Karen Armstrong and the Charter for Compassion

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Dec 6, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Karen Armstrong and the Charter for Compassion

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

In October of 2004, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Karen Armstrong, renowned author of comparative religion and spirituality, at Stanford University. The title of her talk was “Muslim history and resonance for today.” Three years after 9/11, Americans were still fearful and suspicious of Islam and its followers. The large auditorium was packed with people yearning for a deeper understanding of the faith than the hysterical and divisive stories propagated by the media.

The gist of Armstrong’s talk was that the test of religion – any religion – was not belief but practice. Belief is easy, practice isn’t. To make her point, she quoted the Egyptian grand mufti, Muhammad Abduh, who traveled to Paris in early 1930s and remarked: “In Paris I saw Islam but no Muslims. In Egypt, I see Muslims but no Islam.”

“It is a myth,” she said, “that in Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. In fact, Islamic history shows secularism at work often. Religion and politics are kept distinct. The Sunni court was ruled by ethos. Sharia, which means “The way,” came about as a counter-cultural protest by the Ulama against autocratic, anti-social rulers. In other words, the Sharia began as a protest movement, not the medium of misogyny it has now become for fanatics.

Likewise, democracy is not a foreign idea in Islam. Muslim law cannot be promulgated without consent of the people. Armstrong found that secularism, pluralism, and democracy were germane to Islam.

That being the case, what went wrong? As Armstrong saw it, a militant form of piety called fundamentalism developed. It emerged after World War I. Every single major religion saw the emergence of fundamentalism. The idea of compassion inherent in all religions was marginalized, replaced with hatred, revenge and violence by fanatical exponents.

I recalled Armstrong’s Stanford lecture when she recently received a TED prize (http://www.ted.com), given annually to the best thinkers and innovators of the world. TED started out in 1984 as a small non-profit organization bringing together people from three worlds, Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has expanded to include Business, Science, and Global Issues.

In her acceptance speech, Karen Armstrong echoed and expanded on the ideas she presented at Stanford. “Religion isn’t about believing things. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” Studying the world’s religions, she realized that belief, about which we make such a fuss today, was a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century.

The word ‘belief’’ originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. It meant, “I commit myself. I engage myself.” From the 17th century onwards, however, the word narrowed its focus to mean merely an intellectual assent to a set of propositions: a credo. It lost its transformational power. Instead, ‘belief’ came merely to mean, ‘I accept certain creedal articles of faith.’ It lost its moorings.

What Armstrong found in her research was that across the board, religion is about behaving ethically and morally. Instead of flaunting your faith and engaging in religious chauvinism, do something positive. Behave in a committed way. Then, and only then, you begin to understand the truths of religion. Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

The pride of place in religious practice is given to compassion. “In every single one of the world’s major faiths, compassion – the ability to feel with the other – is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.” Why? “Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we are ready to see the Divine.”

Armstrong hopes to restore the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine for our times. The Golden Rule can be stated either positively or negatively, both equally meaningful. “Do to others what you would like others to do to you.” (Treat others as you would like others to treat you.) Or, “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you. (Do not treat others in a way that you would not want yourself to be treated).

Practicing the Golden Rule is difficult. And unfortunately, a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate. It is also time for us, said Armstrong, to move beyond mere toleration and toward appreciation of the other.

Every TED winner is granted a wish. Armstrong wished for the creation and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, to be crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and based on the fundamental principles of the Golden Rule.

She reminded her listeners that we could not confine our compassion to our own group or countrymen or co-religionists. We must have what one of the Chinese sages called “jian ai”: concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. The Quran states: “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one other.” (49:13)

“We need to create,” Armstrong elaborated, “a movement among people who want to join up and reclaim their faith which has been hijacked … We need to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos … Jews, Christians and Muslims, who so often are at loggerheads, have to work together to create a document which we hope will be signed by people from all the traditions of the world … I would like to see it in every college, every church, every mosque, every synagogue in the world, so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world.”

You can create a Charter for Compassion network where you live and affirm its principles at http://charterforcompassion.org/.


Charter of Compassion and Islam, Asghar Ali Engineer http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/charter_of_compassion_and_islam/
Charter for Compassion Launch in Washington, D.C., Randa Kuziez http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/charter_for_compassion_launch_in_washington_dc/
Compassion in Islam - Theology and History, Asghar Ali Engineer http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/compassion_in_islam_theology_and_history/
Compassionate Justice:  Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Nine Parts, Dr. Robert Dickson Crane http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/compassionate_justice_source_of_convergence_between_science_and_religion_pa/