Between Secularism , pluralism and Secularism

The presentation would briefly discuss: That our public life needs whatever wisdom we can find, whether religious or secular; That the Scriptures and the Wisdom Traditions of man are a rich source of such wisdom; That our religious and secular world needs frameworks, patterns, settlements and institutions within which this and other wisdoms (both religious and secular) can be put forward, learned, taught, explained, discussed, disputed, deliberated about and have practical effects in public life; That in the contemporary world and in our present environment the ways of doing this that have been worked out have considerable potential, but that they need to be both critiqued and developed much further; That there is a special need to do fuller justice in the public sphere to religious intensities, those deep and powerful convictions, understandings, desires, community attachments, habits and practices that are at the heart of each tradition, and that one vital way of doing so is by thorough engagement with the scriptural texts that are at the core of their identities; And, finally, that because religious intensities in the public sphere rightly give rise to deep fears of fanaticism, divisive confrontation and bloody conflict, one of the greatest needs is for the healthy intensity of passionately wise faith. We live for the first time in history in an age of multiculturalism and it is utterly important and central that we think in plural terms about faith. The most towering problem facing people in the 19th century was nationalism and in the 20th century it has been ideology as, for most of the century, the nations have been located on the opposite sides of the ideological divide and the cold war conflict. But now when the war in gone and the ideological conflict in over the greatest problem that faces the 20th century is the ethnic conflict and because those conflicts are powered, in part, by multiple faiths clashing with one an other it is important that we turn over attention to that danger and do our best to annihilate whatever problems we face now or that may come down the road. I would offer a few observations on the subject today and since every one comes to the discussion with ones own specific tool kit and training I would exclude all practical considerations and try to say some thing philosophically or theologically as, like the medieval Muslims and Christians, I too consider philosophy to be the long arm of theology and see religious arguments at work behind attitudes and actions that apparently seen to have nothing in common with religion, even in mundane matters like the way Muslim, and perhaps Christian, males treat their females! Moreover I do not agree with the way mostly common responses are made to the misplaced religious arguments and bad logic used by the present day extremist Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Most often the response is made by dissociating oneself from the monstrosities by saying that this is not Islam or this is not true Hinduism or Christianity. But that amounts to side stepping the question and turning a blind eye to the fact that the groups in question from among all the communities are putting forward religious arguments to validate their actions and the conceptual framework and basic assumptions through which these operate are claimed to be supported by their basic religious texts. In this case one cannot absolve oneself of one's responsibility by simply disowning the group or groups in question. One must place the sin at the doorsteps of a definite group, school of thought or mode of interpretation in one's community and try to hold a mirror to their thinking. I have done that separately in one of my short studies that is available for free distribution here so I leave it out for the purposes of the present presentation. Before the fall of Soviet Communism both the capitalist and Communist worlds tended to write religion out of their scenarios of the future. Today, projections of a simply secular future seem less persuasive. The shift in perception is probably mainly due to what is called militant Islam, beginning with the Iranian Revolution and climaxing in the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. But one might argue that this perception is just catching up with the reality obscured by the expansion of Communism earlier in the twentieth century and by the influence, especially in the media and education, of a largely secularized Western-educated elite throughout that period. Probably between 4 and 5 billion of the world's more than 6 billion people are directly involved with a religion today, and this picture seems unlikely to change a great deal during the rest of the twenty-first century. So during the lifetimes of all of us now alive we would do well to reckon seriously with religions as shapers of our world, for worse or for better. This does not mean that we have a purely religious world to deal with; rather it is simultaneously both religious and secular in complex ways. There are important issues between the religions; but there are also further, overlapping issues between each of the religions and the various secular understandings and forces. Here it would be wise to take account of the ways such relationships have been handled in the recent past, by referring to the three major "settlements" made in this regard, namely, the British, the French and the American. I would refer to one of the sessions of the Clinton Global Initiative in the section on "Religious and Ethnic Conflict" to make my point. It had a panel with an Englishman, a Frenchman and an American. As they spoke about religion and politics the Frenchman resisted any suggestion that religions should be taken seriously as religions within the political sphere: problems were traced mainly to economic causes, and he was confident that if poverty were dealt with effectively the unrest in French cities would disappear. The American (who was also a Muslim) insisted that the religions needed to contribute to public discourse but that the American separation of Church and state was a healthy thing. The Englishman, John Battle MP (the Prime Minister Tony Blair's special adviser on the religions), told stories of his own involvement with religious communities in his Leeds constituency, and evoked a complex settlement in which religious bodies were seen as stakeholders in society with whom the government and other public bodies were in constant communication and negotiation and whose identities could be affirmed by such means as state-supported faith schools. It was as if each was representing his own nation's settlement, developed over centuries. Making judgments on such complex achievements, each worked out in special circumstances, is dangerous, but I will risk it in summary form. I think that in the current world situation the French secularist solution is the least satisfactory. It, like the others, is understandable in historical terms— working out the epochal, often bloody confrontation between the French Revolution and Roman Catholicism— but its practical exclusion of religions from the public sphere (including state schools and universities) is in effect the establishment of a state ideology that is not neutral in relation to religion but is suspicious, critical and often hostile. It is not well suited to a religious and secular world. The American separation of church and state is far more benign with regard to the religions, and in fact religion plays a major role in American politics. But there has been a tendency to try to use the separation to create a neutral public space, where it is illegitimate to draw explicitly on religious sources. This 'lowest common denominator' public square (expressed, for example, in banning official recognition of any particular religious symbols, holidays or practices and refusing to let state schools teach religious education or state universities teach theology as well as religious studies) is increasingly being criticized, even by secular thinkers such as Jeffrey Stout of Princeton University, who see it as an impoverishment of public life. Both religious and secular traditions should be able to contribute in their distinctive ways to public debate rather than reducing all discourse to a secularized lowest common denominator. That at its best is what happens in Britain also. Its particular history has kept religion involved in its public life, sometimes controversially usually resisting pressures from those quarters who have more sympathy with secularist, often atheist, ideologies and would favour a French-style settlement. Britain also comes out rather poorly from comparative studies of the relative alienation of the Muslim minority from the rest of society. In global terms, Britain has the conditions for pioneering work in shaping a religious and secular society that draws on the resources within each of the traditions for peaceful living and working together. They have an extraordinary range of religious communities in a society that has also experienced intense secularization. The British settlement works within what one might call a minimal secular and religious framework that enables mutual public space. This has been shaped over many centuries and is constantly open to renegotiation. The framework is minimal in that it refuses to impose either a particular religious solution or a particular secular solution and so lives by ongoing negotiation rather than by appeal to a fixed constitution or principles. It therefore helps to create a mutual public space with possibilities for shared discussion, dialogue, education, deliberation, and collaboration— in contrast to the French tendency towards strictly secular public space and the American tendency towards neutral public space. But for all practical purposes this constant, ongoing renegotiation leaves the British settlement little better than the others, oscillating between the secular pluralism and religious exclusivism. The point that I am driving at by alluding to the just mentioned "settlements" is that there is no widespread confidence that 'the secular project' can adequately resource any society in areas such as personal and family life, ethics and politics, health and environment, civic and international responsibilities. So where is wisdom to be found for the shaping of our society in the twenty-first century? Our situation is rather different. Pakistan draws on the Islamic tradition for As some one made a flippant remark that Pakistan already has more of religion than it can use! Each of the three traditions has its own, distinct yet related, ways of giving priority to God, honouring God, blessing or hallowing the name of God, respecting the mystery of God's active, holy presence among us. These texts are most liberating when they are read for the sake of God and God's purposes, even though we differ on just how God is to be identified. This is immensely important for public life. Each of the Abrahamic faiths identifies idolatry as the most radical distortion and corruption of human life. To give ultimate status, honour and priority to whatever is not God— whether a race, a nation, a leader, an ideal, a gender, an ideology, a science, an economic system or even the whole of creation -harnesses immense religious energies often to devastating effect. The most insidious forms of idolatry are explicitly religious, distorted ways of identifying God or trying to harness God to one's own cause. The only reliable way of countering such idolatries is continually to seek the God beyond our constructions, to be open to correction, challenge and critique, and to sustain those practices of prayer, common life, study and debate that allow the truth to be recognized. What could be healthier for each of the Abrahamic faiths than to contribute to this by the shared study of scriptures? What could be healthier for our public life than for citizens within these faiths to be able to share their wisdom and together to work out ways of faithful, non-idolatrous service of the common good? The one problem of a particularly specific nature in the west, and especially in America is the presence of many Christians that hold that there in only one true faith and only they have it. That of course makes it difficult as we work for harmony among the world's faiths. The usual proof text/argument on the Christian side is that "no one commeth to the Father except through me" or same variation of the same theme. Those who advance this line of argument they don't know their history. The practice of the early Church and most later traditions was to engage appreciatively as well as critically with thought and practice in their surrounding cultures. As far as the literalism is concerned they are completely ignorant of the fact that the Christian Church has a very rich and long standing exegetical tradition and it goes right back to the patristic age where there are four steps in interpreting any verse of the Bible. First the literal meaning that's the lowest but the fundamentalists always stop there. The Second question that must always be asked is the ethical meaning. The third is the allegorical meaning and the highest level is that of the anagogic meaning. In Christian history that in the supreme rule to apply in interpreting a text. It was argued that "No one commeth to the Father save though the Son." What does the word Son mean? If it is the Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus in gone. So there is no way that people will get to God through that reference. Is it the risen Christ? Or is it the Christ who is referred to in the first 4 verses in the Gospel of John as the Word or in Greek the "Logos"? In the beginning it was the Word, it was with God the Word was God. Through him all things were near and in some translations, without him nothing was made. Now let's take that literary. If nothing in this whole world & history was made without the Word which was God, in God, that means that Buddha was created by God, Muhammad was created by God. If God made these prophets, these enlightened souls, it is up to me to honor the followers of those originators of the religions made my God. If you religion is the only true religion then God bless you. But I hope you will follow the teachings of your master who tells us to love not just our friends but our enemies. Loving people require that we not bad mouth them. So every religion asks you to live up to that command. حرف برلب آوردن خطاست As Iqbal, the sage and poet of the East, has said: To allow a bad word to rise to the lips is a fault; For all alike are the creatures of God, both the Kafir and the True Believer. The essence of humanity is respect for man; And thou shalt do well to make careful note of this important point. To be a man is to behave well as individuals towards each other, And one should forge ahead on the basis of friendship. A creature of Ishq picks up his way by the light provided for him by God; And he is equally compassionate towards the Believer and the non-believer. Let the difference between Kufr and Din sink deep into the pores of the heart: And always remember that for one heart to flee from another heart in malice, hate, or dislike, is the greatest tragedy in human life. Geographical extent Misplaced Absolutes super session ism The answer to the 'problem', if anyone considers it to require an answer, lies in the following verse, which many consider to be among the last Revelations received by the Prophet and which in any case belongs to the period which marks the close of his mission. As such it coincides with a cyclic moment of extreme significance― the last 'opportunity' for a direct message to be sent from Heaven to earth during what remains of this cycle of time. Many of the last Quranic revelations are concerned with completing and perfecting the new religion. But this verse is a final and lasting message for mankind as a whole. The Qur'an expressly addresses the adherents of all the different orthodoxies on earth; and no message could be more relevant to the age in which we live and, in particular, to the mental predicament of man in these later days. For each of you We have appointed a law and a way. And if God had willed He would have made you one people. But (He hath willed it otherwise) that He may put you to the test in what He has given you. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God will ye be brought back, and He will inform you about that wherein ye differed. Sometimes the best way to approach claims regarding exclusive possession of the truth is simply to laugh and to leave things in God's hands. Thus we conclude this section with an anecdote, told to us by one of the ulama many years ago. Two Iranian scholars were discussing religion. One of them asked the other, "In the last analysis, who goes to paradise?" The other, a poet well known for his sense of humour, answered, "Well, it is really very simple. First, all religions other than Islam are obviously false, so we do not have to consider them. That leaves Islam. But among Muslims, some are Shi'ites and some Sunnis, and we all know that the Sunnis have strayed from the right path and will be thrown into hell. That leaves the Shi'ites. But among Shi'ites, there are the common people and the ulama. Everyone knows that the common people don't care about God and religion, so they will burn in the Fire. That leaves the ulama. But the ulama have become ulama in order to lord it over the common people. That leaves you and me. And I am not so sure about you." Doesn't this kind of reasoning sound familiar? It is perhaps not wildly inaccurate to say that many of our contemporaries think this way, whether they be Muslims, Christians, Jews, scholars, scientists, politicians, or whatever. And this sort of position sounds suspiciously like that of Iblis, whose motto is, "I am better than he."


Endnotes :-

1 In the Wake of 11th September, Perspectives on Settled Convictions― Changes and Challenges, Compiled by Muhammad Suheyl Umar, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Lahore, 2005. Also see Muslim-Nom Muslim Relations, K. A. Nadim.

2 Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton University Press, Princeton 2004).

3 The Bible is notably hospitable to traditions of wisdom in the Ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations, and does not see God as confining wisdom to believers – there are many instances of wisdom arising outside Israel and the Church. The practice of the early Church and most later traditions was to engage appreciatively as well as critically with thought and practice in their surrounding cultures. And from within their own traditions many Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others would make similar points about how their wisdom has been drawn from many sources. To say that no tradition has a monopoly on wisdom is not to be a relativist: in theological terms it is simply to believe in the providence and generosity of God.

4 Muhammad Iqbal, Javid Namah, in Kulliyat-i-Iqbal, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Lahore, 1994, p. 673. For a translation see A. Q. Niaz, Iqbal’s Javid Namah, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Lahore, 1984, p. 329.

5 God doth what He will. But it is clearly in the interests of man that a Divine intervention which founds a new religion should be overwhelmingly recognizable as such. The accompanying guarantees must be too tremendous, and too distinctive, to leave room for doubts in any but the most perverse, which means that certain kinds of things must be kept in reserve as the special prerogative of such a period. The Qur’an refers to this ‘economy’ when it affirms that questions which are put to God during the period of Revelation will be answered (V, 101), the implication being that after the Revelation has been completed, questions will no longer be answered so directly. It is as if a door between Heaven and earth were kept open during the mission of a Divine Messenger, to be closed at all other times.

6 The change from first to third person with regard to the Divinity is frequent in the Qur’an.

7 If He had sent only one religion to a world of widely differing affinities and aptitudes, it would not have been a fair test for all. He has therefore sent different religions, specially suited to the needs and characteristics of the different sectors of humanity.

8 V, 48.