Pluralism, Tolerance and Peace – A Sufi’s Understanding of Modern Life

On Monday, Kuch Khaas hosted a talk on Sufism and Pluralism as part of its lecture series on Islam. This lecture holds great importance because in recent times, we have witnessed an upsurge in intolerant behavior amongst people in general, and amongst violent groups in particular. Even though it would be tempting to identify certain individuals and groups who are intolerant, it is important to study this phenomenon objectively in order to gain true insight into the matter – and to study the ways and means available to decrease this quantum of intolerance in Pakistani society at large. Thus, it is of greater importance to study the roots of this divisiveness within mankind today, and to understand the truth of unity and of oneness which is the crucial foundation of being and manifestation.

The talk was given by Naila Tiwana, a practicing Sufi and student of Islam who follows the Chishtiyya Sufi Order and the teachings and scruples of Hazrat Inayat Khan. In her long yet enticing and mesmerizing talk, she explained to the audience the various features of Sufi belief and learning, and connected them from the metaphysical plane of understanding to the real as well as apparent planes of the ‘real world’ that we live in and interact with on a daily basis – she further connected the teachings of the Sufi sages with concepts that allow understanding of intolerance, the roots and basis of intolerant behaviour, and whether Islam preaches intolerance or pluralism. It was indeed an interactive and lively discussion with respect to the Sufi perspective on the traditions of pluralism in Islam. Ms. Tiwana dealt at length with the concepts of tolerance, of being Muslim, and of accepting the other. She elaborated at length on the spiritual and metaphysical definition of the self and the other, and on the meaning of being Muslim with specific relevance to tolerance.

There has to be a greater context of intolerance that allows spurts of its concentrated expression now and then and here and there. On the one hand there is a noticeable movement towards expansion and thus inclusion such as through the manifestation of the spirit of globalization which has occurred as a result of the growing political, social, economic, environmental and scientific understanding of the holistic nature of life. Everything and everyone is interconnected in a way that may be mystically described as a huge energetic network of subtle waves that constantly interweave with each other to maintain the web of our existence. Nothing and no one exists or can exist in isolation.

To be caught in the contradictions of apparent multiplicity is to lose track of the essential unity behind all existence. Sufiism trains the consciousness of a tasawwuf to function in a radically different way than that of a normal human being – the movement of thought is from the ‘outer’ to the ‘inner’. Tasawwuf is thus the esoteric dimension of religious understanding. Sufiism is centered on the reality of things more than on their appearances. This allows for following a sequence of progression from thing, to its thought, to ultimately its reality – which exists independently of our psychological realm.

Good, in its truest essence, can only be found beyond human subjectivity because the latter always remains prisoner to relativity. To understand how all good comes from God and how evil besets man only from his own doing, one must understand the intricate nature of the unity of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum); the ‘coming together’ of opposites. Opposing divine qualities all dissolve into a singular divine essence. While this ‘war of opposites’ was necessary for Manifestation to occur, the objective of human consciousness is the realization of unity behind the apparent contradiction of things. This unity can only be understood or arrived at by a transcendence of the subjective self, which is what Sufiism attempts to teach.

Human beings can change the way they perceive situations by shifting the frame they put around them; instead of seeing things from a personal and selfish vantage point, the Sufi sees them from a singular, ‘divine’ viewpoint. Good and evil divide the world, but the Sufi learns to see the world without the lens of divisive judgment through the single eye of Gnostic knowing.
Rumi says “each opposite inflicts reciprocal annihilation upon its opposite; when opposition disappears, subsistence alone remains. Colourlessness is the root of all colour; peace the root of all wars”. Thereby, opposing elements fall into place and come together into one single essence.

Instead of facing – or being faced with – a clash of civilizations, what we see is a clash of the uncivilized. Conflict is the by-product of the limited selfish self, one which has lost the culture of modern reasonableness. For the Sufi, modern reasonableness, called ‘murawwa’ in Arabic, is an essential element for the Pure and Right Faith: the faith mentioned in the Quran as suprahistorical; the belief of all the Prophets of God, exemplified in the model set forth by Prophet Abraham (AS). This is the modern reasonableness of a religiously cultured monotheism, and allows one to transcend the selfish being of solitary progress at the expense (or elimination) of the other.

The sages have said that God will open His Door to you if you become pure, not virtuous; virtue is bound to the ego and thus to the errors of duality. Purity is uncontaminated from the pollution of duality, free from virtue and vice, neither black nor white; only pure consciousness. Monotheism is reflective of this essential unity of existence. However, this unity is not necessarily uniformity; to construe it as such would lead to losing the natural human disposition towards harmonization, reconciliation, integration, and thereby, peace. Peace as Islam is understood as tranquil and willful surrender to God, Who is the Great Organizer of Design.

The recent upsurge in intolerance, which we have all witnessed in all its forms and ramifications, points us to a greater and graver rift – or tearing apart – in human consciousness. It is the spirit of divisiveness that has come to rule our consciousness, impelling us to hold prejudices of superiority over the other, and referring to the other in derogatory terms only to prove one’s own misplaced and misjudged worth. The conflict that we see today is not simply the immorality of our deeds in terms of the prohibited and the permissible; rather, this lawfulness and unlawfulness of deeds itself flows from the principle of the fundamental violation of existential unity. The sense of superiority, or ‘kibr’, is at the apex of this violation, and this primal corruption is the heritage of the Satanic spirit since it arose within the consciousness of Iblees at the time of Adam’s creation. This complex of superiority – or being inherently better than the other – is found amongst us as individuals and as groups. It corrupts people to the extent that they think of themselves and their deeds as just and sacrosanct, not open to question, even though they are founded within this perverted essence of superiority that violates the peace and stability fundamental to the core of human existence and human consciousness.

The cancer that ails human consciousness originates from the ideas of divisiveness and intolerance. Like a cancerous growth, the idea of exclusive superiority grows and transforms into a megalomaniacal, imperialistic drive to devour the other; to force the whole world into submission to one’s own way of thinking. Xenophobia and its dastardly crimes have no place in the religion of Islam – the Quran repeatedly exhorts mankind to live a life of harmony, peace, and with mutual respect. The Quran celebrates diversity in mankind, rather than forcing a version or brand of uniformity over all mankind (those who subscribe to it as well as those who do not). To know one another and to acknowledge the richness and greatness of divine infinitude would thus be the ultimate objective of humanity.

Diversity should not lead to fragmentation and division – in fact, it is part of Allah’s unity and an element of the richness of His Being as exhibited to mankind. As created by Allah, human beings are free to either actualize the good within them, or to fall prey to the hideous calling of superiority and aggrandizement of one over the other, which represents the ultimate corruption of the soul.

At the end, we are free to be what we want to be: to adopt a pluralistic religious ideology in life and in practice is of paramount importance not just to all humanity, but especially to all Muslims today, who are torn apart by divisions and divisiveness – which they are both subject to and vulnerable to, and which betray the fundamental fabric of Creation and Manifestation.