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Interfaith Dialogue ( 10 May 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Are Religions One or Many? A Session in a Parliament of World Religions

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

12 Apr 2018

Attempting to formulate what unites and grounds world religions and allow genuine inter-religious dialogue.

Isn’t it sad and embarrassing to note that while political states, “though different in culture and competing with one another,” maintain diplomatic relations and strive for co-existence. Only religions are not on speaking terms.” The core problem that hurts their relationship is the blasphemy expressed thus: “I alone have all the truth and the grace, and all those who differ live in darkness, and are abandoned by the grace of God.”

      Despite the enduring perception that religions “disagree profoundly and are in opposition to one another on matters of doctrine” it seems possible that we can express the common statement of all delegates to an imagined international conference in the idiom of every major religion. All we need is to take the best interpreters of world religions who understand language of all or at least some religions and seek to express the same in terms of their own/other religions. Let us read one such interpreter’s (Shaykh Isa Nurudin) summary of basic points that should be appreciated as providing abiding foundation for dialogue among religions, dialogue with philosophers and mystics and probably with many a sceptic:

“What do we need for spiritual life enjoined in every tradition?  “Three things: truth, spiritual practice, morals.”

What is Truth?  “Pure and unveiled truth coincides with metaphysics; the religious dogmas are symbols of metaphysical truths; the deep understanding of religious symbolism is esoterism. Pure metaphysics is hidden in every religion.”

What about spiritual practice?  “Spiritual practice is essentially prayer. There are three forms of prayer: first, canonical prayer…; second, personal prayer…; third, the contemplative prayer of the heart; this is mystical spirituality.”

What about morals? “Morals mean a reasonable, healthy and generous behaviour; on the other hand, it means beauty of the soul, hence intrinsic nobility.”

      Missing is in the solution to find basis for dialogue from religious perspective. For instance people have tried to find – and failed naturally -  the basis to judge others on the basis of their supposedly best conception of God (as distinct from Godhead). We can’t find unity at the level of religions and it is futile to mix creeds and rituals and ask for dissolving religious boundaries. The solution to find what grounds religion itself or all religions and thus step beyond the universe of seemingly competing theologies or religions to judge all of them from a higher or more universal standpoint. And that is called the science of the Real/Supraphenomenal or Pure Being or Metaphysics. The unity if it can be found at all has necessarily to be found in that which is the end of religion  and which transcends and grounds religions and that is what we call the  Real or transpersonal Absolute that is the object of metaphysics. Pure and unveiled truth that all religions ultimately invoke to legitimize their claims “coincides with metaphysics” that unites 1,24,000 heavenly teachers from Adam to Muhammad (SAW). The question regarding legitimacy of metaphysical perspective itself doesn’t arise because it is based on “intellectual intuition, which by its very nature is infallible because it is a vision by the pure intellect, whereas profane philosophy operates only with reason, hence with logical assumptions and conclusions.” Revelation is, as noted by many Sufis and philosophers, Intellection for the masses, a point that should make even sceptics pause to consider claims of what has been called religious humanism.

      Let us now turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel whose insights on Semitic religions in general and Judaism in particular are especially noteworthy in the task of building lasting foundation for dialogue of sister faiths.

      Heschel notes the possibility of seeing other religion’s as providential opposites for letting spiritual democracy, the object of Muslim sage Iqbal, to prevail. “What if we accept the prophet's thesis that they all worship one God, even without knowing it, if we accept the principle that the majesty of God transcends the dignity of religion, should we not regard a divergent religion as His Majesty's loyal opposition? However, does not every religion maintain the claim to be true, and is not truth exclusive?”

      For Heschel “the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.” “Our conceptions of what ails us may be different; but the anxiety is the same. The language, the imagination, the concretization of our hopes are different, but the embarrassment is the same, and so is the sign, the sorrow, and the necessity to obey.”  “We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.”

      Heschel provides resources to reach out to those who are usually thought outside the camp of believers in world religions and thus build a consensus of all thoughtful humans irrespective of religious commitments. “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way. We have no answers to all problems. Even some of our sacred answers are both emphatic and qualified, final and tentative; final within our own position in history, tentative - because we can only speak in the tentative language of man.” And ““We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act.”  “ None of us pretends to be God's accountant, and His design for history and redemption remains a mystery before which we must stand in awe.” And notes that the ancient Rabbis proclaim "Pious men of all nations have a share in the life to come."

      One recalls a remark by Maimonides, great Jewish thinker and commentator, that seems to be an exegesis of the first tradition recorded by Imam Bukhari: “God asks for the heart, everything depends upon the intention of the heart ... all men have a share in eternal life if they attain according to their ability knowledge of the Creator and have ennobled themselves by noble qualities.” It is instructive to recall one sentence summary of religion in practice by the Prophet of Islam (SAW) “religion is nothing but sincere counsel and seeking to spread the good” and Hillel that all scripture is golden rule stating that which is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbour. Augustine affirmed the same when he said that scripture teaches nothing but charity. One should recall Abu Dawood’s distillation of whole Hadith corpus in the form of four Hadiths – “Actions are by intentions,” “ “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,”  “A sign of one's excellence in his Islam is ignoring what does not concern him.” “The lawful is clear and the unlawful is clear and what is ambiguous is better left alone/returned to God.” Sages and philosophers Eastern and Western including Confucius and Buddha, Aristotle and Kant have also summarized essential ethics (invoked in different religious traditions) in the manner that recalls golden rule affirmed in one of the above mentioned Hadiths. Who can claim to scan hearts of others and thus judge? Isn’t it indecent to speculate or dismiss before even hearing what we have not been deeply concerned about in academic or intellectual matters? (Many don’t care to read, for instance, Pannikar or AKC or Smart or Smith or their likes but feel free to offer unsolicited comments.)

      One recalls medieval Islam’s great scholar and mystic-jurist Abdul Wahhab Sharani’s claim that in traditions he knew it is God/the Real that is glorified. Recognizing this we agree to see common objective of religions as glorifying/realizing the Real. Ethical/ spiritual practices they propose for accessing the Real are hardly distinguishable. Their fruits, as far as we know them in this world, taste similar. But let us note that religions don’t invite us to themselves but to God/the Real who is the real face in us – and thus to our own ground. Let us, however, agree to invite others, with “wisdom and beautiful preaching” to what we have tasted or known to be the most sublime or most beautiful aspect of the Truth that sanctifies. Let us warn our fellow seekers of dangers of idolatrous imagination and pride that “holier than thou” attitude conceals.

      So far we know many advocates of religions which usually don’t understand/want to understand one another. Sages, metaphysicians and many towering scholars of comparative religion claim to understand their deeper or common language. However, it has often been maintained that this is not the case or that translation into other languages is not possible due to absence of discernible deep structure. It often implies that religions are distant unrecognizing estranged relatives that should, like male buffaloes, fight one another to death. The Quran had proposed dialogue instead of polemical fight between them. Let us read our best scholars engaged in this dialogue that has been largely missing from much of the history of world religions.

Let us not presume that there should be only one person in the dice and no chair for the President and one doesn’t need to listen to others with humility. The Chair of the sessions should be the best scholars of world religions. Taste few such sessions and one comes to know that one needs to know more of one’s own tradition to better appreciate others and vice versa.