It was great to Dialogue with Paul Daly of Socialist Think Tank on Socialism and Spirituality and to talk about my late Father’s work (Professor Syed Hasan Askari, Inter Faith Dialogue Pioneer) informing my Socialist sensibilities.
If one is a racist, one is not “One”. Rather, fragmented. If one is a bigot, one is not “One.” Rather, splintered, incomplete. And so on with the discriminations that persist betraying an inner incompleteness that is desperate for a wholeness it can never become.
If one thinks the intelligible, intangible, non-material is subordinate to the tangible, sensible and material. Or that the Higher is directed by its lower in status of Being. Then one is not “thinking” at all.
It is like saying half-being begets fullness of Being. Can a shadow cast on the ground become conscious of itself and then have the audacity to claim that it gives “form” to the Form that created it? No.
There is no scared law, no secret philosophy from antiquity, that dictates Human Beings of The World should remain perpetually innerly divided.
Because the dogma of exclusive materialism overwhelmingly dominates our World there is no room for a non-material idea to help Humanity re-think and ultimately transcend the divisions caused by the mantra that there is only “matter.” That everything is determined by “matter”. Therefore, to some it is no great leap (let us be clear a perverse leap) if the idea of biological hereditary exclusivity and superiority parades shamelessly in front us. It is even given a seat at the Great Table of Ideas as though it had equal validity with all else.
With each day we continue to lose touch with our Soul, our non-material, intangible, immaterial companion. Soon the Discourse on Soul, even its faint contour, will recede from our collective consciousness and there then will be what? I dread to think. Before we ask of God we must ask of ourselves, who are we, what are we and then climb from lower to Higher. From Body to Soul and Higher. As my late father wrote in his book Alone to Alone, First Soul, Then God.
It wasn’t the Economy,
It was Sovereignty,
It wasn’t Sovereignty,
It was Power,
Yes, it was Power.
The hypnosis of Power,
Drawing all to its altar bewitched by Power.
Bewitched by a self-conscious sense of good,
A misplaced sense of good.
It is Power, concentrated,
Not in number of people, many believe,
Concentrated as the very idea of Power.
To hold it and have it embrace you.
To be near it and bathe in its aura.
To worship Power, the abomination,
To dedicate one’s life to it,
All while emptying oneself from within.
Moving from Being to non-being.
From Human Being to half being.
When the journey should have been from,
Human Being to Soul Being,
On the coattails of wisdom of Plotinus who reminds;
“This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see; you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.”
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.
*see also on this site, by the same author, “The Limit is the Threshold.”
In 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.
It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here
Clare Short formerly MP UK Parliament 1983 until 2010 and Secretary of State for International Development 1997 until 2003 when she resigned from the Gov’t over the Iraq war. Clare Short’s areas work include “slum upgrading in the developing world, transparency in oil, gas and mining, African-led humanitarian action, destitute asylum-seekers in Birmingham, Trade Justice for the developing world and for a just settlement of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict.”
Sincere thanks to Clare Short for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: ROLE OF WOMEN. The following quote is by my late father Prof Syed Hasan Askari about the Indian Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya, “I used to hear, amidst all that poverty when we had nothing in our house, not even a loaf of bread, my mother saying to me: “Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world”
The example of Nizamuddin speaks of a beautiful bond with his mother. We hear too little about such bonds situated in conditions of poverty. Their stories at risk of being lost behind a statistical narrative which can dwarf issues of the heart. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on what more needs to be done to support women in the poorest parts of the world and why this is so important in helping people out of poverty?
Clare Short: Kofi Annan said some years ago poverty has the face of a woman and her children. The evidence on how best to generate development in society is very clear, educating girls is the most powerful force for development. No one is of course advocating excluding boys from school but in poor countries girls tend to be kept at home to help with household tasks. Girls who have been to school marry later, have fewer children who are more likely to survive and are better at accessing healthcare and increasing the family income. So a commitment to universal primary education, including girls as a first step to full educational opportunities for all is the most important force for beneficial change. This is why it was one of the leading Millennium Development Goals. Of course we should never just do one thing to promote development but the key role that girls and women play is exemplified by this reality.
Musa Askari: GLOBAL NEIGHBOURHOOD. Through various forms of international aid it is possible for people of moral conscience to help improve the welfare of one’s “neighbour”, local to international. As humanity we are each other’s neighbour and this category of “neighbourhood” for me is one of the common grounds where secular and sacred traditions of the world can meet working together for the common good. To what extent in your view have the Millennium Development Goals helped to raise the level of awareness about a “global neighbourhood”? What further needs to be done to foster this sense of universality?
Clare Short: In the years of hope at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, there was a real growth in support for a more just and evenly developed world where all people could live with hope and dignity. And when, at the UN, they started to look for an appropriate way of marking the new millennium, all the countries of the world came together to agree that the systematic reduction of poverty across the world should be the cause that united humanity. In these years spending on defence and security declined considerably. Then, after September 11, 2001, the obsession with security and military spending overtook the idea of a better safer world of equal development. There is no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was very serious crime they killed 3000 people. But the response was irrational. It does not make sense to spend as much on the military as at the height of the Cold War to try to capture a man in a cave in Afghanistan and to persuade people that his ideas are ugly and wrong. President Eisenhower, who was a Second World War general and a Republican President warned that the American people in his retiring presidential address to beware the military industrial complex. My view is that the military industrial complex faced a set back at the end of the Cold War and used the attack on the Twin Towers to take over again and is reducing the world to a dangerous state and marginalising the commitment to a world that is safe because all have the chance of a decent and dignified life. This major shift to a massive emphasis on military solutions and the generation of hate and fear has not wiped out the work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and there has been significant progress across the world. Currently negotiations are being finalised to replace the MDGs, which expire this year, with new Sustainable Development Goals. So the battle is not lost and the effort must continue but the stress on military solutions has been a major setback.
Musa Askari: RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY. On affirming religious diversity Muslim inter-faith dialogue pioneer Prof Syed Hasan Askari writes, “I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder..I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself..I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form..The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable..To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
How is the affirmation of global religious diversity reflected in the Millennium and Sustainable development goals please? Should there be a specific goal attributed to affirming religious diversity not only as a sociological fact but also to help foster inter-faith spirituality and dialogue?
Clare Short: There is no commitment to religious diversity in either the MDGs or the proposed SDGs but respect for the human rights of each person obviously means respect for their religious sensibilities. And the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which is supported, at least in theory, by almost all countries in the world declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” There were a big group of British theologians who declared back in the 1980s that all the world’s major religions are equally valuable routes to God. Unfortunately in these times religious labels are getting mixed up with the sense of identity and reflect little of the goodness of the best of religious teaching in all the main religions. Terrible things are being done in the name of religion. There are ugly currents of fanaticism in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. We need to reflect on why this is happening.
Musa Askari: JUSTICE & FAIRNESS. In your recent lecture “Does international Aid work?” you talk about,
“How to make the world safe & sustainable for everybody? A more just & fair world where everyone has a fair chance is also a safer world for everybody.” What do you see as the major obstacles to justice and fairness and what kind of change in thinking needs to take place in your view to begin to overcome the challenges?
Clare Short: I think that international leadership is in a terrible state and is making the world more dangerous and unhappy. There is of course need sometimes to use military force to contain and reverse the misuse of violence, in fact I think it is necessary to enlarged the authority of UN peacekeeping missions in for example eastern Congo so that everyone knows that the writ of the UN will be enforced and justice will prevail. But if peace is to come to the Middle East then the international Community must uphold International law in relation to all the countries of the region. Israel is in grave breach of international law according to the judgement of the International Court of Justice and yet nothing is done. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and Egypt are in gross breach of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and yet they are treated as great friends of the west. I am afraid that the days have a long gone when are just settlements for Israel/Palestine would transform the atmosphere in the Middle East but it would start to make a significant difference. In relation to Russia, I believe that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders and suggesting that Ukraine should join NATO and the EU was provocative and would have enraged any Russian leader. This does not mean that Russian aggression should be ignored but it just compromise should be sought rather than a continuing drive to invent a new cold war.
Musa Askari: VISION. In 1995, on a visit to India, Prof Askari delivered a speech on Spiritual Humanism “Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions of people do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies. In Eastern Europe, in the collapsing Soviet Union, in Asia, in Africa and in India as well. In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty. When the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill; to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision.”
Would you agree we need a new visionary approach, a revival of hope that takes into account the concerns raised above by Prof Askari? Do you see any opportunities please for an alternative narrative to positively address such concerns from either the left or right of the current political landscape?
Clare Short: Yes see my arguments above. The only way to make the world safe is to give up the idea that one country should dominate – what the neoconservatives in the US see as America’s unipolar moment. This is dangerous with a rising China. We need to learn the lessons of the First World War (which was really the cause of the Second World War) where a rising Germany and a declining Ottoman empire was so badly managed that the world ended up in a dreadful conflagration. We need to reinforce the UN by updating the membership of the Security Council and streamlining and making more efficient the UN development agencies. All must agree to abide by international law with no double standards and we must renew our commitment to International Development and make sure that we meet the objective outlined in the draft Sustainable Development Goals that extreme poverty is eliminated from the world by 2030.
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)
The following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed Hasan Askari entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters. Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.
Introduction narrated by Musa Askari
“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.
The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.
There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.
At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.
It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.
The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.
It was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989 – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari
For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:
The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.
Syed Hasan Askari’s thoughts from “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” (published 1991)
“Let us reflect further on this shared value of humanity because there is so much in it. I feel that both the humanist and religious traditions sound almost simplistic or monolithic when discussing this category, namely, the human.
Let me share a few perspectives to deepen this value because this holds the key for our progress in dialogue. Firstly, the humanistic view, namely, that we are first of all human, appears to me primarily an extension of one’s identity in space – from one’s own house to the entire planet, or to use the popular expression for the planet in our times – the global village. This is not enough for me, because it is an aspiration only in a spatial-physical mode of a greater aggregate, whereas it may also be viewed as a metaphor for a sympathy across distances, between people, between all humanity. That sympathy cannot be a material bond, or even a bond which is merely psychological. It should be a spiritual bond.
This makes me bring in another dimension of the aggregate of humanity, namely time. Holding on to the same value of humanity, I should say that across time – across all time both past and unborn time, there should be the unity of the human self. As soon as we invoke time as a dimension of unity, the collapse of the material expression of unity is self-evident. It is this which is celebrated in the religious, or to be very specific, in the Christian Catholic notion of communion, particularly the communion of saints.
Setting aside the religious connotations, on a purely pragmatic level, the unity of the humans both in space and time, presupposes an internal unity. So, I request my humanist friends to take their value of humanity more deeply and have the courage to draw all the conclusions possible, neither hampered nor tempted by any ideological options. Therefore, our criterion in this discourse is that no ideological criterion should come in the way of our celebration of human unity as a whole.
I have another perspective. I don’t see humanity, even when we take the dimensions of both space and time together, as one monolithic whole. We have many humanities within one humanity, and we have to be extremely careful in differentiating, deep within our own personalities, four humanities!
The first humanity is co-terminus with our physical status as material beings dependent upon water, air and food; the extension of this principle is our dependence upon urban water supplies and refrigeration; upon the technology we have created and all the comforts that principle involves and the culture which it creates. There are vast numbers of people who do not progress beyond this level.
The second humanity is also widespread, and it includes those who have fallen in love with the images they have created in their philosophies, in their religions, and in their doctrines. They are clever and self-conscious people. However, they are in a state of hypnosis. They cannot move from the outward profiles of their doctrines and religions – yet they too are human.
The third humanity is free from the physical, free from outward profiles and forms; it is inward looking and holds onto its own essential being. It is this humanity which, in my view, holds the key to the sympathy, the resonance of feeling across space and time. It is this which creates philosophy universally, which creates science universally, which creates an intelligible discourse across races and cultures and nationalities, and which is to me the goal of humanity.
The fourth humanity is almost celestial, almost super-human, almost trans-human. It is one with the entire cosmos which is the ultimate principle of unity. It is like a spark of light in each one of us, even in those who are lost in the physical world, even in those who are wrapped up in the traditional profiles of identity, dogma and doctrine.
So, when I hear the word “humanity” I respond to it emotively because I hold that perspective, but at the same time I am disturbed, because we may lose sight of the hierarchy and differentiation, on account of our obsession with uniformity of the physical image of man. I am not subscribing to any elitist notion of an inner or hidden group of mystics. I am saying that both ontologically and psychologically humanity is a highly differentiated principle and it is because of this differentiation that it is human. If it is not differentiated it becomes a technological, mechanistic principle. It is in this sense I consider humanism as pointing to this differentiation, not submerging it. Otherwise, we become unfair or unjust to our own inner hierarchies.
Let us take this opportunity to point out that most so-called religious people also have a very simplistic view of humanity which is in one sense more dangerous that the simplistic view of popular humanism because they equate their humanity with their collectivity. For them, humanity is co-terminus with their particular religious congregation. For example if you are a Christian you will consider yourself human; if you are Muslim you will consider yourself human; but those who do not fall within the collectivity to which you personally belong are not fully human, they are sub-human or only potentially human. So, there is a greater danger in the ideological, doctrinal, religious or secularist understanding of humanity because such an understanding doesn’t allow for the idea of a spiritual differentiation between different levels of consciousness……Therefore, our quest is how to increase the life of humanity, not the vegetative life, not animal life, but the life of reason, the life of the spirit, the life of intuition.
This life has many sources outer and inner, both known and unknown. It is perhaps towards that humanity we are all moving.”
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
* See also on this blog:
“There are only Four Communities” , “When the Atheist Met the Mystic”
Professor Linda Woodhead MBE DD teaches sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her work delves in to the relationship between religion and society. Co-founded the Westminster Faith Debates which fosters debate and discussion aided by the latest research.
Sincere thanks to Linda Woodhead for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH LINDA WOODHEAD
Musa Askari: “It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whom I first met in 1965 and then again in 1968 at a seminar in Bangalore, who gave me the insight and direction I was seeking. When I attended that seminar….I had no idea that it would open a new path for me and bring me into the very heart of the interfaith dialogue across continents. Smith’s distinction between faith and belief provided me with a foundation to relate positively to “the other”. While belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s life, to all those whom one encounters, faith being a vast world in which all can participate. Faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without fear. I now had the spiritual basis to respect and listen to others.” (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari – Solomon’s Ring)
In your opinion what do people mean by the words “faith” and “belief”? From surveys commissioned of public opinion is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” recognised and how is this distinction expressed within the field of sociology of religion?
Linda Woodhead: I think the general perception would be that ‘faith’ means something personal, existential and ‘inner’, whilst ‘belief’ has more to do with external religious formulations. To that extent, there is an overlap between the faith/belief distinction and the spirituality/religion one. Moreover, where ‘beliefs’ seem to define particular religions and distinguish them from one another ‘faith’ is a more inclusive term (despite Christian associations). I was speaking to a university chaplain the other day who told me that when they renamed the ‘Chaplaincy’ ‘Centre for Faith and Spirituality’ the number of people coming through the doors almost tripled!
Another way of looking at it is that there are two dimensions of religious identity – the collective identity which I inhabit, and the inner dimension of that identity which, to some extent, is private to me alone. People may be able to pigeonhole me in terms of the collective identity, but my personal identity is part of my inner life, and – a religious person might say – ‘known to God alone’.
Musa Askari: Professor Askari in his 2004 article, “From InterReligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“ discusses the threefold need to revive the classical discourse on soul: theological, philosophical and psychological.
As well as understanding the number and various sub-set distribution of those who identify themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious” does reference to “soul” feature in the studies and opinion polls you have conducted? What is meant by the word “soul” and are the various definitions people offer contextualized depending on which faith or spiritual attitude the person belongs or ascribes to?
Linda Woodhead: There are plenty of surveys which show that belief in the soul has been growing in the UK – despite the fact that other elements of religious belief, including belief in God, have been declining. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by ‘soul’, and my interviews and talks with people suggest that different people mean different things. But the word seems to help people express their intuition that there is ‘more’ to me – and other humans, and possibly animals as well – than mere flesh and blood. This ‘something’ may be hard to pin down, but it can include the belief that people have a unique, irreplaceable value, and that that value is never completely destroyed – even by death. So the ‘soul’ names something of great value, something which transcends the mundane and utilitarian aspects of existence.
But people don’t always mean something eternal when they say soul – and often they make no reference to God at all (atheists can believe in a soul). Here soul may simply mean the essence of a person, their deep identity. It’s also interesting to note that souls are not necessarily good! We may say ‘poor soul’ of someone we pity. And ‘she has a beautiful soul’ of someone we admire. But we also say ‘he has no poetry in his soul’, or ‘his soul is in danger’ and ‘he is an unhappy soul’.
Musa Askari: If religion is a particular “faith body” then “spirituality” is its temperature reading varying in intensity from the individual to the collective. It is an impossible task perhaps to capture a spiritual reading through social attitude survey-opinion polls. We are perhaps using the wrong tools to grapple with that question. Would you agree to ask about spirituality, before we arrive at any expression of say religious faith, is to ask also more fundamental questions? Namely, “who are we” or “who am I”.
Can these be considered the cornerstones not of doubt but a deeply felt sense of spirituality? This couplet of questions, over and above all cultural-social-ethnic-national and religious identities is, would you agree, “The Identity Question”? It is from here we start our journey, consciously or otherwise. Some may even refer to it as the beginning of a spiritual quest. (for reference please see interview with Dr. Rowan Williams.
Linda Woodhead: The question of identity can certainly be the starting point for a spiritual or moral question. ‘Who am I?’, ‘what am I really like’ are questions which we all have to answer at some point in our lives, and which crises can precipitate. We can get stuck in a particular identity, including one which others want us to inhabit, but the construction of identity can also be an ongoing process. This is not to make it all sound like an individual or individualistic matter: we construct identity in relation to given social identities (‘a good daughter’, ‘a good Muslim’, ‘a respected professional’, ‘a tough man’) which are often conveyed by images and stories and real people we know. And we constantly negotiate our identities in relation to one another: how you feel and speak about me may shape who I am. For religious people, god, goddess, goods and holy places are important elements in this whole process.
Musa Askari: The question on knowing our place in the world, some would argue, is more than to ask about our physical existence as a planetary form of life. Is it not also, together with the physical, a spiritual non-material question which goes beyond our empirical existence? If “spirituality” is also that which expresses our longing for “transcendence” then humanity’s quest to know its place in the world, in the cosmos, the whole endeavour of human thought, has been and remains perhaps a super-trans-historical spiritual pursuit.
I would be grateful for your thoughts on if the hidden debate between all of us as communities, as one “Human Self” (sacred – secular, religion-humanists, spiritual-atheist, physical-metaphysical) is a spiritual one also and that such a term of reference requires admission into the continuing debate/dialogue between religion and humanism, towards a spiritual humanism? (for reference please see section on Human Nature by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari )
Linda Woodhead: To ‘Know my place in the world’ is a very good starting point – and perhaps ending point – for a humanist or a spiritual quest. How many of us really know our place? We can take up too much space, or too little space. To know one’s place is a very difficult and demanding task, and it means making proper allowance for the space that other people, creatures, plants, and other elements of the natural world occupy. We have to give space as well as take it, and in doing so we find out who we really are. I think this may be a point on which humanists, atheists, environmentalists and many religious people would agree. There are also powerful traditions within many theistic religions which speak of God having to withdraw Godself to make space for the created order.
Musa Askari: From his reflection, “There are only Four Communities“ (Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision), Hasan Askari writes, “There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture….There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices….There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals….And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. ”
I am interested to understand if it is possible not only to enquire if a person identifies themselves as religious or otherwise, but if there is any work undertaken to capture an understanding of the outer and inner aspects of one’s religious, spiritual life and mystical life? Is the question asked on a recognition of inner and outer? For example take Islam where we have the outer enactments of faith, “salat”- canonical prayer, “Haj”-pilgrimage and so on all pointing to something beyond the outer act itself, a way to transcend as it were. On the other hand we notice a calling in the Quran to remember God, to contemplate and reflect in silence even outside of the prescribed rites of faith.
Linda Woodhead: I think we live in an age which is very focused on the external life – on how I act into the world, what material success I have, my relations with people and things. The price of this emphasis is often a neglect of the inner life. Mystical traditions saw nothing odd in a person dedicating the whole of life to exploring ‘inner space’ – a world which is invisible. Today many people would regard that as a wasted life, and think that such a person was being escapist, and retreating into an illusory world. At the same time, however, we all know that we have an ‘inside’ which we often find it hard to understand and articulate. We may need help – a friend or a therapist – to explore it. It is wonderful when we meet someone who can understand us, who can ‘see inside’. When this happens, the fundamental loneliness we al live with can be lifted in a miraculous way. Some people may experience this in prayer, some in nature, some with people they love, some watching movies or reading poems. You can call this ‘transcendence’, but it is a transcendence which at the same time roots us more deeply in who we really are.