Tag Archives: Encounter

Happiness & Wellbeing: An Act of Contemplation

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.

From my article, Weapons without Boundaries: A Spiritual Humanism Response to Terrorism: 

“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.

My seven thoughts on Love are that it is a Constant, Non-Material, A Remembering, A Returning Home, Forsaking of Love (paradoxically), It is Pure, It is Beautiful.

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.

 

 

 

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

Sincere thanks to Professor Gregory A. Barker on the following book review.

“Towards A Spiritual Humanism” is as a result of many hours of dialogue sessions between Hasan Askari and Jon Avery in June 1989. Hasan and Jon met one another at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado where Hasan was the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor. Jon writes in the introduction, “Hasan’s openness, warmth and erudition were engaging, especially in his informal discussions with students after class.” It is with the aspiration for that same sense of openness “SpiritualHuman” is proud to present this book review by Professor Gregory A. Barker.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

A Review of Hasan Askari and Jon Avery’s Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (1991)

Gregory A. Barker. Formerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies The University of Wales, Trinity Saint David

A Dialogue Joke?

Did you hear about the Muslim Mystic who found common ground with an American Atheist? That question sounds like the beginning of a joke. It isn’t. 

A very unusual book, first published in 1991, brings us a series of discussions between the celebrated esoteric Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and the American humanist Jon Avery. 

The book is unusual because these dialogue partners are interested in exploring common ground beyond obvious differences toward metaphysical beliefs.

Perhaps what is most striking about the volume Towards a Spiritual Humanism is that it sounds such a different note from the voices we typically hear in our polarized culture.

In popular media, religion and atheism are viewed as locked in debate: religion represents revelation, dogma, and traditional values; atheism champions truth, science, honesty and innovation.  Each charges the other with immorality, violence and repression of the human spirit, with atheism currently gaining the upper hand for many with its “slam-dunk” arguments against traditional belief.

Yet many are currently questioning this simple opposition.  On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies.  Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement.

Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time

Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.

Don’t worry: this volume does not end up as a set of vague platitudes or a mutual admiration of liberal social principles. The encounter between these men produces heat as well as light. 

Askari describes himself as an esoteric Muslim mystic who utterly rejects the dogmatism that holds contemporary Islamic movements in a “collective hypnosis”, blind to the deeper spiritual unity of the human race.  Yet he will not surrender his conviction that there is a transcendent, non-material dimension to the cosmos, a force that unifies and enlightens every human being.

Jon Avery, an atheist, rejects this notion but sees it as a possible corrective to a rationalism that denies the emotional and aesthetic sides to human personality.  He also shares Askari’s view that literalist-traditional theologians have created dogmatic approaches to theology that oppress rather than liberate the human spirit.

Thus, the central disagreement over the non-material transcendent dimension is accompanied by a central agreement over the “sin” of reducing human beings to theological slavery, rationalist one-sidedness or rabid consumers of western products.   The two men bring this agreement and disagreement to a host of vital subjects: religion, psychology, the problem of evil and contemporary challenges such as the environment and the threat of nuclear war. Let’s look at just a few of the central concerns.

A Materialistic Universe?

Askari begins by clarifying the nature of his own adherence to Islam.  He seeks to locate his own position between a thoroughgoing rationalism on the one hand, and a religious literalism on the other.   He has found his own answer in a mystical or esoteric approach witnessed to by a host of thinkers from Plotinus to Carl Jung.  A significant shift on his journey came when he accepted the notion that symbols from various world religions witness to unity and transcendence, a position he calls “poly-symbolism” rather than “polytheism”. This view, he says, mitigates against making absolute any one religion and relativizes any claim to “revelation” in terms of a strict set of doctrines and rules. It also challenges, for Askari, the reduction of life to that which can be seen with the physical eyes.

As one might guess, a chasm opens up between the two men on this final point.

Avery agues, “…only matter exists (as long as this matter is understood as evolving and dynamic) is more conducive to happiness than the language of a soul that is separate from the body.” (30) Avery, rooted in his humanist tradition, wants to see humans freed from superstition and religious fanaticism so that they can live in harmony with their physical environment – something, he says, that religious traditions have not always championed. 

Askari is concerned that Avery’s view of religion is little more than a superficial ideology, a projection of materialist scholars about the content and direction of religion rather than a serious attempt to reconcile ancient and abiding insights with modern discoveries.  

It is clear, says Askari that our intellectual lives operate on a different level from the material systems governing our physical lives.

Avery insists, however, that there is no need to introduce a dichotomy between the soul and the body – they are the same reality.  The two then move into a complex argument about motion, with Avery arguing that material movement is self-caused and Askari that all motion is, ultimately, caused by non-material forces.  Through this discussion, Avery is concerned that a religious determinism will remove humans from being properly concerned about the material world. Yet Askari argues convincingly that the idea of “self caused motion” is itself a metaphorical interpretation of reality rather than a scientific statement – to which Avery agrees.

Is There A Soul?

Both men use the word “soul” but, predictably, with different meanings. For Jon Avery the soul is a “metaphor for the source of human values” (46); this leads him to define God as the earth and “the soul is the earth in us.” (47). For Askari these definitions are inadequate as they leave humans subject to collective social hypnoses that are destructive to human life; there must be a source beyond ourselves he insists.  

The two men are able to agree on the importance of human responsibility, the danger of the doctrine of “original sin” and the idea that human identity is not exhausted by individual consciousness.

Both men are fascinated by Carl Jung and see much promise in the idea that there is a shared humanity, the collective unconscious that unites humans at a deeper level than ideology.  Yet, Avery contends that there is a rationalistic explanation for Jung’s archetypes: they are a product of a specific functioning of the human mind, rather than stemming from a mystical source. In other words, the fact that similar categories of thought emerge between otherwise disparate cultures is not necessarily an argument for transcendence but may simply be how the human body works.  Still, Avery appreciates the wider view of consciousness provided by a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

At this point Askari passionately declares: 

“We need such a unifying principle (i.e. the soul), which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality.   Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give to it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today.  What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race, or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psychic and the physical realms.” (65)

Avery admits that a rationalistic suppression of the emotional and aesthetic dimensions has limited human life and contributed to an exploitation of the earth’s resources.  He accepts that there needs to be a human “integration” that accompanies positive progress.

A Spiritual Government?  

The dialogue takes a fascinating turn when Askari reflects on attempts to fuse or separate spirituality in politics. Bearing witness to Islamist movements, Askari makes the point that the state inevitably is divinized when it is viewed as a necessary arm of religion.  In other words, the state is equated with spirituality and becomes nothing less than an idol that oppresses humanity.

But Askari does not stop here. He believes that America has produced an equally devastating problem through the separation of church and state.  By privatizing spirituality, the state becomes free to create powerful ideologies that are immune to spiritual criticism. Here, too, the state is divinized.

At first, Avery objects to this criticism of the United States and champions the justice that has come from the separation of church and state. However, after some further interchange, he admits that the state needs a corrective from a non-ideological point of view.

Askari accuses America as having fostered nothing less than “schizophrenia” between private spirituality and public ideology which leads to an imbalanced soul.  His solution is that there should be a unity between our private and public lives  — which, for Avery, is best captured by the term “dialectic”.  However, for Avery there are forces other than the state that lead to dehumanization; for example, the uncritical use of technology.

A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?

Shining through these pages is the fact that both of these men are “Humanists”: each hold human life to be precious, and are convicted about the need to resist the threat to human welfare that comes from war, inhumane actions and the irresponsible use of the environment.  However, these men are at odds with their definition of the term “evil”.

This critical difference means that they take a different attitude to human suffering.

For Avery, evil is anything that prevents life from flourishing. He identifies with the “meliorism” of William James: our task it so reduce human suffering as much as possible.   However, Askari locates the source of suffering in human ignorance of the underlying unity of life, an ignorance fought against by leading spiritual figures through the ages.

Thus, the book ends with the same tensions introduced at the beginning.  Askari is, ultimately, informed by a religious or spiritual vision of life and Avery tends to think that this vision has done more harm than good for human beings.

Askari’s point of view leads him to the striking attitude of questioning that all suffering should be eradicated. Suffering is, he says, a part of the structure of human life.  The main enemy is not physical death but absolutizing our own narrow images and ideas about life and holding these as a sword over the heads of others.   His vision of “poly-symbolic” pan-spirituality rooted in notions of the divine realm testified to by Plotinus is recommended as an antidote to religious sectarianism and the collapse of the human soul into superficial trends.  Scientific reason is not alone going to be able to combat the forces that pull humans into blindness and ignorance, he insists.

But Avery will not so quickly be lured away from his conviction about alleviating all human suffering.  Furthermore he sees dangers in superficial spiritual solutions promoted by New Age approaches. Yet, he acknowledges that the answer to the question, “What is the basis for human rights?” must draw upon a different type of reasoning than that normally provided in the rationalist-humanist tradition and he thanks Askari for helping him to seeing that some thinkers from religious traditions have answers to this question that can complement a humanist perspective.

The Meeting Ground

Despite all of these differences, Avery refers to having broken new ground as a result of this dialogue:

“If human rights are an expression of these higher reaches of humanity beyond the physical and dogmatic level in the creative and trans-human levels, then I would agree with you that human rights have a spiritual foundation.” (121).

The use of the term “spiritual” by an atheist is but one of the many features of this dialogue which puts it decades ahead of its time. 

Anyone who is not satisfied with polarized portrayals of atheists or religionists will find this book to be a rare gem.

-Gregory A Barker

More on the work of Professor Barker: http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

* See also “Human Nature” above for extract from Towards A Spritual Humanism

*See also “Spiritual Humanism” above for speech transcript by Hasan Askari

*See also “InterReligious Dialogue” above an article by Hasan Askari