Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Friday, December 17, 2010

Al-Fatiha is only 28 words

Listening to Lesley Hazelton's presentation about the Qur'an on TED, it was fascinating to discover that there are only 28 words in the Arabic version of Al-Fatiha.

Here's the link to the TED presentation:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns

In keeping with the theme on al-Miraj, Brooke Olson Vuckovic's book "Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns - The Legacy of the Mi'raj in the Formation of Islam" based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, unintentionally places the relevance of the Prophet's ascension story within the context of al-Fatiha because it refers to "the favor" of Allah that seems to be intimated in our seven sacred verses:


In the preceding chapters, I examined how an elite group of historians and theologians shaped Muslims'perceptions of the Prophet, their community, and their behavior by retelling and interpreting the story of the Prophet's ascension to heaven. Although the facts surrounding this event are lost to historians, the legacy of Muhammad's journey remains, and it has greatly contributed to the construction of communal history, memory, and meaning for Muslims over the centuries. Buried within these narratives are questions about prophetic authority, religious legitimization, and the construction of a confessional community. Medieval Islamic scholars addressed these issues through metaphor and through portraits of a world beyond human experience in order to address profound, often political, questions about the nature of God, faith and prophecy. Through this, they defined correct and righteous behavior for Muslims and the bonds that tie a community of believers.

The mi'raj accounts reveal the historiographical process through which a single event becomes a symbol or a touchstone for those struggling to define the past and to establish a communal, confessional, and political identity by reporting the apparent facts about a particular moment in time. By examining four distinct subnarratives in the mi'raj accounts (readying the Prophet for his mission, meeting previous prophets in heaven, facing the early community's reactions to the journey, and describing the souls in heaven and hell), I have shown how specific pieces of the mi'raj narratives focus the power of this story and highlight specific concerns. At times, these concerns are immediate, such as justifying Muhammad as a prophet and his believers as a distinct confessional community (Chapter One). However, the mi'raj accounts also embody more subtle concerns that include the status of different believers, evaluation of different behaviors within the community, and understanding of other religious traditions (Chapters Two through Four). Therefore, the accounts of the Prophet's journey not only include clues to how people perceived his status vis-a-vis God, the angels, and other prophets, but they also address the dynamics between males and females, humans and beasts, and Muslims and non-Muslims. Until scholars understand that these narratives were inexorably tied to the cares and concerns of medieval Muslims, they will miss a crucial component of their production and repetition.

The approach of legacy provides a way of examining religious literature that recognizes and honors modes of memory, imagination, and interpretation that take seriously into account ongoing issues of theology, politics and social interaction. An approach focused on legacy allows contemporary scholars to get beyond questions regarding the character and authenticity of the "facts" that are being described in order to explore more interesting and immediate concerns that are associated with communal order, conflict and identity. "Legacy" engages the history of interpretation and focuses on how particular historical actors in particular historical moments construct meaning and use the mi'raj as but one way to create, confirm, and redefine community and ideology. These retellings of a single story in the Prophet's biography show how religious history - like any history - is part of an interested, earthly, and embodied discourse, and that religious history can be used to grant authority to, challenge, or create a confessional community replete with political, ideological, and theological concerns.


Though there are many ways this work could be extended, the one of most immediate interest involves delving much more deeply into the Islamic context to unearth other occurrences and accounts of the mi'raj in the Islamic context. The primary limitation of this book is its relatively focused scope (covering only the genres, source materials, and themes considered), particularly in light of the mi'raj's impact throughout the centuries. In this study, I have focused on Arabic hadith, tafsir, and ta'rikh from the second/eighth to the eighth/fourteenth centuries; however, one can fruitfully study a much larger body of literature to examine a whole host of issues, such as: how the story of the mi'raj is used in adab or belles lettres throughout the centuries; how the mi'raj becomes an inspiration to and outlet for complex Sufi symbolic systems; and how the mi'raj continues as a familiar trope to legitimate leaders of splinter groups throughout Muslim history. These studies would involve exploring the narratives from various time periods and religious commentaries and interpretations from "the edge" of Islamic society to discern differences as the legacy evolves." (2005, pp. 123-124)

~ Excerpted from "Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns - The Legacy of the Mi'raj in the Formation of Islam" by Brooke Olson Vuckovic, who was on a Fulbright scholarship in Morocco in 1995/6.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Al-Fatiha in the context of al-mi'raj

I have been researching the various Mi'raj narratives to understand the relationship between al-Fatiha and the "favors" bestowed upon Rasulillah. In addition to the gift of revelation, the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) had a profound celestial transpersonal experience which was perhaps the greatest of the favors bestowed upon him by Allah, as described here by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the eminent scholar of Islam, in his book, "The Heart of Islam." Not only is there a specific ayat related to this event but the Divine Guidance received by the Prophet resulted in one of the pillars of the faith: Salat.

"Shortly, before the migration, an event of supreme spiritual and religious significance took place in the Prophet's life, an event that is also mentioned in the Quran. According to Islamic tradition, he was taken on what is called the Nocturnal Journey, or al-mi'raj, on a supernatural horse called al-Buraq, by Gabriel from mecca to Jerusalem. Then, from the place where the mosque of the Dome of the Rock is now located, he was taken through all of the heavens, that is, all the higher states of being, to the Divine Presence Itself, meeting on the journey earlier prophets such as Moses and Jesus. The mi'raj is the prototype of all spiritual wayfaring and realization in Islam, and its architecture even served as a model for Dante's Divine Comedy. The experiences of this celestial journey, moreover, constitute the inner reality of the Islamic daily prayers and also the bringing to completion the performance of their outward form.

It was during this journey that the Prophet reached the Divine Presence, beyond even the paradisal states at the station that marks the boundary of universal experience; beyond this station, which the Quran calls the Lote Tree of the Uttermost End, there is only the hidden mystery of God known to Himself alone. It was in this most exalted state that the Prophet received the revelation that contains what many consider to be the heart of the credo of Islam: "The Messenger believeth, and the faithful believe, in what has been revealed unto him from his Lord. Each one believeth in God and His angels and His books and His messengers: we make no distinction between any of His messengers. And they say: we hear and we obey: grant us, Thou our Lord, Thy forgiveness; unto Thee is the ultimate becoming." (2:285)" (2002, pp.31-32).

~ Excerpted from "The Heart of Islam -Enduring Values for Humanity" by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and President of the Foundation for Traditional Studies.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reflections on Al-Fatiha

Irfan Ahmad Khan, Ph.D received his doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Illinois and has taught Western and Islamic Philosophy at various US institutions. His book "Reflections on the Qur'an - Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah and Al-Baqara" was published by the Islamic Foundation of the UK in 2005. He provides an interesting reflection on Sura 1:6-7:


It is very important to note that the Qur'an repeatedly speaks of religion as a path. Life itself is a journey. In asking for the straight path we are asking Him for light which shows us the right path leading us straight to Him. As we will see, the next surah opens with the words "Here is the Book", i.e. here is the guidance which you were seeking. Thus the Qur'an is the answer of our prayer for guidance. The question may still arise that the book has already come, then what sense does our repeating the prayer, "Guide us to the straight path", make now? Again, we should not forget that life is a journey, and religion is a path. Living the Book is a striving - a journey which an individual continues throughout his life, and the believing community continues it till the Last Day. While we continue the task of understanding and living the Book we need Divine Help all the time. Through the last twenty-three years of his life's journey, the Prophet himself was living the Book under Divine Guidance. His twenty-three years' effort is also a journey on the straight path which he continued with his Companions in a step-by-step process.. Sunnah (the way, the tradition) of the Prophet was a journey which was carried out in concrete life situations. And the journey still continues. In very different life situations we have to continue the task of understanding and living the Book. Though in a sense we are moving forward, the early part of this journey remains before us as a Model. While we read the Book for our guidance we also keep before our eyes how the Book was lived by the Prophet, and, under his directions, by his Companions. The Prophet was leading the journey under Divine Supervision, and we are required to keep his model before our eyes.


This is why we say "guide us along the path of those who received Your favours and blessings." These are the people who walked on the straight path, worshipping only One God, seeking His help at every step. God guided them at every stage of their journey, helped them to a better understanding of Religion, in living a more pious life, and helped them in carrying out their mission. And, in the Hereafter too they will receive God's Special Mercies.

(Please have a look at note no. 3 where we briefly explained God's Rahimiyah. Also try to find out from the Qur'an how God blessed His faithful servants.)

It is important to note that by making this prayer we are identifying ourselves with all good and pious people of the past. Through this du'a' we are expressing our belonging to all the faithful servants of God. In the beginning we were thanking God for being so kind to the human world. At that place we were expressing our belonging to the whole human family or even the totality of 'ibad. But now we observe that some members of the family went off the track. They barred themselves from the special Mercy of God since they failed to correct themselves in spite of His guidance and warnings. Therefore, we express our separation from them. Our true forefathers are the good people of the past and we want to walk on their path.

17. Of course, the real punishment will follow in the Hereafter. But some people were punished by God even in this life. The Qur'an again and again tells us the stories of such people, so that we learn from their history. See, for example 7:59-167; 10:71-92; 11:25-102.

While we are making du'a' that we do not have the same fate, it is also required that we try to understand why they deserved God's Wrath, and then seriously try not to be like them.

These were the people who deviated from the straight path. Instead they of following the way of God's messengers and having God alone as their Lord, they had based their life, in one way of the other, on lordship of Man over Man. They did not correct themselves in spite of God's repeated warnings.

18. But it is also important to note that before the punishment of God comes, God reminds His servants. In fact, God gives the unjust people a fixed period of time (which as a general rule is known only to Him) to correct themselves. The Wrath of God does not come before its appointed time.

Therefore if some peoples were not punished in this life it is not a sure sign of their being correct. Some people may act as rebels, and still prosper in this life, because the time of their being punished has not yet come.

Reference is to groups and not only to individual persons - who had Divine Blessings or Divine Wrath, or who were misguided. We, with all the righteous people of the past and present, dissociate ourselves from all the groups of wrongdoers. We will study their detailed stories as we proceed further. The Qur'an discusses the rise and fall some civilizations. It explains how victory and support of God came to the supporters of the prophets, and how ultimately the unjust were punished.


Read the surah over and over again, and try to understand it as a systematic discourse. Ask yourself: what is being said and how is it organized?

If you are well versed in classical Arabic you are in a better position to understand the surah. If you do not know Arabic, you can try to compensate for this deficiency by making a comparative study of different translations. In our literal translation, we have tried to help build the readers' relationship with each word.

Remember the greatest help in understanding the Qur'an comes from the Qur'an itself. One part of the Qur'an explains another part. Those who keep reading the Qur'an are in a more advantageous position to understand it.

We have elaborated some points related to the understanding of the surah. These emerge from our own study of the Qur'an. These notes as well as other available commentaries may be helpful. But we would suggest, apply your own mind to the Qur'anic text before you seek the help of others. Mufassirs (the commentators) are our teachers. Teachers help better when you do your homework - trying to develop your own relationship with the Text, understanding it with your own mind. Remember, your focus should remain the Text, which the commentator is also trying to make us understand through his explanations. Do not get lost in his/her explanations. What is most important, try to understand the surah as a whole - as a systematic discourse in Divine Words.


We have two formulations of essentially the same insight of the inner structure of the surah.

The first ayah is bismillah. We start reading the Book with the name of our Lord, "God, the Compassionate, the Merciful". It is the introduction. The main body of the surah is made up of three parts:

A. The first part presents God's servants thanking and praising the Lord of the Worlds.

The consciousness of God's blessings which we experience everywhere, and the way He has been taking care of humankind, fills our hearts with gratitude and we say what the surah states from ayat 2-4. Our Lord is compassionate to all, but for those who try to do good deeds and seek His Forgiveness He has His Special Mercies.

This reminds us of the Day when His faithful servants will receive His Special Mercies. The Day of Judgement also reminds us of His Justice, and His Punishment of those who do not repent and do not ask for His forgiveness.

B. (This brings us to the middle of the surah, i.e. ayah 5.) At this point His 'ibad revive their covenant with Him.

We promise Him that we worship Him only, and we will seek His Help alone, and we actually worship Him and pray to Him that He helps us in fulfilling our covenant.

C. We pray to Him that He guides us along His Straight Path, the way he Guided those who received His favours, and saves us from being misguided, so that we do not deserve His Wrath." (2006, pp. 48-52).

~ Excerpted from "Reflections on the Qur'an - Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah and Al-Baqara" by Irfan Ahmad Khan, Ph.D

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane

Dr. Sim Liddon's thoughts on the sacred and the profane have some profound implications for our understanding of psychological reality and our deeper comprehension of a world view as it relates to Islamic Humanism. He draws on the thoughts of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade:


In 1917, Otto published Das Heilige (The Sacred), which has been acclaimed even to this day for its description of the frightening experience of feeling the presence of "the sacred" or "the holy." In this situation one experiences something totally different from that of the reality reflected through the senses, for one "knows" or experiences one's self to be in the presence of something "supernatural." The experience is characterized by Otto as (a) terrifying to an extreme degree and (b) giving the individual the impression that he is the presence of something wholly separate from himself, called by Otto the wholly other." For people living in the modern world of "natural" events, this process of "knowing" the reality of something unseen and supernatural is difficult to grasp. However, the accounts in the previous chapters on the beliefs of the primitives can give an appreciation of this phenomenon. From an examination of this literature it is clear that for those experiencing the "wholly other," the unseen and "supernatural" world is as real as the experience of the reality of the "natural" world, and yet it is totally different.

Otto described the feeling of trembling, awe, mystery, and fascination when feeling one's self to be in the presence of 'the Divine," and he interpreted this experience as being induced by a divine power (more precisely, the experience is induced by the revelation of divine power). Otto maintained that this experience is at the very heart of religion and has been its essence throughout history.. This is true not only for religion as we know it today but also during its evolutionary stages.

"It must be admitted that when religious evolution first begins sundry curious phenomena confront us, preliminary to religion proper and deeply affecting its subsequent course. Such are the notions "clean: and "unclean," belief in or worship of the dead, belief in or worship of "souls" or "spirits," magic, fairy tales, myths, homage to natural objects, whether frightful or extraordinary, noxious or advantageous, the strange idea of "power' (Orenda or Manali), fetishism and totemism, worship of animals and plants and demonism and polydemonism. Different as these things are, they are all haunted by a common (element) which is easily identifiable." (Otto 1982, p. 116)

The common element is of course the terrifying and awful experience of the "wholly other," the "sacred." Moreover, this experiencing of an unseen power (or witch or god) as wholly separate and distinct from one's self is, Otto maintained, evidence of the "actual existence" of an unseen "holy" presence, the Divine. Just as one's feeling of beauty arises in part as a reflection of the actual existence of something beautiful, this feeling of the presence of a Divine power is for Otto a reflection of the "actual existence" of an unseen but Divine reality. Such an interpretation is of course open to question, for the phenomenon could just as easily be seen as an experiential phenomenon of the believer himself, as an aspect of the "state of believing," needing no other reference point as such. In this case the emphasis would be placed upon the act of believing in the same way that, in the previous chapter, one might understand the native's "belief" in the reality of witches not to be supportive of the existence of the witches per se, but due to the inability of the primitive to distinguish between "objects" and ideas, "things" and images, so that an idea or image is experienced as real and as an object.

Otto himself recognized this, in a sense. In fact, he argued that the belief in the actual existence of demons and witches was a result of experiencing "the demonic." It was, he maintained, a "rationalization" of the feelings of awe and dread related to experiencing the "wholly other." However, he failed to use the same logic to conclude that the modern belief in God is likewise a "rationalization," perhaps of love, concern, and affection for those who deity is a loving God. Instead, for Otto the experience of feeling one's self to be in the presence of the "Supreme and Sublime Deity" was evidence of the actual existence of the Divine and was no mere "rationalization," no mere mental phenomenon due to the nature of a particular mode of believing. Furthermore, individuals capable of such experiences, as was true for Otto himself, possessed the faculty of "divination."

It is precisely at this point where religion diverges from psychology as a science. This is important if one is to understand "believing" (including religious "believing"), in terms of the human being instead of Something or Someone "out there," instead of something "wholly other." Such an approach must conclude that one's belief in God is in fact a rationalization, an objectification of those feelings one attributes to God. This is the kind of language psychology must use, and the individual is the kind of reference point upon which a psychology must be based. However, it would seem to us a bit reductionistic to leave it at that, for a psychology must be open to new and different possibilities, even the possibility that there is more to "God" than merely the rationalization of feelings.

Psychology itself cannot disprove that there is Something or Someone "out there," but as a branch of science it must assume a different perspective. While religion finds it in the nature of the "supernatural" experience itself that one need look no further for understanding, psychology must focus on the experience of the individual and place this phenomenon into a context of understanding that does not assume supernatural realities. Moreover, even if religion's assertions are assumed to be true, it will only gain from psychology's efforts, for the comfort and reassurance that religion has to offer will only be enhanced by its integration with a broader and more flexible understanding.

Be that as it may, one cannot minimize the importance of Otto and his description of the individual's experience of "the sacred," for it is clear that this experience has been of utmost importance throughout the history of religion. For religious scholars this comes as no revelation; but for most of us who have lived a "profane" life and have not been familiar with the experience of the "sacred," the identification of this experience as the sine qua non of religions offers a new insight and a new way of understanding at least some aspects of religious phenomena. For instance, another religious scholar, Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, echoed the same point made by Otto.

"It could be said that the history of religion - from the most primitive to the most highly developed - is constituted by a great number...of...manifestations of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree - to the supreme (which for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no dissolution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act - the manifestation of something a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane world."

The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred. He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example. But...what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because something that is no longer stone or tree but sacred ("wholly other")." (Eliade 1959, pp. 11-12)

Eliade then goes on to elaborate on the idea that throughout the ages the hallmark of religion has been this phenomenon of experiencing something "wholly other" as an unseen reality, the experience of the sacred or Divine as manifesting itself in the natural world. Whereas modern individuals consider such acts as eating, having sex, hunting, crossing a stream, planting corn, etc, as only behavioral acts, for the primitive these acts became "a sacrament...a communion with the sacred" (Eliade 1959, p. 14). The primitive lived in a "sacralized cosmos." According to this view, the essential difference between the mind of modern man and that of the primitive is this existential mode of being in the world. Thus "the sacred" and "the profane" become two modes of "being in the world," two modes of believing and viewing reality. And the same mode of "being in" and viewing the world that was true of the primitive can be seen as characterizing religious experience throughout the course of history.

This point, which Otto and Eliade make, is pivotal in examining the relationship between bimodal mental processing and at least some aspects of religion; so let us look at it more closely. First Otto and Eliade observe, from examining written and oral accounts, that the history of religion is the history of experiencing the feeling of being in the presence of sacred, unseen realities or entities. Second they assume the existence of the latter.

The radically different approach of psychology can agree with their observation but not endorse their assumption. From a psychological perspective, the observed phenomenon can be seen as an expression, not of some assumed deity but of the individual's state of believing. A feeling is symbolized by an image, as a feeling of fear is symbolized by the image of a witch, and in this mode of believing no distinction is made between the image and the external reality. We have termed the inability to separate the symbol from that for which it stands as "adifferentiation," and we have used the term "objectification" for the experience of feeling a mental image to be thee "outside," objective world.

I suggest that because of adifferentiation and objectification the symbolized feelings are experienced not as mental phenomena but as objects in the objective world. Conceptualizing this as a psychological process rather than as evidence of a supernatural entity turns us toward the individual and away from speculations about unseen realities. It allows us to examine some aspects or phenomena of personal religion, not in terms of supernatural entities but as products of a particular mode of believing, and in terms of reasoned concepts acceptable to psychology and science in general.

In spite of the fact that a modern psychological perspective might interpret Otto differently, his work remains a landmark in the examination of religious experience. He considered himself to be working within the psychology of religion, and in this capacity he was unique for his time. Working at a time when psychology was beginning to look more carefully at the phenomenon of the human religious experience, Otto's work was important in that his was the first to look carefully at the different parameters of experiencing "the sacred" and to identify clearly "the wholly other." As such his work is important, for it allows us to identify what has been the hallmark of religious experience throughout the ages. If we focus on his observations and descriptions instead of his conclusions, we become aware that a predominance of the gestalt mode of processing and the experiences of adifferentiation and objectification has been characteristic of personal religious experience throughout history, resulting in the sine qua non of religion, the feeling of being in the presence of unseen powers and entities, the experience of feeling the reality of the "wholly other." Liddon, 1989, pp. 132-138).

~Excerpted from "The Dual Brain, Religion and the Unconscious" by Sim C. Liddon, M.D.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Islam and the Environment by HRH the Prince Of Wales

A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales titled Islam and the Environment, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
9th June 2010

Vice Chancellor, Your Royal Highnesses, Director, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a very great pleasure for me to be here today to help you celebrate the Oxford Centre's twenty-fifth anniversary. Whereas bits of your Patron are dropping off after the past quarter of a century, I find quite a few bits of the Centre still being added! However, I cannot tell you how encouraged I am that in addition to the Prince of Wales Fellowship, the number of fellowships you now offer continues to grow and also that this Summer you will welcome the fifth group of young people on your Young Muslim Leadership programme which is run in association with my charities. This is a vital contribution to the process of boosting the self-esteem of young Muslims – about whom I care deeply.

It has been a great concern of mine to affirm and encourage those groups and faith communities that are in the minority in this country. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, I have tried to find as many ways as possible to help integrate them into British society and to build good relationships between our faith communities. I happen to believe this is best achieved by emphasizing unity through diversity. Only in this way can we ensure fairness and build mutual respect in our country. And if we get it right here then perhaps we might be able to offer an example in the wider world.

I am slightly alarmed that it is now seventeen years since I came here to the Sheldonian to deliver a lecture for the Centre that tried to do just this. I called it “Islam and the West” and, from what I can tell, it clearly struck a chord, and not just here in the U.K. I am still reminded of what I said, particularly when I travel in the Islamic world – in fact, because it was printed, believe it or not, it is the only speech I have ever made which continues to produce a small return!

I wanted to give that lecture to address the dangers of the ignorance and misunderstanding that I felt were growing between the Islamic world and the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. Since then, the situation has both improved and worsened, depending on where you look. Certainly the sorts of advances made by the Oxford Centre have helped to build confidence and understanding, but we all know only too well how some of the things I warned of in that lecture have since come to pass, both here and elsewhere in the world. So it is tremendously important that we continue to work to heal the differences and overcome the misconceptions that still exist. I remain confident that this is possible because there are many values we all share that have the powerful capacity to bind us, rather than what happens when those values are forgotten – or purposefully ignored.

Healing division is also my theme today, but this time it is not the divisions between cultures I want to explore. It is the division that poses a much more fundamental threat to the health and well-being of us all. It is the widening division we are seeing in so many ways between humanity and Nature.

Many of Nature's vital, life-support systems are now struggling to cope under the strain of global industrialization. How they will manage if millions more people are to achieve Western levels of consumption is highly disturbing to contemplate. The problems are only going to get much worse. And they are very real. Whatever you might have read in the newspapers, particularly about climate change in the run up to the Copenhagen conference last year, we face many related and very serious problems that are a matter of accurate, scientific record.

The actual facts are that over the last half century, for instance, we have destroyed at least thirty per cent of the world's tropical rainforests and if we continue to chop them down at the present rate, by 2050 we will end up with a very disturbing situation. In fact, in the three years since I started my Rainforest Project to try and help find an innovative solution to tropical deforestation, over 30 million hectares have been lost, and with them this planet has lost about 80,000 species. When you consider that a given area of equatorial trees evaporates eight times as much rainwater as an equivalent patch of ocean, you quickly start to see how their disappearance will affect the productivity of the Earth. They produce billions of tonnes of water every day and without that rainfall the world's food security will become very unstable.

But there are other facts too. In the last fifty years our industrialized approach to farming has degraded a third of the Earth's top soil. That is a fact. We have also fished the oceans so extensively that if we continue at the same rate for much longer we are likely to see the collapse of global fisheries in forty years from now. Another fact. Then there are the colossal amounts of waste that pollute the Earth – the many dead zones where nothing can live in many major river estuaries and various parts of the oceans, or those immense rafts of plastic that now float about in the Pacific. Would you believe that one of them, off the coast of California, is made up of 100 million tonnes of plastic and it has doubled in size in just the last decade. It is now at least six times the size of the United Kingdom. And we call ourselves civilized!

These are all very real problems and they are facts – all of them, the obvious results of the comprehensive industrialization of life. But what is less obvious is the attitude and general outlook which perpetuate this dangerously destructive approach. It is an approach that acts contrary to the teachings of each and every one of the world's sacred traditions, including Islam.

What surprises me, I have to say, is that, quite apart from whether or not we value the sacred traditions as much as we should, the blunt economic facts make the predominant approach increasingly irrational. I imagine that few of you are familiar with the interim report of the United Nations study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Study which came out in 2008. It painted a salutary picture of what we lose in straightforward financial terms by our destruction of natural systems and the absence of their services to the world. In the first place they calculated that we destroy around 50 billion dollars worth of a system that produces these services every year. By mapping the loss of those services over a forty year period, their estimate is that, in financial terms, the global economy incurs an annual loss of between 2 and 4.5 trillion dollars – every single year.

To put that figure into some sort of perspective, the recent crash in the world's banking system caused a one-off loss of just 2 trillion dollars. I wonder why the bigger annual loss does not attract the same kind of Media frenzy as the banking crisis did?

This should demonstrate the flaw in the sum that does not need an Oxbridge mathematician to understand – that Nature's finite resources, divided by our ever-more rapacious desire for continuous economic growth, does not work out. We are clearly living beyond our means, already consuming the Earth's capital resources faster than she can replenish them.

Over the years, I have pointed out again and again that our environmental problems cannot be solved simply by applying yet more and more of our brilliant green technology – important though it is. It is no good just fixing the pump and not the well.

When I say this, everybody nods sagely, but I get the impression that many are often unwilling to embrace what I am really referring to, perhaps because the missing element sits outside the parameters of the prevailing secular view. It is this “missing element” that I would like to examine today.

In short, when we hear talk of an “environmental crisis” or even of a “financial crisis,” I would suggest that this is actually describing the outward consequences of a deep, inner crisis of the soul. It is a crisis in our relationship with – and our perception of – Nature, and it is born of Western culture being dominated for at least two hundred years by a mechanistic and reductionist approach to our scientific understanding of the world around us.

So I would like you to consider very seriously today whether a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide “crises” does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking. Our science and technology cannot do this. Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.

In general, we live within a culture that does not believe very much in the soul anymore – or if it does, won’t admit to it publicly for fear of being thought old fashioned, out of step with “modern imperatives” or “anti-scientific.” The empirical view of the world, which measures it and tests it, has become the only view to believe. A purely mechanistic approach to problems has somehow assumed a position of great authority and this has encouraged the widespread secularisation of society that we see today. This is despite the fact that those men of science who founded institutions like the Royal Society were also men of deep faith. It is also despite the fact that a great many of our scientists today profess a faith in God. I am aware of one recent survey that suggests over seventy per cent of scientists do so.

I must say, I find this rather baffling. If this is so, why is it that their sense of the sacred has so little bearing on the way science is employed to exploit the natural world in so many damaging ways?

I suppose it must be to do with who pays the fiddler. Over the last two centuries, science has become ever more firmly yoked to the ambitions of commerce. Because there are such big economic benefits from such a union, society has been persuaded that there is nothing wrong here. And so, a great deal of empirical research is now driven by the imperative that its findings must be employed to maximum, financial effect, whatever the impact this may have on the Earth’s long-term capacity to endure.

This imbalance, where mechanistic thinking is so predominant, goes back at least to Galileo's assertion that there is nothing in Nature but quantity and motion. This is the view that continues to frame the general perception of the way the world works and how we fit within the scheme of things. As a result, Nature has been completely objectified – “She” has become an “it” – and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.

Understanding the world from a mechanical point of view and then employing that knowledge has, of course, always been part of the development of human civilization, but as our technology has become ever more sophisticated and our industrialized methods so much more powerful, so the level of destruction is now potentially all the more widespread and un-containable, especially if you add into this mix the emphasis we have on consumerism.

It was that great scientist, Goethe, who saw life as the masculine principle striving endlessly to reach the “eternal feminine” – what the Greeks called “Sophia,” or wisdom. It is a striving, he said, fired by the force of love. I am not sure that this is quite the way things happen today. Our striving in the industrialized world is certainly not fired by a love of wisdom. It is far more focussed on the desire for the greatest possible financial profit.

This ignores the spiritual teachings of traditions like Islam, which recognize that it is not our animal needs that are absolute; it is our spiritual essence, an essence made for the infinite. But with consumerism now such a key element in our economic model, our natural, spiritual desire for the infinite is constantly being reflected towards the finite. Our spiritual perspective has been flattened and made earthbound and we are persuaded to channel all of our natural, never-ending desire for what Islamic poets called “the Beloved” towards nothing but more and more material commodities. Unfortunately we forget that our spiritual desire can never be completely satisfied. It is rightly a never-ending desire. But when that desire is focussed only on the earthly, it becomes potentially disastrous. The hunger for yet more and more things creates an alarming vacuum and, as we are now realizing, this does great harm to the Earth and creates a never ending unhappiness for many, many people.

I hope you can just begin to see my point. The utter dominance of the mechanistic approach of science over everything else, including religion, has “de-souled” the dominant world view, and that includes our perception of Nature. As soul is elbowed out of the picture, our deeper link with the natural world is severed. Our sense of the spiritual relationship between humanity, the Earth and her great diversity of life has become dim. The entire emphasis is all on the mechanical process of increasing growth in the economy, of making every process more “efficient” and achieving as much convenience as possible. None of which could be said to be an ambition of God. And so, unfashionable though it is to suggest it, I am keen to stress here the need to heal this divide within ourselves. How else can we heal the divide between East and West unless we reconcile the East and West within ourselves? Everything in Nature is a paradox and seems to carry within itself the paradox of opposites. Curiously, this maintains the essential balance. Only human beings seem to introduce imbalance. The task is surely to reconnect ourselves with the wisdom found in Nature which is stressed by each of the sacred traditions in their own way.

My understanding of Islam is that it warns that to deny the reality of our inner being leads to an inner darkness which can quickly extend outwards into the world of Nature. If we ignore the calling of the soul, then we destroy Nature. To understand this we have to remember that we are Nature, not inanimate objects like stones; we reflect the universal patterns of Nature. And in this way, we are not a part that can somehow disengage itself and take a purely objective view.

From what I know of the Qu’ran, again and again it describes the natural world as the handiwork of a unitary benevolent power. It very explicitly describes Nature as possessing an “intelligibility” and that there is no separation between Man and Nature, precisely because there is no separation between the natural world and God. It offers a completely integrated view of the Universe where religion and science, mind and matter are all part of one living, conscious whole. We are, therefore, finite beings contained by an infinitude, and each of us is a microcosm of the whole. This suggests to me that Nature is a knowing partner, never a mindless slave to humanity, and we are Her tenants; God's guests for all too short a time.

If I may quote the Qu’ran, “Have you considered: if your water were to disappear into the Earth, who then could bring you gushing water?” This is the Divine hospitality that offers us our provisions and our dwelling places, our clothing, tools and transport. The Earth is robust and prolific, but also delicate, subtle, complex and diverse and so our mark must always be gentle – or the water will disappear, as it is doing in places like the Punjab in India. Industrialized farming methods there rely upon the use of high-yielding seeds and chemical fertilizers, both of which need a lot more energy and a lot more water as well. As a consequence the water table has dropped dramatically – I have been there, I have seen it – so far, by three feet a year. Punjabi farmers are now having to dig expensive bore holes over 200 feet deep to get at what remains of the water and, as a result, their debts become ever deeper and the salt rises to the surface contaminating the soil.

This is not a sustainable way of growing food and maintaining the well-being of communities. It does not respect Divine hospitality. The costs it incurs will have to be borne by those who will inherit what is fast becoming the ruined and frayed fabric of life. So for their sake, we have to acknowledge that the immediate, short-term financial benefits of our predominant, mechanistic approach are too expensive to continue to dominate our way of life.

This happens when traditional principles and practices are abandoned – and with them, all sense of reverence for the Earth which is an inseparable element in an integrated and spiritually grounded tradition like Islam – just as it was once firmly embedded in the philosophical heritage of Western thought. The Stoics of Ancient Greece, for instance, held that “right knowledge,” as they called it, is gained by living in agreement with Nature, where there is a correspondence or a sympathy between the truth of things, thought and action. They saw it as our duty to achieve an attunement between human nature and the greater scheme of the Cosmos.

This incidentally is also the teaching of Judaism. The Book of Genesis says that God placed Mankind in the garden “to tend it and take care of it,” to serve and conserve it for the sake of future generations. “Adamah” in Hebrew means “the one hewn from the Earth,” so Adam is a child of the Earth. In my own tradition of Christianity, the immanence of God is made explicit by the incarnation of Christ. But let us also not forget that throughout the Christian New Testament, Christ often refers to Himself as “the Son of Man” which, in Hebrew, is “Ben Adam.” He, too, is a “son of the Earth,” surely making the same explicit connection between human nature and the whole of Nature.

Even the apocryphal Gnostic texts are imbued with the same principle. The fragments of one of the oldest, ascribed to Mary Magdalene, instructs us that “Attachment to matter gives rise to passion against Nature. Thus, trouble arises in the whole body; this is why I tell you; be in harmony.” In all cases the message is clear. Our specific purpose is to “earth” Heaven. So, to separate ourselves within an inner darkness, leads to what the Irish poet, WB Yeats, warned of at the start of the Twentieth Century. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” he wrote, “things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.”

The traditional way of life within Islam is very clear about the “centre” that holds the relationship together. From what I know of its core teachings and commentaries, the important principle we must keep in mind is that there are limits to the abundance of Nature. These are not arbitrary limits, they are the limits imposed by God and, as such, if my understanding of the Qu'ran is correct, Muslims are commanded not to transgress them.

Such instruction is hard to square if all you do is found your understanding of the world on empirical terms alone. Four hundred years of relying on trying and testing the facts scientifically has established the view that spirituality and religious faith are outdated expressions of superstitious belief. After all, empiricism has proved how the world fits together and it is nothing to do with a “Supreme Being.” There is no empirical evidence for the existence of God so, therefore, Q.E.D, God does not exist. It is a very reasonable, rational argument, and I presume it can be applied to “thought” too. After all, no brain scanner has ever managed to photograph a thought, nor a piece of love, and it never will. So, Q.E.D., that must mean “thought” and “love” do not exist either!

Clearly there is a point beyond which empiricism cannot make complete sense of the world. It works by establishing facts through testing them by the scientific process. It is one kind of language and a very fine one, but it is a language not able to fathom experiences like faith or the meaning of things – it is not able to articulate matters of the soul. This is why it consistently elbows soul out of the picture.

But we do have other kinds of “language,” as Islam well knows, and they are much better at dealing with the realm of the soul and matters of meaning. Each is a different aspect of our language, in fact. Each deals with different aspects of the truth and if you put empiricism, philosophy and the spiritual perception of life together, just as the Islamic tradition at its best and richest has always done, then they tend to complement each other rather well.

Take the difference this made in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, as an example, during the so-called “Golden Age of Islam.” It was a period which gave rise to a spectacular flowering of scientific advancement, but all of it was underpinned by an age-old philosophical understanding of reality and grounded in a profound spirituality, which included a deep reverence for the Natural world. Theirs was an integrated vision of the world, reflecting the timeless truth that all life is rooted in the unity of the Creator. This is the testimony of faith, is it not, embodied in the contemplative implication of the formless essence of the Qur'an's haqîqa? It is the notion of Tawhîd, the oneness of all things within the embrace of the Divine unity.

Islamic writers express it so well. Ibn Khaldûn, for instance, who taught that “all creatures are subject to a regular and orderly system. Causes are linked to effects where each is connected with the other.” Or the great Shabistâri in Fourteenth Century Persia, who talked of the world being “a mirror from head to foot, in every atom a hundred blazing suns where a world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.” Words that resonate, don't you think, with William Blake's famous lines, “to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower.”

Other Western poets have captured this truth too. William Wordsworth, perhaps one of the greatest of all our Nature poets, describes “a sense sublime of something far more inter-fused… a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought and rolls through all things.” I quote the poets because they help us identify this “sense sublime” and inspire reverence for the created world.

Reverence is not science-based knowledge. It is an experience always mediated by love, sometimes induced by it; and love comes from relationship. If you take away reverence and reduce our spiritual relationship with life, then you open yourself up to the idea that we can be little more than a chance group of isolated, self-obsessed individuals, disconnected from life’s innate presence and un-anchored by any sense of duty to the rest of the world. We are free to act without responsibility. Thus we turn a blind eye to those islands of plastic in the sea, or to the treatment meted out to animals in factory farms. And it is why the so-called “precautionary principle” is so often thrown out of the window.

This is the principle that would make us think twice if, say, we were to climb into a vehicle that happens to have a ninety per cent chance of crashing. Instead, because the danger is not proven beyond doubt, we think it is safe to embark upon the journey. This is how we proceed in many significant fields – in matters like genetic modification or climate change. We go on denying that there may be side-effects, even if our intuition warns us to be cautious, or even if there is some related evidence. Recently, for instance, the news emerged that, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of honey bee colonies in the United States failed to survive the Winter. More than three million colonies in the U.S. and billions of honeybees worldwide have died. Scientists say they are no nearer to knowing what is causing this catastrophic collapse, but there is plenty of evidence that modern pesticides have played their part. Given that bees, like nearly every other bug, are insects, I would have thought it was rather obvious. And yet we carry on with a narrow-minded, mechanistic approach to industrialized farming with all its focus on high yields at whatever price. So we lace the fields with pesticides that kill insects. It is quite bizarre how we continue to entrust our food security to the very substances that are destroying the harmonic cycle which produces our food. It really is a form of collective hubris and I often wonder if those who practise such well-exercised scepticism in these matters will ever see that “the Emperor is wearing no clothes?”

This, then, is why the wisdom and learning offered by a sacred tradition like Islam matters – and, if I may say so, why those who hold and strive to preserve their sacred traditions in different parts of the world have every reason to become more confident of their ground. The Islamic world is the custodian of one of the greatest treasuries of accumulated wisdom and spiritual knowledge available to humanity. It is both Islam’s noble heritage and a priceless gift to the rest of the world. And yet, so often, that wisdom is now obscured by the dominant drive towards Western materialism – the feeling that to be truly “modern” you have to ape the West.

To counter that tendency I have done what I can with my School of Traditional Arts to nurture and support traditional and sacred craft skills – not least those of Islam – because they keep alive a perspective that we sorely need, even though short-term fashion deems them to be irrelevant. The geometry and patterning that are taught at the School are the basis of the many crafts that have been all but abandoned in many parts of the world, including the Islamic world. It is a tragedy of monumental proportions that they are being forgotten because they reflect the spiritual mathematics found everywhere in Nature. As Islam teaches very specifically, it is a patterning that reflects the very ground of our being. It is the Divine imagination, so to speak; the ineffable presence that is the sacred breath of life. As the Seventeenth Century mystic, Ibn Âshir, puts it, by the practice of these arts you “see the One who manifests in the form, not the form by itself.”

For many in the modern world this is hard to understand because the view of God has become so distorted. “God” is seen as being, somehow, outside “His” creation, rather than part of its unfolding – what the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Being the principle that underlines the Cosmos, the Cosmos is the result of God knowing it and of it knowing the uncreated God. Notice the emphasis there on “un”-created. It is of profound importance. The basis of all existence is in this relationship.

I suspect the reason why this is such an unfashionable view is that the deep-seated experience of participation in the living, creative presence of God is offered to us in all traditions not by empiricism, but by revelation. This is a rare and precious gift and only given to those whose supreme humanity and capacity for great humility achieves a mastery over the ego. It comes at the moment when “the knower and the known” become one – the moment when the mind of Man comes into union with the mind of God.

This, of course, is not deemed possible from an empirical point of view, but revelation is a very different kind of knowing from scientific, evidence-based knowledge, and I cannot stress the point strongly enough; by dismissing such a process and discarding what it offers to humankind, we throw away a very important lifeline for the future.

I must say, once you do blend the different languages – the empirical and the spiritual together as I am suggesting, and as I have been trying to say for so long – then you do begin to wonder why the sceptics think the desire to work in harmony with Nature is so unscientific. Why is it deemed so worthwhile to abandon our true relationship with the “beingness” of all things; to limit ourselves to the science of manipulation, rather than immerse ourselves in the wider science of understanding? They seem such spurious arguments, because, as Islam clearly understands, it is actually impossible to divorce human beings from Nature’s patterns and processes. The Qur’an is considered to be the “last Revelation” but it clearly acknowledges which book is the first. That book is the great book of creation, of Nature herself, which has been taken too much for granted in our modern world and needs to be restored to its original position.

So, with all this in mind, I would like to set you a challenge, if I may; a challenge that I hope will be conveyed beyond this audience today. It is the challenge to mobilize Islamic scholars, poets and artists, as well as those craftsmen, engineers and scientists who work with and within the Islamic tradition, to identify the general ideas, the teachings and the practical techniques within the tradition which encourage us to work with the grain of Nature rather than against it. I would urge you to consider whether we can learn anything from the Islamic culture's profound understanding of the natural world to help us all in the fearsome challenges we face. Are there, for instance, any that could help preserve our precious marine eco-systems and fisheries? Are there any traditional methods of avoiding damage to all of Nature’s systems that revive the principle of sustainability within Islam?

To give you an idea of what I mean, let me offer a few examples drawn from the work done by my School of Traditional Arts, where project workers have shown that re-introducing traditional craft skills brings a coherence to peoples' daily lives, perhaps because they fuse the spiritual with the practical.

Since I founded it, the School has helped restore these skills in places as far afield as Jordan and Nigeria. It also helps to build bridges within communities in this country which have suffered the worst fractures. In Burnley in Lancashire, for instance, project workers have been teaching children from many backgrounds an integrated view of the world using the patterns of Islamic sacred geometry. This has not just inspired the imagination of the children taking part, but their teachers too. They tell me they have discovered a much more integrated approach to education, where maths and art are not alien to one another, but are seen as two sides of the same coin and directly rooted in Nature's patterns and processes.

In Afghanistan, I have only recently managed to see the work being done under the umbrella of what we have called “the Turquoise Mountain Foundation” – an initiative I launched some four years ago – which is running similar education programmes and craft training courses. It is also helping with the urban regeneration of the old historic quarter of the city by guiding people to start businesses using the craft skills they have learned.

For example, in the building of schools, people are being shown how to use mud-bricks which are a quarter of the price of the concrete blocks used by other agencies. They are also resistant to earthquakes, whereas concrete is not. And they cope much better with extremes of temperature – mud-brick buildings are cooler in the Summer and warmer in the Winter. What is more, they use local labour and local, natural materials. So these schools are a good example of how traditional wisdom blends with modern needs. After all, you can still use computers and other modern technology in a mud-brick building! And more comfortably, too, given it is more suited to local conditions.

When I finally did manage to reach Kabul earlier this year – after several years of trying – what I saw was truly remarkable. It proved to me that teaching and employing traditional crafts is an effective way of re-introducing the kinds of techniques that are benign to the natural environment. They are also capable of restoring a cultural balance in peoples' minds. By encouraging a wider celebration of the traditional, ancient culture of Afghanistan, these skills help in a very practical way to counteract the oppressive effects of extremism in all its forms, both religious and secular. This is how traditional wisdom works. It is not a theory or a science written down. Its wisdom is discovered through practice and in action.

These are schemes that are close to my heart, but the Oxford Centre keeps me informed of many others. Working in Muslim countries, the World Wildlife Fund has found that trying to convey the importance of conservation is much easier if it is transmitted by religious leaders whose reference is Qur'anic teaching. In Zanzibar, they had little success trying to reduce spear-fishing and the use of dragnets, which were destroying the coral reefs. But when the guidance came from the Qur'an, there was a notable change in behaviour. Or in Indonesia and in Malaysia, where former poachers are being deterred in the same way from destroying the last remaining tigers.

And it is not just such interventions that are important. It is mystifying, for instance, that the modern world completely ignores the time-honoured feats of engineering in the ancient world. The Qanats of Iran, for example, that still provide water for thousands of people in what would otherwise be desert conditions. These underground canals – unbelievably 170,000 miles of them – keep the water from the mountains moving down the tunnels using gravity alone. And the water in every village is then kept fresh by the way the storage towers keep the air flowing freely, moved by the wind.

In Spain, the irrigation systems constructed 1200 years ago also still work perfectly, as does the way in which the water is managed by the local population – a way of operating devised before the Muslim rule in Spain disintegrated. The same sorts of Islamic management schemes operate in other parts of the world too, like the “hima” zones in Saudi Arabia which set aside land for use as pasture. These are all examples of how prophetic teaching, in this case framed by the guidance of the Qu'ran, maintains a long term view of things and keeps the danger of a self-interested form of short-term economics at bay.

I am sure that if an organization like the Oxford Centre could help to establish a global forum on “Islam and the Environment” many more very practical, traditional approaches like these could become more widely applied. They may range from science and technology to agriculture, healthcare, architecture and education. Think what could be achieved if mothers and fathers, the teachers in madrassas and Imams, all sought to demonstrate to children how to translate Islamic teachings into practical action – how to blend traditional knowledge and awareness of Nature's needs with the best of what we know now.

This is certainly something I feel we have to do in the one final issue I have to mention as I close. Perhaps a few facts and figures might demonstrate why.

When I was born in 1948, a city like Lagos in Nigeria had a population of just three hundred thousand. Today, just over sixty years later, it is home to twenty million. Thirty-five thousand people live in every square mile of the city, and its population increases by another six hundred thousand every year.

I choose Lagos as an example. I could have chosen Mumbai, Cairo or Mexico City; wherever you look, the world's population is increasing fast. It goes up by the equivalent of the entire population of the United Kingdom every year. Which means that this poor planet of ours, which already struggles to sustain 6.8 billion people, will somehow have to support over 9 billion people within fifty years. In the Arab world, sixty per cent of the population is now under the age of thirty. That will mean, in some way or other, 100 million new jobs will have to be created in that region alone over the next ten to fifteen years.

I am well aware that the very long term prediction is that population may go down. 150 years from now the trends suggest there may be as few as four billion people, maybe even just two billion, but there is no getting away from the fact that in the short term, in the next fifty years, we face monumental problems as the figures rocket. No mega-city can ever hope to catch up with the present expansion in their numbers to provide adequate healthcare, education, transport, food and shelter for so many. Nor can the Earth herself sustain us all, when the demands and pressures on her bounty worldwide are becoming so intense.

I know it is a complicated issue. The experts suggest that, in theory, the Earth could support 9 billion people, but not if a vast proportion is consuming the world’s resources at present Western levels. So the changes have to be essentially two-fold. It would certainly help if the acceleration slowed down, but it would also help if the world reduced its desire to consume.

I have been following carefully the findings of my British Asian Trust in India which has been helping to run a women's education project in a drought-prone region of Maharashtra called Satara. They have noticed that a real difference can be made when women are able to become more involved in the running of the community. This is also the experience in Bangladesh. I have long been fascinated by Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank of Bangladesh. It operates micro-credit schemes that offer loans to the poorest communities through a bank which is now ninety per cent owned by the rural poor. Interestingly, where the loans are managed by the women of the community, the birth rate has gone down. The impact of these sorts of schemes, of education and the provision of family planning services, has been widespread. Whereas in the 1980s, the average family in Bangladesh had six children, now the average figure is three. But with mega-cities growing as they are, I fear there is little chance these sorts of schemes can help the plight of many millions of people unless we all face up to the fact more honestly than we do that one of the biggest causes of high birth rates remains cultural.

It raises some very difficult moral questions, I know, but do we not each one of us carry the same responsibility towards the Earth? It is surely time to ask if we can come to a view that balances the traditional attitude to the sacred nature of life on the one hand with, on the other, those teachings within each of the sacred traditions that urge humankind to keep within the limits of Nature’s benevolence and bounty.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have endured all this with patience and fortitude. You have also given a very good impression of listening to my own personal thoughts on the perspective opened up by Islamic teaching. I have wanted to convey them to you because it always moves me to be reminded that, from the perspective of traditional Islamic teaching, the destruction of the Earth is represented as the destruction of a prayerful being.

Whichever faith tradition we come from, the fact at the heart of the matter is the same. Our inheritance from our creator is at stake. It will be no good at the end of the day as we sit amidst the wreckage, trying to console ourselves that it was all done for the best possible reasons of development and the betterment of Mankind. The inconvenient truth is that we share this planet with the rest of creation for a very good reason – and that is, we cannot exist on our own without the intricately balanced web of life around us. Islam has always taught this and to ignore that lesson is to default on our contract with Creation.

The Modernist ideology that has dominated the Western outlook for a century implies that “tradition” is backward looking. What I have tried to explain today is that this is far from true. Tradition is the accumulation of the knowledge and wisdom that we should be offering to the next generation. It is, therefore, visionary – it looks forward.

Turning to the traditional teachings, like those found in Islam that define our relationship with the natural world, does not mean locking us into some sort of cultural and technological immobility. As the English writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them as a root.” I would also remind you of the words of Oxford’s very own C.S. Lewis, who pointed out that “sometimes you do have to turn the clock back if it is telling the wrong time” – that there is nothing “progressive” about being stubborn and refusing to acknowledge that we have taken the wrong road. If we realize that we are travelling in the wrong direction, the only sensible thing to do is to admit it and retrace our steps back to where we first went wrong. As Lewis put it, “going back can sometimes be the quickest way forward.” It is the most progressive thing we could do.

All of the mounting evidence is telling us that we are, indeed, on the wrong road, so you might think it would be wise to draw on the timeless guidance that comes from our intuitive sense of the origin of all things to which we are rooted. Nature's rhythms, her cycles and her processes, are our guides to this uncreated, originating voice. They are our greatest teachers because they are expressions of Divine Unity. Which is why there is a profound truth in that seemingly simple, old saying of the nomads – that “the best of all Mosques is Nature herself.”


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hermeneutics and the Dual Brain

In thinking about the two kinds of Islamic hermeneutics, the Zahiri and Batini, I have been wondering if there was a neuroscientific basis for this aspect of the hermeneutic tradition in Islam and whether the zahir/batin division reflects the reality of dual brain mental processes. A fascinating text on this topic is "The Dual Brain, Religion, and the Unconscious" by Dr. Sim C. Liddon:


The experiment with split-brain subjects do have drawbacks: they are few in number, they deal with subjects who already have pathological processes going on (i.e., epilepsy), and the operation interrupts the normal functioning of the intact brain. However, the results of these experiments are supported not only by animal experiments and studies of patients with unilateral brain lesions, but also by experiments with normal subjects using a variety of other techniques. While more study surely needs to be done, some judgments have been made by those working in the field. First there is the obvious thought that the two hemispheres are specialized for different cognitive functions. Second, it has been concluded that the primary factor in hemisphere specialization is not the type of information considered (i.e., words or shapes or sounds) but how the brain processes information.

In trying to interpret this data, however, there is controversy. The anatomical distinctions between the left and right hemispheres are not as clear-cut as they appeared during the first few years of the split-brain research. Indeed, it seems that the way the lay public and popular press "explain" an infinite variety of lifestyles in terms of left/right differences is "simple minded" and a distortion of good scientific research. Let us assume that there are anatomical distinctions that must yet be clarified and that the left/right distinction does represent an oversimplification. With this in mind, and for heuristic reasons, let us go on to look at the differences and distinctions as they appeared during the first years of this research. No matter how anatomical questions are eventually answered, there are distinctions in human mental (or psychological) functioning that are both legitimate and important. In what follows I will speak of left/right differences because that is the easiest way to present the psychological material, but the reader should recognize that the anatomical distinctions are not so clear-cut. The point is, it is vital to distinguish between psychological matters and anatomical matters, and we are primarily interested in the former. Keeping this in mind, let us go on to review some of the results from the split-brain research.

It appears that the left hemisphere processes information in a way that is superior for relating and comparing separate items and for processing information in a linear or sequential mode. It is a far superior mode for language; for the appreciation of time, number, and logic; for the expression of analytic thought; and for the precise discrimination of details and differences. In short, it serves the analytic and scientific "purposes" of humankind. This I shall call the linear mode because it allows us to examine relationships in a linear way. For instance, the equation A + B + C is essentially a way of understanding in a linear form the relationships between the symbols A, B, and C. Its two outstanding characteristics are, first, the appreciation of separateness and discreteness of individual items or facts and, second, the recognition of linear relationships between these distinct items.

Continuing with the "simple-minded" approach of left/right differences, it seems that the right hemisphere synthesizes rather than analyzes. It appears to process information by instantaneously bringing together or integrating different parts into a unified form, or "whole," and is superior in dealing with simultaneous relationships and global properties. It is suited for producing our sensory images of the world as well as the images of our imagination and dream life, and is more suitable for the symbolic expression of the emotional component of our subjective experience. I call the mode of processing associated with the right hemisphere in this "simple-minded" approach the "gestalt" mode, which has two outstanding characteristics. First, there is an instantaneous or simultaneous bringing together of different data or facts into a unified whole, best exemplified by the figures of the Gestalt psychologists. They demonstrated that one perceives a form as a whole and that at the same time there is a lack of awareness of the parts when one focuses on the whole form. The second characteristic is the lack of ability to compare or differentiate which naturally follows from the fact that when one's attention is focused on the whole gestalt, there is a lack of awareness of the parts. While the left hemisphere serves humankind's scientific needs, the right is superior for artistic and religious expression.

For heuristic reasons, I have been talking in anatomical terms about "left" and "right" brain, but let me reiterate that the anatomical distinctions are not so clear as I have suggested. For my purposes, the focus is on identifying the functional aspect of these two modes of mental processing, not their exact anatomical correlations. In other words, each hemisphere shows at least some evidence of both modes of processing, but the split-brain research experiments have made it possible to identify the two functionally different modes of processing information. Thus the important distinction is not so much between the left and right hemispheres as it is a functional distinction between the two modes of mental processing. I shall collectively refer to these two functionally different modes as "bimodal mental processing." (1989, pp. 49-52)

~Excerpted from "The Dual Brain, Religion and the Unconscious" by Sim C. Liddon, M.D.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some thoughts on hermeneutics by Arkoun

Professor Mohammed Arkoun, a progressive Muslim thinker offers some thoughts on the approach to Islamic scholarship which bears serious consideration in the depth psychological research methodolgy I am undertaking in my attempt to formulate an Integral Psychology of Islam. These comments are made in the Introduction to "The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought":

"This cognitive strategy has never been used before in interpreting the types of discourse produced by Muslims to express their Islam, or in approaching them as a subject of study, alongside the Western literature on Islam and Muslim societies. From this perspective, historical epistemology has a priority over the purely descriptive, narrative presentation of what ‘Islam’ teaches, or what Muslims say, do or achieve as social and historical protagonists. To what extent are these protagonists aware of the ideological dimensions of their discourse and historical actions? Which cognitive structures do they use for the purpose of interpreting their religion, applying it to their actual life or reshaping it on the basis of historical pressures? To what extent do they develop a critical relationship with their past and their present in order to have better control over their future, and how relevant, effective and creative would such a relationship be? These questions constitute the itinerary of this self-interrogation. Such an itinerary can be proposed and achieved only by those who accept the need to combine respect for the rules of scientific research with the capacity to submit to philosophical criticism every stance of reason, every intellectual initiative and every question arising therefrom.

For a time, during the late 1970s, I called this approach ‘applied Islamology’2 following the example set by a group of anthropologists who started the practice of ‘applied anthropology’. During the 1980s and 1990s, political scientists focused on political Islam, and in particular, fundamentalist movements, to such an extent that they succeeded in marginalizing classical Islamology, ignoring the methodological breakthrough offered by Applied Islamology. This situation applies both to classical Islamicists, long confined to the philological, historicist application of the most ‘representative’ classical texts, and to the new wave of Islamicists who have had no philological training in the main Islamic languages (Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu) and who have confined their research to socio-political issues considered from a short-term perspective. Applied Islamology insists on the need to practise a progressive-regressive method, combining the long-term historical perspective with the short-term perspective, because all of the contemporary discourse emerging in Islamic contexts, inevitably refers to the emerging period of Islam, and the ‘Golden Age’ of its civilization used as mythological references to reactivate ‘values’ — ethical and legal paradigms — which need to be reassessed according to what I call a ‘Critique of Islamic Reason’. Not only do political scientists occupy key positions in academic institutions, they also have a strong relationship with the political decision-makers as well as a tacit solidarity with the most powerful media. As far as Islamic studies are concerned, the move from classical Islamology, dominated by the classical Orientalist épistémè and epistemology, to the pragmatic, factual, too often ideological practice of the social sciences by the political scientist, has had little material effect in improving the intellectual short-comings of scholarship applied in the Islamic sphere of influence in research and teaching. It is my contention that Islam as a religion, a world vision perpetuated by a still living tradition, with a great variety of cultural, social and political expressions, remains, like all religions other than Christianity, a challenge to the social sciences. In the same way, social sciences, if applied properly, are a challenge to Islam, especially as a living tradition. For many reasons, the most decisive one being geopolitical, it can clearly be seen that the challenge has not yet been fully taken up by the opposing side. The intellectual and scientific reasons for what has been a recurrent failure since the nineteenth century will, I hope, be clarified, in this book.3

Although I often refer to the dialectic, creative tension between the thought and the unthought, the thinkable and the unthinkable, I feel there is still a need to explain this terminology which has always been unusual and remains so in current parlance and even in philosophical discourse. The question arises as to why there is such a focus on the achievements of reason, on the critical control of the rationalities it elaborates within the spatial limits assigned to the thinkable. What does a tradition of thought allow us to think in a particular period of its evolution, concerning a particular subject, within a particular domain of human existence? When we speak today about the modes of communication required by political correctness, we are clearly referring to limits imposed by political and social pressures on the innovative and critical faculties of reason. A number of ideas, values, explanations, horizons of meaning, artistic creations, initiatives, institutions and ways of life are thereby discarded, rejected, ignored or doomed to failure by the long-term historical evolution called tradition or ‘living tradition’ according to dogmatic theological definitions. Voices are silenced, creative talents are neglected, marginalized or obliged to reproduce orthodox frameworks of expression, established forms of aesthetics, currently received rules of judgement, evaluation, communication, transmission, teaching, relating to others … When social, economic, and political conditions change and new possibilities for creative thought and action open up, a struggle begins between the defenders of the living sacred and sacralizing tradition and the supporters of reformist or revolutionary change. This dialectic tension is at work, with differing intensity, in all societies, from the most conservative and traditional to our democratic, dynamic, ‘free’ societies. We know how horizons and themes of discourse change depending on whether a leftist or rightist majority accedes to power; not only are some laws changed, but the philosophical rationale underlying the creation of law shifts to a different thinkable.

When the field of the unthinkable is expanded and maintained for centuries in a particular tradition of thought, the intellectual horizons of reason are diminished and its critical functions narrowed and weakened because the sphere of the unthought becomes more determinate and there is little space left for the thinkable. The unthought is made up of the accumulated issues declared unthinkable in a given logosphere. A logosphere is the linguistic mental space shared by all those who use the same language with which to articulate their thoughts, their representations, their collective memory, and their knowledge according to the fundamental principles and values claimed as a unifying weltanschaung. I use this concept to introduce the important dimension of the linguistic constraints of each language on the activities of thought. When a language such as Arabic or English is currently used by different peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, it becomes a common logosphere which will affect the configuration of the faculties of the human mind and, consequently, will contribute to the creation of frontiers between the thinkable and the unthinkable, the thought and the unthought. This is evident in the case of the Arab philosophers who introduced the Greek philosophical thinkable into the Arabic language, thereby creating friction with the religious thinkable defended by the traditionalist builders of Islamic orthodoxies. Similarly, the concept of the logosphere assists in the understanding of how Islamic values taught in Arabic to Indonesian, Bangladeshi or Tajik peoples, for example, share the same unthinkable about religion with the rest of the world's Muslims. The impact of the unthinkable and the unthought is immediately identifiable in the discourse articulated in a given language; language is the authentic memory of what thought has achieved, or failed to achieve, in each logosphere. From this perspective, an hypothesis could be attempted to explain why the terminology that I am trying to produce on the subject of thinkable/unthinkable, thought/unthought, has so far been neglected by the historians of thought. Historiography has always been linked to a political focus, such as a king, a prince or other leader; it reports what is relevant in order to illustrate the glory of the ruler, the authority of a spiritual leader; only positive achievements and the related outstanding cultural, and intellectual works achieved by thinkers, artists, jurists and orthodox religious authorities are quoted, celebrated and regularly taught as classical references for the living collective memory. The modern nation-state has been built and is supported by the selective creation and reproduction of the glorified national identity. A highly convincing illustration of this ideological practice, in contradistinction with the free, open, creative quest for meaning, is provided in Les lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nora, which discusses the strategies used by the French Third Republic to unify the nation in accordance with the principles of the Republic. All the post-colonial states that emerged in the late 1950s, used the same strategy, with a much more authoritarian, obscurantist, intolerant will-to-power. In Muslim countries, this policy helped to expand the space of the unthinkable and the unthought because a dual censorship has been and still is imposed on intellectual and cultural activities, censorship from above exercised by the state and censorship from below imposed by public opinion, especially on matters related to religion. Many intellectuals came to interiorize this dual control in the name of the Nation, or the religion, adding self-censorship to that already imposed from outside.

An important remark is in order here. I have explained in my various writings how my Algerian origins, and my involvement in Algerian contemporary history since the late 1950s (especially in the War of Liberation) imposed on me, as a scholar and professor of the History of Islamic Thought, the obligation to rethink and rewrite this entire history within the dialectic framework of the thinkable/unthinkable, thought/unthought. As an historian, I have been struck by two major historical facts, namely the spectacular success of Greek philosophy and sciences in the Arabic logosphere under the political control of an Islamic regime from the eighth to the thirteenth century, and in the same period, the expanding of the horizons of religious reason through dynamic schools of theology and law. The Mu'tazilite school contributed to having thinkable issues — such as the issue of God's created speech — declared unthinkable afterwards by the Caliph al-Qādir. Many schools of thought started to be weakened and disappear after the thirteenth century. Philosophy, as inherited from Classical Greece, disappeared after the death of Ibn Rushd (1198), though it survived in Iran in the form of theodicy and theosophy; the Mu'tazilī school was banned by the well-known decrees of al-Qādir in 1017–18 and 1029 and to this day, the ‘ulamā’ officially devoted to the defence of orthodoxy, refuses to reactivate the thinkable introduced and developed by original, innovative thinkers in the classical period.

Historians report these facts without opening up new fields of historical research devoted to the interaction between the changing sociological frameworks of knowledge and the emergence, or disappearance, of fields of intellectual and scientific endeavour. The same sociological, political, linguistic, economic and demographic factors that eliminated Ibn Rushd in his own logosphere helped to tremendous and enduring success of the same Ibn Rushd in Latin Catholic Europe until as late as the sixteenth century. Historical research reveals the consequences generated in Islamic thought by the elimination of the philosophical standpoint of reason, while we know the decisive role played by this standpoint in the development of scientific reason as well as the democratic regimes in modern Europe.

It is not sufficient to describe the increasing gap that has emerged between modern Europe and the so-called Muslim societies since the sixteenth century; we need to determine whether this evolution is related to internal forces and mechanisms operating independently in each historical sphere, or whether it is also subject to correlative factors. The development of ‘material civilization’ in Europe since the eighteenth century, accelerated the collapse and the conquest of all the non-European societies in the world. In other words, material modernity has been used to enhance the political and economic expansion of the European capitalist bourgeoisie; it prevented, deviated or perverted the simultaneous transmission of intellectual modernity in non-European cultures and traditions of thought. This ambiguous process, often described as the clash between tradition and modernity, conservatism and progress, religious fundamentalism and historical change, led to the ideology of liberation with its radical political and social opposition to colonial domination from 1945 until today. During the Cold War, the struggle against ‘Western imperialism’ was inspired by the dialectical materialist option of the Socialist-Communist vision of human liberation. The philosophical dimension of political liberalism had been rejected as the weapon of the imperialist bourgeoisie. The dogmatic totalitarianism of the nation-state controlled by a single political party has dominated the intellectual and cultural life of all the countries emancipated from colonial domination. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideological support of third-world countries, an ‘Islamic’ vision of the historical process of emancipation replaced the previous secularized socialist model in the so-called Muslim societies. Both visions share the will to eliminate the struggle of reason to autonomously perform the specific function of enabling unrestricted criticism of the initiatives of social protagonists through historical development (discourse, behaviour, political and economic options, cultural and intellectual achievements). From this perspective, more attention should be paid by historians to making explicit the historical correlation between the expanding European hegemony and the reactions, the ideological responses and the regressive changes seen more in the unthought, than in the thought in contemporary Islamic thought.

As a member of a society which went to war to liberate itself from colonial domination and had to ‘welcome’ a ‘democratic popular republic’ based on the model of the Soviet Socialist Republics, I felt more keenly than scholars without this revolutionary background, the intellectual responsibility to rethink in terms of social sciences and historical epistemology, the whole legacy of Arabic culture in what I came to call the ‘Maghrebian space’.4 The Algerian one-party state tried to legitimize its ‘socialist’ collectivist option in a strong, formal political will to protect and recover the ‘Arab-Islamic personality’ of the Algerian nation. Morocco followed suit, defended by the Istiqlāl party, but under the supreme authority of a king opposed to any kind of socialist revolution as defined and imposed by the leadership of Nasser, Tito, Nehru and other ‘historical’ leaders who met at the famous Bandung Conference of 1955. The spirit of Bandung was an significant reference point for all those who embraced the socialist model of economic and political action as a way of quick deliverance from historical backwardness. The great majority of leading intellectuals, scholars and artists supported the socialist revolution with their works, teaching, militant rhetoric and their strong desire to reach high positions as political decision-makers. Historians, sociologists and political scientists have not yet assessed the negative intellectual and cultural consequences of this massive adhesion to a dogmatic, totalitarian ideology imposed on societies in which peasant cultures, traditional modes of thinking and oral communication were still the norm. That is why I have chosen to concentrate on this neglected aspect of the history of thought in contemporary Islamic contexts. To do this, I had to create methodological and epistemological options in order to conquer new territory not only to explore new fields of meaning, but primarily to initiate new levels and types of understanding of many inherited issues which remain unexamined. Religion, and all matters related to religious life and expression, is one of the most important fields where political and social forces generate a confusing and obscurantist thought which requires the problematisation suggested in my title The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. Islam everywhere has been put under the control of the state (étatisé); but the religious discourse developed by the opposing social forces shifted to a populist ideology which increased the extent of the unthought, especially in the religious, political and legal fields." (2002, pp.10-15).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Psychology of Gratitude in Al-Hamd

To follow up on the excerpt from Hillman's "The Thought of the Heart," it may be useful to ponder some of the ideas mentioned in the Introduction by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, editors of an anthology on "The Psychology of Gratitude":

" A number of contemporary trends have emerged that have helped to make this a propitious time for a volume on gratitude. First, the positive psychology movement (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) has directed attention toward human strengths and virtues - those inner traits and psychological processes that most cultures, philosophies, and religions have commended as qualities that fit people for living in the world. Gratitude is a virtue, the possession of which enables a person to live well, and therefore must receive a hearing in any comprehensive treatment of the topic. The positive psychology movement has also called increased attention to pleasant emotional states or to what Ben Ze'ev (2000) has referred to as the "sweetest emotions": happiness, joy, love, curiosity, hope, and gratitude. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer (1967) wrote, "In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich" (p. 370). Psychologists who have aligned themselves with positive psychology are quite interested in those psychological propensities that lead to a rich life, and several contributors to this volume maintain that gratitude is one of those propensities.

Second, there is a renewed interest among social scientists in people's religious and spiritual lives. The roots of gratitude can be seen in many of the world's religious traditions. Thus, interest in personal manifestations of religion and spirituality may transport the scientist into the realm of gratitude. In the great monotheistic religions of the world, the concept of gratitude permeates texts, prayers, and teachings. The traditional doctrine of God portrays God as the ultimate giver. Upon recognition of God's outpourings of favor, humans respond appropriately with grateful affect, and gratitude is one of the most common emotions that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam seek to evoke and sustain in believers. The Hebrew Bible is replete with the motif that man owes God gratitude for life, health, and sustenance. There are numerous thanksgiving psalms and other prayers in which the person or the community that is praying pours forth expressions of gratitude. In one of the earliest psychological studies of religion, Leuba (1912) characterized gratitude as a religious emotion and a distinguishing mark of religious experience.

Even though gratitude has a clear religious connotation, a distinction can be made between transpersonal gratitude and theistic gratitude. Transpersonal gratitude may be gratefulness to God, or to a higher power, but may also be directed toward the cosmos more generally (Nakhnikian, 1961). It is the gratitude one feels when contemplating a starry sky or a majestic mountain peak. Such a vast thankfulness, Nakhnikian contends, cannot be directed toward a person or even a supernatural agent and occurs in the absence of a belief that a favor has been intentionally conferred upon a person by a benefactor. The spiritual quality of gratitude was aptly conveyed by Streng (1989): "In this attitude people recognize that they are connected to each other in a mysterious and miraculous way that is not fully determined by physical forces, but is part of a wider, or transcendent context" (p.5).

A third factor that makes this a propitious time for gratitude is the resurgent interest in virtue ethics, a subfield of moral philosophy (Hursthouse, 1999; Taylor, 2002). Philosophers have counted gratitude among the most important of the virtues, and as a necessary ingredient for the moral personality. Viewed through the lens of virtue ethics, gratitude is a purely person-to-person phenomena, apart from any reference to the divine. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is seen as a profound moral failure." (2004,pp. 6-7).

~ Excerpted from "The Psychology of Gratitude" Edited by Emmons & McCullough