Religion is about compassion, the golden rule, about reaching out to other communities – Karen Armstrong
“Religion is not a doctrine, not an obligatory belief, not violence. Religion is about compassion, the golden rule, about reaching out to other communities,” This was stated by Karen Armstrong, writer and broadcaster, who was speaking on the topic ‘What is religion?’ as part of the Special Lecture Series, organised by Aga Khan University, Karachi.
Armstrong started by explaining the nature of religion, as it emerged during “The Axial Age” (c.900 to 200 BCE), when many of the spiritual traditions came into being or had their roots in. Religions such as Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all secondary flowerings of this original spiritual transformation, she said.
Elaborating upon the concept of God, she said that the major spiritual disciplines agree that God is indescribable, ineffable with silence being the only befitting tribute to the comprehension of God, which can be likened to some degree to the silence of breathless appreciation that ensues at the end of the rendition of a great poem, symphony or performance. “The axial age sages believed that if you think you had defined God, you let God down to a human system of thought,” she said. She said that any attempt to define God must have two characteristics: one is that it should be paradoxical as God cannot fit into any definition by humans; secondly, it should lead to a silence – a speechless adoration.
She highlighted how today religion is often associated with dogmatism and has become cause for strife, conflict and some of the worst catastrophes of our time. She said that dogmatism results from ego which “is the great enemy of spiritual life.” Traditions of Islam like prostration demand abject surrender of the ego, in order to achieve the ecstasy of stepping out of the mundane, into the divine company. This ecstasy is the goal of all spiritual movements, she stated. Elaborating on the concept of ecstasy, she said it is achieved by defeating the ego and embracing compassion which literally means ‘to feel with the others.’ She claimed that this is the ‘bedrock of spirituality.’
Explaining the idea of compassion, she said that “You dethrone yourself from the centre of your life and put another, see someone else as sacred. Absolute compassion leads to constant ecstasy.” Citing examples and quotes from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Prophet Ibrahim (SAW), Jesus (SAW), Buddha and Confucius, she demonstrated the concept of compassion which involves reaching out to others, empathising, and looking out for others beyond oneself. She said that the essence of Quran was a command of constantly treating others with compassion and empathy.
She further said that the West has a huge lesson to learn and see the spirit of Islam which revolves around the idea opf compassion. The golden rule “do not do to others what you would not have done to you” should be applied globally. ‘‘What the world needs now is compassion. We need to go to the core, and discover the spirit central to all religions and traditions,” she concluded.
Writer and broadcaster Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun in the 1960s, but then left her teaching order in 1969 to go to Oxford to study Literature. She now regularly appears on radio and television to comment on religious affairs in England and the United States, is a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers and periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic and is a regular columnist for the Guardian newspaper.
Since September 11th, however, she has become chiefly known for her work on Islam and Fundamentalism, particularly in the United States. She has addressed members of the United States Congress on three occasions, has participated in the World Economic Forum in New York and Davos, and was one of three scholars invited to speak in the United Nations in the first session ever devoted to religion in that body. She has recently been appointed to the United Nations initiative “The Alliance of Civilizations”.
AKU’s Special Lecture Series programme is a part of its policy of encouraging broad-based education in which eminent personalities are invited to illuminate the University’s constituencies on meaningful and engaging topics of public interest. Past speakers have included H.R.H. Prince Hasan of Jordan; Professor Stanley Wolpert (author of ‘Jinnah of Pakistan’), Ambassador Dr Maleeha Lodhi, art educator Salimah Hashmi, renowned poet Ahmad Faraz and acclaimed artist Gulgee.
Letters to Editor – Daily Times Pakistan
Karen Armstrong in Pakistan
Sir: It was really good to see Karen Armstrong in Pakistan for a special series of lectures entitled “Alliance of religions and inter-faith dialogue” arranged by Aga Khan University Karachi. Karen, a scholar of theology and author of more than fifteen books, she has outspoken views on religion and is an exponent of Islamic values. She is a bridge builder and promoter of three faiths: Islam, Judaism, Christianity. There is dire need of scholars and philosophers of theology like Karen to play a therapeutic role in a world where a clash between civilizations and faiths is emerging. In Pakistan, there is need for such scholars with a global vision especially in terms of religion, an issue of great contention and misunderstanding. Fundamentalism can surely be conquered by people like Armstrong who can reach out to the people and talk about the similarities between religions. Perhaps someone can work on translating her works and lectures into Urdu so that the common Pakistani can access them.