Spiritual Human is honoured to present by renowned scholar Bishop Kenneth Cragg his chapter on the work of Muslim inter-faith pioneer Professor Hasan Askari from Bishop Cragg’s 1985 book “The Pen and the Faith – Eight modern Muslim writers and the Qur’an”. Bishop Cragg “writes from a long academic and practical concern for Islam and its Scripture.”
Professor Hasan Askari “was appointed to the Chair of Sociology at Osmania University (Hyderabad, India) at the early age of 25.” Having taught Sociology for some twenty years Professor Askari took his career in to the field of Inter-Religious Dialogue which brought him to teach and lecture in the West making his home in the United Kingdom. A journey he talks about eloquently in his 1995 speech “Spiritual Humanism” on his final visit to Hyderabad.
Professor Jane I Smith (Harvard Divinity School) writes of Hasan Askari, “Those who have known him through the years find it no surprise that the noted interpreter of Islam, Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg, has acknowledged Hasan Askari as one of the eight prominent Muslim thinkers of this century in The Pen and the Faith. A philosopher, a mystic, an historian and a social scientist, Askari pleads with religious persons everywhere to transcend the limitations we have placed on ourselves and to move together to new levels of understanding.”
Bishop Kenneth Cragg writes:
“The true greatness of a religion is only obvious when you do not regard it as a religion,” we will find Kamil Ramzi observing in Najib Mahfuz’s Maraya, after that author’s familiar cryptic manner.1 Whatever his immediate intention in that character sketch, it is a sentiment often encountered among interpreters anxious to reserve what they see as the deep spirituality and intellectual stature of their faiths from the toll of their institutional, dogmatic or popular expression. Such apologists are to be found in all traditions. What they identify as the essence, or reality, or ultimate intention, of their faith may be sharply at odds with its general image in history or even with its seemingly categorical expression according to its structure of received authority, whether scriptural, credal or liturgical. But a personal appeal to conscience, intuition, or spirit, avails to override, or reinterpret, these traditional constraints and the resulting issues can be entrusted, with all sincerity, to patience and the future. Verdicts of this order against “religion” on behalf of “religion”, ventures in disavowal as deepest loyalty, tend – not unnaturally – to belong with efforts after “inter-faith” and mutuality across religions frontiers.
Hasan Askari has for many years exemplified what such initiatives entail and achieve from within Islam. In his Inter-Religion, he remarks: “For a religion to remain a religion it should be inter-religious”2. He has given notable impetus to Islamic exploration of what such readiness might mean vis-à-vis the Christian faith. His reading for the Qur’an suggests lively possibilities of Muslim-Christian kinship and, so doing, central areas of interior questioning for both. Some may find them at once too bold and too sanguine, admirably conceived for the spiritually minded but for that reason scarcely fitted to master the prejudiced in their strongholds of institutional assurance. Such incapacity is no discredit. It belongs with the very nature of the enterprise. But, like “time’s winged chariot” warning the tardy about delay, it must always be in mind if right spiritual incentives are to keep faith with their total task – a task which must be forever aware of how perverse to “religion” the religious constituency can be.
The content of Hasan Askari’s scholarship is shaped by three evident factors.These are the Indian context, the field of sociology, and sustained activity in Muslim-Christian relations in the West. Like numerous other notable institutions of Islamic learning, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Deccan, experienced the trauma of adjustment to Indian statehood after the partition of the subcontinent and the Hinduisation of university life. The acceptance of minority status divested Indian Muslims of their traditional and instinctive reliance on the political arm. The creation of the separate state of Pakistan symbolised the forfeiture, for them, of that shape of Islamic destiny and threw them back, with aggravated finality, on Muslim-Hindu coexistence. The coexistence, the majority community reasonably argued, must mean the end of sectarian dominance of educational institutions hitherto regarded as communal symbols. The violent circumstances of Hyderabad’s absorption into India were a sharp dismissal of the prestigious past. Though the state was predominantly Hindu in population, the Nizam was Muslim and ruled absolutely. Osmania was the state university, founded in 1918, and enjoying an envied reputation. Urdu was its official language of instruction. Islamic theology was required for all Muslims enrolled, and Islamic ethics for all non-Muslims. Islamic Culture, published there, earned, and still retains, a high reputation as a medium of Islamic research. Syed Abdel Latif, President of its Academy of Islamic Studies and translator of the Qur’an and of part of Maulana Azad’s Quranic Commentary, was one of its most distinguished sons. The university’s Bureau of Translations, because of its policy in the use of Urdu, was the means to numerous translations into that language from Western sources. All in all, it could be said that Osmania underwent all the psychic and academic tensions implicit in the transition to “secular” India. Certainly, Islam, in that permanent minority role, had to analyse, and maybe discover, within itself, what due Islamic response might be to the fundamental changes in its status, prospects and resources after 1947.
Teaching there in the sixties, Hasan Askari developed his personal response, inwards and professional, in the field of sociology. It has sometimes happened in the West also that penetrating and perceptive theologies have been generated within this discipline.3 Its practitioners are disencumbered of the cautious traditionalism of the professional dogmatists, with their stock in trade of Tafsir, Kalam, and – it may be – Taqlid. These tend to obscure the deeper issues of obfuscate the mind. Custodians habitually confine their study to secure authority and safe precedent. There is the danger they may never raise the questions which take them behind their lines. Defensively, it is just that danger they instinctively ignore.
The sociologist, by contrast, is made keenly aware of religion as a phenomenon, whose workings he must study and compare, as a factor in the scene, a feature of the human landscape, a function in the social order, properly to be assessed by considerations other than, or perhaps indifferent to, its truth claims. He needs to be alert to a collective psyche, to face criteria which may well relativise, or neutralise, the elements, dear to the dogmatist, which prize finality, uniqueness and authority. He may suspect that these are moderated, if not discounted, by a sociological alignment of the workings of religion, however competitive their doctrines or contrasted their cults. Sociology focuses attention on the motives which underlie beliefs and takes the “interests” that supply the motives to be more vital than alleged reasons or doctrines. It examines how a concern for identity and security dominates a human community and may go far to account for the strength of the religious faith by which the community is defined. It also claims to interpret the role in the community fulfilled by official custodians of faith and ritual, whether imams or shaikhs or clergy. What it finds that role to be may well differ from the suppositions of those who play it as to authority and sincerity. In all these ways, sociology is calculated to suggest radically different angles on religious beliefs and institutions from those of the theologians.
That is not to say that sociological assessments of religion are always to be trusted. Sociology can be liable to abstraction as much as some theology. But it is to say that it can prove a very salutary discipline in alerting and sifting thought about faith, when allied with the will for iklas, or sincerity, which the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon the Muslim.4 For at least it uncovers areas and tests of such sincerity which, sociology apart, might never be acknowledged.
It is, however, his deep involvement in inter-faith endeavour which most fully explains Dr Askari’s thought about religion. Since its inception in 1976 he has been closely engaged in the concepts and work of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, at the Selly Oak Colleges, in Birmingham, England. Prior to its initiation, he had been active in the World Council of Churches’ Unit on Dialogue and Witness, participating in its pioneer consultation at Ajaltoun in 1970.5 His name has become a household word in circles committed to Muslim-Christian understanding in Asia, the Middle-East and Europe and in the United States. He was one of seven eminent Muslim thinkers to contribute to Dr Youakim Mubarac’s Verse et controverse, in which responses were made to the focal points at issue between the two faiths. His sustained commitments in the field of dialogue, against the background of his sociological expertise, have given him a stature of leadership as a uniquely formative thinker from within Islam. His work in the dynamics of symbolism and his familiarity with Western existentialism – especially Soren Kierkegard – ensure that his personal voice from within Shi’ah Islam is alert, patient and compassionate.
Before exploring his main themes and emphases, it is well to reflect further on the way in which the prerequisites of inter-faith relationship tend to generate themselves in the very pursuit of it. It may well be a case of “seek and ye shall find”, and of the paradox “to him that hath shall be given”. Certainly what is needed only comes about in the going. It cannot be had in the abstract. The will to personal relationship between “differing” believers requires a certain “abeyance” of assertion and denial in the credal or ritual realms, since insistence on these items of divisiveness would impede or exclude the willed relationship. That conscious “abeyance” of things dogmatic or particularist may cause a sense of disquiet, or even compromise. This is not shelved or ignored and certainly not resolved. But it is held in creative suspense because the will to relationship has its own authentic impulse and plainly requires such suspension of what denies it. That very suspension – given that it is not disloyal and it warranted by its spiritual intent – may itself refine the loyalty that rises to it, by setting the doctrinal themes of loyalty in a new and possibly liberating light. “What do they know of England who only England know?” is a familiar question. Perhaps we have only partly known either our Islam or our Christianity, if we have only known them in their mutual isolation. There is perspective in the view from the other side. Our exclusivisms, seen from a different angle, are obliged to question themselves, and, if appropriate, justify themselves, by criteria to which – open relationships apart – they could not and would not be susceptible.
This is no easy path. But it can be a liberating road. Muhammad al-Nuwaihy, of Cairo, certainly walked it in respect of Christian understanding of the Cross of Jesus. To him as a Muslim, he insisted it remained inacceptable, indeed repellent. But he recognised generously that it was, for the Christian, the most compelling and magnificent focus of the mystery of transcendent power and grace. He could allow that, for the Christian, “God was in Christ reconciling the world”. For the Christian. There, of course, was his reservation of the Islamic position. But dialogue and, even more, personal friendship had brought him to the point of realising a “Christian’s truth”. Comparable realisations have come to Christians relating, for example, to the sacramental sense of things in the Qur’an, the God-centred habit of praise, the profound relevance of the meaning of Tauhid and Shirk.6
Such realisations may well suggest, or imply, a distinction between truth for and truth of. The New Testament will be truth for Christians, the Qur’an truth for Muslims, irrespective – in the mutual situation – of the truth of either for the other. This is obviously not a final or an ultimately satisfying position. Indeed, the distinction could be a profoundly treacherous one. In any event, it is not one at which to stay. But it may represent an important waymark on the road away from bigotry and towards finality. It has been invoked by Jews concerned to accommodate Christianity in some way within an election that excludes Gentiles.7 It has been affirmed by Christians eager to concede unbroken Jewish exceptionality and to understand their Christianity as being for Gentiles only.8 Buddhists and Christians could work out equally feasible alignments of “approval”. Yet they will all have continuing spiritual and intellectual obligations to what is at issue between the two propositions “for” and “of” in respect of truth.
That, of course, is the unfinished task of dialogue. Some would insist that it is a hopeless one, that mutually complementing and mutually contradicting “truths” are all we have and, given sociological and language predicaments, all we can expect. Those who accept that impasse will be in danger of declining into supine tolerance. Those who mean to surmount it will need the equipment of mind and soul. Which, albeit as a halfway house, it furnishes and yields. If we are ever to get beyond it, we must live within it. For, in present situations of national passion, of hemispheric tension and of spiritual alienation, it is the only hope we have. It is this fact which warrantsa salute of gratitude to Hasan Askari as an outstanding Muslim practitioner of the art of Christian appreciation. Only by such a tribute of mind can a Christian critical appraisal of his thought properly develop and press the points of continuing question which it leaves at issue.
It will do so in the knowledge that these concern the nature of Islam as much as they belong with the self-understanding of Christians. For one of these characteristics of such dialogue – and it is notable in the case of Hasan Askari – is that it tends to idiosyncratic views of the faith out of which it speaks. Indeed, the interpretation of Islam is as much at stake here as the Islamic appraisal of Christianity. Perhaps that is proper and inevitable. But it will be important that pioneers in Islamic initiatives reaching into Christianity should not part company too radically with the Islam broadly understood as normative among Muslims. That the latter is often hard to identify with consensus is no warrant for not registering its pull as a rope whose tether must determine our range. The Qur’an itself may be invoked for this metaphor when it refer to “the rope of God”, to which believers must cling in a solidarity which does not break up into divisions (3.103). Pioneers seeking open relationships across traditional borders may often be found affirming a strongly personal version of the faith. This is doubtless necessary to their openness. But it would be a dubious openness which lost sight of its own character. For it is just the closedness to each other of popular religions and traditional faiths that constitutes the heavy task of the open-hearted.
Hasan Askari’s thought is rooted in the basic concern of Islam “not to allow the Godness of God to suffer in men’s belief about Him”.9 That, of course, is the central point of Tauhid, divine unity, God’s immunity from all false notions, whether these are plural, or superstitious, or representational. Shirk, which must always be anathema, is the name of these wronging, falsifying, derogations of the divine nature and reality. “They did not esteem God as He should be esteemed,” Surahs 6.91, 22.74, and 39.67, say of mushrikin. This deep passion for the true “Godness of God” informs all that Dr Askari writes.
The phrase itself opens up a fascinating vista of thought. For it indicates that “God” may be a doubtful ambivalent, term, needing to be rescued, safeguarded, exempted, from all that would impugn true “Godness”. There, of course, lies all the onus of theology. The mystery, even the struggle, about “the Godness of God” underlies the Book of Job, which has an important part in Askari’s case. What are the worthy thoughts, the proper praises, the authentic cognisances of God within our human competence? The question is in no way academic. For the falsehoods, the unworthy notions, if we have them, will distort not only our thinking but our worship. They will mean that we are idolaters. We shall be guilty in them not merely of improper thoughts but of existential travesty. It goes without saying that this issue is the common menace, and therefore also the unifying ground, of all religion. “Let God be God” is never a denominational, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jewish, a Baha’i, or any particularist summons in which zeal for the authentic is unilateral. The question is the criterion to determine the authentic.
Here, Hasan Askari is one with all Muslims in relying on the final criterion of the Qur’an. Tauhid, reinforced by the anathema on Shirk, means the absoluteness of God. From that absoluteness Islam is forced to exclude all that is earthly. It has to deny any divine character incompatible with the single principle of utter transcendence. What is clearly incompatible, on this reckoning, is anything “earthly”. Askari, with qualifications to which we will come in his Christian relationships, is committed to that immunising dimension of the absolute which, from the first anti-idolatrous preoccupations of Muhammad, has consistently prepossessed the Muslim mind. However, he adds that “in a secondary manner it need not deny that the relative is in God, for it admits the divine attributes”.10
The Christian, of course, would grasp this paradox much more confidently. For paradox it remains. Yet it is a paradox inseparable from creation – in which the Qur’an altogether believes – and from revelation – which the Qur’an believes itself to comprise – and from all theology and worship, which necessarily involve the “absolute” “Godness of God” in the relativity of language denoting and addressing Him.
The clue would seem to lie in tackling that characteristically Islamic instinct for the immunising of the divine from earthly, and from human, involvement. Why this reluctance, given that, necessarily, the very word “God” is a relational term? Like the word “friend” it has significance only in cognisance of relationship. This is not to say that the being of God is exhausted in the human relation: it is to say that, such relationship apart, Tawhid and Shirk, and, in their being at issue, the very “Godness of God”, would not exist. If we are truly saying, as Muslims are, “Let God be God”, then, clearly, in that sense, God has to be “let be”, and humanity is where it happens. And it happens, or otherwise, as the central issue of humanity itself.
If, as we must surely concede, this situation within creation and divine law is by divine design, then it would seem to follow that there is no divine reluctance to involve divine ultimacy within the human relation. God must be understood as that sort of absolute, which is only another way of saying that “God is Love”. Must we not make the paradox central, rather than accommodating it, regretfully and – in effect – inconsistently, as the proposition does which excludes all that is earthly from the divine absolute while not denying that, in a secondary manner, the relative is in God? Will that “secondary manner” in some way reduce the divine quality of the divine “relative”? If so, this was just the reduction which the Christian faith in the divinity of “God in Christ”, in Jesus as the divine Word, was intended to exclude. As the Islamic sense of the “uncreatedness of the Qur’an” is designed to ensure, we need to be certain that, when we have to do with God in those areas which are necessarily “relative” to us, we have not been deprived of what He is in His absoluteness. For, were we to be, how would we have “Him” at all? And what would have happened to Tawhid, which forbids all disparities in God? Would we not have stood Shirk on its head by disallowing, for our theological reasons, that all-inclusive reach and competence of God? Would we not, in fact, be limiting the divine omnipotence as drastically as the idolaters? May it, therefore, be right to conclude that Islamic thought about God has stayed too long under the dominance of the necessary anti-idolatry of Islam’s origins in a milieu of paganism which demanded a rigorous dissociation of God from human notions? Such proper disassociation needs to be distinguished from that divine-human association which is inseparable from transcendence itself, as theism – with creation and revelation – believes it to be. Hasan Askari’s thought may yet help to this end.
We are on easier ground when we come to his focus on the theme of praise. In happy harmony with fellow theists, he sees the world as a sanctuary. It has a “theophanic character”. This is his reading of the steady insistence of the Qur’an on the “signs of God” in nature, which everywhere constrain the intelligence to investigate and the soul to wonder and give thanks.11 But tradition, too, can be invoked. “If”, he writes, “the Prophet . . . said that he loved women, perfumes and prayer”, this “invokes an inter-related order of beauty, love and sanctity”.12
Moreover, such awareness of all worldly experience as a sanctuary, a “dwelling in the house of the Lord”, as Psalm 23 has it, must mean a passionate concern for social righteousness and religious integrity. Whatever its outward forms in ritual, prayer must always have this personal integrity, without which external expressions are hollow. “The principle of all praise to God . . . is also a principle of constant vigilance over, and criticism of, one’s position within one’s tradition and in history.” If the world is a holy place, then worship has to be a kind of perpetual “prophecy” against its distortion and corruption. “By rising to pray, we contradict our age to save it”.13
This at once takes Askari’s thought into the theme of Islam and secularity. Unlike many contemporary Muslim writers, he does not shed the issue of the secular by blandly insisting that Islam, as a religion, covers all of life. He does not opt for the position expressed, for example by Sayyid Husain Nasr, that any concern with secular ideologies or empathy with secular attitudes, must be scouted by genuine believers in “God’s religion”.14 He does not adopt the view that somehow secularity is “the headache of Christianity”, as the religion responsible for, and antecedent to, the Western culture it has overtaken. True theology and right worship must always be concerned for, and involved with, the search for a true and right society. Shirk, for Hasan Askari, must be understood to mean anything that flouts the divine will for man, since the divine order itself is bound up with man’s due dignity and rights. Shirk, then, may be defined as “the unequal distribution of knowledge, wealth and power”. “The call to worship one God is also a call to transform the social order.” It is anti-monotheistic to make legitimate any inequality or to ignore any suffering. Only monotheism, as distinct from monolatry (which may be quite nationalistic) can undergird and achieve social justice. Therefore, to be a monotheist is to be a revolutionary, wherever that status quo is unjust or tyrannical or apathetic.15
In the Indian, any many another, context, this leads to the issue of Muslim minority status. For the response to secularity in moral, social terms has there to be made within the “secular” state (in the legal sense of “secular”) dominated by a different religion. Here, Askari’s thought, responding to the deep dilemmas of Indian Islam, is strongly conceived and, in measure, quite idiosyncratic. He believes that the Muslim community within India, since partition, has hardly begun to face the question of the social implications of its monotheism. Like many minorities elsewhere, its ruling concern has been for sheer survival. What should it mean to Indian Muslims that “God is not one to let your faith go to waste”, as Surah 2.143 might be rendered.16 Muhammad was there comforted in the crisis of the change of Qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca, with all the inner disquiet or perplexity it inspired among his hard-pressed followers. In the comparable disorientation, or reorientation, of secular India, with Pakistani options permanently excluded, which should Indian Muslim confidence in the divine assurance require of their faith in concrete terms? The question, he said, had hardly yet been put.
As we will note later, he holds that the religious manifold is a source of knowledge other than one’s own. Coexistence should mean a recognition of diversity within the human whole and within the variety of symbolic, cultural systems of expression which ought not to be exclusified. But his most radical point is the belief that Islam had never established, or meant to establish, a political order. He writes:
The question of the relation of religion to the state is one to the solution of which Islam has least applied itself. For Muslims in the course of their history this has been at once a source of vigour and of weakness. It has sundered Islam into two major sects, Sunnis and Shi’ah. In my view this has done harm to their spiritual and religious development. Even those Muslims who are animated by the best intentions have, on this question, been victims of illusion. In this domain, all the ambiguities that exist come from the claim that in Islam there is an indisputable unity between what is political and what is religious.
My profound conviction is that the Prophet of Islam did not create a state. Consequently, the controversy between Sunni and Shi’ah over the question of knowing who should succeed the Prophet is without foundation. It follows that the principles of the Caliphate and the Imamate are not Quranic. My belief is that Islam can survive without political power, without statehood.”17 (Hasan Askari from Y Moubarac, Verse et controverse: les musslmans (Paris 1971), translated from French by K Cragg).
He adds that his statement of view is strictly personal and develops it as a plea for what he calls the eschatological dimension in Islam. Its current problems, he says, are neither economic, nor political. They have to do with its vision of history and of the last judgement, its awareness of the perennial human crisis.
Contemporary technology necessitates an eschatological reach of apprehension and herein is a common religious task. “Before repairing again to Medina, it is necessary to dwell long at Mecca.” He goes on: “Islam ought perhaps to disappear as a historical and political institution, as a structure of community. Only then will the true Muslim be able to be manifest.”18
The courage and scope of this conviction are splendid and exciting. But what should they mean when they return us to the inescapable immediacies of politics and economics? Eschatology deals, by definition, with the last things in ultimacy but leaves us with intermediate things in chronology. That “God is not such as to let faith go in vain” must needs to be a present as well as an eschatological confidence, informing a present programme within the actual strains of majority-minority tensions and the given sectarianisms of popular religion.
In his focus on the human crisis per se behind all the exigencies of politics and programmes, Hasan Askari gives notable expression to Islamic prescripts alongside a lively sense of the Christian’s relevance. He sees the issue of man in society not, essentially, as one of remaking, or of “conversion”, but rather of “recollection” and “recall”.
In Islam, there is no such thing, in principle, as conversion, but restoration, a returning and a remembering . . . The greatest challenge upon this earth is not so much to explore a God, as to remember that there is one.19
This is the meaning of that central Quranic term Dhikr and it explains the nature and function of revelation and prophethood. This bringing back to mind and into operation, of the human destiny and calling is not correcting any merely mortal forgetfulness. It is not that man is negligent or oblivious merely within life situations now. It has to do with the “primeval dawn of creation”, with the situation often drawn from the sense of Surah 7.172 and God’s question to the seed of the children of Adam, “Am I not your Lord?” to which they all responded: “Yes, we so acknowledge.” This primal, original professed creaturehood of man within divine obligation is concealed by forgetfulness. The corollary of this is the “apparent hiddenness of God”, as Hasan Askari phrases it. It is to dispel this hiddenness that prophethood is sent, but only in recalling the content of that pledged obedience. In such revelation Muhammad is uniquely instrumental. To speak of him as “the seal of the prophets” means that in Islam human forgetfulness has been fully challenged. Thanks to the Qur’an, man has been made the argument against himself.
It is in this context that Hasan Askari’s discussion of the significance of the Cross in Christianity belongs. Yet the case he makes for that significance would seem, at least in Christian reckoning, to tell against the theme that associates revelation with “recollection”. For it would seem that obduracy in man – to which the Qur’an bears such strong witness – suggests something more radical, more heinous, than forgetfulness. It seems of indicate a deliberate defiance, a chronic capacity to know the right and yet to do the wrong, to be aware enough of God and His claim and yet to reject it. Much idolatry, Meccan and modern, seems of this order. Hasan Askari himself observes that, historically, Muslims have tended to externalise all crisis, shunning the interior significance of the history through which they pass. There is a feeling of self-justification, of always being in the right. Truth is with us.
Even so, he holds that meditation on the Cross should help Muslims in “crisis perception”. He sees it as an existential symbol of how tragic the relationship of man to God can be. That tragedy lies in how wilful and selfish men are in their violation of faith. Whether this view can be associated with Kamil Husain’s theme of Good Friday epitomising “the sin of the world”, is not altogether clear. Certainly, in the Qur’an and Islam, Jesus is “a sign of how deeply man can deceive himself in the name of God”20. On a Qur’anic view that “deception” might well include the faith of Christians about the divinity of Jesus. But credal faith apart, the crucifixion of Jesus supremely embodies the dialogical relation between God and men. It sets rejection over against reminder. It is the point where men choose to flout, in the sharpest terms, the sign of recollection that Jesus represents. Jesus has indeed “become the Word”. As such, he disallows the complacence, if such it be, of the believer in the Word as Qur’an – that is to say the Muslim who, possessing the manual of written direction, does not continue in “perpetual openness before his Lord”.
This understanding of the significance of “the Word made flesh” in Jesus, as Christians understand, belongs with Askari’s exposition in Verse et Controverse of the respective theologies of revelation. He prefaces this by regretting how, normally, Muslims take the Qur’an as requiring an anti-Christian stance. Responsively to a Christian “forthcomingness” about the Qur’an, he wants Muslims to see Quranic criticisms of Christian belief not as a repudiation of something alien but as within a complex of faith having that in common which can contain and reconcile disparity.
Elaborating this viable “unity” across alternative Scriptures, he suggests that in the Qur’an God addresses man. This is a verbal revelation, divine speech. Scripture is there primal and definitive. Ya ayyuha-l-nas, “O ye people”, Qul, “say” – these are the notes of the Qur’an, God commanding, exhorting, recalling, the human community.
Jesus, however, is “the Word made flesh”, the Word as personality. Qur’an and Christ, as the Word, are essentially one. The New Testament, though, in Askari’s view, is “man speaking to God”. The Apostles describe, interpret, memorialise the Word in Jesus, the events of his life, his works and deeds, his words, the manner of his death and the mystery of his Resurrection. All this he calls “the address of man to God”. He continues:
I consider this address to be authentic, honest and true. It is just here that Christians and Muslims fail to appreciate the implications and meaning of their respective claims. When Christians call in question or put in doubt the Qur’an, it is in fact Jesus as the Word of God whom they reject and call in question. To accept Jesus as the Word of God must imply that one accepts all revelation of God, all speech of God addressed to all men of all times. Likewise, when Muslims reject or put in doubt the authenticity of the New Testament, in fact they put in doubt and reject their due response to the God who speaks in the Qur’an . . . The Islam of Muslims and the Scripture of Christians are then one and the same thing. Each is response to the Word of God, symbolising man speaking to God.21
Both parties need to beware of idolatry, on the one hand of the written Qur’an, and on the other of Incarnation.
This formulation serves well to distinguish between the Qur’an as definitive revelation qua Book and the New Testament as derivative from the primary revelatory fact of Jesus as the Christ. But it ignores several important issues belonging with just that dialogical relation between man and God in history which Hasan Askari has made so central to his understanding of man and evil.
The New Testament is, indeed, derivative from the primary fact of Jesus as Himself “the Word”. But does such derivation warrant its description as “man addressing God”? The New Testament community constitutes response to God addressing man no less than does Islam responding to Qur’an. The New Testament is not analogous to the Book of Job, where anguish and faith cry out for light. The New Testament sees and interprets itself as “the community of recognition”, proceeding upon the received Word and translating that receiving into the idiom of daily life within a heathen Roman society.
What it is recognising and translating, in its definitive way, has to do with the events, as Askari sees, of the life, ministry and suffering of Jesus. Its confidence in the fact of revelation belongs with its sense of the significance of history. In this it follows the Biblical, Judaic, instinct to identify in pivotal event authentic experience, and therefore knowledge, of God. Jesus avails them as the divine Word by means of that situational context all the way from Galilee to Gethsemane and what lay beyond Gethsemane. It is “Him there” as Matthew has it, so graphically, in the supreme hour (Matt, 27:36), as always.
The Qur’an, too, is situational. The Book, as Hasan Askari rightly insists, is qua Book the revelation. But that direct scriptural quality (making it unlike the New Testament) does not preclude the context of time and place. On the contrary, there are the asbab al-nuzul, the occasions of revelation. There is a gathering story, a sequence of prophetic encounters, a climax of decisive action, a Hijrah with prophethood into power. Askari might have us stay long in Mecca rather than rejoin Medina. But there is no doubting that Hijrah happened and that Quranic meanings, albeit given into the text by direct meditation of divine speech, are bound up with situations and events apart from which divine address could not find us.
Does not the direct-speech quality of the Qur’an, then, involve it in a human viability, of the same order as the New Testament, though in its actual content so sharply contrasted? The fact of a historicity is common: the shape of the history quite disparate. Must we not reckon with this before we can say that the Word of God, Qur’an and Jesus, is “one”? For Badr and Gethemane have nothing in common. Have not many Muslims in fact appealed to the different context of Quranic situations to commend them as involving more total, more representative experience of life, in power, statehood, war, politics and action, than was comprised in the contrasted history of Jesus, who neither fought nor reigned, but merely ministered and suffered? It would seem there are issues here which need to be faced before equations of revelation are invoked.
Symbolism, of course, aligns with events and scriptural contexts, and, though it may be transcended, as Hasan Askari argues, in a larger unity within which it moves, it nevertheless perpetuates and enshrines the situational history from which it springs. It cannot well, then, be always read as a unifying element simply because it is a common factor. Its power through the imagination will tend to give emotional sanction to what is disparate in its historical associations and may perhaps fortify satisfaction, rather than arouse awareness, in respect of these.
There are, it is suggested, perhaps two ways in which this issue of the history in which revelation is sited may be resolved. One is the general truth that all religions are a sort of metaphor and it is wise to seek beyond the fact sphere in which their overall meaning is housed. The contemporary crisis in the world ought to free us from issues of historical expression because of its urgent quality confronting us all. In the light of current problems it would be idle and false to press abstract disparities located in the far past.
The other consideration is Hasan Askari’s appeal to intention, not to historicity, in identifying religious meaning, whether of Islam or Christianity. He develops this point primarily in relation to a discussion, among Qur’an exegetes, of the Quranic narratives and whether or not they correspond with actual history in so far as research or archaeology may be able to ascertain. This thought of intention qua meaning, not accuracy qua history, is, of course, a familiar point also in Biblical studies. It can be extended to cover not only points of feasible historical verification in detail but the overall character of a prophethood. The circumstantial details of Muhammad’s career are part of a perhaps inescapable Sitz im Lebon. One must go beyond this to the intention – the sole Lordship of God, the reality of judgement, the repudiation of idols, and the claim of social right.
In my opinion, this question [of historical accuracy] is totally inapplicable within a religious perspective. There are two sorts of authenticity, one of fact, the other of intention. The authenticity of all Scriptures falls within the category of intention, which is to arouse the sense of God in the life of persons and of nations. Authenticity of intention is there alike in the literal verses of the Qur’an and the symbolic. Scientific demands which require to base scriptural accounts of events on factuality fail to reckon with the realm of religious intention.22
Whether this distinction between fact and intention can be applied overall, rather than simply in narratives of the Seven Sleepers, or Yunus (Jonah), and the like, is not clear. But the principle is surely extendable and could help to redeem inter-faith controversy from tedium, and home it on to what truly matters. But where revelation is intimately bound up situations – as it cannot fail to be if it is to reveal – central fact cannot well be excluded from the shape of intention. For events fulfil intention and so disclose what is exemplary and definitive within it. Moreover, in Tradition, events – and so to a degree their factuality – come to condition how intention is to be admired, received, confessed and reproduced. Scriptures that are rooted in contextuality cannot well serve without it. Nevertheless, a focus on the intention of religious documents would go far to deepen and sweeten the converse of their peoples.
The final area of Hasan Askari’s thought is his question “What is the religious implication of the multi-religious world?” If God, in the words of Surah 2.143, is not such as to let our faith go in vain, how is its vindication to be related to its “competitors” (if we so see them), its coexistents, its partners, or its dissociators? Perhaps religious diversity is mystically one, though mysticism, he thinks, may evade the challenge of communal relationships between majority and minority faiths in the concrete. He sees a basic unity of revelation, culminating in Islam as Din Allah, “the natural religion” for which God fashioned man (Surah 30.30). But this ultimacy is capable of being consistent with diversity, and even contradiction, if these are held within the emotive cultural dimensions of faith and/or the cognitive systems by which they proceed.
Each has to recognise the vocation to interrelationship, pursuit of which must itself generate the solutions, intellectual and spiritual, which it requires. The sense of universality emerges from experience subsequent to the formulations in origins. Relating means a struggle within the self-consciousness of each. In this connection the concept of bid’ah, or heresy, or innovation, must be watched since it may stifle sensitivity. Nor must we plead too readily a sort of Jahiliyyah, sharply exempting debts and contrasts from our story, past and present.
It may be remarked here, in parenthesis, that the Qur’an and the New Testament differ in respect of this feature about ongoing experience within the very definition of religion. The Qur’an passes definitively into the future of Islam. It was complemented by Tradition of Muhammad and by Qiyas and Ijma. But, while these operated strictly within its prescripts, they were outside its contents. By contrast, the New Testament enshrines, in its Gospels and Epistles, the active assimilation by its communities of the significance of Jesus as “the Word”. Such assimilation participates vitally in the documentation itself and, though much work in Christian faith formulation was transacted beyond it, the creative part happens within it. It follows that whereas urgent theological and moral issues arose for Islam outside the given text of the Qur’an, the basic Christian ones are incorporated in the Scripture itself. This results, of course, from the difference on which Askari comments so perceptively, between “the Word as Book” and “the Word as Personality”.
The parenthesis apart, how are we to envisage the present and future interaction of Muslims and Christians? Hasan Askari believes there is an inherent mutual attraction between the two religions, indeed between all religions. “Distance” and “repulsion” arise from symbols rather than from essentials. Symbols can be regarded as mainly functional and not, therefore, worthy to justify or retain postures of enmity. Even antipathy over symbols may coexist with empathy and amity. We must realise that historical revelations, with their “intention”, are necessarily within cultural particularity. They employ given languages and presuppose given mores. Through sustained and mutual openness these can be transcended so that, while transacting meanings, they do not imprison these and so perpetuate enmity.
Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as a 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. Yet there are puzzles that persist. For him, “the Christian answer about omnipotence and suffering resolves the paradox of Job, but at the cost of the transcendental aspect of God”. “Did Islam, restoring the transcendental aspect, bring back the contradiction?” For, in Islam, “God is not negated by negation, nor proven by proof, nor delighted by obedience, nor displeased by sins, nor merciful to the believer, nor disgusted with the forgetful . . . nor hostile to the arrogant. He is above all associations.”23 How, then, is He Al-Rahman, how is He Al-Shakur, how is He Al-Quddus? Can we not rather be sure that what is transcendental and what is relational, in God, are indeed one? Then omnipotence is not compromised in love, and love is not foregoing omnipotence. Paradox, either way, there must needs be. The paradox of compassion is to be preferred to the paradox of exemption and aloofness. Or so it would seem, if indeed God is of such sort as to justify our faith (2.143).
By Hasan Askari available on this blog :
On leaving from a visit to Stratford Upon Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, Musa Askari reflects on the experience.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Barker for this interview
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with your “spiritual quest” as a seeker of truth and understanding, its origins and movement from a Lutheran Pastor for many years to Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wales. What were the main, inner spiritual, factors influencing the move from being a pastor to entering the world of academia? Whilst it may not have been a conversion to another faith, was it perhaps an inner conversion, a conversion to “self”?
Greg Barker: It began with a death – the drowning of a 16-year-old boy in our church’s youth group. He had gone out diving with full gear, wet suit and oxygen tank, not far from the shore of our seaside town. There were three of them and he indicated that he was ready to return to shore. Instead of going together, he emerged to the surface alone. All we can guess is that he was blind sided by a wave, choked on some water, struggled and drowned. This tragedy hit me more deeply than any event in my life. He was a wonderful person, full of life, dreams, aspirations.
In the days that followed, I committed myself to all of the necessary and proper pastoral duties. Many people in the church had much to say about what happened such as “he is in a better place now…”, “this has happened for a reason…”, “In time we will all see what a blessing this has really been…” I found myself infuriated with these statements. I was deep in grief and angry at what I felt were rationalizations of a terrible event.
In the coming days, I must have heard hundreds of these kinds of sentiments. I looked closely at the faces of those who uttered them and began to suspect that many of these words were not the result of a deeply held conviction tested in the crucible of life, but a nervous grasping for a ledge to hang onto in this precarious world.
It was the first time that I began to realize at a personal level that the things we say – even very spiritual sounding things – can represent not a searching for the truth, but an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, spirituality can be a very selfish affair covered by a thin veneer of pious language. If good people in church could engage in religious language at this level, then how far did this go? Could this invention of self-serving spiritual language extend to the liturgy, the sacred texts of my tradition?
It was not a very comfortable place to be for the pastor of a church.
Musa Askari: In the book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” by Hasan Askari/Jon Avery you write, “On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions. At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies. Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement…..Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.”
Please talk more on what “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” may have anticipated twenty years ago within context of the above quote? Specifically with reference to theological reformulations. In your experience could you please share if this is taking place more in some faiths than in others and if so why that may be the case?
Greg Barker: Walk into any bookstore and you will see, prominently displayed, the work of the “new atheists”: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling. These brilliant men (and I mean that sincerely) are engaged in sounding a loud “no” to religion and they do so in the most incisive and witty ways possible. When it comes to biblical literalism, fundamentalism and even liberal forms of belief, these writers point out the intellectual depravity of religious formulations and attitudes.
Along with their rational critique of religious belief is the quite unscientific argument that our world will be a peaceful utopia, freed of violence once all forms of religious belief have been eradicated. This strikes me as naïve in the extreme – though we can all say a loud “yes” to their elucidations of the sins of religious intolerance. Not only does their approach raise the question of how we define religion (they define it as “belief”, whereas a sociologist would take a different tack), but, more importantly, it raises the question of who we are as humans and what religion truly represents as a human creation.
Only recently have some atheist writers tried to articulate a “yes” to the creation and value of religion to balance the “no” which is so prominent in current media. Imagine my delight to discover that this “yes” was being discussed more than 20 years ago by Hasan Askari and Jon Avery, two men very well aware of both the depravity and value of religious beliefs.
Musa Askari: 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. Perhaps this engagement or “due encounter” may be possible ironically as a result of the self-questioning/ re-thinking you allude to in both world views. It might also be fostered by a positive working through of “doubt”, as a critical tool, which does not reject outright but more so seeks to explore – we may then even apply the word “quest” to both sacred and secular pursuits of knowledge and understanding.
Would you agree with the connection between “doubt” and “quest” as framed above? Furthermore, do you see today greater possibility of due encounter (co -witness) between a person of faith and an atheist rather than the usual “for-against” arguments which lead us no further forward?
Greg Barker: When we travel, we are immediately given the opportunity to see a new place as a “cute” reflection of some aspects of our own culture that we find interesting – yet are expressed in an exaggerated (and ultimately “deficient “manner) by the culture we are visiting OR we can view what is around us as potentially revealing something we need to know, something that we missed, something that we may ignore only at our own peril. Most middle and upper class western journeys are designed to give us the “cute” factor. This helps us feel secure in the world (a false security) and reinforces our cultural superiority.
However, to travel with the assumption that the other culture is always superior and always will make me a better person is also misguided, revealing perhaps a loathing or hatred for our own cultural achievements and background. We must find a way to love where we have come from as we attempt to love where we are going.
Between these two attitudes is the “doubt” and “questing” that you refer to. And, yes, I very much love your connection between these words, though in reality it is a very difficult place to be. Difficult, but full of life.
You ask if there is a greater possibility of a deeper encounter today between a person of faith and an atheist than the usual “for and against” polemic celebrated in the media. You are asking an important question but I can only say this: (a) to ask about a “greater possibility” raises a question of measurement and I am afraid we have only anecdotal evidence and (b) I would not like to contrast “person of faith” with “atheist” – as that is already a polemical differentiation. If we look at Durkheim or the French existentialists we will see that the need to make decisions in our lives ALWAYS runs ahead of the available scientific evidence, so, in a sense, we all need to live by some kind of faith. There is a stepping out into the unknown that is guided by our heritage, our intuition, our relationships…one cannot avoid the unknown. But we can tell our stories to each other so that we are a little less alone and a little more informed on the journey.
Musa Askari: Your book, which I highly recommend, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”, you bring together “leading thinkers from five religions” to “reflect on his meaning”, one of which is my late father Syed Hasan Askari. He concludes his essay, “The Real Presence of Jesus in Islam” as follows, “Religious and doctrinal formulations are like rivers, each crossing unique lands. Some of those rivers dry up before they reach the sea. But others make it to the ocean and when they merge with the ocean they leave their name and form behind. They have then become one with the One. It is my belief that the Christian and Muslim perspectives on Jesus are two such rivers. They are different from each other, crossing different lands. But now they are nearing the end of their journey. When they finally reach the ocean, what divides them will be lost. If we don’t understand this lesson, then the ocean will walk toward us and there will be deluge. We will then need a Noah’s ark. Not even the highest mountain of exclusivism will save us. So we have a choice. We can refuse to engage in the common life that we share, or we can learn from it and move toward the ocean, merging with it and becoming new spiritual beings. I beg Christians and Muslims to listen, as they have never before, to their complimentary witness about Jesus.”
When a writer “begs” their reader I think it is a moment to take note. For a writer to “beg” they must have known “poverty” of some kind. Perhaps only those who have either known literal poverty or poverty of estrangement, to be forsaken almost and/or spiritual poverty can know deeply what it is to “beg” to listen. It is all these inner related aspects of poverty which to me, if reflected upon deeply, cannot help but prepare the individual, one hopes, to listen to a spiritual counterpart hearing a testimony about the an important “Sign” between them of friendship; Jesus.
To talk about Jesus is no ordinary conversation in my view. It is a tremendous encounter, especially for Christians and Muslims due to their scriptural importance, where I have often felt one must come in a state of inner poverty to that conversation (and all such inter-faith conversations), recognizing that the other has something truly wonderful to offer. In other words only when we arrive in a state of inner poverty at the door of the other are we then perhaps, just perhaps, better placed to be “enriched” and transformed. I would stress in the type of encounter I am referring to we are far beyond any theological objections or social tolerance, we are in a state of “kinship”. We have put down our outer defenses of identity, as like leaving our worldly possessions at the entrance to an inner sacredness. We have “recognised” the other and in doing so we have removed the veil of “otherness”. That is how friends should meet in my view.
In your opinion, has inter-faith dialogue delivered on it’s promise to bring faith communities together not only socially but also spiritually to “listen” to one another as Hasan Askari, a long time partner in Inter Faith dialogue, begs in this case Christians and Muslims to do? Beyond Christianity and Islam looking at the general world religious faith body have we reached the limit of what inter-faith dialogue can do in its present form and should we re-think and re-formulate this also?
Greg Barker: Hasan’s writing above casts a spell over me! Think of those rich images: he sees religious formulations as rivers rather than rocks, moving through history in a winding way; he grasps that there is a movement toward something larger – that there is something shared in humanity that we desperately need to find. I count myself a very fortunate editor to have had Hasan’s contribution in my book! And I agree with him that religious thought is fluid and moving – despite the cries of those who believe that their truth has dropped down from heaven in tact for all time. I have actually never heard the truth of religious change expressed as eloquently as it has by Hasan.
Interfaith dialogue faces an often-unseen danger. The danger we first see is a fundamentalistic-literalistic-cultural intolerance. Yet there is another danger: a liberal theory that fits all of the religious component parts into an inclusive whole. Many theologians and philosophers invent a rich and beautiful philosophy which harmonizes the religions. Some times these theories are so intricately conceived and so inclusive in their reading of history that they seem to present THE WAY to view the meaning of all religion. But, for me, these “uber-theories” crush the dialogue, the doubt and the quest itself. Those who don’t hold to the harmonizing theory feel that it is a cultural and religious bulldozer and so back away from dialogue. Those who do hold to these theories feel so wonderful about the theory itself that they do not feel that they actually need to really engage with religious adherents. Instead, they find only like minded pluralists or perennialists.
My own experience with Hasan was that he did not fit into either of these categories – he took an incredibly personal approach with me in our private discussions and I will never forget these moments for the rest of my life.
Yet, I have questions about the “ocean” that Hasan describes. To what degree is this an “uber-theory” or a testimony to a truth larger than I can see right now? I am sure I am betraying my ignorance of Plotinus…And I wonder how much we can leave behind our identity. Yet, I believe in what you are saying, Musa: there needs to be a sense of poverty and openness if we are ever to experience a moment of fellowship with another human being. Rather than trying to “shed” identity as a butterfly would shed its former life as a caterpillar, I think we need to take our identity in with us to our encounter, put it on the table, feel it threatened, speak from our truth – and see what happens. Perhaps you are saying the same thing? I suppose I see myself as a caterpillar and have no idea if that state is the end of my journey or not.
Musa Askari: From your introduction to “Jesus in the World’s Faiths” you write, “….we cannot know who we truly are without encountering others. When those we encounter are from vastly different backgrounds than our own, the potential for growth and change is enormous.”
I could not agree more with the spirit of your quote and end as I started with a question about your on-going “spiritual quest”. I would be grateful if you could share on a personal level how your spiritual journey has grown and changed in the light of encounter with people from diverse faith traditions?
Greg Barker: It took me decades before I realized that not everyone was a part of the “United Federation of Planets”, that there were other stories reflecting values I did not know about from my diet of childhood TV in the United States. My study into the history of interpretations of Jesus began somewhat naively – I just wanted to know what others thought of a key figure in my tradition. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to hear how great my tradition was from those outside of it? What I didn’t count on was that those I encountered had questions for me:
• Why do you and your tradition see us as inferior?
• Why have your co-religionists persecuted us, treating us so differently than the ways prescribed by your founder?
• Don’t you think that our focus on law (or awareness or asceticism or…) can help you be a better human being?
Sometimes these questions came through books and journal articles. But the most powerful way they came was face to face – in awkward moments where I did not have an answer prepared, where I had to look my questioner in the eyes and choose to speak a platitude, change the subject or confess my confusion and ignorance. When I chose the latter, I would feel that I was falling off a cliff, but that the place I landed was better than I had been before. I’ve fallen off that cliff with you…and it has made all the difference.