Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: the Heroic Quest for a Transcendent Identity
Everyone seems to be talking about identity, and, indeed, struggling with this concept. I recently attended an international seminar in Paris dedicated to inter-cultural education and the theme of “crossing frontiers”. This was a gathering of school principals from many countries, including a large contingent from the USA. It was surprising to me that the discussion often seemed to crystallise at a level which seemed more concerned with respecting the notion of a parochial identity than expanding beyond it into the larger space of our common identity as human beings. Many times I heard people saying that the most important thing was for young people to “find their own identity” before developing a larger, more universal identity based on respect and understanding of other cultures, as if this should be a step-wise, sequential process rather than a simultaneous or reciprocal one.
When the concept of a larger identity was explored, it was hard to move the discussion on much beyond the concept of a “global citizen”, and it was clear why this was so. It was because there was no shared understanding of what a human being was, in the sense that people of faith understand it. There was no shared concept of a universal, primordial nature, which we call fitrah, and hence no concept of a shared identity which transcended all frontiers. There was only a “global citizen” whose brain, to use the language of a speaker at the seminar, was “hard-wired” for what he called “inter-cultural competence” as a result of bilingualism. No one would deny that learning foreign languages is an important way to connect with people of other cultures, and, indeed, to gain knowledge, broaden one’s outlook, increase cognitive flexibility, overcome prejudice and enhance empathy. We would all do better to learn how to inhabit the different world represented by another language, but it is not a different universe. I know people in Europe who speak half a dozen European languages fluently but whose perspective on the world is still decidedly Eurocentric. I know others who speak only their native language but whose hearts are open to all the peoples of the world. It is not ultimately the brain which needs to be “hard-wired” but the heart which needs to be awakened. The language of technology, military strategy, corporate efficiency, quantification and managerialism increasingly dominates our view of things in the West, and it articulates the de-souling of our culture and society.
I think we really have to try to understand on the paradigmatic level what is behind this mechanistic culture and the soulless regimes that it spawns. For me, the seminal insights I gained about this emerged from a conference on Learning for the 21st Century which I attended in the USA in 2000. The essential message of this conference was that the paradigm governing the public education system, and other organisations, is obsolete. It is based on a machine-age model which over-emphasises cause and effect, logic, and analytical reasoning, or, in other words, the lower level of the intellect.
In tracing the life-cycle of products and innovations, as much as paradigms and organisations, we learn that in their terminal phase, the process of development naturally and inevitably slows down. Governments of “developed” countries, however, are obsessed with the need to exercise stringent control and demonstrate higher productivity, perpetual growth and improvement in standards of living, so that they can maintain their position in the first division in the great competition for materialistic supremacy. They aim to achieve this, even in the educational sector, through the means with which we are now so familiar: micro-managerialism to ensure that the “appropriate goods” are “delivered” through the “ratcheting up” of standards, the imposition of debilitating testing regimes, performance indicators, strict “commercial disciplines”, “best practice”, measures of accountability such as league tables, inspections, targets, and a continual flood of new initiatives to prove that they are on the job. This is the only way they can shore up a decaying system, the only way to make it look as if 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?. 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 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. Can we wonder why there is such boredom, disinterest and disaffection among young people at school? Can we wonder why there is such an explosion of hyperactive disorders and “syndromes” among children, scandalously “treated” (most widely in the United States) by the use of drugs such as Ritalin?
In a previous article for The American Muslim , I suggested that one of the most insightful views of the new emerging paradigm is that of Richard Tarnas . He states that “The crisis of modern man is an essentially masculine crisis” springing from “the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition”.The masculine heroic quest has been pushed to its utmost one-sided extreme in the consciousness of the late modern mind, and that its “absolute isolation” has brought man to the point where he faces the psychological and biological crisis of living in a world that has come to be shaped in such a way that it precisely matches his world view - i.e., in a man-made environment that is increasingly mechanistic, atomized, soulless and self-destructive.”
Tarnas believes that resolution of the crisis is already emerging in various movements which reflect an epochal shift in the contemporary psyche, a fulfilment of the longing for a reunion with the feminine, a reconciliation between the two great polarities, a union of opposites - none other, in fact, than the passage through the Clashing Rocks. This can be seen in the “tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture…the widespread opening up to feminine values by both men and women…in the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing and ideological barriers separating the world?s peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives.”
It has to be said that it sometimes hard to observe Tarnas’ “epochal shift” in the face of what Kiesling has identified as the “global threat of American solipsism” which Robert Crane has rightly associated with the impairment of autism. Indeed, it is as if the current American administration, intent on a policy of unilateral isolation, self-interest, and the “dismantling of relationships”, to use Kiesling?s phrase, is in the grip of a mindset which is fundamentally opposed to every one of the emerging movements listed by Tarnas.
On a qualifying course as a practitioner of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality inventory, I was not surprised to learn that there is a known bias in Western culture towards the Thinking function over the Feeling function (including making decisions on the basis of facts, logic and efficiency rather than values or human relationships) and that this bias is particularly marked in the field of management, with its typically straight-lined, top-to-bottom approach. According to Drew Lebby, the emphasis on analysis, logic and reasoning in organisations is an inbuilt learning disability, and he cites tests of creativity which show that 92% of 8 year-olds are creative, 67% of 12 year-olds, 35% of 16 year-olds, and only 12% of adults
In a paper on the application of religious models to educational administration, Aref Atari has shown how the implementation of both the Christian model of Service-Stewardship? and the Islamic “Khalifah” model “entails a radical transformation in management, thought and practice” away from a hierarchically organised bureaucratic Western model to a what he calls a “caring and sharing spirit”. In this climate, trust, love, sympathy, mercy, cooperation, tolerance and altruism are at least as important as efficiency, effectiveness, competition, professional ambition and achievement. The outcome is an organisation which is both “virtue-based and excellence-oriented”. Shurah-based management, empowering and working with others, replaces a top-down approach which manipulates, controls and works through others.
I categorically deny that I subscribe to the easy fashion of anti-Americanism or that I wish to indulge in a blanket critique of The West or of Modernism per se. We must avoid at all costs the fiction of a war between Islam and The West. If I were to equate these defects and impairments only with the West, I would be charting a sideways and biased course which would never give me a safe middle passage through the Clashing Rocks. The so-called “war” between liberals and arch-conservatives, or progressives and traditionalists, or democrats and autocrats, is in reality “a violent symbiosis between secular relativists and religious totalitarians”, and it can be argued that “the moral chaos sown by secular relativism becomes the cultural soil in which religious totalitarianism springs forth and flourishes, choking off liberty and life itself.” Both these extremes share common roots and both are inimical to truth. Some would undoubtedly agree with the priority is for the West to “recognise its own secular fundamentalist convictions and embark on an effort to turn the spectre of the clash of civilisations into a civilised meeting between two enormously influential cultures (i.e. Islam and the West), where the aim is to ensure that truth and justice triumph over falsehood and oppression. This is precisely what J.S. Mill, an intellectual icon of Western liberalism, would have recommended. And this is precisely what Islam recommends.”
It is only too clear that many of the impairments associated with an ?autistic? outlook can also be described as endemic in parts of the Muslim world, not of course as pathological abnormalities, but, again, as aspects of thinking and behaviour. We need to recognise the old order, the ancien regime, the outmoded paradigm, the world out of balance, wherever it is. To paraphrase a sentence of Brian Thorne?s, whose psychological wisdom I shall consider in due course in this paper: ?into the void of secular utilitarianism come the fallen angels of envy, jealousy and hate?, but this could equally be rewritten, ?into the void of religious totalitarianism come the fallen angels of envy, jealousy and hate?, and into this common void comes the fallen angel of violence too, masquerading on one side as the ?good knight and true? who slays ?evildoers? and on the other side as the holy warrior who slays ?disbelievers? or ?kafirs?.
There too is the fallen angel of sloth. This is not the one we conventionally associate with laziness and inertia, for the representatives of the old order tend to be frenetically busy. I understand that the new fashion is ?power-napping?, a phrase which aptly expresses in all its contradictory absurdity the dysfunctional neurosis of those high achievers who have sold their souls. No, this fallen angel is the one who embodies the real meaning of sloth, that slumber and forgetfulness (nisyan) which ensures that God is never remembered, for we have chosen to worship something else instead of Him, whether that is the Mammon of secular materialism, with its gargantuan and insatiable appetite, or the pillar of salt offered to us by religious bigots who have no water to slake our thirst. It is worth remarking that Voltaire?s provocative statement that ?God is created in the image of man?, which can be taken on one level as an affirmation of the new ?Enlightenment? dogma that religious faith is a ?creation? of the human mind, also expresses the truth that man seeks to limit God by attributing to his own religious formalisms and dogmas the status of immutable and absolute truths which exclude all other formulations. The Qur?an refers again and again to the limitless and indescribable glory of God (?Glorified is He and exalted above what they describe? ? 6:100).
I have suggested that only the vertical alif, the first letter, symbolic of the transcendent unity, and of the upright human being under the ultimate sovereignty of God, can slip through the Clashing Rocks, and I would like to suggest that there is more in the symbol of the alif than meets the eye. The proportioned script of Arabic lettering has the remarkable property that the shapes of all the other letters are generated in strict geometric proportionality by the alif (or, more correctly, the dot, which defines the length and surface area of the alif). The transcendent unity symbolised by the alif, the letter which stands alone, without any associate, in that upright position, also holds within itself the possibility of infinite diversity, since it generates every conceivable combination of all other letters, which include also every conceivable sign (ayat) in the displayed book of nature.
Thus, the vertical alif, which is none other than our hero as khalifa passing through the Clashing Rocks, holds the paradox of unity and diversity ? of unity within diversity, and diversity within unity. He holds to the straight way, focused on his return to his origin, and yet he is also in a state of relationship, awareness and sensitivity. He listens to those who sail with him, adjusts his course according to the tides and the changing flow of the current and winds, checks his position, watches out for hidden rocks, and uses his intelligence to maximise the time he would have to negotiate the gap. Greek heroes are not only brave; they are vigilant and clever too, and it is the shrewdness and vigilance of another hero, Odysseus, which gets him out of many tight spots.
The identity of the hero who can pass through the Clashing Rocks is beginning to emerge, but let us see if our linguistic and etymological tools can illumine the concept of identity itself. The original meaning of identity is best preserved in the related word identical from Latin identitas, literally ?sameness?, derived from Latin idem, ?same?. The sense of ?individuality? or ?set of definitive characteristics? arose from the notion of something always being the same or always being itself (rather than something else).
In the light of this revealing etymology, it might be said that to gain identity is simply to be oneself all the time. We tend to accept unquestioningly the truism that to ?be yourself?, to be the ?real you?, to be an ?authentic?, ?genuine? person is a good thing. The question is, which self? What does it mean to be oneself? Are we describing the false self of egoism, solipsism and self-obsession or the essential Self recognised by all religious and spiritual traditions? Are we describing a constricted self, identified with a narrow, parochial, exclusivist perspective, or an expansive self which, though fully committed to a particular path, is able to ?cross frontiers? and actively engage with other perspectives in the spirit of a truth-seeking encounter?
Let us look again at our definition of the word identity itself. Identity is the state of always being the same, or always being oneself rather than something else.
Now, from a certain perspective this definition seems to have positive and negative connotations, or at least an ambivalence which makes it hard to penetrate to its essential meaning.
On the one hand, it seems that constancy is an accepted virtue, and ?being oneself? rather than something else is an acknowledged sign of integrity and strength of character. The person who is different from one day to the next, who is easily influenced, inconsistent, wayward and unpredictable, with no abiding core, is an unreliable person who lacks substance, direction and orientation. We might call such a person a flibbertigibbet, a butterfly, a novelty-seeker, or some other term suggesting unruly flightiness or aimless flitting from one thing to the next. We might also call such a person ?shiftless? or ?feckless?. The shift key on a keyboard brings a different set of letters or style of letters into play, and to shift one?s ground is to take a different position in a discussion or debate, often for reasons of expediency or sophistry. Shiftiness has connotations of instability, evasiveness, and trickery. To be feckless originally meant be ?without effect or substance?.
On the other hand, ?always being the same? might suggest a state of being which is either very boring and sterile, or monolithic and absolutist, a fixed, rigid and immutable condition impervious to change and unresponsive to context. We could associate this mentality with the unyielding dogmatism of fundamentalist ideologies, whether religious or secular, although it is important to distinguish between fundamentalism as a limiting ideology and the belief in certain fundamental truths (including belief in the existence of God) which are integral to all authentic spiritual traditions and which are also intuitively recognised by the primordial human intelligence.
From the standpoint which critiques fundamentalist ideology, the one who is not always the same (that is, who lacks identity in the terms of our definition) is the flexible and progressive one, able to apply underlying principles to changing circumstances and contemporary needs, and able to interpret text in the light of context. Such a person will also be open to creative irregularities and unpredictable outcomes.
It is important to recognise that the label ?fundamentalism?, if it must be used, should not be confined to religious indoctrination. Fundamentalist ideologies of various kinds permeate the Western secular education system, notably that of materialistic scientism with claims that the only reality is that which can be observed and measured and which has stripped the displayed Book of Nature of its sacred significance. Thus divested of meaning, its beautiful and majestic signs (ayat), symbols (rumuz) and similitudes (amthal), whether in the ?far horizons? or within ourselves, are no longer seen as pointing beyond themselves to their Creator, but only as phenomena referring to nothing outside their own self-sufficient laws and mechanisms. Another dogma of secular fundamentalism is, of course, that religious faith is a ?construction? of the human mind, and that there is no conscious design, purpose or ultimate meaning in the life of man or the universe. ?Secular schools as opposed to religious schools are not ideologically free zones. Secularism has its own ideological assumptions about the human person, the ideal society, the ideal system of schooling and the meaning of human existence. While these assumptions may not be formally codified into a curriculum subject designated ?secular education? as an alternative to ?religious education? they characteristically permeate the ethos and culture of state-provided secular schools and form a crucial part of the ?hidden curriculum??.
As always, we must distinguish between positive aspects of human character, such as flexibility and context-sensitivity, and their negative reflections, such as infidelity and the lack of centredness associated with a valueless, anything-goes, and essentially nihilistic brand of relativism. In my view, this is one of the main tasks of the education of the human soul, to provide orientation based on a clear idea of what a regenerate human being is, while at the same time allowing the full flowering of dynamic higher-order cognitive and spiritual capacities, including discernment, insight and creativity. Orientation need not be fixed and static, but is rather a dynamic principle which enables us to relate our explorations and creative departures to a central unifying point, criterion or touchstone, which also keeps them within certain bounds.
The state of not always being the same is also a state which many people increasingly prize in what they see around them. I confess to feeling dismay at the creeping uniformity, standardisation and homogeneity I see all around me. Every British High Street is much the same, boringly predictable. So is much of the narrowed-down utilitarian school curriculum under the target-driven, test-obsessed National Curriculum.
What we are witnessing in the state education system in Britain, and no doubt also in other state education systems in the Western world and in other countries which mimic them, is the progressive destruction of the concept and practice of a holistic system of education ? that is, a broad and balanced system of education based on an understanding of the full potential of the human being and a system of pedagogy designed to awaken and develop that potential.
This has been a gradual process of attrition, constriction and ultimate strangulation, culminating in a sterile, standardised, bureaucratic system which stifles creativity and demoralises students and teachers alike. It can be argued that the ?demoralisation? caused by this ?dispiriting? process is the inevitable consequence of the absence of any truly coherent moral and spiritual perspective, despite the lip-service paid by government educational policy to the need to incorporate opportunities for moral and spiritual development in the curriculum. Given the fact that England is apparently the most secular country in the world according to a recent survey, it is hardly surprising that fewer and fewer people (including teachers and school ?managers?) seem able to distinguish between the ?moral? and the ?spiritual? dimensions of existence, and why the government?s ritualistic nod in the direction of ?spiritual development? often goes no further than a generalized platitude in a school?s mission statement with no further evidence of how any clear conception of spiritual development actually permeates the entire curriculum. Contrast this, for example, with the obsessive interest in pervasive opportunities for developing skills in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) through every subject area.
We see the triumph of quantification and the proliferation of an oppressive and soulless target-driven regime derived from alien corporate models and a micro-managerial mentality obsessed with control.
John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, finds the same sterile learning environment in much of the US public school system. ?Whatever an education is,? he says, ?it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich.?
Gatto?s indictment of the assumptions and structures which underlie modern state schooling in the USA exposes the same deadening utilitarian agenda which informs British educational policy, an agenda geared to turning children into cogs in an economic machine, children who are dependent, conforming, materialistic, and lacking in curiosity, imagination, self-knowledge and powers of reflection. This is the modern equivalent of the worst of Victorian education geared to the production of a regimented, empire-serving army of functionally literate and numerate (but uncritical) ledger clerks and petty officials whose job it was to keep the wheels of commerce and bureaucracy neatly turning.
We might want to say, then, that the notion of ?always being the same? definitely seems to be a mixed bag.
But there is a way to resolve the tensions here. Let us come back to Gatto?s plea that education should make you ?a unique individual? and should furnish you with an ?original spirit?. The mistake is to confuse the negative conformity and homogeneity opposed by Gatto with the positive concept of ?sameness? which underlies the meaning of ?identity?. To be always the same in the sense of conforming to a stable inner self is not the same as the conformity which denies uniqueness, individuality, originality and creativity. This latter kind of conformity is related to the agenda of social control and the production of human cogs for the industrial machine, and indeed to other forms of control, such as the authoritarian religious control exercised by religious bigots, or the more psychologically astute (but equally binding) forms of control exercised by corporations which promote the lie that one?s very identity is intimately bound up with products or logos.
This is not conformity to the original nature at the core of the human being but slavery to external controls which actually destroy the true freedom within that inner core. And they destroy it by conditioning us to conform to, and identify with, the peripheral desires and self-justifying thoughts of that false imprisoning self or ego which is the totality of our acquired fears, habits, preferences and opinions. This false, compulsive self, bound to the needs of the body and blinded to any higher reality, is the commanding self (an-nafs al-?ammara) of Islamic spiritual psychology, and it is, of course, the struggle with this lower self and its ?animal powers?, the enemy within, which, in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, constitutes the ?greater jihad?.
The very word originality provides another key. Its original Greek sense was ?in accordance with our original nature?. Originality was an ordinary, innate capacity common to all human beings, such that, for the ancient Greeks, even a ?simple? illiterate person was imprinted with an innate understanding of the universal principles represented, say, by geometry. Indeed, it was that very simplicity which could be seen as a qualification for access to such archetypal understanding. And at the level of divine revelation, the very illiteracy of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was itself a divine gift which ensured the revelation was faithfully recorded, as on a clear mirror untarnished by the meddling and chattering interventions of the editorial intellect.
Etymologically, the word simple denotes ?same-fold? - that is, not multifarious, exactly what is denoted by the original meaning of ?identity?. It goes back ultimately to a compound formed from prehistoric Indo-European *sm-, *sem-, *som-?same? (source also of English same, similar, single, etc) and *pl- ?fold?. This passed into Latin as simplus, ?single?. The ?simple? person is a ?single? undivided person, a person who is always ?the same?, true to himself or herself. Simplicity is like a mirror which reflects the divine unity at the core of every human being, but which is more often than not concealed by the complex and multifarious stratagems of the false self, including those engineered and orchestrated by the faculty of discursive reasoning. This lower aspect of the human intellect seeks always to ensure its own survival at the expense of the whole mind.
As with so many words in the English language, there was a shift in the meaning of the word originality in the eighteenth century with the consolidation of the Age of Reason, the so-called Enlightenment. This began with a shift from the sense of a universal human capacity to the sense of an ?extraordinary ability?, rather like the notion of ?genius? which arose in the 17th century. Later, the sense shifted further to that of ?inventiveness?, ?innovation? and ?individualism?, to the extent that the modern-day connotation can even encompass the bizarre and the abnormal. The historical trajectory of this term is itself a fascinating commentary on how, as a result of the erosion of traditional wisdom, the outermost sheath of the human psyche (the conditioned individual ?personality?) has gradually take precedence over its innermost core or heart where the divine qualities are reflected.
Originality is largely no longer regarded as an expression of our original nature, something emanating from our divine origin, but is often reduced to the level of inventive conjectures, self-obsessed pretensions, flights of subjective imagination and fantasy, and ephemeral shifts in fashion coloured by the preferences and aversions associated with our own personal conditioning. The archetypal qualities inherent in the original disposition of the human being, those qualities emerging from the centre and reflecting the divine attributes of perfection (the Beautiful Names of God in the Islamic tradition), have been reduced merely to the accidental qualities of individual egos facing no longer towards a unifying centre, a single point, but scattered on the periphery in a state of fragmentation, disconnection and disorientation.
It is instructive to note that the English words origin and orient both come from the same source: Latin oriri ?rise?. The verb orient (and its variant orientate, which emerged in the nineteenth century) originally meant ?turn the face to the east?, the direction of the rising sun. The concept of orientation, in the sense of facing the qibla, is, of course, central to the Islamic ritual prayer, but the qibla is also symbolically the light of God unveiled by all His messengers, and the point of unity within the Heart which the spiritual seeker strives to make his permanent focus. Spiritual orientation entails the constant remembrance of our origin, our point of ?arising?, and our inevitable ?return?: ?Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return.? (Qur?an 2:156).
It is as important to distinguish between individuality and individualism as it is to distinguish between other related pairs of this kind. The qualities of individuality need not be conflated with the individualism which gives man no point of reference beyond his own ego and the gratification of his own individual desires. The expression of individuality, which is nothing more than the realisation and expression of the personal uniqueness of each human being, is not in opposition to the needs of the community. Quite the contrary, in an age of increasingly sterile conformity, uniformity and standardisation, the contribution of creative individuals who are realising their individual potential has never been needed more as a means of enriching and revitalising communities. Communalism will always suspect the individual of individualism, but a living community will respect and nurture individuality as a valid expression of diversity while being able to balance individual needs and modes of expression with collective rights. At the same time, we need to be careful that we do not equate nihilistic relativism with every attempt to find relationship. In the same way, we need to distinguish between absolutism as an unbending frame of mind and the absolute and the immutable truths given to us through divine revelation. Such distinctions can be carried further to encompass the difference between formalisms and forms, uniformity and unity, utilitarianism and usefulness, libertinism and liberty, scientism and science, religiosity and religion, the authoritarian and the authoritative, and between modernism and modernity.
With regard to secularism, Al-Attas points out that the term secular comes from the Latin saeculum, which means ?this age? or ?the present time,? and the concept refers to the condition of the world at this particular time or period or age. In early Christian texts it was used to refer to the temporal world ? as opposed to the spiritual world ? and it is clear how its emphasis on a particular time or period easily develops into what Al-Attas calls ?the existential context of an ever-changing world in which there occurs the notion of relativity of human values?
However, it is precisely by recognising and understanding the ?condition of the world at this particular time? that we can meet the challenge of religious and cultural pluralism. This is not to give precedence to the temporal world (saeculum) over the spiritual world, nor to set one against the other, but to understand that human minds are conditioned differently in each age, and that tradition must be dynamically self-renewing and responsive to new conditions and new questions if it is to remain a living tradition. In other words, time, place and people cannot be ignored in the development of human understanding. While we would do well to guard against modernism and secularism as outlooks or ideologies which are essentially inimical to the spiritual quest, we must take account of the reality of contemporary conditions and, indeed, remain open to discover what contemporary life has to offer as a means of helping us on that quest.
Let me go a step further with my etymological approach and then try to pull all this together into a clear statement about identity from a spiritual perspective. Another word we can associate with the idea of identity is authenticity. To be oneself, to be true to oneself, is to be ?authentic? or ?genuine?. Now, the word authentic comes from Greek authentikos, derived from the noun authentes, ?doer?, ?master?, formed from autos, ?self?, and the base ?hentes, ?worker, doer?. Its essential meaning is ?having the authority of the original creator? and its original meaning in English was ?authoritative?. Greek authentes, which was pronounced /afthendis/ also, incidentally, gave Turkish efendi, a former term for an educated person, and to this day to a Sufi Shaykh. The modern English sense of ?genuine? did not emerge until the end of the 18th century.
There is a clear intersection between the underlying Greek senses of authentic and original. The authentic person is authoritative (which is not to say authoritarian) only because he or she is stamped with the attributes of the ultimate authority, the original Creator. This accords completely with the Islamic concept of the human being as khalifa, ?vicegerent? or ?representative? of God. The human being is not the possessor or dominator of the earth, but is its appointed steward and guardian. This is a sacred trust given to mankind. The human being who remembers his origin attributes nothing to himself, but always refers all his knowledge, possessions, gifts and powers back to his Creator.
?The word character in English originally meant a sign, a brand or a stamp. ?A man of that stamp? means a man of this or that particular character?.God ?stamped? us with our true character before we were ever born; our job is to develop, to actualize, what God has stamped us with. Just as to ?envelop? means to wrap something up, to ?develop? means to unwrap something. Character development, then, is the process of unpacking what God has provided us for our journey through this world, and into the next. Various experiences during this life may stamp us and mold our character. But since all experiences ultimately come from God, everything we encounter in this life is part of God?s knowledge of the character He has stamped us with, in eternity, before we came into this world. In Arabic the word for character, with the connotation of good character, is khuluq, which is related to the word khalq, creation. Character is the form in which God has created us; our responsibility is to live up to it?to conform ourselves, in time, to the shape in which God has created us, in eternity.?
It will not have escaped anyone familiar with the core principles of the Islamic faith that the concept of identity which is emerging from these forays into the etymology of English words can be distilled into the key concept expressed by the Arabic word fitrah. This can be translated as the ?primordial nature? or ?original disposition? with which God (as the Originator, or Fatir) has invested every human being, and which is essentially good and noble. It is the human being?s ?inborn , intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong, true and false, and, thus, to sense God?s existence and oneness?.
It is of the utmost importance to realise that I have derived the concept of fitrah not from Islamic doctrine but by way of the origin of certain English words in ancient Greek or Latin, which of course pre-date Islam. This underlying convergence of key semantic networks across time and space gives credence to the idea of a perennial wisdom, or primordial religion, which has been re-confirmed by a succession of Prophets throughout human history, culminating in the final revelation of Islam. The idea of the human being created ?in the image of God?, with the 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, in the doctrine of the unity of the microcosm and the macrocosm (expressed by the famous dictum, ?As above, so below?) in various esoteric traditions, and, I am sure, in many other religious and spiritual traditions.
This is the essential nature and true identity of the human being. And when I refer to this as an ?article of faith?, I use the term ?faith? to encompass different levels of this faculty, from the lower level of an unexamined and culturally conditioned belief system to higher levels in which faith is increasingly an outcome of knowledge. Ultimately, faith turns to certitude (yaqin) through ?tasting? or ?spiritual savouring? (dhawq). This is the activation of the primordial capacity to perceive the truth intuitively and the internalisation of the forms of religion as direct spiritual experience. The same connection between wisdom and direct experience is preserved in the origin of the English word ?sapience? (wisdom) and the related ?sapiential? which are derived from Latin sapere, to taste.
In the third part of this essay, the implications of this expanded sense of identity for inter- and intra-faith dialogue will be explored, and an appeal made to that compassionate wisdom which does not delimit, negate and abrogate, but which expands, affirms and illumines. It calls 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 Qur?an 29:46: ?Discourse not with them [followers of earlier revelations] except in that which is finest.?