Today, as we remember and honor my father five years after his death, he would not wish us to dwell only on the past, since he always interpreted his beloved Islamic faith in terms of the present and the future. He sought how to help others see what God really intends for us, how to act, how to treat with our fellow human beings, and how to treasure this God-given environment we have been given as His Viceroy. My father showed over and over again in his writing how true Islam – not the false and corrupted Islam we hear about so much in the news – can heal the turmoil of this troubled world.
And this is a troubled world, although perhaps no more troubled than in the past; the troubles are just more present in our lives because of communication technologies that keep us up to speed 24/7 on the evils of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Al Quaeda and all others who pervert the truth of Islam. But these technologies also give us tools to fight such evils, and spread the true message of God’s love and forgiveness in ever more effective ways.
My father hated injustice, and told me many times how justice is at the heart of Islam. He wrote how the Qur’an praises those who always act “in the light of truth”, and commands us never to let hatred lead us into deviating from justice” “Be just!” he said; “that is the closest to God-consciousness.”
It saddened my father – but never surprised him – to see how quickly his brothers and sisters in faith take offence and fight viciously amongst themselves over matters that mean nothing to God. But as he liked to say, “faith alone comes from God; religions come from man, and human nature does not easily adapt itself to the requirements of faith. The Prophet is reported to have said that, out of a herd of a hundred camels, you are lucky to find one good riding beast.”
I’m sometimes asked what my father would say about what’s happening across the Muslim world if he were alive today. That’s easy; human nature doesn’t change in five years, or five hundred years. The challenges we face today are no different from the challenges my father wrote about twenty or thirty years ago. The mask they show to the world may be different but their underlying humanity – or lack of humanity – remains the same. So this afternoon I want to speak as my father, drawing from a lifetime of his writings, as though he was standing here in front of you right now. The voice may be mine but the words and thoughts are all his.
I am not Muslim. While my father found his path to Islam after many years of diligent searching; I grew up in Christianity and remain within the faith of my forefathers. But like Dad, I too am a Perennialist, believing in the truth that lies at the heart of all the great faith traditions, seeking that golden thread that binds us all to God, no matter what religion we call our own. My father once wrote: “I can only follow one religion and that is Islam. It is the sun while all others are just stars. But stars are suns to other people, and they are all paths to God.”
As for me, I like to imagine a series of beautiful stained glass windows through which the sun shines in glorious intensity. One might portray verses from the Qur’an, another Shiva’s Dance, a third Jesus on the Cross, and so on through all the world’s great religions. Each window is different, and yet it is the same light that shines through them all.
But while he worked to promote interfaith understanding, my father also warned against fuzzy New Age thinking that tries to claim all religions are really the same. He wrote “it is no more possible to mix the religions together and produce some kind of Highest Common Denominator than it is to express oneself eloquently in a mixture of Arabic, Sanskrit and Latin. No one denies that the same truths may be expressed in any one of these different languages, but no one imagines that the vocabularies are the same.” Dad wrote and taught in the language of Islam, but Islam’s message of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness is universal.
This is the message that gets lost in today’s world. Here in the West, it has been subsumed by greed, consumerism, ambition, hubris and the ongoing and soulless destruction of our environment for short-term gain. Across the Middle East, Africa and too many other parts of the world, poverty, inequality and powerlessness have been exploited by unscrupulous leaders, too often in the name of religion, to justify their own hatred and further their own ambitions.
My father wrote: “religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world. That which makes us holy can also make us evil. If the ego uses any notion of religion to “wrap God around itself”, it will be the source of the ultimate idolatry – God serving us instead of us serving God.”
In the minds of too many people here in the west, religion has become the problem rather than the solution to the challenges our world faces in the 21st Century. How can we change this? How best can men and women of faith – all faiths – stand up against those who hijack religion for their own ends?
In a BBC Radio talk my father gave more than 30 years ago, he said: “what is the most common argument that we hear raised against religion? It’s seldom an argument about faith or about the existence of God. It is a simple and devastating accusation: Religions cause wars, don’t they? Well – no, they don’t. But too often they are used as an excuse to make aggression seem respectable.”
A few years later, my father wrote words that could describe events taking place today, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and everywhere else that Jihadists – and fanatics of all stripes – slaughter innocents in the name of righteousness. “The modern age, at least in the West, does not like to admit that we are killers, yet human history suggests that, alone among living creatures, many of us rejoice in killing our fellows. We are restrained by social pressures. We seek the approval of our friends and neighbors. The readiness to kill is capped but still latent.”
“Then,” my father went on, “one day – here or there – the cap is removed. A sector of society, suffering from a bitter sense of injustice, reaches the end of the road. Violence appears to them justified, either in the name of religion or political ideology. And potential killers crawl out from under the rocks and from every dark corner. They can now do what they’ve always wanted to do, whether they knew it or not, with social approval. They will become heroes or, if they are killed, martyrs.”
“In this way faith, noble in itself, becomes inextricably mixed with human passions, and self-righteousness enthrones itself – for indeed God never enthroned it. And when such acts are done in the name of religion, then religion itself is condemned. For these – the men and women of violence – are the ones who occupy the headlines and it is by them that our faith is judged.”
So what is the deepest and most deadly root of conflict? My father believed it to be self-righteousness, which is closely related to fanaticism. The fanatic, it seemed to my father, is “any man or woman who mistakes partial truth for total truth, too proud and too self-satisfied to admit that it’s beyond our human capacity to grasp and assimilate truth in its totality. So long as we are convinced that wickedness exists only in “the other” – the neighbor, the enemy – we are all fanatics and warmongers.”
“Self-righteousness has been the dark side of religious people since the beginning of history. Those who believe in God value strong faith, deeply entrenched in the human personality. This is what religion is all about, so we must value it. Strong faith implies the conviction that “I am right”. It’s impossible to believe passionately if we doubt our own convictions. But the assurance that “I am right” is too often followed by the further assurance that everyone else is wrong. The Qur’an reminds us that: “You do not measure God by His true measure.” Total truth is with God alone, and it is multi-faceted. The believer is only right in so far as he has assimilated as much of this truth as he is capable of grasping. He is wrong when he imagines that the little light he has been granted covers the whole spectrum of God who, in the Qur’an, names himself al-Haqq; the truth.”
“Christianity has a doctrine of original sin; Islam teaches that no one is free from evil impulses; everyone has his or her personal “devil”. The whole point of the greater jihad, the inward battle, is to subdue those impulses and conquer that devil. But the devil within is always looking to take command in ways that can be justified within society at large. Religion and politics are at hand to be used as an excuse, and they are used. Murder becomes acceptable and the murderer becomes a hero.”
“So what happens when some Muslim leader, devoid of true faith, wishes to give full rein to his impulses of aggression, ambition and hatred? He must pretend that he is waging jihad and persuade his people that his cause is just.”
“We should remember that Christian rulers, both in England and Germany during the First World War, announced publicly that God was on their side. It is a trick as old as human history; and religion always gets the blame.” Hatred breeds hatred, just as love engenders love, and when we take on the coloring of our enemy, we are caught up in a vicious circle.”
My father wrote that the Qur’an speaks of “rust on the heart”, comparing the center of the human being, his nucleus, to a mental mirror. “From its reflected light – the light of truth and guidance, the light of Heaven – the soul, the mind and even the body are enlightened. But when the surface rusts and the debris of greed and self-interest accumulate upon it, then the mirror is darkened and we ourselves are in darkness. All things are possible in darkness and, in the dark, evil blossoms.”
And how should do we regard the label of Islamist that has today become such a derogatory word? My father reminds us that Islam, as an ideology, is a uniquely modern phenomenon. “After Western power crashed into the closed world of the Ummah in the late eighteenth century, leaders of the community reacted initially by subservient imitation. In the 20th Century, the century of ideologies, imitation took on new forms. Communism, Socialism, Nationalism and even Fascism all became fashionable and all failed to restore the greatness of the Ummah. After that there was nothing left but to transform Islam into an ‘ism’ and men who had not an ounce of piety (let alone humility) in their makeup, and who disdained spirituality, became fanatical Islamists.”
“Such Islamists are no different to others, whether religious or irreligious, who feel—and ‘feel’ is the operative word—a burning sense of injustice and, in consequence, believe themselves exempt from all moral rules and considerations of humanity. Justice as such is an unqualified good, but the belief that universal justice is attainable in this world is a symptom of the Utopianism that caused such havoc throughout the 20th Century. People forget that Hitler was a typical Utopian, however much we may dislike his particular ideal of the perfect society. Lenin and Pol Pot were the same. The goals differed, but not the method. Those who believe they can attain the unattainable are obliged to kill and kill again. The Prophet Muhammad condemned such extremism with the greatest severity. Today’s Muslims have a greater need to be reminded of this than ever before, as they do of his saying that “anger burns up good deeds just as fire burns up dry wood.”
So in these troubled times, beset by what seem to be such insurmountable problems, how are we supposed to relate to the world around us? As men and women of faith, how can we be expected to counter the evils that plague all aspects of life and society?
As my father wrote: “If there were no suffering and no injustice here, then we would already be in Paradise. But Paradise is elsewhere and must be earned.” He makes clear that Muslims are required to follow the Prophet’s advice and ‘consult their hearts’. “Those who search the Qur’an for solutions to contemporary problems must learn humility. False certainties are the curse of the Islamic world today, hence the bitter divisive conflicts. As God’s Viceroy on Earth – my father uses that word often in his writings – we have been given both a responsibility and the ability to choose – to protect or harm, build up or tear down; it’s up to us. But on the basis of prayer, and love of God, and love for all our fellow creatures – we are all the “children of Adam” – we may yet solve our problems.”
My father spoke of how Muhammad, the Messenger of God, said to his companions: “Tether your camel and trust in God!” In other words, do your part, do what you can for all it’s worth, and then leave the matter in other hands. “Tethers break. Camels get stolen. We cannot make ourselves safe in this world—it is not at all a safe world—but we can act responsibly and, at the same time, put our trust in the only real power there is, the power of God.”
This is how my father chose to live his life. He did his part in all the ways he could, and left the rest to God. And on this day, as we honor his life and his memory, I end as he ended his autobiography – published just weeks before his death – with words he loved from the medieval Christian mystic the Lady Julian of Norwich. She wrote “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
So with the words of the Lady Julian and verses from the Qur’an in his heart, my father took his leave of this earthly domain, exempt from regret and thankful for what had been the fullness of his life experience.
Alham-du-lillah. Thanks be to God.