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The metaphysics of interfaith dialogue: sufi perspectives on the universality of the Qur'anic message

Mar 26, 2010, 12:29 PM | Article By: Alhaji Ousman M. Jah


The Quran as the final and ultimate revelation is unique among the revealed books of the world in the explicit manner in which it refers not only to dialogue between adherents of different regions, but also to the divine ordainment of religious diversity. In its terminal role and as a 'Summing up,' the various religions paths are presented in the Qur'anic discourse as so many outwardly divergent facets of a single, universal revelation by the unique and indivisible Absolute for the one common spirit found in all men. This comprehensive paper is a presentation of the key verses relating to this theme from a particular point of view, that adopted by those most steeped in the spiritual and mystical tradition of Islam. The Sufis or the 'urafa.'

Keywords: Interfaith Dialogue, Sufi exegesis, ta'wil of the Qur'an, Transcendent Unity of Religions Universality, Universal Islam, world religions, religious unity, world peace, metaphysics, Islam and religious pluralism, Dialogue between Civilizations.

Truly those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans-whoever believeth in God and the last Day and performeth virtuous deeds-surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. (Qur'an 2:62)

This paper is focused upon the Quran as a source of inspiration for interfaith dialogue. The Quran is indeed unique among the revealed scriptures of the world in the explicit manner in which it refers not only to dialogue between adherents of different faith-communities, but also to the divine ordainment of religious diversity, and, in consequence, to the spiritual validity of these diverse religious paths, which are presented in the Qur'anic discourse as so many outwardly divergent facets of a single, universal revelation by the unique and indivisible Absolute.

It would be a relatively straightforward task to let the Quran speak for itself, by citing one after the other such verses as that used in our epigraph, verses which relate to those universal theme; the result would be, we believe, a compelling argument in favour of religious dialogue, based on the metaphysical premise that the different revealed religions are truly and effectively path to salvation. But such a presentation, how ever immediately intelligible it might be to some, would leave out of count the diverse ways in which the verses in question are, and have been, interpreted.

What follows, therefore, is presentation of these key verses from a particular point of view, that adopted by those most steeped in the spiritual and mystical tradition of Islam, Sufism. For Sufi expositions of the metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of the Qur'anic revelation can be of inestimable value to all those engaged in religious dialogue, and to those, inparticular, who see the different religions not so much as mutually exclusive and inevitably antagonistic systems of dogmatic belief, but rather as so many "path to the heart."

The most eloquent and compelling contemporary expression of such a view of the religions of the world is to be found in the corpus of Frithjof Schuon (d.1998). In asserting the validity of Schuon's principle of the "Transcendent unity of religions," from the point of view of the Islamic tradition as a whole, Seyyed Hossein Nasr's "Islam and the Encounter of Religions" is an important point of reference. After describing the encounter between Islam and other religions on different planes-historical, legal, theological, philosophical, and scientific-Nasr writes that it is on the level of Sufi esoterism that the most profound encounter with other traditions has been made, and where one can find the indispensable ground for the understanding in depth of other religions today. The Sufi is one who seeks to transcend the world of forms, to journey from multiplicity to Unity, and from the particular to the Universal. He leaves the many for the One and through this very process is granted the vision of the One in the many.

For him all forms become transparent, including religious forms, thus revealing to him their unique origin.

This unique origin is described as the "Centre where all radii meet, the summit which all roads reach. Only such a vision of the Centre," Nasr continues, "can provide a meaningful dialogue between religions, showing both their inner unity and formal diversity."

The present paper takes this affirmation as its point of departure. Specifically, in the first part of the paper, the aim is to show the ways in which key Sufi themes of gnosis or ma'rifah arise organically out of meditation and reflection upon particular Qur'anic verses, and to allude briefly to some of the implications of these themes for interfaith dialogue or simply dialogue as such. In the second part of the paper, the aim is to show how a spiritual appreciation of the essence of Islam, based on Sufi exegesis of particularly direct Qur'anic verses, upon up a path leading to the heart of religion as such, and how such a conception, in turn, helps to situate particular religions traditions within a spiritual universe defined by "quintessential Islam" - that is, Islam understood as universal submission to God, rather than only as a particular religious denomination. In the process, we hope to stress the importance of those Qur'anic verses which deal with the universality of the religious phenomenon, to show that it is in the hands of the Sufi commentators that the deeper meanings and implications of these important verses are brought to light, and to relate the principles derived from this encounter between Sufi spirituality and Qur'anic universality to themes germane to dialogue.

As regards spiritual exegesis of specific verses, we shall be drawing from a small number of eminent representatives of the Sufi tradition, such as Ibn "Arabi, Ghazzali, and Rumi, but our principal source of esoteric commentary is that written by 'Abd al-Razzaq Kashani (d.730/1329), a distinguished representative of the school of Ibn 'Arabi. This commentary has played a role of great important in the tradition of esoteric commentary in Islam, its renown having been amplified in recent times as a result of its erroneous attribution to Ibn 'Arabi. Its value lies principally in the fact that it presents a complete exegesis, chapter by chapter, chapter by chapter, of the Quran, and it dose so from an uncompromisingly esoteric perspective, it thus leads us, according to Pierre Lory, "to the very root of the Sufi Endeavour: the encounter with the holy word, and the spiritual force proper to it, not only on the level of meaning, but in the most intimate dimension of the meditating soul."

The Metaphysics of Oneness and Dialogue with the "Other"

What is meant by the phrase "the metaphysics of oneness" is the metaphysical interpretation given by the Sufis to the fundamental message of the Quran, the principle of Tawhid, expressed in the creedal formula: Lailaha illa Allah - no god but God. Whereas theologically the statement is a relatively straightforward affirmation of the uniqueness of the Divinity, and the negation of other "gods," metaphysically the formula is read as an affirmation of the true nature of being: no reality but the one Reality. Kashani comments as follows on one of the many verses affirming the central principle of Tawhid, namely, 20:8: "Allah, there is no god but him": "His unique essence dose not become multiple, and the reality of His identity derives therefrom, and dose not become  manifold; so He is He in endless eternity as He was in beginningless eternity. There is no He but Him, and no existent apart from Him." We have here not only an affirmation of the oneness of God to the exclusion of the other gods, but also, and more fundamentally, the affirmation of a unique reality, which is exclusive of all otherness, or rather in relation to which all otherness is unreal.

 To be continued