Thursday, 16 August 2018

Reading the Quran in Postmodern Times

Understanding what is certain and what is probable and what needs qualifying clause when speaking in the name of God or His Book.

The positive contribution of postmodern thought consists in alerting us to the danger in absolutization of one’s interpretations and attributing the same to earlier generations in the name of authentic history/received uncontested interpretation/consensus of authorities. Claiming knowledge, certainty, authority (and asserting that the debate is closed) in the name of religious or community interest has become more difficult now.
      It needs a lifetime of engagement with the Quran at personal level to understand that the Quran opens up its treasures only on the condition that one continues to maintain great intellectual humility that the weighty, awe inspiring Word calls forth. What the great learning (from the Book of God) requires is a learning in continuous unlearning or learned ignorance and surrendering temptation to absolutize given meaning or considering given interpretation as final. A jurist or theologian who has requisite honesty and integrity to recognize how everything he preaches in the name of Islam or hadith literature or meanings of the Quran is only provisional and may well be superseded the next moment or qualified by greater scholar and what is absolutely certain is only the consciousness of our contingency, situatedness, uncertainty and cognizance of the great mystery that wells up everywhere when encountering that in which “there is no doubt.” The most important problem – whether one is saved or if anything can really be done that will ensure salvation – is not clear and what we encounter as signs in the self and cosmos are to be ceaselessly contemplated by interpreting oneself away to let the Quran read us, decimate us, be ours or better be us. This implies need to be ready for what is presented on every unveiling and thus recognizing that some veiling is what is there to stay. One must ever remain watchful or question what one has so far understood as God, the transcendent horizon of our lives and meaning, may well be said to be the ever approximated but never fully accessed. Trying to understand understanding is what one is required to do when the Quran is presented. God never repeats His disclosures and that means what one has experienced or understood today can’t stay the same. Keep wondering and kissing the mystery in every object or experience and one  begins to understand why God/Revelation is best understood as a shock to every complacent reading/understanding. “God is ever in new glory” implying one is ever refreshed by newer revelations of meaning/unveilings. One doesn’t understand the Quran but only attempts to understand it. Those who claim that they have read the Quran haven’t read it. Reading the Quran implies gaining certain innocence/deconditioning/humility to receive the worlds symbolized. Those who don’t find new meanings on every new reading don’t know the adab of Quran. Those who readily jump into chapter and verse number in response to profound questions don’t know what is tadabbur in the Quran.
      The Quran invites us to other than itself – cosmic Quran, the Quran inscribed within – and we seldom accept the invitation. It invites us to think and we too readily bring this or that writ even from the Quran against thinking on an issue. The Quran doesn’t settle issues; it unsettles our complacency and asks us to think over issues, have a consultation or dialogue on the same and always consider the best amongst knowledgeable. In fact the Quran as discourse (as distinguished from text, as Abu Nasr Zayd would note) invites us to have a sort of Socratic dialogue with ourselves/others so that what is to be truly honoured or is just or beautiful comes to focus. We usually fail to notice why the Word or Revelation necessarily means renouncing the very desire to interpret on our part. A look at the theory of Revelation across religions clarifies the key question so that we don’t hanker after meanings but prepare for receiving all meanings that there are or become receptive to that which is – prelinguistic suchness – and one transcends all interpretative framing. Incidentally it is the theory of Revelation that is given inadequate attention in Muslim thought and as such justifies the attention given by modern thinkers such as Abdulkarim Soroush (with all their limitations that may be). The Quran asks all humans to be proficient in the language of the heart in order to be vouchsafed the meanings of the Quran. And it doesn’t tire of inviting us to wisdom that needs attuning to our inner intellectual and spiritual resources and not this or that human language. Since the Quran is for all and it is extremely unlikely that all the humans will learn any one language after the Tower of Babul split, the invitation is to learn the language of the heart and the mind – or we can say the language of the Self/Silence. And for these languages tazkiyyah is needed. When tazkiyyah happens and one achieves the eye for beauty (ihsan) one has truly read the Quran. (This doesn’t absolve the need to perfect the eye for beauty of Arabic language that untangles many a knot, shows how it is verbs or processes as against the static nouns or copula “is” that need to be emphasized, convinces one more and more about the miraculous nature of God’s speech. One reason against indifference to or alienation from the Quran is one’s failure to appreciate linguistic miracle that is the Quran). This results in renewed ability to keep wondering and pursue beauty or excellence and as such one never finishes reading the Quran because man ever strives towards unreachable perfection or unalloyed beauty.
      Our job is not to seek truth lying somewhere but be available to be consumed by truth and that means newer truths or haq due to every new experience. The Truth is never accessed (that is what la illaha illal lah implies for sages), only approximated as a limit or appreciated under some aspect or veil. One needs to learn how it is God seeking recognition (when worship deepens, it turns into recognition, irfan) from us in every experience. All that we encounter and seems negative is coquetry of the Beloved that makes the game more colourful. All heartaches, failures in relationships, tragedies, getting astray, landing in hell and consequent purification by fire are, in the divine economy of things, part of a larger game that we have chosen to play for its own joy. “All things shining.”  A cosmic dance. Smiles of Mono Lisa and the Buddha. The Quran decimates us and requires that we renounce every conceptual construction we are tempted to impose on that which presents itself, which is a percept and not a concept. Let go. “Ripeness is all. The rest is silence.” One learns this silence from the saints and sages who have perfected the station of  acceptance (raza) and whose sermons are poetry or invitations to aesthetic appreciation instead of moralistic judgment of the world. Appreciation gives life; judgment kills. The task is to honours/perceive God before everything or within every experience.
      Those who buy the notion of vetoing new thinking in Quranic exegesis  and assert that we have been handed over by pious ancestors not only text but neatly preserved and for all purposes certain corpus of interpretations as well so that it is not thinking but obeying that is primarily needed may be asked to explain, for instance, such questions/points as:
  • The first revealed verses (neither iqra nor qalm are best understood in non-literal terms as there was no book to be read nor physical pen to be primary instrument of teaching knowledge).
  • The meaning of terms Deen and Islam in what is often considered the last reveled verse in the face of the fact that these can’t refer to what is popularly, juristically framed as Islam which is one manifestation of the Religion or Unifying Underlying Religion/Truth informing all revealed religions.
  • The significant play of multiple voices and such assertions as that there are four levels, four types of meaning, seven levels of esoteric meanings, and even scores of sciences or thousands of meanings in every verse.
  • Invitation to recognition of change/history as signs in the Quran.
  • The fact that there is no way of determining or delimiting meaning space/horizon of certain words/terms or fixing context/closing debate on asbab-i nuzool of many verses.
  • Breakdown caused by immense weight of Divine Word that crushes language as Nasr notes.
  • The Quran’s intertextuality that is illuminated by in depth engagement with the sacred books of the world or other religions, Semitic and non-Semitic/mytho-poetic narratives of tribal cultures/wisdom traditions and correspondences with the text of the cosmic Quran.
  • Problems noted by most of great exegetes, especially in modern times, in prevailing privileging of the atomistic (isolated chapter and verse quotations) approach to exegesis and legalistic framing that has partially blocked both metaphysical and axiological foundations or legalistic-theological framing or other elitist views that have put in oblivion aesthetic and philosophical approaches that respect understanding of every addressee of any background. (This was Ibn Rushd’s point against argumentative theologians)
  • The role of the inherent metaphoricity and differance in much of language that scriptures use simply makes impossible literalist reading (often misattributed to Salaf) of significant part of scripture. In fact use of the same term ayat for verses of the Quran and signs of cosmic Quran and the fact that almost all the Quranic verses involve reference to realities that can’t be comprehended if taken literally/only literally/as something external or other such as God or Divine attributes/other or higher world/mystery/angels/inner realities/previous scriptures/prophets. These problematize literal, self contained exclusive exoteric understanding and force us to consider other layers of meaning employed by philosophers/mystics/artists/mythographers etc. Extensive use of figurative devices, ellipses, ignoring chronology, sudden jumps or juxtaposing of seemingly disjointed ideas often question any attempt that claims this or that as the meaning of the verse. Continuing debates on disjointed mystery letters (huroof al-muqatta’at) and on who qualifies as rasikhoon fil ilm or which verses are clear and which ambiguous or how to frame the later in terms of the former implying we can’t afford to avoid thinking. How we account for attempts vetoing new thinking given huge number of mutashabihat given the fact that understanding them constitutes the more significant portion of the sciences of the Quran (as Anwar Shah Kashmiri pointed out). Without knowing in depth other scriptures we fail to make comprehensible the Quran for audiences shaped by these sacred texts. And one is led  more to appreciate than polemically dismiss self understanding in respective universes of meaning when one takes note of modern conceptual and hermeneutical tools for studying other sacred texts.
      There is great deal of disagreement in interpreting key verses and even foundational concepts like tawhid or messengership of the Quran implying we can continue to keep tradition of debate and discussion open. And, as Ibn Qayyim notes for instance, the issue of what the Revelation has to say about the fate of non-believers is far from resolved. What it has to say regarding duration, nature and locale of hell is similarly far from resolved. 
      The Quran is an easy book for masses on the question of saving from hell but the most difficult book for intellectual or scholarly elite due to its very profound secrets, hints and layered meaning spaces. Read all the exegeses that we have access to (take a look at great Tafsir project – – that contains many important classical and modern commentaries, of various schools at one place) and one finds much to be desired to help one with the text. The Quran’s meaning spaces can’t be exhausted because Being or Wujud itself is an ocean without shore whose manifestation consists in being not manifest or too blindingly manifest to keep us ever in the hunt or in waiting mode – He/not He, veiled in His unveilings, wondrous tapestry that attracts and induces awe, the holy that resists our approach and yet attracts. One may conclude by attempting to say the unsayable, that one can’t answer the question what does the Quran say on more important questions in terms that are familiar. The Quran undoes us – one can only be dumb before the Mighty King or Great Beauty – if we take it seriously and one can’t afford clinging to something that posits itself against that which constitutes us. One’s job as a reader is to listen and be gone or become a clearing for Being to unveil and that is all – our greatest freedom and joy expressed through sacred tears and otherworldly sakinah or rahmah that uplifts.
      We mostly find people parroting the Quran, not reading it. You find them competing for finishing as much as possible without bothering to ponder that we must be finished before the Quran reveals its depths and heights to us. (“Koran paran zindi kithu roadukh…” “How come you survived reciting the Quran…”). Indeed the Quran needs to be read before a Master to taste something that no written Quran commentary can give. Some secrets – in fact the most profound ones – are only orally transmitted. We are required to write tafsir in contemporary idiom and be ever ready to revise it.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Some Issues in Hermeneutics

Who can say what the Text means? Understanding why some key issues remain unresolved.

It is often asked which tafsir one must read, what the Quran really means, or its viewpoint on a host of issues, and who has the authority to legislate/exclude in the name of the Quran. Sects and schools remain bitterly divided on certain issues. Theologians, jurists and philosophers differ although they all invoke the same text. Salafis and Hanafis-Sufis, Deobandis and Berelvis, Islamists and their Muslim critics, Islamic and Muslim Feminists  are all claiming respective positions in the name of certain standard reading of the Quran. Even votes are sought or political alliances/slogans legitimized in the name of the Quran. Who can say and then judge on behalf of the silent text? Let us investigate if we can or should have easy answers to such questions.
      It is often said that we need to approach things from the viewpoint of the Quran as if the Quran had a viewpoint. The Quran asks us to pay heed to the truth of every viewpoint that has any validity and as such can’t have its own special viewpoint to be contrasted to, say viewpoints of other sacred books, sages and saints across cultures and divinely taught poets whose craft consists in making themselves the mirrors on which shine the higher truths. The root of the problem is that the Quran
a) being the very eye that sees and embraces all views
b) the source of illumination that casts light on everything and not any particular illumined object that writes off other objects, and
c) the  text of the very being we are or pointer to the mystery and truth of all that is or could be has no limiting or exclusive viewpoint of its own that we can impute to it. 
      The Quran invites us to heed the signs or develop the vision so that things clarify themselves and quell all anxiety to mean, to interpret and one indeed witnesses “there is no doubt in it.” It means standing open or making a clearing for the Being to manifest its glory. Seeking to speak in ideological terms on behalf of the Quran is questioned by the consideration that it could be the case that the Quran seeks to erase all attachment to viewpoints and require us to recover openness to the Real/experience/countless faces of truth or limited truth in all viewpoints? The Quran is like a dazzlingly beautiful thing (the Sun) that none can dare to see face to face or claim to have exclusive access to. Its silence and shyness is such that it sees, waits, mirrors and watches whatever is brought before it or sold in its name. The fact that the Quran calls itself a Criterion and yet we find so many contentious positions within orthodox or traditional setting invoking the same criterion means that the Criterion is such that the contentions may keep blooming without affecting the Truth that includes and transcends all such contentious positions. The Beauty is such that it gives darshan to all and leaves all more thirsty for closer access and nevertheless the impression that they have been chosen for special darshan. It is like the gracious Beloved who doesn’t say no to anyone and yet can’t be claimed by anyone as such or a dream that all see and interpret according to their own dispositions and yet don’t cease to dispute its precise meaning. Who knows that the dream may admit all kinds of interpretations in accordance with the dreamer’s diverse stations and the truth of the Criterion consist in reaching a station where dreams are no longer dreams and one’s vision is sharp, an ideal that is fulfilled in the higher world of illuminations (kashf) or otherworld. 
      Often it is assumed there is a consensus on what the Quran means especially for the early generations. Muslims are told by some in the name of the Quran, for instance, that the Quran writes off other religions (and not illuminate them from within or higher transcendent “viewpoint”), that most of the verses supporting pluralism or tolerance stand abrogated, that there is a particular state that may be called Islamic, that jurists-exoteric ulama rather than illumined poets/sages are the best Quran commentators. Is there such a consensus? What is the necessary minimum set of “propositions” – zarooriyat-i-deen – required for salvation on which there is consensus? Classical and modern exegetes agree in principle that these are iman and amal-i salih and the former may be divided into faith in God (note, not belief in existence of a being called God) and faith in the next/higher/distant/not ordinarily perceived world (note akhira means what is not near or not ordinarily perceived) – other details such as faith in messengers/angels etc. are implied/in a way included). One may elaborate these essentials to see how little consensus is there when one, with the sages/metaphysicians, delves deeper into what we mean by our key terms.
  1.  Faith in God may well be expressed as faith in non-self, or in terms esoterism/metaphysics would use, witnessing the Godhead (there is huge difference between God and Godhead/Absolute) or attachment to the Absolute. The key focus is not on belief in one God but affirmation of one Reality or what is called making one or affirming divine unity – and there is little consensus between scholars, jurists, theologians, Sufis and philosophers on what that really means and what divides them is such issues as distinction between God and Being, attitude to what is called tawhid-i-wujoodi and the relation between God’s one Essence and multiple attributes. Faith translates into an attitude of gratitude.
  2. Consciousness of accountability (little consensus on how and for how long one has to suffer for failure and whether it is purgatorial in nature. Essentially it means faith in significance of moral choices)
  3. Consequent need for righteous action (with the concomitant realization that God alone is the true Agent of action and one is saved by abandoning attachment to action/God’s grace).
      Faith in the prophets is– and not ends in themselves – helping bring to consciousness these three things. One is either grateful/ unconditionally open to love/truth (Muslim) or one hesitates (is munafiq/kafir). One knows or doesn’t know. The two can’t be equal according to any one who cares to think or give things their due. This is the only distinction or binary that it is committed to.
      We can only submit what we have understood the Quran to be stating and as such it has to be only provisionally maintained (all great commentators have done this) and one can’t rest complacently and afford to oppose other voices and the need for dialogue on what the Quran means. There are less than 10 percent verses in the Quran with clear legal import that don’t need much wrestling on our part to be correctly understood – that are not, in way, mutashabihat (involving recourse to non-literal meaning and figurative devices or analogy/ symbolism). There is no uncontested applied Quranic hermeneutics, no standard tafsir fully acceptable for major schools, few – a few dozen or less – fully ascertained mutawatir reports (that one could claim are certain and not just probable) from the Prophet (S.A.W) or Companions in most cases to foreclose the need to further interpret/investigate. What we have is a text and often contested pretext and context that frame the meanings and we have many versions from Aslaf on almost all important debatable (in the wake of modernity) issues. Recourse to received/transmitted exegeses (masoor) doesn’t resolve many contentious issues and what is demonstrably truly transmitted (or at least its meanings) is not above dispute amongst authorities. Even if we had a consensus on what is transmitted, the problem of synthesizing what is so transmitted would still remain. And more difficult problem of transposing previously understood meanings by our ancestors to changing times keeps us haunting. The battle over the letter and the spirit seems unending and it is not clear for everyone what are the “core” values in light of which we need to interpret and stall atomistic interpretations that don sermons and popular presentations in media or press.  
      How best to accommodate/ignore Israliyat or self understanding of other traditions while interpreting the Quran that can’t be understood without taking note of Abrahamic or even non-Semitic context/intertext/shared spaces is a tricky one far from being properly attended by classical or modern exegetes. The questions of historicity of the text or historicity of its first interpretation by the Prophet continue to be posed with grave urgency and who can say that we have neatly classified asbab-i nazool, consensus of community/scholars, agreed upon definitions of key terms or what is the literal meaning that should be privileged in many cases. Efforts to show how the Quran is in practice qati-ad-dalalah (we know for sure that there is only one meaning, the meaning intended by God) have not helped to quell hermeneutical contestations and in fact given rise to new questions. Who knows how the first addressees understood the Quran on scores of points that divide us?  So much heated debate on evidential value of ahad narrations from earliest times coupled with our failure to find more than a few mutwatir traditions (that alone achieve the level of certainty desirable to foreclose further discussion) in the whole corpus and continued existence of disparate hadith collections (Shia and Sunni corpus) and reigning debates amongst hadith scholars on status of many traditions and amongst fuqaha on their legal import and amongst scholars on what they mean or could mean now in changed historical setup all imply need to renounce  simplistic invoking of the authority of Pious Elders (Aslaf) or recourse to classical scholarship to foreclose the question of recovering the meanings of the scripture. What should be emphasized is that the Quran is a difficult text (“it is easy for remembrance,” “for admonition,” of course but what we seek is something different), multilayered text, open text, dialogic text, a text that invites fresh reflections and perspectives on every reading, every new day. The right of every view or interpretation needs to be recognized by exploring the possibility of moving towards higher all embracing vision that has room for all perspectives that have a legitimacy at certain planes. We need to learn to appreciate why we are constituted to differ on theological-juristic exegeticalviews (as we are on choice of dress/personal names) but we can’t really diverge even if wish on moral/intellectual/spiritual denominators  we seek to attest in diverse ways and it is the later that save. Thank God we don’t agree in applied exegesis (and not even in principles we fix for tafsir) as it would mean no scope for new conversations, new commentaries, new books, new thinking. 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Recovering the Aesthetic Face of Islam

The Problem in Understanding Islam minus its great legacy of arts in the Curriculum of Universities and Seminaries.

Almost everything that has to do with celebration of beauty and regard for many art forms is suspect today in the name of Islam. Aesthetic dimension of life/Islam has not been given due consideration by Madrassahs, Universities or other educational institutions and it is no wonder that our lives, our surroundings, our cities and other living spaces are largely bereft of beauty. Few know that cultivating beauty in every act is the fulfillment of Islam.
      The Islamicate world has been a cultured world  with much emphasis on beauty, on poetry, on arts, on higher intellectual pursuits and so many applied/traditional sciences. Any  talk about study of Islam or revival of Islam bypasses  more than three fourth of Islamic legacy. It is law and some dose of theology and passing, often dismissive references to philosophy and esoterism and mostly non-academic talk about history and modern trauma of encounter with colonization that forms the main body of Islam in our sermons, curricula and classes. Islam as the Religion or Religion of religions as distinguished from a religion, as metaphysics, philosophy and culture  distinguished from exotericist theology and legalism is what is mostly missing when we talk about defending Islam or teaching it. Islam as an abstraction, as something to be drilled, imposed and opposed to other religions and world heritage of sciences, arts, philosophies has been sold to the people with the consequence that Islam appears often to be in danger that some specialists and ideologues are needed to save for us. There is all pervasive strange anxiety to understand and defend Islamic  as a prefix or category that situates itself against what is branded non-Islamic in every human or even “divine” discipline. The idea is to Islamize even Islam itself, to return to so-called pure Islam, Islam shorn from its context and embodied legacy of rich cultural expressions. Some slanders against world religions, world philosophies, Sufis, intellectual elite of Islam, arts and new approaches in different disciplines rule the roost. A few questions related to art and aesthetics that Muslims mostly have ceased to ask and no wonder fail to answer (by even Islamic Studies/Madrassah pass-outs)showing how little we understand how Islam has been understood/expressed in history and lives of Muslims:
  • Why is Islamic Shahadah read as “There is no beauty but Beauty” by many a guardian of Islamic culture?  How come Muslims now fail to understand ihsan as commandment to beautify and often ignore/are averse to arts and fail to note significance of what are called Beautiful Names (Asma al-Husna) of God? What is the connection of so many names of God with beauty? Isn’t it possible to understand denial of God or apostasy as choosing ugliness over beauty?
  • Why did Muslims use feather as a bookmark for the Quran and what peacocks meant in Mughal works?
  • How come we find pervasive astrological references in the Islamicate world? For instance, we see fish, representing the zodaical sign Pisces, on ceramics and metalwork in Anatolia.
  • What do trees, their branches and flowers in general, represent in the Islamic culture?
  • Is there such thing as Islamic architecture that distinguished Muslim monuments, dwellings and cities and why Muslims now ignore it except in case of mosque design? What happened to Mecca in the name of reconstruction in recent history and why Muslims are still indifferent? Was Islam indifferent to the question of space?
  • Why is order of activation of special organs of perception (lata’if) yellow, red, white, black- green? What explains Islam’s privileging  white and green? Is it connected with sirr and ikhfa? Why is blue dominant colour in architecture, in mosques and mausolea?
  • Why should we continue to build minarets as we no longer need them for reaching out to people living far away? Why don’t Muslims build mosques the way their Prophet (SAW) built  at Medina and instead use elaborate symbolic structures and take great care of interior design and beauty? Why Muslims have been lavishing so much care in beautifying mosques, shrines and tombs?  How come the notions of architect as priest and transforming dwelling place into cosmos or “giving it the value of imagio mundi” are alien to modern would be experts on Islam?
  • How come we reconcile the explication of cultural face of Islam by Ahmed Amin, Pickthall, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Lamya al-Faruqi besides Nasr and others with most juristic manuals on Islam that seem to write it off? What about the phenomenon of Khusraw  whose brand of Islamizing Indian culture involved transforming music? How come such important figures as Ghazzali, Ibn Hazm, al-Shawkani, Abdul Ghani Nablusi, Sultan al-Ulema al-Iz ibn Abdul-Salam and many other towering ulema and saints didn’t toe popular line of rejection of music in the name of Islam? Didn’t  Sufis win some famous debates between jurists and Sufis on music
  • Why is black drape over Ka’ba? What explains traditional  black colour of Layla?
  • How come gardens in Islamic culture got modeled on Paradise?  Whose diagrams became model for designing Taj Mahal and what about compelling readings that read the Taj Mahal as conscious evocation of Divine Throne (Arsh)?
  • What is the symbolism of ornaments, turban design, carpet design and general fabric design Muslims have worn? Why, for instance, the particular design of carpets with alternating jasmine and peony floral patterns you have seen?
  • How come Muslims, in every age and from the earliest times, largely ignored some commonly believed prohibitions of representing living creatures and music and decorating mosques and building tombs for saints and kings? Did they betray Islam thereby or it is we whose understanding of Islam as culture is a problem?  Is it known that “The prohibition of images in Islam is not however absolute”?
  • Why has the art of talking about women and ‘civilizing sexual passion’ – ghazal – as an art form been so important for major Islamic languages/cultures? What explains its central features?
      If one fails to get illuminating answers to such questions from average pass-outs In Islamic Studies departments or religious seminaries, don’t be surprised. They fail to appreciate or take account of scores of other questions on Islam’s intellectual and spiritual legacy as well. Either curriculum is faulty or level of engagement below standard or method of teaching-learning faulty. Figuring of certain names/themes in curriculum doesn’t matter much unless it is translated in real capacity building of students/comprehension of primary texts. Taking Islam seriously as it has been embodied in culture, in arts, in philosophy and tasawwuf or taking culture seriously in what is called Islamic Studies is a task that has yet to properly begin in Kashmir.

Tail piece 

Much ado about nothing 
 Good arguments need consideration, bad arguments need refutation and no arguments (like dead deliveries) call for silence or lamentation if they are taken as arguments. Dr Tawseef’s response ( to my previous column on Nasr ( falls in the last category. Since this needs for some readers a clarification, a few remarks follow.
  • To my first and third statements, he has not stated any objection but simply asserted he doesn’t agree as if impressionistic disagreement could refute the fact – dismal engagement with Islamic intellectual legacy – presented for anyone to verify. To the second statement, he has no counterargument as such but creates a straw man to thrash by confounding my critique of product (pass-outs) with the critique of curriculum that was not my primary subject. My point was that proof is in the pudding – average pass-out have little acquaintance with much of Islamic legacy. Imagining contradiction in my endorsing Summer School as contribution with my dissatisfaction with previous record regarding how Islamic Studies has been done shows a strange logic or lack of imagination. I  didn’t brand students with teachers or generalize about all students in my comments – I have great respect for some teachers/students and have learnt/keep learning at their feet many things. Slanders/ad hominum “arguments” attributing the worst corruption imaginable – that one can sell one’s pen for being a resource person – are best left alone for God to take account and not deserving even refutation.
  • I maintain that in much of (as distinguished from everywhere) the Muslim world Islamic Studies as characterized by me or authorities Dr Tauseef quotes does not exist. One can count on fingers institutions/departments that do Islamic studies in the desired sense. The rest is a poor adaptation of the idea called Islamic Studies. The best institutions for doing this remain mostly in the West – all doyens of it Nasr, Fazlur Rahman and Ismail Raji al-Faruqi – did it mostly in the West.
  • To check how Islamic Studies is done here, let us ask  a fair sample of recent Masters and PhDs to discuss, in any language, randomly opened one page of classics of Muslim philosophy like Hikmat al-Ishraq, Al-Isharat wa'l-tanbihat or Asfar or of Sufi classics such as Tawaseen or Fusoos or even commentary on Fusoos or of classics of wisdom poetry or Quranic exegesis by Ibn Sina, al-Sulami or al-Maybudi. If they hesitate it shows one can pass exam by mugging up wikipaedia notes and dispense with reading primary texts (curriculum/readings suggested don’t emphasize that either) though still claim a Masters/Doctorate in Islamic Studies.
  • I had long back seen syllabus and fair sample of students before commenting and knew about course on Architecture in IUST but there was no teacher trained in Islamic architecture to teach it. How many theses have been written on Islam and arts so far?
So the learned author’s analysis rests on misunderstanding my critique of the product (pass-outs/PhDs) as critique of curriculum. 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Reading Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Exploring contributions of Nasr to Islamic Studies and Need to Improve Curriculum in Universities.

Islamic Studies as a discipline and Islam as a Tradition in the integral sense of the term that includes proper engagement with the whole legacy of Islam – aesthetics, metaphysics, ontology, art and architecture, esoterism, a host of traditional sciences and much more – are absent in much of the Muslim world and its institutions. There are very few students formally trained by Islamic Studies/Comparative Religion Departments/Madrassas who are interested in or have resources for proper comprehension of works written by Muslim scholars in most of the disciplines, religious or “secular.” All we see in most students is certain atomistic approach and recourse to some verses and traditions to buttress their understanding of Islam they often cofound with/reduce to ideology or some imagined system or book of answers or juristic-legal manuals. Absence of deeper understanding of philosophical, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions in both traditional madrassas and universities means a culture in decline heading towards a disaster and ill equipped to handle newer problems and better educated modern mind. Situation is especially shocking in case of Kashmir that is considered primarily a spiritual-philosophical culture. Students trained in the institutions dealing with Islam may be informed about anything in the world but not Islam as it has been classically understood and bequeathed to us. One may have done a P.G or even PhD in Islamic Studies or a course in aalimiyet and ifta and still can’t speak a few words about many important dimensions of Islamic cultures, say art, architecture, aesthetics, recent developments in philosophy, theology and studies on transcendent theosophy. One can’t, mostly, follow the debates in any good contemporary conference on world religions, theologies, poetry in Islamicate cultures, philosophy of religion or many key areas of work related to such important minds of the Muslim world as Ibn Sina, Ibn Arabi, Al-Biruni, Ibn Khaldun, Imam Razi, Hallaj, Tusi, Khusraw, Bedil and Shah Waliullah, to name only few amongst the galaxy of figures. If this despairing scenario is to be redressed, the most convenient mechanism may well be introducing everyone to the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr who has written on almost every significant dimension of Islam with rare balance and depth and as an insider with credentials that can’t be questioned by even his deadly critics. Barring a few interpretative maneuvers that distinguish him as a scholar with a certain specific orientation/affiliation with which one may or mayn’t be in agreement, his expositions are generally marked by deep engagement with traditional self understanding of Islam spanning across fourteen centuries and enviable grasp of modern thought currents and requisite idiom to engage with them.
      Jalal ad-Din Huston Smith, the widely influential author of a modern classic The World’s Religions, calls Nasr, “one of the most important thinkers of our times.” Pointing out how his contribution has been recognized by the world, he notes that the highest honour a philosopher can receive is to be included in the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers series and a theologian can receive is to be invited for Gifford lectures and Nasr has received both. He notes that he has written Knowledge and the Sacred as one of the most important books of the twentieth century. He is the first Muslim philosopher, and first traditionalist philosopher to have been invited for Gifford Lectures. Nasr is now the foremost living member of the traditionalist school and is also recognized as a leading spokesman for Islam not only in North America but also world-wide. Nasr’s debate/engagement with major German philosophers such as Hans Gadamer and Jungen Habermas, and theologians such as Hans Kung are important. He has made some important interventions in the world heritage of Islamic Philosophy and Sciences and has contributed to theorization of interfaith dialogue, environmentalist philosophy and theology, history of science in Islam, reception of Muslim mystics and artists and now Quranic exegesis. He has helped sow the seeds for a revival of traditional education in the context of the modern university system.
      Nasr’s work is an opening to the Taj Mahal of Islam’s intellectuality/spirituality. Trained in MIT and Harvard, associated with the towering scholars in Islamic studies and seminaries, Nasr is a provocative challenge to all those who want to oppose Islam to other religions in the name of salf. He is the philosopher who has shown how we bridge the gap between intellectuals and Ulama. He facilitated intellectual exchange between Heidegger translator and philosopher Corbin and Tabatabai. Certainly “no intellectual exchange had taken place on such a high philosophical level between the West and the Islamic World since the Middle Ages.” Nasr encouraged his Persian students to study other schools and traditions of philosophy from the point of view of their own tradition rather than studying their tradition from the perspective of Western thought and this in turn convinced him that “there was an oral tradition of wisdom (hikmah) that could only be learned at the feet of traditional masters.”
      Nasr shows/notes, among others things, that

  • Ali (RA) is representative par excellence of Islamic esoterism and metaphysics,
  • Hikmah enjoined in the Quran is, in a vital sense, enshrined in the works of Islamic philosophers or better sages.
  • Poets in Islamic cultures have been providential expositors of God’s word (Mawlana Thanawi’s commentaries on Hafiz and Rumi may be recalled to illustrate how) and artistic/aesthetic dimension is important for appreciating richness of Islamic culture or heritage.
  • Shia-Sunni division is providential noting that it has helped enrich the Islamicate world intellectually and culturally.
  • While we must turn to traditional seminaries who have indeed been guardian of pristine Islamic spirit, we need to be critical of their ultraconservatism and tendency to drift towards legalism. We also need to be conscious regarding what has been forgotten/ignored by these institutions in the name of preserving Islam – philosophy, many traditional sciences, aspects of metaphysics as informing many traditional sciences and arts and in practice integral concept of education.
  • What is wrong with both fundamentalism and modernism in terms of ignoring/writing off much of traditional heritage in the name of purism or returning to past.
  • What is wrong with vast majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars who are not at peace with the world because they think they are required to refute other  religions, other traditional philosophies, the classical heritage of the West and such modern institutions as interfaith dialogue and women reclaiming their lost spaces in exegesis. Huston Smith narrates how Nasr, through his mentors, helped him be at peace with the world.
  • How to honour differences in religions at exoteric/theological level while appreciating  that in their kernels accessed by metaphysics and esoterism, great philosophies and religions are one. This constitutes great contribution towards understanding the Quranic claims regarding primordiality and universality of Revelations/Islam. Nasr is distinguished amongst contemporary Muslim philosophers by his deft mastery of relevant hermeneutics and debates marshaled to demonstrate how religion from Adam to Muhammad (SAW) has been one and that is accessible to all and sundry who master the tools. It is not surprising that most of the foremost traditionalist scholars have been reverts to Islam as in these later times there is much to recommend the formal universe of Islam to them.
  • Importance of reading the canon of other traditions and how this strengthens one’s commitment to Islamic Universe while makes one appreciative how the so-called other is really an ally. Nasr himself studied Tao Te Ching and the Upanisads with Tabatabai and thus reports first hand.
  • Criticisms of theologians-jurists against philosophers, metaphysicians and Sufis have been convincingly refuted. For instance, he notes how Sharh al-isharat played the major role in the “resuscitation of the Peripatetic philosophy of lbn Sina after its criticism by the Ash'arite theologians such as al-Ghazzali and especially Fakhr al-din al-Razi, for whose criticisms of Ibn Sina Tusi provides a sentence-by-sentence reply in this work.”
  • The deeper one goes into the heart of issues with sages, less and less relevant become Shia-Sunni, Salafi-Hanafi, Asharite-Mutazillite, Wujoodi-Shuhudi, East-West, old-new, philosophical-mystical, poetic-theological/philosophical, theistic-nontheistic and Semitic-Non-Semitic polemics or divisions. Islam becomes identified with the primordial, the universal, the call to our own depth, the language of the Self, a song sung out of gratitude for the gift of being. The Quran is scripted in our hearts and its verses constitute the cosmos open for all who heed. Invitation to Islam one may rephrase as invitation to whatsoever is true, just and beautiful. One doesn’t own Islam to sell it – Islam is better approached not as a noun, an event, a narrative, an ideology but as a verb, a process, an attitude, a seeking, a method. One consents to surrender or be sold in the market of Love – “Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth” – and one’s religion is “whatever way Love's camels take.”
      One may read The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr for getting a glimpse of his work that clears a host of confusions and criticisms on Islam, Sufi metaphysics, philosophy, arts and Islam’s dialogue with other religions. He has his critics but no rival. He has been a factor in attracting some of the best minds to faith and environment. He shows how the heart of  world traditions, Metaphysic, can’t be denied though it can be ignored and there  would be no atheists if one could teach metaphysics to everyone.
      In a scenario where curriculum of Islamic Studies for MA and PhD has been generally failing to even introduce students to almost 3/4th of Islamic legacy – if you doubt talk to students on Islamic art and architecture, aesthetics and ontology, on Muslim sages, on religion-culture distinction or on meanings of key terms such as Allah and any key treatise on Asma-i Husna – it is heartening to note that the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora has been able to attract the support of Nasr for its International Centre for Spiritual Studies and International Journal of Spirituality, thanks to efforts by its current Head, Dr S Iqbal Quraishi. Another good news is completion of 10 day International Summer School organized by the Department of Islamic Studies that attracted some international figures working outside India including Ian Almond, Scott Kugle, Mohammad Omar Farooq and Ahmed Javid  and began a new chapter in the history of Islamic studies in Kashmir for which IUST administration, Dr Afroz who heads the Department and his team including especially D. Miraj who had conceived the idea, need to be thanked and will be remembered by posterity.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Cross of Writing

Reading Helene Cixous’ case against writers to understand writing as martyrdom.

Often one feels a sense of choking while writing, editing and editing. One doesn’t want to risk one’s reputation or interests, to be more candid. One doesn’t want to cry Emperor is naked or confess one’s own nakedness. One adds layers upon layers of ambiguity to escape censure. But we can’t escape the censure from our own conscience. Sometimes one edits out certain things to please the editor and sometimes to please the establishment or the institution one is dependent upon. Regardless of reason, the result is truth is a casualty. And we then lament why aren’t we considered really great and why today writers are no longer respected the way they once were. Writers in general are no longer playing the role of conscience of people. Often they want to be read, to be popular, to come down to the level of popular taste and readership and they don’t have courage to write on so many important things. The best ideas they keep to themselves or occasionally share in private company. They may even hide them from themselves due to cognitive dissonance or cowardice. How many tragedies have unfolded before our very eyes and the more perspicuous amongst us knew what is wrong but couldn’t say. And we have scores of excuses such as zu bacahvun farz (saving oneself is obligatory). Deep down we know we have betrayed ourselves and are guilty in the court of God or the court of conscience. Forced to resort to doublespeak in order to survive or save face, we gradually get wasted. However sometimes it is better to take stock of things and visit our ruined house and see what a disaster one has been thanks to all kinds of hypocrisies, compromises, half truths and rhetorical devices we have been resorting to for sustaining ourselves. I am reading Cixous to  guide us to inspect the wrecks we have been reduced to. Perhaps one could pity oneself for the temerity to be considered a writer, a poet, a columnist. Cixous is a priest before whom one needs to confess one’s sins. Then perhaps we might be absolved or God have mercy on us. So let us see how she makes us taste something of what is believed to be the torture of taking account on the Day of Judgment (which really consists in facing the Norm inscribed in our depths, the Truth/Standard against which we evaluate others – for believers, according to one account, there is no hell as such but the pain of facing the Judge/Norm as it lays bare our refusal to bear witness to Truth).
      Derrida ranked Helene Cixous with Simone Weil as two greatest women philosophers of the twentieth century. Why? Excerpts from her writings on writing and other themes will tell us.
      “The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us (we who are writing), that makes us tremble, redden, bleed.” “We should write as we dream; we should even try and write, we should all do it for ourselves, it’s very healthy, because it’s the only place where we never lie. At night we don’t lie. Now if we think that our whole lives are built on lying-they are strange buildings-we should try and write as our dreams teach us; shamelessly, fearlessly, and by facing what is inside very human being-sheer violence, disgust, terror, shit, invention, poetry. In our dreams we are criminals; we kill, and we kill with a lot of enjoyment. But we are also the happiest people on earth; we make love as we never make love in life.” “And so when you have lost everything, no more roads, no direction, no fixed signs, no ground, no thoughts able to resist other thoughts, when you are lost, beside yourself, and you continue getting lost, when you become the panicky movement of getting lost, then, that’s when, where you are unwoven weft, flesh that lets strangeness come through, defenseless being, without resistance, without batten, without skin, inundated with otherness, it’s in these breathless times that writings traverse you, songs of an unheard-of purity flow through you, addressed to no one, they well up, surge forth, from the throats of your unknown inhabitants, these are the cries that death and life hurl in their combat.”
      Struggling against doubts cast on one’s dear system of belief or ideology or assumed integrity, one often resorts to repression and angry protest against those who call for re-examination of our position. Few know that faith is said to consist of faith in the unknown, in the guest, in the uncertain, in short in future or what is to come or Justice that is so near and yet so far, in experience as such, in willingness to suspend judgment or live with doubts as part of quest for what is. Faith demands nothing but sincerity on our part to bear witness against  ourselves, our presumptions, our lies, our failures that follow from a true receptivity or openness to the other. Writing  in the sense Cixous would advocate is a function of such faith or integrity. Writing is readiness for martyrdom of a sort with such a treasured company as that of Socrates, Suharwardi, Mansoor, Sarmad, Kafka.
      Here is how Cixous illustrates such an idea: “The author of what I describe is not myself, it is the Other. First of all it is you, it is the woman, it is the queen, it is the Child, it is a person who is greater than I and who surpasses you as well, whom you do not know. I am your scribe.”  “Writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death, since we cannot tell the truth. It is forbidden because it hurts everyone. We never say the truth, we must lie, mostly as a result of our two needs: our need for love and cowardice.” “Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.”  “When I write, it's everything that we don't know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking.” “When there is a danger from outside, you bolt, but when the danger comes from inside, how can you bolt?”
      Few are  readers who read in order to read, to get undone by the other, by what was not known or attended to. Many modern Muslims, for instance, read philosophers/Sufis to refute them little noticing that it is the reader in them that has been thus refuted. The best of philosophers and mystics or writers don’t advise us, dictate us, lead us or mislead us; all they ask us is to avoid blinkers, to heed the other that seeks to write off the illusions we have harboured. The ideal of reading is to be consumed by the Word as happened to Mansoor on reading the Quran as Shaykh Nuruddin noted. Cixous writes: “Reading is not as insignificant as we claim. First we must steal the key to the library. Reading is a provocation, a rebellion: we open the book’s door, pretending it is a simple paperback cover, and in broad daylight escape! We are no longer there: this is what real reading is. If we haven’t left the room, if we haven’t gone over the wall, we’re not reading.” “When spend our lives not seeing what we saw. The picture is there: what we know when we’re small; when we are small, we know everything in a childlike way.” “Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds.” “That is the definition of truth, it is the thing you must not say. …Where we hope we will not be afraid of understanding the incomprehensible, facing invisible, hearing the inaudible, thinking the unthinkable, which is of course: thinking.”
      A pen is a gift from God that He should wield and greater the writer, emptier one becomes or more perfect is the clearing for Being. Not only art but all writing is Muse dictated. So greater the writer, tougher is the trial to bleed in the way of Love. Greater the writer, smaller the ego or the sense of being one, or anxiety to be recognized or honoured. Name any writer you know who doesn’t wish to be spared the judgment that the Pen (if it is given speech) might give against the one who holds it.
      Meditating on our immense capacity of resilience and hoping against hope in concentration camps when “there is really every reason, every circumstance to be without hope,” she notes that “there still remain this triumphant feeling.” “Our true nobility: there is a resource in us, even when we are reduced, when we are crushed, when we are despised, annihilated, treated as people are treated in the camps, a resource which makes the poetic genius that is in every human being still resist. Still be capable of resisting.” “…when we write in these circumstances, it’s because we are another person, we are the other. Perhaps I am going to die: but the other remains. In this situation, it is the other who writes.” Thus she dismisses all excuses for timidity or exhaustion we are prone to invoke. The writer has to take the cross. And he emerges triumphant. God is the other on his side.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Philosophy and Dawah Work

Meditations on the idea of conversion, Dawah and legacy of Muslim philosophers.
If we examine sermons and activism of major missionary religions calling for adopting respective religions and even people within different sects of one religion calling for adopting respective sects, how do we choose? The fact remains that in more than 99% cases one is already convinced about the truth of one’s religion and remains in the faith of one’s ancestors/immediate environment. It is often assumed that we are to choose between true and false or this or that religion/sect/school at the cost of hell and that gives urgency to such a question for at least a miniscule fraction of people. How do philosophers in general and Muslim philosophers in particular engage with such calls? Let us explore with more specific reference to one of the greatest Muslim philosopher-sages Al-Farabi.
      Al-Farabi’s legacy may be invoked in engaging with the phenomenon of missionary spirit of Islam that has two aspects: Dawah work and Jihad. Dawah work is aimed at preaching the word and Jihad at removing the obstacles that prevent human response to the Divine Call and thus thwart full realization of potential for happiness or knowledge/gnosis. As Dawah work requires bearing witness to the Truth today in an age singularly known for confusion of tongues or proliferation of ideologies and conflicting narratives and relativism, it becomes rather tricky to present the truth of the Absolute to a vast disbelieving modernity.
      In Islam one is converted by proper use of intelligence or what is demanded is proper use of intelligence and I don’t think anyone can fail to appreciate reasonableness of the demand. God holds us accountable for our attitude to our own theormorphic nature. We have the right and duty to pursue happiness or ideally unalloyed joy and if we squander this right or duty we fail in the task of being human. Proper use of aql leads to tawhid/unity of the Real. So every thinking person is converted by using philosophical acumen in the broad sense of the term. Only those established in knowledge or Ulama fear God, the Quran declares. Who are Ulama? What is knowledge in Islam? Isn’t it inclusive of what goes by the name of intellectual or what one may loosely call philosophical disciplines as well? How can we ignore or reject Al-Farabi’s claim, elaborated and more eloquently argued by Ibn Rushd, that philosophers, as the people of demonstration, have the primary claim to the class of true knowers or truly knowledgeable on whom the title of aalim applies? Who is best capable of interpreting the Prophet’s word? Philosophers, according to both Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. Shah Waliullah and Ismail Shaheed have clarified that sages – hukama – are best qualified in this task. (Disagreement may be identifying a particular person as hekeem though the basic agreement over what is hikmah and what makes one hakeem is evident in Islamic tradition. The question who is a hakeem Suharwardi and his commentator Mulla Sadra illuminate while as some exoteric exegetes obfuscate like none else.) Are not the greatest names in Muslim history largely classifiable as philosophers or philosophical theologians? Sufis have been preeminently claiming the qualification as urafa, as knowers. We know that the notion of hikmah has both prophetic and philosophical connotations. The Prophet is described as teacher of hikmah and given the position adopted by Muslim philosophers as enunciators of hikmah, we can safely assert that philosophy and prophecy are allies. Indeed, “Muslim historians, from al-Shahrastani in the twelfth century to Qutb-al-Din Ashkivari in the seventeenth, take the view that the wisdom of the 'Greek sages' was itself also derived from the 'Cave of the lights of prophecy'.”
      If we can claim for philosophers as sages a pre-eminent place that has been reserved to scholars (theologian-jurist) and saints in popular Muslim imagination we can take a great leap forward for facing multiple challenges that Muslim community has been facing. Is the huge project on preaching Islam to the world that is preoccupying thousands of Muslim scholars and activists viable in absence of serious engagement with (post)modern philosophical or critical discourse? If a sizeable number of educated youth and ex-Muslims are expressing their reservations about theological cum juristic corpus for its supposed failure to convince on rational grounds, how can dawah workers avoid appropriating Muslim philosophers who have used an idiom that communicates much better to modern secular audience? To just give one example: Al-Farabi talks about seeking happiness  at individual level and cooperating for the same at social level as the problem of man and proceeds to explain time tested contemplative and ethical teaching handed from ancients through Plato and what Suharwardi calls “the light of the cave of prophecy.”
      Today dawah work needs philosophical approach, at least in certain parts of the world or certain sections of addressees. If one doubts this it means one is living in medieval age and has not heard of Nietzsche or Heidegger or Freud or Derrida.
      Why thinking or tafakkur is needed to understand scripture is lucidly answered by Mulla Sadra thus: “The Quranic revelation is the light which enables one to see. It is like the sun which casts light lavishly. Philosophical intelligence is the eye that sees this light and without this light one cannot see anything. If one closes one’s eyes, that is, if one pretends to pass by philosophical intelligence, this light itself will not be seen because there will not be any eyes to see it.”
      One needs to note an important qualification while seeking to appropriate Al-Farabi for dawah work. Instead of being interested in formal conversion – like Sufis in general who practized sharing their love and wisdom and people getting attracted to them and as a result landed in Islam – but inviting people through various means to work for virtuous state or at least their perfection or happiness, both this worldly and eschatological. The task of the philosopher or Sufi is midwifery – letting the treasure in us unfold rather than seek a convert to some ideological construct or narrative. His call for justice and ethic centric life would remind one of a Derrida or Levinas rather than any firebrand evangelist or intoxicated assassin or modern sermonizer. His commitment to Islam would be somewhat like that of Schuon who was more interested in Sophia perennis he thought expressing the esoteric/metaphysical core of Islam as of other traditions and addressing the world as a sage rather than a sectarian preacher or in the name of piety or some political ideology. One could point out that the most brilliant minds in recent history have been converted or reverted at the hands of sages like Isa Nuruddin who didn’t seek to convert as such. Some Sufis did and some didn’t insist on formal conversion before consenting to guiding someone. God chooses whomsoever he wills. Ultimately conversion/reversion is about choosing the other/God over the self, Spirit/Akhirat centric life over ego/nafs/world centric one. Who can claim he has chosen Islam or converted truly in this sense? Let us first convert ourselves and then we will understand what it entails for the other. Conversion need not be approached in all or none terms. We ever seek to deepen – or disengage with – our conversion to other views, faiths, loves. One is not really converted, one is reverted to what one is or has been idealizing or nurturing in one’s depths.
      All of us seek to spread the good news we know; we are all interested in advising people to seek what we consider to be the best book, best food, best university, best philosopher and so forth. Every philosopher has thus sought to convince others and thus to “convert.” So it is natural for man to invite others even if not overtly to what one’s religion or advocate why one’s path helps better. This explains how one can be a religious pluralist – not call bad names of others’ gods, suspend judgment regarding any particular persons’ fate till the Last Day, respect freedom of choice of others to choose even hell for themselves, refuse to claim to scan hearts, see God as the intended object of worship of every worshipper – in the proper sense and still be active on dawah front. On sum we don’t find the world abandoning any major religion en masse for any other or theists becoming atheists or vice versa or Muslims/non Muslims exchanging beliefs in such numbers as to depopulate the world although there have been hope of skewing it in favour of one or the other religion amongst many believers of different missionary religions. There is even a debate between sects of a religion regarding exact shape of things at end times as Jesus/Mahdi conquer the world. It is interesting to see almost constant to and fro traffic of believers and nonbelievers, of Muslims and Christians and Buddhists. One may sum up philosophical basis of conversion idea in the statement that man is a quest for orientation to the vision of the Good and the Beautiful and the True and as such whatever he perceives/believes to be the perfect image of them will be the object offered for others to consider. It remains to be seen whether saints/sages ultimately offer us different things or different and complementary images/packaging of the One Truth/Beauty/Goodness/Joy. A vast majority of scholars today think that the latter is the case. If one thinks differently, one is  welcome to put forward arguments. Nothing is more unscholarly than to claim to be the spokesperson of God/ Prophets when we know God has chosen not to explicitly endorse any particular candidate to exclusively fight election (for a seat in Paradise) in His name or on His ticket. Or at least we are surrounded by different advocates of God/Prophets inviting us to different – at least seemingly so – versions of Truth.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Understanding the conflict between Faith and Doubt

Einstein or Hawking would love to imitate intellectual discipline of great sages such as Sankara or Nagarjuna or Eckhart or Ibn Arabi.
Hemingway and Abu al-Ala al-Maari stated that “All thinking men are atheists.” Clifford challenged the religious world with the proposition that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Against this we find a statement in the Bible “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.” and in the Quran that God is a Manifest Truth and a great modern mind Berdyaev stating “Man can’t exist where there is no God.”  How do we understand such opposite statements while noting that most of the top ranking scientists and philosophers who supposedly seek evidence for any thesis are atheists?  What about many top ranking scientists/philosophers who affirm a sort of supra-personal intelligence of design and mystery instead of what is ordinarily called Designer or Creator? I suggest attention to few points to help see how dialogue between what are dubbed godless scientists/philosophers and advocates of religion may move forward.
  1. One needs to note that God is not a problem for world religions and there is hardly any anxiety to drill a belief in personal God on the basis of authority. Belief in a personal God has not been the defining feature of any religion – and some have in fact little use for the idea or simply eschew it as ordinarily understood. The Quran focuses fundamentally on Tawhid (Unity of the Real) and not what is called existence of God. C. R. Jain’s work Key to Knowledge frames the question of God in world religions from Jaina nontheistic viewpoint. Non-Semitic religions don’t mind divergent pictures of God defended or attacked by theists and their critics. Religions have commitment to salvific/enlightenment projects for which personal God may or may not be invoked – Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism-Taoism, transtheistic currents in Hindu thought and transtheistic metaphysical ground of Semitic religions all eschew/relativize in relation to the transpersonal depth of Being/Real/Absolute personal God under attack in modern disbelief. Einstein and Hawking would not be very interesting critics regarding personal God for mystical traditions of Semitic religions. Foremost authorities on world religions find profound convergence between Buddhism and Islam on non-self/God or Absolute.
  2. There is a thin line between atheism and transtheistic metaphysics shared by world religions. The debate should not be seen from the prism of exoteric theologians but metaphysicians/mystics. Einstein or Hawking would love to imitate intellectual discipline of great sages such as Sankara or Nagarjuna or Eckhart or Ibn Arabi. Authority of Revelation follows from recognition of “authority” of intellect over reason and requires what is called great discipline of attention of  attuned intelligence or intellectual humility, a virtue emphasized by religions and implicitly by science if it is true to its commitment to intelligence and truth anywhere.
  3. Real knowers/gnostics don’t talk of this world and the other world, man and God and belief and disbelief in terms of absolutized binaries as Muslim sages and Sufi poets have observed.
  4. Kaufmann in his provocative The Faith of a Heretic has observed that “there are men who use ancient formulations of belief in order to express their own lack of belief, or at least beliefs very different from those of, say, the evangelists—men who use old terms in new ways. Aquinas already did this when he defined God as the pure act of being. Tillich does it today when he defines God as being-itself. Spinoza, who was frank enough about his many heresies, spoke of ‘God or Nature’; John Dewey, who did not pretend to be a theist, said, not without irony, that if God were defined as the active relationship between the ideal and the actual, he, too, could say that he believed in God.”
  5. Tomas Halik in his insightful “Why Have You Forsaken Me? Five Theses on Faith and Atheism” has noted that “somebody who calls himself an atheist has a heart which is full of God and open to the mystery of love. For various reasons, his faith is not present in his conscious mind, in his rational thinking. This may be due to cultural influences or because of his upbringing or a traumatic experience with the Church, or a real lack of experience with the living Church and spiritual culture, authentic Christianity. Many such people have "an implicit faith" and we can call them with Karl Rahner "anonymous Christians." One could also call them “anonymous Muslims.”
      To be seriously interested in religious and ethical questions even for the sake of refutation is already a form of piety if we note the point succinctly put by Hatab in his study of Heidegger. “Accordingly, to ask about the good or ethical possibilities is to already be interested in ethics, as opposed to mechanical obedience, resistance, or a thoughtless indifference. To be-in-question, ethically, then, is to already be ethical in some sense.”
      A few remarks from Kierkegaard may help us approach the problem of atheism in religious terms “God cannot be an object of study, since God is subject. For this very reason, when you deny God, you do not harm God but destroy yourself. When you mock God, you mock yourself.” “It is wrong of established Christendom to say that Feuerbach (an atheist) is attacking Christianity. It is not true; he is attacking the Christians by demonstrating that their lives do not correspond to the teachings of Christ. This is quite different. What Christianity needs are more such traitors.”
      “There are many people who arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do; they cheat their teachers by copying the answer book without having worked the problem themselves.” In our attempt to seek authentically what is central to our destiny, doubt, atheism and heresies may prove milestones that are  not to be courted for their own sake but appreciated for the cleansing of the mind and soul and attacking complacent posturing of most believers. “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds” as Tennyson remarked. “To ignore the true God is in fact only half an evil; atheism is worth more than the piety bestowed on mythical gods” as Levinas noted in “A Religion for Adults.” Halik has also noted: “The struggle between faith and atheism is not a struggle between two teams, like in football. The struggle between faith and atheism runs through the heart of every human being. Believers have an unbeliever inside, and the so-called unbelievers have also a believer inside of them.” “Faith is doubt” as Emily Dickinson wrote is indeed enshrined in the first part of shahadah “there is no god…” Faith requires doubting every rational construction or imagined notion about the Truth.  With somewhat different connotation, “the Greatest Master” of Islam has emphasized etymology of belief as a knot and accordingly that perfect man can’t be attached to/limited by any belief.
      Schuon’s essay “Concerning the Proofs of God” may be read to dispel the fuzzy thinking and polemics over the question of belief or God. Modern Thomists and Muslim theologians like Ayub Dehlavi and such sages as Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi clarify certain key problems in the debates that otherwise generate much heat and little light.
      Theistic framing of mysticism may be juxtaposed with non-theistic one. Such figures as Bugbie open new vistas for dialogue between atheism and mysticism.
      One may sum up in few lines the whole confusion on faith and doubt. What we are asked to believe in is not something, some object, some proposition, some ideological construction, some experience that one could possibly doubt or investigate in objective manner. God is our own depth or subjectivity and thus too near us, too existential a reality to be set apart for investigation. God is also a witnessing self that sees and makes all seeing, reasoning possible in the first instance rather than can be seen or scanned. God is a Mystery and not a problem as Marcel would put it. Doubt concerns problems, probable affairs or events. God is a percept and a process and doubt may be entertained regarding concepts and events. God is the name of Isness/Being that is affirmed in every act or idea. People can’t be, in any significant sense, divided on the question of Being/Mystery/Subjectivity. Debating and doubting God in the sense saints and sages understand the term is as absurd as considering doubting beauty, truth, joy, love, intellect, grammar, seeing and listening. Those who have problems with certain theistic account or absolutization of personal God include, among others, saints and sages of world religions. Regarding what is called supernatural and supposed to be discredited/made redundant or problematic by science and rationalist philosophy, one may suffice to note that if we include such things as veridical dreams, prophecy, the world of spirits/angelic beings, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, evidence of what are called miraculous events/healings, effect of prayer and survival of soul/spirit, there is ample evidence for professional scientists (a brilliant summary of all these is found in Mysteries and Miracles by Johnson) to take them seriously as scientists. A vast majority of professional scientists are convinced that evidence is conclusive and religion is on far securer ground now and has survived the frontal attack of reductionist science. The precise sense in which we may or may not legitimately use the term supernatural and supposed breach of what is called natural/spiritual laws in such phenomena needs elaborate discussion that is eschewed here. One may conclude by declaring that a) atheists have a point but that doesn’t concern or affect the thesis defended by saints and sages of world religions, b) there are hardly any atheists in the absolute sense (though significant divergences remain from the viewpoint of universal orthodoxy) amongst the most significant modern philosophers (one may mention here Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Derrida and Levinas, for instance) and scientists (Einstein, Plank, Pauli, Salam for instance).