From Clashing Civilizations to a Common Vision - Part II

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Aug 31, 2003      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Transcendent Identity

The key to advancement from parochial clash to common vision is what Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas from England calls the quest for a transcendent identity.  This seminal approach was first presented as a paper in September, 2003, at a conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) in Bloomington, Indiana.  The AMSS and its scholarly journal, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, both of which are administered out of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, are the intellectual mainstay of the ikhwan movement in America, if not in the world.  Its president, Dr. Louay Safi, joined what appeared to be the emigration of leading Muslim intellectuals from America in the summer of 2003 by moving to Syria.

Dr. Henzell-Thomas?s intellectual tour de force, entitled ?Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: the Heroic Quest for a Transcendent Identity,? is reprinted as Appendix Two of the present book, together with the principal founding document of Muslim political activism in America, Shaheed Isma?il Raji al-Faruqi?s ?Defining Islamic Traditionalism: First Principles in the Islamization of Thought.?

Dr. Henzell-Thomas warns that, ?mutual hostility and suspicion have been fuelled by the rhetoric of self-righteousness and rage, the psychological exploitation of fear, insecurity, and patriotic fervor, and even full-scale retreat into defensive isolation and identity crisis.?  The only reliable cure for what he calls ?this war of barbarisms? is to work through both intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue toward an ?expanded sense of identity [by appealing to] that compassionate wisdom which does not delimit, negate, or abrogate, but which expands, affirms, and illumines.?  He urges us to ?reach beyond differences and develop our outlook beyond mere tolerance in engaging with people of all faiths and cultures in such a way that we discover our shared identity at its deepest and finest level in accordance with the injunction in the Qur?an: ?And discourse with them [followers of earlier revelations] only in what is finest? (Surah al ?Ankabut 29:46).

The Qur?an informs us that Allah has created the world and everything in it as a system of polarities, ranging from physics to gender, so that we may pass beyond these opposites to the essential Unity that is both our original identity and our ultimate goal as human beings.  Every person, however, is free to derive from the duality and polarity underlying the fabric of the universe the exact opposite lesson.  We see this in the tendency of people to see reality in black and white, a propensity to see the world in terms of mutually hostile and competing civilizations, an us-versus-them ideology that self-righteously attributes rightness and goodness only to its own perspective.

Every person is created, says Dr. Henzell-Thomas, with both a rational intellect of the brain and a higher intellect of the heart, which together form what in Islamic philosophy is known as the ?aql.  This equates with the nous in Orthodox Christianity and modern Catholic theology, which, if purified, knows God and the inner essence or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception.  Dr. Henzell-Thomas appears to be familar with the writings of all the ancient and modern students of spiritual life, the ones who have given Islam and all the world religions their dynamism throughout the centuries and millennia.  He quotes Titus Burckhardt, now approaching his centennial of life, who defines this ?aql as the ?universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind,? a principle that is known, with some modern empirical justification, as the ?heart.?  He compares this level of knowledge with much of the modern writing that purports to be profound by citing the catchword, ?the medium is the message,? and the proverb: ?Empty barrels make the most sound.?

Much of Dr. Henzell-Thomas?s essay explores the origin of words in various languages in order to show that modern derivations have lost the wisdom of their cognates and thereby either reflected or led to a divided world.  For example, there is no word for ?sin? in Qur?anic Arabic, because Muslims focus on cause not on effect, a practice that more Americans would do well to learn.  In Islamic thought the actions that Christians call ?sin? are caused ultimately by forgetting God.  The very word for human, al insan, comes from the root ?to forget.?  This does not exclude the influence of non-corporeal beings, including the ?Devil,? in directing our attention away from God.  Our need consciously to be aware of God is precisely why all religions call for frequent prayer and in Eastern Orthodox mysticism even for ?constant prayer.?  Although Dr. Henzell-Thomas does not explain that there is no word for ?sin? in Qur?anic Arabic, he shows that the modern meaning of evil as the root of sin does not exist in the Greek word hamartia, which is normally translated as ?sin? in English versions of the New Testament.  The Greek original means ?missing the mark? by being unbalanced on the side of excess and by losing focus on right direction.  This is basic to the Islamic term mizan, which attributes problems to lack of balance.  As I learned while studying Arabic in Saudi Arabia in 1987-1988, even the word for problem in Arabic, mushkila, comes from the root sh-ka-la, which means internal disorder.  The cure is the restoration of internal harmony and direction.  This contrasts with the modern English concept of problem as an external obstacle that must be overcome or destroyed.  My principal problem with advocates of ?liberal Islam? is that they are adopting secular language that makes it impossible any longer to understand the Qur?an or even to think.

How can one transcend the duality syndrome that infects secular thought even to the extent that liberal Muslims consider science and religion to be separate fields of knowledge, and advocate that religion must be excluded from public life?  How can one overcome the degradation of language and understanding whereby ?righteousness,? which means ?being and acting in the right way? becomes ?self-righteousness? and thereby loses the compassionate wisdom that does not seek to delimit and negate, but rather to expand and affirm?  How can overcome the modern tendency to reject the spiritual basis of goodness and thereby equate morality with moralism?  How can we redress the conceptual perversion of the word ?originality,? which used to be regarded as an expression of our original nature emanating from the divine, but now is often reduced to the level of inventive conjectures, self-obsessed pretensions, flights of subjective fantasy, and mere shifts in fashion.  Dr. Henzell-Thomas laments that, ?The archetypal qualities inherent in the original disposition of the human being, those qualities emerging from the center and reflecting the divine attributes of perfection (the asma al hasana or Beautiful Names of God in the Islamic tradition), have been reduced merely to the accidental qualities of individual egos facing no longer toward a unifying center, a single point, but scattered on the periphery in a state of fragmentation, disconnection, and disorientation.?

How do we deal with a secular world, in which ?individuality? as the essence of human dignity becomes ?individualism? with no meaning other than revolt against conformity; when acknowledgement of the ?absolute? becomes ?absolutism?; when the ?authoritative? becomes ?authoritarian?; when ?science,? which is the open-ended search for all knowledge, becomes ?scientism? or the rejection of whatever cannot be proven in a test tube; when ?forms? as the creation of God become ?formalisms? created by man; when ?unity? becomes ?uniformity?; ?usefulness? becomes ?utilitarianism?; ?liberty? becomes ?libertinism?; ?modernity? becomes ?modernism?; ?religion? becomes ?religiosity,? and all these perversions of thought are employed to reject the validity of any and every spiritual quest?

Similarly, how can we transcend the pigmy minds of religious zealots who seek to create God in their own image, as Voltaire once put it, by limiting God within the formalisms of their own dogmas?  The Qur?an informs us: ?Glorified is He and exalted above what they describe? (Surah al An?am 6:100)?  How can we thereby forget our innate awareness of God given to every person before or outside the beginning of time?  Such self-inflicted amnesia, according to the Qur?an, is the ultimate source of all evil.  How can we come to worship instead the false god of secular materialism, the god of Mammon, with its gargantuan and insatiable appetite, or, as Dr. Henzell-Thomas puts it, how can we worship ?the pillar of salt offered to us by religious bigots who have no water to slake our thirst??

The way out of the desert in which we are lost is not meaningless inter-cultural education or ?crossing frontiers? that focus on respecting parochial identity rather than expanding beyond it into the larger space of our common identity as spiritual beings with a common origin and a common purpose.  Multi-culturalism in American education does not address the common search for higher understanding but teaches that there is no absolute truth, that everything is relative, and that no culture, including the traditionalist paradigm of America?s founders, can have any objective value or meaning.  Why?  The reason quite simply is that religion is taught, if at all, as an anthropological or sociological exercise but not as a key to what it means to be human.  The identity of human nature is off-limits as a subject of study, because this would involve teaching religion, without which human nature can have no value or meaning or even existence.

When public education is forbidden to address the essentials of religion, the only purpose of such education is to produce competent automatons with proven skills designed only to efficiently quantify and manage the material world in order to compete internationally in producing more bucks and better bombs.  As Jeremy Henzell-Thomas puts it, ?This is the only way that government education can shore up a decaying system, the only way to make it look like it is working.  But they have missed the essential point.  They are simply doing the wrong thing more efficiently.  The life-cycle of the system itself is at an end and there comes a time when no amount of management will make it any more productive.  To see this, you need people of vision, not managers; you need spiritually enlightened human beings, not hard-wired cyborgs, not even ?culturally competent global citizens.? 

Whether we realize it or not, the dominant current of secular fundamentalism is producing a new totalitarianism.  As noted by the renowned student of the modern totalitarian phenomenon, Hannah Arendt, in his book Totalitarianism: ?The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.?

Modern man has entered a global crisis, of which global terrorism is only the most obvious symptom, because he has succeeded in shaping the world to match his governing world-view, which is a man-made environment that is increasingly mechanistic, atomized, soulless, and self-destructive.?  In his book, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas calls this an epochal shift into absolute isolation from reality.  This, in my view, is precisely why even the word ?justice? has gone out of style.  The pervasive de-sacralization of all life may be leading to the end stage of a progressive destruction of holistic life, which begins in education and culminates in the chaos and subsequent totalitarianism of the ?Lord of the Flies.?

The culture war between liberals and conservatives, or progressives and traditionalists, or democrats and autocrats has now mutated into a violent symbiosis between secular relativists and religious totalitarians, who have joined in a marriage of convenience based on a solipsistic indifference to the ?other? that amounts to pathological autism in its drive to conquer the world.  The moral chaos sown by secular relativism is becoming the cultural soil in which religious totalitarianism springs forth and flourishes, choking off liberty and life itself.

Fortunately, God always leaves open the way to alternative futures and will lead us if we rely on His help.  According to the Qur?anic teaching known as facilitation, God will remove barriers that hinder us from carrying out our free will, whether we are headed downward or upward.  The enhancement of our free will downward is known as istidraj and upward as yusra.  ?With every difficulty there is relief,?  Ma? al usri yusra (Surah al Inshirah 94:5).

God permits challenges so that we can test and maximize our potential to do good, and he permits and facilitates also appropriate responses.  The Qur?an emphasizes again and again that no-one is tested beyond one?s abilities, because otherwise there would be no responsibility and no justice in this world or the next.  Furthermore, ?And verily the hereafter will be better for you than the present? (Surah al Duha 95:4).

In this vein, Dr. Henzell-Thomas optimistically notes evidence that, ?We are moving into a new paradigm, in which there is a hunger and a thirst for the re-ensouling of society, education, and culture, for a synthetic [as distinct from a deconstructive] way of looking at the world, which seeks connectivity, wholeness, and meaningfulness, and which, in the crucial domain of education, awakens and nurtures the deepest layer of spiritual identity in young people.?

Two of the most profound leaders of the new paradigm, discussed in Chapter Eight below, are Rabbi Michael Lerner in 21st-century America and Rebbe Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1919 until his death in 1935, just before the beginning of the first great intifada from 1936 to 1939.

The Roman Catholic priest and spiritual leader of the Trappist Order, Thomas Merton, with whom I corresponded as a member of the Franciscan Order during the Vietnam War, remarked shortly before he was accidentally electrocuted at a Buddhist gathering in Thailand during the war: ?The purpose of every individual is to become the person that one is.?  Pope John Paul II developed this insight into what is called the theology of ?personalism.?

This spiritual identity that young people increasingly are seeking, not only outside mainline denominations of every religion but also within them, has always been the subject and object of the traditional wisdom, or sophia perennis.  This is the timeless ?primordial religion? underlying its various expressions in the form of different religions at different times and places to meet the specific needs of different communities.  More than any other religion, Islam teaches this spiritual essence of all religions and states that God has provided prophets for every people in every time and place.  The Qur?an explicitly confirms that God makes no distinction between any of His apostles or messengers (Surah al Baqara 2:285).

The common identity of all persons consists in the idea common to all religions that the human being is created ?in the image of God.?  As Dr. Henzell-Thomas notes, ?This potential to embody the totality of divine attributes is an article of faith which is not of course solely Islamic, but is enshrined in the common Abrahamic tradition represented by the ?People of the Book? (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), in the identity of Atman (the Self) and Brahman (the Absolute Reality) in the Vedanta tradition, [and] in the doctrine of the unity of the microcosm and the macrocosm in various esoteric traditions.?

How does one actualize this vision of our common identity?  This question of praxiology is the great challenge to humanity in an era when the lack of such a vision can result in universal self-destruction. 

The first requirement for every person in moving humankind away from clashing civilizations and toward a common vision is to commit oneself to one?s own spiritual path in the knowledge that God has called each person to a path unique to him or her. 

In hundreds of individual revelations the Qur?an emphasizes that diversity in the universe is a sign of the Oneness of its Creator, because otherwise there would be only uniformity with no meaning at all.  This is part of the holistic ontology of the shari?ah or Islamic law, which serves as the overarching framework of everything Islamic, both the spiritual and the mundane.  Allah is One.  Therefore the entire created order exists in the harmony of diversity in order to point to its Creator. 

This diversity also is part of the esthetic of Islamic law, which teaches that the nature of transcendent reality, and of all being, is Beauty, which precedes and is independent of cognition.  Beauty consists of unity, symmetry, harmony, depth of meaning, and breadth of applicability.  The greatest beauty is the unitive principle of tawhid or the coherence of the universe deriving from the Oneness of its Creator, because otherwise there could be no science and no human thought at all.

This diversity is also basic to the epistemology of Islamic law.  All Creation worships Allah because He is one.  The Qur?an states that even the stars and the trees bow down to Allah in ways that you do not understand.  All knowledge is merely a derivative and an affirmation of the unitary harmony in everything that comes from Allah.  Everything in creation is a sign, an ayah, of Allah designed to manifest the beauty and perfection of His will for our instruction.  For example, the constant movement of the clouds shows the nature of the universe as a flux or state of constant change, so that we will seek the stability of peace only in Allah and in the permanent elements of existence that inform the spiritual life.  Similarly, the variety of sunsets we see shows the freedom for diversity inherent in Allah?s design for the universe, which in turn shows the uniqueness ordained for every individual person and the importance of human rights. 

Both the clouds and the sunset, as well as every tree, have powerful lessons for every branch of knowledge, ranging from what Shaheed Isma?il al-Faruqi called the fitric or microcentric disciplines of physics and psychology, to the ummatic or macro-oriented disciplines of chemistry and sociology and politics, as well as for the study of transcendent religion, which is the master guide to both, and gives rise to the discipline of axiology or normative law, also known as transcendent law.

Dr. Henzell-Thomas points out that the Islamic word for human nature, fitrah, comes from the root fa-ta-rah, which means to split or cleave.  This refers to the ?splitting? of the Creation from the Creator and the subsequent emergence of separate particles from the singularity of the Big Bang.  From this comes the study of modern physics, which now points to the law of non-local effects and the existence of super-luminal velocity, based on the shared ?memory? of every particle in the universe from its origin in the divine singularity.  This dimension of cause and effect independent of the limits that Albert Einstein postulated for the speed of light has always been basic to all religions.

From our primordial nature originating from the divine singularity, Allah, our identity is in essence the same as everyone else?s, even though the diversity of forms is infinite.  Dr. Henzell-Thomas writes: ?It is only our forgetfulness of our essential nature and its divine origin, and our heedlessness in failing to fulfill the burden of trust placed upon us that causes us to stray from our fully inclusive human identity.?  For more depth of understanding on this basic Islamic teaching, Dr. Henzell-Thomas brings our attention to the forthcoming book by Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Spirit of Justice and the Remembrance of God: An Introduction to the Spiritual Ethos of Imam?Ali, to be published in London by I. B. Tauris.  This helps us remain aware of the Christian and basic Abrahamic teaching that ?all things are rooted in mystery, and mystery dwells in me.?

From this metaphysical awareness of tawhid as the governing principle of all Creation, and of unity in diversity as its expression, comes the understanding that precisely the commitment to a particular path gives us the means to encompass universalism.  This understanding is the opposite of self-styled ?universalists? who believe that adherence to a specific path and its formal requirements limits our ability to grasp universals.  The traditionalist understanding in all faiths, which is rejected by the syncretists, who purport to take the best from all faiths and turn this into a new religion, and by many of the self-styled liberals, is that only through the mediation of forms, but not their elevation into formalisms, can the human being have access to what Muslims call the haqq or the Essential Truth, God.

The adherence to forms, without adequate understanding of what they represent, in other words as meaningless formalism, can lead to the same totalitarian mentality now so evident in the syncretistic liberals.  As Karen Armstrong says, ?The militant brand of piety, often somewhat misleadingly called ?fundamentalism,? which has been developing in all the major world religions for decades, and has latterly become more extreme, ? is rooted in fear. ? Almost every day in our newspapers we see the perils of hatred and bigotry, when they are given ?divine sanction? by people who distort the very tradition they are trying to defend.?

Commitment to forms, which includes rituals as well as individual spiritual guides in any particular religion, according to Dr. Henzell-Thomas, can and should be ?a liberating process that enables one to engage one?s whole being with the particularities of a chosen way in order to find, through the orientation provided by that way, the universal and essential realities of which that way is an expression. ? Following a path exclusively is totally reconcilable with the search for a universal identity, and, indeed, is the means to its attainment for countless spiritual seekers and spiritually developed beings from all religious traditions, but the exclusivism promoted by a defensive, backs-to-the-wall religiosity, which misappropriates God for a narrow community and denies that other paths are also expressions of the Self-disclosure of God, is necessarily a constriction of the heart, and is therefore incapable of encompassing divinity.?

This openness to diversity as part of the plan of God and to the legitimacy of faiths other than one?s own enables one to go beyond the call for mere ?tolerance? of the other.  As the new Attorney General of the State of New Jersey once remarked to a gathering of Muslims and Sikh and law enforcement officers on June 12, 2003, tolerance is what his mother asked him to exercise when she forced him to drink some vile liquid as medicine.  Tolerance, as I have heard it used even in interfaith circles, is the attitude that I will not kill you now, but I will as soon as I get a good chance.  This is similar to the Soviet use of the term ?peaceful coexistence,? which was clearly spelled out in the Communist legal journals as a stage prior to the worldwide victory of Communism over all its enemies.

Dr. Henzell-Thomas informs us that the term ?tolerance? comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology, marking how much poison a body could ?tolerate? before it would succumb to death.  If we are to reach a common vision as the path to avoid civilizational clash, we must advance beyond mere tolerance.  We must go beyond the arrogance of triumphalism, so common among fearful and reactionary people of all faiths, and beyond the static concept of ?peaceful coexistence,? to the higher calling of ?peaceful cooperation.?

Only through mutual self-understanding in interfaith dialogue can we undergo the mutual transformation that expands our own identity, and only through such transformation can we successfully promote mutual cooperation as catalysts of justice.  Commitment to spiritually informed and spiritually based justice, which has essentially disappeared from both foreign and domestic policy in America, is the only path that can lead to a common vision and to worldwide civilizational renewal.