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"You believed yourself to be stronger than G.o.d," Moses replied to him. "You have rejected the Eternal, and me, His Messenger. Now you are defeated and your riches are no more. The earth will swallow you up slowly; you shall be subjected to this punishment until the end of time."
It was thus that Moses excluded the infidel from G.o.d's love. He caused him to perish after having p.r.o.nounced his judgment, and he expected the approval of the Almighty. But the ways of G.o.d are impenetrable and the Lord reproached him severely, saying, "O Moses! Korah called upon you seventy times in repentance and you remained deaf to his plea. If he had called upon Me but one time, I would have saved him."
Moses was confused. G.o.d added, "Do you know why you did not have compa.s.sion for Korah? It is because to you he is neither your son, nor a being that you have created."4 This intentional juxtaposition of "son" with "created being" clearly shows us that G.o.d, Who has not engendered and Who was not engendered,5 has for those He created the same love that a father has for his children. He was generous to the children of Adam, without differentiating amongst their states.
In this regard, Tierno told us about a major event in the life of Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani when he was living in Morocco, where he benefited from the protection of the Sultan. During a public talk, a troublemaker who wanted to embarra.s.s him asked him a trick question. He asked, "Does G.o.d love infidels?"
Basing his response on commentaries of the Koran, the Shaykh dared to answer, "Yes, G.o.d loves infidels." This was an unexpected answer at that time. There was a great outcry. Indignant, the audience left the room. Only eleven faithful disciples remained around the Shaykh, those very ones who later would see the birth of the Tijani order.
Marcel Cardaire, himself a fervent Catholic, had been touched by the att.i.tude of openness and love that radiated from the teachings of Tierno Bokar. Let us allow him to speak: The first lesson that the "brothers in G.o.d" learnt was a lesson of religious tolerance.
In the small rooms of Tierno's disciples, the teaching that was described to us took on new dimensions according to the rhythm of the seasons. It became true nourishment. In this country of simple technologies, we heard simple sentences fall from simple lips. The words penetrated better than if they had been p.r.o.nounced in one of those temples or mosques that give homage more to the prowess or refinement of man than to the majesty of the Creator. And moreover, these words that we have collected in no way resemble what one hears in other places of worship. These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speaker nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause G.o.d to live in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.
In these small rooms we heard maxims that we would have liked to see engraved in golden letters on the portals of all the places of worship in the world. What religious university, what al-Azhar, could match the Sage of Bandiagara?6 Among those who came to listen to Tierno, not all were from the Tijani order. One day several Qadiri, members of the Qadiriyya brotherhood, one of the most ancient orders in Islam, came to listen to his cla.s.ses. When the time came to carry out the great dhikr (the common chanting of the Name of G.o.d) one student asked Tierno, "Are those who are not Tijani going to take part in the dhikr?"
"Make the dhikr without worrying about them," he replied. "If some of them want to partic.i.p.ate, you have no right to forbid them. And if they prefer to leave, you have no right to restrain them."
The dhikr took place, in the presence of numerous Qadiri. When it had finished, Tierno spoke: The Rainbow The rainbow owes its beauty to the variety of its shades and colors. In the same way, we consider the voices of various believers that rise up from all parts of the earth as a symphony of praises addressing G.o.d, Who alone can be Unique. We bitterly deplore the scorn that certain religious people heap on the form of divine things, a scorn that often leads them to reject their neighbor's hymn because it contrasts with theirs. To fight against this tendency, brother in G.o.d, whatever be the religion or the congregation to which you are affiliated, meditate at length on this verse: "The creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and of your colors are many wonders7 for those who reflect" (Koran 30:22).
There is something here for everyone to meditate upon.
During a certain period, American Protestant missionaries had come to the Soudan. They liked to preach in the areas where the Catholic Church had not been able to establish itself. Because Bandiagara was one of these places, the head of this Protestant mission arrived one day in the town, set himself up on the market square, and began to speak of G.o.d in the Bambara language.
Astonished, or at least amused to hear a foreign pastor express himself thus in their language, large numbers of curious people surrounded him. When he started to speak of G.o.d with warmth and strength, and above all when he translated the psalms of David into Bambara, people were moved. Muslims are always moved by Biblical language, especially when it is translated into their tongue. But there were a few bigots in the audience who took offense to the scene and who tried to turn the crowd away crying, "It's a Christian! It's a Christian!"
One of Tierno's students had been present at the scene. When he arrived in cla.s.s, he reported these facts to us, exulting in a malicious way what had happened to the pastor. "Today," he said, "a pastor wanted to talk to us about G.o.d. But we made so much fun of him that he was obliged to leave."
Tierno was revolted by this behavior. Wanting to put his students on guard against disrespectful behavior towards men who spoke in the name of G.o.d, he launched an out-and-out call for tolerance on that day: Children of the Same Father Are children of the same father, although physically different from one another, any less brothers and legitimate sons of he who fathered them? In accordance with this law-truth, we pity those who deny believers from different confessions a spiritual ident.i.ty and brotherhood under one single G.o.d, the unique and immutable Creator.
Although it may not please those attached to the letter,8 for us one thing alone counts above all others: to profess the existence of G.o.d and His unity. So, brother in G.o.d who comes to the threshold of our zawiya, which is a center of love and charity, do not hara.s.s the follower of Moses. G.o.d Himself witnesses that He has said to His people, "Implore G.o.d for a.s.sistance, and be patient. The earth belongs to G.o.d and He bequeaths it to whom He will among His servants. A blissful end will be for those who fear Him" (Koran 7:128).
Neither should you hara.s.s the follower of Jesus. G.o.d, in speaking of the miraculous child of Mary, the Virgin Mother, said, "We granted to Jesus, son of Mary, the gift of miracles and We comforted him through the Holy Spirit" (Koran 2:253).9 And the other human beings? Let them enter, and even greet them in a brotherly way in honor of that which they have inherited from Adam, of whom G.o.d has said, addressing the angels, "When I have perfected him and breathed into him of My Spirit, then fall down before him prostrate as a sign of your veneration" (Koran 38:72).
This verse implies that every descendant of Adam is the repository of a particle of the Spirit of G.o.d. How would we therefore dare to scorn a receptacle that contains a particle of G.o.d's Spirit?
Moreover, Tierno often said: You who come to us and whom we esteem, not as a student, but as a brother, reflect! Meditate on this verse from the Book of Guidance: "There is no compulsion in religion. The Truth distinguishes itself from error. He who rejects false deities in order to believe in G.o.d has grasped a handhold that is firm, unbreakable. And G.o.d is All-hearing, All-knowing" (Koran 2:256).
Relations with Other Religions "Tierno," I asked him one day, "is it good to converse with people of another faith to exchange ideas and better understand their G.o.d?" He answered: Why not? I will tell you: one must speak with foreigners if you can remain polite and courteous. You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith. Certainly, faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up. Otherwise, it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers and then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.
To believe that one's race or one's religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be. Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air. Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something. Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is G.o.d or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.
So, when a man believes in G.o.d, he is our brother. Treat him as such and do not be like those who have gone astray. Unless one has the cert.i.tude of possessing all knowledge in its entirety, it is necessary to guard oneself against opposing the truth. Certain truths only seem to be beyond our acceptance because, quite simply, our knowledge has not had access to them."
He added: Avoid confrontations. When something in some religion or belief shocks you, instead seek to understand it. Perhaps G.o.d will come to your aid and will enlighten you about what seems strange to you. . .
Not only would Tierno Bokar not prohibit his students from interacting with believers of other faiths, but he also considered this practice an actual therapy for the soul. He asked people to make the necessary mental effort and to struggle against what is holding them back so as to better understand.
Along these same lines, one day he told us about a vision he had had: In my mind, I saw a gigantic man lying on his back. People of various religions and faiths were bustling about him. Some were speaking into his ear, others were opening his mouth, others were making him breathe in various perfumes, others were applying an eyewash, etc.
"What is this that I am seeing, who is this man?" I cried out to myself.
A voice answered me, "This is the blessed man who reminds himself of the Unity of G.o.d and of the brotherhood that should unite His worshipers, wherever they may come from. He is receiving, as you see, all the teachings. The result is better for him. He is porous, like sand. G.o.d gave him the power to conserve and to a.s.similate."
He added: The religious teaching given by a Prophet or by an authentic spiritual master is like pure water. One can absorb it without danger to one's spiritual or moral health. Such a teaching will be intelligible and of a superior order. Like clear water, it will contain nothing that can change it by modifying its flavor, its odor, or its color. It will mature the mind and purify the heart because it does not contain any external pollutant that could have the effect of obfuscating the soul or hardening the heart. We cannot overemphasize the benefits of studying the teachings of revealed religions. They are, for everyone, like potable water. We advise, however, that they be a.s.similated slowly, and to avoid murky theology that is likely to contain a spiritual Guinea worm.10 The saying goes, "When you are sweating, do not take in cold water." We recommend that "When your soul is in mystical fervor, do not read anything."
He constantly tried to inculcate into us the spirit of tolerance and make us understand that it was only the intrinsic spiritual quality of a man that mattered: Our planet is neither the largest nor the smallest of all those that our Lord has created. Those who inhabit it can therefore not escape this law: we should not believe ourselves to be superior, nor inferior, to other beings in the universe, whatever they be.
The best of created beings amongst us will be those who live in Love and Charity and in respect for their neighbor. Upright and radiant, they will be like a sun that rises and that goes straight up towards the sky.
Religion is One in Its Essence One can see that for Tierno Bokar there existed but one eternal Religion, unalterable in its fundamental principles but varying in its forms of expression and corresponding to the conditions of time and place of each Revelation. This primordial Religion was, for him, comparable to a trunk from which the known historical religions branch off like the branches of a tree.
It was this eternal Religion which was taught by all the great Messengers of G.o.d and which was molded to serve the necessities of each epoch. Too often, however, most people had only understood or retained the outward forms, in the name of which they entered into conflict with each other.
This concept is in conformity with the teachings of the Koran itself, which emphasizes the unity of the divine Revelation throughout time: Say ye: We believe in G.o.d and that which has been revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and unto the tribes; and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus; and unto that which was given unto the Prophets from their Lord. We show no preference between any of them, and unto G.o.d we submit ourselves (Koran 2:136).11 Lo! Those who believe, those who practice Judaism, those who are Christians or Sabaeans, those who believe in G.o.d and the Last Day, those who do right-these are the ones who will find their reward beside their Lord. They will know no fear, nor will they grieve (Koran 2:62).
Set your face to the pure Religion, the religion of the fitra (original primordial nature) through/for which G.o.d created mankind. There is no changing G.o.d's creation. That is the immutable religion, but most men know not (Koran 30:30). O Messengers of G.o.d. . . . This your religion (din) is One. I am your Lord, fear Me (Koran 23:51-52).12 Tierno elaborated on this: That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion-for there can only be one Religion-are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time.
As for the source of religion itself, it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or s.p.a.ce, a spark which G.o.d breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.
Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives. . . .
In its Essence, Faith is one, whatever the religion that conveys it might be. But in its manifestations, it presents, as we have seen, three fundamental states: solid, liquid, and gaseous. Faith is the essence of religion, which can then be seen as an atmosphere surrounding a universe populated with three categories of men: the believing ma.s.ses, preachers blinded by parochialism, and finally initiates who have found G.o.d and worship Him in truth and in silence.
Translated by Fatima Jane Casewit
1 Editor's Note: The following selections are from Amadou Hampate Ba, A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, edited by Roger Gaetani (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), pp. 122-134. Ba was a student and disciple of the Malian Sufi master, Tierno Bokar, who become known as "the sage of Bandiagara," the town in Mali where he lived for most of his life. The editor's notes below are all by Roger Gaetani.
2 Tierno compared this living Void, pure potentiality, to the mathematical notion of zero, the starting point containing the seed of all numbers that emerge from it. He does not mean here "nothingness," but rather "nonmanifested."
3 Editor's Note: This story of Korah (called Qarun in the Koran) is constructed of elements from the Koran, which mentions him very briefly, the Old Testament, and other legends whose source we do not know.
4 Editor's Note: Whereas, for G.o.d, even one as wicked as Korah is still considered as a "son" and one of His created beings.
5 An allusion to a phrase in the Koran 112:3.
6 Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara, p. 80.
7 The Arabic word aya signifies at once "marvel," "miracle," "sign," and "verse." If the revealed verses are "signs" of G.o.d, in an inverse manner one can also say that all the "marvels" that exist in creation are also "signs," therefore another mode of divine Revelation. According to this perspective, everything is Revelation. It is we who do not know how to read.
8 Editor's Note: That is, to outward forms, as in "the letter of the law." The exoteric form of a religion will necessarily exclude other possible forms, but here Tierno is suggesting that the central tenet of Islam, G.o.d's unity, implies for those with the virtues of love and charity that they must expand these virtues to encompa.s.s other children of G.o.d, through that very principle of G.o.d's unity, which encompa.s.ses all.
9 Editor's Note: This Koranic pa.s.sage is usually translated as: "We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear signs [or 'proofs'], and strengthened [or 'confirmed,' or 'supported'] him with the Holy Spirit."
10 Guinea worm, also called in French "filaire de Medine" (dracunculus medinensis). The larvae live in stagnant water. They implant themselves into humans, live in subcutaneous cellular tissues, and develop particularly in the legs, where they appear as enormous abscesses which in fact are made up of the implantation of the female and the acc.u.mulation of microfilaria. Upon the slightest contact with water, the sore opens and the female releases the ma.s.s of microscopic worms which renew the cycle.
11 Editor's Note: The final sentence of this verse is usually translated as "We make no distinction [or, 'difference'] between any of them, and unto Him we surrender."
12 Editor's Note: Other translations would render this section of the two verses as "O Messengers of G.o.d. . . . This your community [or 'nation' or 'brotherhood') is One and I am your Lord, therefore fear [or 'keep your duty unto'] Me." The Arabic word umma can imply all these meanings of "religion," "nation," "community," or "brotherhood."
An Interview on Islam and Inter-religious Dialogue
Seyyed Hossein Nasr What do you see as the main challenges to religions today?
The main challenges are first of all the creation by and for modern man of a world that is based on the forgetting of G.o.d, a world that man has made and removed from virgin nature by means of a technology that is based on the quantification of the natural world, and therefore creation of s.p.a.ces, of forms, in which people live every day and of sounds that they hear that are all cut off from the Divine Origin of things. Such a world therefore makes the reality of religion in a sense alien or unreal in everyday life, especially for those who live in urban environments, completely cut off from the world of nature, where the realities of religion are manifested in every natural form for those who can see. This element is complemented by the domination over the modern and now post-modern world of the modernistic paradigm (to which also the post-modern world really belongs), that is, a worldview in which at best G.o.d is a deistic G.o.d, originator of things but now far away. And at worst, of course, His reality is denied completely.
The challenge to religion is a worldview in which everything is envisaged within a closed material universe independent of transcendence, you might say, that is, the presentation of the view of a universe that is expected to explain everything and encompa.s.s everything within and by itself without opening unto transcendence. There is much to say about this matter philosophically that I cannot go into now, but let me just say that the paradigm, worldview or Weltanschauung as the Germans say, that was forged in Europe during the Renaissance and in the seventeenth century, and which became crystallized during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in France, this worldview clearly holds enmity vis-a-vis all authentic religions, because it is based on the self-sufficiency of the material, physical world. It does not see and therefore refutes the ontological dependence of the world in which we live upon the Divine Principle. And even if it accepts the Divine Principle, that Principle and its ontological independence are considered to be secondary and more or less irrelevant to man's everyday life. It is not accidental that Europe has produced the largest number of atheists as far as we know of any continent of the world, at least during the last three centuries. It is difficult to give an exact account, you might say, of what was going on in the loss of religious faith and the rise of agnosticism as far as quant.i.tative estimates are concerned at the end of the late Egyptian civilization and later developments of the Greek and Roman civilizations in the Mediterranean world, and to count heads. But certainly since the establishment of the modernist outlook, this has been the case.
What are the main contemporary opportunities, in your view, for religions to have their voice heard and their relevance recognized?
The most important opportunity that has arisen for religion in the modern world during the last century, including not only the West but also its spread into other parts of the globe, is the cracks that have appeared in the veneer of this modernistic worldview-that is, the gradual crumbling of the way of looking at things which itself has prevented people over several centuries in the West and a century or two in many other parts of the world from taking religion seriously. The idols of the new pantheon of atheism and agnosticism have to a large extent been broken. Of course we now see this virulent response of a new blatant atheism that has grown up in the last two or three decades in England and America. But that is, I think, more than anything else a kind of death-cry. It is not that serious; it is not going to last. The earth is now shaking under the feet of people who thought they stood on the earth without any need of Heaven. Therefore, many heads are now turning upward toward the sky. And this is a natural human response. This breaking of the idols of the new "age of ignorance" provides, I think, the most important opportunity for religion to remanifest itself.
There is also a second important opportunity, and that is the following: traditionally, each religion was a world unto itself. And when it talked about "the world," it meant its world. And its world was, for its followers, the world. When it talked about "humanity," it meant really its own followers. That is understandable and has been in fact throughout history the norm. There were exceptions, as when Islam and Hinduism met in Kashmir, or someplace like that, or Islam and Christianity and Judaism in Iberia; but by and large, that was the rule. Today that boundary has been broken to some extent. There are two forces that have penetrated into the previously h.o.m.ogenous s.p.a.ce of various religions-first occurring in the West, but now it is also occurring more and more elsewhere. The first is the forces of secularism, rationalism, materialism, and the like: the whole atheistic, agnostic worldview. And the second is other religions. There now are two "others." And the second "other," which is other religions, can help to a great extent overcome the lethal effect of the first "other," that is, it provides the opportunity for a particular religion to find an ally in other religions of the world, speaking different languages, having different forms, different symbols, but nevertheless, confirming a spiritual view of existence. This is a very important opportunity in the world in which we live. It is in a deep sense a dispensation from G.o.d to compensate for the withering effect of the spirituality-denying worldview that has surrounded modern human beings for the last four centuries or five centuries in the West, and is now doing so more and more in other continents.
Do you perceive dangers in contemporary religious pluralism?
I do not believe there is any danger at all if this religious pluralism is understood in the metaphysical sense based on the doctrine that there is the Absolute, a single Divine Principle (whether considered objectively or subjectively) upon which all authentic religions are based. There is nothing pluralistic about this doctrine; there is nothing relative about it. There is one Divine Principle that manifests Itself in different religious universes through which there is created religious pluralism. You have differences of religious forms, of sacred forms, of theologies and languages, and so forth. These are, however, elements that contribute to the plenitude of the garden of religion rather than simply relativizing religion.
The danger comes from the idea that has already been mentioned by Karl Marx and other opponents of religion, the idea that since there is more than one religion, all religions must be false. Seen in this way, religious pluralism has been taken as proof that there is nothing absolute in a particular religion and that all religious truth claims are therefore relative. I believe that one of the great achievements in the twentieth century in the field of religion has been the very explicit and succinct formulation of the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions made by Frithjof Schuon, and with another language by Rene Guenon, as well as by many others since those great figures appeared. I must also mention here Ananda Coomaraswamy who wrote many notable works about this truth. These remarkable figures wrote mostly in the mid-and late twentieth century. Since then, as a result of their achievement, we can turn the presence of more than one religion in our sight, in our experience-that is, what we call "religious pluralism"-into a very positive element, and avoid the danger faced by people who equate pluralism with relativism. That is the danger that existed from the eighteenth century onward in the West, and it was made use of a great deal by opponents of religion to combat the claims of a particular religion, in this case primarily Christianity, to the truth.
When considering the disconcerting diversity of religious faiths among religions that range from monotheism to non-theistic and polytheistic, what can we see as common grounds?
What we can see as common grounds are many-much more than one would think. First of all, between theism and non-theism: what is common between them is, you might say, the Urgrund, the Supreme Ground of Being, the absolute Divine Reality, which might be seen only in an objective manner, or in a subjective manner, as in Buddhism. But in any case, as far as religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism are concerned, and from another perspective in Advaita Vedanta, they do not speak of the personal aspect of the Divine. In such traditions there is no theos in the usual sense that the Abrahamic religions and many schools of Hinduism understand the Divine Reality. Nevertheless, there is the absolute Divine Reality, the Source of all reality, the Source of Being, and so forth. I have no difficulty myself, whatsoever, in finding this common ground between the monotheistic and non-theistic expressions of metaphysics at the heart of various traditional religions.
As for polytheists, there must be a distinction made between religions that speak of the G.o.ds but remain fully grounded in the doctrine of Unity (such as Hinduism) and the practice of polytheism based on the loss of the vision of Divine Unity, a kind of decadence that has taken place over and over again in human history, as we see in the ancient Babylonian religions. And once that occurs, of course, there is no longer any common ground between monotheism or non-theism and polytheism. It is important to emphasize that polytheism in the Hindu sense must not be confused with this latter form of polytheism. Hinduism is based on the manifestation of one single Divine Principle in multifarious forms, which we in Islam do not accept to be legitimate in physical form, albeit one can say that the Divine Names in Islam are realities of different aspects of Divinity but not in physical forms, whereas in Hinduism, especially in its popular dimension, these realities are envisaged in the physical forms of the G.o.ds. That is where the difference comes from. Nevertheless, polytheism of the Hindu kind is based on a single Divine Reality, and that single Divine Reality would be the common ground between monotheism, which denies any possibility of any theos other than the Divine Reality in Itself, and what we call "polytheism" in its non-decadent form.
Putting this metaphysical question aside, there is no doubt that in all authentic religions, whatever form they have externally, there is also a common ground as far as many ethical and aesthetic teachings are concerned, att.i.tudes towards good and evil, towards nature, towards a vision of a spiritual reality that transcends the material, the possibility of spiritual wayfaring, spiritual realization, the sense of the sacred and many, many other elements which are remarkable when seen in their deeper similarities, cutting across the theological distinctions of monotheism, non-theism, and polytheism.
How would you define the main goals of religion, or religions? Is it possible to define commonalities in this respect?
This question is somewhat ambiguous, but I think I understand to what it is alluding. You can talk about religion, and you can talk about religions. This is also a modern problem. If in the thirteenth century in Paris you talked about religion, that meant most likely Christianity, and you did not speak about religions. Today it becomes more and more difficult to speak about religion without also considering other religions, and therefore having to speak in the plural. But it is still possible. For many ordinary believers in a more insulated Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu community, it is still possible to speak about religion, and be speaking about the particular religion of those people without having to direct attention or make references to other religions. This becomes more and more difficult to the degree that that insularity is removed. And in both cases, whether you speak of religion or religions, there are many common goals including the ultimate goal of human life, whether seen as salvation or deliverance that one finds in the teachings of religions as different as Mahayana Buddhism and Kabbalistic Judaism.
There is also another issue that is involved here. In teaching religion in modern inst.i.tutions of learning in the West today, and now more and more in other places where modernism has spread, it is very difficult not to also speak about religions and to ignore other religions. One can teach about religion in two different ways: one is to speak about religion in general as a whole field of human experience, or experience of the Divine and of Divine manifestations, and elements common to religions. Let us say, you can teach that religious people have a firm belief in G.o.d's Will acting in their lives. Now, that sentence pertains to Jews, Muslims, and Christians but it would have a different meaning in, let us say, Buddhism. So, when you talk about religion, you talk about an element which is common in different religions but with different meanings and applications. The second is to teach about religion as my or our religion as they do in seminaries. In this case you can also be exclusivist and say, "This is the only authentic religion worthy of study." And that is where, of course, the problem for the world in which we live comes in. This exclusivist view is, however, being challenged more and more these days because you do have other religions and you can hardly deny that they are also religions if you want to be intellectually honest. And I believe that the teaching of religion in academic settings-not in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, but in academic settings-will have to deal more and more with religions as well as religion as such rather than just "my" or "our" religion. Let us hope that also more and more the teaching of religion in Western academic settings will be done from the point of view of religion itself rather than a non-religious or anti-religious perspective as we find so often today in the West.
What do you see as the specific function of Islam and Muslims in interreligious dialogue?
My view of the specific function of Islam and Muslims is not the same as some of my coreligionists who are not aware of the specific function that Islam has in interreligious dialogue. I believe that Islam is the final religion for the present humanity: the final plenary revelation. Finality always implies integration. That is why the Quran is perhaps the most religiously universalist, and least exclusive, of all sacred scriptures. It keeps talking about other religions all the time. And even the definition of "faith" is iman bi'Llah, "faith in G.o.d," "His books" and "His messengers," and not in the singular, book and messenger. So to accept other prophets, other sacred scriptures, is part and parcel of Islam's definition of itself. This is extremely significant and also providential. I believe that Muslims have a providential role to play in bringing out the significance of interreligious dialogue, of accepting the books, prophets, and messengers of G.o.d who preceded Islam, whether they be Christian, or Jew, or anybody else. The 124,000 prophets mentioned in ahadith are also our prophets and messengers.
Islam also provides the universalist, metaphysical knowledge or worldview which makes this acceptance possible. It is not by any means accidental that in the twentieth century the great expositions of the universality of revelation, which we see in the writings of traditional authors, came for the most part from an Islamic background, not completely, to be sure, for some also came from a Hindu background. Most of the great recent expositors of the doctrine of the universality of religion, however, have belonged to the Islamic tradition, starting with Guenon himself, who although he began with the exposition of Hindu doctrines-and there already he speaks of the universality of revelation-lived the last part of his life in Cairo as a Muslim and died as a Muslim. And this is not at all, by any means, accidental. But there are many Muslims today who do not understand this particular function of Islam to which Schuon has alluded in some of his writings. It is for scholars, for those who do understand, to make this matter better known in Islamic circles. One certainly does not become any less of a Muslim by taking the Quranic message of universality seriously, when over and over again the Quran a.s.serts that "A messenger has been sent to every people" and other verses with the same message. The Quran states that G.o.d could have created us all as a single nation, but He decided to create us as different people with different paths to G.o.d so that we could vie with each other in wisdom. A faithful Muslim cannot just admire that message a.s.serted repeatedly in the Quran without taking it to heart. Those like myself, who take this aspect of the Quran very seriously, do not believe that we are in any way betraying Islam, to put it mildly, by remaining so faithful to the teachings of the Quran on this crucial matter.
What would you say to Muslims who are reticent toward interreligious dialogue?
What I say here concerns a large body of Muslims, who have in fact increased in number in recent times because of outside pressures which have threatened the very fabric of Muslim life and made them more exclusivist in self defense. When a creature is threatened from the outside, it usually withdraws unto itself. I believe that a century ago, ordinary Muslims praying together in mosques were a lot more universalist than their grandchildren. My advice to Muslims today is to become more aware of this reality and study more the Islam practiced by their traditional ancestors. Despite the rise of exclusivism, there are, nevertheless, today many faithful people in the Islamic world who are becoming aware of the importance of interreligious dialogue, including a number of formal religious scholars ('ulama') such as muftis, theologians, and the like. When you see the King of Saudi Arabia, a country that in its Islamic interpretation of things is Wahhabi, which is the most exclusive and closed towards other religions of all the schools of Islamic thought, calling for interreligious dialogue, you understand that this is really a very deep need of the Islamic world.
What I would furthermore say to Muslims who are reticent toward interreligious dialogue is as follows: this is really what is called in Arabic fard kifayah, that is, it is obligatory for the community as a whole, but not for a particular person, not like the daily prayers that are obligatory for each individual, fard 'ayn. The carrying out of religious dialogue today is like the study of the science of Hadith that is obligatory for the Islamic community as a whole, but is not inc.u.mbent upon every individual. In the same way interreligious dialogue is not inc.u.mbent upon every individual. Some people do not understand it; some people are not comfortable with it. Fine. Allah ta'ala does not expect it of everyone. And in the case of those people, what I would say to them is that they should leave judgment of other religions in the Hands of G.o.d, and not try to prejudge with their incomplete knowledge what G.o.d will ultimately judge. They should have the att.i.tude of not being aggressively against other religions and interreligious dialogue, because they themselves do not feel comfortable dealing with other religions. They should follow Islam with sincerity and surrender to G.o.d and leave judging other religions in His Hands. As the Quran says, lak.u.m dinuk.u.m wali din, that is, "to you, your religion, and to me, my religion." As for other groups of people who have the capability to partic.i.p.ate meaningfully in dialogue, who can be enticed, or even transformed, you might say, by interreligious dialogue, one should make them understand first of all why interreligious dialogue is so important, why it concerns the very survival of religion in the future, why, if their children begin to go to a modern university, whether in the Islamic world or in the West, interreligious dialogue is the best guarantee that they will remain interested in religion itself, and will not simply turn away from it altogether. There are many other issues of this kind that can be explained. There are many arguments that have to be made.
And also in this domain there is need for courage. People who are devoted to interreligious dialogue must have the courage to withstand the criticisms that will be made of them. I have experienced that many times in my own life and I speak from experience here. One has to have the courage to stand one's ground, to be honest, to be sincere, and to remain devout, so that interreligious dialogue does not dilute one's own devotion to one's own faith. This is what many people in the Islamic world fear, as do also many in the Christian and Jewish worlds. There are many Orthodox Jews who refuse to have dialogue; there are many Catholics and Protestants who refuse to have dialogue. It is not unique to Muslims. This is one of the consequences that they all fear. It is very important therefore that those who carry out interreligious dialogue do so religiously, and not simply as secular scholars in a university, so that they can demonstrate to their coreligionists that they have not become any less pious, whether they are Muslims or otherwise, because of carrying out interreligious dialogue and talking to followers of other faiths in order to gain deeper knowledge of and empathy for the other.
What are the main obstacles to interreligious engagement in the Muslim world and in the West?
In the Islamic world, the main obstacles are not only theological but also political because in some Muslim countries these kinds of dialogues are usually guarded over carefully by political authorities, and certain types are encouraged, while certain kinds are discouraged. And there are also the obstacles coming from what are usually called "fundamentalist" groups-I do not like this term-but anyway from exclusivist groups, people who are strongly bound to only the external, exterior, exoteric teachings, forms and aspects of their religion without looking at the inward, the spiritual, the esoteric where real understanding of the other is to be found. They put an obstacle before interreligious engagement in many parts of the Islamic world, as you can see, in fact even discouraging individuals from such activities. You see that in Egypt, and in a country very different from Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, you see it in Pakistan as well as you see it in Iran at least in certain cases; you see it all over the Islamic world.
But such opposition is not the same everywhere. There are many Islamic countries in which there are not insurmountable obstacles out there in the social and political order. Rather, the obstacles come from within, and from the fact that, until now, most Muslims have not felt the need for interreligious engagement. Let us not forget the Muslim experience of the Ottomanstyle system in which you had Christians and Jews living in peace in the community with their own laws and yet interacting with the Muslim majority. Of course that is a different kind of engagement with the "other" than what we are talking about now, when there is also the need of an interreligious dialogue that must be based on discussing theological issues and penetrating to some extent into the intellectual and spiritual world of the other side. But the historical memory of such a situation remains and makes many Muslims feel that the presence of other religions is nothing new and therefore there is no need for interreligious dialogue on their part. It is true that this had not been necessary in traditional times, with certain exceptions noted already, but it is now becoming more and more necessary. In many places such historical experiences whose memory survives are among the main obstacles. But there is also the fact that some people feel that there is an obstacle coming often from a kind of inertia or lack of need of dialogue resulting from the earlier history of their family or their town, or people whom they knew, or the intellectual history that they follow. There are even some people who feel that religious dialogue is part of the Christian agenda with which Muslims need not be concerned. I repeat, I do not believe that serious and profound interreligious dialogue is meant to be carried out by every follower of Islam or other religions. Such an a.s.sertion would be absurd. The important thing is to cultivate a sense of respect of the other on the basis of the teachings of those who can provide keys for the understanding of the other, people who because of their virtue and knowledge of their own tradition as well as of other religions can be a respected and trustworthy voice within their own community.
As for the West, the obstacles there are very different. In the West, there is no direct political obstacle to interreligious dialogue or engagement. Or perhaps one should say, to be sure, that there is no political obstacle except in some fundamentalist circles in America. There are some religious constraints with a political dimension within certain Christian communities which would correspond to certain exclusivist groups in the Islamic world-some Protestant fundamentalists, or certain Catholic groups who are very strongly opposed to interreligious dialogue with other religions, especially Islam, but even Judaism. Also within Judaism, there are many Orthodox and very serious Jewish groups who are opposed to dialogue but, by and large, there is no political opposition to serious dialogue in the West. The much more subtle obstacle that exists in the West is that there has developed this century-old school or discipline of the study of religion and religions, what the Germans called Religionswissenschaft, based on a non-religious or even anti-religious and secularist study of religion. This academic approach to the study of religion is based on historicism or a phenomenology that pays no attention to the noumena, to the inner reality of things. It has dominated religious studies in the West and especially in universities in recent times. That is why many of the interreligious dialogues that have been carried out have also been combined with a dilution or rejection of the traditional formulations of various religions. This is a very serious obstacle because it will end ultimately in either this kind of least-common-denominator idea of the goal of religious dialogue which is so much around us today, or even in the dissolution of the idea of the sacred, which is at the heart, of course, of all religions. Of course, the least common denominator approach to religion is not the fruit of the academic study of religion alone. In fact, many academic studies have criticized the emotional pseudo-universalism seen in certain circles, but the academic study of religion has certainly played an important role in the destruction of the sense of the sacred in religions and their dilution as faith systems, therefore making it possible by certain people to argue for a least common denominator "world religion."
Modern men tend to look at the past in a somewhat stereotyped way, as ages of exclusiveness and intolerance, while there are actually historical precedents for interreligious engagement from which we may learn
Not only are there lessons or historical precedents from which we can learn, but I would say that, in fact, if we look at the world as a whole in older days there was a great deal less exclusivism and intolerance than there is today, if you consider the amount of knowledge that people had of the "other." While this may not have been true of much of Western Christianity, it is certainly true of the Islamic world, which is located in the middle of globe, and in which there was a lot more knowledge of Christianity and Judaism on the one hand, and Hinduism and Buddhism on the other hand, with Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism in the middle, than one finds in the pre-modern West of other religions. Even today, I think a simple villager near the city of Shiraz in Iran has more knowledge and awareness of other religions than many people do in certain parts of the United States. I have seen that from experience. So yes, there is certainly a very unfortunate stereotyping of ages gone by.
But in addition to that, we have some remarkable instances of the deepest kind of interreligious engagement before modern times which can serve as models for us. Let me just mention a few cases. The first-let us start from the West-is the case of Andalusia. In the Iberian Peninsula-but especially Andalusia, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived side by side-there were a lot of interactions, too many to enumerate, but that world produced, on the one hand, a figure such as Muhyi al-Din ibn 'Arabi, who is one of the greatest expositors of the metaphysics of religious diversity, especially in his book Fusus al-Hikam, The Bezels of Wisdom. And on the other hand, it led to the rise of a person such as St. John of the Cross on the Christian side, who although a Christian saint, was deeply influenced by Sufi poetry. We can see that truth as we study more fully his relation to Islam.
Then we have in the Ottoman world many instances of this harmonious engagement of religions, at least the Abrahamic ones. In Iran it has been the same way with Zoroastrianism being added to the list of minority religions living in an Islamic community. Between Iran and the Turkish world we have the figure of Jalal al-Din Rumi, who lived most of his life, of course, before the Ottoman Empire was established, in what later became the heart of the Ottoman world, that is, Anatolia. In the writings of Jalal al-Din Rumi we have some of the greatest and most beautiful expositions of what Schuon called the "transcendent unity of religions," the doctrine that all authentic religions come from G.o.d, that their differences are based on differences of perspective and the formal order and that each religion issues from and focuses upon that one Divine Reality on which all authentic religions are based. In fact, the whole Sufi literature and tradition, going back to Hallaj, and especially Persian Sufi literature, are impregnated by the doctrine of the Oneness of the Origin of all religions and are full of references to this transcendent unity, from Baba Tahir 'Uryan to Sana'i to Jalal al-Din Rumi to many other later figures, all of whom speak of the unity of the essence of religions and diversity of religious forms.
Then there is the example of India where we see numerous meetings between Sufis and Hindu yogis and pandits and their interreligious discourses. It was in India where some four centuries ago there took place a major event, the translation of the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian, which finally brought this text through Anquetil-Duperron to Europe when he translated the Persian text into Latin and presented it to Napoleon in 1804, and from there the Upanishads became well known in Europe. There are many instances like that which have not even been fully studied. I find in my humble study of both the philosophical and Sufi or gnostic mystical traditions within Islam remarkable instances of this interreligious engagement-not to talk about all the theological discussions held in Islam, but in the context of many religions, such as in the book al-Milal wa'l-nihal, of Shahrastani, etc. Certainly our ancestors have left us many historical, theological, and metaphysical precedents of the greatest importance which could act as a guide for us today, as a model for us in our search for profound and serious interreligious dialogue and understanding.
Gnosis The eye of certainty is like the sun -