Open Discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club
Inter-faith Discussion to mark Mohammad and Jesus birth anniversaries
Amina Inloes **
Marigold Bentley ***
Tuesday, 20th December 2016
At a time when concepts and words have a multitude of meanings, it is appropriate to derive the truth from the divine messages revealed to mankind through prophets and messengers. The birth anniversaries of Mohammad (11th December) and Jesus (25th December) provide an opportunity for rejoicing and deep contemplation. God’s religion is the standard for mankind in terms of belief, worship, moral behaviour and orderly conduct of life. At the present time of confusion, feelings of loss and spiritual void, divine religions can provide beacons of hope for those seeking the truth. God’s religion has all positive qualities, and above all, it is the ultimate expression of “moderation”, love, compassion and salvation. Let us congregate and enjoy the festive season with a message of hope to the inhabitants of this planet.
Chairman: I welcome you all this evening, especially at this time when on 25th December we will be celebrating the birth of the Holy Prophet Jesus Christ and also we have Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. We have this wonderful occasion of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday which Muslims all over the world have been marking as an occasion. Having grown up in this country I have always participated in Christmas and it is always a joy at this time of the year. I travel a lot but I always try to be in London at Christmas because I enjoy it very much.
We have also had tragic incidents over the last couple of days – whether it is the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey or the killing of some tourists in Jordan and of course what happened in Germany. It is an apt moment for us to consider religions versus extremism. Here I am perhaps speaking to the converted. No religion, particularly the Abrahamic faiths and Christianity, teaches its followers extremism and they do not give the message of extremism at all in any shape or form whatever the media hype or the propaganda may be.
Christianity with Jesus Christ being the prophet from an Islamic perspective also gave a message of peace. Jesus said turn the other cheek. It does mean that when an oppressor is oppressing you, you turn the other cheek because that would be going against the godly message that one must stand against oppression because Jesus Christ himself threw away the tables of the money lenders. That was not turning the other cheek. It was being blatantly against the status quo of the time. Turning the other cheek does not mean subservience or sitting on the fence. It is actually taking action. Some people may describe that act of Jesus Christ as extremist. Why did he do that, could he not have kept quiet, could he not have negotiated.
At the present time of confusion, feelings of loss and spiritual void, divine religions can provide beacons of hope for those seeking the truth. God’s religion has all positive qualities, and above all, it is the ultimate expression of moderation love, compassion and salvation. Let us congregate and enjoy the festive season with a message of hope to the inhabitants of this planet.
There are anti godly elements and those elements in society who want a God-free zone and want to portray the followers of religions as extremist whether one is Christian or Muslim. We have three lady speakers talking about two men. This is rather interesting in itself. These were male prophets who gave a message of love and compassion without discrimination whether it was Jesus Christ defending a prostitute who was going to be stoned or Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).
Amina Inloes: Thank you very much for the detailed introductory speech as well as the very flattering introduction on the invitation in which my qualifications have been exaggerated. This is very kind of you. Peace be upon you, Salam Alekium. It is nice to see a bit of variety and diversity in the audience, some familiar faces and some new faces. It takes a lot of time and effort for us to go to programmes such as this during the week. It is wonderful that we are all here to discuss these issues.
I am going to confess that when I was invited here I said immediately that I am the wrong person for this discussion. I told Julian that I would be polite and not say why I am the wrong person for this discussion. I am going to express some thoughts which problematize some of the terms we oftentimes hear in the public discourse and in the mass media – that is to say religion with respect to extremism and fundamentalism. These terms are also used in the Muslim world.
I do not use terms like ‘extremist’ radicalised’ ‘fundamentalist’ and other such words. This is why. First of all I believe most, if not all, world religions are extreme and you idiolise this sort of extremism. I believe that as Muslims one of our spoken and unspoken codes of belief is that Islam is moderate or that Islam is a religion of moderation.
I do not necessarily take this in the same spirit as some might. I do not feel that my religion says to be moderate in believing in God as the creator of the universe. As for our dietary laws I do not believe I should be moderate and only eat pork once a week. I believe one is supposed to live up to ones values in a complete fashion and not to be moderate at all.
There is a lot of judgement involved in respect to what is moderate or extreme. Just from my own background I am from California where it is quite warm and it was considered extreme in my high school years for Muslim girls to wear trousers to school. The weather is quite warm so it is not considered normal to wear trousers in the summer time. I am not talking about the hijab or the nikab or the things we talk about here. Wearing trousers was seen as extreme.
So there is a big spectrum about what is moderate and what is extreme and what concerns me is that there is an absence of self definition. It is something imposed from the outside. There is someone telling you this or that is bad because I think it is extreme – now let me tell you what I would like you to do and that is what being moderate is.
As a result I hold the view that whether we are talking about Islam or another religion or a cultural group or any group I believe in self definition: that all people have a fundamental human right if you will to define for ourselves what our ideals are and to have them respected even though there may be some serious areas of difference.
I hope I have now totally offended everyone in stating why I do not believe in the discourse of extremism and moderation. It tends to drive wedges between people and drive people away. If I call someone a fundamentalist or an extremist for example it is not going to get them to change and be what I want them to be. It is just going to push them further and further into their zone and me into mine. Unfortunately this sort of split between people does result in conflict and social violence. At the very least there is a breakdown in communications and nowadays we need a lot more communication, compassion and empathy.
I have some thoughts about what is going on with respect to religion and what is happening when extremist things are happening. This is not at all limited to Islam. It happens in any number of religious traditions or ideologies for that matter. What I think is really affecting us in the 20th and 21st centuries is the absence of some fundamental aspects of the human and spiritual experience from religion and the replacement of these fundamental aspects with an extremist materialism.
Let me unpack that for a moment. Despite my diatribe against extremism I do believe we live in an era where materialism as a world view and life approach is glorified as something one should take to the extreme, whether it is on an individual level or a multi national level. I think people will object to extreme materialism as a life goal whether it is acquiring wealth, acquiring a certain salary, having a big factory etc etc. We know a lot about the downside of consumerism whether it is injustice, social problems or environmental problems. It is about people in I phone factories in China killing themselves. I have an I phone.
There are a lot of issues about this extreme materialism. Perhaps one of the most serious is the destruction of the earth and the destruction of the humanity of people. I believe that this materialism, which characterises the past couple of centuries, also affects approaches to religion. I will leave someone else to describe how it affects other religions although I believe that it does.
With respect to Islam you see this trend of trying to strip Islam of anything spiritual or supernatural except Allah. You can’t take that away or you will not have Islam anymore but to try to reduce everything to material acts and material causes. You see in some trends of thought attempts to make Islam compatible with science or (I don’t want to use other loaded words ) capitalism and to fit Islam into a materialist paradigm. That is when a lot of essential or human aspects are stripped away.
I am not saying every Muslim does this but it happens and what you see is the resulting ideology of, for example, ISIS when you see lot of people who are doing things in the name of Islam and use textual evidence as to why they are doing it. That is one of the sticking points. We can say it is not Islam or they are not Muslims or we don’t agree. I don’t agree that what they are doing represents my faith or the Holy Prophet’s teachings (peace be upon him and his family). They are holding up medieval books and saying this is what Islam says. This can actually be a more challenging argument than we are sometimes willing to admit.
So what is going on? I think that is an example of an approach to religion that has been stripped of several things and that is what happens when we get into extremism. One of these things is basically an essential humanity. We do not follow religious leaders because they are brilliant mathematicians or because they are very wealthy. We follow great religious leaders because we have faith in their spiritual insight and leadership and we have faith in their humanity.
So when it comes to the Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him and his family) the holy Quran describes him as a mercy to the people of the world. The portrayal of the Holy Prophet in the Holy Quran and the second spiritual source which is the hadith, emphasises that when he interacted with people it was in a lenient manner, in a kind manner. He did not get angry at people. If he had to say ‘no’ he did it in a shy manner, he would hint that he did not want to say ‘no’. He was a very kind and compassionate man which is what we would expect from a world religious leader. You can find the same in any major religious tradition.
This essential sense of humanity and compassion and putting yourself in the others shoes is a very cross religious thing. I am not at all saying that it is limited to Islam but it is fundamental to Islam just as it is fundamental to other religious traditions.
I have come to the realisation that religion is essentially a human endeavour. As a Muslim I may prefer to focus on the theology – on the nature of God, Allah. Religion is about how we deal with these things on a person to person basis. Not online, not through the tv set but on a person to person basis. This is one of the core aspects of religion. When we look at some of these ‘extremist’ ideologies with respect to whatever faith they are in, they do have that a sense of humanity and compassion and walking in other people’s shoes is stripped away.
So it is a fundamental aspect of the message that is taken away and people are just looking at text.
Additionally another thing that extremism is a code word for is a lack of critical thinking. This sometimes can be a difficult subject because I do not think people are always encouraged to think critically about their faith tradition. I will leave that for all of you to consider whatever traditions you believe in or are acquainted with.
I would say that in Islam we do suffer from a bit of a split personality. On the one hand there are many Muslim thinkers who will emphasise that logic and rational thought are inherent parts of the Muslim tradition. Many times there is an expectation that you can and should be able to explain whatever you believe in a logical fashion. That is to say with respect to the dominant Muslim discourse if I say I have a spiritual vision of the nature of Allah there would be a push for a logical explanation from many quarters.
Inside the faith community that I am most acquainted with what people want to hear is a local proof for the existence of God or a logical proof for the after life. Not a visionary experience, or a theory or a miracle or so many other things. So there is definitely this emphasis on critical thinking in the Muslim religion. The Holy Quran emphasises it a lot. It is constantly asking people why they don’t think and reflect on various things.
However what we see in a lot of popular culture today is the underlying message in the Holy Quran that if people thought and reflected on the nature of the universe and the nature of human beings and so forth then they would come to believe in the existence of a single, all powerful God of intelligent design. Today however people sometimes associate that with atheism.
On the other hand despite the fact that critical thinking is well established in the Muslim tradition I think many Muslims are very defensive and we do not always give space in questioning the faith or critical thinking. We might have a 13 year old asking difficult questions which we do not have an answer to and they might be silenced instead of being encouraged to question their doubts and see where they go.
In any case, when we look at ‘extreme’ ideologies there is a lack of critical thinking and a lack of willingness to challenge whatever is in front of them. The Holy Quran emphasises that people should not blindly follow what happens or follow their forefathers and ancestors. Sometimes that spirit is there and sometimes it is not. When it is not it is a characteristic of extremist ideologies, I will leave it for others to reflect on what happens in other faith traditions.
I want to bring up something that does not usually get discussed in these discussions. I want to bring it up in passing as it came to my attention in a book I read about Christian fundamentalism in America. This author said that in his view ( and this is not a subject that I am qualified to speak about), one of the ways in which the Christian fundamentalist movement in some parts of America diverged from the historical expressions of Christianity culturally was in a stifling of creativity. There were many committed Christians in the past who were very open to creative exploration and human explanation within the paradigm of their spiritual view.
Tolkien in the lord of the rings was representative of a spirituality – whether it is art or fiction. One and be an expression of the other and they can be mutually working together. This is very different from a closed, literary view which just says this is against religion.
I think when it comes to extremism, if you will, among Muslims it is another issue. It is normal as a Muslim to take the Holy Quran as the literal word of God. If someone says that is extremist it is still the dominant view and one that a lot of people adhere to including myself. We all know what I am talking about. I do not need to find an appropriate word for it.
There is sometimes a stifling of the creative impulse of the human. I find it ironic that if you look at the world through the traditions I would say they have all inspired a tremendous artistic, literary and intellectual legacy. There is no outlet for that in what you call extremism. So critical thinking is stifled . You have humanity and compassion and ethical judgment and the creative impulse not being involved
At some point that does start to rebound against the person. These are all very natural impulses of the human being and if there is no natural expression of it then it can also be harmful psychologically or to the society.
This perhaps goes without saying and it is a bit ironic that what is definitely missing in a ‘extremist’ viewpoint is spirituality in a deeper sense, or in an exploratory sense in a real sense. What spirituality means to all of us I am sure is very different but if I were to interview people it might involve the presence of God, the uplifting of the soul, a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of oneness with other people, a sense of purpose, a sense of interrelated ness. There are many ways in which we could look at this depending on our viewpoint. What you do find in what I sometimes call very dry interpretations of Islam (and I am sure this is true in other faiths) is that in addition to not having this emotional component of sympathy and compassion and forgiveness and so forth you also do not have this emphasis on spirituality as a fundamental aspect of religious practice. What you have is simply rites – whether it is rite of ritual prayer or of fasting without exploring the actual purposes behind that.
These are the things which I do believe characterise what is commonly termed extremism – that is to say the lack of a spirit of critical thinking, a lack of a human component of religion and also the lack of encouraging people to make ethical judgments and consider ethical questions like if you need to buy medicine for your daughter or if you need to buy medicine for your dying grandmother is stealing good or bad. These sorts of ethical explorations are not really considered at all in my view. There are more complex issues that we face such as the encouraging and flourishing of human creativity and also spiritual exploration.
None of this however is anything really extreme. I believe that following the religion which I adhere to – which is Islam – extremely is not going to result in evil in the world. It is not going to result in wanton destruction. The basic values of my religion are monotheism, so commitment to monotheism, a belief that God is just. So it is not just that I would not want to do something bad because it is harmful to you but I also believe that what goes around comes around – I believe in karma. I believe that forgiveness is good.
My personal summary of the Muslim view is that forgiveness if not mandatory is very encouraged. We do not feel obligated to forgive but we are encouraged to forgive and again in general treating people as you would have them treat you, honesty. An emphasis on social justice is something that I believe is very fundamental to the message of the Holy Quran and the primary Muslim scripture the hadith.
Social justice for women and for other people in society is important as well as being part of a social community. I think it is reasonable to say that Islam does have a very strong social dimension and emphasis on the social aspect of life and the idea that religion can and should be a part of that.
There are places on earth where Muslims are not the majority – when you look at the 13 centuries of Islamic history, Islam did not just become the majority religion of the Middle East. There were very mixed societies so you have a lot of very interesting arrangements like Muslims and Christians sharing a church. People got along and dealt with it. I believe the Islamic world view is quite comfortable with the idea that there are different people who have different faiths and its okay. So there is a place for that.
I don’t think that being extremely religious is a bad thing. Just as most people would not say it was a bad thing for Mother Theresa or Ghandi to be extremely religious (I am sort of using the stereotypes of them).
So maybe we can look at the positive aspects of religion and many of the fundamental aspects of the world religions are shared between them as being positive even in their extremes and I look forward to what the other speakers have to say.
Chairman: Thank you sister Amina. It is good to hear that one can be positively extremist also. The interesting aspect that forgiveness if not mandatory is quite important because everyone talks about forgiveness but if someone is doing horrid things there has to be law and one of the characteristics of God is to be just. Therefore someone that does wrong cannot just be forgiven. And that is what I opened my comments with. That turning the other cheek is not illumination or forgiveness in the correct sense of the word.
Marigold Bentley: I am going to take a very different view to the one that Amina has talked about. I will try and link in some of the things I am going to say with some of the interesting points Amina made. One of the reasons I find the discussions at Abrar House really interesting is that the range of perspectives that they bring.
I did live in the Occupied Territories and in Egypt during the 1980s. I always experienced enormously warm friendship from the people there. It is a good reminder for me to listen to all those different perspectives from people who live or do have families all across the world.
It is probably important to explain who the quakers are and how they came to be particularly in terms of the context this evening of religions and extremism because quakers have been and from time to time are considered very extremist.
The origins of the quakers lie very much in the civil war in the 1660s here in England. And the main sort of structure around quaker understanding is the belief that the teachings are that war is a failure and violence is a failure. The early quakers read the bible for themselves and many of them 100 years previously would not have had access to the bible. Once the bible was translated into English and ordinary people could read and understand it for themselves and not have it mediated through a hierarchy or through a religious system which in itself may be questionable. They read it for themselves and decided that for them it taught some very clear fundamental principles but because of that religious understanding – once Charles 11 was restored, once the monarchy was restored quakers were accused of sedition, and of plotting against the state even though they made it absolutely clear they were not plotting against the king. The reason they were refusing to fight in the armies that had to be raised at the time was because they understood that the gospel taught that killing is wrong.
That remains a fundamental aspect in Quakerism through the centuries. Obviously it is not a faith as old as Islam. It is a part of Christianity. One of the interesting and important areas of looking at how a small faith community, which is considered to be extremist by the state, has acted within and between and among states for all these years and not disappeared and one of the reasons it has not disappeared is because we have as a faith community always been very active in public life and indeed in a range of peace initiatives.
Before I describe some of those and the experience of being either considered extremist or considered to be tolerated by a nation state I just want to mention the importance of the just war theory and the challenge that has always been to quakers.
So the established church in Britain accepts a just war theory and quakers have never accepted that and never recognised it as being a necessary part of faith. Because our understanding is that war is failure and to go to war is failure, we have failed on many levels if we resort to killing one another. That does mean that we have to be active on other levels and in many other ways.
There is at the moment some very interesting theological just peace theory and the just peace ideology which we will see emerging through particularly the Roman Catholic church in the next year and beyond. So that is a very, very important part of thinking about peace and social change.
One of the other examples of how quakers were considered extreme particularly in the 1660s until the end of that century was because of the work of William Pen in Pennsylvania. William Pen tried to, and in fact did, establish a state for religious freedom so at the time he was considered very extreme because religious freedom was considered extreme at the time. So that in a way is an example of the importance of going against the grain or challenging normative thinking and saying tolerance is an important thing. We can see the relevance of that this year, especially when we have seen so many examples of extremist thinking which is not tolerant. We are of course about tolerance.
Many of the examples of Quaker work through the ages are particularly all those things which challenged the normative thinking of the time. So the Quakers were very involved in challenging the accepted thinking around the potatoes famine in Ireland and they set up a relief scheme. They were active in the abolition of the slave trade. Since 1945 Quakers have been very active in public life because we have a vision of a world without war.
From time to time that has not been accepted. So during both world wars in Britain in particular the quakers were seen as extreme because of the emphasis on conscientious objection. But thankfully, in fact 100 years ago this year, there was created the first legal act to create the legal status of conscientious objection. So we do have that law enshrined not only in UK law but also internationally. Through human rights discourse you can deliver the right for conscientious objection all over the world.
In this century, particularly since 1945, Quakers have been very involved in the role of campaigning. They were effective in establishing groups such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Oxfam and Amnesty International. The point of involving groups like that or generating and starting campaign groups such as those is pursuing and encouraging a better world and of course working and encouraging everybody to not only change what they have got but also engage with political systems. We have seen in fact just today the important work of those three groups in exposing the fact that Britain did sell cluster munitions to Saudi Arab which were subsequently dropped on Yemen.
So those groups there are very very important in terms of peace making and from time to time they have all been in their own way extremist. Any kind of extremism is within a context, within any kind of any political system or any kind of political context. So from time to time we may all be considered extreme because it depends on what else is going on around you.
One of the interesting pieces of work that I have been involved in my professional life was particularly looking at how wars end. I am looking at working with people who at the time are considered very extreme but we need some way to work towards ending fighting. So two of those groups are in Serbia and in Northern Ireland. And in Northern Ireland particularly the people who are very involved in some of the violence were at the time considered extremist by the British state but they were also in a way trapped into their extremist behaviour by the context they were stuck in.
Through the various processes that came out in the peace making there ( we have the Good Friday Agreement) and we have many ways in which the violence was brought to an end.
It is interesting to hear how the movement from being extremist to a normative society.
If they talk about the frustration on the assumption that there is going to be harmony and assume that somehow normal society is permanently harmonious. That is simply impossible. One of the really important things of any kind of religious discourse is talking not only about what we share but also what things we don’t share, where our differences are.
But the point is that we don’t kill each other about them. Life does not need to be harmonious but life does need to be about working out our differences which does not resort to violent extremism.
When I sat at the back of the room for some of the discussions you have here I have often heard enormous criticism of structure in public life: particularly the United Nations for example.
Non violence is huge challenge for all of us and if we are going to be very critical of those structures we do need to have a sense of what might come next. Having a discussion like this is of course democracy in action. And if we are going to see and understand war as a failure and if we are going to work together on peace and social change then discussions like this are part of democracy in action. I do think that evenings like this are very important and I am happy to take any questions from you when we finish.
Justine Huxley: Good evening everyone. Thank you very much for inviting me. It is a real honour to be here in Abrar House. I have really enjoyed listening to Amina and Marigold and I hope the approach I will take will be sufficiently different.
I decided to take a fairly personal approach. If my beliefs are different from yours please remember that I am your sister in humanity. So I would like to start by just reflecting back on how challenging the times that we are living in are. We are living in a momentous time of transition and I think the recent political upheavals really showed us that actually we can’t consider this to be business as usual. For a number of years we could pretend that that was the case but now events have forced us to notice that something has broken.
I can see two parallel realities emerging: one where people have embraced multiculturalism and one where they have not. I think this problem of extremism is just one of a whole host of interrelated complex global challenges which include the way economic polarisation is increasing so rapidly and include the global ecological destruction that we are seeing around us.
I was very touched by the poem by a Nigerian poet that was shared a lot in the aftermath of the attacks in Nice. She said “I put my hands on the atlas and I asked where does it hurt and the earth answered everywhere, everywhere.” So I think that humanity is living in a way that does not serve us anymore – it does not work and I love this phrase that Amina used ‘extremist materialism’. We are living according to a value of economic growth rather than to a value of something that is real. We are living it to the extent that it is so out of balance that it is really threatening the whole of our future existence.
So the way I see it extremism is not the problem itself but rather a symptom of a much greater malaise and I think in this territory is it any wonder that it is generating a very deep sense of unrest and a deep sense of anxiety because we know that we are a critical juncture and we can’t continue in this way.
So I think perhaps that those who feel the economic injustices most acutely, those fears and insecurities which are very real can get projected onto the idea of the other and that we can reduce our identities to one single thing, to one faith or one social group and then everybody else becomes the other – we blame the other and it is really important to recognise that dynamic of blaming the other and to recognise it in ourselves and to see it on a global stage.
So in respect of extremism being a symptom rather than the problem itself I really like this quote by Ivan Grainger. He says: “Extremism is not a problem of a particular religion – it is a disruption in the human psyche in general. Religious extremism has very little to do with religion. If you think about it it is partly a reflexive response to an intensely fragmenting nature of the modern world. And it is partly a reaction against unavoidable and partly unsettling encounters with different peoples, cultures and beliefs in our ever more multi layered world. But mostly it is an act of desperation when the heart of true religion has been lost. People become violently obsessed with rules and traditions and texts only when they have lost what those texts point towards. The real long term solution of violent extremism in the world is to reawaken the sweet sacred bliss within ourselves, to gently and generously share it with others and to create an environment that nurtures that continuing quest.”
And I love this last sentence. He says : “The more we fill the world’s dry troughs with fresh water the less likely it is that people will go insane from blind thirst.”
So to my mind we are really watching the collapse of the world’s view – this Western understanding of consumerism and economic growth which really started in the West but has become exported to the whole world and the whole world has taken it on. This is based on a mechanistic way of seeing the world that is really coming from a view of separation and domination and this world view is no longer fit for purpose. It can no longer lead us to a sustainable future.
I think it is really important to notice that behind every death and behind every disintegration is a rebirth. And if we look around us there as so many examples of a different world view coming into being and there are many grass roots initiatives and in a way this evening could be considered to be one of them. The initiatives are based on a sense of interconnection of our interdependence with each other and our earth and a world view that recognises that we are one human family and that recognises that diversity is a resource. It draws on the collective intelligence of diversity and it is a world view where we are so fast to separate self from other and we know that we are actually all in this together.
So it is really important to focus on what has been born as well as what is disintegrating around us and to try and orient ourselves towards that – not to fix what is broken because maybe it can’t be fixed, but maybe to root ourselves in a different way of life, in a different way of living and to be a part of a solution and a new way of life.
And I believe that people of religions, not just people of the book, but people of faith in general have a really essential part to play in that transition and really our role is to hold fast to what is real because what is real is being eroded all around us.
So how can we live rooted in something that is different from consumerism and extreme materialism? How can we really own that and live that within ourselves? And how can we live from the values of love and compassion? So people of faith have a tremendous role to play at this point in time.
And if we look at the mystical traditions that are at the heart of every religion we see this experience of oneness and this is important because it is being reflected into this world view, through this lens of interconnectedness and it is also important because it counteracts this hollowed out experience we see of religion.
So we need to root ourselves in that and see how we can make that come alive in ourselves How can we know that we are all expressions of the divine? That the inner and outer are one. That the divine is woven into creation around us. It is interpenetrating every level of reality and that the earth is sacred. That the body is sacred, that nature is sacred, that life is sacred and also this that this means that God is accessible within our own hearts.
I really love this hadith when the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) says: “My heavens and my earth cannot contain me, but the heart of my devoted servant can.” So we need to be like that devoted servant and really ask ourselves how we can bring our faith and our religion fully and uniquely alive within us. For me this is not a discussion about extremism versus religion, it is a discussion about extremism versus the living experience of God that is beyond any labels whether you call it God, the divine or Allah, it is he who has no name but comes by whatever name you call him.
So my question is how do we live in a way that brings that fully alive? How can we be a light in these times of darkness because that light is really needed and how can we make our religion more than just a set of clothes we put on, more than just an identity that we use to distinguish us from others, or an identity that gives us the opportunity to think of others as lesser than us.
So can my religion by more than a set of habits, practices and traditions? So to me this is a really vital question for our age when so much is being lost, eroded and threatened around us? So my question for you is : how and when has your faith been most alive in you?
Intervention: For me it always was?
That is good to hear. My feeling is that for each of us that answer is unique, like the way we bring it alive in our hearts in our own way. It will be different for every single one of us. It is not just a sense of our fulfilment, we have a duty to live it to the best of our ability.
And I love this quote from Jalal Uddin Rumi who says: “There are as many ways to God as there are breathes in the children of man.” So what that suggests to me that within our religions there is this unique way within each of us and that we all have a totally unique way of relating to God and that our religious practise needs to be grounded in us in that things which are completely real. So what is real in the religion meets the thing that is real in us and then it can become alive. And we need to listen to what God says to us.
And again this is Rumi: “Make everything within you an ear, each atom of your being and you will hear at every moment what the source is whispering to you, just to you and for you without any need for my words or anyone else’s. You are, we all are the beloved of the beloved and in every moment in every event in your life the beloved is whispering to you exactly what you need to know.” Who can ever explain this miracle? It simply is. Listen and you will discover it in every passing moment. Listen and your whole life will become an conversation in thought and act between you and him, directly wordlessly, now and always.”
So our invitation is really to be able to see the difference between our religion and our experience of God – to know that our religion is a pathway or tool towards that reality and this is a Zen quote from Japanese Buddhism: “Truth has nothing to do with words, truth can be likened to a bright moon in the sky, words in this case can be likened to a finger and the finger points towards the moon. But the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon it is necessary to look beyond the finger.”
So religion is a means to an end that needs to awaken in our hearts and between us as brothers and sisters and within this creation, this beautiful earth and the non human world that desperately needs our protection and our stewardship.
So to go back to where we started in this territory of challenge and uncertainty and transition, just to say that I believe that as people of faith we have an extremely important role to play, to stay holding fast to what is real and to live by those values of love of God and not a love of our religious identity. We have to hold our religious identity lightly otherwise it becomes a source of division. And we need to not settle for religious identity in the community important as those things are in these turbulent times but to dig deeply into our faith until it is strong enough to counter all of the destruction and the consumerism and the conflict that we are surrounded by and until it can guide us through these challenging times and be a light for others.
So I believe that the world urgently needs those of us who are willing to live by the values of love and compassion and also stewardship and service and also to translate those values into action. I think the role of the young generation is particularly important because there are many new ways of thinking in the young generation that are really coming into direct action and I love this description of the radical action of Jesus. I think there is really something in this for our times, the need to stand up to the oppression that is around us and the way that power and greed our controlling our earth.
I feel very humbled by this kind of audience that seem to me very learned and I hope what I have shared has not sounded patronising and I really wanted to ask questions rather than to give answers. And my questions here to myself and to you is to what do we hold fast to in our times? Where is our resilience? What is source of our resilience? And if the situation out there in the world gets worse before it gets better which is very well might are you ready for that? And how can you personally bring your faith alive? How do you root yourself in a way of life where there is no such thing as the other? And what is the practical action that we can contribute in our life and what is the practical action that we can contribute together?
**Amina Inloes is an American scholar, researcher, educator, public speaker and translator. She has written several books on Shia Islam. Inloes was born in Irvine, California, United States. She has a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter on Shi’ia hadith about pre-Islamic female figures mentioned in the Qur’an. She works for the Research and Publications Department of the Islamic College and is programme leader for the MA Islamic Studies programme. Among her concerns are the women who are still suffering from social injustices in many parts of the world. She has written several publications on Islamic personalities and issues.
*** Marigold Bentley is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has worked on behalf of Quakers nationally and internationally for over 30 years. Her work has included service work in the Occupied Territories and Egypt during the 1980’s, and at the Quaker United Office in New York. During the 1990’s she worked in peace education, particularly in Northern Ireland and the Former Yugoslavia. She currently is Asst. General Secretary of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, which has a number of ongoing peace programmes. She is a member of the Ammerdown Rethinking Security Group.
**** Justine Huxley has been with St Ethelburga’s for nine years. Her work has focused on bringing people together in new ways, and building bridges across differences. This has involved designing and delivering a wide range of training courses on dialogue methods and group facilitation. She also developed the Centre’s innovative programme of work around personal storytelling and narrative, hosting conferences and workshops and helping to bring together and inspire a cross-disciplinary network of practitioners in this field. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychology. She has written resources on group facilitation, uses of narrative and story in community building, interfaith dialogue methodology, and meditation in the workplace. More recently, she has developed the Centre’s model of conflict coaching, working with individuals supporting them to respond more effectively to personal and workplace conflict.