Glen T. Martin
(Presented at conference on “Reconfiguring Interfaith & Intra-faith Understanding” Future of Islam, Aligarth, India, 17 December 2015)
The Unique Selfhood of Islam?
According to wisdom-teacher and scholar of religion, Fritjof Schuon, “Islam is the meeting between God as such and man as such.” God as such is the creator, revealer, the Absolute. Man as such is theomorphic form, transcendent intelligence, and free will. Man is a “dual receptacle made for the Absolute and able to receive “the truth of the Absolute” and “the law of the Absolute.” These “two doctrines” of the Absolute and man are reflected in “the two testimonies of the Islamic faith, the first (Lā ilaha illā ‘ Llāh) concerning God and the second (Muhammadun’ rasūlu ‘ Llāh) concerning the Prophet. Thus Islam embodies “the Truth of the Absolute” and bequeaths to man “the Law of the Absolute” (1986: 13).
The development of human knowledge and scholarship has brought to light among thoughtful people everywhere the apparent fundamental relativity of the perspectives and assumptions behind the world’s great religions. Every religion traditionally assumed that its perspective embraced the truth of the cosmos and our human situation. However, with the development of cross-cultural understanding, comparative religious scholarship, and the accounts of the development of human civilization as a whole, people began to question these claims to exclusive truth and to search for deeper relationships and unity among the great religions of the world.
Obvious similarities and recurrent themes came to light. The astonishing similarity of the claims of mystics from each religion came to light. Comparative studies have been made of the writings of Sufi mystics, Christian mystics, Hindu and Buddhist mystics. Scholars like Fritjof Schuon began to speak of “the transcendental unity of the religions” (1984). Scholars like John Hick (2004) began to use the image of the religions ascending many different paths up the same mountain.
However, there may be a danger in the so-called “deep ecumenism” that sees all the religions as ultimately perspectives on the same divine reality. Are the great religions in the world somehow interchangeable? Are the great religions of the world interchangeable with one another so that ultimately one simply can choose whatever religion one likes according to personal taste? I did not feel that this was true when I worshipped in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul two years ago. Rather, I felt the immense force of the uniqueness of Islam.
I believe that the task of inter-religious dialogue goes deeper than this. It may well be that each of the world’s great religions expresses something about the Absolute, the Divine, that is not translatable nor reducible to the expressions of the other great world religions, something that is vital to be preserved and protected. It may be that something of what is absolutely unique and valuable about Islam is crystalized in the two fundamental testimonies: Lā ilaha illā ‘ Llāh and Muhammadun’ rasūlu ‘ Llāh.
I want to draw an analogy here with some ideas in the study of advanced spirituality that are being developed by the Integral Institute in the United States in collaboration from scholars and visionaries from around the world. One of these thinkers, Marc Gafni, distinguishes our human “egoic self” from our “True Self,” and from our “Unique Self” (2014: 10-11). The egoic self in which a person identifies with his or her unique, selfish interests and lives a life in what some of the great religions called “sin” is almost universally repudiated by these religions, including Islam. Within Islam the priority of the egoic self would appear to be Gahflah, forgetting, and the priority of the five pillars of Islam would appear directed against the perpetual tendencies of the egoic self toward forgetting, heedlessness.
In the process of growth toward spiritual maturity and enlightenment, we move from “egocentric love, care, and concern” to “ethnocentric” love, care, and concern regarding our community and our culture, to “worldcentric” love, care, and concern” for all humanity. A yet higher level of spiritual realization occurs when we move beyond the worldcentric to the “kosmocentric” level of love, care, and concern, or, I might add, in the language of Islam, to a “theocentric level.” The kosmocentric realization is described by Gafni as follows:
At this level of consciousness, you realize that you are an irreducibly unique expression of the love intelligence and love beauty that is the initiating and animating Eros of all-that-is, which lives in you, as you, and through you. The Universe is having a You experience. You are not separate from the Universe at all, even as you are a distinct expression of all-that-is…. The ultimate realization of an expanded state of consciousness is a shift in the understanding of one’s true nature or essential identity, particularly the classical realization that one is not merely a separate self, but a True Self. True Self is the singular that has no plural, the total number of True Selves being one. Unique Self in its fullest expression is the unique perspective of the True Self, and it is, therefore, a fully self-realized state of consciousness. (2014: 11)
The words of Jelaluddin Rumi may express this sense of the True Self:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West….I am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam or Eve or any origin story. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul. (1995: 32)
Such mysticism is an essential component of the stories of all the great world religions. It points us to an ineffable One, to the absolute mystery of God, the Infinite, the Transcendent, a One beyond duality, that can be experienced by Sufis and other mystics.
However, in the language of my recent book One World Renaissance, we know today (so much more clearly than in past centuries when the great religions of the world were founded) that our universe involves an evolutionary holism, emerging from creation with a telos to actualize freedom, self-awareness, love, harmony, justice, and truth. We know today that human life continues to evolve on this planet through ever-greater levels of understanding and consciousness. We know today that everything evolves: from the cosmos itself to galaxies, to planets, to living creatures, to human consciousness emerging into ever-higher levels. Even the great religions of the world are evolving in their self-understandings.
Our “True Self”—the oneness of all persons and things within the vast immanent Infinity by which the being of the world and all creatures hangs by a golden threat suspended from the Absolute—can no longer be considered the end of the matter. The world is not simply an illusion covering this True Self. What is the divine meaning of cosmic evolution? What is the meaning of consciousness growth in our human species? What is the meaning of consciousness growth in each of us as individual persons? We need to take into account not only the divine ground of being but the evolutionary upsurge of being. The universe is not merely the maya proclaimed by some forms of Hinduism, not merely illusion or a magical dream. The universe, as the great Western religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity always insisted, is a created, finite reality with meaning and purpose of its own. Existence is not merely a dream laying over the True Self like silent fog in the early morning hours. Existence is a created reality, and each of us is a very real manifestation of that reality.
As I understand it, Gafni, in the above quote, is bringing these two realizations together, in some respects, with his notion of the Unique Self. The True Self, which is universal and one, is manifested in this concrete embodiment “as a distinct expression of all-that-is.” Each of us is a unique child of the Absolute, a unique perspective of the True Self. We can grow to this advanced level of self-understanding: the True Self manifested as a Unique Self. Perhaps the astonishing testimonies of Islam are pointing to this realization: Lā ilaha illā ‘ Llāh and Muhammadun’ rasūlu ‘ Llāh.
It may be that each of the great world religions could be envisioned as an expression of some aspect the unique selfhood of the True Self as manifested in a culturally formed and uniquely historically manifested Unique Self. It may be that Islam points to the unique integrity of human selfhood understood as theomorphic, understood as the evolving Kosmos come to consciousness of itself in the uniqueness of theomorphic personhood, a personhood not diminished by some original sinfulness or incapacity, but theomorphically structured with a transcendental intellect that can recognize the truth of the divine and the law of the divine. In my view, one aspect of interreligious dialogue should be to explore such possibilities.
But how to bring the “Unique Selfhood” of Islam to the world? Our world is rife with fundamentalism within all religious traditions that insist on the absolute incommensurability of their views. Our world is divided into giant corporate power centers using their wealth and privilege to exploit the poor, maximize profits for themselves, and commodify all human relationships into inhuman monetary interactions. And, third, our world is divided into some 193 militarized nation-states locked in an unending cycle of collective egoism, violence, destruction, fear, and animosity. Fundamentally these three things (fundamentalism, multinational corporations, and militarized sovereign nation-states) have locked the contemporary world into a nightmare of chaos, violence, injustice, commodification, poverty, and misery.
There can be no renaissance for Islam, nor for humanity, within this sort of worldwide corruption and disintegration. Our planet and its citizens sink ever-deeper into perdition, poverty, climate collapse, and the threat of apocalyptic nuclear wars. In order to foster a renaissance for Islam, we must make possible a renaissance for all humanity. In the early 21st century we now understand that it must be everyone or it will be no one. We are all human beings living on this planet together and we must act together to save our present world from disaster and to create a viable world system for future generations to inherit. We must ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
Fostering a Paradigm-shift through the Earth Constitution
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth was written by hundreds of world citizens, working through a drafting committee of 25 scholars, over a period of 23 years from 1968 to 1991. It was brilliantly written to promote a planetary framework of unity in diversity and to guarantee all persons the right to live in peace and brotherhood on the Earth. The Constitution proclaims that the people of Earth are sovereign and that the non-military government must serve the common good of all persons, a common good that includes military disarmament and preservation of our planetary ecology.
In his book, Islamic Jurisprudence: An International Perspective, C.G. Weeramantry (former Supreme Court Judge in Sri Lanka and later Judge on the International Court of Justice at the Hague) attests that the concept of Shari’a is larger than a mere legal system. The Shari’a embraces religious duties, “cult and ritual,” as well as legal rules in the narrower sense. (1999: 1). Concerning the Islamic concept of law, however, this book also reproduces “the farewell sermon of the Prophet Mohammad at Arafat.” Weeramantry correctly comments on this sermon that the Prophet affirms a universalism or brotherhood of humankind under God: free of racism, domination, exploitation, or degradation. (Ibid. 62).
Weeramantry’s book also reproduces the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights formulated by the Islamic Council of Europe in 1981. On the basis of the Qur’an and the tradition of Islam, this document details universal human rights to life, freedom, equality, justice, a fair trial, protection against abuse of power, protection against torture, protection of honor and reputation, rights of minorities, right to participate in public affairs, the right to freedom of belief, thought, and speech, right to freedom of religion, the right to free association, and the right to a just and equitable economic order (ibid. 178-180).
The set of rights articulated in this Universal Islamic Declaration is astonishingly similar to the rights specified in Articles 12 and 13 of the Earth Constitution. This Constitution provides a framework by which human beings can overcome today’s threefold corruptions of fundamentalism, militarized sovereignties, and corporate capitalism. It establishes a social democracy for the Earth in which “the earth’s total resources shall be equitably used for human welfare,” in which peace and disarmament are established and protected by enforceable laws, and in which the fear, hate, and ignorance behind all forms of fundamentalism can be lifted through universal education and a transparently just and enlightened world system.
Of special note is the creation by the Earth Constitution of a planetary public banking system that will foster practices of universal commercial integrity and actualize the Qur’anic proscription against usury (Qur’an II: 278-9). Like the maintenance of public roads on behalf of the common good of society, the Earth Financial Administration under the Earth Constitution will maintain global public banking for the common good of the people of Earth, either eliminating interest or reducing interest to a bare minimum to cover the administrative costs of making loans that promote innovation, job creation, ecological regeneration, and human welfare in general (Article 8.7). Multinational corporations will be controlled by law and their operations directed to the service of humanity and not the private wealth of the one percent. And the nation-states will be disarmed by law, leaving the administration and enforcement of laws to the civilian world police who are themselves required to obey the law.
A world of brotherhood will emerge premised explicitly on the constitutional principle of unity in diversity and making possible a spiritual renaissance for humanity. As the Islamic tradition understands so well, I believe, the legal and the spiritual dimensions of human life are dialectically intertwined. If we can establish a global legal system that protects freedom, peace, justice, and sustainability, this in itself will foster the spiritual dimension in which people recognize their theomorphic structure and begin to live their lives ever-more fully in in the light of God. In his book, Creating a Future Islamic Civilization, professor Rashid Shaz declares:
A true Islamic civilization is neither eastern nor western, neither Arab, nor Chinese or Indian but an authentic amalgam of all believing nations, comprising all colours and races, an international brotherhood or sisterhood of submitters. In Islam there is no male and female, no black and no white, no easterner and no westerner but only the awakened and the spiritually dead. And it is the duty of the awakened souls to bring the dead to life…. We Muslims do not claim monopoly on submission although we are aware of our very unique position as upholders of the Last Revelation. (2008: 10-11)
In my view, the Unique Selfhood of Islam absolutely needs to be expressed within the on-going dialogue of human civilization and interfaith understanding. What Islam has to teach us is unique and vitally necessary within the evolutionary upsurge of the human spirit. Those who know “submission” (el-Islam) must show us what both submission and “standing upright” symbolically mean: standing upright with the courage and integrity to recognize our theomorphic structure that can serve as the dual receptacle for the “truth of the Absolute” and the “law of the Absolute.”
Only democratic world law under the Earth Constitution will make this contribution of Islam possible, and the support of Muslims for the Earth Constitution will speak volumes about the Islamic understanding of the need for universal law, universal brotherhood, and the unity in diversity of all the world’s citizens. May our True Selves (the oneness of all humanity) be expressed in our Unique Selves, so that we may live as theomorphic expressions of the kosmos and the divine Absolute.
Gafni, Marc (2014). Self in Integral Evolutionary Mysticism: Two Models and Why They Matter. Tucson, AZ: Integral Publishers.
Hick, John (2004). An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2016). One World Renaissance: Holistic Planetary Transformation Through a Global Social Contract. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Rumi, Jelaluddin (1995). The Essential Rumi. Coleman Barks and John Moyne, trans. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Schuon, Frithjof (1986). Understanding Islam, London: Unwin Paperbacks.
Shaz, Rashid (2008). Creating a Future Islamic Civilization, New Delhi: Milli Publications.
Weeramantry, C.G. (1999). Islamic Jurisprudence: An International Perspective. Sri Lanka: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha.