Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Our Imperfect Perspective Truth - Hassan Radwan

This is the third piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan. 

How far humanity has evolved and progressed since we climbed down from the trees in the primordial forests, is a matter of debate. One look around the world will tell you we are without doubt the most violent and destructive animals on this planet. We are obsessed with tribalism, squabbles over territory, power and driven by greed and selfishness. But we have made a lot of progress in some areas. Humans are also capable of magnificent acts of love and altruism that restore ones faith. We have made huge advances in technology and science - not all used for good - but many that have helped us to understand and organise our lives better. To care for the weak, oppressed and vulnerable. We have reached broad agreement on things like human rights, justice, equality and many ethical and moral issues - even if we don't always live up to them. We are a species capable of the most astounding and moving works of art, literature and music. But if there's one sphere that has sadly continued to lag behind I would argue it is the sphere of religion. We still cling to very tribalistic, literalist and exclusivist forms of religion.

I completely understand man's urge to answer the age old questions of why we are here? Where did we come from? What is our purpose? It is the inevitable existential crisis arising from the human condition. Reaching out to invisible gods and imagining on an abstract and metaphysical level is something that has marked man out as unique from the other animals and, despite the bloodshed and division religion has undoubtedly brought, it has also been a tremendous motivator and solution to man's existential crisis. Driving mankind to great works of charity, love and civilisation building not to mention art, music and all the creative disciplines. It gives us meaning, direction, comfort and solace in a world where our nature desires something more than the material and mundane mechanics of merely existing. But religion’s strength is also its weakness. Although most religions at first can be dynamic and revolutionary helping bring about change and innovation, they slowly fall behind and eventually become reactionary and resistant to change and innovation.

I come from a Muslim background. My father from Egypt my mother an English convert. For most of my life I was a fairly traditional Muslim. Never extreme, but pretty orthodox. I taught in an Islamic school, attended and led Islamic circles and wrote books for Muslim children. Yet my conscience began to feel very uncomfortable when coming across verses of Qur'an and Hadith that reflected a narrow, exclusive mentality. A supremacist ideology that was out of step with the way humanity was evolving or striving towards.

Today we live in a pluralistic world that is interconnected and dependent on each other. We can no longer remain isolated nor maintain such exclusivity, the old: “I'm right, you're wrong, you're going to Hell,” mentality.

The Qur'an says:

“We made you nations and tribes that you may get to know one another.”

Yes, let us celebrate our differences. No one wants to live in some sort of “Stepford Wives” or “Big Brother” dimension where we all think and act the same. It's our differences that make life interesting and challenging. But let's not allow them to be a cause for backwardness, division and bloodshed.

In respect of my own religion, Islam, that means taking a more universalistic and inclusive approach. One that allows us to enjoy our traditions, our forms of reaching out to an invisible God, but does not deny nor reject the validity of other religions or paths that have no religion. Let us enjoy this holy month of Ramadan together while recognising that when we reach out to God in the ways we have been taught and are accustomed to, that there are many other paths and many other ways of finding ones way through life. Different ways doesn't mean wrong ways, because truth is often relative. How we perceive it is subject to our perspective, context, environment and a hundred and one other factors. As the Greek philosopher Protagoras, said:

"Of all things the measure is Man."

In other words truth as we human beings perceive it is relative to individual experience, judgement and interpretation. So yes, there can be many ways and it doesn't mean they are wrong or misguided or bound for Hell. Yes, it can be relative. It doesn't mean absolute truth doesn't exist, but only that from our imperfect perspective truth can be relative, elusive and amorphous. God is beyond human reason and logic so we cannot be dogmatic and insistent about metaphysical truths. We cannot insist that our way is the only true way. But rather celebrate our ways and customs as part of humanities patchwork quilt that adds joy, colour and variety to our lives as one human race.

Hassan Radwan founded the Agnostic Muslims and Friends group on Facebook and runs the blog Agnostic Muslim Khutbahs. He spent 15 years as a teacher at the Islamia Primary School in London and has written four books for Muslim children as well as translating the book “My Ordeal with the Qur’an” from Arabic to English. He is a graduate of SOAS — his specialist subject was Qur'anic commentary and Pre-Islamic poetry.

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