Tag Archives: Human Rights

Spiritual Human Interview with Clare Short

Clare_election[1] - CopyClare 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. ​I​n 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 ​R​epublican 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 ye​t​ 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.

Spiritual Humanism

 

 

 

 

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad

Tim Winter Abdal Hakim MuradTim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad is lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, UK, which trains imams for British mosques. In 2010 he was voted Britain’s most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. His most recent book is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (2012). Abdal Hakim Murad regularly leads Juma prayers at the Cambridge central mosque, and has preached in major mosques in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States. Recordings of his khutbas and lectures are widely available in Islamic bookshops. His articles have appeared in The Independent, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Catholic Herald, Islamica, Zaman, Neue Zrcher Zeitung and Prospect. He is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4s Thought for the Day.

Sincere thanks to Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad for this interview.

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad

Musa Askari : What does the term “spiritual” or “spirituality” invoke within you? Despite various manifestations of spirituality in the world do you sense at the heart of “spirituality” itself some common ground where people of different faiths or none may encounter each other? Do you recognise such a thing as “trans-spiritual”?

Abdal Hakim Murad: The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations. If we try to use the term more exactly, we may find that the use of the word to indicate the action of the spirit – either God’s or our own – breaks down when we admit, as most religions do, that everything in existence is in fact the operation of the spirit. Again, the word typically leads us to confusion. It’s probably better to be Platonic, and speak in terms not of ‘spirituality’ but of beauty, which is ‘the splendour of the Truth’ – wherever beauty is discerned, the spirit is engaging in authentic perception, intuiting, whether we admit it or not, that beauty in the world is the sign of the sacred. That includes beautiful conduct, as well as physical or aural beauty. This would bring us closer to the semantic range of the Islamic word ihsan.

On that kind of category we can of course speak of the possibility of forms of mutual recognition between adherents of outwardly very disparate paths. No sacred tradition has ever marginalized beauty. On a rudimentary level we agree that modernity has replaced beauty with a love of newness and originality; and our leaders normally lament this as a disaster. That is a significant, although rather negative, basis for unity and mutual comprehension. More subtly, it is interesting how the recognition of beauty in, say, music or architecture, very often leaps over formal religious boundaries. Buddhists can feel transformed in cathedrals; and American Catholics admit that they are moved when they visit the Taj Mahal; and so on.

Musa Askari: At times I have, innerly – intuitively, been moved to tears by either reading aloud or remembering the beautiful verse in The Quran, “We are of God and unto God we return” (sura 2: ayat 156) At some inner level something is stirred within the soul (a memory perhaps) and those tears are as gifts, the after effects, powerful but secondary. The primary effect is with the soul, our non-material, invisible, indivisible companion, catching a glimpse of the coat tails of this beautiful verse on “returning” and following it. I recall Hasan Askari sharing the metaphor of a child at play upon hearing the voices of it’s parents calling, leaves the play and rushes to greet them. It is perhaps in that swing from the heart to soul we move from the outer meaning to the inner meaning, from the manifest to the hidden. From the particular to the universal, from multiplicity to unity.

I found it moving and a deeply spiritual statement where in your 2010 interview with The Independent you referred to your conversion to Islam as, “the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home”. I would be grateful if you could share more about the feeling of “coming home” and perhaps consider relating it to the verse quoted above on returning to God or any other verse you feel relevant?  

Abdal Hakim Murad: To enter Islam is to repeat the Shahada (the Testimony of Unity and Prophecy); and the Shahada is really nothing less than a testimony to our Source which is also our native land: our point of origin and our place of return (mabda’ wa-ma’ad).  

Rumi says in his Divan: ‘We were with the spheres, among the angels – let us return there, friend, for that is our native city.’ This is another universal kind of statement. In the context of the Holy Qur’an (7:172), it is the Primordial Covenant which was the ‘big bang’ moment at which the points of reflected divine light we call souls came into being and were summoned to testify to their Lord. The Black Stone in the Great Sanctuary is said to contain, in a mysterious way, that covenant; it is ‘God’s right hand on earth’. This is in a homily by Imam Ali: ‘when God took the covenant from all souls, He fed it to this Stone, which testifies to the believer’s faithfulness, and to the betrayal of the rejector.’

The five canonical Prayers are an enactment of this: the shahada during the prayer, said facing the House, affirms the House’s representation of the eternity of God, and also our remembering of the Primordial Covenant. In that sense the Prayer is ‘the pillar of Islam.’ It is our formal act of love and obeisance, and our highest dhikr – recollection of the Beloved. ‘Give us peace, Bilal’, the Holy Prophet would say when he wanted the Call to Prayer to be heard; and he said ‘the coolness of my eye is in prayer.’ The Hajj is a different kind of reenactment, taking the form of a symbolic journey from the periphery to the centre. Like the Prayer, it recalls the Ascension of the Holy Prophet, in which he left his earthly city for the Heavenly Abode.

It is that Abode which is, as the Qur’an reminds us, our ‘refuge’ (ma’wa), and our Abode of Peace (dar al-salam). The Garden is our home; but we can experience an intoxicating breath of its fragrance on earth, if we love and recognize the Gardener, and love and care for His garden and its other guests. The only true disaster for us in this place of wonders and signs is to look around us, and allow the demon within to say: ‘There is no gardener; this is only energy and matter’. From that expression of the ego’s defiance, all sin, without exception, flows. Put differently, it is also the true source of our alienation. In a sense the lover of God is always at home, because he feels around him the traces of his Beloved, on all side, in every moment. Love is to be at home, as well as to long for it.

This is why the true Qur’anic believer follows the counsel of the Holy Prophet: ‘wherever he finds wisdom, the believer has the most right to it.’ He knows that although outward adherence is essential; inward adherence may recognize value and beauty in the most unexpected places and people. Wherever the Beloved is yearned for sincerely; the believer will be respectful, for Beauty and sincerity are always to be honoured. This is the meaning of Sufi ‘tolerance’ – it is not a political or doctrinal category – for God’s Law is always to be revered; it is an acknowledgement, rooted both in scripture and in our social experience, of the reality of inward transformation in people of other traditions.

I believe that your father, rooted in the ancient and nuanced sapiential world of Hyderabadi mysticism, made that the basis of his interreligious work. One starts not with the One, but with the Many – for that is where we find ourselves and in the context of which we build our relationships. Great Muslim cities – and in the days of the Nizams, and for some time thereafter, Hyderabad was certainly one of the greatest – maintained a cosmopolitanism that sat easily with inward sagacity, an urbane and literate courtesy, and also with a passion for the outward resources of Islam. Your father was a product of that world, a representative of a classical Islamic deepness and certainty which is fast disappearing today. The young, although desperately in need of an awareness of the sanctity of religious others, often have no idea it ever existed. In today’s multicultural world, fundamentalism and xenophobia seem to be replacing humility, empathy, and the courage to learn from others. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of our times.

Musa Askari:  In this clip you read aloud an excerpt of the story “Read in the Name of thy Lord” by Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness  to Vision” 

It is the story of a mother’s devotion to The Quran, the inner etiquette with which she approaches the scripture, the silence of the moment and being moved to tears by the beauty of the calligraphy. She was a “conscious soul”. Hasan Askari concludes the story with, “The entire world stood still at this amazing recital without words, without meaning, without knowledge. With that touch a unity was established between her and the Quran. At that moment she had passed into a state of total identity with the word of God. Her inability to read the scripture was her ability to hear once again: Read! Read, in the Name of thy Lord.”

At times our calling upon God is not a shared experience. It is not as communities or as collective identities that at times we turn to the Almighty for guidance but in the company of solitude. As a muslim leaves their shoes outside upon entering the mosque so too one perhaps leaves at the threshold of the inner door – one’s inner sanctuary, collective associations (not abandoning them). It can be an experience or “moment” of utter helplessness, of being completely alone with oneself as slowly the “presence” of silence fills the room like a beautiful “fragrance” and there leaps forth from our heart and soul a “calling” upon God.  

Can you please talk about what forms the “calling upon God” take within Islamic tradition? From the formal prayer (salat) to spontaneous heartfelt utterances? Also in your opinion to what extent does “silence” play a role in the spiritual life of Islam?

Abdal Hakim Murad: I often reflect, as I listen to sermons, that the virtue of silence is not sufficiently cultivated among my contemporary brothers in faith. Or, I might venture to add, among my sisters. Imam al-Ghazali, borrowing from Ibn Abi Dunya’s book of homilies, The Book of Silence (Kitab al-Samt), sums up very finely the Islamic teaching here. As always, a middle course is required. On the one hand, Almighty God, in whose image we are called to remake ourselves, speaks, and has done so often! Who can count the number of His words and scriptures? ‘Were the sea to be ink for the words of my Lord, the sea, and the like thereof, would run dry’. And His prophets, and most of His saints, speak. But their words are wisdom, springing from the Divine self-communication, Speech, Logos – which is from the Essence and is ultimately something so pure it was can be seen as uncreated, partaking in the Divine pre-existence (azaliyya).

A word can heal a soul, or save a marriage, or bring a saint to completion. But a word can also declare war, or break a heart, or send an innocent man to jail. ‘Whoever can guarantee for me what is between his lips, and what is between his legs; I guarantee Paradise for him!’ promises the Blessed Prophet. It sounds easy, but each of us knows how difficult it is. So the teeth, for the Sufis, are a cage, restraining a lethal beast; the Sufi teachers remind us also that God has given us two ears, but only one tongue. We should listen, and listen to ourselves as well. Very often what we say is to vindicate ourselves; only seldom is it to glorify God or to vindicate others. Hence the cage. But it is the ego which is the touchstone. Imam al-Junayd said: ‘If you crave speech, be silent; if you crave silence, speak!’

Your father’s story about the illiterate woman engaging with the Word of God is one I have used often, or at least once a year, in my Cambridge Islam course. It underlines something that non-Muslims forget: the saving, incantatory, brilliant presence of the uncreated Book, which ‘saves’ and ‘heals’ and ‘shows mercy’ even if not a word of it is formally understood. Most believers are shown, at some point of their lives, the miraculous nature of the Book, when it ‘moves in their hands’; these are the ‘bibliotheophanies’ which strengthen faith and increase our love and awe. I have seen non-Muslim students reduced to tears on reading the Qur’an, whose ‘wind bloweth where it listeth.’

Musa Askari: Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism“I asked my self this question: Why? Why more than one religion? In other words I was asking for a theology of world religions. I was asking for a global understanding of religious diversity. Because the diversity was there staring into my eyes. It was there un-mistakably present. And therefore, that was the first stage of my journey; to ask a theological question about more than one religion. It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion.  How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice? If we do so then that one religion becomes a god. And it is a blasphemy. As God’s Transcendence is ineffable, as His Might and Power is infinite, as His Attributes are countless and therefore, there should be as many forms of praising Him, worshipping Him, adoring Him, showing love and devotion to Him. And therefore I came home in a multi religious world. As a muslim it was easy for me to arrive at this position because the Quran is the first scripture in the world which started an inter-religious dialogue. It accepted the reality of revelation being given to all communities across the world. The Quran gave me the first clue to understand the theological enigma of more than one religion. “

When you met with Hasan Askari in the 1990s I expect this may have been one of the topics you discussed. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on religious diversity and how these have developed over time? I am asking I suppose the same question Hasan asked himself, “Why more than one religion?”

Abdal Hakim Murad: The Qur’an celebrates human diversity; indeed, it is unusual among monotheistic scriptures in doing so. Significantly, it does not include the Tower of Babel story. The ‘difference of your languages and colours’ is a sign of God. In this, the text, in its original distant Arabian cradle, is anticipating its gigantic global reach. More than any other premodern sacred culture, Islam embraced a diversity of worlds. Vincent Monteil, the late professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, and a committed Muslim and Sufi, wrote of the ‘five colours of Islam’, in a volume which was a tour de force of scholarship, dealing with the Islam of Africa, the Middle East, the Turkic world, the Perso-Indic world, and the Malay nusantara. In all these places a diversity of humanity has sought the shade of the Holy Prophet’s tree, and all those cultures burst into fruit and flowers when Islam reached them.

Religious diversity, however, is not necessarily part of this; because the Qur’an is also insistent on the absolute importance of truth. The God it describes, with the 99 Beautiful Names, is not just another possible account of an Ineffable Noumenon, it is a true God, and those Names describe Him truly. Hence the law of non-contradiction ensures that different religions, which insist on different accounts of deity, cannot simultaneously be true. To claim that their discourses should be regarded as purely relative, is to denigrate them. Humans have the right to expect that their beliefs will be taken seriously on their own terms, rather than just seen as a set of picturesque metaphors which help our inward transformation. 

Musa Askari: From the book “Towards A Spiritual Humanism : A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue” 1991,(Chapter 2, page 24), Hasan Askari writes, “The basic concern for me is the way in which we can reconcile our modern discoveries and our ancient insights. For instance, I subscribe to the theory of evolution, say tentatively, but that theory pertains to the evolution of our physical form, of our physical entity, of our animal identity vis-a-vis the environment – it has nothing to do with our “being” as rational and self conscious. I mean our cognizing identity…………..as soon as we enter into known history we notice a very vast gap between the material evolution of our society, and our mental, philosophical and spiritual evolution. We notice a chasm between the material progress of communities and the great philosophical strides they made. Furthermore, we notice that every great leap in consciousness in the past four thousand years is both a leap in that moment and also an epitome of the entire history of the mental life of mankind. It is the meeting point of both the part and the whole. In no other manner could I explain the emergence of the Upanishads and the Gita in a civilisation that possessed a primitive technology. Similarly, in no other manner could I explain the emergence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a small mercantile economy. I am at a loss to explain the emergence of very penetrating insights and formulations into questions of metaphysics in backward civilizations. Consider for one moment the emergence of Muhammed on the Arabian peninsula. Whatever one says, either for or against him, he was nevertheless a phenomenon. How could a primitive nomadic Bedouin culture produce a mind like his capable of transforming world history – it is simply bewildering…………..it is the phenomenon of the individual leap in evolution which to me contradicts the entire theory of materialistic evolution.”

Where do you see opportunities for non-ideological co-operation/dialogue between secular humanists and people of faith not only in terms of human rights but also on re-examining issues relating to our origins as human and spiritual beings as the above quote from Hasan Askari attempts to do?  

Abdal Hakim Murad: Well, there are several questions here. One is the frequently overbegged question of whether ‘human rights’ should be understood through the lens of one culture alone. We speak of ‘universal human rights’ when in reality the rights concerned, for instance in the various generally impressive UN declarations, are those which were acceptable to Western or Westernised intellectuals in a particular historical period. John Gray’s Straw Dogs contains an amusing and rather shattering discussion of this.  In fact, the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Lebanese Catholic intellectual who founded the Phalangist militia which massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. And recently we have seen how most Americans have failed to protest against torture, black sites, special rendition, and state surveillance of civilians, as part of the ‘War on Terror’. In practice, the authors of these declarations promptly set them aside when it suits them to do so. 

There may be a disturbing and deep cause for this. It seems to me that one of the weak points of the modern discourse is the disjuncture between ‘humanism’, with its often lofty ideas about the human capacity for altruism and nobility, and the hard Darwinian paradigm of the ‘selfish gene’, which holds that we are the consequence of a billion years of blind selfishness. Hitler was a much more consistent Darwinian than are liberal democrats. This unpleasant truth about the implications of strict materialism has not been honestly faced. 

The question of the emergence of Islam as an abrupt paradigm shift in history has attracted much attention. It is hard to find another historical event which changed so much so swiftly. Thanks to the profound love and fellowship among the Companions, a new human type seemed to be created overnight, and great civilizations quickly followed. This does, I think, challenge mechanical understandings of the human species as being reducible ultimately to the ‘selfish gene’ and natural selection over immense periods of time. We have the right to be a little Hegelian here: there are ‘world-historical individuals’ through whom astonishing things are accomplished. Hence Carlyle’s inclusion of the Holy Prophet as perhaps the most salient chapter of his book Heroes and Hero-worship. As Hans Küng has written: ‘Muhammad is discontinuity in person’. Here, more than in any other historical event, we find a challenge to evolutionary reductionism; I think your father was being very wise here. 

Science is steadily turning into scientism: a rampant total Theory of Everything, which increasingly either patronises or demonises religion. Believers, whatever their tradition, should help scientists to recognize that a true humanism will be alert to ultimately irreducible, personal, aesthetic and ethical dimensions of human consciousness, and will resist, to its dying breath, the reduction of the sons and daughters of Adam to ‘meat machines’.

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

Spiritual Humanism – a call to repel evil with the Good

Spiritual Humanism is convinced that there are resources within the human soul to repel the evil with the good, that truth and virtue have their own power to defend themselves. We should have long given up the very idea of self-defence by physical means. While other animals were growing weapons of self-defence upon their bodies, man was shedding off all such weapons. See how defenceless our physical body looks compared with other animals as though there are powers, yet unknown, deeply concealed in our soul. How weak does man appear though he is armed with nuclear weapons, and how powerful a Buddha or a Jesus looks with his bare hands having made the choice of walking on the path of Peace.

It appears as though we have accustomed our soul to combat violence with violence, destruction with destruction, physical threat with physical deterrent. We seem to have forgotten how powerful the choice of the peaceful deterrent could be. Spiritual Humanism therefore calls for every party to act first without waiting for the other to act when it is convinced of the principle that the evil be repelled by the good. If disarmament is the good, let one disarm without waiting for any other to disarm first.

Responding to violence by suspending human rights is to act with violence to one’s own moral and social fabric. Life is honoured when the individual is honoured. The individual is honoured when the individual rights are honoured. Only by honouring the life and the rights of the other, our life and rights are preserved.”

by Professor Hasan Askari (*see also “Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue” by Hasan Askari & Jon Avery)