In 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.
It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here
Syed Hasan Askari’s thoughts from “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” (published 1991)
“Let us reflect further on this shared value of humanity because there is so much in it. I feel that both the humanist and religious traditions sound almost simplistic or monolithic when discussing this category, namely, the human.
Let me share a few perspectives to deepen this value because this holds the key for our progress in dialogue. Firstly, the humanistic view, namely, that we are first of all human, appears to me primarily an extension of one’s identity in space – from one’s own house to the entire planet, or to use the popular expression for the planet in our times – the global village. This is not enough for me, because it is an aspiration only in a spatial-physical mode of a greater aggregate, whereas it may also be viewed as a metaphor for a sympathy across distances, between people, between all humanity. That sympathy cannot be a material bond, or even a bond which is merely psychological. It should be a spiritual bond.
This makes me bring in another dimension of the aggregate of humanity, namely time. Holding on to the same value of humanity, I should say that across time – across all time both past and unborn time, there should be the unity of the human self. As soon as we invoke time as a dimension of unity, the collapse of the material expression of unity is self-evident. It is this which is celebrated in the religious, or to be very specific, in the Christian Catholic notion of communion, particularly the communion of saints.
Setting aside the religious connotations, on a purely pragmatic level, the unity of the humans both in space and time, presupposes an internal unity. So, I request my humanist friends to take their value of humanity more deeply and have the courage to draw all the conclusions possible, neither hampered nor tempted by any ideological options. Therefore, our criterion in this discourse is that no ideological criterion should come in the way of our celebration of human unity as a whole.
I have another perspective. I don’t see humanity, even when we take the dimensions of both space and time together, as one monolithic whole. We have many humanities within one humanity, and we have to be extremely careful in differentiating, deep within our own personalities, four humanities!
The first humanity is co-terminus with our physical status as material beings dependent upon water, air and food; the extension of this principle is our dependence upon urban water supplies and refrigeration; upon the technology we have created and all the comforts that principle involves and the culture which it creates. There are vast numbers of people who do not progress beyond this level.
The second humanity is also widespread, and it includes those who have fallen in love with the images they have created in their philosophies, in their religions, and in their doctrines. They are clever and self-conscious people. However, they are in a state of hypnosis. They cannot move from the outward profiles of their doctrines and religions – yet they too are human.
The third humanity is free from the physical, free from outward profiles and forms; it is inward looking and holds onto its own essential being. It is this humanity which, in my view, holds the key to the sympathy, the resonance of feeling across space and time. It is this which creates philosophy universally, which creates science universally, which creates an intelligible discourse across races and cultures and nationalities, and which is to me the goal of humanity.
The fourth humanity is almost celestial, almost super-human, almost trans-human. It is one with the entire cosmos which is the ultimate principle of unity. It is like a spark of light in each one of us, even in those who are lost in the physical world, even in those who are wrapped up in the traditional profiles of identity, dogma and doctrine.
So, when I hear the word “humanity” I respond to it emotively because I hold that perspective, but at the same time I am disturbed, because we may lose sight of the hierarchy and differentiation, on account of our obsession with uniformity of the physical image of man. I am not subscribing to any elitist notion of an inner or hidden group of mystics. I am saying that both ontologically and psychologically humanity is a highly differentiated principle and it is because of this differentiation that it is human. If it is not differentiated it becomes a technological, mechanistic principle. It is in this sense I consider humanism as pointing to this differentiation, not submerging it. Otherwise, we become unfair or unjust to our own inner hierarchies.
Let us take this opportunity to point out that most so-called religious people also have a very simplistic view of humanity which is in one sense more dangerous that the simplistic view of popular humanism because they equate their humanity with their collectivity. For them, humanity is co-terminus with their particular religious congregation. For example if you are a Christian you will consider yourself human; if you are Muslim you will consider yourself human; but those who do not fall within the collectivity to which you personally belong are not fully human, they are sub-human or only potentially human. So, there is a greater danger in the ideological, doctrinal, religious or secularist understanding of humanity because such an understanding doesn’t allow for the idea of a spiritual differentiation between different levels of consciousness……Therefore, our quest is how to increase the life of humanity, not the vegetative life, not animal life, but the life of reason, the life of the spirit, the life of intuition.
This life has many sources outer and inner, both known and unknown. It is perhaps towards that humanity we are all moving.”
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
* See also on this blog:
“There are only Four Communities” , “When the Atheist Met the Mystic”
Professor Don Page has taught since 1990 at the University of Alberta, in the Department of Physics. Professor Page is an expert in the field of “black holes”. He has studied at leading institutions, Caltech, USA; University of Cambridge, UK where he was research assistant 1976-1979. He has worked & collaborated with Prof Stephen Hawking co-authoring with him “Thermodynamics of Black Holes in Anti-de Sitter Space” in 1983. (photo by Anna Page)
The following interview questions are taken from the brief reflection by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) entitled “Fireworks” where he enquires on the nature of the “Big Bang” & what if anything preceded it.
Sincere thanks to Professor Don Page for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR DON PAGE
Musa Askari: If one talks of the original Big Bang, what sort of bang was it? An explosion where each piece that flies out becomes an occasion of further explosion (multiple Big Bangs)?
Don Page: We have very strong evidence that our universe was very much smaller, denser, and hotter about 13.8 billion years ago. The explosion out from that hot dense state is call the Big Bang. We are not certain whether this was the absolute beginning of the universe, or whether it was a bounce from a previous phase of contraction, or whether it was just the latest in a series of big bangs, or whether perhaps it does not make sense to say that there was any absolute beginning to the universe.
Musa Askari: The behaviour of the original particles and forces issuing from the Big Bang. Was this behaviour haphazard? Was it arrived at through trial and error? Was it pre-given?
Don Page: So far as we can reliably trace back the behavior of our universe back toward the Big Bang that was nearly 14 billion years to our past, it seems to have been very smooth, nearly homogeneous and isotropic. However, there are strong suggestions, based upon indirect evidence from the form of the small departures from homogeneity and isotropy, that before the time for which we have reliable fairly direct evidence, there was a time of very rapid exponential expansion, called inflation, that could have smoothed the universe out even if it had been more lumpy before (though there do seem to be limits on how lumpy and disordered it could have been before inflation started for it to occur and be able to smooth out the universe).
Some scientists speculate that there might have been many different big bangs, most of which did not lead to much life like ours, so that we are seeing one of a relatively small sample that occurred with a form suitable for life. However, the type of big bang that we observe seems to be even much more special than what would be required simply for life like ours. So one cannot fully explain all its properties as being due to the selection effect that observers can only observe conditions that permit observers to exist.
Musa Askari: What about “Laws” which seemed to immediately come into operation soon after the said explosion. Did laws also “explode” into existence along with the energy and matter they were supposed to govern and regulate? What about other laws which govern the properties of those elements which came into being much later, say carbon dioxide? And laws governing organic matter, life, consciousness, reasoning. Did they all explode with the Big Bang? Were they lying in suspense until those substances and forms arose which required them? Where were they lying in abeyance?
Don Page: If the universe did indeed have a beginning at some point in the past, using some measure of time within the universe, the laws for the
universe would not have applied before that beginning, using the time within the universe to define “before.” But one might say that the laws have some Platonic existence beyond the existence of the universe itself, in a sense somewhat similar to the sense in which 1+1=2 can be considered to be a true theorem of arithmetic (a logical consequence of the axioms of arithmetic) even if there are no individual objects such that one could count one of them and another of them to get two of them. However, there is the difference that theorems like the logical following of 1+1=2 from suitable axioms are logically necessary truths, whereas the laws of physics are just descriptions of a contingent concrete entity, the universe, so there is no logical necessity to laws of the universe as there are for theorems of arithmetic.
Musa Askari: In contemplating the Big Bang are we also reaching for the smallest possible unit of condensed matter?
Don Page: In classical general relativity (ignoring the Heisenberg principle that is believed to apply to gravity that we think is actually
quantized and so does not obey the classical equations of Einstein’s
theory of general relativity), there would be no limit larger than zero to how small the universe could be, so in principle it could have expanded out from zero size (or at least it could have had any size greater than zero, though one might say that the limit at which the size goes to zero, as one goes backward in time, is not itself part of the spacetime of the universe). In quantum gravity we do not yet know whether or not there is a positive limit on how small the universe might be.
Musa Askari: What held it in that state of intense density not allowing it to explode or expand?
Don Page: The point of infinite density would not really be part of the universe in the classical model in general relativity, so whenever the universe existed, it would be expanding, in this classical big bang model. But even for a classical model, the universe could have had a bounce at large but finite density rather than an expansion from an arbitrarily small size and arbitrarily large density. And in a quantum picture, it might not make sense to say how large the universe is as a function of time to be able to say whether or not the universe started expanding from an arbitrarily small size.
Musa Askari: What force of gravity within itself pulled it to itself that it retained its intense density?
Don Page: In the classical big bang model with an initial singularity (the limiting t = 0 time that is not really part of the universe), the
universe has always been expanding during its entire lifetime, for all t > 0. If we measure the time t that has existed within the universe,
that can be finite (perhaps roughly 14 billion years now), but the
idea is that time t cannot be zero. t = 0 is only a hypothetical
limit, what is called a singularity, not a time within the universe,
since in the classical big bang model, time is only defined for t > 0.
Musa Askari: If it exploded at “x” time, why not before, why not later?
Don Page: We can measure what is the time interval that the universe has existed up to now, but it does not make sense to try to assign a definite time other than zero for the limiting “point” or initial singularity at which there has been no previous time. In a classical model, time differences make sense (though even these may not be definite in a quantum model), but even in a classical model, only time differences after the initial singularity make sense, not any supposedly absolute time at which the singularity happened. (Well, we can say that if the big bang about 14 billion years ago really did have a singularity, a limit beyond which one cannot go back in time and at which densities would go to infinity, then the singularity was 14 billion years in the past relative to us now, but there is no meaning to its time other than relative to events within the universe.)
Musa Askari: What suspended its internal gravity for an instant that the great bang was triggered?
Don Page: There is no instant at which the big bang was triggered. There is only a limit at which one can say that t = 0, but this limit is not part of the existing spacetime. Going back toward that limit, the density would diverge, meaning that it would get greater than any pre-assigned finite value, but one cannot say that it actually reached infinity as one goes back in time, since the universe only exists for t > 0, and not at t = 0. Well, this is within a classical model of general relativity. Probably quantum gravity so alters the properties of time that the whole question of the time evolution of the universe becomes a meaningless concept.
Musa Askari: If the Big Bang is a result of an instant’s suspension or weakening of the force of gravity is in itself a hopeless question perhaps. Or, was it so that a force involving a greater force of gravity pulled out of the contents within that mythical mass with such force that an explosion occurred? What was that force? Could it be what we refer to now as “dark energy”?
Don Page: The “dark energy” is the name for whatever it is that is now causing the linear size of the universe to be accelerating with time, so that the rate of increase of the linear size with time is itself increasing with time rather than decreasing. So the gravitational effects of the dark energy are a form of what might be called anti-gravity,
gravitational repulsion rather than attraction that would cause the
expansion rate of the universe to decelerate (slow down). But it
doesn’t seem to make sense to say that the big bang explosion itself was caused by this dark energy.
Musa Askari: If there was any, does it then make the Big Bang a secondary phenomenon?
Don Page: In a quantum description, our Big Bang (the very hot dense phase nearly 14 billion years ago) might have been a secondary phenomenon, not the first big bang of our universe. It might have been only the latest in a long sequence of successive big bangs. Scientists speculate that quantum tunnelling in a pre-existing universe might have led to new big bangs. Perhaps the new big bangs would wipe out the evidence for the previous ones, or perhaps they would not, so that one might be able to find evidence of earlier big bangs. However, so far no one has found any convincing evidence for big bangs further in the past than our Big Bang that occurred about 14 billion years ago.
Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), is currently Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Williams is a highly respected scholar, theologian, poet, translator, social commentator to name but a few of the reasons why he is held in such great regard.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with a quote from your book “Faith in the Public Square” (section: Religious Diversity and Social Unity), “To be concerned about truth is at least to recognise that there are things about humanity and the world that cannot be destroyed by oppression and injustice, which no power can dismantle. The cost of giving up talking of truth is high: it means admitting that power has the last word. And ever since Plato’s Republic political thinkers have sought to avoid this conclusion, because it means there is no significance at all in the witness of someone who stands against the powers that prevail at any given time.” (Dr. Rowan Williams)
The following a quote from my late father, Professor Syed Hasan Askari, on “The Platonic Illusion“: “the directors of the October Revolution suffered from what we call the Platonic Illusion from which all ideologies, whether religious or secular have suffered, namely to create a protective state to guard what they hold as true. Plato had thought as he watched his dear Socrates being put to death, by the City of Athens, that by creating a Republic he would protect the free quest for truth, a state governed by the wise and the enlightened, under which no other Socrates would be silenced. Plato failed to notice that by the manner Socrates accepted his death he had showed how he regarded himself and his soul as indestructible, that he did not require any other means than of himself and his awareness in order to protect what he stood for.”
How significant do you sense it is for the individual, the individual witness, to avoid losing one’s individuality? In other words keeping intact an inner differentiation, guarding against collective hypnosis. Also to what extent would you agree it is problematic when those in power seek to institutionalise or “create a protective state to guard what they hold as true”?
Rowan Williams: Keeping an inner freedom is essential. We need to be aware of who it is or what it is that we are truly answerable to, rather than assuming that our final judges are those who happen to have power and influence in our immediate context. It must always be possible to ask, ‘is the majority right?’ And this is why a genuine democracy protects freedom of conviction and expression; it will encourage robust public debate and give a place to religious conviction as part of that. It will of course make decisions, but will also leave room for conscientious dissent.
Musa Askari: I would like to offer you two views on the term “spiritual” and invite your comment.
First from my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 Professor Chomsky is quoted, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t”.
Second from my interview with Professor Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad who commences his comments with, “The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations.”
What does the term “spiritual” mean to you and I would be grateful if you would offer some clarification which Professor Chomsky talks about? And is it unusual in your experience for both humanist and believer to share what appears to be a similar perspective on the term “spiritual”?
Rowan Williams: I rather share Tim Winter’s doubts about the word ‘spiritual’, as it is so often used simply to designate someone’s feeling of a moment’s significance without posing any questions about the nature of reality or the possibilities of change in society. I understand the word very much against the background of a Christian scriptural use which sees ‘spirit’ as that which connects us to God and one another, that which gives us relation with God and the possibility of life together in peace and justice. Hence the Christian scriptural imagery of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – the products of God’s indwelling seen as love, joy, peace, patience and so on. To Professor Chomsky’s remarks, I’d respond by saying that the essence of belief in God as I understand it is not belief in values or imperatives but in the actual (though mysterious) presence of an immeasurable agency whose action is directed towards our life and well-being. Such a belief gives me not only assurance but also a sense of being under judgement for my failures to reflect that utterly generous orientation to the Other in my own life and actions.
Musa Askari: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (Plotinus – The Enneads)
These words from the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus, introduced to me by my late father-teacher, have long been, along with other things, a cherished part of my spiritual life. Yet perhaps within the inner life of a believer there needs to be awareness of a kind of spiritual complacency. Would you agree to simply memorise a set of words, a prayer perhaps, or even a whole scripture, or the universal declaration of human rights appears to be not enough? How would you advise we guard against at times the familiarity of words we utter from becoming a mask over the reality of what the words are but a signpost toward, “a journey not for the feet”?
Rowan Williams: Plotinus’s words are echoed by those of the great Christian thinker Augustine (who knew Plotinus’s work) when he says that God is ‘more intimate to us than we to ourselves’. God is always nearer than we could imagine. Sometimes we need familiar words to use to remind ourselves of this – I think here of the prayerful recitation of the Names of God or the invocation of the Name of Jesus. If we are careful to punctuate our thinking and speaking with silence, words will begin to recover their original depth. We need always to be aware of our words as ‘nets let down to catch the sea.’
Musa Askari: On universal validity of mystical experience Professor Syed Hasan Askari writes, “There are some who question the universal validity of mystical experience as an expression of one universal ultimate reality. But we do not normally question the universal presence of life, beauty and love which inspire diverse forms of art, music, song and poetry. Nor do we normally question the universal presence of intellect which is the common foundation of different and conflicting theories of science and philosophy. But why is it that as soon as we refer to the universal validity of mystical experience people leap upon us from all sides insisting that mystical experience is subjective experience determined by one’s culture, theology, and personal psychological history. In every other case they seem to remain unperturbed by the co-presence of the objective and the subjective, the universal and the particular – as, for example, in regard to the human body, where there is one objective science of human anatomy and physiology upon which the entirety of medical science is based, and yet there are individual variations as to the state of health and nature of sickness. It is obvious then that the tendency to object to mystical experience’s claim of its inherent universal validity is influenced by a bias that if it is conceded, the next step would be to admit that there is a universally objective source of religious revelations. The objection is motivated by unphilosophical reasons. But it does not mean, however, that all mystical experiences are valid, and that there are no influences from the subject’s milieu and psychic constitution towards the experienced mystical state.”
I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts in response to the above quote on “mystical experience”. How has your inner life been influenced by the presence of more than one religious witness in the world? Is it easier to encounter the other socio-religiously, almost inevitable, even involuntary given the instant nature of global communications? However, to encounter our spiritual neighbour perhaps involves invoking another kinship. One laid out for example in the great mystical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, how do we recognise each other as not only culturally-religiously co-present, upholding all the wondrous diversity, but also spiritually mystically deeply significant to one another, transformative?
Rowan Williams: The idea of universal recognition is crucial here: we see in one another something of the same desire, the same journey, the same drawing onwards – and if we truly believe that our humanity is one at the end of the day, then this is hardly surprising. So I don’t find difficulty in learning from the spiritual explorations of those who do not share my exact convictions. Of course my prayer and understanding depend to a degree on where and who I am and what specific beliefs I hold; I’m not in favour of any attempt to construct a universal system above and beyond the particular religious traditions. But I also think that the more securely you are rooted in your own tradition, the more hospitable you will be to the deepest life in other places. You will see the other, in their otherness, as a gift to you for your growth and maturation.
Musa Askari: I would like to turn now to issues with respect to revelatory communication, the scientific age and quest for alternatives. First, some context by way of the following selection of quotes from Professor Syed Hasan Askari (Discourse on Soul, from Towards A Spiritual Humanism, 1991).
“Let us begin with those people who went through a cataclysmic experience which altered their own self-understanding and which they identified as revelation, as an experience transcending their empirical or functional self. For them, and also for those who said “Yes” to that experience and who entered in to discipleship with such people, and for those who were more reflective in their understanding, the central question was: how could the human mind or the human self become a receptacle, or a vehicle or recipient of an experience, of a revelation, of a transcendental communication – unless, between the source of communication and the recipient there is a common link. Unless there is such an ontological parity between one who communicates and one who receives, the communication will not be obtainable…….It is this problem which was at the heart of the controversy between philosophers and theologians. Izutsu, the Japanese philosopher and an expert in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, suggests in his analysis of the Quranic discourse that unless there is an ontological parity between the two partners in communication, communication is impossible…….whether you take St. Augustine or Immanuel Kant, you have the same thrust, the same emphasis about the mystery of the human recipient…….Taking hints and clues from medieval insights based upon the edifice of knowledge we have accumulated, I am striving to formulate an alternate anthropology, a substantial alternative to Darwin, Marx and Freud. We have to ask if the anthropology we have held as sacred in modern times is the whole truth or is it not already a dogma. A dogma perhaps more dangerous than the dogmatics of the ancients and medieval peoples because, at that time at least, the conflict between theology and philosophy and between theology and mysticism was very sharp. In our times, the dogmatics of a scientific understanding of man has swept across the whole world and there appears to be no rival to it. Moreover, whoever tries to rival it is considered as either pseudo-scientific or not to be taken seriously at all. Heretics in the past enjoyed a certain prestige, and they became in posterity the great pioneers of human thought. Does the scientific age of our times allow our heretics to become future founders of thought? I am doubtful.” (Syed Hasan Askari)
I welcome your thoughts in reply to the above quotes. In particular do you support revival of the classical discourse on soul as a means to help explain not only revelatory communication between the Supremely meta-physical (Beyond Being, The One/The Good as Plotinus refers) and the material aspect of a human being but also communication between individuals in our everyday lives? That the principle of “Soul” (non-material, indivisible, invisible companion, one-many all at once) is the ontological parity. And finally what do you see as the great opportunities before us for meaningful, mutually respectful, engagement/dialogue between religion/spirituality and humanism? Can we start to talk about what Hasan Askari advocated, a move towards a Spiritual Humanism?
Rowan Williams: Hasan Askari is absolutely correct in saying that a proper account of our relation with the Infinite God requires us to see ourselves differently. The Christian teacher Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century CE says that if we understand that we cannot ever come to the end of understanding God, neither can we come to an end of understanding the human person. So we must always approach the human person with absolute reverence – this human individual is a reality we shall never completely contain, control, explain, reduce, and so we have an endless task before us, which is loving and serving them, not explaining them! And for religious believers, there is therefore a close connection between recognizing the infinite mystery of God and reverencing humanity properly. Lose the one and you will sooner or later lose the other. Humanism in the fullest sense requires an acknowledgement of God. A ‘soulless’ humanity, understood simply in terms of mechanical processes, does not have any obvious claim on our kindness, our service, our veneration. We may not be able to say with complete clarity what we mean by the word ‘soul’, but we know that it stands for our capacity to be in relation with God, and thus for all that belongs with our freedom and dignity.
(Many thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for his kind permission on use of above photo)
Tim 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’.