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.
Originally published for Community News Teesside Facebook Page.
By Musa Askari
Delivered at “Happiness & Wellbeing Conference” Birmingham, UK. 16th June 2018.
I would like to begin with one of the happiest moments in my life, nearly a quarter century ago. It was in 1995, in the city of Hyderabad, India. Syed Hasan Askari, my late father-teacher, delivered his speech on Spiritual Humanism, an alternative to secularism and religious fundamentalism, charting his life journey as a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and the pursuit for the revival of the classical discourse on soul.
From that speech I share his words as follows:
“Each one of us sitting now in this hall shares without qualification a principle. Irrespective of age, race, gender, culture, language or religion. And that principle is so obvious and self-evident that we don’t even look at it. When you don’t look at it you become unconscious of it but philosophers start with the obvious…..The principle which all of us share without qualification, without exception is that of “Life”. Just reflect on the word Life!”
Hasan Askari continues:
“The first definition of life according to Aristotle is that all life somehow involves voluntary movement however undeveloped or developed. As soon as you raise your hand, such an ordinary taken for granted image, you have given testimony to voluntary Life. This voluntary life is not the characteristic of any material principle. It should come from a non-material source. In other words it should have a meta-physical origin. That is the first proof that all of us have a soul which is both one and many at the same time.”
“You meet someone on the pavement passing by you, you meet someone in the corridor you look at him he looks at you; both are Soul-Beings.”
“First Jesus, then later the Prophet of Islam and much earlier Buddha in India. These three taught us how to greet one another. When you say Salam, when you say Peace, when you say Namaste one soul greets the other soul. You are paying tribute to your mutual recognition as the miracle of self- conscious organic thinking Life.”
It was an honour to have been there with him at that time.
The voluntary act of greeting another for me is an occasion of happiness. In its essence, when uttered with sincerity, what else could it be but happiness to consider the well-being of one’s neighbour.
For me the idea of a “neighbour” is also spiritual. One of the interpretations to “love thy neighbour” may be understood to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, language or religion. Equally on the inner plane, on a deeply personal level, there is a “neighbour” who in principle also is free of such identifications.
“It is a neighbour we take for granted. When it has moved from its proximity to ourselves do we notice its absence. We abuse it, terrorise and torture it. We pay lip service to it and do not value it universally. It is all about us, it is all within us. Without this neighbour even our negligence of it is not possible. We raise countless tributes to it openly, only to betray it in secret. We honour it at one moment and in one place, at the same moment in a different place we dishonour. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition in ourselves and in our neighbour. Who is this “neighbour” which has every right to seek justice for every injustice?”
“It is simply and wonderfully, Life!”
“From the sunrise of humanity, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest. Our true next of kin. A kinship that bonds us to each and every human being. A wondrous kinship that breathes through all divisions, through all diversity. It is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity.”
This “kinship” being our spiritual trans-national connection.
Spiritually for me gratitude for “Life” itself is a state of happiness. A gift. Being grateful innerly, in the act of prayer, in the act of remembrance of God, in everyday life for “Life” itself is tremendously moving.
I have found it generates a state of well-being independent of physical wellbeing. And depending upon the degree to which one is grateful it can help us transcend and overcome the difficulties of life. The experience of wellbeing, coming out of a sense of gratitude, despite moments in my outer life of great strain and heartache, has never abandoned me. It remains available irrespective of outer circumstances that are either favourable or otherwise.
Ingratitude for Life for me is one of the sources of unhappiness.
Hasan Askari reflects in his book “Alone to Alone” that,
“Gratitude is faith. It is the cornerstone. It is the bridge. Without gratitude there is no strength in patience and no pleasure in remembering. Gratitude is for both material and spiritual gifts, but there is another far higher gratitude, gratitude to the Supreme who is all possessing and yet, what is in reality His, He calls it ours.”
The Quran reminds the reciter:
“And unto everyone who is conscious of God, He always grants a way out of unhappiness, and provides for him in a manner beyond all expectation, and for everyone who places his trust in God, He alone is enough.”
One of the most deeply moving examples of gratitude, trust and patience we find in the words of Imam Hussain, son of Imam Ali b Abi Talib from whom sufi traditions draw their spirituality. Imam Hussain being the grandson of the Prophet of Islam.
Anyone who knows the story of Hussain and what transpired cannot help but be moved. Despite the intervening thirteen hundred years the power of the story of Hussain continues to resonate.
Thirteen hundred year ago on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, on the plains of Karbala, Iraq, the cavalry advances to Imam Hussain’s camp wherein are his family and companions.
Imam Hussain calls upon God:
“O Allah, it is You in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, no matter how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish my hope in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in everything and have revealed its significance to me. You are the Master of all Grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.” (The Book of Guidance, al-Mufid)
Here I would like to draw attention to the words of Plotinus (mystic-philosopher) who writes about the Soul of the Proficient:
“As for violent personal sufferings, he will carry them off as well he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off. And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.”
From the revelatory to the religious. From the mystical to the philosophical qualities of gratitude, trust and patience carry great significance. Thereby, providing multiple sources to help awaken within us such qualities.
Is it not so occasions which are outwardly and innerly so painful are also important sources of comfort and inspiration throughout our lives? As in world history so to in our personal history.
Perhaps by the very fact of living through them, of surviving as it were, carries within it the remedy.
Therefore, on a personal note I would like to take you back to another an occasion in my life for which I remain eternally grateful. An occasion that has become a high water mark in my spiritual life. It remains a constant source of thankfulness and support to me. The occasion was deeply sad. I was honoured to have been there at the end.
It was in the early morning of 19th February 2008, around 7am. I was holding the hand of my late father. He was passing away. I thanked him deeply. I told him do not be afraid, do not worry, kissed his hand and wished him farewell.
I am utterly indebted to him for all that he offered me and showed me.
It is due to the course of his spiritual life I am able to be with you here today. It was the least I could do to be there with him as he breathed his last.
The following day we buried him. I thanked him again for everything. I knocked three times upon his coffin and tearfully spoke to him bearing witness and testifying that he had lived a great life. I said it was a Life worthwhile. I testify as such again today about a mystic who was my teacher and friend. Some considered him a Sufi.
In his 1984 interview on mysticism Karen Armstrong asks Hasan Askari, “Can anyone become a mystic and have a mystical experience?”
Hasan Askari responds, “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.”
Hasan Askari continues, “I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago 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 a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
I come now to what I consider to be the heart of the mystical life.
For the Mystic, for the Sufi, Love of the “Beloved” is the irresistible undercurrent to the Act of Contemplation upon the Oneness of God, and the Act of Remembrance of God.
It is in recalling the kindness of my father that I am drawn inevitably to perhaps the most important aspect of spirituality. Namely, Love. The font of happiness and wellbeing.
It is a “constant” in that it is never failing and all embracing, crossing all categories of identification and limit.
It is “non-material”. I do not consider it a physical thing to be found in one place to the absence of it in another place. It is available to all at one and the same time despite differences in expression. It is One Love.
Leading to my third thought, one cannot speak of Love without “Remembering” one’s Being as non-material also, namely Soul. Love is an insignia and spark within the Soul which is pure “Longing”.
It is love within the Soul that compels it to yearn for and remember its Source. It is a “returning home”. A fullness of Being.
As the Qur’an reminds, “We are of God and unto God we return”.
Love is also to perhaps “forsake love”. To give it up at the final stage of Soul’s journey. After much wandering and longing, love has brought Soul from shore to shore, over still and raging oceans realising there can be no duality. “Do not say two. Say One!” recalling my teacher’s words. To return the soul as it was given, “empty” of all projections.
Remembering the Quran, “Wheresoever one looks, one sees the Face of one’s Glorious and Majestic Lord.”
It is in giving up the image we turn to the Original where Love is complete, simple, a Unity of all unities. Leading to my sixth thought, love is “pure”. After such purification of the soul there is only one thing to do. Be humble with bowed head, to wait in patience for the “Beloved” to arrive.
At that threshold one does not enter by one’s will for personal will was left far behind in the earlier stages of the journey. One is invited to enter at the behest of the Beloved – to be “in” Love.
Here, in that state of patience, the summit of zikr (remembrance) takes place in the soul. To rise one’s zikr to this station and let patience continually envelop one’s being.
And for that invitation, for that recognition, one would wait an eternity if one had to. For there is no other to turn to.
One may be wondering why I have not referred to Beauty. Ah, but what to speak of Beauty at this stage. All is Beautiful. And that is my seventh thought; “Beauty” itself.
It drew me from the First and draws me to the Last.
Plotinus, the mystic philosopher, father of Neo-Platonism, writes powerfully about the state of a Proficient Soul:
“Once the man is a Sage, the means of happiness, the way to good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him.…. Adverse fortune does not shake his felicity: the life so founded is stable ever.”
With such a vision, with love considered with Soul, one can engage with the world, with family, relationships, friends, neighbours, “strangers” (in truth there are no strangers to the Soul), seeing that behind all such relationships is the same Love, one-many. “In Love” there is no such thing as the “other”.
All are One. Then one may say with utmost sincerity;
“Your soul and my soul are one Soul. Your God and my God is One God.” (Hasan Askari).
How to start this quest? How to re-orientate one’s identity so to speak? Can one seek happiness within and without collective identities?
This is I how I have answered these questions to myself:
• I prefer to hold on to any identity lightly rather than tightly. It informs my thinking but is not essentially who I am.
• Spiritually, I cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually I may let go of them and what remains is the undivided individual sitting patiently at that threshold.
And finally, for the avoidance of doubt. I am saying we are “more than” our outer identities of nationality, culture, race, ethnicity and religion to name but a few. For me the peak of that “more than” aspect is that we are a Soul. Immaterial, invisible, indivisible, immortal. The same Soul before birth, in life and after death.
However, for those to whom this aspect (Soul) many seem problematic I make the following appeal. Let us consider the possibility that we are at least something “more than” the sum of collective identities, even if we, for the moment, leave it unnamed.
So that in meeting one another as human beings, as travellers, seekers, peace makers and spiritual-humanists on the path we may be drawn to learn about the other before us, abolishing otherness, by transcending outward identities. It is possible.
That to me holds tremendous promise and hope. That to me is “encounter”. That to me is the foothills of Transcendence.
Fellow Contributors to Happiness & Wellbeing Conference:
(1) Emerita Professor Linda Gask (University of Manchester) “Why I’m happy to be sad”. (2) Professor Richard King (University of Kent) “From Buddhist meditation to modern secular therapy: an analysis of mindfulness in ancient and modern contexts. (3) Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah (University of Birmingham) “Understanding happiness and wellbeing: a Hindu perspective. (4) Dr David McLoughlin (Newman University) “Jesus charter of happiness”. (5) Mr Vishal Soni (Light Hall Academy, Solihull) The science of happiness: a personal journey through chronic illness. You can watch Vishal’s speech here (6) Emerita Professor Paula McGee (Birmingham City University) Happiness and health.
Inter-faith pioneer Prof. Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Rev Earl Hanna – 1988 radio show “An Endless Search”. A beautiful encounter through dialogue between spiritual seekers on topics such as : religious diversity, Oneness of God, theological challenges, critique of religious exclusivity, co-presence, mutual mission in dialogue, inner spirituality, the need for the Abrahamic witness. At the time of the interview Prof. Askari was Louise Iliff Visiting Professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Prof. Askari speaks also about his experiences of being engaged with inter-faith dialogue through his consultations with the World Council of Churches from the 1970s. On dialogue encounter Prof. Askari says, “For me dialogue is an occasion to be born spiritually as persons before each other, before God.”
A Changing Perspective on Life
by Mahjabeen Fathima
My perspective “life” has considerably changed on this trip to the UK. To support my answer I quote these words from the book Alone to Alone by Hasan Askari, author of many books on spirituality, “God is the Friend and a Protector of those who believe. From the depths of darkness He will lead them forth in to Light. But there are those who deny that there is an Unseen Dimension to this sensible world.”
I came here all the way crossing over continents solely of the intention of spending a lovely time with my sister’s family and exploring the beauty of English soil. I am awed at the beauty of this land which the Almighty had crafted. I fully succeeded in my goal. But with it, my perspective of life or rather my viewpoint has shifted from the materialistic world to the spiritual; from the outer to the inner; from awareness to vision. To live with a purpose and not to get drowned in the mundane routine chores but to awake, arise, ponder and reflect – like a diamond which requires a lot of wear and tear to reach its final destination to rest and be decorated on the jewellers showcase.
I would like to thank my brother-in-law Musa Askari for his enlightening talk on self, soul and spirituality. His sharing of the quote from Rumi suffices to support my enhanced perspective on life, “The Lamps are many but the Light is One!”. My personality is now more at peace. The calm and peace were due to Musa’s motivation on meditation. My heart, soul and body were in complete union during the zikr (remembrance) chant of “Allah Hu”.
I will go back to my country, India, with full awareness to concentrate on the Higher Unity of my “self” and my “soul”. We are a soul together and each one of us is a soul within One Self.
The words of Plotinus from the Enneads herald my perspective of life going forward. “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.”
*See also :
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)
On leaving from a visit to Stratford Upon Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, Musa Askari reflects on the experience.
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.
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.