Posts Tagged ‘ Religion ’

Reflections On Pakistan From A Recent Visitor

By Alan Jones for The Huffington Post

Pakistan is in the news – not least because of the violence leading up to the elections. H.L Mencken told us that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Sometimes something happens and we’re hit between the eyes not only with complexity but with a sense of both urgency and humility. Last month I traveled to Pakistan as part of a UPIC (US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium) delegation led by the Reverend Robert Chase who runs a remarkable project — Intersections International – which is part of the Collegiate Church of New York.

My involvement came through a sponsoring organization called Convergence, a bi-partisan group centered in Washington DC. Before I went to Pakistan, I thought I was reasonably informed. Now that I’ve had an absurdly short but intense five days there, I find that I know even less, except for two things: one, how intensely tribal human beings are, not least those who wouldn’t admit to belonging to a tribe at all; and two, there is no substitute for personal contact and one-on-one relationships.

Not very profound insights in themselves but significant nevertheless, because my sense of tribe was greatly extended through finding new friends. The intense tribalism on the planet is fed by the lust for power by means of violence and death. But there’s a countervailing “tribalism” which is convinced that if we are to survive and flourish we’d better realize that there really is only one tribe, one ethnic group and that’s all of us. That surviving and flourishing will involve more and more of us in the pursuit of justice and peace.

I found myself in Islamabad sitting next to the scariest looking Muslim in the room (given my prejudices and assumptions – surely modeled on Osama Bin Laden – white turban and dress — suitable for hiding a weapon?). He had a large beard and an intense presence. I found out he was born in Bolton in the UK and now lives in Maryland where he has a farm, a body shop and an Islamic center. We hit is off right away and have become good friends. He is spiritually grounded and intellectually critical and we found that our approach to the great mystery of our different (but not so different) traditions were, in crucial respects, not so much sympathetic as identical.

I came away with two basic insights – one discouraging, the other bright with promise. First, the discouraging part. In some ways Pakistan is a basket-case of a nation. Public opinion polls reveal much that is neurotic and paranoid (not unlike other nations we might mention nearer home). One of our hosts – a distinguished academic – outlined for us the perceptions many Pakistanis have of us. There is overwhelming anti-American feeling revealed in the polls in Pakistan (it wasn’t always so) Why? There are deep problems of perception that have been internalized.

Many are convinced that the War on Terror is really a War on Islam. Moreover this war is being encouraged by a deep conspiracy of Jews and Christians. The US government is not to be trusted because the US wants to break up Pakistan and take control of Pakistan’s assets (the nuclear issue). Finally, the US wants to impose India’s hegemony over Pakistanis. All of the Pakistani delegates agreed with the analysis but also insisted that the perception was distorted – a caricature.

The encouraging insight was our interaction with Pakistani university students and faculty both in Islamabad and Lahore – particularly the women, who were passionate, critical, articulate and energized. What was particularly striking was their clear and biting honesty both about their own country and their severe critique of the appalling ignorance of what is going on in the world and in our name on the part of the US populace.

Alasdair McIntyre some years ago in an essay “How to be a North American” wrote: “We become people one of whose aims is to make sure that we please others, so that they are pleased at being pleased by us. And this wanting to be liked is one of the great American vices that emerges from this refusal of particularity and conflict. Americans tend under the influence of this vice to turn into parodies of themselves – smiling, earnest, very kind, generous, nice people, who do terrible things quite inexplicably. We become people with no depth, no depth of understanding, masters of technique and technology, but not of ourselves.” Colonel Tuan of the Republic of Vietnam once called Americans well-disciplined and generous but a people without a culture. He was not referring to high culture McIntyre commented,, “He meant that he could not recognize what it was about them that made them Americans in the way that he was Vietnamese. And I think that is what happens to people with no story to tell themselves, people who do not confront their future as a narrative future. They, or rather we, become superficial people, people with surfaces, public relations people.”

It struck me that these young Pakistanis were speaking from the point of view of a culture – a culture to be sure that was being challenged by change but a culture nevertheless. Where to begin? It might seem rather thin simply to affirm that there are now strong ties and friendships between members of the two delegations. But these relationships are strengthened by a deep commitment to go on meeting both here and in Pakistan; and not only to meet but to work on projects which will build bridges between our two countries.

It isn’t as if we have to start from scratch. There is already a strong corps of Pakistani-Americans who are dedicated bridge-builders. What comes through when I reflect on my trip to Pakistan is my conviction of the urgency of a new vision for humanity. How can the best of religion be galvanized for the common good? One of my colleagues at the seminary where I taught for many years, often used this aphorism: “Don’t let the demons set the agenda.” It seems to me that this is a good injunction for our age both in our country and in our relations with others. It’s time to jump into the complexity of things with a sense of urgency, humility and humor and realize that there is, in the end, only one ethnic group, only one human race.

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Islam: A Religion of Love

By William C Chittick for The Huffington Post

In the field of religious studies, the word “religion” is commonly understood to designate a worldview along with the various cultural phenomena that embody it, such as doctrine, ritual and art. In this broad sense of the term, everyone has a “religion,” whether acknowledged or not.

By studying the religions of others we can hope to gain a bit of distance from the unquestioned worldviews that underlie our own thinking. Such study is much like learning a new language — we gradually come to see the strengths and weaknesses of our own way of talking and writing. So also each religion, including the atheistic versions, has its own genius and its own limitations.

It seems fairly clear that most thoughtful people nowadays think that we live in interesting times. Some look to other worldviews precisely to gain insight into their own lives. This is a major factor in the great popularity of religious studies in North American universities. The fact that Rumi has become a household name points in the same direction.

Part of Islam’s intellectual heritage is a vast literature exploring and elucidating the nature of love, that most precious of human experiences. Now that I have been offered this forum and told to write about anything I feel like, well, I feel like talking about love. My two previous posts and the responses to them have highlighted the fact that most people have already made up their minds as to the nature of “true Islam.” So let me turn to something that most people, Muslim or not, typically leave out of their understanding of Islam, not least because of their obsession with the world of politics and catastrophes.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya was a famous theologian from Baghdad who died in 1350. Part of his fame lies in the fact that he was the leading disciple of one of the most cantankerous theologians of Islamic history, Ibn Taymiyya, a favorite of Sunni ideologues. Surprisingly for those who think that people of this ilk were narrow-minded bigots, Ibn Qayyim dedicated a large part of his prolific output to love, compassion, forgiveness and other such mild-mannered themes.

In one of his many books, written late in life — Ighathat al-lahfan, “Aid for the Sorrowful” — Ibn Qayyim says that the root of Islam is “love for God, intimacy with Him, and yearning to encounter Him.” He also says, “The revealed books of God, from the first to the last, revolve around the commandment to love.”

Remember that Muslim scholars traditionally spoke of “124,000 prophets,” beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad. What Ibn Qayyim is trying to say is that every true religion — that is, all the religions established by the 124,000 prophets — are founded on love. It makes no difference who these prophets were or where they lived. When Muslims settled down in China, for example, they soon recognized that Confucius had been a prophet.

Claiming that “love” is the heart of Islam or of religion generally is not unusual in the Islamic context. Another example is provided by the major Sunni scholar Rashid al-Din Maybudi, who completed the longest pre-modern Persian commentary on the Quran in 1126. In explaining why the Quran calls itself “a book from God” (verse 2:89), he says that the book deserves to be titled “the eternal love” and that its content is “the story of love and lovers.”

One hundred years after Maybudi and as many years before Ibn Qayyim, Rumi’s famous teacher, Shams-i Tabrizi (who disappeared in the year 1247), said that the Quran is “a book of love,” or “a love letter” from God. He explained that if lawyers, philosophers and theologians fail to see it this way, that is because they are too preoccupied with their own specialties. First, you need to love God rather than law or theology or philosophy (or politics). Then, you should read the book. It is worth noting here that Shams, despite his reputation as an unlearned rascal of spirituality, was a professional Quran-teacher.

No one is surprised to hear that Rumi saw the Quran as a book of love, but most seem to think that Rumi was out of kilter with the Islamic mainstream. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is no accident that his six-volume epic poem in celebration of love, the Mathnawi, has often been called “the Quran in the Persian language.”

Shams al-Din Muhammad, the greatest and most beloved of Persian poets, provides another example. He is known by his chosen pen name, “Hafiz,” a word that designates someone who has memorized the Quran. Anyone familiar with his poetry knows that it is permeated with love and beauty, so much so that native-speakers can become intoxicated simply by listening to it. Hafiz holds that all religion and indeed, all human striving, is rooted in love. One verse will have to suffice:

Everyone, sober or drunk, is seeking a beloved,
everywhere, mosque or synagogue, is the house of love.

Muslim scholars who talk about love as the heart of Islam and of religion generally take the position that God’s love and compassion motivated him to create human beings so that they could love him in return. The goal of creation is to bring lovers into existence, and the goal of lovers — that is, you, me and everyone else — is to escape false loves and return to what we really love. This, for them, is the key message of the Quran, “the story of love and lovers.”

William C. Chittick, is a Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, State University of New York, Stony Brook. For a survey of the role of love in religion generally, including his essay on Islam, see the volume edited by Jeff Levin and Stephen G. Post, Divine Love: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions.

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