A Religion of Fear or A Religion of Love?
by Shaikh Kabir Helminski
Speech given at the UMA symposium on “Rising Islamophobia: Causes, Consequences and Remedies” on April 17, 2011
Ladies and Gentleman, Children of the family of Adam, Sisters and Brothers in Islam,
Our subject tonight is “Islamophobia and Its Remedies.” My perspective on this theme will be to focus on the possibility of a spiritual awakening among Muslims. I suggest that such a reawakening would be a blessing for our own souls and could also lead to our regaining the respect and even admiration of humanity at large. My focus will be on how we can clean our own house and begin to deal with some centuries of “deferred maintenance” on the House of Islam.
I would like to draw our attention to the opportunity that these times present to us—a time fraught with disappointments, uncertainties, and challenges, a time that demands the best of us and a truly spiritual vision. I would like to offer some ideas that may seem perhaps strange and new to some of you. I ask your patience and consideration.
For about 35 years I have been teaching spirituality, primarily to non-Muslims in America. During this time I have presented Islam as the foundation and context of this spirituality, but for many reasons it was not appropriate or useful to promote mainstream Islam, the Islam of most mosques in America.
I can say without hesitation that I found in Islam a comprehensive context, satisfying responses to the fundamental questions of existence, and an integrated, i.e holistic spirituality, and finally a great and beautiful love.
Out of necessity we employed a stripped down, bare bones Islam. The kind of people we were working with had little interest in adopting Middle Eastern or Asian cultural styles. In some cases they may have had little interest in religion, per se. They were seeking something the heart yearns for, often after having experimented with various other religious teachings and techniques. And we, from our side, were always searching for the most complete spirituality, a spirituality adequate to the times.
Our predisposition might have been to find something beyond any religion, a path that did not require belief in doctrines, a path that did not make exclusive claims to truth, i.e. a spiritual practice with universal validity, and with a rationale that made sense to minds that were highly educated to question, to critique, and even to doubt.
It was in the end quite a surprise that Islamic Sufism and the Qur’an met all of these criteria, even if the Islam that we met in the mosques and from institutionally trained Islamic clerics often did not satisfy these criteria. The kinds of truths we found are far too numerous to explore here and now, but a few that could be named would include: fitrah, iman, taqwa, insan, Haqq, qalb, ruh, nafs. Terms like these became a metaphysical toolbox for coping with existence. They are like instruments of perception that allow us to glimpse the structure and nature of reality.
The essence of what we learned from this Path is that the Divine is here to educate and uplift us. It’s foremost qualities are: an overwhelming generous benevolence and a creativity to which we should naturally respond with wonder. Its dimensions are infinite.
Human beings seek meaning continually. We are meaning-seeking creatures. The Divine meets this need of ours in the most beautiful way. Revelation reveals to us what it means to be human and how we can fulfill our human destiny. Of course the Divine itself is part of the answer, even essential to our human well-being and fulfillment. But the message, as the Qur’an amply shows us, is too often corrupted by human egoism, by the strategies and tendencies of egoistic power and privilege. These manifest themselves as superstition, authoritarianism, clerical privilege, religious power structures, and dogmas that support all of the above.
How can we know when that revelation has been made corrupt (fasad) and toxic by human egoism? What are some of the symptoms of the degeneration of the Din, the Divine Order.
1. When the kernel of spirituality is replaced with the shell of form. This “thingification,” to coin a word, is idolatry, itself (shirk in Quranic Arabic).
One example could be the exclusive reliance on obsessive ritual behavior, which is not in and of itself spiritual, especially when it is divorced from its inner reality. Religious behaviors may become merely obsessive behaviors when they are governed by fear or mere habit. In other words, the preoccupation with the outer form of prayer, ablutions, rituals, and behaviors may be a form idolatry when it becomes a primary focus.
Please do not react to these ideas with fear, as if this could lead to the unraveling of a rigorous spiritual practice. On the contrary, it can save us from a lifeless, merely formal habit of worship and open up the reality of communion with the Divine.
There is a relationship between essence and form. When a lover gives his beloved a ring as a symbol of his love it is a right relationship between essence and form, between love and its expression. But the Beloved could never force another to love or to make demonstrations of love that do not proceed spontaneously from the state of love.
2. The control of others by fear: fear of life, fear of sex, fear of woman, fear of freedom and spontaneity.
A foremost example of this is the relentless harping on sin and sinfulness, and, of course, the threat of punishment, that passes for religious preaching and instruction, in many mosques and churches. This disease of strict sexual moralism elevates sexual behaviors in the hierarchy of sins and may even encourage cruelty and in extreme cases justify violence as punishment for such sins.
In some cases a kind of Puritanism has insinuated itself into the lives of Muslims, resulting in a devaluation of the Feminine that had had disastrous results for Muslim life. Perhaps a new spirit of Islam in North America can heal the results of this misunderstanding. Perhaps we can better understand this ayat:
And the faithful, both men and women – they are close unto one another (awliya: friends, supporters, saints): they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and are constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto God and His Apostle. It is they upon whom God will bestow His grace: verily, God is almighty, wise! (9:71)
What is The Remedy?
Kufr (Misbelief, literally: denial) is essentially the denial of spiritual reality. The greatest Kufr is turning the Din into a control mechanism operating under the power of fear.
The Din is not “religion”, as it is usually understood, but the Cosmic Way of the Universe, governed by wonder and love, the moment by moment honoring of spiritual reality and the behavior that comes from a sensitivity to spiritual reality, and an awareness of our accountability for living in harmony with this Reality.
What is our chief sin? Egoism, the strategies of the false self. All human activities are subject to contamination by the toxicity of egoism. This contamination results in racism, sexism, exploitation, autocracy, tyranny.
The supreme achievement of egoism is control and possession. The supreme achievment of the iman, faithfulness, is surrender to the Real (al Haqq) and alignment with Rahmah (Allah’s Tender Mercy). The true shariah is the broad path of the Prophets, and, for us specifically, of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We should be very careful not to mistake an historical, humanly-formulated “shariah” (which has even been used by some as a control and indoctrinating mechanism) for the revelation, itself. We have to choose between a religion of fear or a religion of love. The Qur’an, itself, warns us of the proliferation of man-made prescriptions which has contributed to the degeneration of religion in the past.
Say: “Have you ever considered all the means of sustenance which God has bestowed upon you from on high – and which you thereupon divide into ‘things forbidden’ (haram) and ‘things lawful’ (halal)?” Say: “Has God given you permission – or do you, perchance, attribute your own guesswork to God?” But what will they think – they who attribute their own lying inventions to God –on the Day of Resurrection? Behold, God is indeed limitless in His bounty unto men – but most of them are ungrateful. Surah Jonah 10(59-60)
Many “Muslim” websites are devoid of spirituality and focus instead on the more superficial, legalistic minutiae of the “dos and donts” of Islam. Muslims have been reduced to treating Islam as if it were civil engineering, legal contracting, or accounting. The thinking goes something like this: We must submit to God by following God’s commands and the only way we can do that is by knowing exactly how the prophet acted in every situation so that we can do exactly the same. They are approaching Allah with the lowest parts of their brains and not with their hearts and higher faculties, and often without love. Consequently, the essence f the Din, Rahmah, is neglected.
The highest achievement of spirituality is a sense of awe and wonder in relation to the Divine. With this comes an awareness of our own primordial nature (fitrah) and the wish to keep it pure. We can solve our problems with love, rather than the ignorant and egoic alternatives of power, fear, and coercion. With this awe and wonder our capacity for love naturally expands and deepens. The capacity for love when fully developed leads to compassion for all of life. If we as Muslims fail to follow the law of love, we could be replaced by others who will love and be loved by Allah:
O you who have attained to faith! If you ever abandon your faith, God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him – humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth: people who strive hard in God’s cause, and do not fear to be censured by anyone who might censure them: such is God’s favor, which He grants unto whom He wills. And God is infinite, all-knowing. (5:54)
We need to demonstrate a sensible rationale for an approach based in awe, wonder, reading the signs of nature, overcoming the nafs through love, and raising our hearts and souls through communion with the Divine. Love is an attribute of Allah and properly belongs to Him, but it is reflected in every detail of our human lives.
Truly, those who attain to faith and do righteous deeds will the Most Gracious endow with love: and only to this end have We made this easy to understand, in your own tongue, so that thou might convey thereby a glad tiding to the God-conscious, and warn thereby those who are given to contention: for how many a generation have We destroyed before their time – and can you perceive any one of them [now], or hear any whisper of them? (Surah Mary 19:96-98)
Kabir Helminski is a translator of the works of Rumi and others, and since 1990 a Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order which traces back to Jalaluddin Rumi. His books on spirituality, Living Presence and the Knowing Heart, have been published in at least eight languages. Among his most recent books are The Book of Language, Exploring the Spiritual Vocabulary of the Qur’an and Love’s Ripening, Rumi on the Heart’s Journey.
In 2009 Kabir was named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. He has toured as Shaikh with the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey bringing Mevlevi culture to more than 100,000 people. He speaks widely on spirituality and Islam, often in an inter-faith context.
Kabir is also the Co-Director of the Book Foundation, publisher of The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad and other books illuminating the legacy of the Qur’an. He speaks widely on Islamic spiritual subjects, often in an inter-spiritual context.
He is also the founder and director of The Baraka Institute (barakainstitute.org) a non-sectarian initiative to share the best of Islamic thought and spirituality. Baraka will soon offer an international telecourse: The Qur’an for Spiritual Seekers (June 7-28) and The Baraka Retreat (July 15-17).
NOTE ON UPCOMING EVENTS:
A four-week international Tele-Course in June:
The Qur’an for Spiritual Seekers
(Note revised time for European & Middle Eastern participants)
Four live one hour sessions by teleseminar
This telecourse will be offered Monday evenings: 5:30-6:30 PM, Pacific Time, June 6-27th, and, alternatively, Tuesday mornings at 11:00-12:00 AM, Pacific Time, (7 PM in UK) June 7-28th. Suggested donation $99.
To register copy into your internet browser: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/ecourses.php?id=105
I have wanted for a long time to attempt to share my enthusiasm for the Qur’an and the truth that can be found in it when it is approached with an open mind and heart. With my dear friend and colleague, Mahmoud Mostafa, we would like to explore what the Qur’an says about the deeper matters of the spiritual life. In other words, what does it say to those who have committed themselves to the spiritual journey. ~Kabir Helminski
This once-a-week live telecourse (using telephone conference calls) will include 5x a week email selections from the Qur’an with commentaries, and an online “practice circle” to engage with a community of seekers from around the world. Classes will also be recorded and available online.
The Qur’an has had an incalculable effect on some of the greatest minds of humanity and on humanity itself. And yet it remains surprisingly unapproachable to many.
The Friends of God (the saints, awliya in Arabic) find in the Qur’an the axioms of a spiritual science, the metaphors that touch the soul, and secrets that whisper to the heart.
AND THE GARDEN SHALL BE BROUGHT NEAR
Living a Spiritual Life in These Times
The Baraka Retreat http://www.barakainstitute.org/events/baraka-retreat-july-15-17-santa-barbara/
July 15-17, La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, California
with Camille & Kabir Helminski, Amina Wadud, Ali Allawi, Abdul Hayy Darr.
Once again we shall come together for a weekend of friendship, intellectual engagement, music, and spiritual practice. We will focus on the possibilities of living a spiritual life in these times and the spiritual practice that can support our hearts and souls.
Ali Allawi, author of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Notable Book of 2009—The Economist)
Amina Wadud, one of the foremost female Quranic scholars in the world, author of Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam.
Abdul Hayy Darr, author of Spy of The Heart, and a translator of Shabistari’s Garden of Mystery, deeply knowledgeable in the traditions of Afghan Sufism.
Camille Helminski, author of Women of Sufism, and many other books.
Kabir Helminski, author, translator, Mevlevi Shaikh, recently named one of the “500 Most Influential Muslims in The World.”
And breakout session with other guests including Amean Hameed, spiritual healer, founder of Healingpaq.org
Inquire about a possible children’s program (to be arrange if there is sufficient interest).
$360 (double occupancy with 5 meals). $490 (single). $230 (commuter with 5 meals).
F o r R e t r e a t R e g i s t r a t i o n a t Barakainstitute.org
The garden shall be brought near, for the God-conscious, not far. This is what you are promised, for everyone who returns, who preserves, who is in awe of the Compassionate in the Unseen and comes with a heart constantly seeking. Enter it in peace, this is the time of abiding. In it is what they will and We have more. How many a generation before them who were mightier than they have We caused to perish? Seek then throughout the land, is there any refuge? Indeed in this is remembrance for one who has a heart, one who listens while witnessing. ~Quran, Qaf 31-37.