The Dialog of Civilizations & The Globalization of Spirit
A World Out of Balance
Our whole world is out of balance: ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually, and we are one humanity.
There are many prophecies that suggest that we are at a point of global crisis. In addition to many other voices, the indigenous peoples of the world, and especially of my own continent of North America, are trying to call our attention to the unavoidable truth: The world is more out of balance than ever in human history. Not only the ummahs of the land, but the ummahs of the sky and sea are suffering and dying from these imbalances. We have truly forgotten the sacredness of all life as we have become entangled in our own egoistic, nationalistic, and even sectarian concerns.
Let me list some of the issues we face:
The Globalization of consumer culture and commercial values is rapidly displacing traditional spiritual values. More and more, the world is governed by a system of finance capital propagating itself for short term benefits of certain elites. The final result is like a cancer consuming the systems upon which all life depends. The resulting social disruption and ecological disaster is obvious to all with eyes to see.
The haves become either complacent or impotent with guilt. The have-nots try even harder to make it in the materialistic ethic or resort to various forms of extremism. Even relatively poor nations become enslaved to an international weapons industry, while the one remaining super-power finds it necessary to spend as much on weapons as the rest of the world combined.
It seems that the governments of this world do not operate at a very high level of justice. Sometimes it looks to me that the average human being has more sense of justice and morality than their governments, and that most decent people are either manipulated by half-truths or are deceived about what their governments are doing in their name. I will assure you that it is so in the United States. The implementation of the policies of power look one way in a newspaper or on television; on the ground and in reality the gruesome ugliness and horrible suffering cannot be denied.
We witness periodically a very strange phenomenon among our species. It seems that regularly we need to enter collectively into periods of senseless killing of each other. All of this killing is motivated by irrational fears and unconscious impulses which we clothe in fancy ideological dress.
The human being, which nature has gifted with a 2000 cc forebrain, is like an immature university student sharing a house with a bull and a crocodile. The bull is our emotional life; the crocodile is our instincts. Unfortunately no one ever taught this student how to communicate with either. It is a very uncomfortable and chaotic situation inside this house as the three try to live together. Put hundreds of millions of such people together and we have a very unstable situation.
We are here to consider the possibility of dialog between Islam and other societies, and yet all of our societies are out of balance. It is not simply a question of Islam and the West, of faith versus materialism. We certainly understand that it is much more complicated than that.
There is dialog between governments, which rarely represents the best elements of our societies, and there is the possibility of dialog among the best minds of our cultures. It is with the latter that we can place some hope.
The dialog has hardly begun to any significant degree, or if it has been attempted, it is complicated by political facts that obscure where our common ground lies. But we cannot have an effective dialog unless we can identify our common goals and values. At this point the misunderstandings are great. Whether we are Muslims, Hindus, or Christians, or Jews, whether we are Americans, Europeans, Russians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Saudis, Indians, Chinese: our hands are dirty.
On the side of the West is a general ignorance of Islamic culture and teachings, and too often a self-righteous conviction that we alone represent democratic values and a respect for the freedom of the individual. On the side of Islamic cultures is a preoccupation with the past and a lack of creative engaged thinking on the issues we face today.
The dialog has not begun because the best thinkers in the Islamic world died long ago, and the best minds of today are too often preoccupied with confronting the hostility to fresh ideas. Their energies are being absorbed in the confrontation with the regressive forces within their own societies, while Muslim intellectuals in the West are too often concerned with ethnic and parochial concerns.
As one scans the Muslim world today for signs of intellectual and spiritual engagement, where are the signs of life? At a time when the world is experiencing an explosion of knowledge and is facing unprecedented challenges on a global scale, who in the Muslim world can offer intellectual or spiritual leadership? Where is Islamic intellectual and spiritual leadership in the face of the ecological catastrophe, disarmament, human rights? Where is the artistic and cultural contribution of contemporary Islamic artists. If Rumi can be one of the most popular authors in America, where are the Rumis of today?
The dialog that is necessary today is not primarily between Islam and the West, in which Islam represents Iman or faith and the West represents Kufr, unbelief. Rather it is between those who stand on the side of true humanness and those who are the true jahiliyyah or ignorance of today.
Let me try to describe the jahiliyyah of today:
1. The great jahiliyyah is the belief that violence solves problems, whether through the bullying tactics of national power or the tactics of terror that justify the killing of non-combatants. These people do not understand that unjustified violence, which is the vast majority of violence today, is a downward spiral that takes us from the light into the darkness. Indeed, shaytan is always ready to stir the evil impulses within the hearts of people, whatever they call themselves. There are people of every faith, in every nation that are too quick to order young people off to kill and die.
2. Today?s jahiliyyah puts money values over human values. It promotes a commercialized way of life and subordinates most aspects of life to the demands of the marketplace. Success is measured as success in the marketplace. Eventually, even religion is colored by the marketplace.
It is the rush to accumulate, takatthur, which disperses the human soul. This rush toward materialism is taking place in the East and the Middle East only not as successfully as it has already taken place in the West. Meanwhile in the West there is already a disillusionment setting in, where a significant percentage of people are turning away from consumerism and materialism toward voluntary simplicity and humane values. The remedy for this takaththur is irfan, or tassawuf, by which I mean the `ilm of self-purification, that is, an operative knowledge for the education of the soul.
3. Today?s jahiliyyah is destructive of the fabric of life itself, because we have within our power the power to consume the environment that sustains us in the same way that cancer consumes its host. The powers that support this cancerous growth include those undemocratic, secretive institutions of corporate globalization, such as the IMF and the World Bank, that represent no sovereign republic and no sacred tradition, but only the powers of elite power and greed.
There are movements around the world that have begun to confront the power of these forces of capital and the international financial system. Islam has a rationale for how and why wealth must serve human needs and not merely the proliferation of capital.
Muslims must begin to disentangle themselves from all forms of reactionary spirituality whose features include intolerance, literalism, the need to control and limit free expression and creative thought. Reactionary spirituality often claims for a privileged group the unique right to interpret the truth. The Qur?an, however, does not, as far as I am aware, assign a monopoly on righteousness or truth to any human authority.
For each one of you (several communities) We have appointed a Law and a Way of Life. If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but He has not done so that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and He will tell you (the Truth) about what you have been disputing.
Muslims must be aware of the dangers of oversimplification that lead to self-righteousness and disrespect for others.
Muslims have also failed in recent centuries when they have assumed the arrogant posture of a victimized minority, of ?us against them.? The greater Islamic community, the ummah, can and must assume its true position as a mature, generous, and merciful reconciler of all of humanity, all the children of Adam.
We can say to those pained souls who are drawn to the ideology of an Al Qaeda, for instance, that Islam means peace and mercy. Islam invites us to the Garden, to the Civilization of Paradise. True Islam is a state of being, a hal (state), a portal to Allah?s Rahmah (Mercy). Those who seek to strike against people who never took arms against them are truly the companions of the Fire, not the companions of the Garden.
The dialog that is necessary may be less a dialog between Islam and the West, in general, than between those elements in each civilization that can reawaken their respective civilizations? highest ideals. There are great numbers of people in the West who would be ready to cooperate with the human, progressive, spiritual goals of Islam if they were to be welcomed as partners. Conflict exists when both sides forget that patience, courage, magnanimity lie at the heart of a true civilization, while reaction, fear, and selfishness are the lowest of human motivations.
The Basis of Dialog
On what basis can a dialog of civilizations take place? From an Islamic perspective, we can join arms with all people of faith, mumineen. Rumi said, ?While beliefs vary from place to place, faith is essentially the same.?
If we look at the root ideas and values of the major civilizations, in most cases, we find that they are based on the idea of a correspondence between the human realm and a spiritual realm. Christianity expresses it in terms of man being created in the image of God. Islam acknowledges that the human being is the khalifah, the representative and caretaker of the human realm.
The American Republic, too, was established upon spiritual principles: We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these words, was an open-minded, spiritually aware human being who held to a simple theology in harmony with what we would call Islam. In fact, he had the strange practice, for his times and culture, of waking up at dawn and washing his hands, face, and feet with cool, fresh water?a practice possibly learned from some of his African slaves.
Just as Muslims refer to the Qur?an when they feel their rights are threatened, Americans refer to their Constitution and its Bill of Rights which express a vision of the God-given dignity of the human being. Unfortunately, in these times both documents are being ignored, distorted, and, in some cases, shredded by those people who claim their authority.
The Remedy for Islamophobia
Muslims outside the West seem to have very little comprehension of the kind of fears that non-Muslims have about Islam, they have very little understanding of the urgent questions that Western people are asking about Islam. It is time for Muslims, especially in the West, to clarify the values and beliefs they stand for in certain critical areas.
What is their relationship to other faiths? Does Islam tolerate other religions when it comes to power? Is there any basis for religious pluralism under Islamic orthodoxy?
What is Islamic teaching on the position of women? Are they second-rate citizens under Islamic Law? Are they to be under the domination of men? Do they have less rights than men?
Does Islam recognize freedom of conscience, thought, expression, and dissent? What are the limits on freedom of religion? Why do some propose the death penalty in the case of a Muslim changing his religion?
Does Islam condone the use of force in achieving political goals? What is meant by a kafir (usually translated as ?unbeliever?)? Does the Qur?an ever condone killing of non-believers?
Can Islam coexist with secular democracy or should the worlds be on guard against Islam?s will to dominate the world?
I believe that all these questions can be answered in a way that would allow the minds and hearts of the non-Muslim world to find a positive relationship with Islam. But I have not yet seen a clear and relatively brief presentation covering issues such as these. Muslims have failed to present Islam in its humane and universal dimension and have too often presented it as a form-heavy, legalistic, and intolerant system.
Muslims have also not taken a clear stand against the distortions of Islam and the injustices done in the name of Islam. While the Taliban may have massacred more Shiite Muslims than the Israelis have killed Palestinians, the Imam of a local mosque here in California declared, several months after 9/11, that the Taliban were judged to be ?normal Hanafi Muslims? by a fact-finding group that went to Afghanistan!
We must demonstrate that we can heal the body of the ummah of the diseases of intolerance, gender oppression, and terrorism; we must demonstrate that Islam favors an open, tolerant society within the framework of the universal moral values expressed in the Qur?an.
Furthermore, Islam might offer its point of view on some of the human crises we face today:
How can Islam shed light on the ecological crisis? The Qur?an offers a radical critique of those human tendencies that have led to today?s ecological crisis. We need to express a clear rationale for Islamic environmentalism?
How can Islam shed light on the power of unrestrained capital? From the beginning Islam has offered a clear critique of the misuse of capital. The Qur?an points the way to a just economic order. And yet today, most people who know anything about the Islamic economic system think it is impossible to implement in the contemporary world, imagining, for instance, that it would prohibit mortgages.
Should there be an Islamic critique of the weapons industry that is consuming the world?s talent and resources? Why do we not hear more of an Islamic peace movement and Islamic non-violent strategies. Yes, I know there have been sparks of light here and there, but Islam has come to be associated with the justification of the killing of innocent civilians.
Under the Islam of the Qur?an it would not even be conceivable to kill indiscriminately or to kill with fire. Islam therefore forbids all means of modern warfare. Therefore the foremost jihad of today must be the jihad against modern warfare. Muslims must unite with the forces of peace and justice in other societies and reach out across all boundaries to those sincere human hearts that are ready to recognize that all of humanity is one.
I am convinced that the answers to these questions would begin to shift perceptions about Islam and help it to become a vital force for social transformation. Muslims must put their knowledge and beliefs into the service of humanity, joining any groups that are working for the same goals. In other words they would begin to demonstrate that Islam serves humanity, not just the apparent interests of those who are nominally Muslims.
Islam has yet to take its place as the ?middle? or ?optimal? community enjoining all that is good. Islam must raise the banner of Mercy, of Rahmah, for all to see.
I would also like to see my own country return to the essential principles that inspired the founding of this great Republic, which was founded under the light of taqwa (mindfulness of God), and which acknowledges that human beings have certain ?inalienable rights? by virtue of their being created in the image of God.
The greatest threat to world peace and the natural environment is not Western values. Consumerism, materialism, are not the traditional values of the West; these are the preoccupations of the dunya, of worldliness magnified by ever more powerful forms of technology. The West may have traveled a little further down the road of consumerism, materialism, and a pop culture that caters to the lowest drives of human beings, but Eastern and Middle Eastern societies are quickly falling prey to the same disease and seem to have even less immunity to the disease than a certain percentage of the population in Europe and North America. Many in the West have become disillusioned with what the consumer culture can offer, and have already turned the corner.
Meanwhile much of the Islamic world has lost its way and become inflexible, dwelling in fixed patterns of thought that do not adequately address the problems of today. The young of the world find Islam to be more and more meaningless, because it itself has lost its connection to its source. Human beings need a living connection to the presence of God, not a legal contract which if they fail to fulfill will send them to Hell forever.
Almost every time I go to a mosque in my own country I hear the same tired predictable khutba (sermon) concerning sin and the punishments of hell. Is this Islam? Or is Islam a state of being, of conscious relationship to God? Every time my own consciousness or moral understanding has grown or matured, I would go back to the Holy Qur?an and I would find that truth somewhere in those pages in words that I did not previously understand. Might humanity be even more prepared for the true message of Islam today than in past centuries, and is there anyone out there to really communicate it?
We are in need of some kind of Islamic Institute of Applied Spirituality. We need to apply the deepest wisdom of Islam to contemporary problems. We need to forge cooperation between spiritual practitioners, scholars, social activists, popular writers, film-makers, and musicians. The foundation for it all must include the knowledge of heart-purification and self-transformation. There is much practical wisdom that has been marginalized and discredited by modernists, as well as by literalists and fundamentalists.
Islam is not Islam if it does not transform human beings. The transformation we need is not the mere outer behavioral conformity, but a deeper transformation of the will of the human being: dynamic taslim. We need soul-education which will develop human beings who have a true capacity for intentionality (niyyah), mindfulness of God (taqwa), and remembrance of God (zhikrallah). It is even conceivable that this knowledge could be shared with all human beings regardless of what nominal religion they profess. Truth is truth. Something does not become true merely because it has the word Islamic added to it.
Islam is not a brand-name. Islam is that which is in harmony with reality. Islam is not an identity, a membership club; it is a hal, the state of being of one who is surrendered to Truth. As such it must embody purity and flexibility, responsibility and humility, justice and mercy.
The true dialog of civilizations will begin when Muslims with true spiritual understanding address themselves to the hearts of all human beings. In some cases they will instruct; in other cases they may have to learn, especially from certain Westerners who have been deeply involved with the problems of ecology, non-violence, gender equality. Westerners have been living longer with some of the contemporary diseases of materialism, consumerism, and depersonalization, and they may be able to offer some remedies.
Fourteen centuries ago at the beginning of the Islamic era a large portion of humanity became spiritually magnetized by a moral and spiritual power that created a new civilization. Clearly that civilization has declined in many respects. What can save us now? The problems we are facing today cannot be solved by anything less than a revolution in consciousness similar to the change that took place fourteen centuries ago. Perhaps this revolution of consciousness, this globalization of Spirit, will be the result of the convergence of all of humanity.
Spirituality is establishing the largest possible context. Knowledge is not knowledge if it is not knowledge of the All. Wisdom is not wisdom if it excludes and divides. The Islam I believe in is the religion of the universe, the submission of nature itself, of the alameen, the universes. We need, today, a Merciful and Comprehensive Islam that does not divide, but unites.
Modern science has brought us to the point where we must recognize that all of existence floats upon an energetic unified dimension, a sea of non-existence, scientifically known as the ?Zero Point Field.? The foundation of existence is unified; there truly is only Oneness, and everything that appears to exist separately is merely the modulation of this Oneness.
The Truth of the Human relationship to the Divine, that mutual, reciprocal Love, is a Truth that can never become obsolete nor subordinated to lesser truths. No human social order can be complete or adequate if it loses the Divine Center. If we recognize and agree with this Truth, we must now work our way back from this Oneness, encountering all the difficult equations of human life, but carrying with us the humbleness, the servanthood, the Patience, and the Mercy which is the evidence of our remembrance of God. What Islam has to offer, at its best, is a deep and clear metaphysical truth that places the Divine Oneness at the very center of consciousness where it belongs. In the words of Rumi:
The heart is your student
For love is the only way we learn.
Night has no choice but to grab the feet of daylight.
It?s as if I see Your Face everywhere I turn.
It?s as if Love?s radiant oil never stops searching
For a lamp in which to burn.
#353, Translated by Kabir Helminski