of a very valid ongoing search for truth. I am not denying the collective, corporate effort on the part of individuals and people as a whole. I am trying to identify a phenomenon, which meets us in history and in our lives, of individuals masked under collective labels thereby losing touch with their own inner reality.
One of the causes which we are trying to isolate is a tendency towards one-sidedness, a tendency to emphasize only one facet of our existence at the expense of the totality. Let me look at it from a historical dynamic point of view and then look into its nature from other aspects.
If we look at world history, particularly the history of Islam and the history of the Christian West, we see one-sidedness as a response to correct a situation that preceeds it. In that zeal to correct the situation that preceeds it, the corrective measure itself becomes one-sided and when that one-sided collective measure succeeds in history, in a particular religion, in a particular civilization, it turns out to be a dogmatic response to the situation as a whole.
I can give you examples from within modern Islam. The 17th – 18th century puritanic revival in the main body of Islam, which we now identify as Islamic fundamentalism, was a response to a chaotic situation within the Islamic world, particularly to the widespread mystical cults and festivities that centered around the shrines of great Sufi masters. It was a response to a very widespread worship of the dead or of ancestors, a tendency which was seen by the puritanic reformers as totally contrary to the basic tenet of Islamic faith and practice…….It was to correct this situation across the Islamic world that there arose a group of people, very well meaning, very astute theologians,……..who were determined to say “No” to an extremism or one-sided emphasis on the emotive or devotional life of Islam which they believed to be at the expense of reason, rationality and the basic tenet of Islam, namely, “There is no god but God”, or there is no absolute but the Real Absolute.
The puritans saw the installation of false absolutes all around. The mosque, where Muslims assemble to worship one God, is a place without icon, idol or symbol. It is simply an open place, sometimes even without doors – perhaps no more than a courtyard. This institution was being rivalled by shrines and tombs, a situation not dissimilar to what we find in the Catholic communities of Southern Europe, where we find statues or pictures of saints and offerings….In this later case the prevalence of such religious artifacts and the importance accorded them became an occasion of a massive reaction against them on the part of Protestant Christianity in their return to the Bible. Similarly we find in Islamic puritanism a very dynamic and creative response to correct a similar situation and to restore, what was in their view, the original Islamic balance between heart and mind, between reason and revelation, and between the emotive and the spiritual aspects of Islam. However, we notice this puritan zeal was expressed in a return to Shariah or Islamic law, in a return to a very limited rationality not of the philosophical type but of a very legalistic and formal type. So very soon the response which came to correct an imbalance in the life of Islam became an imbalance itself. Today we can see the consequence of this in the Islamic world in a very definite swing towards formalism and Islamic law at the cost of the philosophical, mystical and even sceintific understanding.
Therefore, I see one-sidedness as a result of an exclusive confidence in the corrective measures in history vis-a-vis the situation that preceeds it. It is very difficult to identify how a very wholesome and profound zeal to correct a historical situation very soon results in a dogmatic self-understanding, where one one-sidedness is replaced with another sort of one-sidedness. So this, I think is one of the aspects in which one-sidedness has played its role. I am not referring to one-sidedness as a defensive response to external threats. This has now become a part and parcel of the modern Islamic understanding, where emphasis on Islamic law is more a device to protect Islamic civilization from external influences, because the subjectivity, ambiguity and the self-critical approaches of philosophy and mysticism are too difficult to be handled by those who uphold a formal appropach to religion.
Now, whether one-sided or not, in the view of those who think they have brought about a revolution in the structure of a particular civilization, they all somehow believe that they have offered a totally complete system as far as they understand it. However, here they suffer from a fallacy. They mistake coherence of a particular body ideas for equilibrium, for a holistic approach, because one can uphold a very one-sided approach to any particular discipline or context and still be coherent in one’s one-sidedness. This has created a fallacy, an illusion that they have a complete answer.
This is one way in which we can reflect on one-sidedness slipping into an exclusivist, dogmatic self-understanding. This then results in a doctrine which, in the shape in which it emerges, requires a collective following, a collective approval and then slowly becomes a collective identity creating in its wake appropriate symbols, rituals and insignia, thereby erecting around itself a structure which leads, as we have pointed out earlier, to collective consciousness and collective hypnosis.
However, it is one thing to say collective hypnosis, but it is another to go deeper and understand again. Keeping modern Islam in view I would like to make a comment upon similar developments in the modern West. To me, all this discourse is a discourse of revival, a revival of value and hope in a very paradoxical sense. Even the price we have paid for ideology, particularly in our century, is a price we pay for the revival of value and the revival of hope.
Now, if you apply this to Islam, you find an extraordinary spectacle which in some cases is creative and profound. I see two very clear movements, and the same thing, I suppose, we can see also in humanism or in the Western revival of hope in general. The first stage is what I call idealism – an idealistic statement of Islam which is upheld by great stalwarts such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Abdoh, Iqbal and Azad. These people were determined to reflect on Islam as a universal, dialectic, creative civilization which entered into modern history with a mission or a value of its own and they bring in the entire Golden Age of Islam as an evidence that Islam can again, if it is allowed, free itself from the shackless of its own evils, or evils imposed upon it from outside. Idealism also undertakes a bridge-building. For example, Iqbal’s philosophy and poetry is based on such bridge building between the East and the West. Without Goethe, Nietzsche, Bergson and Hegel on the one hand and Rumi on the other, Iqbal’s philosophy could not have come in to being. The fruits of Iqbal’s genius ripened through his contact with the West. Similar is the challenege of reason vis-a-vis revelation; to reach for a new dialectical synthesis of the two sources of knowledge is at the helm or the heart of modern Arab Egyptian philosophy. To me, this is all idealism. We notice that by the 1940s the entire Islamic world was plunged into a deep ideological formation, and today Islam is seen not as one of the participants in a global breakthrough but as an alternative to capitalism and socialism. It is seen as an ideology in its own right, as having its own economic, political and monetary systems. Consequently, the Islamic world is flooded with books which create an ideology that is very coherently and rationally put forth, but, rooted as it is in the puritanic onslaught against philosophy and mysticism in the 18th century, its ideological developments continue the same trend of one-sidedness. Therefore, whenever Islamic ideology develops its following either with students or amonsgt the elite, then you find the same one-sidedness sweeping through education and authority, and the philosophers and the mystics have either to hide themselves, or go into exile in the West, a situation with which we are only too familiar.
In my view, there should be a twofold response to idealistic and ideological developments which result in self-complacency or collective hypnosis. First is a sociologcal response which helps the people or the communities involved in knowing why a particular idealism or a particular ideological formation is becoming relevant to people at one time in history. The sciological critique would liberate us from a collective hypnosis and lead us into an objective self-understanding.
The second corrective is, in my view, a psychological critique that this one-sidedness has far reaching consequences for the human personality because here its humanity will be deformed, will be partialized, will be fragmented. In order to create a synthesis of the sociological and the psychological critiques we have to enshrine in our understanding and in our reflection another category which is not just a question of attitude, but also a very characteristic of the truth we are seeking, namely, openess, or willingness to listen to the other in his or her otherness. I can see similar paths being taken by Western civilization in recent times. So, if we proceed on these lines, we may see how best we can identify the real situation which we are confronting, and from that stage onwards perhaps we can examine how both humanists and Muslims, both religious people and secularists, are caught up in one historical hour which has certain shared features or certain threats common to both of them. Humanity cannot be freed from the contemporary hour of history by attacking – one against the other, by saying that one ideology should be replaced by the other.
Let me go back to Islam or Christianity, or for that matter any sacred history. When we say one-sidedness in this context we mean of emphasis. One sidedness, say, in terms of choice within a particular religious culture for a formal legalistic view at the cost of the mystical philosophical view, resulting in imbalance or in an ideological formation which for example is suggested in the history of modern Islam over the last two-hundered years. A similar history can be constructed on the European Christian side.
When we apply the same principle of one-sidedness to humanism in general, then perhaps we mean not one-sidedness of emphasis but one-sidedness of world-view, of a conception of man that is not doing justice, as far as we understand it to the totality of the human mystery. For instance, from my point of view, I would say that the humanistic approach rests squarely on a materialistic conception of the world and of man in general, in which man is, to say the least a by-product, or to say the worst, an accident. From this perspective his consciousness is an epiphenomenon to the entire material biological evolution and he is in spite of his imaginative creative faculties a basically physical being……what humanism lacks, in my view, is a basic principle which unifies humanity as one spiritual ontological reality.
I have said categorically that in Lebanon and in Israel the entire Abrahamic manifold has failed. I have publically said that we Jews, Christians and Muslims have theologically failed. In other words, we have ideologized our religious understanding to such an extent that we have lost touch with our spiritual centre. We have lost touch with our own primary revelatory mission which was given to us as a covenant, as a trust, and we have absolutized our own histories to the exclusion of other histories.
Coming back to the humanist perspective, and here we face a very grave issue which is at the heart of the matter, namely, the very consception or understanding of man from a historical point of view. Perhaps man is the only being who lives in more than one history at one and the same time…..To live at two different moments in history, involve thousands of years of history today at this moment or to live an event which is now two thousand years old, is to live a multi-historical dimension . It is this multi-historical dimension, this multi-temporality of man, which creates the ultimate challenge for all of us……I sometimes wonder how humanists, or anyone for that matter, can write off the entire heritage of a given people and then say we should live in one moment as we are now, confronting our history and our world today. For me that is not the real challenge. The real challenge is how to accomodate multiple-historical visions, how to move from the isolated, narrow limits of one’s own spiritual geography and history and participate in the entire history of mankind, not unilateral but multiple and multilateral.
Hence, a flat unilinear approach to both history and individual life is not only inadequate but also misleading. Such an approach empites us, and dries up our creative vision of the future, and in religious thought also, historicism has depleted the perspectives on metahistorical and other-worldly eschatology. Humanists are denying themselves a “human” future because a “human” future is not a physical extension in time. It is an experience of depth in time.
It is extraordinary to look at the this entire spectacle of history and of our discourse rooted in history. Sometimes I feel….that the basic dream of all religions was to reach for a vision of humanity that was humanistic. Or perhaps the basic vision informing all humanism is to reach for the vision of a spirituality or of a spiritualism which is no longer tied to one or another religion or tradition or history.
Thanks to the discourse on State, from Hegel onwards through to Karl Marx, and also through our modern insights and maturity of thought on a global level, State is one of those institutions in our history which does not need any overt ideology in order to oppress….I consider State as a divinity (a false divinity) even a State without any claims whatsoever in overt, manifest, formal terms. A State can institute its power without naming its source, without naming its ideology, and we know this much more in our times than at any other time in human history because State creates its own enslaving power. In that sense, State becomes a parallel concept to God in the religious sense of the word. It is this divinity of State which should be forcefully encountered in human dialectics, and encounter with this false divinity cannot come from privatised religion at all, it should come from a comprehensive spiritual committment encompassing both the private and the public sectors of one’s life.
From another point of view, the great Jefferson moment of the division of Church and State was for more consequential for world history than the French Revolution or the Marxian Revolution, because it goes further than ideology; it forestalls a post-ideological state of humanity, and that was the vision Jefferson had…..We still have to live that vision, but in order to do so we should not sanctify the division of Church and State but rather ask for due encounter. For instance, the civil rights movement in modern America and the protest marches against nuclear arms are an indication of the people trying to inform the State to impart to itself a spiritual dimension.
If we look at Lincoln’s vision of humanity – “by the people, of the people, For the people” – this “people” was a very vital spiritual category in Lincoln’s perception. Now, today, “the people” is no more than a crowd, or the helpless, private, infirm fragmented individual. So, it was in that sense that we can refer to the peace movements, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, as very vital attempts, however weak, to impart to the State a human dimension, or in my language, a spiritual dimension.
For me, Jefferson’s moment, like the moment of the French Revolution as epitomised by Victor Hugo, and the moment in the anger of Marx, were moments which offered a vision of a humanity towards which we were moving. Ideology tells us that we have achieved it, but it is not so.”
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Spiritual Human Interview with Dr Rowan Williams https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/spiritual-human-interview-with-dr-rowan-williams/
Spiritual Human Intervie with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/spiritual-human-interview-with-tim-winter-abdal-hakim-murad/