Sunday, February 3, 2008
Islamabad: Politics, coupled with egotism and sectarian attitude, is the evil genius that creates divisions among religions of the world.
It is the task of any ideology — be it religious, liberal or secular — to create global understanding and respect. Islam has a very strong pluralistic element in its scriptures.
Most of the world religions stress the importance of compassion, not just for your own people, but for everybody. And that is the voice we need today, because any idealism that breeds discord, disdain, or contempt is failing the test of our times.
These views came from Karen Armstrong, world-renowned scholar and author of several best-selling works on religions. Born in 1944, Karen is based in London and is currently visiting Pakistan on an invitation from The Aga Khan Foundation.
She is here to deliver a series of lectures as part of the numerous events being organised to commemorate the golden jubilee of the ‘imamat’ of His Highness The Aga Khan — the spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims.
In an exclusive interview with ‘The News’ here on Saturday, Karen, who professes to be a freelance monotheist, shared her views on world politics, democracy, sectarianism, Sufism, the commonalities among religions, and the concept of pluralism in Islam.
Although shaken by the news of one of her best friends’ diagnosis with cancer, she was gregarious during the tete-a-tete at the Serena lobby. This is what she had to say:Question: How would you describe your transition from a Roman Catholic nun to a student of modern literature at Oxford, a broadcaster, and eventually a renowned scholar on world religions?
Answer: Basically, I always wanted to be an academic. I wanted to teach English literature in a university, but that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons so I found myself in television. It was when I went to Jerusalem to make a documentary series on early Christianity that I encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time.
While studying the two religions, I started discovering other resonances that I had not found in my Christian background. There were lot of things about other religions, and from that point onwards, I started developing, what I call ‘triple vision,’ which is looking at those three monotheisms as one religion that went in three different ways.
A: Egotism. Everyone thinks theirs is the right way. It is natural for there to be different sects; we have them in Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, because a tradition must — if it is a lively one — be flexible and be able to appeal to people in all kinds of loops and abilities.
Until the 16th century, Shiites and Sunnis got along very well. Shiaism was a mystical movement, a private movement, and one that was very close to Sufism in spirit. Politics is the evil genius here. When you have the Safavid Empire and the Ottoman Empire — one Shiite, one Sunni — and they are in competition for territory, that’s where sectarianism comes in.
Politics also plays a similar role. For instance, in Iraq, Saddam Hussain furthered the divide between Sunnis and Shiites by privileging the Sunni minority. That created antagonism. Politics is usually the course of it, plus the egotism and sectarian attitude which you find in all religions; the concept of ‘we are right, you are wrong’ is responsible.
Q: How do you see Sufism promoting pluralism and tolerance in a society which is diverse in terms of its religious, sectarian and ethnic composition?
A: Sufism, in the past, has been a very outstanding example of appreciation of other world traditions.
It started getting a bad name in the 19th, 20th centuries because people got involved in showing that we are as rational as the West. Everybody started downplaying their mystical traditions to show that they were just as philosophical minded and rational as the West; that Islam is a rational religion, etc.
But I think not everybody can be a mystic. Mysticism is a talent that some people have; I don’t have it. I have never been able to meditate very well. I am not a mystic.
In fact, I am someone who has been trained for ballet dancing, for example, and failed to get into a ballet company. But when I watch a ballet performance, I can understand what they are doing and appreciate it perhaps.
We need to look at the ideals of the Sufis — they weren’t just people locked in prayer or whirling around in an ecstasy — most of them were working in the society for justice. There was always a social concern too, and that is very important.
Q: Some schools of thought see Sufis and shrine organisations as civil society organisations providing relief to those oppressed by the state or the society while others consider them as manifesting a spiritual phenomenon only? Do you think shrine organisations have a role that transcends spiritual purification?
A: Sufi outreach usually included a very strong social outreach, always in the past. A sufi became a sufi because he was appalled by the injustice in society. So, it is not just a question of making a few social reforms; it has to come from deep within, and mysticism goes right down into the unconscious, if you can really do it.