Thursday, 31 March 2016

Fighting for God: Misreading Other Religions

Thanks to great strides in the discipline of comparative religion, we now know the religious other better.
Today religion can be taken seriously only if we can show it is not a divisive force. Seeing the contemporary scenario regarding understanding of religious-other in the Muslim world (and elsewhere as well) it is hard to see how we can assert that religion unites, and doesn’t divide. Isn’t it the case that, as Weinberg, the famous physicist,  puts it: “With or without religion, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion”  or as Pascal, the great religious thinker, says: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”? The question is how do we prevent fights in the name of God?  One way is that of the West that abolished such wars by becoming secular or showing religion exit. However this secularization isn’t the ideal solution for believers and many great modern thinkers. Ousting God lands us in the nihilist-absurdist-relativist world, or materialism, or secular utopianism in whose name world wars were fought and millions killed in USSR and China. There is another possible solution and that consists in taking religion seriously on what it literally connotes – binding men to God. All religions are to be construed as versions of a Single Tradition – Ad-Deen-al Qayyim – and the later is best defined as what binds man to Heaven and this includes as a means some equivalent of the concept of revelation. If this is granted – and one can easily demonstrate this as well on rational and scriptural grounds – we would be able to fight violence at all fronts including the political. Living in a globalized world one needs to know the religious other better for achieving this goal. And thanks to the great strides in the discipline of comparative religion, we now know the religious other better. However tragedy is our more popular religious leaders or preachers don’t know this science that has only recently developed. Most modern scholars of religion subscribe to a varying degree to some of the following notions, any of which if correct make interfaith dialogue almost meaningless, incoherent and academically hardly sustainable or respected enterprise:
  • That Semitic religions and non-Semitic religions advocate sharply divergent conceptions of Divinity. The former are seen as absolutizing concept of Personal God while the latter have no need of personal God or positively deny the first hypostasis of Absolute that personal God is.
  • That sacred- profane dichotomy characterizes certain religions and not others.
  • That such “Sufiana mazahib” – to use Ghamidi’s oft repeated formulation – as Buddhism and Hinduism are pantheistic which is incongruent with transcendentalist theism of Semitic religions.
  • That wahdat-al-wajood associated with Ibn Arabi and most Sufis and non-Semitic religions is pantheism that negates God outside the world.
  • That Buddhism is atheist/ agnostic  rather than trans-theist so has nothing corresponding to God of theistic religions.
  • That different scriptures make really contradictory claims and that their original message is no longer retrievable by any means.
  • That religions fundamentally differ in conceptions of after life. Concept of reincarnation or rebirth and monotheistic conception of single birth and posthumous existence have no common meeting point at any plane.
  • That religions are to be identified with theologies; metaphysics doesn’t ground them or unify them.
  • That theologies are not ultimately expressible in one another’s terms or subsumable and reconcilable under higher metaphysical and esoteric plane.
  • That essentially symbolic narratives in scriptures could be subject to literalist exegesis  or historical criticism.
  • That theology, philosophy and mysticism in traditional religious civilizations are not reconcilable or organically assimilated by the Traditions in question and one needs to explicate Deen meaningfully by first rejecting “tamaddun, tasawwuf, shariah, kalam” as alien impositions. 
  • That religions are primarily reconcilable, if at all, on ethical plane only and not the intellectual/ metaphysical one.
All these points have been forcefully challenged by many scholars of comparative religion but the most passionate advocates or preachers of different religions don’t know this. There is so much debate on God or gossiping about God and stakes associated with one’s understanding of God that clarifying this notion is one of the chief tasks of philosophy. Sects in religion are rooted in different understanding of God. Different religious movements have been fighting for different views on God or God’s relation to the world. The following points – argued by various scholars with compelling logic – need to be noted before giving judgments about world religions:
  • God is not best approached in theology or science of belief. Sectarian fights are on different creedal formulations and we find so many versions sometimes within the same larger school on a given issue. It has more to do with faith than belief and there is a whole book by W C Smith explicating the difference between the two.
  • Religious/secular binary has been invented by modernity to do away with religion. Ad-Deen is not to be reduced to religion. We shouldn’t be trapped in religion vs. secularism binary and reduce Tradition to the former.
  • Religion – and scriptural language – is not concerned with truth and nothing but truth. The fact is religion’s business is, primarily, saving people from loss or hell and not truth. It is philosophy and more precisely what Abdul Wahid Yaha and his likes have called Metaphysics that deals with Truth, pure truth. As Guenon explains, religion as theology have to take into account emotional makeup of people and their individualities and according filter Truth that Metaphysic accesses. People need to be consoled and seek this in religion and we know that Truth needn’t necessarily be consoling. 
  • We need to evaluate truth or otherwise of different religious traditions in light of certain standard of truth represented by one’s own religious tradition. This is a problematic methodology. We can have a dialogue on what is agreed by all the dialoguing parties. And there are fortunately such commonalities in different religious traditions, Semitic as well as non-Semitic religions like Buddhism (Manazir Ahsen Gilani has an insightful reading of Buddhism that corroborates Pallis and Schuon’s reading). And these are precisely those that the Quran lists (2:62)  as beliefs in 1) God as Absolute or the Transcendent Sacred, 2) other world or higher world and 3) right action and elsewhere it states common terms to be Divine Unity, shunning shirk and other lords. Can we name any scripture or traditional religion that invites us to shirk or pantheism or wrong actions or denies after life?
  • We are simply misinformed about other religions. Even the scholars who are widely read or influential. Both Zakir Naik and Javed Ghamidi, for instance, are inadequately about other religions, especially non-Semitic religions. This is primarily because they approach other religions in theological terms and appropriate them in atomistic terms quoting chapters and verses from scriptures and reiterate now questioned notions about their understanding of God, revelation and after life. They don’t take philosophical or mystical approach seriously that has been the key to self understanding of other religions. 
  • Deen, hikmah, self fashioning (tazkiyyah), law, culture are all too deeply connected  or reciprocally implicated to allow any expunging of their historical expressions in Sufism, Muslim philosophy, kalam, sha’ria and art by any purist. (Iqbal is misappropriated in search of “pure Islam” – an idea forcefully deconstructed by Hasan Askari – was himself a philosopher, a Sufi and a poet.)
  • W. T. Stace, W. C. Smith, Mircea Eleade, Otto, John Hick, Fithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Suzuki, Huston Smith, Ken Wilber and a host of other great scholars besides such philosophers as Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the whole schools that have developed around them have drastically changed our understanding of key terms in the debate on comparative religion. 
  • Lastly, but most importantly, we can’t ignore differences in theologies of different religions and push for uniformity or syncretism but we can’t ignore the idea of transcendent unity of religion (wahdat-i-deen) implicated in the Quran but must distinguish it from misleading idea of unity of religions (wahdat-i-adyaan). Metaphysics and esotericism demonstrate transcendent unity while theology or fiqh show differences. For comprehensive view we need all of them at appropriate levels. We mustn’t confuse levels. “Only at the level of the Absolute are the teachings of the religions the same. Below that level there are correspondences of the most profound order but not identity.” As Rumi says: “When the number hundered has arrived, ninety is also present./The name of Ahmad is the name of all prophets.” 

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