Charter for Compassion

If religion interests you at all, then you’ll appreciate this interview with Karen Armstrong. It’s this week’s Bill Moyers Journal episode, and I found a lot of truth in it. You may find portions disagreeable to you, to which I say: take the good and investigate the bad…or ignore the objectionable altogether.

Parts I found interesting:

BILL MOYERS: One of your peers, a friend of mine, the scholar of religion Elaine Pagels told me many years ago in an interview like this that, “There is practically no religion I know of,” she said, “that sees other people in the way that affirms the other’s choice.”

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. And this is a great scandal. There used to be. Islam, for example, the Koran is a pluralistic document. It says that every rightly guided religion comes from God. And there must be no compulsion in religion. And it says that Muhammad [sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam] has not come to cancel out the teachings of Jesus [alayhis salaam] or Moses [alayhis salaam] or Abraham [alayhis salaam].

Now, Muslims have fallen into the trap that Jews, Christians, and others have done, of thinking that they are the one and only. This is ego. This is pure ego.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s inspired, is it not sanctified by religion?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, no, I mean, the idea is that you all have to be Muslim, is actually going against the explicit teaching of the Koran, in which God says to Muhammad [sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam], “If we”– using the royal we – “had wanted the whole of mankind to be in one single religious community, we would have achieved, we would have made that happen. But we did not so wish. This is not our desire. So you, Muhammad [sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam], leave them alone.” And everybody says the Koran has their own din [deen]. Their own religious tradition, their own way of life.

Now, this is getting lost to the modern world. But that was also Muslim practice for the first 100 years after the death of the prophet [sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam] when in the empire that they created, conversion to Islam was actually frowned upon. Because Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians and, later, Buddhists, had their own din, their own religion. And that was to be respected.

And this:

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. and also, from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, “I would really hate to be your enemy,” because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.

I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the “science of compassion.” There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.

And Latin–the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn’t look on this in a superior way and look at the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a 14th century text as, poor soul. You know?

And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.

And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn’t any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations-

BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I’ve heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, “I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?”

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, “This is all rubbish.” You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn’t know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.

It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It’s a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn’t mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means– ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it’s ego that hold us back from what we call God.

And this:

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Okay. Not to treat other nations or other… in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: Unless they’ve attacked you.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Even so, I mean, there was a chance after 9/11, you know, when something different would have been done. The religions have generally developed, as the Koran does, a theory of just war. You know? That you can fight only in self defense. But a lot of the policies that we created helped to, you know, first of all, let’s leave America out of this. Look at the British, and their colonial policies.

Many of the problems we face in the Muslim world date back to that colonial period, to British behavior, and arrogance, and the abuse of democracy. For example, in Egypt, between 1922, when Egypt was granted a modicum of independence, and 1952, when you have the Nasser revolution. There were 17 general elections in the country.

All of them won hands down by the Wafd party, who wanted to see reduced British influence in Egypt. They were only allowed to rule five times. On every other occasion, the British made them stand down and put more congenial people in power. This made the whole idea of democracy a bad joke. Now, would we wish to be treated like that ourselves?

Basically, I enjoyed the whole thing, and rather than write down what I liked in my own words, I decided to not reinvent the wheel and just be lazy. Watch the video, you won’t be wasting your time. InshaAllah 🙂


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6 Responses to Charter for Compassion

  1. r1 says:

    Thanks for sharing this

  2. Digital Jewel says:

    “Now, Muslims have fallen into the trap that Jews, Christians, and others have done, of thinking that they are the one and only. This is ego. This is pure ego.”
    Oh pshh.

    “But that was also Muslim practice for the first 100 years after the death of the prophet [sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam] when in the empire that they created, conversion to Islam was actually frowned upon.”
    Huh? It wasn’t frowned upon. I wonder how she came to that conclusion. Just because they were allowed to pay jizya and be protected by the Islamic state, doesn’t mean their reversion would be frowned upon. 😕

  3. Pshh indeed. Our religion is the one and only, and blessed we are to be Muslims. Perhaps she meant those Muslims who think they are granted instantaneous heaven no matter what they do because they are Muslim. Or perhaps her words are vague enough to sound good to a wide variety of people.
    It’s perhaps a cleverer, more insidious form of Orientalism. Good to pay attention to, and definitely not worth discarding, or conversely, embracing, out of hand. It reinterprets things to make Muslims feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves, our history, and our deen, and also perhaps gives non-Muslims a more educated, enlightened, and non-threatening way of approaching us. Wolf in sheep’s clothing approach, if you will. Definitely a strategy worth paying attention to.

  4. Hey salaams!

    Thanks for sharing this – this is very refreshing.

    One consistent theme which I totally agree with, and I guess is true to a large extent is that Islam as a religion is so tollerant, especially in areas of Da’wah. Da’wah is an invitation to Islam and at no point talks about converting a person. However, the way people interpret this is so bad.

    You know there was a homecoming parade for a certain bunch of soldiers in Luton (a town not far from London), and a bunch of muslim guys (about 50 or so) were protesting against the troops and holding banners of war criminals and words to that effect. The point is that they were seeking attention, and their actions are reflected upon religion.

    The ego factor is HUGE! Too many of us believe in being experts in our religion, but we hardly scratch the surface. I hope and pray people listen and learn to be patient, and I guess accept people and cultures around them.

  5. Cookie Monster, Wasalaam 🙂 Yes, the ego factor does drive a lot of our interactions with everyone around us. And nowhere is it faster apparent than in discussions of religion. The worst thing is that, not being experts, we can often do more damage by trying to explain things we really don’t understand all that well. And additionally, we may not have the right tools with which to convey our knowledge in a way that people with no clue can understand. And of course, ego, being what it is, prevents us from seeing where we are going wrong, and only lets us see where everyone else is going wrong.

    I am so guilty of this. 😳 I better stop now.

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