God’s voice in a Secular Society

Below is a transcript of a lecture I delivered in Solingen, Germany on 2nd March 2016 at the 43rd International Inter-faith Conference organised by JCM Partners in Dialogue. JCM is an abbreviation for Jewish Christian Muslim. The lecture was entitled God’s voice in a Secular Society, the theme for the conference that year.

Introduction

I was honoured when I was asked to deliver the Muslim Lecture. JCM is a special place for me. It is filled with very dear friends, who I have had the privilege of sharing difficult conversations with.  Last time I was here, my youngest son Afraz was a baby in my arms and Abraz was six years old. 8 years later, I am delighted to see them here, actively taking part. This lecture was difficult to write because there is so much bubbling within me that I want to say. My first draft turned out to be an academic thesis despite the fact that professionally, I am a Social Work Practitioner. I was reminded JCM is very much about sharing personal experiences.

My Personal Experience of God’s Voice

For me, the personal has always been political. My identity has always been shaped by politics. Firstly I was born in Pakistan, a country that has a Secular Constitution but was established mainly for Muslims. Secondly my childhood and teenage years in the 1970s and 1980s were absorbed by the tensions arising from the Race Relations debates. Thirdly in the 1990s, due to the Rushdie affair, my faith which had until then (just been a way of being) was suddenly thrust into the media limelight. Since 9/11 it has become impossible for me to practice my faith in an exclusively private way.

Although I define myself as secular, I feel it is impossible to abide by the strict separation of religion from politics that some say is needed for a truly secular society. In the last ten years I increasingly feel that my faith and how Muslim communities practice that faith, is relentlessly used as a political football to score points in the quest to make Europe safer or to gain more votes. As a Muslim woman, I am subjected to constant commentary within my community and from the media and also Politicians on how I should dress. It is not surprising then, why sometimes, I desperately want to escape, by retiring in a cave, where I long to hear God’s voice in solitude, rather than in public.

It is interesting that sometimes I do not find God’s voice in my local mosque but in the synagogue instead or in the support of my Christian Manager. I have usually found God’s voice in my most painful and turbulent times, drowned in doubt and among questions, rather than from answers. Personally I find it disconcerting and dangerous when people go around saying they are speaking for God and with such certainty that God has blessed their actions. What usually results, is chaos and suffering. But even in those voices, however mad and chaotic they are, is a need for us, to listen.

Back to finding God’s voice in turbulent times, the voice is not words per se but the sensation and feeling one gets, when fighting someone. It is similar to Jacob’s experience recounted in Genesis when he wrestles with the Angel and is subsequently named Israel.  It is within that loneliness, helplessness, darkness and utter desperation and in that exhaustion when one has really fought tooth and nail with God and one can see the blood, that is where, I,  have really heard, God’s voice. Sufism talks often about the station of the Awliyah (Friends of God).  Many aspire to this great station thinking they have achieved some great achievement.  I suspect that this station is not really an achievement but a responsibility that is bittersweet and weighed with an unimaginable loneliness.

God’s voice in Secular Settings

I understand then why for most people, hearing God’s voice cannot be a solely individual private matter, but needs to be done collectively.  As a social worker I hear God’s voice in my calling for social justice and discover it in the most unlikely of places. I hear God’s voice strangely, in the silence within the interview room, when I am questioning a young person regarding their offences. I know I hear it distinctly because whenever I am interrupted, I feel that that sacred space has been violated. I hear it from a practitioner who is sceptical about most things, yet they transform into an evangelical missionary for restorative justice. I hear God’s voice in the enthusiasm of this practitioner when she tries to impart the healing and transformative power that results from the process of bringing the victim of a crime face to face with the perpetrator.  What I have described so far are examples of me hearing first hand God’s voice in secular settings. I believe that, by working in a multi-disciplinary youth offending team and among colleagues who come from different professional backgrounds, and from different faiths, and of no faith, the team is a living embodiment of God’s voice in a secular society. As  Professor Claudia Bernard of Goldsmiths College states

good social work practice is about feeling  and naming the  discomfort  and having those difficult conversations,’

This, I believe, also applies to interfaith, for it to be meaningful.

Definitions of Secular?

I believe one of the difficult conversations we need to have is the difficulties we face in trying to define secular society. The Oxford Dictionary defines secular as

“not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

According to the National Secular Society (UK)

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

“The Queen is both head of state and Supreme Governor of the Church of England… The 26 unelected bishops of the Church of England who sit in the House of Lords influence laws that affect the whole of the UK… If Britain were truly a secular democracy, political structures would reflect the reality of changing times by separating religion from the state”

This inconsistency that there isn’t always a strict separation, is not often acknowledged and needs to be to highlighted.

Definitions of Religion

So perhaps we also need to define religion. I would agree with Karen Armstrong who wrote in The Guardian on 25th September 2014 that

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the Modern West…The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’…In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period …The words other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something …larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics and social institution as well as piety… The Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word… because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life in the ambit of the sacred…The Prophets of Israel had harsh words for those assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed and if we understand when Jesus said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”  this  was not his plea for the separation of religion and politics.”… Ghandi  said it well when he cried” Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

In Arabic din (which is usually translated as religion) comes from dana meaning to borrow, to owe or to incur debt. So din is a religio-ethical order of life or judgement. In some traditions dayan  from dana means judge and is one of the names of God.[1]   I have always understood din best by using Halima Krausen’s relationship model. This model shows that religion is the practice of balancing the responsibilities arising from the relationships between one self, fellow human beings, the rest of creation (the environment) and other living beings as well as God.  Surprisingly, God is considered as one of the relationships and not necessarily the most important one. This model is a circular one. A piece of advice that I have clung to and only discovered late in my life, is that the most important relationship you have is, with yourself.

God’s Attributes

Maybe we need to look at our different understandings of God’s voice. I understand His Voice by familiarizing myself with His names or attributes. The famous Muslim Theologian (nicknamed the Proof of Islam), Al Ghazali, gives explanations of the meanings of the names. There is Allah, The Infinitely Good, The Merciful,  The Guardian,  The Compeller, The Creator,  The Fashioner,  The Dominator, The Opener,  The Contractor, The Expander, The Abaser, The Exalter, The Honourer, The Humbler, The All-Hearing, The All-Seeing,  The Just, The Gentle,  The Tremendous, The All forgiving, The Grateful, The Most high, The Great,  The Nourisher, The Reckoner, The Majestic, The Generous, The Answerer of Prayers,  The Wise, The Loving, The Glorious, The Raiser of the dead, The Universal Witness, The Truth, The Strong, The Friend, The Knower of each separate thing, The Life-giver, The Slayer, The Living, The Self Existing, The Magnificent, The Unique, The Eternal, the All Powerful,  The First, The Last, The Manifest, The Hidden,  The Doer of Good, The Ever Relenting, The Avenger, The Effacer of sins, The King of Absolute Sovereignty, The Lord of Majesty and Generosity,  The Uniter,  The Enricher,  The Protector, The Punisher, The Light, The Guide,  The Ever Lasting, The Inheritor,  The Patient.  [2]

In this post- modern age, some of these attributes are clearly not politically correct and emphasise the Jalali or Majestic nature of God, whilst some reflect the Jamali (His beauty). I would argue that if religion is about balancing relationships, this also applies to balancing the Jalali and Jamali attributes within oneself. This is similar to my professional endeavour of supporting young people within the criminal justice system when we consider both justice and welfare factors.  I believe that these attributes can exist in a secular society and although individuals do not need to have a professed belief in God, they need a willingness to develop these attributes on an individual level and communal level. Perhaps I can elaborate how this can be done.  In the Chisti tradition which is a mystical Sufi path that I have been trying to travel on for 24 years, one is given one of God’s 99 names to meditate on along with Quranic verses to reflect on before and after the meditation.  Usually one receives a different name every 40 days and by the end of one’s lifetime an individual would have meditated on all 99 names. The exercise involves the individual discovering that name within themselves (in a limited human form) and that individual then tries to harness and develop that attribute, until it manifests through one’s actions.

Muslim definitions of Secular Society

I also want to point out that this quest to separate religion from state affairs, is not exclusively a modern western construct.  Khaled Abou El Fadl  writes in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From The Extremists:

 “Shortly after the Prophet became the ruler of Medina, he carefully worked with the elders of the city on drafting what became known as the Constitution of Medina. The historical precedent supports the idea that the legitimate political system in Islam must be a constitutional government.”

If one looks at the Constitution carefully, one finds there are places where the Prophet referred to Himself as the Messenger of God and others just as Muhammad. There is an emphasis within the document on inter-tribal cooperation. A separate system was put into place to settle conflicts, including religious conflicts between the tribes. The document stresses that all tribes irrespective of their religion, including pagan had the responsibility to protect Medina, if they lived in the city. For me the Constitution is more secular in nature than theocratic.  However it cannot be forgotten that we are living in times where faith is increasingly used by many to define and understand one’s identity and secularism is being severely contested.

The Founding Fathers of European Secularism and their legacy

But perhaps my vision of a secular society is too idealistic. I believe that a secular society can only exist, if we face the shadows of our colonial past. I am not going to even mention the Crusades and its legacy. Instead I am going to focus on the Founding Fathers of Secular Europe and their Crusades which affected not just Muslims and Jews but Christians and those of other faiths. One needs to note that European secularism arose at the same time that Europe was busy colonizing the Americas, Asia and Africa.  I believe a narrative emerged (propagated by John Locke and John Stuart Mill) that those that they colonized, were uncivilized and unworthy of liberty, fraternity and equality.

Karen Armstrong states in the Guardian in September 2014 that Locke was

“adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse…………. secularisation emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonise the New World, and it would come to exert considerable influence on the way the West viewed those it had colonised – much as in our own time, the prevailing secular ideology perceives Muslim societies that seem incapable of separating faith from politics to be irredeemably flawed.”

As I stated earlier for Muslims this strict separation of religion from politics is impossible but there is this huge pressure for Muslims to abide by this premise. It leads to the usual newspaper headlines “Muslims do not want to integrate”.  I believe this Secular Crusade needs to be named as it affects all of us and causes polarisation between and within communities, If Secularism is built on founders like Locke who as Karen Armstrong writes  believed that

the native peoples had no right to life, liberty or property and endorsed a master’s “Absolute, arbitrary, despotic power including the power to kill him at any time

then this racism needs to be acknowledged. For now the great-grandchildren of these natives, live as neighbours side by side in Europe, with the great grandchildren of the colonial masters. I am resolute that Locke, Mills and Luther in their desperation to separate religion from politics, unleashed State policies that were stripped  not just of Christian essence but also of any ethical and moral spirit and robbed Europe’s soul of its humanity. It appears to me that while Europe is proud to say it believes in liberty, fraternity and equality, the Founding Fathers never really meant it for all people. For me embedded deep within the European subconscious, there is a distrust, fear and hatred of the colonised irrespective of their race or religion. For me the colonised will always be the other, the foreigner. However I would argue that in these politically correct times we are not open about these feelings but mask the narrative. This results in many reluctant to take responsibility for the previous and current discrimination, faced by some communities.

I believe that in order to hear God’s voice in this secular society, it is vital that spaces are created to facilitate precisely this difficult conversation. The conversation for me was visibly absent in the media coverage of the Paris Attacks. Some may recall that the masterminds of the Paris attacks came from a certain district in Brussels. I recall the journalist interviewed youth workers from the district and they reported displacement felt by the youths, mostly coming from North Africa. A question came to my mind.  Wasn’t Leopold II the Belgian King who plundered Congo, looting its rubber and brutalizing its people and causing a genocide by killing 10 million in the late 19th and early 20th Century?  Wasn’t he also shrewd and managed to cultivate his reputation as a great humanitarian? Weren’t these youths living in Brussels, the same Belgian Capital he once resided? Perhaps they did not come from the communities who were the victims of his holocaust but nevertheless, these youths are victims of racism and Islamaphobia? Of course I am not blaming King Leopold for the Paris Attacks but I firmly believe Europe needs to face its demons belonging to its colonial past. Otherwise what emerges as Abdul Hakim Murad says, is not a clash of civilization but a caricature of civilizations.

Caricature of Civilizations

The caricature can be seen in government policies, media coverage and politician sound bites and there is clearly an Islamaphobic narrative weaved into it. This narrative is explained perfectly by MG Khan in his book Young Muslims, Pedagogy and Islam and is characterized by three tropes of

“the Slave, the Witch and The Grand Inquisitor.”

I presented this narrative in a power point presentation to my team but sadly time doesn’t permit to explain here extensively.  Suffice to say the Slave is the poor, refugee or migrant Muslim living in the urban ghettos. The Witch symbolized by the Muslims that are now in Middle Class Professionals but cannot be trusted, as their loyalties lie elsewhere. Policies such as Prevent in the UK are needed to monitor these students in schools and universities. Finally Muslims are the Grand Inquisitor who are hell bent in taking over Europe and imposing a theocratic state. Meanwhile Europe and the West are the champions of Liberty Fraternity and Equality.

Conclusion

Although the existence of ISIS makes me understand that this fear is real rather than imagined, I do believe the fear needs to be managed with responsible debate. This also applies to the facilitation of the conversation about the legacy of the Founding Fathers. Of-course to maintain a healthy society, those that participate in this conversation need to do so willingly, because as the Quran 2:256[3] states

“There is no compulsion in religion”

For me this is an existential truth. Interestingly in the  Quran 4:59[4]

 “You who have faith, obey God and obey the Messenger and those of you who have the power of decision-making. And if you disagree in something, then take it before God and His Messenger if you have faith in God and the Last Day. That is better and preferable in the long run.”

This verse shows the need for living human beings to be involved in decision-making. Of-course for those not familiar with Arabic they understand obey in its limited English sphere. Whereas those versed in Quranic Arabic know ta’a in Arabic implicitly means to agree willingly and there is a voluntarily element which notes that if an individual obeys someone, they have to be able to consent to whatever they are obeying to.[5]

As Khaled Abou El Fadl writes in his book The Great Theft, God never intended that

“the state exists to enforce a Divine code of laws that is beyond human accountability or change…When the State plays the role of an enforcer for God, the state ends up replacing God altogether and this is an absolute absence of Godliness”

What is happening in ISIS illustrates this, but also what is happening in Saudi Arabia. There is a materialism and decadent lifestyle that is being exported by Saudia Arabia, together with an extremist and literalist theology, which is quickly digested by Muslim communities in Europe.  For me, this poses as much danger to society, as any Secular Crusade.  I believe this theology and how it is affecting Muslim communities in Europe, is a conversation that is long overdue. It is a conversation that is going to cause a lot of discomfort, but it needs to be facilitated in partnership with Jews and Christians.  I am passionate in my belief that this conversation would prevent polarization within Muslim communities and between other communities. A deep schism exists in Muslim communities between the literalists and the moderates and according to Khaled Abou El Fadl these two groups are

“ wresting for the soul of Islam”

Over the years I have experienced the extreme literal narrative slowly becoming mainstream in Muslim communities. Increasingly I find that God’s voice is drowned out, to be replaced by a self-hate and nihilism on a scale never witnessed before. This nihilism is exacerbated by the pervading racism and Islamaphobia already present. I am seeing constantly that either Muslims are becoming victims to consumerism, that is invading every part of public life or extreme literalism, that is robbing their soul.  I believe this consumerism and literalism is what can destroy liberty, fraternity and equality in a secular society and needs to be challenged by Jews, Muslims and Christians

[1] Art of Cooperation A paper by Halima Krausen (2015)

[2]  Al Ghazali The 99 beautiful names of God: Translated by David Burrell and Nazih Daher (1995)

[3] Translation by Halima Krausen

[4] Translation by Halima Krausen

[5] Art Of Cooperation A Paper by Halima Krausen (2015)

I wanted to share this lecture as my first blog post as it started my journey into wanting to share my reflections with others.

 

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