Compassionate Justice: Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Part 9

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

Posted Jun 15, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Compassionate Justice: Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Part 9

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

TABLE OF CONTENTS Due to limitations on the length of articles in our site hardware, this important article has been put online in a serialized format.  Links to all the chapters will be found in the Table of Contents.

Chapter Sixteen

‘Ilm al Taqwa: Recovering a Lost World


For the Western reader, the most accessible source dealing with Islamic thought on science and religion from the perspective of ‘ilm al taqwa is the shelf of books that Syed Hossein Nasr has been publishing almost one every year for decades.  He treats the subject within the paradigm of sophia perennis or the perennial wisdom of all religions, which is based on love. 

This approach has been denigrated by Islamists who charge that Nasr ignores power as the ultimate reality in addressing the problems of the world.  The answer from the perennial wisdom of humankind is that awareness of the transcendent through love can bestow a power greater than the mere human, so that individual persons and even entire communities can become, as the Qur’an puts it, the eyes, ears, and hands of God.

Professor Nasr can communicate easily with the Western world, because as a young man he earned advanced degrees at MIT and Harvard and wrote his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the History of Science and Learning.  Upon his return to teach at the University of Tehran, he became Professor of the History of Science and Philosophy, and Chancellor of the Arya-Mehr University of Technology.  He is a link to the rich history of human spiritual endeavor in Central Asia, which can be considered the birthplace of ‘ilm al taqwa.  All the major Sufi orders today, except the Shadhili from North Africa, descend from founders in this region and from a historical era almost totally unknown to modern students of science and religion.

In order to plumb the depths of the traditionalist contribution of classical Islam to human rights and to recognition of the consonance, complementarity, and mutual engagement of science and religion, one must return to this lost world.  The best and only real guidebook is the monumental tome, published in 2005, Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy, and Mysticism in Muslim Thought, Essays in Honour of Hermann Landolt, ed. Todd Lawson, I. B. Tauris, London, New York, 558 pages.

This single book compiles the work of many scholars from the various branches of the Shi’a community, as well as others, who have devoted their lives to exploring a thousand years of scholarship on the interdependent roles of reason and inspiration in seeking out the Will of God.  This is a history of human understanding and response to changing conditions of life in a by-gone world so that both individual persons and the communities derived from them would have optimum conditions to remain close to God and thereby fulfill the purpose of their existence.  Unlike the approach of Professor Nasr and his Western associates today, the marriage of science and religion in this lost world was essentially jurisprudential in a search for a higher reality of universal truth.

This collection of studies, each one a model of careful scholarship on the historical development of what is known as Shi’ism and especially of its Ismaili branch, is particularly interesting for the typical American who believes only what he or she has directly experienced and is attracted by the traditionalist Islamic emphasis on immediate awareness and love of God and on its natural manifestation in the search for universal justice. 

This independence of spirit is why the typical American hanif or Muslim by primordial fitra, like those in Makkah fourteen hundred years ago, is skeptical of all institutionalized religion but eager to learn about the deeper insights that are obscured in all religions by identity politics.  Of course, this is also the reason why ethnic and ideological Muslims from abroad distrust American converts and why this distrust, especially among African Americans, often is reciprocated.

This book edited by Todd Lawson is about mysticism, which is at the core of all religion and often includes lapses into superstition and polytheism, which is precisely why a major purpose of divine revelation is to bound it by right reason.  The tension between these two capabilities of the human being, the esoteric and the exoteric, is what gave rise in this lost world to what might be considered for Sufism to be a Garden of Eden.  In point of fact, though not by intention, this tour de force presents a chronological history of Sufism in four parts: Classical Islam, Early Medieval, Later Medieval, and Pre-Modern and Modern.

Following European custom, whereby the individual professor rather than the educational institution carries maximum prestige, this undertaking was prepared by the former students of Hermann Landolt in his honor as a foremost advocate of what nowadays is often termed the Sophia Perennis or science of the permanent things.  Landolt started his career in his hometown, Basel, Switzerland, where he wrote his dissertation in its then dominant environment of post-war existentialism epitomized by Karl Jaspers and Karl Barth.  These were identified as the two leading challengers to traditionalist thought by my professor at the time, the famous Roman Catholic theologian Romano Guardini at the University of Munich.  Landolt left this dead-end corner of intellectual life to earn another diplome under Henry Corbin at the Sorbonne.  In 1964 he moved to McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies in Montreal, Canada, founded ten years earlier by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, where Landolt spent the next thirty-five years as a “Persianist” exploring Islamic mysticism and the legacy of the leading mystical jurisprudents, ranging from Imam Jafar al Siddiq and the early Ismaili philosopher Abu Hasan al Hujwiri (Datta Ganjbaksh), the author of Kashf al Mahjub, which was the first history of tasawuf and introduced me to Islam during a two-week khalwa on top of a mountain in New Hampsure; to Suhrawardi, who led the cause of ijtihad during the Dark Ages of the Sunni naqba; and to William Chittick, Toshihiko Izutsu, Hossein Nasr, and many others, who carried the flame of sophia perennis in the face of the cold winds that threaten to bring on the intellectual winter of a global naqba today.

The studies in this book reflect amazing detective work by many young scholars uncovering the interconnections among the seminal spiritual and intellectual leaders of Islam’s Central and Southwest Asian heartland over the past more than one thousand years, as well as the historical backdrop of their respective eras. 

Since this is a compilation by scholars for scholars, the reader would be well advised first to read Hossein Nasr’s chapter, “The Spectrum of Islam” in his book, The Heart of Islam, as background in order to distinguish the more orthodox intellectual and spiritual leaders among the Shi’a from the less orthodox and to identify the movements that originated from the latter but developed into sects within Islam and even into new religions outside its widest boundaries.  For example, the Akhbaris, similar to the literalist Ibn Hazm in the West, flourished in the middle Safavid period (early 1600s) but spawned the Shaykhi movement of the early Qajar period (1700s), which gave rise in the early 1800s to the new Bahai religion.  This latter modernist response to Western cultural imperialism essentially reversed the mindset of its origins by developing the anti-intellectual piety of the Akhbaris into a form of 21st-century post-modernism.

The spiritual and intellectual leaders of this lost civilization met the severe challenges of their day, including the Mongol invasion, by seeking the higher realities (haqa’iq) of the permanent things that have always transcended the ephemeral.  Like the great river of Heraclitus, discussed by Isma’il Raji al Faruqi in his book, Meta-Religion: A Framework for Islamic Moral Theology, which I was able to rescue from oblivion after his death and publish through my Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies, June 2000, 104 pages, one never steps in the same river again, but the water never ends.  New intellectual and political flotsam is always flowing out to the sea, but the life-giving water is always recycling at both its origin and end, bi ithni Allah.

The knowledge encompassed within the gathering of thirty-eight life-long scholars on Islam in this symposium on reason and inspiration should not be summarized but rather experienced.  Here it may be sufficient merely to suggest that a common thread running throughout the symposium is the insight that theology and philosophy are not ends but preliminary paths to mysticism, which in all the world religions is based on awareness that intuition is the highest human faculty, because it has immediate access to the highest reality, unlike sense experience and reason, which are merely mediate. 

As Golam Dastagir, the Muslim professor of philosophy at Jahangirnagar in Dhaka defines it in his article “The Global Mystical Union,” The World and I, Winter 2006, “Knowledge by intuition is immediate in the sense that the subject is merged in the object. … The mystic’s first and foremost activity is love, which is higher even than acts of complete surrender and supreme perfection. … This view is shared by the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, who says, ‘I receive God into myself, and through love I enter into Him. … We are transformed into God, so that we may know Him as He is’.”

“Truth can be understood,” Golam Dastagir writes, “not just in the remembrance of God through prayer but in the realization of God in the pure heart, in which there is no difference between the knower, the known, and the knowledge.  Communion of the individual soul with the Divine is the ultimate goal of human life.”  “The methods of reaching this goal vary according to peoples’ customs, cultures, and beliefs,” but they are all converging from the outer circumference of a circle toward the center which is God.  He concludes that the cause of most conflict in the world today is the failure of religious people to recognize this, which is why they are vulnerable to emotions of despair, fear, and hatred. 

We fear the specter of growing chasm between civilizations in an age of advanced technologies, but Dastagir warns, “The human mind-set is at the center of all contentions and conflicts among divergent faiths and nations. … Our first and foremost endeavor should be to bridge the chasm between God and humanity.”

This is the joint task of ‘Ilm al Taqwa and ‘Ilm al ‘Adl, the science of compassionate justice, which is based on the cycle of apophatic spirituality (the via negativa associated with islam), cataphatic spirituality (the via positiva or “yes” stage of the spiritual path associated with iman), and the highest level of ihsan, which completes the dynamics of tawhid.  This might also be termed ‘ilm al ‘adl al muta’aliy or transcendent law, similar to al hikmat al muta’aliyah of the seventeenth-century Shi’i polymath, Sadr al Din Shirazi, who, like Al Ghazali, created a major synthesis of philosophy, doctrinal Sufism or gnosis (‘irfan), and theology (kalam) in a new school that Syed Hossein Nasr has translated as “transcendent theosophy.”

The best modern translation of both ‘ilm al taqwa and ‘ilm al ‘adl, however, is simply “meta-law.”  Metalaw is the substance of what America’s founders called “traditionalism.”  In the 379-page Summer/Fall 1987 issue of Modern Age, which has long been the most sophisticated journal of functionally Islamic thought in America, Henry Regnery defined traditionalism in terms of its opposite, which for more than a century has been known as “modernism.”  Modernism, he says, is “the loss or rejection of the divine paradigm” and is “the desacralization of life.” 

The golden rule of metalaw is not “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,” but “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.”  This is a higher level of law designed for relations among sentient beings wherever they live in the universe, because it is based on loving recognition that all beings are divinely created for the same purpose and that one’s capacity for self-knowledge is God’s greatest gift to every sentient being.  Metalaw is the basis of compassionate justice and is the ultimate arena for cooperation both within and among civilizations.

This insight was first brought home to me in 1982 when I was asked to entertain two Buddhist monks who had just arrived at the invitation of the Aspen Institute to found a Buddhist monastery as part of an interfaith community of monasteries in Baca, Colorado.  Not knowing how one entertains Buddhist monks deputed by the Dalai Lama for such a mission, especially those with a very tight schedule, I asked them to explain Buddhism in five minutes.  They laughed and replied that one minute is more than enough.  First, one must understand Hinayana Buddhism, which teaches that one must separate oneself from the material world and the search for illusory power.  Next comes Mahayana Buddhism, which teaches that one can then unite with nirvana, which is nothing in the sense of no-thing, i.e., what is beyond the material.  Finally comes Tantrayana Buddhism, at which level one will have an over-powering desire to bring compassionate justice to the world. 

Although I was a hidden Muslim at the time, invited as an expert on Native American religions, I could not help but exclaim, “Al hamdu li Allah, you have just explained everything there is to know about Islam in thirty seconds.”  In retrospect, I would add that these two Buddhist monks had just identified the jurisprudence of compassionate justice as the ultimate arena for either cooperation or clash between science and religion, as well as among civilizations.