Karen Armstrong on Islam's Pluralist Tradition
Weekly Pulse
February 8-14, 2008
“The Quran is the most pluralist scripture, as it recognizes all the prophets that came before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh),” says Karen Armstrong, while arguing why Muslims are better placed religiously to show tolerance towards people of other religions, particularly Christians and Jews, their brethren in faith. She argues that it is only through “internalizing the spirit of compassion”—which means “leaving yourself behind and putting another person in the centre of your world”—that “we can get rid of religious intolerance.”

“All the major world religions have the quality of compassion as their guiding light, and it is to compassion that we must turn to save the world from what could be an impending catastrophe,” she says. “Religious intolerance will continue to haunt humanity unless we are prepared to change our minds, alter our preconceptions and transcend orthodoxy that we have long ceased to examine critically.”

The world’s leading scholar on comparative religions, Karen has authored a number of books, including The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000), Islam: A Short History (2000), and A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judiaism, Christianity and Islam (1993).

A former Catholic nun, she begain her scholarly quest after a spiritually-rejuvinating trip to Jerusalem in early 1980s. For the past couple of years, she has travelled around the world as a special UN emissary to speak to global auidience on religious tyraditions as part of the UN Secretary-Genera’s Alliance of Civilizations initiative.

On February 1, Karen Armstrong delivered a pubic lecture at Jinnah Convention Centre in Islamabad. The lecture, titled “Tolerance in Islam: A Historical Perspective,” was organized by the Iqbal International Institute of Research Education and Dialogue, International Islamic University.

Addressing a jam-packed audience, Karen Armstrong talked at length on compassion, a virtue she said should not be held back to one’s own group; rather, the spirit of compassion should be “all-inclusive”—Muslims embracing Jews and Christians, and vice versa.

Her message on the occasion: “Do not attach yourself only with one religious tradition and remain in touch with other traditions as well, as only this can bridge the gap between the people of different religions and bring them closer.” She stressed that “religion is not a doctrine, not an obligatory belief, not violence. Religion is about compassion, the golden rule, about reaching out to other communities.”

Virtue of Compassion

Explaining the idea of compassion, Karen Armstrong said, “You dethrone yourself from the centre of your life and see someone else as sacred. If compassion is restricted to the people of one’s own faith, then it amounts to group egotism. All the major traditions insist on compassion, to feel with the people of other faiths. In Buddhism too, it is through the same process that you enter into nirvana.”

Likewise, according to her, in every religious tradition, there is a brand of fundamentalism “rooted in the fear of annihilation… Intolerance makes people cruel, it hinders spiritual quest. It is dangerous as it can lead to atrocity.” The Crusaders adored intolerance, arguing “God wills it.”

Like religious fundamentalists today, she argued, the Crusaders tried to “create God in their own image…Today, we are living in a world of intolerance, which is preached by both political and religious leaders…Any ideology that preaches hatred and disdain for others contradicts the philosophy of faith…Religious leaders are like politicians rooting for their own party. They will not say that the other party has good points too, or that it’s absolutely fabulous.”

According to Karen Armstrong, “people look for certainty from religion, mistakenly in my view, because religion does not give certainty. Religion is at its best when it asks questions and at its worst when it answers them, especially when you think that God is on your side. As we know throughout history, this has led to all kinds of atrocities. Both the Jews and Muslims were victims of the Crusaders.”

She continues, “At the core of all religions is the insistence on compassion as the main virtue; the golden rule: ‘Don’t do to other people what you would not like them to do to you.’ You find that in Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Monotheisms. They also say that compassion is not just a test of true religion but is also the way we get to God. By leaving yourself behind and putting another person in the centre of your world, you experience transcendence, and that is the message of religions.

“Unfortunately, compassion is very demanding. It demands that you put yourself to one side, and a lot of religious people don’t want to be compassionate—they prefer to be right! This is ego, and ego is what holds us back from the divine. And this is what the great traditions all insist upon, at their best.”

To articulate the human difficulty in embracing compassion, Karen Armstrong says the main problem is that we seem to think that “we know that we know everything.” However, the fact is that a real philosophical quest only begins when we come to “know that we do not know.”

Islam’s Tolerant Legacy

Islam, she says, has a strong pluralistic element in its scriptures. “In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will.”

Talking about Islam’s legacy of tolerance, she cited Mi’raj, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s ascent to heaven, during which he was welcomed by all the prophets who came before him. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) came from Ka’aba to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where, and during the course of his ascent to heaven, he was welcomed by Adam, Jesus, Moses, John the Baptist, Abraham, and other prophets, who listened to him, and advised one another during the course of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven. “Mi’raj symbolized brotherhood and community of prophets, which is “central to Muslim idea of God,” argued Karen, considering it a testimony to Islam’s inherent nature of “outreach, acceptance and inclusion of others.”

Karen Armstrong also referred to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s speech to the Quraish after capturing Ka’aba, to reinforce her argument about the traditionally pacifist outlook of Islamic faith. She said that during the first hundred years after the birth of Islam, Muslims spread their faith without using sword. She gave the example of Salahuddin Ayubi, who did not shed blood after achieving victory over the Christian forces, and of Caliph Umar, whose conduct towards the Greek Orthodox Church reflected compassion and pity.

“In the past, Muslims had created pluralistic societies where Jews, Christians and Muslims were able to live together. It has been done in the past. Look at Spain, for example. Under Islam, it was by far the most tolerant country in Europe. The Muslims need to look back to their traditions. The Muslim scholars should propagate this real story about Islam: that it is not about hate, as Islamic tradition testifies.”

“Traditions of Islam like prostration demand abject surrender of the ego, in order to achieve the ecstasy of stepping out of the mundane, into the divine company. This ecstasy is the goal of all spiritual movements,” Karen said. Elaborating on the concept of ecstasy, she said it “is achieved by defeating the ego and embracing compassion,” which literally means “to feel with the others,” something that is a “bedrock of spirituality.”

According to Karen Armstrong, there is far more violence in the Bible than in the Quran; the idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, Western Christians were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims.

“The Quran,” she argued, “forbids aggressive warfare and permits war only in self-defense. The moment the enemy sues for peace, the Quran insists that Muslims must lay down their arms and accept whatever terms are offered, even if they are disadvantageous. Later, Sharia forbade Muslims to attack a country where Muslims were permitted to practice their faith freely; the killing of civilians was prohibited, as were the destruction of property and the use of fire in warfare.”

Tradition of Sufism

Islam, according to Karen Armstrong, also has a rich tradition of Sufism. “Sufis were not just people locked in prayer or whirling around in an ecstasy. Most of them were working in the society for justice. They were appalled by the injustice in society.”

Sufism, according to her, was all about compassion. For the purpose, she recited a poem by Rumi and two poems by Ib‘Arabi, both emphasizing the virtue of reaching out and embracing the people of other faiths. Ibn Arabi’s classic poem about religious tolerance that she recited is worth-quoting:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim's Ka'ba, and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran

I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take

My religion and my faith is the true religion

We have a pattern in Bishr, the lover of Hind and her sister, and in Qays and Lubna, and in Mayya and Ghaylan

Rays of Hope

While accepting the current seriousness of religious conflict at the global level, Karen Armstrong argues there are promising sings of inter-religious understanding that may pave the way for religious harmony and peace in the world. People, she says, are increasingly reaching out to the traditions of other religions and the ice is melting.

“Since the 20th century, we have learnt much more about religions of the world than was ever possible. This process does not get projected so much as religious violence and terrorism, but it is occurring. The people in America are getting interested in Maulana Rumi’s works. They read Rumi and get rather surprised to find that he is a Muslim. More and more Christians are reading the Jewish Philosopher Martin Boober than Jews; and Jesuit Catholic priests are going to study meditation with Buddhist monks.

“This is as important development in terms of changing public attitudes. It is because of this development that we can never look at either our own, or other peoples’ religion, in the same way. And we have learnt the profound unanimity of the religious crest worldwide.”

The Path Ahead

In her lecture, Karen Armstrong questioned the notion of ‘tolerance’ itself, because it “suggests putting up with somebody. In her view, appreciation of difference and respect is what religions teach. “Let’s move from tolerance to appreciation and learning about others. It is the task of any ideology—be it religious, liberal or secular—to create global harmony, understanding, and respect, not tolerance.” This is the message, she stressed, that needs to be spread globally, as the world is in the grip of an ideology of fundamentalism that breeds discord, disdain, or contempt” and is ripping the humanity apart.

According to her, the three religions of Abraham—namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—can and should be viewed as one religious tradition that went in three different directions. “I have always tried to see them in this way; none is superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius; each its own particular flaws. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God and share the same moral values.”

Many of the fundamentalist movements, in the words of Karen Armstrong, are actually political movements, forms of nationalism. Many of them are militantly patriotic. “The global religious divisions are essentially political. Religion can be abused like any other human activity. There’s a lot of bad religion around at the moment, fed by festering political problems and an imbalance of power in the world. There is resentment and grievance on one side, a sense of power mixed with guilt on the other. Religion has got sucked into festering political problems and they have become part of the problem.”

She continues, “Because secularism has been imposed so rapidly in the Muslim world, it has often inevitably been perceived as violent, intrusive and damaging to religion. And then there is a riposte. There is a great sense of unease and malaise.”

Islam, according to Karen, has a lot to offer to the people of other religious traditions, especially Judaism and Christianity. They need to understand the real spirit of Islam, which revolves around the idea of compassion. The golden rule of “do not do to others what you would not have done to you” should be applied globally. “What the world needs now is compassion. We need to go to the core, and discover the spirit central to all religions and traditions.”

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