Are we in spiritual crisis?

Published: March 27, 2012
Email

In a world ravaged by religious conflict and sectarianism it is necessary to revive the old traditions of wisdom and knowledge within each of the great religions in the world. PHOTO: BANARAS KHAN/EXPRESS

In a world where there is so much profanity, we are losing our sense of spirituality. Even in our art and poetry, the animating themes of spiritual experience are undergoing a sort of transcendent ecstasy and are giving way to the darker expressions of the human psyche.

Introspective poetry tends to border on the nihilistic and pessimistic; reflections on a broken world that seems beyond deliverance. Probing the side of human nature that is all too often splashed across our television screens – tragedy has become a form of art in the modern world. This exploration is critical, but we must not lose other poetic voices that represent a vision for justice and beauty.

The problem here is that within Islam this crisis of spirituality is most acute. Tariq Ramadan recently wrote that there is a serious deficit of spirituality in Islamic societies urging that we:

Rediscover and reclaim spirituality that permeates Eastern cultures, and that lies at the heart of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, a consideration that today’s social and political uprisings can ill afford to neglect. For there can be no viable democracy, no pluralism in any society without the well-being of individuals, the citizens and the religious communities.

What Ramadan describes rings true – globally speaking, Muslim citizens both in the West and the wider Islamic world have forgotten the art of spiritual experience and are articulating it through transformational art such as ecstatic poetry.

In a world ravaged by religious conflict and sectarianism it is necessary to revive the old traditions of wisdom and knowledge within each of the great religions in the world. Wisdom itself, the powerful liberating truth of upright conduct and steely resolve cannot be the monopoly of any one religion. In this spirit, we should put the great sages, poets and philosophers of each of our religious traditions in direct conversation with each other; because the true substance of the spiritual experience is one of blissful reconciliation.

This reconciliation takes place on many levels – with the Divine, with others and most importantly your own self.

However, there has always been contradiction within all the great religious traditions of the world – every single teacher has urged us to withdraw from the world, to abandon its ways and to truly experience the presence of the One, but at the same time every great teacher also urged their followers to be in devoted service of mankind.

This friction of spiritual withdrawal and engaging with the world to transform it for the better is a false one, because these are different aspects of the same journey to the same destination – to get closer to the One. Conformity was discouraged and creativity in the form of spiritual struggle was encouraged – and what better way to harness this creativity than to be in the service of justice?

We all have an impulse to search for meaning in this world and we all face the same questions, some of which Allama Iqbal asked with great eloquence:

What is the character and general structure of the universe in which we live? Is there a permanent element in the constitution of this universe? How are we related to it? What place do we occupy in it, and what is the kind of conduct that befits the place we occupy? These questions are common to religion, philosophy and higher poetry.

It is this idea of higher poetry that is intriguing because every significant religious tradition has produced some of the most beautiful poetry and art the world has ever seen. In these amazing works of poetry lays unbridled wisdom that can provide profound inspiration and provoke serious contemplation.

Whether it is Attar from Islam, St Francis of Assisi from the Catholic tradition or the sages of Hinduism what is present in all of these traditions, whether you believe they are theologically correct or not, is a creative impulse that seeks transcendence. We must recognise that although one may hold on to their conviction that their path is right, it does not mean that we ignore the other paths that surround us and depreciate or denigrate the other spiritual traditions in the world – because after all difference and diversity is mandated by the Holy Quran itself:

We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (Quran 5:48)

And elsewhere the Quran urges the reader to deal with diversity with knowledge not hatred or exclusive self-righteousness:

Oh mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (Not that you may despise each other). Quran (49:13)

Every conversation with the ‘’Other’’ must start with humility  with open sincerity to truly learn. Within contemporary Islam the ‘’perennialist/ traditionalist movement’’ with Seyyed Nasr Hossein, Martin Lings (author of the most eloquent biography of the Prophet PBUH written in modern times: Muhammad – His Life Based on the Earliest Sources), Titus Burckhardt and Frithjof Schuon have articulated a beautiful response to the problem of diversity. Elsewhere more mainstream scholars such as Tariq Ramadan (author of Quest for Meaning) and Hamza Yusuf have given mature responses that although may lack the spiritual elegance of the perennialist tradition still foster a healthy ethic of tolerance and respect.

We need to reconcile ourselves with history by breaking down false narratives driven by xenophobic nationalism and ideological greed. And to reconcile ourselves with the true majesty of not only the Islamic tradition but other religious traditions – because as Hans Kung the prominent Catholic theologian has noted:

No peace among the nations
without peace among the religions.

No peace among the religions
without dialogue between the religions

No dialogue between the religions
without investigation of the foundation of the religions.

Read more by Ahmad here. Follow him on Twitter @AhmadAliKhalid

 

ali.ahmad

Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.