Thursday, April 1, 2010

Universalism, not pluralism - some thoughts

There is little disputing that we live in a world of many faiths, of many ways and modes of life, practice and doctrinal and truth claims that appear to clash and contradict one another. Far too often identity formation is crystallised in the crucible of conflict and alterity. These traditions of living include not just the Abrahamic faiths that are central to the making of Europe, but other types of theistic and non-theistic belief systems as well as those that mimic or seek to replace religions such as secularism and scientism. The fact of religious diversity and in particular the identity politics and the political theology that arises out of these conflicts seems to pose challenges to people of faith, especially those who make exclusive claims to the truth and salvation of their tradition. The common responses in theology and philosophy of religion to this diversity are threefold relating to both the epistemology of the truth claims articulated in traditions and to the soteriology of the afterlife that many of these faiths postulate. Many conservatives affirm the exclusivism of their faith: it is only the truth claims of their doctrinal system that are valid and only their faith that is salvifically efficacious. Other faiths are false and ineffective (or inefficient) in securing salvation for their believers. In some ways, while this seems an easy option, it is also quite difficult to defend rigorously unless one lowers the threshold of justified belief or warrant for belief for one’s own tradition whilst expecting more of others. Inconsistencies arise and one wonders whether it is easy to separate out a judgment of salvation of the other from one’s ethical stance towards the other. Other theologians posit an inclusivist approach to other faiths: while affirming the truth and salvific efficacy of their own tradition, they allow for the possibility of truth and salvation to pertain to other faiths but in the terms of the faith which they espouse and thus annex the beliefs of others. A common example of this is the notion found in Christianity that non-Christians can be truthful, do good deeds and may even attain salvation because the Holy Spirit may still act through them involuntarily or unwittingly. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not take the truth claims of the other, on their own terms, seriously. Also, exclusivism and inclusivism share the same assumption about the singularity of the truth of one’s own tradition. The third option arising out of Kantian suspicions of exclusive claims and access to truth and direct experience suggests an attitude of pluralism: the multiplicity of faith systems articulate different truth claims and salvific claims that are compatible insofar as we live in a relativistic world in which no one can claim the exclusive access to The Truth. Pluralism therefore suggests that the ontology of religious diversity entails an epistemological and ethical commitment to plurality, not least because it insists that it thus avoids conflict – the historical experience of religiously sanctioned and founded warfare in conflict in Europe is a key determinant in the formation of this position.

The present book under review partly arises out of a pluralist sentiment but influenced by modes of Sufi hermeneutics and perennial approaches to truth and reality argues for a fourth way to respond to religious diversity: universalism of Islam whilst acknowledging its particularism and that of other traditions. Shah-Kazemi’s work is an attempt to draw upon the resources of Sufi scriptural reasoning to produce a rigorous defence of Islam as a privileged and universal tradition that recognises others on their own terms whilst eschewing the three paths of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. He argues that we need to move beyond polemics and diatribes because the Qurʾan itself affirms the truth and message of other prophets (and since every people in the world is considered to have received revelation this amounts to a recognition of their traditions of belief), it affirms the truth and salvation of those who adhere to a minimal belief in the divine and in the afterlife including explicitly non-Muslim categories of believers, it recognises religious diversity as a moral competition in which different people of faith outdo each other in pursuit of good, and it denies that different faiths traditions necessarily clash and that religions lead to warfare. More than this, he critically suggests a move not just against exclusivism but to go beyond pluralism: a pluralistic hermeneutics of the text actually entails the recognition of different interpretations and their validity in their contexts including exclusivist readings. Herein lies one of the key tensions in the work to which I will return.

The book comprises an introduction on the contemporary context we live and dialogue that it entails, four chapters that develop the argument and a short epilogue on the Bosnian ‘model’ of co-existence and the need for us to remember and share good practice. The introduction begins with a recognition that 9/11 has fundamentally changed our world and reoriented people to the Qurʾan to ‘make sense of what happened’. Shah-Kazemi wants to re-appropriate the Qurʾan for spiritual, ethical and universal ends, snatching it away from the clutches of ideology and ‘political’ Islam. This represents a continuity of his traditionalist approach towards spirituality and away from ideology, privileging the immutable and transcendent and placing the transient and modern in its ‘rightful’ place. Consistent with his perennialism, drawing from the thought of Frithjof Schuon is the notion that tolerance and inter-subjectivity need to be founded upon transcendent norms and points of meeting: the ‘true’ religious tradition of Islam is both universal and particular. Clearly, perennialist metaphysics lie at the heart of the ethics, epistemology and even politics that Shah-Kazemi espouses in the work. Since the study involves readings of the Qurʾan, chapter one advocates a Sufi hermeneutics of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (and indeed of the perennialist masters) against the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ offered by the neo-Nietzschean postmodern tradition represented by Derrida and Ricoeur (and some of those influenced by them such as Arkoun). The Sufi tradition is complex, graded and open to the other, embracing the other while articulating its own historical particularity. For Shah-Kazemi, against reform minded Muslim thinkers, traditional hermeneutics does not privilege historical precedents but represents a more rigorous means of understanding the text than postmodern approaches, an ethical defence of tradition that draws upon MacIntyre (but not Gadamer). At the core of Sufi hermeneutics lies taʾwīl and the interpretation of tradition rooted in direct experience, explicitly denied by both Kantians and postmoderns. While one does expect the chapter to provide an exhaustive analysis of comparative hermeneutics (and one expects the author to be selective in favour of his argument), postmodern hermeneutics is given rather short shrift. Derrida is dismissed far too easily and the fruitful approach of Catholic postmodern philosophers such as Richard Kearney, Jean-Luc Marion and John Caputo not engaged at all, figures who have important insights on the nature of faith, encounter, revelation and scripture. In his position that the hermeneutics of Ibn ʿArabī is both inclusive and exclusive, Shah-Kazemi perpetuates the insight of William Chittick in his earlier Imaginal Worlds (SUNY Press, 1994).

Chapter two develops the notion of the encounter with the other rooted in the metaphysics of reality and hermeneutics of Sufism articulated in chapter one. The ontological imperative of the Sufi reading of Islam’s central doctrine of tawḥīd is taken to entail the embrace of the other as part of the whole. One reality suggests the negation of duality and alterity which would raise a problem for dialogue. However, the Sufi tradition does not posit a simplistic, even substantive, monism. The transcendence of God alongside his immanence expressed in the divine names and signs suggest that an unreflective monism would not be a fruitful understanding of tawḥīd. Rather, they point towards a position of seeing the many in light of the one, the idea of a hermeneutics of tashkīk or graded and multiple singularity expressed by the Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā (d. c. 1635). This notion of degrees of reality and degrees of interpretation is implicit in the school of Ibn ʿArabī. Dialogue therefore emerges out of the dynamic between the degrees of reality, and between the ‘faces’ of God, aspects of his majesty and beauty (jalāl, jamāl, yin/yang). Interfaith dialogue is an expression of this metaphysics and transcends the literal contradictions of the differing truth claims of dogmatic theological traditions with respect to reality and the afterlife. The acceptance of the medieval coincidentia oppositorum as a mode of transcending the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction will mean that epistemologists will find it hard to see in this chapter a serious foundation for a universalist and particularist reading of reality.

Chapter three brings the focus to Islam as the religious tradition that makes manifest the insight that God has both an exclusive and inclusive face. Unity and diversity, exclusivity and inclusivity are complicit and not contradictory. This is the principle that Shah-Kazemi calls uniting the contradictories (al-jamʿ bayn al-ḍiddayn). Much of the chapter is taken up with the Sufi exegesis of the religion of God (dīn Allāh) and the linked notion of the faith of the ḥanīf. The distinction is between absolute and particular faith. Shah-Kazemi denounces the vanity of chauvinism that reads a particular Islamic identity into the Qurʾanic text in search of normativity. But that does not preclude reading particularism into universalism. He allows for the distinction in two ways, separating out theological exposition from spiritual vision, and distinguishing the ontological mandate (takwīn) from the normative import (tashrīʿ) of the divine will.

The final chapter entitled dialogue, diatribe or daʿwa engages with intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue and addresses the debate between the universalism of Nasr and the relativistic pluralism of Hick. Upholding the normativity of Islam and denying truth and salvation to others is not compatible. The aim of the universalist in dialogue should be the pursuit of beauty and truth not the triumph of one’s tradition. Universalism, and not triumphalist supercessionism becomes the mission. Along the way, Shah-Kazemi cites two examples in different directions that seem to him wrong-headed: the first if Gavin D’Costa’s Christian exclusivism (having shifted from an earlier inclusivism) based on the need to be true to one’s tradition, and the second is Abdulaziz Sachedina’s embrace of an almost relativistic pluralism in the name of the tradition. For Shah-Kazemi, the actual authority of the traditional Muslim ʿulema lies in the affirmation of beautiful discourse and promotion of a universalism that is respectful of difference. The alternative, as he rightly says, to a dialogue of engaged moral agents seeking the good is bloody and violent conflict. Surrendering Islam to the violent extremists whose theology is rooted in violent exclusivism both intra- and inter-faith is a disaster. The epilogue concludes with Bosnia as an expression of the Sufi universalism espoused torn apart by this very exclusivist conflict.

The Other in the Light of the One is a courageous and thought-provoking deployment of Ibn ʿArabī in a highly relevant context. There are basically two theses: inter-subjective ethics must be predicated on metaphysics and hermeneutics that recognise and enhance universality as well as particularity; and the way out of the exclusivist-inclusivist’s argument about truth and salvation is not to advocate a relativistic, postmodern pluralism but to respect the claims made in pursuit of a universal goal of beauty and the good. He therefore distances himself from the pluralist, but also interestingly and subtly from the perennialist by insisting upon the right for the Muslim universalist to privilege concurrently his own tradition’s truth and salvation. For the perennialist, different paths to truth are parallel and equal from their source to their end, true to their own tradition, its hermeneutics and its ethics. And as we have seen with MacIntyre, such a deployment of tradition is often criticised for lapsing into relativism. Shah-Kazemi’s universalist particularism or particular universalism is a step beyond. The basic question is: does it stand up to scrutiny? The logic of the coincidentia oppositorum would render the book practically meaningless to many in philosophy and to those thinking outside of a scriptural matrix. Will it be meaningful to Muslim readers? The espousal of Akbarian metaphysics and hermeneutics is well and good; however, by permitting particularism within universalism, how can one avoid the flourishing of types of totalising and monopolising exclusivist readings of the Qurʾan that prevail in contemporary Islam, regardless of the existence of open-minded traditional ʿulema whom Shah-Kazemi champions? Finally, why should one pander to the expectations of the post-9/11 world and Muslim ‘scripto-centrists’ who insist that every meaning needs to be extracted directly from the Qurʾan, understood as deracinated text, total, absolute and singular? Surely, the one central feature of ‘traditional Islam’ is a logocentric concern with the deus revelatus in person of the prophet and saint on whose authority the Qurʾan speaks to us, in itself an expression of a Christological idea of revelation?

No comments: