Poetry is still one of the dominant modes of reflection and self consciousness in the Orient. It has somehow survived amidst all the threats a growing industrial culture presents, particularly in its impersonalising effects. In spite of all the stark contrasts of poverty and wealth, power and powerlessness, poetry, whether it is traditional or modern, continues to impart to people’s minds and hearts a sense of idealism and warmth.
Ali Zahir (19th February 1947 – 16th March 2003) is from Hyderabad, one of the major cities in India, a meeting point of several streams of cultures, religions and languages. Formally ruled by a Muslim prince, and now a part of the Indian Republic, Hyderabad has gone through a series of political, economic and cultural transformations which have led to the breakdown of old values, both religious and humanitarian, giving way to imbalance between the personal and the collective dimensions of people’s lives. Though Hyderabad maintained for a considerable time a sense of communal harmony which was fast disappearing from the other parts of India, it has collapsed over the last two decades into periodic outbursts of inter-religious hatred and violence thus wrecking the eclectic foundations of its semi-feudal culture.
Writers have responded to the challenges of modern India in three distinct modes – traditionalist, marxist, and modernist. The traditionalist approach involves the continuation of the classical literary forms, nostalgia for the late mediaeval culture, and a formal adherence to the rules and forms of art and poetry. The Marxist or the progressive school which thrived from the middle forties to the late sixties rested on a confident ideological mood that art and literature should reflect the people’s struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The modernist approach came about as a reaction to both the traditionalist and the marxist perspectives and claims. It was a revolt against formalism, both of form and ideology. It reflected the cry of the lonely individual for identity, recognition and communication. All the three modes have been generally humanist an agnostic.
Ali Zahir’s poetry reflects the traditionalist respect for form and the modernists emphasis on subjectivity. Having experienced the changes his city has undergone over the recent decades and also having worked in Iran during the years preceding the revolution there, Ali Zahir could witness the extremes from spiritual vacuum to religious enthusiasm. He could see both outside and deep within himself an urgent need for a new religiosity or sensitivity to both the psychological and political challenges. His poetry is one of the modes in which he expresses this quest.
The search begins with perception and remembrance of the human situation, of that predicament that envelops all humanity. Ali Zahir takes notice of the tragedies of the communal riots right within his own city, and points to the irrelevance of all the instructions of philosophy and ideology.
At the edge of the death of each abstraction
There is the mother, sister, brother –
Such tangible realities
Noticing the failure of both secularism and religion to give to India any relief from poverty and exploitation, Ali Zahir says:
For the oppressed and poor and humble, philosophy is a mockery that drains their very life force.
However critical of all those abstractions which empty the nations of the resources of humanity, Ali Zahir is drawn to the metaphysical mystery at the heart of life’s expressions both in pain and creativity.
“What is all this, dream or reality?” he asks.
The mood of his beautiful poem, Seven Days, Seven Heavens, bears witness to his quest for harmony, for meaning, and for the unity of reality behind all number and image:
Seven heavens unfurled
Architects of harmony.
From chaos to order, from loss of meaning to recovery of purpose, there is both a lifelong striving and at times a sudden leap into the depths of one’s being.
Within the heart
And within the spring, a flame
And within this flame of elemental yearning
There is another flame
The one which we call life.
Life, that mysterious all-embracing joy overflowing every cup and even at times drowning in its ecstasy the cupbearers as well, is one unending call of love, both the caller and the called all at once. There is the hearth of all reality – there is the abode of meaning and purpose. Hence, Zahir so truthfully regards all life as continuous communication, and he wonders: “How many garments that one spark has changed?”
Drawn to the heart of his own mystery, rejoicing in the variety of colours that one colourless unity puts on, and waiting at sunrise to hear the call of the “white moments” inviting him to step inward and then look, Ali Zahir brings to us in his poetry a new sensitivity nurtured in pain, linked with loneliness – a new religiosity without forms and rituals but not without courage and responsibility for both our inner and outer transformation. Those who are looking for the unity of mind and heart will find in Zahir’s poetry one of its most moving examples from the Indian subcontinent.
See also Hasan Askari’s 1995 speech in Hyderabad on Spiritual Humanism at which Ali Zahir and Musa Askari were present…. Hasan Askari says… “On that morning I said to Ali Zahir well, still there is light in this country. And perhaps we should begin from here again. Because in Indian tradition no other culture today talks about the soul so clearly and so continuously as India does.”
Few things are perhaps as dangerous for one’s mental and spiritual life and nor as devastatingly manipulative as a dysfunctional family.
Behind the facade of togetherness and respectability there can lie an ocean of challenges concerning mental health, power, control, money, status, gaslighting, hypocrisy, betrayal, anger, shame and sheer emptiness to name but a few.
There can be little room for self exploration, self-doubt, reflection, critique and questioning of established family narratives as tools for enhancing family harmony and in turn possibly *spiritual life.
The softer, intimate, delicate and vulnerable avenues to peace and understanding are at worst lost and at best never allowed to flourish in an un-spiritual family (sacred or secular). These ambiguous, seen falsely as non-traditional, approaches are perceived as threats to the orthodoxy of belonging to and promoting one’s superior “family, sect or clan”.
It is a cult-like mindset where introspection is heresy and seeking reconciliation with equality of being is blasphemous.
To this add possible unresolved, unspoken, ignored and suppressed psychological trauma and one can see we are on dangerous ground. Inner unholy ground where any inquisitive soul naively searching for truth, love and reconciliation through faltering spiritual vulnerability, finding none reciprocated, may innerly call upon the psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Furthermore, add also the desire for societal respectability, the golden ticket of high personal standing and one can conceive more clearly the horror of psychological “gods.”
A life of pious religious observance may become subservient to and disguise for domineering personas, to a biased discriminatory moral world view, and justification for attitudes about society and personal memories of suffering or triumph.
It is a reversal of universal transcending spiritual self-perception which should be subordinate to higher values of spiritual clarity, humility, universality, peace and secular common good.
Encase all of this in a deep desire within such un-spiritual families for controlling others, setting the narrative for others, laced with hardened divisive attitudes of superior victimhood status and it is clear to see the situation is treacherous.
It may go on for decades. One may be born into such families, marry into them and die having never escaped it because the protagonists can deploy self-righteous victimisation of self and others as a controlling mechanism with self-victimhood as a device to invoke sympathy from others, even their victims. Any resistance or requests for clarity can easily be manipulated to portray the victim as a villain or vice versa.
Personalities are deliberately and unconsciously moulded to manage, cope and ignore deep contradictions resulting from abusive behaviour under the worn out guise of “why don’t we all just get along?” Why not indeed? In practice this insincere question from the mouth of oppressors compensates as a token gesture for never truly having the desire to make positive changes, even minor changes that may enlarge the spectrum of empathy. Why not get along? Because not getting along is an addiction. It is power. Withholding reconciliation and all the peace it could bring is powerful and once tasted the allure is hypnotic. The mighty river of goodwill has been temporarily halted behind a dam built with stones of hatred and abuse.
As such, overtime, it becomes second nature, unconscious instinct, to deploy in public the conciliatory language of reasonableness and agreement while in private it is the language of reprimand and discord to silence others. Even the victims, for the sake of peace and acceptance, may play along with this double-life hypnosis hoping the olive branch of co-operation will be picked up.
What to speak of mental health, well-being and mindfulness for both the interchangeable roles of oppressors and victims? There is no mind, certainly none in the sense of higher spiritual clarity, rather mindlessness. There is no desire for a shared peaceful narrative and no wish for reconciliation in private life where it really matters. There in private the demons run riot. The true unmasked face of a manipulator finds expression with no onlookers. For even the “beast” must see the sunlight sometimes.
It is a show. The greatest show on earth, the un-spiritual family circus. The mental and emotional acrobatics are something to behold. It is as if the silence of not acknowledging oppression becomes comforting. In a twisted and deeply disturbing turn the quest for peace finds comfort in the silence of unacknowledged oppression and abuse. The oppressors of course know this and continue unopposed.
Therefore, life operates superficially at the level of practical, transactional, economic and formal, an arms length family who once embraced but now do not even speak or acknowledge one another for prolonged periods. Yet, they say they believe in God. The Merciful and Compassionate. However, show none to those whom they oppress.
Conversations with meaningful warmth become fewer and fewer. Where there happens to be conversation it is at times like two people standing on opposite sides of a railway crossing, waiting for the barrier to lift while a train hurtles past between them. Even lip reading is impossible let alone hearing the other. There is only the faint sound of one’s voice. It is in such interactions people say, “well I told you, why didn’t you listen?” How can anyone hear anything while a train of emotions, anger and pain passes between two people?
What is the seat of this division? From where does the power and conviction to leave things unresolved and unreconciled derive its efficacy in the mind of the oppressor?
To attempt an answer we add one more ingredient, finality.
The idea of “finality” is a source of power that sustains resistance to spiritual and humanist values of reconciliation, peace and harmony.
Finality in two expressions, lesser and higher.
The lesser finality may arise from a past wrong suffered by the oppressor and its interpretation forever remains a closed book and final in the mind of the oppressor. There can be no shadow of doubt they are incorrect in their opinions about the deep feeling of offence they carry within themselves. The aforementioned wrong may have happened years ago, but the intensity is as if it happened yesterday.
Therefore, situations are manipulated to create conditions where everyday people are portrayed negatively in the eyes of others. The purpose being to shame their victims, to weaken them, to humiliate them, to demean them in their own eyes. It is punishment. It is horrific and the perpetrator knows it and perversely takes comfort in it.
Any attempt to commence a reinterpretation of the wrong suffered or to forgive and reconcile is fiercely defended against. It cannot be permitted. Something that was lurking in the psyche of the oppressor has broken through finding its release over the threshold of the door of the wrong suffered. It will not retreat willingly. While previously, from behind the curtain, it controlled one personality, it’s host, it now controls several personalities. It’s children, it’s marriage life partner, in-laws, relatives and siblings.
To the wider world of work and neighbours they will be the most understanding, vulnerable, caring and innocent person. To the inner circle of personalities under its influence it will shower love and affection to one through excessive displays and simultaneously exclude another. It is capable of all the emotions and incapable of being happy with the simple things of life. Its pleasure is the control of others. Yet, this is only a caricature of the lower finality.
The higher finality is far more deeply lodged and rests on a strange sense of taking refuge in the argument of the “Final Judge”. Namely, God. For an un-spiritual family God is indeed everywhere but the idea is inverted where omnipresence of the Supreme is for their self justification.
This is the manipulative oppressor-victimhood persona’s ultimate self justification for not engaging in peaceful reconciliation of any kind in this mortal life. Even though they believe in a life after this life that is without body they act as if they have no soul. They have lost the idea that they are a soul and thus become soulless like.
Yet they remain confident in the self justification that God is on their side giving license to all kinds of destructive behaviours. It is an illness. A spiritual illness.
It is a way of thinking and being that is sheer escapism neglecting as it does so easily, without a hint of irony, that the “Final Judge”, in whom they seem to take refuge psychologically, is also Compassionate, Merciful, Loving and yet these attributes are passed over and only judgement is held tightly. This is perhaps because the whole edifice of an un-spiritual family rests on judgement and condemnation. They say “Final Judge” they mean “condemnation” for others. They fail to remember that the judgement may well be kind and merciful and loving.
The pull of self justification from this higher finality is so great it will usurp the very spiritual values one claims to admire. Religious texts and extracts are sought out to justify, along with seeking out religious scholars, their mode of being as being religiously valid, even otherworldly valid. It is a spiritual quest in the absence of light. It is the polar opposite of enlightened spiritual quest. It is maximum difference.
As the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari spoke in 1995, “according to Plotinus opposition is maximum difference. So it is in the creative power of the soul to create in the human mind maximum differences of opinion and belief. We are not dwarfed by opposition and conflict.”
By Musa Askari
* (A profound spiritual life can independently thrive despite the absence of harmony)
“You behave as if there is nothing in this world to learn from. That all your materialistic theories from economy to climate to the universe and all your religious theologies from here to hereafter and beyond are enough.”
“I have conquered many lands, east and west,” he said. “I have usurped many Peoples and enslaved their bodies and later enslaved their minds for generations. What has the conquered to teach the conquerer? I have sold them co-operation laced with only a drop of unity as the tool by which to better themselves knowing full well it is a fallacy. While gifting them the illusion of co-operation I have left intact their collective identity self interest all times. After all the conquerer needs an ally from among the conquered.” he retorted.
There was a long pause.
“Why do you cry?” asked the so-called conquerer.
“For you.” He replied.
“For me?” laughed the conquerer.
He looked at the conquerer deeply. Through him and said,
“No. I am not addressing you here. I am addressing and crying for your nobler and loftier Self everywhere. Whom you do not even know. Your very Soul. Whose enlightenment and liberation in which you have a hand. Though not totally but nevertheless significant. As like an oar has a “hand” in the movement of a boat. Yet you go in circles with only the oar of your self-interest. Even a Conquerer cannot escape karma, kismet. It too is a “subject.” Despite all your conquering of the world of body you have not even begun to conquer your greatest height. Your self. Your soul.”
“How do you know? asked the conquerer.
“Because all your energy and time is expended away from you. Everything you do is in the outer. Even in your sleep you scheme. When you awake it is illusory. You are still asleep. Sleep walking through life.”
There was a long pause.
“Why do you cry?” he asked the conquerer.
That’s one of the ways to open the inner door. Solitary Silence. You don’t co-operate with silence. You don’t negotiate with it.
Musa Askari Dialogue podcast with Chris Ramsbottom who runs The Amethyst Centre in Coventry, which is a complementary therapy and training centre. Part of the work of the centre concerns the spiritual side of life, and Chris runs a spiritual development group at the Centre The “Walking the Path” podcast grew out of the spiritual development side, in wondering how to maintain that work during a time of lockdown. (Listen to the podcast)
Chris writes, “Musa tells us of the influence of his father, a Sufi Muslim but also an interfaith leader, and also about the way his spirituality expresses itself in his own life and beliefs. His website, Spiritual Humanism, is the place that Musa has opened for discussion on the intersection between spirituality and humanism”
It was during my travels in Colorado, Arizona and Utah that I was for the first time exposed to the mysteries of the Native American spirituality. I was then enabled to feel more vividly the reality of a spiritual universe which the Native American experienced all around him. For him things seen were as much mysterious as things unseen. Perception of the ordinary was mingled with visions from the beyond. Hence, he could pass from this world to the next with great ease. Death rested light like an eagle feather upon his mind, and life, all life, was a trail of a world that was ceaselessly passing into spirit.
The Native American would withdraw for days in complete loneliness, abstaining from all food and drink, waiting to receive a vision. He was not the maker of visions. He was just a recipient. All his preparation was to purify himself and to turn himself into a clean and empty cup into which a vision could be poured from above.
It appears we have lost the capacity to prepare for such an undertaking. We have even corrupted the very word, vision, at times beyond recovery.
Our visions end up in ideologies, repressive regimes, and lead up to deeper enslavement of the human spirit. We create nightmares out of our visions. Look at the fate of great ideas in religions as well as the secular life of the so-called advanced cultures. We no longer believe in the native, in the inherent and in the inalienable capacity in each one of us to aspire to a vision, strictly personal and yet of extraordinary significance for our relations with others.
We try with all the strength at our disposal to abolish from within our educational system every possibility of a visionary perspective. Our education rests on a systematic emptying of such subjective resources. We end up as slaves of an anonymous body of knowledge with which we do not have any personal relationship whatsoever. Most of us experience total exhaustion and emptiness at the end of our academic career. There remains no possibility of our intellectual discipline and all the effort that goes with it leading to a deeply felt experience of the knowledge we have tried so hard to gather.
We could have made our classroom a pathway to personal experience, our teaching an aid to expect a vision at the end of our intellectual journey. Once upon a time it was so easy, so natural. The teaching then was interwoven with a visionary preparation. We now, on the contrary, move from procedure to procedure, from methodology to methodology, from one school of thought to another. We erect insurmountable barriers between our native spontaneity as seekers of visions and our consciously acquired knowledge. We have lost the unspeakable art of forming a unity of both, wherein a rigorous intellectual discipline brings the scholar to that threshold where a vision bursts upon him with both suddenness and peace, when he as a thinker is turned in to a seer.
There are still a few teachers amidst us whose words invoke in us not only great meanings but also great vision. There comes a moment in our lives when a word becomes a vision, and a vision becomes a word, a living word.
Professor Askari (1932-2008) figures as one of eight important Muslim thinkers of the last century in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen and the Faith”.
Professor Askari writes:
“And peace be unto those sent (by God), and praise be to God of all the worlds”. (Qur’an: 37: 181-82)
Risala (Apostleship), Nubuwwa (Prophethood), and Masihiyya (Christhood) are some of the conceptions which are employed to formulate in precise terms the basis of authority for the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. They possess both a general and a particular meaning, and each connotation involves a complex structure of thought.
The general meaning rests of the assumption that mankind is a unity (wahdat) and that God is One (wahid). The particular meaning refers to the fact that there are various communities which receive God’s Message in the language they speak and in the context they live and think. The universal is expressed through the particular, and the particular has universal implications. The religious history of mankind is an intricate matrix of the universal and the particular perspectives on the unity of man which is one of the ideas that transcends a particular humanity and by the same means prepares man to apprehend Reality, though expressed in the particular form of one or another religious life, and yet transcending it, for it is precisely in the act of being available in the particular and yet always rising above it that the Real is Real.
To apply this to the terms under study, we can say that there are several Apostles of God, and there is Apostleship of God; there are several Prophets of God, and there is Prophethood; and there are several Messiahs by the permission (idhn) of God, and there is the Messiahship. It is by virtue of the generalised concept that we are liberated from the particularity of each one of them, and also enabled to recognise the particular as this or that Apostle, Prophet, or Messiah. Furthermore, the general concept is not merely of an obviously inductive nature but also of great metaphysical importance which we shall take in to account towards the end of this study.
It is highly significant that the Qur’an contains all the concepts which are central here, and offers us a systematic framework of reference. As the Qur’an is involved both with the Jewish and the Christian conceptions in this area of study, even a simple and only Qur’anic description presupposes a dialogical mode of reflecting upon them. Let us begin with the basic formulations of the Qur’an.
THE UNIVERSAL CONCEPTION OF RISALA
The key verse in the Qur’an is 16.36:
And verily We have raised in every community a messenger (rasul) proclaiming: Serve God and shun false gods.
The people of Noah and the communities after them denied (their messengers) before these, and every nation purposed to seize their messengers and argued falsely, (thinking) thereby to refute the Truth.
“For every community there is a Rasul” is the central Qur’anic basis of God’s guidance for mankind. An apostle is one among its people, not an angel or a supernatural being:
God hath verily shown grace to the believers by sending unto them a messenger of their own who reciteth unto them His revelations, and causeth them to grow, and teacheth them the Scripture and wisdom; although before (he came to them) they were in flagrant error. (3.164)
An apostle is a mortal (17.94), a man like others (14.11), and conducts himself like the rest of mankind: “And they (disbelievers) say: what aileth this messenger of God that he eateth food and walketh in the markets? Why is not an angel sent down unto him, to be a warner with him? (25.7). And in principle there is no group or community which is exclusively adopted as the only recipient of God’s Message. He chooses whomsoever He likes and raises him as His envoy in whatever community He likes to favour or warn (42.51). And an apostle calls his community to God in their language (14.4).
So we have four principles involved here – (1) Risala is a means by which God guides mankind; (2) a Rasul is one among men, like other men, and communicates to them in the language his people understand; (3) for every community there is a Rasul with the central message to serve God and shun false gods; and (4) God is free to choose anyone from any community to be His apostle.
The very word, risala, (apostleship) implies a “sender” and the status and importance of one who is sent depends on who has sent him. An apostle is a “rasul” from “the Lord of all worlds” (7.61, 67, 104). “O mankind, the apostle has come to you with the truth from your Lord. Therefore, believe; it is better for you. But if you disbelieve, still, unto God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth. God is ever Knower, Wise” (4.170). The expression, arsalna, (We send) occurs 58 times in the Qur’an and underlines the basis of the authority of the apostles that they are not self-appointed but are sent by God.
The question who is really the one who is sent by God has two aspects, one pertaining to the apostle himself, how does he know beyond doubt that he is commissioned by God; and secondly, it pertains to the people to whom he is sent to accept or reject his claim. On both the aspects of this question we have sufficient evidence both from the Bible and the Qur’an to reach a few conclusions, at least to reduce the degree of uncertainty known to every student of religion in this highly problematic area.
We should concentrate on a limited number of very crucial references to this problem in our Scriptures. First and foremost is the phenomenon of the unexpected – Moses addressed all of a sudden from behind the burning bush; Mary approached by the Angel announcing the birth of Jesus; and Mohammad persistently asked to “Read, Read in the Name of thy Lord”. But the unexpected is preceded by a long and patient wandering, withdrawal, and contemplation. The unexpected event seems in every case to have uprooted one from the given world of the senses to be brought into contact with another world, another order of knowledge, or form of awareness. It is within this transformed state of awareness that the process we are accustomed to designate as “inspiration” or “revelation” starts to take place. If we identify it as God speaking to man, we are immediately alerted by the Qur’an:
It is not fitting for a man that God should speak to him except by inspiration (wahi), from behind a veil (hijab), or by sending of a messenger (rasul) to reveal (wahi), with God’s permission, what God wills: for He is Most High, Most Wise (42.51).
However indirect (from behind a veil) there is an extraordinary sense of both urgency and certainty about God’s inspiration, and that is enforced by giving to the Apostles “Our Signs” and clear authority (11.96), “criterion”, “book” and “scales” (37.25), and by the support of the Spirit (11.96). This is followed by a clear and concrete commission “Go forth to the Pharoah”, or “Rise and Warn”.
As far as the apostle himself is concerned, his certainty that he is being sent from God rests therefore on the following: (1) an Unexpected Event – Sinai, for Moses, “the Chamber towards the East” for Mary, and Hira for Mohammad; (2) the Transformed State of Awareness by which the Apostle is brought into contact with another order of knowledge which constitutes his “inspirations” and “revelations”; (3) He is given “clear signs” which further enforce his certainty that he is commissioned by God; and (4) He is plunged into a situation of direct confrontation with his people, the authority of the day, the “religion” of his times by the commission to “rise and warn”.
This leads to the Qur’anic conception of the purpose of the risala. One of the Qur’anic verses which brings out the purpose of risala is:
But We sent aforetime, among them, apostles to admonish them – then see what was the end of those who were admonished (but heeded not) – except the sincere and devoted servants of God. (37.72-74)
This commission to admonish is called “balagh” (5.99, 24.54), and it has three functions: “O mankind Prophet, Truly We have sent thee as (1) a Witness (shahid), (2) a Bearer of Good Tidings (mubashshir), and (3) a Warner (nazir) (33.45). An apostle is also sent to judge (54.31) and also to call to “that which quickens you” (3.24). He confirms that “which they possess” (2.101), and recites unto them from the “ayat” (verses). An apostle brings the Criterion (furqan), a light and a remembrance (21.48), and reminds them of their original creation and covenant. His function is summed up in the opening verse of Chapter 14 (Ibrahim) of the Qur’an:
A Book which We have revealed unto thee, in order that Thou mightest lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of their Lord – to the Way of (Him) and Exalted in Power, Worthy of all Praise (14.1).
One should note here the provision – “by the leave of their Lord” – for not everybody could rise and call mankind from darkness into light. It this provision that is constantly repeated and which forms the basis of both the authenticity and the authority of the commission of an apostle. The “light” is the testimony that “there is no god but God” and the “darkness” is the forgetting, denying or qualifying it. At a very extraordinary point in the Qur’an we read the following which sums up the purpose of the apostleship, their status with God, and how they wait for God to speak first:
Not an apostle did We send before thee without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no God but I; therefore worship and serve Him. And they say: “God Most gracious has begotten offspring”. Glory be to Him. They are but servants raised to honour. They speak not before He speaks, and they act in all things by His command. (21.25)
But the response of the people to the apostles is to doubt their sanity and call them sorcerers (51.52). They ridicule them (36.30), give lies to them and go to the extent of killing them (5.70). Concerning those who are slain because they call mankind to God, the Qur’an has this say:
And say not of those who are slain in the way of God, “they are dead”. Nay, they are living, though ye perceive it not (2.154).
As for those who respond with faith and affirmation of what is sent by God:
Our Lord, we have heard the Call of one calling us to Faith, “Believe ye in the Lord”, and we have believed Our Lord, forgive us our sins, blot out from us our iniquities, and take to Thyself our souls in the company of the righteous. (3.193).
THE QUR’ANIC CONCEPTIONS OF APOSTLES BEFORE MOHAMMAD
The principle that for every community that there is an apostle is applied to all “messengers”. In the Qur’anic prophetology, Noah, Ibrahim, Moses and Jesus stand out as supreme examples of the Apostleship of God. Let us consider a few Qur’anic verses in this connection.
Say ye: “We believe in God, and the revelations given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all Prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one another of them: and we bow to God” (2.136, 3.84).
We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Issac, Jacob and Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. Of some Apostles We have already told thee the story; of others We have not – and to Moses God spoke direct; – apostles who gave good news as well as warning, that mankind, should have no plea against God: for God is exalted in Power, Wise. (4.163-65)
We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of Apostles; We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (2.87)
This is the book (Qur’an); in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God; who believe in the unseen, and are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in the Revelations sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and have assurance of the Hereafter (2.2-4)
The reason for selecting four sets of Qur’anic verses is that each set is representative of a particular Qur’anic dimension in the Islamic understanding of the Risla. (1) It refers to the revelations given to every apostle; (2) It refers to the different modes of revelations; (3) The reference here is to the central concepts of “Book” and “Spirit”; and (4) This sums up the Muslim belief about revelations preceding those of Mohammad. Risala, as is clear from these examples, is inextricably linked with the concept of “revelation”, a dimension which we shall soon examine.
MOHAMMAD AS THE APOSTLE OF GOD
Mohammad is no more than an Apostle: many were the Apostles that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then turn back on your heels? (3.144)
And the Muslim testimony which is a part of salat (obligatory prayer) is: I bear witness that Mohammad is His servant and His Apostle. The reference to the “Prophet” – servanthood precedes the affirmation of his risala because abdiyya (servanthood) in its perfect sincerity and total submission is a prerequisite of the commission of risala. It is important to remember that the Muslim testimony centres on risala (Apostleship). Its relationship with nubuwwa (prophethood) will be discussed at a later stage.
The first aspect of the risala of Mohammad is in relation to his immediate community:
By the Qur’an
Full of wisdom –
Thou art indeed one of the Apostles,
on a straight way.
It is a revelation sent down by Him,
The Exalted in Might,
In order that thou mayest
Admonish a people,
Whose fathers had received no admonition,
and who therefore remain heedless (of the Signs of God). (36.1-6)
Like every other Apostle he was asked to “rise and warn” (74.2):
Say: “ I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your God is One God: whosoever expects to meet His Lord, let him work righteousness, and in the worship of his Lord admit no one as partner”.
The call by its very nature involved the entire mankind. The call to One God, One Real Lord, was a Mercy and a Light. Hence,
We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures (21.107)
As Mohammad brought by the leave of God a clear and unmistakable Message about the Unity, Universality, and Transcendence of God who in His Mercy unto mankind sent His Apostles to guide and warn all communities of men to expect to meet their Real Lord and admit no one as partner in worshipping Him, whoever comes after Mohammad has nothing to add nor anything left to make more clear. There were many after him and shall be many after us to call men to God, but no new “message” could be given. Hence:
…. he is the Apostle of God, and the Seal of the Prophets, and God has full knowledge of all things (33.40).
THE MUSLIM CREED ABOUT APOSTLESHIP
The Muslim belief concerning the Apostles is based on the Qur’anic text:
The Apostle believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one of them believeth in God, His angels, His books, and His Apostles. We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His Apostles’. And they say: “We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, Our Lord, and To Thee is the end of all journey’s (2.285)
The Muslim faith including that of the Hereafter is further elaborated in 4.136
O mankind ye who believe. Believe in God and His Apostle and the Scripture which He hath sent to his Apostle and the Scripture which He sent to those before him. Any who denieth God, His Angles, His Books, His Apostles, and the Day of Judgement, hath gone far, far astray.
It is obligatory upon the Muslims to bear witness to all the Apostles whose names are mentioned in the Qur’an. As the immediate addressees of the Qur’an were either the disbelievers of Mecca or the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), only those names of the Apostles figure in the Qur’an which were familiar to them. But as the Qur’anic conception of risala is comprehensive of all human communities and as it is not reasonable to hold that God did not at all send any of His Apostles to such vast communities like those of China, India, Africa and the Americas, the Muslim theologians are agreed in principle that there were God’s Apostles in every land at different times. This is again based on the Qur’anic text:
We did send Apostles before thee: of them there are some whose story We have related to thee, and some whose story We have not related to thee (40.78)
This is why in the Tradition the number of the Apostles sent to different lands and communities is as large as 124,000. Yet this great number is neither a matter of confusion nor of conflict because the many are in truth one sent by One with one revelation.
APOSTLESHIP (RISALA) AND PROPHETHOOD (NUBUWWA)
As an abstract noun, nubuwaa (prophethood) occurs five times in the Qur’an in three instances (3.79, 6.89, 45.16) it is linked with Scripture (kitab) and “command” (hukm), and in the other two (29.27, 57.26) it is associated with the House of Isaac and Jacob.
The general Muslim opinion is to link risala (apostleship) with Scripture and law-giving, and nubuwwa (prophethood) with admonishing and alerting mankind to the signs of God’s Presence and impending Judgement. But there is no clear Qur’anic evidence to support this distinction. The general usage, however, is that both terms are used interchangeably, and the unity between the two terms is further enforced because both dimensions obtain a perfect combination in the person and ministry of Mohammad. But there are, however, very clear conceptual distinctions between them:
Nubuwwa (prophethood) is derived from naba (news). There are types of “news” which a Prophet brings:
2. Knowledge concerning another order of creation – other invisible beings, angels, jinn;
3. “News” concerning the former Apostles and Prophets – Naba’al-ghayb regarding Mary (3.44), Naba Ibrahim (26.69), Naba Nuh (Noah) -9.70, and Naba Musa (Moses) – 14.9
The “news” which a Prophet (Nabi) brings is bil’hae (in truth, true, from God, not out of one’s mind) is therefore different from poetry and ecstatic utterances of those who are “possessed” “An oracle” (kahin) is the antitype of a Prophet (Nabi) in the same sense as a king (malik) is an antitype of an Apostle (Rasul).
A Prophet gives a new structure of knowledge (ilm) whereas an Apostle works outs the full implications of this new structure. One is a direct threat to the opinions (zun) of his times, and another is a confrontation with the political system. A Prophet awakens mankind from its Unconscious state (ghafala) and an Apostle creates the right conditions to preserve the awakened mind. The Scripture (kitab) becomes a means to bring about both these ends. A Prophet, however, by the very nature of the “news” he brings almost stands outside of history, as if he were already standing in the Hereafter. Hence, he gives the impression of being “possessed” or beside himself. But an Apostle stands right within the historical context, challenges it and transforms it. There “believing” is the right response to a Prophet whereas “obeying” is what an Apostle requires. Hence, the Qur’anic imperative: “Follow God and His Apostle”. There will be no other Prophet after Mohammad as no new “news” is to be given now to mankind, but the call to transform society after a Godward orientation will continue to be given. Hence, the nubuwwa (prophethood) has come to an end but the mission to transform the human order as enshrined in the concept of risala is not ended. The term, rasul (apostle), also stops with Mohammad because it is the first of all a divine commission linked up with the Prophethood. If the latter is ended, the former also is ended. Hence, whoever imitates the Apostle is giving a similar call is now called a da’i (one who calls). The change of terminology is very central to the entire Islamic development of thought.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUR’ANIC TERMINOLOGY
It was said at the very outset of this study that the terms we are examining are some of those conceptions which are employed to formulate the basis of authority for the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. The fact that the Qur’anic scheme of risala and nubuwwa is so elaborate and clearly stated makes us ask whether there is something more significant about them than the question of authority. From the standpoint of authority it is obvious that the apostleship rests on a divine commission. But the Qur’anic insistence to refer to his extraordinary group of men as mursilin (apostle) and nabiyyin (prophets) and in no other terms seems to contain a very important dimension of thought which we shall try here briefly to unfold. The clue is provided by the Qur’an in referring to Jesus as an honourable “servant” (abd) and not as “son” (walad). There is a vital issue here, and it is not merely a matter of a particular expression being factual or metaphorical. The Qur’an, like other Scriptures, is full of metaphorical expressions. The polemical view that the Qur’an does not sympathise with the metaphorical expression of “sonship” when Christians themselves do not hold it to be factual in the sense of being actually begotten, seems to miss the whole Qur’anic concern. In one word, the Qur’an is against the very metaphorical mode of stating the God-Man relationship. Every metaphor has a bottom line of literality and a skyline of symbolic reference. The religious communities operate between these two lines in their use of the symbolic language. A metaphor which rests on a concrete reference at its literal end may not always be understood in it symbolic value. The matter is of theoretical interest in the general discussion about the symbols, whether religious or literary, but when it is a question of involving God, the Qur’an categorically rejects the ambiguity of a symbolic expression for two very serious reasons: (1) the metaphor brings God (Haq) to the level of Creation (Khalq), and (2) it brings Creation to the level of God, and when the metaphorical mode of expression is used between God and Man (who is barzakh – mediating between the spiritual and material domains) the danger is that one may end up Man-God and God-Man. It is this consequence which the Qur’an intends to forestall and prevent by giving a language that suffers from no such risk. Hence, the term, “servant” heads the list: abdiyya (servanthood) is the highest title Man can earn in his coming near to God, and the terms, rasul (apostle) and nabi (prophet), if we examine them again, involve in themselves nothing more than “one who is sent” and “one who informs”. It is the Sender and the Message which dominate the mind, not the persons who become the means. In this way, God remains God, and Man remains Man. The Qur’anic terminology is not only a reference to the question of authority but also to an equally important challenge, namely, to maintain the Transcendence of God. The ultimate testimony of Islam is however: subhan’allah (Glory be to God). The beginning of this glorification (tasbih) is takbir (God is Great), its middle is tawhid (God is One), and its end is tahmid (Praise be to God), and beyond that is the Transcendent Reality. When a Muslim says, “Glory be to God”, he is in fact referring to His Transcendence. When a Muslim says “I bear witness that Mohammad is an Apostle of God”, he is safeguarding the testimony, “There is no god but God”. The Qur’anic view of God determines the Qur’anic view of apostleship.
THE PROPHET/APOSTLE AS A TEACHER
Among you an Apostle of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in New Knowledge (2.151).
By virtue of the Message, an apostle is a Prophet. He not only delivers his Message but also explains it, and assumes the role of a Teacher. He recites His Signs: he fills the minds of his followers with a new content or a new mode of becoming aware of their physical and psychological worlds. The familiar things around them change their significance. The multiplicity is drowned under a tremendous sense of unity. The outer cleanliness (taharat) is like becoming aware of one’s body as a sign – “O mankind God, these hands I wash were not made by me but by You; this face I now put water over is not my doing but Yours; and I prepare thus to stand, bow, and prostrate before You, because it is all Yours – how can I dare refuse to bow my body before You – I watch mighty trees bowed down by the winds – You are not less than the wind, O mankind God”. But the outer cleanliness should be accompanied by inner purity (tazkiya), a self-emptying, a turning away of
thought from all creation unto the Creator, to stand, as it were, between one’s house and one’s grave. To die to the world and to stand in prayer is the height of purity. Before one asks anything through prayer, the very mode of prayer is a gift that excels anything that could be given from out of this world. From worship (ibada) one turns to knowledge (ilm) which is twofold, manifest and hidden – kitab as a symbol for the manifest, and hikma as the indication of the hidden. The key lies in the expression, “new knowledge”. We approach it not through what it is but how it is communicated: (1) from aqwal (spoken words), (2) from amal (actions), and (3) from ahwal (states). It is in respect of the latter two modes, a Prophet is distinguished from ordinary teachers. Hence, he occupies a special place in the world of knowledge. It is almost impossible to reconstruct the Teacher Aspect of a Prophet unless you are his contemporary. Most of us restrict ourselves to his aqwal (uttered teachings) but do not take in to account the two other modes, for it is through them the whole teaching is transmitted. His “states” were under the impact of “revelation”. Hence, a Muslim recites the Qur’an to have at least a fraction of that state (hal), because it is within this state that inspiration takes place, and the new knowledge of the revealed text is disclosed. But the amal (actions) are more difficult. As far as their outward form is concerned, they could be imitated. Muslims follow the sunnah of the Prophet. On the surface it is something quite obvious. But the act is preceded by “intention” (niyya), and this is again the level of purity: the intention to act only in the Way of God and for God only is not as easy as the reproduction of the Prophetic act. Hence, the spoken word is two-fold: the manifest meaning and the hidden meaning; the outward act is governed by an inner act, the intention; and the outward “state” is a result of an inner “knowledge”. When we say that a Prophet is a Teacher, we mean then that he is a Teacher by his inner self which is the seat of the discourse between himself and God.
In mystical terms, it is called sirr (secret). Hence, a Prophet is dearer to his followers that their own selves (6.33). In other words, the Prophet discloses to them the secret of their selves; or in more general terms, a Prophet is Man made Perfect in his awareness of God.
Unless we generalise, we are likely to end up with an exclusive testimony which was the threat foreseen by the Qur’an when it insisted on having a general framework of reference both for revelation and apostleship. Hence, when a Muslim says, “I bear testimony that Mohammad is an Apostle of God”, he is enacting all the testimonies which are to be given for every Apostle of God. The detailed testimony is:
There is no god but God,
and Noah is an Apostle of God.
There is no god but God,
and Abraham is an Apostle of God.
There is no god but God,
and Moses is an Apostle of God.
There is no god but God,
and Jesus is an Apostle of God.
There is no god but God.
and Mohammad is an Apostle of God.
The underlying principle is of crucial importance to all of us. It is, in fact, two principles sharing one perspective: (1) whoever bears witness to one Apostle, bears witness to all Apostles (it is of no importance here to know whether one is before or after another Apostle); (2) once the concept of apostleship is accepted as a true mode of communication between God and Man, the claim to the apostleship by one or another is primarily a claim to the validity of the principle, for a true apostle never keeps himself above the principle, namely, of his calling. This leads us to stress in very clear terms that to accept an Apostle from a tradition outside one’s own is largely a matter of what “theology” one has with respect to religion as a whole. It is not the religious question for it never figures as the central principle in the teachings of the Apostles we have been discussing.
The question of finality requires to be stated in some other way so as to have a unified understanding of God’s Revelations, and this depends how far we are prepared to work with different points of departure: for instance, (1) as for God there is no such thing as past and future, and all the Apostles are contemporary to Him (and is it tenable to ask whether they also are in some sense “contemporary” to one another?) and hence, to argue from the point of view of revelation in time and raise questions of “finality” is sometimes to run the risk of not fully realising that “time” is in the view of God. (2) When we come across such expressions as, “I am the Way, is it not rewarding to ask what the subject implies here – if it is the ego of the Prophet, he has put it beside God which is religiously impossible, and if not, he has then passed away, and the subject here points to God himself, for in truth He alone can say that He is the Way; (3) “finality” may be viewed more as a sign of authenticity and certainty of truth with respect to one or another claim, and not essentially a judgement of the other; and (4) the question of finality is a risky thing from another point of view; any undue stress on it will lead one to prejudge the freedom of God.
The Qur’anic conception of risala (apostleship) is one of those frameworks within which a fruitful theological discourse between Jews, Christians, and Muslims can take place, and it has the potential to include in its conceptual system other apostles and saints of God outside the Biblical and Qur’anic prophetology.
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.
Syed Hasan Askari(1932-2008), inter faith pioneer, responds to Karen Armstrong’s engaging interview (audio) from 1984 on the Sufi Mystical Experience, Whirling Dervish dance inspired by the Sufi mystic Rumi, Zikr (Remembrance of God). The need for Religious diversity and much more.
The dialogue begins with the question, “What is the aim of a Sufi Mystic?”
Syed Hasan Askari one of the eight important Muslim thinkers in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen & the Faith” writes, “Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society.”
Selected quotes of Syed Hasan Askari from the above interview:
Zikr :“Remembering God in His attributes, in His Mercy and Power and Love.”
“We remember that God is the Greatest and thereby we deny everything else as great. And then we say that He is One, there is no other. And then we say the Praise and then we say He is Sublime, He is above all we say about Him.”
“The ultimate goal of Zikr is to transcend Zikr itself.”
“Doctrine is a conscious individual statement of one’s own form of belief about the ultimate.”
“Dogma is an embodiment of a particular theological crisis and how it was resolved at a given time in the history of religious thought. There are creeds in Christianity and creeds in Islam which represent those crises in theological thought. But religious life is far ahead of dogmatic statement. For instance when I [Hasan Askari] stand in prayer I don’t say that here stands a “Muslim” with a particular belief statement on his lips…in ritual prayer we don’t enact the dogmatic what to speak of the mystical where the dogma is left behind.”
“In very high levels of religious life a word becomes an eye and thereby we obtain a new sense, a new vision. But not with the physical eye, not with the eye of the body…..the rational mind is only analytical. It doesn’t give us a totality. One needs an intuition, a sense of partaking in the wholeness of being. Then perhaps we arrive at the level of true words which are also true visions.”
“Dogma is more a matter of institutional identity, continuity and solidarity in any religious life whatsoever. Whereas the mystic is concerned with the religious person, the individual. If man becomes alone before God then he becomes a truly religious person.”
“On one hand I feel, I know and I notice the unity of religious experience transcending image and symbol and dogma and institution and culture and language. And on the other I notice a variety, a diversity, a differential dynamics both between religions and one particular religion. And therefore I have to affirm the mystical value of diversity.”
“I would say that if we who say that we believe in God who is Sublime and Infinite and Transcendental and Almighty…how could that God be equated with one form of one religious belief?”
“Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”
“There is a world religion, namely, the Mystical.”
“I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago [1960s] in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque. A man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say that a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
(apologies for the sound quality however it is hoped you will still find the conversation deeply interesting)
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”
Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog.
Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH
Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”
In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”
On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?
Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning. Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)
Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe. I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family. The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.
When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.
Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?
We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context. But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making. As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.
It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.
Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.
Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.
Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples” is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith. Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas.
When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit. More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol, tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening.
Over the years the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others. Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.
Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.
However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?
Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral. People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill.
For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present.
The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.
Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”
The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”
Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer.
On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?
Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question. The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need. These are counter intuitive expressions of love.
When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.