Tag Archives: Prayer

Was it not an act of peace?

By Musa Askari

Was it not an act of peace I brought you water – you refused.

Was it not an of peace I stood watch over you – you turned away from me.

Was it not an act of peace I respected your silence – you never acknowledged.

Was it not an act of peace I supported your cause – you did not make me an ally.

Was it not an act of peace we laid to rest those dearest to us – yet never to visit their graves again together.

Was it not an act of peace I trusted you – despite the doubts.

Was it not an act of peace I kept my own counsel – yet others traduced my name.

Was it not an act of peace I asked for repeated dialogue – yet that olive branch never grasped.

Was it not an act of peace when I said let us make peace if not now but in the future – yet you admonished my invitation.

Was it not an act of peace I listened to your grievances and injustices suffered – yet you waged a war up on my soul.

Was it not an act of peace I embraced you and comforted you – yet you assaulted me.

Was it not an act of peace I shed tears before you – you did not give me your shoulder.

Was it not an act of peace I wrote to you words of peace, of vision, of soul and immortality – yet it was the fears of this life you sought to appease ignoring my call of transcendence.

These were acts of peace and many others. Acts of ablutions I performed over my life to wash away the pain as like a worshipper before the act of prayer washing away the dust of life. You may have performed such ablutions/acts of peace yourself over your life.

Now I turn inwards, lift my gaze upwards from there, higher, where all the sacred places are within reach. In search of a new Life. A new place of peace where heaven and earth meet.

That “place” where the bowing forehead of a worshipper touches the ground in salat, dua-prayer, in zikr-remembrance. That “nuqta” scribed by the pen which is our prayerful self. There we may write upon the scroll, if permitted, to be unfurled as witness. It is at that point I wish to reside awake, asleep, upright or upon my side. The flute returned to the reed bed. Lay me there to rest innerly waiting to depart I ask the Lord of All Being.

You will remember me as I you and that will be the final Act of Peace unspoken. Remembrance that this life and name and identity and history are but impermanence mixed with the shadow cast by Soul’s association with Body. Let us not be hypnotised by shadows and look instead for Reality. For there is peace in abundance even at this late hour and setting sun of our lives. Peace to be had in solitude. In the sound of silence.

Let us pilgrimage there innerly, silently, in prayer, in tears, in meditation, in love, in remembrance.

The life was what it was, a shadow, yet purposeful. There is “little” else to say…..

PRAYER FOR MY PARENTS

By Hasan Askari (Alone to Alone)

The moon and the stars were all there reflected in that still emerald lake that night as our boat slowly and respectfully floated across the lake. We were all silent. I felt for a moment or two a sense of complete union with the lake, its reflections, their originals.

The following morning as we sat under a tree beside the lake, we were amazed that we could hardly recognize that it was the very lake we had crossed last night. We hardly recognized ourselves to be those very persons who saw the moon and the stars reflected in the lake.

IIdentityn the afternoon of that day we had a session with our teacher on Plato’s idea of Eternal Forms. The idea that There in the Ideal world are “forms” of everything we see here is hardly believed, our teacher started to reflect. One of the modes in which doubt is cast upon Plato’s Ideal Forms is rather amusing. Enchanted by the apparent solidity of things here and trusting our sense perception, we reverse the relationship. We regard Forms there as reflections of things here on the model of comparing the images in our mind with the things outside.

The idea of Plato’s Forms cannot be demonstrated as true on the exclusive testimony of senses and of reasoning based on sense-perception. We require another principle. Plato saw the reality of the forms not by his physical eye nor by his reason bound with his body and with the world. He saw them by the soul’s sight.  He could see his own Form before and after embodiment, and when he looked at himself here, then he could recognise which form was real, and which a copy, feeble and ephemeral.

It was during one of the sessions of Zikr we used to hold every Thursday evening that I had a strange and over-whelming experience of having lived the entire cycle of life of diverse races and civilizations, of life-forms here on our planet and in other galaxies, and still reciting the Zikr.

While invoking the Zikr on another occassion for the benefit of the souls of my parent, I was taken aback by a sudden realization of unity between their post-death soul-status and my pre-birth soul status, a state which remained unchanged even now while I was in body.

As I prayed for them and as I recalled them, my eyes were full of tears. My heart was drowned in that sorrow, in my longing and love for them. Many things became clear.

Some say why should one really pray for anybody in particular because all things are interconnected and under the direct and unfailing providence of God. I agree. But while one prays for some loved one, the heart melts; its hardness disappears; its doors open; a gentle wind coming from nowhere envelops the heart bathed and purified by sorrow. Then the universal truths enter and find their true home there; otherwise those truths come, find the door of the heart closed, and they leave.

Spiritual Human Interview with Dr. Rowan Williams

Dr. Rowan WilliamsDr. 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”?

Meeting RowanRowan 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)

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’.

“Reflections on the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi” by Musa Askari

“Reflections on the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi” by Musa Askari

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen”

It was my late father, Syed Hasan Askari, who introduced me to the prayer of St Francis many years ago. My introduction came in the form of hearing it read aloud. Perhaps to come to a new prayer not by reading it first but by hearing it one is somehow  able to let the prayer rest more gently upon one’s soul. Especially if hearing it read by a person one trusts. Therefore, prayer may also be understood not only as a sign of devotion but also trust between seekers of truth and greater still a sign of Trust in a Higher Power to which the prayer is directed.  

To hear such words of love and devotion for the first time resonated very deeply. In the years to follow the prayer would become one among many of my constant sources of inner support. I would not only read it in silence or remember it during the course of a day but moreso I would make a point of reciting it by whispering it to myself at some late hour of the night. Through this whispering recital the prayer became more real, an experience, not only of emotional support but far beyond that to moments of  experiencing the prayer as a form of being itself. That it almost had a life of its own. A life in which I was hoping to participate if only momentarily due to varying levels of inner intention and alterness.

Over and above the actual form, order and beauty of the words it is worth exploring, if only superficially through this reflection, the manner in which the prayer is working upon our inner being. What is its outer effect and what is its inner influence? What kind of inner preparation is required to utter such words as authentically as possible? If one is an “instrument” it begs the question who is the invisible artist and what is the melody that is being played? In what way, if at all, do the first and second verses talk to one another? Does a prayer stop when we have finished uttering its words of devotion and praise? Or is there a life, above our own embodied life, in which the prayer perpetually participates? Are prayers, in the form presented to us by inspired individuals who first uttered them, an echo of a far greater recital of praise and devotion that goes on above our consciousness?

Where there is an echo there must be a source from which it emanates. Where there is vibration there must be the beat of a drum. Where there is beauty there must also be the eye which recognises it as such. Where there is thought there must a thinker. And where there is a question there must be a clue or the answer complete. Is there such a question and answer present within the prayer of St. Francis? Is there any such dialogue implied between the one who prays and One to whom the prayer is directed?

At first glance perhaps not. However, if one looks more closely, at the first verse in particular, the following may be a clue where there are six question and answers present and not only that but clear intruction or remedy provided.

Take for example the line, “where there is injury,pardon”. By considering it as three lines a dialogue becomes apparent:

We ask, “Where is injury?”

The prayer answers, “There is injury”

Remedied by, “Pardon.”  

Take another line: “where there is despair, hope”: 

We ask, “Where is despair?”

The prayer answers, “There is despair”

Remedied by, “Hope.”

Is it not so that through most of our heartfelt prayers, either handed down by tradition or uttered by oursevles spontaneously, we somehow feel in “conversation” with the Supreme? It is into such a “conversation” the prayer of St Francis invites us to enter. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, the human soul is in constant “communication” with its Source. A Source from which it emanates and to which it longs to return. It is perhaps this “communication”, this greater dialogue, that the prayer somehow lifts the reciter innerly to become more conscious of. All great prayers take us in this direction. The prayer becomes a door into another kind of awareness.

Prayer, as both dialogue and a form of worship, is a most peculiar kind of dialogue. We are asking questions and we hear only our voice. A voice that may be frail and shaking, through some traumatic experience, or overjoyed with gratitude for what we have been shown or recevied. The answer to our prayers, however, is heard in silence. The Great Silence of The Supreme Presense, the First and the Last. The Hidden and the Manifest, everywhere and yet nowhere, Immanent and Transcendent. I am reminded of the following from an much earlier piece of writing of mine, “It is in such silence that the Divine Command is uttered perhaps”(The Sound of Silence, 1992) https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-sound-of-silence/

In our corporeal nature we hear corporeal things. How can the physical ear hear an answer from One who is Supremly immaterial and Beyond Being? Therefore, silence and patience become the means through which our inner ear becomes more atuned and there we may wait, atentive, alert, humble and above all listening by stilling all distraction within our lives, touching the fringes of a greater peace. Hearing as it were by another mode.

In the prayer of St. Francis we have a deeply moving dynamic where not only are question and answer co-present but also the remedy or instruction to the question. The prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. There is no delay in compassion. The remedies of love, pardoning, hope, faith, light and joy are instantly provided as soon as the question and answer are complete. Infact, the prayer does not wait to be asked how one corrects the disorder within and without. It rushes the remedy towards us faster than we inhale our next breath. Life before life.

One may choose simply to reflect or meditate upon only one line of the prayer and be moved beyond measure. The question, “where is despair?” may be asked outwardly addressing the world and we are presented with images of oppression between human beings or come across testimonies of those who continue to suffer and through such images and accounts we are told innerly, “look! there is despair”. All one need do is ask the question wholeheartedly, compassionately and sadly too many answers come flooding to our consciousness of lives lived in despair. The prayer challenges to ask and notice the other and by doing so abolish otherness from our being. One need not look far to see despair if one chooses not to walk by on the other side. On the other hand the same question maybe asked about oneself to oneself, “where is despair?”. Here personal courage is needed, for now we are looking into the face of our lives and should we be able to peer with unwavering inner strenth the answer comes, “there is despair”, directing us to some long forgotten memory or unravelling chains of thought which enslave and cripple us mentally, distancing us from the world and from ourselves.

To both outward and inwardly directed questions on despair the answer is the same, “hope”. In other words, do not despair, there is hope. The very question itself is “hope”. The question carrying within itself its own liberating power. The question is hope “embodied” as a thought. The question cannot come from an abyss of utter want or lack, the question must carry with it the source which sent it on its way. As referred to previously; the prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. It can only do so if it is enveloped by an inspired inspiration. In the outer form of one line, the question and answer go hand and hand, as like two hands coming together in prayer.

Further, the first verse gives us another insight. It offers a definition of “peace”. Of what “peace” means when commencng a recital of the prayer. Here peace is to love. It is also to pardon, to have faith which implies to trust, to be hopeful for the Light of the One to whom the prayer is addressed is neverfailing and our overriding inner state of such peace in that moment is to be joyful.

The prayer of St. Francis begins in the name of peace and that is perhaps why it has survived to this day and recited by so many. The human heart in perpetual quest for peace. If humanity’s “humanity” is to mean anything it must surely begin with peace regardless of it being called sacred or secular. The Russell – Einstein Manifesto (1955) sums it up beautifully, “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Would that those who wage war in the name of “peace” remember such qualities of peace as offered by St. Francis. Would that they pause and re-think in “silence” if they truly are bringing peace or the oppositie of peace which the prayer of St. Francis does not shy away from making clear. Namely, hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness.

In my view the first verse is where the inner work is to be done. The first verse prepares the inner ground, turns the soil, so that we may “sow” such seeds as love and hope. Thus making the earth of our being a fertile ground from which may spring, over the ocean of our consciousness, all that the second verse leads us toward. The second verse finally frees us from enslavement to our ego-bound mindlessness. Of collective hypnosis from our exclusive one-sided attitudes to identities of race, ethnicity, culture, creed and ideology (religious or humanist).

We are in a totally new frame not only of mind but consciousness when proceeding through the second verse line by line. When the first verse has “consoled” us, “understood” and “loved” us like a kind friend or beloved. When it has enriched and pardoned us our failings. When we have been transformed within and without through the power of the first verse then, and only then, we may truly mean the words which pass by our lips of surrender from the second verse. We ask nothing for ourselves when we have been given more than could have been asked for. Now, one may recall how the prayer began, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”.

Through the discourse on soul we are told body is the instrument of soul, the material is later to the immaterial. Yet, it is not the body which seems to be the “instrument” implied when we notice how the prayer ends, “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” What other could it be that perishes, passes away, than body? And what other than soul could we speak of when we speak of life eternal? It is soul that has the right to eternal life. Only soul un-embodied remains immortal. Soul, impartible, invisible, indivisible, non-material companion of our self, both one and many at the same time.

The higher levels of the beautfiul prayer of St. Francis may only be reached when perhaps we consider the prayer to a prayer of the soul. An echo of a greater prayer that continues above our consciousness. What the words of that greater recital may be, only as souls shall we come to know. Soul, here and now.  Peaceful greetings to the soul of St. Francis of Assisi.

I conclude this brief reflection with the words of my teacher:

“Pray that you are granted an unbroken awareness of your higher soul, that which is the authentic principle of your being, that un-embodied, immortal, all pervading reality, which is one and entire everywhere, every time; that which is in perpetual contemplation of the Divinity above it, that which remains separate, apart, above all you do, relate, experience and suffer as a…body here. Remember it, for it is the true source of your peace and power. Remember.” (Hasan Askari, “Pray” from his book “Alone to Alone”)

Originally published as guest article http://soul-licious.com/?p=918 Thank you to Mia Caruso for asking me to write about the Prayer of St Francis.

See also: Prayer for my Parents & O Light of Lights

“A Day Like Any Other” by Musa Askari

Liaqat Begum w/o Syed Hasan Askari
Liaqat Begum w/o Syed Hasan Askari

On the passing of my mother written in 2007: by Musa Askari

Liaqat Begum

It was a day like any other. The dawn light would emerge slowly enveloping the night. The stars would fade in the sky and the sun would rise brining with it all the glory it had to bestow upon the earth. This rising would remind all those with eyes to see that the Universal Soul was taking its place upon the Throne of creation. The Universal Soul emanating as a ray of light from the Sun of all suns, One who sustains all that simply; is.

On such a day she would rise from her sleep that morning perhaps with no idea that this was the last day upon the earth. That the ordinary everyday things she did every morning and afternoon would take on greater significance simply because it would be the last time she would perform them.

The last time she would look at herself in the mirror and see her reflection looking back at her as she preformed her morning ablutions and combed her hair and put on her clothes. The last time she would see an image of her image. An image that was a reflection of her very soul.

The last time she would prepare food and eat her last meal or take a sip of water or take a cup of warm tea into her gentle hands. How was she to know that as she held that cup so carefully it was the same way God had held her all throughout her life?

The last time she would tend her garden and clean the weeds and turn the soil so that it would breathe with more ease. The last time she would smell the fragrance of a flower or feel the earth in her hands. The very dust from which her Lord had made her body is what she tended to. This earth that she tended was a creation of the inner peace that always resided within her soul, alas that she could have tasted this peace more in her life.

The last time she would feel the wind upon her face and hear the flutter of birds’ wing and their song. The last time she would wipe her brow or feel a rain drop fall in to her hand.

The last time she would pray salat to her Maker and offer up her last prayer.

The last time she would speak with another, a son, a daughter, her grandchildren, her brother, her husband.

Then would come the time when tired and fatigued from her toil in the garden she would take her last footsteps in to the house. The footsteps that began when she first walked as a child in to her mothers’ arms were now about to end. The last thoughts that passed through her mind and the last memory, recent or old, that would flash across her consciousness. The last time she would lie down never to rise as a body again. The last breath as she slept and everything within her came to rest and she was returned from which she came. May God have mercy on her Soul.

Her last day was a good day. With her tending the garden she left a sign for others. Always tend to the garden of your mind. Clear out the weeds of thoughts that infect your emotions and distract you from yourself and from those you love and have hurt you. Remember they are weak also. Having done that pay attention as time passes to new weeds and clear them. Having done that turn the soil of your mind and regenerate with new flowers and let kindness blossom like a spring morning. Then you will see and feel that you are becoming free and able to see things as they really are.  

On the passing of a loved one we often think of ourselves here and when was the last time we saw them, held them, talked to them and heard their voice. It is also worth taking time to ponder what was their last day like? What was it like to have done the normal things for the last time?

It was like any other day.

Therein, hides the beauty and kindness of God to my dear mother. That on taking her back He will not alarm her. He will not let fear come into her heart on the last day by letting her know it is the last day. Not on this day.

To Him belongs the Dominion, to Him belongs the Command.

In the very everydayness He has enveloped His Mercy to you on the last day. In the ordinary hides often the extra-ordinary. That God has weaved his taking you back in to the very fabric of your outward existence. When he is able to do this in your outer life what can he not do for you in your inner reflective and meditative life?

The inner life is what remains enshrined in the soul. This is the insignia within the soul of its association with body and leaving it again. The inner life has now burst through and can wait no longer to be the outer life of the soul. God is truly kind in helping with this transition by not alarming you on the last day.

As in birth a baby does not know it is about to be born so in death the mind and heart do not know with certainty that this is the day. He is the First and the Last. He is there at the birth of your life in this world, from the first cell to the passing of your life from this world. Why would he want to alarm you?

Every Day and Every Night and throughout all the days and nights He is ever-present. In such a presence we are humbled and truly kind and forgiving to each-other. By such a presence peace makers act and peace is bestowed and troubles are left far behind.

Every Day God gives you back your soul and so you rise to see your loved ones again and live another day until the last day. So live now until whatever day that be, live not in the past but in the now. In the everyday and ordinary God is to be found also.

She closed her eyes, she was tired now and wanted to rest and God heard her call and I pray she rests eternally and the flowers bloom eternally.

Oh my mother I remember you this day.

Salam alai kum. Salam alai kum. Salam alai kum.

Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you

“The Master’s Ring” by Musa Askari

By Musa Askari (penned 1991)

There were a group of travellers who strived to understand the nature of their “Self” by taking a path leading them to the innermost repose of their “Being”. Having attained the knowledge of seeing with “transparency” they were victorious over the fictitious presence, that “Alien” identity as Plotinus refers, which had sought to entrance them. Having arrived at this state of rest they were aware of being not only human, but also Soul-Beings. They had already forsaken the outter for the inner mode of gnosis and now eager to cross the threshold of the inner too.

For some of the group a “word” was enough to ascend to this bliss. For others the “Fatiha*” would suffice. For most the recital of the Remembrance of their Lord was a beginning. Such was the nature of the fellowship.

Whenever they gathered for meditation their Master would choose one to recite the Fatiha before entry in to Zikr* (remembrance). There was a novice among them. A frail old man on the verge of leaving this world. He had been with them many years. In all his years of service and devotion he had never been chosen to recite. In the beginning he did not expect to be asked and bowed his head when the moment arose. However, as the months and years passed this became increasingly the sole source of his concern and wonderment. Strangely, as a mark of his greater inner calm as opposed to his outter curiosity, he never once questioned or raised the matter with his Master. He waited patiently for understanding.

The night before his departure the old devotee was presented, by his Master, a ring with a cracked and chipped stone. That night he dreamt and it was revealed to him, through sign and symbol, how the stone came to be chipped (that itself a journey all its own). During the dream he passed away peacefully. The next morning his body was discovered and on his right hand was the Master’s Ring perfectly returned to its original form.

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*Fatiha. The short opening chapter of the Quran, beginning, In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds. An indispensable part of daily worship (salat).

*Zikr. Quranic in origin, meaning remembrance of God, along with fikr which is intellectual contemplation of the signs of God. In Sufi usage, it means a particular mode of remembrance, the recital of a Divine Name imparted to the novice for guidance and enlightenment.

*Soul-Beings. Term coined by Hasan Askari