In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Allah tells us in the Holy Quran:
“Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish Scripture, and the Christians and the Sabians; those who believe in God and the last day and who do righteous deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62)
I have encountered quite a few Muslim scholars or leaders who employ intellectual gymnastics to refute the import of this verse regarding the standing of other believers in the eyes of Allah: are they authentic believers? Are they today who Allah referred to then? And will they be rewarded in the next life? The clarity of Allah’s statement could not be regarded as an aberration, given the very practical way in which the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, acted in his lifetime (or even for that matter, the way in which conscientious believers of other faiths, acted in our lifetimes).
We all remember the episode in which the Prophet (s) dispatched some early Muslims under the leadership of Jafar (r) to the protection of the Christian community in Abyssinia. In the context of extreme persecution the Prophet (s) said to those dispatched to Abyssinia: “If you go to the land of the Abyssinians, you would find there a King under whom no one suffers injustice. It is a land of sincerity in religion. Until such time as God shall make for you the means of relief from what we are now suffering.”
Indeed, those Muslims in Abyssinia enjoyed freedom of belief and worship as well as justice, even when the Qureish pursued them and tried to prove that Islam would subvert Christianity as it was subverting their polytheism. Despite reports that the Abyssinian king himself was attracted to Islam, Abyssinia remained Christian in character and later when Muslims were less vulnerable and more expansive, the attitude was not to conquer Abyssinia. Muslim rulers based this on the saying of the Prophet (s): “Leave the Abyssinians in peace so long as they leave you in peace.”
I bring these traditions to mind on a Friday known to the Christian world as Good Friday. This is arguably the most holy day on the calendar of the Christian church. It is a day on which they believe that Jesus Christ (s) was both crucified and killed. It is also the beginning of a weekend when three days later Jesus (s) was both resurrected and began his return to God. I bring this to mind not to resurrect a long-standing controversy between Muslims and Christians about the exact events that gave its name to Good Friday. As Muslims, we take our cue from Surah Nisaa, verse 157, in which God says in response to those who boasted that they killed Christ Jesus (s), the son of Mary, the apostle of God:
“…But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them.”
In the next verse God affirms that Jesus (s) was raised unto God. These are debates that will continue and find very little resolution between Muslims and Christians.
More importantly will be the debates about how a tragedy on the Christian calendar – the belief that Jesus was crucified and killed – could become known as ‘Good’ Friday. Christian theology sees this as ‘good’ because Christians would forever be able to trace human salvation to that day. This too will be a debate without end and without resolution.
What offers more possibility of convergence and common pursuit would be a human discussion on the very search for salvation – how do we redeem souls, save from loss, expiate sin or atone for deviation – in a time of turbulence among different peoples and communities, in a time of conflict spurred by every bit of provocation, in a time of danger to the very home we call Earth, and through a spiritual crisis besetting the human soul?
Salvation for Christians would be through the death, incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only source of redemption for Christians, whose death at the cross atones for the sins of humanity from the original sin to the sins of the last generation. Salvation in Judaism may include redemption from perpetual exile and alienation, which circumstance, serves only to destroy human value and dignity, and the banishment of exile itself, means both physical security and the space in which God can be honoured and people allowed to live in observance of an ethical template based on the Ten Commandments.
For Muslims, of course, salvation, redemption and expiation is based on belief in the One God and the doing of good deeds. Sins and transgressions need to be avoided, but their commission may be fairly inevitable, and therefore the mechanism of tauba, of return to Allah and repentance for transgression, is always available for all sinners, except for the cardinal one of association with God.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of the human soul. Once in preparing for a Christian sermon, I encountered the first Epistle of St John in the New Testament. The verse which rang in my head, was:
“Who lives in God, lives in love, and God in them…. This you must know: I have given you of my very own spirit!”
These words reminded me of the Quranic verse which says:
“I have breathed of my spirit into you.” (38:72)
I later discovered that in the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah, the same concept emerges when God says:
“I blow my spirit through your nostrils into you!”
Every human being is a carrier of a piece of the divine. This is the divine within us that guides us through our moments of choices, and through the difficulties and dangers of the world, all the while focusing us on the One who has implanted in us this constitutive part of our soul, at the moment of our fashioning. We may fall into temptations when we disregard the pleadings of the soul. This is when salvation and redemption are the most sought-after commodities required for a good life and a soul at rest.
The world we live in is far more complex and dangerous than at any other time before. We live in a time of unprecedented complexity and mobility, and we are overwhelmed by the amount of choices in front of us. For many, where that spirit should be, that spirit that was invested in us by the Divine, there now is only a void, a spiritual and human void. We are living through a deep spiritual crisis where there is not only the presence of evil, but also the absence of consciousness. We are often consciously complicit in the commission of evil because it does not drive around in tanks and casspirs, nor does it always wear a uniform or brandish a weapon, nor does it use K words and N words as signifiers of its evil.
It draws us in as accomplices by inflating our sense of self-sufficiency and overwhelming us in the comforts that we have. It makes us say that which is correct, but which may not always be right. It can often wear the garb of piety and take us on deep retreats to find God in solitude and through elaborate formulas, as if community and relationship with people are the barriers to finding God. The vulnerable, driven by desperation and the need for divine intervention in their miserable lives, together with the elites who seek easy redemption for their daily transgressions as well as justification for their crass materialism, converge on the temples of Pentecostalism, whether of the Christian or Muslim varieties, seeking God through fast food faith rather than soul food faith.
At the heart of our spiritual crisis is our loss of community. It is not as if we are not with people. However, our difficulty to reach deep into ourselves or to reach out wider, in a multicultural world beyond the communities that bore us, draw us increasingly into a retreat into individualism, and we emerge in society only to feed our narcissism, the curse of excessive self love. Narcissism, in turn, is fed by materialism, that which we consume rather than that which we exude. We are defined by what we have, not who we are.
Spiritual crisis lies in our loss of humanity, a humanity that is driven by relationship. We replace intimate relationships with pseudo-friendships where we are only required to like or re-tweet. We fear the piercing questions that intimacy may bring since we could well be the emperors without clothes.
Where the very spirit of the Divine was installed, we now no longer have an existential compass that helps us navigate our complex and complicated lives. We now rather suffer an epidemic of demoralization that underpins our modern culture. We are unable to find meaning, purpose or fulfillment. We are living, what Noel Chomsky calls, the philosophy of futility. In a world lacking credibility, we reply only with cynicism. The religions we inherit cause us only to fight back any suggestions of doubt, because the existence or acknowledgement of doubt itself constitutes a further crisis. Our medical systems are trapped in mental health paradigms of medication and individual therapy.
In bygone eras, spiritual crises were seen as individual ones. The remedies were simple: identify the source of evil and exorcise it. Today, spiritual crises are far more complex. The constitutive parts are, on the one hand, dis-ease with the self, wrought by doubt or temptation; and on the other hand, alienation from God, even when the religious rituals are intact. These are often accompanied by assaults from society whether in the form of deprivation or discrimination.
One generation passes the crisis onto the next. We are the visible, but absent parents. Child rearing is an act of provisioning and not always of nurturing. We recruit the next generation into all kinds of competitions, especially into competitive education systems. We provide the devices to surf the world, but often blunt the emotional and spiritual connectivity. So tenuous is our connection with our offspring that we fear setting boundaries lest we discover that there so little glue to keep them attached to us.
So how do we break the cycle?
Exorcism is largely discredited today. So healing must be on the agenda. What is the new meaning for salvation, redemption and renewal? Crisis, at its most profound, can become the opportunity for growth from the spiritual rock bottom. Instead of crisis as the negative torment that diminishes, we should choose the positive experience of discovery and transformation of our essence. This psycho-spiritual transformation may often require the loss of identity as its precursor. It is not an ethnic, racial, national or religious identity that is lost, but the old personal, character-based identity that is held up for scrutiny: evaluating all that you are, it is about re-evaluating your life, priorities and beliefs.
Crisis will be a perpetual negative, if we allow it to become one, by denying it and by refusing it. But it may become a source of growth if we accept the mystery it offers, explore the paradox it presents, embrace the doubt that emerges and live with the ambiguity that keeps us honest and vital. All of these may well constitute the mystery, the paradox and the ambiguity of faith itself: how intimate can we be with God and how does God speak to us and how do we speak to God?
Very beautifully, God tells us in Surah 2 verse 186:
“When my servants ask you concerning me, I am indeed close to them. I listen to the prayer of everyone who calls on Me when they call on me. Let them also, with a will, listen to My call, and believe in Me, that they may walk on the right way.”
So often we are overwhelmed by what we want to say to Allah or ask of God. Our prayers are full with asking for this and asking for that, and we may well forget that our relationship with God is based on conversation – ‘…let them also, with a will, listen to My call.’ We do not, so often, listen to God whether in the quiet of the night or in the suffering of the people.
Every act of worship in Islam is founded on both a vertical and horizontal axis: the vertical is our communion with God (prayer is the believer’s ascent to Allah), while the horizontal is our relationship with people (prayer encourages to good and withholds from wrong). So many of us trade the vertical for the horizontal or the horizontal for the vertical. In this lies a part of the crisis of spirituality and faith in the world today. We cannot be open to God if we are closed to humanity. In the noise of everyday life we will have to carve out a spiritual awareness – a transcendent accountability – that means that we live our lives ethically in relation to people because of our awareness of God.
Against all human advice, we must hold onto the idea that Allah is absolutely merciful and forgiving, and that nothing we may do can ever harm God so mortally that we are forever outside the shade of God’s mercy. Every act of transgression we may do in this world is in the first instance a transgression against our own souls. It may prove difficult for God to forgive us, if we cannot forgive ourselves first. This is the assurance of God in Surah Zumar:
“Oh My servants who have transgressed against their own souls: Never despair of the Mercy of Allah; for Allah forgives all sins! Allah is forgiving and merciful.” (39:53)
This is the essence of salvation that may just help us resolve the spiritual crisis we find ourselves in individually, as a community and as a global society. The ability or potential to be good again after transgressing your own soul is the guarantee of remaining essentially good. The alternative is the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound syndrome’ when one transgression leads to permanent alienation from Allah. Tauba – literally, returning from the far to the near side – means return more than it implies permanent regret, guilt, shame and self-reproach.
But the process of redemption and salvation is multifaceted, and even controversial. Our fractured beings may well require that we start from the broadest inclusivity to the most personal choices that we make in our relationship with God.
Our first priority may well be to reconstitute the spiritual within us in order to reset the vertical spirituality as well as the horizontal one. The spiritual often asks the question “why?” Why are we here? Why am I placed in this context? Why am I born at this time? Why am I with these people and in this community? We have to establish purpose and mission, beyond the here and now, to find our transcendent purpose and overcome perpetual futility. Thus do we reconstitute our being!
Our second priority may well be to reconstitute and reset our faith. If the spirit asks the question “why?” then faith asks the question “what?” What do I believe in? What am I committed to? What are my responsibilities? What is my identity? If spiritualism grounds us, then faith gives us identity. Thus do we reset our belief!
Our third priority may well be to reconstruct religion. If the spirit asks ‘why’, and faith asks ‘what’, then religion asks “how?” How do I speak to God? How do I access wisdom? How do I perform the rituals of my faith? If spiritualism grounds us, and faith identifies us, then religion guides us. Thus do we insert meaning into our traditions and rituals!
It is often in the confusion of these priorities that the spiritual crisis looms and grows. We may be so adept at religion, that we may end up intolerant to those who share faith, and even our faith, and inhuman to fellow carriers of the divine within all of us. We may be so adept at the ‘how’ and completely oblivious to the ‘why’ and exacerbate the sense of futility in life.
In the disconnection between spiritualism, faith and religion, and sometimes in the contradiction between the three, we lose ourselves, as well as the next generation, whose very ability to make sense of the world is evidence-based, relies on proof, and subjects everything to the very cynicism that defines the human condition. For their sake, we need to practice a spirituality that makes God relevant rather than a theology that usurps God and makes religion devoid of the Divine.
We need to develop for ourselves, as well as for the next-generation, a resilience and an immunity to a sick culture, rather than to preach mere adjustment to that culture. Resilience to that culture will require teaching how to interrogate society rather than merely conforming to society. The very act of resilience, immunity and interrogation is the start of overcoming the spiritual crisis that engulfs so many in the world today.