The Universal Spiritual Paradigm of Natural Law
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
Human thought consists of gathering the bits and pieces of life into comprehensible categories and then perhaps categorizing these into discrete paradigms or frameworks of thought.
The two frameworks that have always competed in human life have been power and justice. Since the era of the first cavemen, power necessarily has focused on the immediate future, like whether and how to kill members of a tribe that are encroaching on one’s own hunting grounds, or how to do the same thing perhaps in less bloody ways to rivals in one’s own tribe. This is known as politics. Aristotle said that human beings are social and political animals, for better or worse, and he said that democracy based on group-think or consensus or least common denominator is the worst kind of government.
The other paradigm of thought and action is justice. This framework focuses not on the “is” but on the “ought.” This requires recognition of an authority beyond mere human will and beyond majoritarian democracy, which is merely a tool of governance.
In America both the definition and practice of justice require a strategy to rehabilitate religion as it was understood by America’s Founders. In the Preamble to the American Constitution the purposes of forming a more perfect union are stated to start with justice and thereby lead to peace, prosperity, and, lastly, to freedom. Freedom is listed last because freedom without justice is mere license and can lead to chaos. Justice, however, without a transcendent authority recognized by the members of society can lead to tyranny and to the imposition of a utopian and totalitarian ideology that will preclude any possibility of peace, prosperity, and freedom. If justice is the product merely of human will, rather than of a higher truth that humans were created to seek, justice will inevitably come, as Mao Tse Tung once claimed, from the barrel of a gun.
The strategy to rehabilitate the concept of justice, which died as a societal framework of thought in America about the time of the Civil War, therefore should focus less on direct confrontation with the rulers around the world who daily violate their claimed principles, and instead focus more on developing a consensus among the opinion leaders on the nature of justice. In the modern world such a consensus must come primarily from academia, where the abstract thinkers in society develop the paradigms of thought that shape agendas and priorities for think-tanks and the media, which, in turn, control both domestic and foreign policy.
All students of religion in America agree that during the past forty years America has been experiencing one of the periodic renaissances that mark America’s history. One of the critical questions is whether this is good for human rights and good for justice, because some trends in this revival are not necessarily good for either.
The focus of current discussion is developed in one of the blogs of the Social Science Research council (SSRC Blogs), specifically one known as “The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and he Public Square.” Some prominent Muslims have participated in this over the years, but often as only “me-tooers” not as guiding scholars. The particular topic in the current threat, which has several lengthy entries, is on “Justice: Rehabilitating Religious Rights Talk.”
The immediate question being addressed is the relationship between religion and human rights, specifically which brand of religious tradition is trying to support human rights. One perspective is that the most important question is not whether specific religious traditions are addressing human rights on specific issues, such as Gaza, Darfur, or asset-backed money, but rather is the question who is trying to revive human rights as a systematic paradigm for viewing all of human life based on a traditionalist or classical system of thought that may have been lost in the modern age. In other words it is a question of conscious paradigmatic transformation from the immanent to the transcendent.
A good example of an issue-oriented approach favored by most Protestants is Jim Wallis’s The Great awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. A good example of the systems or paradigmatic approach favored by roman Catholics would be Russell Hittinger’s The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, which I reviewed, along with several other recent books, in my article, “Taproot to Terrorism: The Loss of Transcendent Law in America and the Muslim World,” published in The Muslim World Book Review, Summer 2005.
The second question is which of these consciously paradigmatic approaches is being revived under the rubric of justice as another word for natural law.
The Spiritual Paradigm of Natural Law
The most comprehensive paradigm of Islamic thought is the natural law of compassionate justice. The concept of natural law in classical Islamic thought is known as the sunnat Allah or the “ways of God.” Justice, love, and compassion are the broadest concepts within this paradigm, known, respectively, as ‘adl, hubb, and rahma. They make up the universal paradigm found in all the world religions.
The concept of natural law is controversial in both Western and Islamic thought, and many shelves of books have been written by scholars in every religion on this subject. Muslim scholars until recently have been skeptical about the use of the term “natural law” in the West because during the 19th century it became synonymous with the term “secular” in the sense of hostility toward religion.
The current resurgence of natural law theory especially in America has brought about a convergence between the traditionalist concepts in each religion. The best example is Hittinger’s book because he spells out, albeit unknowingly, the traditionalist Islamic position.
Hittinger is reviving the traditionalist teaching of all religions that by nature every person is philanthropic, based on the Greek word philos (loving) and anthropos (man), because every person is created to know God and share God’s love, because God loves every person. In other words, a person does not care about and help others simply because this makes one happy, but because this is everyone’s nature, and one can be happy only when one is true to one’s own nature and purpose created by God. Of course, one is free to seek happiness as a selfish goal in itself, which would be self-defeating.
This basic premise of human nature, based on the search for truth and love, is known in Qur’anic terms as infaq, which is the inclination to give rather than take in life. This explains the nature of all law, but especially of Islamic law, which is designed primarily to educate not to be enforced. When specific rules have to be enforced, the law itself has failed.
The purpose of natural law theory, writes Hittinger, is to discover or assert the prior premises of law. These coalesce around three foci: order in the Divine mind (metaphorically speaking), order in nature, and order in the human mind. Hittinger explains how “the great tradition of natural law allowed each of these foci to have its own salience, depending on the problem at hand.” This framework gives guidance to both the legislature and the judiciary. Through this framework the so-called “law-makers” are guided by a higher law than themselves, and through it the judges are able intelligently to apply the legislative intent.
This was the clear intent of virtually all of America’s Founders, because, with the exception perhaps of Thomas Paine, they were convinced that the worst system of governance is democracy in which the demos or people govern as a form of mob-rule without any higher guidance. They wanted to separate organized religion in the form of The Church from organized politics in the form of The State, but they wanted to do so only to be sure that dogmatic faith would never supplant reason and that uninformed reason would never become an enemy of faith.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that no people can remain free unless they are properly educated, that true education consists primarily in learning virtue, and that no people can remain virtuous unless both their personal and private lives are infused with awareness and love of God.
The bottom line and the highest wisdom of traditionalist religion in their view was the rational conclusion that there is such a thing as ultimate truth. This emphasis on the existence of an ultimate truth was emphasized each in his own way even by Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes. The three questions that philosophers and theologians address are: 1) what is absolute truth; how can we access it; and 3) for what purpose. These three questions are the meat, respectively, of ontology, epistemology, and axiology, which are the three “queens” of rational thought in every civilization.
What Is Ultimate Truth
The teachings of all the sages in every religion preface all discussion of such matters, and especially the what, the whence, and the whither of truth, with the humility of doubt in one’s own certainty, because only ultimate truth can be certain and we are not ultimate. As Professor Hossein Nasr says to his students, “We should not transfer the absoluteness of certainty for God to ourselves. … The only absolute certainty is the certainty of the Absolute. … All our certainties should be based on humility before God and the knowledge that He is the ultimate source of all certainty and not to act on our provisional understanding of certainty as if it were real certainty.” As the philosophers say, we live in a world of contingency, a world of existence, but existence is created by the Ultimate, from which it is contingent and therefore cannot in any way be absolute.
Perhaps the most profound sentence in the entire Qur’an, though rarely invoked by Muslims today, is Surah al An’am, 6:115, wa tama’at kalimatu Rabika sidqan wa’adlan, “The Message of your Lord is completed and perfected in truth and in justice.” This connects holistically the three elements of “what, whence, and why” in discussing ultimate truth.
This verse of the Qur’an is saying, first, that ontologically truth simply is, in the same way that God defined Himself to Moses at the burning bush simply as “I am”; second, epistemologically, that truth is accessible to humans, if only partially, through divine revelation, as well as through human observation and reason; and, third, axiologically, that truth can and must be actualized by defining and practicing justice.
The second most profound message within this message is the use of the term kalima or word. This is similar to the Christian logos or Word of your Lord, though Christians usually reference it to Jesus, just as many Muslims use it in reference to the uncreated Qur’an. Both are messengers of the Good Word. The message is not merely an expression of God’s will but a manifestation of the Being of God as ultimate truth, which is beyond our grasp as contingent creations of God but remains an object of our search for higher understanding.
This concept of Logos has been central to philosophical and theological discussion in all three of the Abrahamic religions, and it forms the basis of the so-called Common Word about which the Muslim-Vatican dialogue is now forming under Pope Benedixt XVI in order to transform interfaith dialogue in principle into interreligious solidarity in cooperative action.
This dialogue may be formulated as the effort to distinguish among Existence, Being, and Beyond Being, about which three schools of thought crystallized in classical Islam, namely, during the third through seventh centuries of the Islamic calendar. The Mutazillites argued a thousand years ago that Allah is what many theologians in many religions call Beyond Being, that the Qur’an is uncreated, and that therefore Allah in essence is reasonable and cannot be unreasonable or unjust, in other words, that He cannot be what He is not. The Salafis, on the other hand, argued that Allah is not Being or Beyond Being but is all Will and that whatever Allah wills is reasonable and just. This was great for justifying tyrants who claimed they were merely doing the will of Allah.
Each of these two groups became extremists by arguing that its position trumped the other one’s, namely, either that reason trumps Revelation or Revelation trumps reason. The Ashar’ites took an intermediate position and argued that neither trumps the other because there cannot possibly be a difference between Revelation and enlightened reason, or in modern times between religion and science.
The Mutazillites faded into history, though so-called progresssivist or liberal Muslims today claim to be Mutazillites, and the Salafis retreated into what at least until recently we have seen in Saudi Arabia. The Neo-Platonic emanationists of Persia and Shams distinguished a number of levels, with human ‘aql or power of rational thought as the lowest, whereas the atheists, who did not exist anywhere in the world until recently, consider that the human is the highest. The tragedy is that members of these seminal schools of thought in the Islamic heritage so often have refused to talk to each other.
Christian doctrine recognizes only two levels, Existence and Being. Nevertheless, some of the greatest of the Christian theologians over the centuries have always recognized at least three levels. Human beings are at the level of Existence, which is transitory and contingent or dependent on a higher level beyond Existence, which is called Being. They call the intermediate one “Being” and the highest, which is God, “Beyond Being.”
The best of these theologians, at least from an Islamic point of view, like Meister Eckhart (who succeeded Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at the new University of Paris) and Hans Kung (who may be the world’s greatest Christian theologian, though he is forbidden to teach at any university sponsored by the Vatican), say that the trinity is at the level of Being, which is where Muslims locate the attributes of God, whereas God as the Ultimate Truth is at a still higher level, which Eckhart, Kung, and many others call Beyond Being.
This question is not strictly hypothetical like asking how many angels can dance on the point of a pin, because it is critical to the question whether and how Jesus Christ can be one of three persons in a Triune God and become finite as a human while remaining infinite, in other words, how God can become what He is not. This, in turn, is basic to the two other questions in Christian dogma, namely whether humans are created without the grace of God, namely, with Original sin, and whether the merits of Jesus’s suffering on the Cross can serve vicariously to restore sanctifying grace, without which no-one can go to heaven.
The doctrine of the Trinity is necessary in order to explain the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus rather than through one’s own merits. The Qur’an teaches similarly that without the mercy of God not a single person could enter heaven, Surah Fatir 35:45, “If God were to punish people according to what they deserve, He would not leave a single living creature upon the face of the earth.” Muslims believe, however, that God forgives directly not through an intermediary.
All the Abrahamic religions teach that every person will be rewarded for his good works on earth, but Islam is perhaps more insistent that faith without works is dead, namely, “by their works you shall know them.” This explains the Qur’anic emphasis on the importance of practicing justice in this world and the next, but it also explains why many Muslims seem to believe that redemption and salvation come from their own good works.
Both religions emphasize equally that over-reliance on one’s own power to build a world of justice may amount to worship of one’s own power and lead to a rejection of God. Both Muslims and Christians can become extremists through their own solypsistic triumphalism and utopian arrogance in believing that they can save the world by imposing a new world order.
In the series of contemplative readings from Pope Benedict XVI’s life works, published as Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI, he reminds his fellow Christians that they must not reduce their faith to moralism. In the reading of February 25th, he writes, “The temptation to turn Christianity into a kind of moralism and to concentrate everything on man’s moral action has always been great.” He warns against the temptation of pride in believing that “we are the ones who must transform the world. We are the ones who must generate redemption. We are ones who must create the better world, the new world.”
The Holy Father concludes with a message that applies to all faiths: “Christian faith … comes about in a state of obedience that places us at God’s disposition wherever He calls. It is the same obedience that does not trust to one’s own power or one’s own greatness but is founded on the greatness of the God of Jesus Christ.”
How Do We Access Ultimate Truth?
The next question in the discussion of absolute truth is “whence,” in other words, where does absolute truth come from? The issue is both whether and how humans, who exist in a contingent universe but come from a reality “beyond” the physical universe, can have access to a reality beyond this reality, namely, to God or what Arabic speakers, both Muslim and Christian, using the original Aramaic word used by Jesus, call Allah.
How are absolute power, absolute compassion, and absolute truth, which are the three major aspects or attributes of Allah, known to Christians as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, communicated to us as human beings, who in no way are absolute ourselves. The answer may be that we are closer to God than all of existence because we were created beyond this level in the realm of Being and shall return to it. Allah reveals in the Qur’an, wa nahnu aqrabu ‘alayhi min habil habil al warid, “We are closer to the human person than is his own jugular vein.”
Physical science cannot prove this any more than it can offer any proof about the nature of God or of human beings, since science is limited to the lowest level of reality. All traditionalist religions teach that it would require the most absurd chutzpa or arrogance to conclude that therefore what science cannot measure cannot exist.
Reason, however, is essential for humans to understand what is beyond the direct perception of most people. It is tempting for people who have a fear of science as possibly threatening faith to dismiss both science and human reason based upon it in the search for reality. Secular persons have the same fear in reverse. As Professor Fatima Jackson of the University of Maryland put it in an exchange at the blog of the Scholars Chair in mid-March, 2009, such secularists “assume that science and religion are non-overlapping spheres of understanding and that when they interface, science loses. I find this perspective very unsatisfying and also historically inaccurate. No wonder our science is so fragmented; it is practiced in the absence of any reality. Of course, our religion (or what passes for religion) is often in even worse shape.”
Perhaps the best analysis of this subject was presented in Pope Benedict XVI’s elocution to the faculty of the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006, in his warning against the errors of “modernism,” which has been a central theme of Roman Catholic moral theologians now since the mid-1800s. Having written a dissertation at Northwestern University on the political origins of Christian heresies during the first six Christian centuries, my judgment is that the only ideological force that was more devastating than “modernism” to orthodox Christianity was the Arian heresy in the fourth through sixth centuries, which resulted in the “apostasy” of every single bishop in Western Christianity except the bishop of Ireland. The Arians’ sophisticated rejection of the divinity of Jesus went far beyond the limits of the two other major heresies of the time, led by the Nestorians of Syria and the Monophysites of Alexandria. In fact, Arianism laid the basis for the almost overnight spread of Islam across all of North Africa a couple of centuries later.
In his masterly elocution, Pope Benedict XVI used as a stalking horse the dialogue during the winter of 1391 between the Byzantine Empire as represented by Emperor Manuel Paleologus, and the Persian Empire, represented by a scholar who obviously was regarded as a threat not only to the Byzantine Empire but to the emperor’s leadership of the Chrisatian faith. Allegedly the Emperor, whose empire was about to be defeated by some warlike Muslim Turks, accused Muslims of hypocrisy, because the Qur’an states, in Surah al Baqara 2:256, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”
The theological debate centered on the Emperor’s statement, “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” This was a clever way to raise the old argument between the Mutazillites and the Salafis, which dominated Islamic debate for two centuries and has never ended, simply because the Salafis usually dominate in time of war, just as their equivalents do in other religions.
The Pope was relying on the commentary by Professor Theodore Khoury, an Islamaphobe at the University of Muenster, who wrote in his publication of this debate, “For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Khoury then quotes the French Islamist, Arnaldez, who somewhat accurately points out that Ibn Hazm of Andalucia went so far as to state that God is not bound even by His own word, and nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” By extension, if the Qur’an were created by the Will of God, rather than by an emanation from the level of His attributes, He could have given an entirely different message. This, of course, was theoretically true in the teaching of Ibn Hazm, about whom I gave a lecture twenty years ago, because Ibn Hazm was the most extreme of the literalists and founded an entire school of law, the Zahiri Madhab, on this Salafist foundation, which fortunately is now extinct.
Pope Benedict XVI used this in his elocution as a convenient foil to condemn the modernist rejection of a higher level of Being that inherently is absolute truth, as well as to condemn the logically related heresy of pitting human reason against faith. As I wrote in my articles at the time, Muslims missed the forest for the trees and failed to understand that the Pope in his elocution was brilliantly expounding on the essence of all traditionalist religion, including or even especially Islam. The Pope announced at the time that he would release an expanded version of his talk, complete with footnotes and further explanation, but apparently this died in the labyrinth of Vatican politics. Muslims generally followed the principle of guilty until proven innocent and some Salafis in Somalia who honored Ibn Hazm as a mentor went so far as to murder an elderly nun in their rage.
The Holy Father warned that this heresy of literalism has threatened the pursuit of truth in the past in all religions, not merely among Muslims. He reminded the faculty at Regensburg that, “In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Dun Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions that clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”
He continues, “As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between His eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf Lateran IV). God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism. Rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God Who is Logos.”
This spiritual perspective on human rights is shared equally and entirely by the greatest traditionalist thinkers in both Christianity and Islam, as well as in Judaism. They recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore conceive of human rights as sacred, including the right of persons and communities to a government that is limited by the sovereignty of God.
Above all, they recognize that the practice of morality, traditionally known as the virtues, is the purpose of spiritual wisdom but is not independent of it. In the language of Christianity this means that moral theology is united with dogmatic theology in a single discipline of knowledge.
The subject of whence comes human knowledge of absolute truth is key to the subject of whither or what is its purpose. This whence explains the whither in the discipline of what one might call “natural theology.”
Classical Islamic thought is built further on the conviction that both the whence and the whither are united in natural theology, known as natural law, the Sunnat Allah. This is expressed in the tripartite Islamic conception of knowledge based on haqq al yaqin, divine revelation, ‘ain al yaqin, observation of the universe, and ‘ilm al yaqin, the human reason that combines the other two.
Perhaps the best discussion of religion by Christian theologians relevant to Islamic jurisprudence may be found in the treatise by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in his 479-page magnum opus entitled Christian Perfection and Contemplation according to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, translated and reprinted from the original French chretienne et contemplation, 1937.
Of all the most eminent Christian scholars of the past two millennia, these two, St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross, writing respectively seven hundred and four hundred years ago, were probably most familiar with Islam. St. Thomas wrote that the master of masters in philosophy and moral theology was Avicenna (Ibn Sina), “Wherever I say master, I mean Avicenna,” through whom he absorbed Aristotelian methodology,
According to Miguel Asin Palacios in his book, Saint John of the Cross and Islam, translated by Douglas and Yoder, Vantage Press, 1981, 94 pages, the Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, borrowed his entire methodology and terminology from Shaykh Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili, who was a contemporary of St. Thomas. Shaykh Shadhili of North Africa founded what came to be known as the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order, which is the only great tariqa to originate outside of Central and Southwest Asia and is ancestral to many of the modern Sufi paths in Europe and America.
St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross are usually considered to be opposites in that St. Thomas emphasized the rational basis of faith, whereas St. John of the Cross emphasized the higher level of infused wisdom. This higher level includes what in Islam is known as inspiration or ilham, which is authoritative only for the recipient, as distinct from Revelation or wahy from prophets, which is valid for a whole nation or all of humankind. Together with all the Muslim theologians, theosophists, and jurisprudents, both St. Thomas and St. John agreed that there could not possibly be any contradiction between faith and reason, or between religion and science, and that if one saw an appearance of such then one’s understanding of at least one of the two must be wrong.
All of these wise thinkers, however, went far beyond the negative belief that there could be no contradiction between the truth that God reveals through nature and the truth that he reveals through human intermediaries, known as prophets. They also believed that each of these two sources of truth is designed to reveal and enrich the other and that they both have a common purpose.
Father Garrigou-Lagrange compellingly demonstrates that St. Thomas and Saint John of the Cross agreed on everything and that only the materialist mind could fail to understand Saint Thomas’s insistence that the purpose of every person and of moral theology is a closer “union with God.” Muslims call this union wahdat al wujjud. One may debate the extent to which this concept of union with God is more epistemological than ontological, that is, whether the experience is more subjective than objective. My extensive discussion on the subject in my article, “Spirituality: Oneness of Being: Fact or Fiction,” http://www.theamericanmuslim.org Augus,t 9, 2004, suggests that merely discussing this issue intellectually obscures the value of the experience both for the individual person and as a source for a higher perspective on human rights.
This background would cast doubt on the supposition that three months before he died St Thomas became a doctrinaire Muslim when a gift of contemplation from the Holy Spirit (run al quddus in Islamic terms) caused him to terminate his multi-volume Summa Theologica in mid-sentence and refer to all he had ever written as “only straw” in comparison with what he now beheld. He was ordered to appear before the Pope in the Vatican and supposedly was murdered along the way. This is sheer speculation designed to undermine appreciation for the common essences of the Christian and Islamic faiths.
Like classical Islamic jurisprudents, St. Thomas taught that “dogmatic theology,” which deals with what one can know only by revelation from Ultimate Being, i.e., God, such as life after death, must be considered together with moral theology as a single science. Moral theology deals with ethics and the virtues in human action and interactions in the world of Existence, as distinct from the higher level of Being. The virtues can be known by human reason based on observation in the material order of reality, but Revelation has enlightened and ordained them to a supernatural end.
These two methods, the deductive or analytical from the higher world of Being and the inductive or synthetic from the lower world of Existence must be combined, because they have the same end. This end is based on the mystery of God, best known through infused contemplative prayer in the realization that God is closer to the soul than it is to itself. At the same time, as Khalil Shadeed, founder of Scholars Chair points out, God’s self-revelation in the ninety-nine names of God, which are mentioned in the Qur’an as attributes for humans created in the image of God to follow, shows that the transcendent nature of the human soul or nafs and spirit or ruh has access to God at a level far beyond the immanent world of his daily existence.
The theme and purpose of Father LaGrange’s major life work were to revive St. Thomas’s teaching that ascetical and mystical theology are nothing but the application of broad moral theology to the direction of souls toward closer union with God’s love. This, in fact, might be considered to be the definition of religion in both Christianity and Islam.
The same is true of traditionalist Judaism as explained in many of my writings, for example, in the article, “The Jewish Covenant with God,” published on March 14, 2006, in the ezine, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org in wh,ich I have published hundreds of articles since the original paper edition went digital in September 2001.
The best representative is the Rebbe Abraham Izaac Kook, who was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1919 to 1935 and was perhaps the greatest spiritual leader of humankind in the twentieth century. As a Lurianic Cabbalist, committed to the social renewal that both confirms and transcends halakha or Jewish law, Rebbe Kook emphasized, first of all, that “religious experience is certain knowledge of God, from which all other knowledge can be at best merely a reflection,” and that “this common experience of ‘total being’ or ‘unity’ of all religious people is the only adequate medium for God’s message through the Jewish people, who are the ‘microcosm of humanity’.”
Rebbe Kook’s entire life spoke his message that only in the Holy Land of Israel can the genius of Hebraic prophecy be revived and the Jewish people bring the creative power of God’s love in the form of justice and unity to every person and to all mankind. “For the basic disposition of the Israelite nation,” he announced, “is the aspiration that the highest measure of justice, the justice of God, shall prevail in the world.” Bearing witness to the Torah in this way, he taught, is the whole purpose of Israel, which stands for shir el, the “song of God.”
If one’s personal relation of loving submission to God, which Muslims call taqwa, is the essence of higher religion, then the human right known as freedom of religion is axiomatic. The ultimate freedom is when one’s only desire, as Thomas Merton (Father Lewis) once put it, is to become the person that one is, in other words, to become the person that God created one to be. This includes the freedom not to do so.
This spiritual perspective, which raises human rights to the sacred level as ultimate ends of existence, necessarily implies also the opposite. Any perspective that raises an ideology of power to the practical level of an ultimate end and rejects justice even as a concept in either domestic or foreign policy inevitably will lead from cosmos to chaos.
What Is the Purpose of Ultimate Truth
The third aspect of any study of absolute truth is its purpose. Allah informs us that, “The word of your Lord is fulfilled and perfected in truth and in justice.” In other words, the purpose is justice, which is another term for human responsibilities and rights.
The best discussion of the nexus between truth and justice may be found in Professor Hossein Nasr’s article entitled “The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam.” This appeared in February, 2009, in a special issue of the popular journal, Parabola, devoted to the concept of justice in all the world religions.
He writes, “To be fully human is to have an innate sense of justice and a yearning for justice. … We have the intuitive sense of putting things aright and in their appropriate place, of re-establishing a lost harmony and equilibrium, of remaining true to the nature of things, of giving each being its due.” Professor Nasr continues, “If justice means to place everything in its place according to its nature and in following divine cosmic and human laws, then the Divine Nature is pure justice in the highest sense, being the One without any parts that could be out of place.”
All wise people in every religion attest, in the words of Professor Nasr, that, “In all traditional religious and sapiential traditions justice is associated with truth, while truth itself is reality in the metaphysical sense. Again, this fact is made clear in the double meaning of the Arabic term al-haqq, which means both truth and reality. To be just is to conform to the nature of the Real, and not to the transient and illusory. In a sense it might be said that injustice is related to ignorance of the truth and real nature of things, while the practice of justice is impossible without truth, which would enable us to know beings in their reality. And since that is not possible in this period of history to achieve by itself, revelations have been sent to guide man in the understanding of truth, of what is real, and of justice.”
The same profound insight explains why Allah revealed the intellectual jihad in Surah al Furqan 25:52, the great jihad, jihad al kabir, which is the only jihad specifically mentioned in the Qur’an. The other two, namely the greatest jihad, the jihad al akbar or spiritual jihad of self-purification, and the lesser jihad, the jihad al saghrir or struggle to defend forceably, i.e., within the strict limits of the Islamic just war doctrine, the human rights of oneself and others, are found only in the ahadith or sayings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad. The title of this chapter or surah of the Qur’an, Furqan, refers to a criterion not independent of Allah but inherent in Allah as one of the 99 Divine Names or attributes of the divine Nature.
The greatest achievement of the classical Islamic scholars over the period of four centuries from the third to sixth in the Islamic calendar was to develop what still remains as the most sophisticated code of human rights ever developed or even attempted.
This code of human responsibilities and rights is now being revived by Muslim scholars all over the world, because, at least in the Sunni world, it has been operationally dead for six hundred years. The best example of this revival is Jasser Auda’s monumental tome on natural law and justice, entitled Maqasid al Shari’ah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach. This study published in 2008 is part of an entire library of books being published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought either as translations from the Arabic, such as Ibn Ashur’s seminal treatise of l946, published as Ibn Ashur:Treatise on Maqasid al Shari’ah, or else written, like Auda’s, originally in English and translated into Arabic and other languages. Some of these books are reviewed, for example, in my article, “Human Rights in Traditionalist Islam: Legal, Political, Economic, and Spiritual Perspectives,” in The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Winter 2008.
The IIIT is now preparing for a twenty-year project to publish in Wikipedic form a twenty-volume Encyclopedia of Natural Law and Justice, perhaps categorized according to my own preferred formulation of the irreducibly universal principles of justice, known as the maqasid al shari’ah, according to their joint development during the high point of the Andalucian civilization by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
The last and greatest of the maqsudi scholars, Imam Abu Ishaq al Shatibi, who died in 790 AH (1388 AC), taught that the maqasid are part of the art of ‘Ilm al Yaqin, one of the three sources of knowledge (the others being Haqq al Yaqin and ‘Ain al Yaqin). One might also consider it to be the heart of a sub-category known as ‘Ilm al ‘Adl.
The first task in this art is to determine which are the most irreducibly essential and universal purposes or maqasid of Islamic normative law. Al Shatibi taught that there is no set number of maqasid and no set prioritization among them. Furthermore, he taught that what Dr. Muna Abul Fadl called the architectonics of this system are flexible and may change according to changing times and cultures.
Within the arena of American debate on the revival of transcendent natural law as a framework for human rights, one might zero in on eight maqasid and group them into two categories, the spiritual or transcendent and the social or immanent. These would correspond to the two halves of the hajj (in Makkah and ‘Arafat) as a grand university of Islamic thought and action.
Each of these two categories of principles consists of four major purposes, each of which in turn has two levels of sub-categories, known as hajjiyat and tahsiniyat. This transcendent perspective on Islamic law was perhaps first introduced as a systems approach in the modern West in the book, The Sun is Rising in the West, edited by Hakeem and Bowman in 1998, specifically in Part Three, entitled “The Search for Justice and the Quest for Virtue: The Two Basics of Islamic Law.”
One recommendation for appropriate categories and component parts is the following set, ordered in priority as a code of human responsibilities and human rights:
1) Haqq al Din, the free right and duty to be aware of and worship God (with the implied right also not to do so) and to search for ultimate truth and justice;
2) Haqq al Nafs, the duty to respect the human person, known as the natural law principle of personalism; including the second-order principle or hajj of haqq al haya, which is the duty to respect human life;
3) Haqq al Mahid (from wahada), the duty to respect the coherent order or tawhid of all creation, i.e. ecology and environment;
4) Haqq al Nasl, the duty to respect human community based on the sacredness of each of its members (not on any secular human collectivity;
1) Haqq al Mal, the duty to respect private property and societal institutions of money, credit, and taxation to promote the universal right to individual ownership of productive wealth as an alternative to older systems of wage slavery;
2) Haqq al Hurriyah, the duty to respect the political self-determination of persons and communities, based on the principle of subsidiarity, whereby legitimacy originates in the human person and ascends through such second-order implementing tools as political democracy;
3) Haqq al ‘Ilm, the duty to respect rational thought through freedom of speech, publication, and assembly; and
4) Haqq al Karama, the duty to respect human dignity in social life, especially gender equity, as well as all the other maqasid or normative principles, which can be observed effectively only as a single whole.
One of the fatal errors noticeable in Islamic intellectual history is the tendency to insist quite rightly on the absoluteness of the creed, namely, what is clear in the Qur’an and relates to the vertical relationship of humans with Allah, but then to extend this absolute approach beyond the vertical to the horizontal relationship among human persons and communities, namely, to the field of law. Islamic jurisprudence is absolute in principles but relative in application according to time and place, because one purpose of the principles is to provide guidance in applying the fiqhi regulations of ahkam and hudud, without which guidance the superficial application of the shari’ah would produce injustice and even absurdity.
The irreducible principles of normative law, although absolute in theoretical nature, should never be dogmatized. Dr. Muna abul Fadl, the wife of Shaykh Taha Jabir al Alwani and a former full professor of political science in Cairo and probably the most brilliant person I have ever met, taught that the multi-layered “architectonics” of Islamic normative law, the maqasid al shari’ah, are flexible, because the maqasid are a product of human reason based on the coherence of the Qur’an and the matn or substance of the ahadith.
This inherent flexibility based on the use of human reason has inspired fear among the hide-bound who confuse Islam with un-Islamic Muslim culture and therefore oppose such normative law as an existential threat. This explains why the entire paradigm and system of the maqasid until recently has been dead in the Sunni world for six hundred years. It is only now being revived, primarily by the International Institute of Islamic Thought, as the most powerful answer to the rage of extremist modernism that threatens all civilization, just as the opposite plague, the extremist rejection of the Islamic intellectual heritage, threatened and eventually destroyed the Islamic civilization more than half a millennium ago. The same has occurred in every civilization throughout history, most notably in the Chinese civilization half a millennium ago, from which Muslims benefited so much. Even a millennium earlier, the Prophet Muhammad, encouraged his followers to “seek knowledge everywhere, even if you have to go as far as China.”
Unfortunately, the study of Islamic intellectual history to a large extent is the history of what one may call perception management and mimetic warfare, whereby various factions pervert the teaching of one great scholar or another to support their respective positions on either creed or law or both. There are enough extremist among Muslims, and always have been, for modern-day extremists, both Muslims and others, to “prove” any extremist position as Islamic. Of course, the Jews do the same thing to their great spiritual leaders, such as Maimonides in Andalucia and Rebbe Abraham Izaac Kook and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz today.
The Hanbalis claim to honor Ibn Taymiya as their mentor but they distort his most essential teachings. For example, he was a Sufi but condemned Sufi extremism. The Salafis, most notably Osama bin Laden, claim that Ibn Taymiya supports their call for a one world government under a single caliph, whereas, in fact, Ibn Taymiya condemned the concept of khilafa if construed to be a political system because he insisted that the khilafa is not a system of governance and certainly not of military imperialism, but rather consists only of a consensus among the wise leaders and the competent scholars on what is moral. For this he was imprisoned by the reigning caliph and died in prison ten years later. He rejected the Shi’a teaching that ‘Ali and his direct progeny were the exclusive spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad, but he agreed with those Shi’a, such as the Zaidis, who emphasized reason and justice and limited the scope of any Hidden Imam, contrary to the teachings of Imam Khomeini, to the maintenance of moral principles.
In discussing all these issues, we would do well to study he history of Christian thought, especially the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, because they have maintained an intellectual heritage that is similar to that of Islam, and discussed the same universal issues, despite the apparently fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam on the specific natures of man and God.
One of the greatest spiritual leaders in the world today is Pope Benedict XVI. The dynamics of the current dialogue between Islam and the Vatican is instructive, which has a history going back 1400 years, as detailed in my dissertation at Northwestern University more than half a century ago on the political origins of Christian heresy. Especially revealing is the collection of daily readings in the book for contemplation entitled Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI, Magnificat, Ignatius Press, October 2006, which, in accordance with my practice as a former Francisan monk, I have included in my reading every day as part of my work in writing a history of the current dialogue between Muslims and the Vatican.
The Holy Father writes in what Muslims would call his mudhakarat or inspirations to zikr (dhikr) for March 6th about truth: “The real alienation, unfreedom, and imprisonment of man consists in his want of truth. If he does not know truth, if he does not know who he is, why he is here, and what the reality of this world consists in, he is only stumbling around in the dark. He is a prisoner, he is not ‘being’s Freedman’. The first and most fundamental of all human rights is the right to God. … Without this basic right, which is also the right to truth, the other human rights are not enough. Without this fundamental right to truth and to God, man becomes degraded to the level of a mere creature of needs. And the deep darkness and alienation of our times is shown in the fact that we have powers and abilities but do not know what they are for; we have so much knowledge that we are no longer able to believe and see truth; we are no longer able to embrace the totality, … deluding man with the notion … of empty freedom.”
This is a good statement of the first of the maqasid, namely, haqq al din, which is the duty to respect freedom of religion in the search for God, the term haqq combining the meanings of God, truth, and human rights.
In the next reading, March 7th, on freedom, the Holy Father writes, “Moral obligation is not man’s prison. … It is moral obligation that constitutes his dignity; and he does not become more free if he discards it; on the contrary, he takes a step backward, to the level of a machine, or mere thing. If there is no longer any obligation to which he can and must respond in freedom, then there is no longer any realm of freedom at all. … Morality is not man’s prison but rather the divine element in him. … This is why there are not only natural laws in the sense of physical functions: the specific natural law itself is a moral law. Creation itself teaches us how we can become human in the right way. … It is the defense of man against the attempt to abolish him.”
The next day, March 8th, he addresses the purpose of freedom, namely what he is as the image of God, the imagio dei, which is a metaphor emphasized by the Prophet Muhammad. Pope Benedict XVI asks: “What is human freedom? … Liberation without truth would be a lie; it would not be liberation but deception and thus man’s ruin. … If man is to be free, he must be ‘like God’. Wanting to be like God is the inner motive of all man’s programs of liberation. Since the yearning for freedom is rooted in man’s being, right from the outset he is trying to be ‘like God’ … where he touches his own truth and becomes true himself.”
For March 11th, we read: “The primordial experience of all experiences is that man himself is the place in which and through which he experiences God. … The question about oneself becomes a question about God. … It is the purpose and meaning of all catechesis to lead to this thirst.”
This leads to the reading of March 13th, entitled “God Loved Us First”: “He loved me first, before I myself could love at all. It was only because he knew and loved me that I was made. … I am preceded by a perception of me, an idea and a love of me. They are present in the ground of my being. What is important for all people, what makes their lives significant, is the knowledge that they are loved.”
At the beginning of these daily mudhakarat on January 2nd, Pope Benedictus XVI introduces the interdependent subjects of faith, reason, and justice. This has been his specialty as a theologian all his life. The Holy Father writes: “The more we know of the universe the more profoundly we are struck by a Reason whose ways we can only contemplate with astonishment. In pursuing them we can see anew that creating Intelligence to whom we owe our reason. Albert Einstein once said that in the laws of nature ‘there is revealed such a superior Reason that everything significant which has arisen out of human thought and arrangement is, in comparison with it, the merest empty reflection’.”
For January 6th, which in the Roman liturgical calendar marks the arrival of the Magi, probably from Persia, to greet the birth of Jesus, the Pope remarks, “They were among those ‘who hunger and thirst for justice’ (Mt 5:6). … Deep within themselves they felt prompted to go in search of the true justice that can come only from God. … They must become men of truth, of justice, of goodness, of forgiveness, of mercy. … They will have to ask: How can I serve God’s presence in the world? They must learn to lose their life and in this way to find it.”
For January 10th, which is entitled “Faith as an Act of Affirmation,” but could also be entitled, “Faith as an Act of Reason,” he writes, “Faith is not the resignation of reason in view of the limits of our knowledge; it is not a retreat into the irrational in view of the dangers of a merely instrumental reason. Faith is not the expression of weariness and flight but is courage to exist and an awakening to the greatness and breadth of what is real. Faith is an act of affirmation; it is based on the power of a new Yes, which becomes possible for man when he is touched by God. It seems to me important, precisely amid the rising resentment against technical rationality, to emphasize clearly the essential reasonableness of faith. In a criticism of the modern period, which has long been going on, one must not reproach its confidence in reason as such but only the narrowing of the concept of reason, which has opened the door to irrational ideologies. The mysterium, as faith sees it, is not the irrational but rather the uttermost depths of divine reason, which our weak eyes are no longer able to penetrate. It is the creative reason, the power of divine knowledge that imparts meaning. It is only from this beginning that one can correctly understand the mystery of Christ, in which reason can then be seen to be the same as love. The first word of faith, therefore, tells us: everything that exists is thought poured forth. The Creator spirit is the origin and the supporting foundation of all things. Everything that is, is reasonable in terms of its origin, for it comes from creative reason. … The mysterium is not opposed to reason but saves and defends the reasonableness of existence and of man.”
This higher wisdom is not unique to Christianity, just as the higher wisdom of other religions is not unique to them. There are many paths to Absolute Truth, as might be indicated by the analogy of a circle with absolute truth at the center and all the different religions and external rituals situated around the circumference. As each tradition or path moves along its own radius toward the center, the external differences recede and the commonalities grow until finally all differences disappear as one approaches God.
Heaven or nirvana is the last stage of all paths, whereas hell is going back to where one started and then denying the circle, which excludes one from the divine presence in heaven. This is hell because, after one passes on to one’s new state after “death,” everyone will have access to a higher truth and have only one desire, beyond all over conceivable desires, which is to be with God in the presence of absolute truth and love. This can be expressed only metaphorically, but on our own yawm al qiyama we will see the truth beyond the metaphors. Many people in all religions have experienced this truth already, because this is part of our primordial human nature as creatures who come from Allah and to Allah shall return.
Once almost thirty years ago, I was invited by the Aspen Institute to a gathering of people from all religions as an expert on Native American religions, because that is my ancestral heritage. The organizer asked me to entertain two Buddhist monks who had just arrived from Nepal but had to leave in five minutes to catch a bus into town. Not knowing how one entertains Buddhist monks, I asked them, “We have only a few minutes. Can you explain Buddhism to me in five minutes or less?”
They laughed and said, “It is as progression. First, we have Hinayana Buddhism, which calls for separation from the illusory world of existence. This prepares one for Mahayana Buddhism, which prepares one for nirvana, which is the elevation into nothingness, that is, into no-thingness, into the real world. And this brings one to the highest level of Tantrayana Buddhism, where one’s only desire is to bring love and justice to everyone in the world.”
Although I was a hidden Muslim at the time, I laughed, in turn, and said, “You have just explained essentially everything there is to know about Islam in thirty seconds.”
This wisdom is universal because this is the “absolute truth” toward which all humans are drawn, and which all humans when they are transformed from the transitory level of existence completely into the eternal level of Being will know absolutely.