It was great to Dialogue with Paul Daly of Socialist Think Tank on Socialism and Spirituality and to talk about my late Father’s work (Professor Syed Hasan Askari, Inter Faith Dialogue Pioneer) informing my Socialist sensibilities.
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.
What is the moment?
When buds turn to flower
When clouds release a shower
When winter releases from its heart spring
Do you ever wonder at such things?
Have you ever wondered
Why you are here?
And cried a silent secret tear
Have you ever wondered
From where did you begin?
Which mother’s milk did you abandon never tasting?
Even though you may be trapped and bound
By this world that has let you down
Where are those first footprints to be found?
Look not for them
In your earliest childhood days of this world
Let forgotten memories unfurl.
It was in March 1993 I put together the words as above. I was in my early twenties. It was a time of continued inner expansion. Many things were becoming clear on the direction my life may take. I was not only reading Plotinus (The Enneads) but also hearing my father, Hasan Askari, talk about the great mystic-philosopher, considered the father of Neo-Platonism, who is Soul through and through. I returned again and again to my father’s book “Alone to Alone” which had been published a few years earlier and new meanings came to light. The expansion I refer to was centred about one word, “Soul”: that impartible, invisible, indivisible companion of our self, both one and many at the same time.
I learned of Plotinus’s term for the Supreme, The One – The Good. I heard about his system which referred to “emanation”. That from The One, who is above all association, emanates The Intellectual Principle, from which comes The Universal Soul and then The Individual Soul. I heard about such terms as conjoint; association of Soul with Body, with Matter. One of the most beautiful things I recall, ever-fresh, was hearing Hasan speak of Plato; that it is not the Soul in Body, but rather it is the Body in Soul. This had a transforming effect upon my thinking, upon my spirituality. It resolved many issues on the relationship between Body and Soul. It opened new doors. And still we had not come yet to ourselves; all this was Soul entire, Soul un-embodied.
It is important I explain a little what I mean by “direction”. I do not mean any worldly direction of occupation or career, of planning one’s life academically or anything of that nature. “Direction” was for me an inner movement which would dictate the outer movements. I was already a student of my father’s work for many years. The beauty about his manner of teaching lay in that it was never forced. It was simply presented. We engaged in discussion deeply, or I observed him in dialogue with others. I observed him all on his own. And despite many serious challenges in life I witnessed an unfailing dedication to both his work and his inner self-mastery, which was one and the same. It was at moments observing a great artist at work, sculpting, painting or reflecting.
To see his face light up at the dawn of some new idea or unravelling of some mystery was for me like watching a sun rise above the horizon. The faint advancing light that ushers in the arrival of the actual Sunrise. Ideas used to dawn upon him wherever and whatever he was doing. Either in conversation-encounter with others or all alone sitting in silence. Observing him I was certain of one thing, his mind was never far from the remembrance and praise of God. One of the greatest lessons I was taught by him was to seek the company of solitude. To seek out time for oneself during the course of the day, to think and reflect, to be still, to pray, to remember The Supreme. It was as if one could spend an entire life time in that silence. The days could have come and gone, the seasons passing as like rushing clouds overhead. The sun could have risen and set countless times, one would never have known.
I developed the habit early on of waking up and being alone in silence with solitude. It was at one such moment I reached for pen paper and the poem “let forgotten memories unfurl” came about. A thought came to me. I put down the first two lines and it went from there. Ideas, images and ideas behind those images were my torch bearers, they guided me and I followed. Within those moments of the night I was seeking some understanding of soul, something, anything. To move from the discursive to the intuitive and spiritual. To lift the words of my teacher from the page and carry them upon my head as an offering for my Soul to pluck me on flight to some deeper understanding. As like an eagle or falcon plucks some morsel of food not forgetting to return to the “Hand” that released it. Talking and hearing about Soul from Hasan I came to notice the world about me more, the physical world, nature for example.
I reflected on the simple beauty of nature and started contemplating another moment within nature. One moment and yet a multitude of moments. The moment when a bud decides to flower, clouds releasing their shower. It was not that I was seeking an exact temporal timeline, that was not the goal. The goal became to ponder and reflect. To imagine oneself just being present at the very moment one particular bud decided to begin its flowering. It was as if the act of observing and flowering were one act but in different forms. To imagine that which called forth the bud to flower was the same which called one to notice it. Symbolically, one of the ways a flowering bud may be understood is akin to our eyes opening from a deep sleep.
The beauty of a bud is further increased when its petals have opened fully, reaching for the sun much like our own physical eyes more beautiful once open and light hits the optic nerve. Can one bear witness to any physical eye being beautiful in the dark? Whilst closed the beauty of our eyes is concealed, but would we deny, even when closed, that the very “Idea” of an eye is a beautiful thing. An “Idea” of beauty by which other beauties are seen, a hierarchy of Beauty, of Ideal Forms, intangible and immaterial. Now we may invoke the adage, “the eyes are the windows to the Soul”. Sometimes both acts, flowering and observing, are mirrors and the original is out of sight, at others one is the mirror and the other is the original standing before it. It all depends at which point within the hierarchy one is “standing” as Soul.
There also comes a point to turn the arrow of inquiry from nature to oneself, from outer to inner. To ask deeply, with meaning, with tears, with a yearning like never before, “why am I here?” Again it was not any conclusive answer I was searching. I was not seeking to unveil some crystal ball and peer in to it becoming so disoriented whereby I lost sight of the very thing that brought me to ponder the question. The power was in the question itself. The question was the guide and that I tried to keep intact.
In coming back to Soul, on this poem, another idea came to me. Namely, above our memory, a timeline from birth to the present moment. Above all the experiences, all relationships, above all these memories, tragic and joyous, above even our dreams, there is another memory. A more Ancient Memory, that of Soul. Embedded within that memory is a “Call”, a Command almost. A beckoning for the Soul to turn its gaze from looking down at what it has created, forgetting its priors and thus forgetting its own inner memory. A “Call” to become free of being infatuated by its own beauty and seek the home of that Light which shines within it. The Home of Beauty, that from which Beauty emanates. To look up, as it were, to its Source. Within the Islamic tradition there is a beautiful way of recalling this memory when The Quran reminds, “We are of God and unto God we return”. In other words one’s Soul is from God and unto God it returns. Quoting Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism, “our journey ultimately is from soul to God. Pure is your soul, purer is your approach to God”. https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/
We already accept there is a memory in to which we are born. A memory we have no knowledge of as we are born. It is a memory presented to us as integral to our worldly identity, a pseudo-identity I would say, a garment, a covering. Memory upon memory which over time distances us from a far more Ancient Memory within the Soul having the potential to distance us from one another. Namely, in general terms, our collective identities of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, culture, language and religion. Within these collective memories there are indeed gems, hints, clues, great insights, much meaning. However, it depends on how such socio-historic memories are relayed to us. As complete and absolute or temporary and symbolic.
If we can accept, by example of such collective identities, the principle of a “memory” before our knowing of it, before our birth, then perhaps we may begin to explore another Memory above the ones presented to us here through our individual-collective lives and histories. Through story and art, through encounter and co-presence. Through Soul! Upon meeting another let us pay attention to their story for who knows what buds are beginning to flower and what forgotten memories are beginning to unfurl for both the speaker and listener.
Further reading: Plotinus, The Enneads (The Knowing Hypostases): “If the Soul is questioned as to the nature of that Intellectual Principle – the perfect and all-embracing, the primal self-knower – it has but to enter into that Principle, or to sink all its activity into that, and at once it shows itself to be in effective possession of those priors whose memory it never lost: “
“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. They constitute one community however they are distributed into various conflicting identities.
There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices. They seem to have substituted religious forms for the material forms, and as they are fanatic about them, they bring about a far greater degree of discrimination and conflict in the world than their materialistic counterparts. They too constitute one community. Though they may belong to totally conflicting religious interests and traditions, they are still like mirror images of one another. When their fanaticism for the outward forms of their religion is combined with their material interests, they create havoc both for themselves and for the rest of the world.
Therefore, let us not be deceived by how these two groups identify themselves, whether as materialists or religious people. Ignore the names they give themselves after some ideology or religion. Beware of the trap: imperceptibly without the slightest awareness on your part, you may be dragged by them into giving yourself a collective name or belief. All of them, as you will often notice, feel uneasy before an unidentified or nameless mode of self-understanding. Unless you are careful, you will soon be a part and parcel of their discourse even when you think you are disagreeing with them. It is how most of the reformers end up as greater fanatics than their opponents. So beware of the outward forms, and those who adore them. At best these outward forms have a value for the species in its collective discipline, but they are a hindrance to the individual.
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. They are not many. They are to be found in every age, country and religion. They are the ones who embody the one indivisible humanity. They are the true humanists. They are one community on account of their inwardness, their interconnection across religious, cultural and historical boundaries. They reflect a deep positive patience. They may stand in one or another house of worship or they may constitute one unbroken fellowship of the spirit. They are the salt of the earth. They are the peacemakers.
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. They are very few, some known and others hidden, even from themselves. They are past even human identification, neither man nor woman, they are a being, pure and transparent. They are the elect. They are the horizon towards which the people of the inward look.
Between the outward looking and the inward looking there is an abysmal gulf. Between the inward and the elect there is a bridge. They are both communities, and also modes of awareness and being*.
“Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision” by Hasan Askari *For a detailed discussion about these four modes you may refer to “Towards a Trans-Religious Dimension” in Spiritual Quest: An Inter-Religious Dimension by Hasan Askari.