Friday, 22 April 2016

Islam and the West

I’ve always enjoyed reading the books of Karen Armstrong. A former Catholic nun, she has been prolific for more than two decades on the history of religion, most impressively with A History of God in 1993.

Armstrong is measured, balanced and open-minded, and one of the few contemporary Western authors of standing who writes sympathetically but expertly about Islam (Islam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet). Reading her I reflect on the anti-Islamic bigotry that runs deep in the West. In Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time, she says:

“We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades. In the 12th century, Christian monks in Europe insisted that Islam was a violent religion of the sword, and that Muhammad was a charlatan who imposed his religion on a reluctant world by force of arms; they called him a lecher and a sexual pervert.”

Islam, in this early part of the 21st century, is the Western world’s psychological “other”; one of its chief bugbears. An “other” is simply a projection of the dark side of ourselves onto someone else so that we maintain a self-image that is whole, papering over cracks we’d prefer not to face. In the collective Western mind Muslims are associated with intolerance, fanaticism, violence and terrorism, but this hides the West’s very chequered record towards Islam – namely the several centuries of colonialism, imperialism, invasions, racism, and forced economic and cultural modernisation continuing to this day.

Power is the central issue here, as those who are on top seek to maintain and extend their power while keeping the marginalised at bay. It’s an ancient human story but one that throughout history has been moderated by the better side of our nature. In our time, we can ask some pertinent questions: Can the dominant forces of the world, led by the West, allow a broader and fuller expression of what it means to be human to exist? Can cultures that are very different co-exist in mutual respect without any one group asserting overall control? Can power be ceded in some fashion and become much more diffuse, encouraging diversity to flourish? It is the consistent abuse of power that leads to the appearance of extremist groups like ISIS and the Taliban, as those who are the abused aspire to become abusers in an atmosphere of despair.

The moderating force to power is, of course, love. In the hard world of politics and international relations one senses that word is never used, but it is evident in every instance of practical solidarity and humanity. Every conflict and crisis is an invitation to love – to see the face of the “other” as our own face, provoking dialogue and reconciliation. When the boundaries between “us” and “them” break down we see the oneness of life and the value, the necessity of each part in the whole. A realisation of oneness gives us the impetus to cherish all life.

Love is a challenge to the narrowly conceived ego that seeks power for its own sake regardless of the consequences. It is hard to say whether humanity will ever evolve a mature enough collective ego that will enable us to live in harmony with ourselves and the natural world. At times we seem a great distance from that ideal. Yet if we can imagine it perhaps it’s not as far away as we think; what, after all, in the long span of the development of the human species, is 200, 500 or even 1000 years?

I think of the wonderful mystical tradition of Islam called Sufism, timeless in its appeal, that revolves around the idea and experience of love, in its highest expression the love for the Divine that extinguishes the separate ego. In one of his poems, the Sufi master Mohyuddin Ibn ‘Arabi writes:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a
pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaaba and the
tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an.

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s
camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Thoughts on revelation

One of the advantages of rising early, as all early risers know, is the feeling of being present in the waking of the world. All is hushed, quiet, dormant, dark, and slowly stirs into the passion of life in a remarkable transformation of movement, sound, light, being and soul.

I have the privilege a couple of times a week to be on an early-morning bus to work from my home in central Victoria to Melbourne, starting the journey in inky darkness and moving through the grand spectacle of dawn and sunrise along the way.

As light appears on the horizon it is a faint orange, a first smudge that gradually changes to pink, sometimes with delicate red and purple hues above. In the east, where the main show happens, clouds take on pinkyness, break up and swirl in a sea of blue. Pinks change to fiery reds then yellow as the sky comes ablaze.

By the time dawn is in full array the bus passes the Macedon Range on our left, a dark hulking facade that blots out the action. We climb into the Great Divide, with its refined air and subtle colour; shreds of mist fly past, a flock of ibis in v-formation flaps overhead. Then, down into the plain again, the sun finally rises, breaking open the horizon with a flood of light.

The grace, the intensity, is deeply moving. The book I had taken to read lies idly on my lap.

To an open and receptive sensibility, the process of world-waking is a miracle, a revelation. Thinking of the great historical revelations of humanity – that of Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – none of them compares with this ordinary, everyday event. Or rather, for all of them it was the ground, the Mother, the vehicle that brought their Word to birth.

I would define revelation as “coming into being”. That is, a spiritual manifestation of some kind experienced at a point in its process that engenders inner transformation. The revelation appears autonomous, a discreet event, if we speak of a particular sunrise or of a particular mystical vision that occurs to an individual, but in reality the person is catching a moment in an unfolding process and experiencing it as a soulful awakening.

The sunrise is part of the turning, changing life of the Earth as a mystical vision is an emanation of Spirit to a developing individual in a certain time and culture. It’s important to be aware of this dynamic nature because of the human tendency of attachment to revelation which at times has caught them as if in a static bind. Powerful religions with global reach have been formed around them when their inner nature, their core, defies any hard concretisation. Jesus’ revelation was of the nature of Love, Zoroaster’s the relationship of Light and Dark, Buddha’s the Path beyond suffering. When a “holy book” is created around a particular revelation, the danger arises that it becomes lifeless over time and open to the uses and abuses of power. Treated as poetry, as story, as a gateway to the mystery of being, a revelation lives; as theology or doctrine it dies.

At the same time, it is inevitable and, indeed, desirable that a revelation effect change in the world and its redemptive goodness and transformative power be shared with others. “Proclaim!” is the first, urgent word spoken to Mohammed in his rapture at the Cave of Hira. Yet there is no guide of certainty as to what is to be proclaimed, what is to be done – only that action is consistent with the nature of the revelation.

It is also inevitable that people respond differently in the presence of Spirit according to their personality and inner development. The same numinous moment, the same sunrise may yield a variety of results. In that sense, a revelation is like a comet – some will apprehend only parts of its long tail while others are able to approach somewhere near the head. The tail represents the revelation taken at its most concrete and literal, while the further one moves towards the head the more metaphoric and refined it becomes. It is the one spiritual manifestation for everyone who partakes in it, but translated differently by each person. The task, then, is for those nearer the crown of the comet to lead a movement of the rest towards the apex of refinement.

Just as the sunrise is available to everyone, so revelation in general is the common endowment of all who are receptive to it, and any claim of ownership by a religion or institution is absurd. In creating sacred rites and rituals around a revelation the challenge for a community is to remain open to the changing call of Spirit over time and avoid idolatry of its own symbols. The task of a priest is not to be “a keeper” of the sacred but a guide towards the transformative power liberated by the revelation.

In our contemporary globalised world there is a process of convergence of cultures and a tendency of democratisation that undermines established hierarchies. What was previously buried or undervalued begins to have its day in the sun; women start to be properly recognised, non-human nature is seen for its own intrinsic worth. Through this prism, revelation too is made “democratic”. No longer is it reserved for men or a priestly class or spiritual elite, but belongs to all who can experience it and who are able to turn it creatively for the benefit of the world.