By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
14 Dec 2018
Rival Truths or Points of View in Religions and Sects
To the less informed the conflicting claims of religions and sects of religions or philosophy and religion appear as real battles over conflicting truths. The situation has been captured thus by Mark Twain: “Man is the Religious Animal. . . . He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbour as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.” Umberto Eco has pointed out that we should fear “those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.” Could it be the case that apparently or obviously conflicting claims are not conflicts between rival saving truth claims but mostly political conflicts or reflect our situatedness and it is indeed impossible to avoid presuppositions and undesirable to wish away divergence of temperaments and cultures? Could we, as great number of towering figures in the study of religion and philosophy suggest, better investigate such conflicts on the pattern of conflict between languages/points of view?
Pascal has suggested an exit out of conflicting truth claims by stating that “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.” Shia and Sunni, Vedantic and Sankhyaic/Nyayic/Mimamsic/Yogic/Vaisheshikic, Thervadic and Mahayanic, Confucian and Taoist and other divisions in integral traditions on the one hand and Semitic and non-Semitic religious and Hellenistic and Hebraistic or Greek and Judeo-Christian-Islamic religio-philosophical perspectives on the other, may be better understood as mutually compatible on essentials and we better study divergence in religions and philosophies on the patterns that don’t miss underlying unity at transcendent plane.
It is usually assumed that we are required to choose between divergent views as divergent truths and as such must take sides as if we have to choose particular philosophy/religion the way we choose particular persons/parties by voting one only. And it is in the name of philosophy/philosophers/religions that we are told that we have to vote some out. Although certain influential philosophers/theologians have thought this way and sermons are mostly campaigns for particular positions, we can think in a radically different way. My point is we may speak of essential agreement between philosophers and religions on points that ultimately matter (it is an academic point that research can adjudicate and not an essential constituent of any theology necessarily) and then appreciate certain differences between them and our task is not choosing between rival views but between faith (Iman) and infidelity (Kufr) or gratitude and ingratitude or wisdom/knowledge against ignorance – the binaries that are universally invoked by traditions.
All philosophers are essentially inviting us not to their views but to philosophy, to love of wisdom/ pursuit of critical reason and our claim to be lovers of wisdom is /will be tested by how seriously we take the gift of intelligence or tasks of thinking /contemplation (Tafakkur/Tadabbur) and necessary ethical discipline (documented, for instance, in Hadot’s work) predisposing one/required for the task. And religions, at a higher or deeper plane of which their sages (Hukama/imams) as custodians of prophetic traditions, invite us not to their specific constituencies but to the Absolute/Godhead, to the authority of conscience/heart/Spirit/Self/Logos/Nomos. It is not to their respective books per se but to the transcendent author of the books, not to particular theologies and rituals but to underlying metaphysical truth/sanctity that we are invited. We are invited to submit to nothing but Truth whatsoever that is and in whatever quarter/culture it may be found or in the dialogue or encounter with the other or in every experience including silence or sleep and to take heed of signs scattered everywhere within and without.
Few Muslim scholars – not to speak of laity – know that Islamic understanding of the station of Hakeem (sage), like the Islamic doctrine of prophets, requires that all Hukama agree with one another and with the prophets. On our way home we encounter many teachers or guides asking us to stick to certain path (in fact the shortest/most suitable one) so that we reach destination/home. These guides (prophets) have been speaking one language of the Self though under different guises to help divergent travelers on the path. One may read W. W. Quinn’s The Only Tradition, W. N. Perry’s A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, M Ali Lakhani’s The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom or Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din’s The Underlying Religion to examine how convincingly these points regarding agreement between prophets and sages have been argued. Though it is believed that wisdom is a lost treasure of the believer, few think that they need to search for it or it may be lost treasure. All that we need is using the language of thought or grammar of religion carefully to examine real agreement in “deep structure” while differences in “surface structure.” The question is of identifying the Langue/D-structure and who else than a sage can do it for any tradition or all traditions?
Disagreements are there, as there are in different grammars/languages, but they don’t impinge on the function of communicating saving truths if we agree that missions of prophets have not been vain or they have succeeded in being accessible to countless people of all nations especially many non-Asian cultures and that salvation is dependent on submission to truth, correct use of intelligence and virtues or as the Quran puts it Iman and Amal-Salih. The Prophet embodies the Logos and invitation to prophets corresponds to the invitation to the immanent Logos. Revelation itself is best understood as “objectivation of transcendent intellect.” The compelling claim of Revelation can’t but be rooted in the depths of our being/intellect. A few more points to clarify the points made here.
Koufman in his introduction to Religion from Tolstoy to Camus suggests an ideal worthy of consideration:
“If a demon came to me and offered me, without exacting any price, that all of mankind might accept my faith, my views, my standards, I should not even be tempted. Demon, I might say, I have no wish for mankind to conform to any single faith or set of views or standards; but if you are intent on granting me such a great favor, make men's disagreements more responsible and more humane. Cure their brutal want of intellectual imagination; give them more curiosity about the feelings, thoughts, and sufferings of their fellow men. Increase their humbition (the rare fusion of ambition with humility and humour) and their courage, love, and honesty. Then, instead of accepting my views, they will point out my mistakes to me, while also learning from me about some of their errors, and we shall all become better men.”
The plea that we must turn to faith/revelation can’t absolve us of need to think and to keep debating and questioning certain interpretations of scripture. Koufman further elaborates:
“If we discard our reason, mortify our understanding, and take leave of our senses, how can we be sure that what we accept is the word of God? The mere fact that something is presented to us as the word of God is clearly insufficient. One has only to write an article on matters of religion in a popular magazine to be swamped with letters, little pamphlets, and big books that claim to offer nothing less than God’s own truth; but, alas, they are far from agreeing with each other. . . . How are we to choose if evidence and reason are thrown out of court? “
To the oft rehearsed question regarding what to do in any given situation, the following dialogue quoted in Buber’s classic The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism may be recalled: “The Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin ‘Show me one general way to the service of God. The zaddik replied ‘It is impossible to tell men what way they should take. For one way to serve God is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting, and still another through eating. Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this way with all his strength.’ The Prophet of Islam (S.A.W) has given voice to the old maxim of living according to our conscience. Abhinav Gupta has famously advocated following one’s heart. No traditional teacher disagrees with the Middle Path preached by both prophets and philosophers.
“All men are granted what is needed for knowing oneself and sane thinking” noted Heraclitus. Kauffman alerts us to the possibility that “through the painful discovery that even very great men have been guilty of egregious errors, we learn that the chances are that we ourselves, even when very confident that we are right, may overestimate our case. Constant contact with minds greater than our own is humbling; constant reminders of their shortcomings, doubly so. Moreover, it is difficult to recognize one’s own mistakes. They are much more easily recognized when one encounters them in someone else’s prose. Dissatisfied with oneself, one becomes a seeker. Difficulty becomes a challenge and delight; critical thinking, a way of life.”
Imagine if there are diseases and people refuse to see or honour doctors. “Socrates and Plato compared the philosopher to a physician. One might add that one of the functions of philosophy is to inoculate men against bigotry, inhumanity, and propaganda by teaching them to think carefully, conscientiously, and critically. Commonly, people think of philosophy as a quest, however ill advised, for truth. John Dewey called it the quest for certainty. But it is more illuminating to say that, at its best, philosophy is the quest for honesty.”
It is the function of critical reason to settle disputes between rival understandings such as that of factions of Tableeghi Movement and if we don’t respect the only court - Reason – we have, we are bound to endlessly argue and dispute and may even use violence.