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WHAT IS RELIGION?

 

Karen Armstrong


http://www.dawn.com/2006/11/02/images/local04.jpg
  
 "God cannot be described to fit neatly into the human system of thought," said Karen Armstrong, teacher, scholar of theology and author of over 15 books, at the Aga Khan University auditorium while talking on 'What is religion?'.

 

Speaking to audience that packed the auditorium and spilled over into two other large rooms, she expounded on how men and women had perceived God from \the time of Prophet Abraham and the many descriptions that had been used to describe His Eminence. It was this precise inadequate human attempt to describe Him which had resulted in the discord among His believers.

 

"How can we set limits on Him by describing His qualities? We simply cannot bring God down to human interpretation,' she says.

 

Presenting a thorough and compelling account, she explained her ideology -culled from the ninth century BC, 'Axial Age', as she calls it - whence the roots of the world's major spiritual traditions - Buddhism, Confucianism, the Greek mythical tradition and monotheism - were the only existing fundamental beliefs and which had carried over their influence on all present day religions.

 

Talking of how `Religion is not about believing doctrines', she tried to bridge the divide between the existing religions and the common, undisputed belief of monotheism held by the three major religions - Christianity,  Judaism and Islam.
 
 Every theological description should simply fit into the beauty that we get from poetry or the peace that we get from silence and should be as absolute as the presence of the heavens above

 

Her basic belief on theology is based on the premise "why can't all thoughts on religion be right?" Instead of insisting on what "I think is right..." she asks us to let our ego take a backseat and simply accept the presence of all schools of thought that include the presence of God and show compassion rather than belligerence, which is what has brought on us strife and wars in the name of religion.

 

Armstrong's book, `The battle for God: fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity' was an account of the history of these three religions placed within the modern day technologically ruled world shadowed by Western values of unmitigated liberalism.

 

Placed in the perspective of fundamentalism and its growth, which has resulted in many intractable conflicts of today - primarily the Palestinian/Israel conflict -
 
Armstrong's tackling of the religious equality of all religions provides a unique insight into the geo-political/religious conflicts of today. Not only that, her insight also gently edges those who genuinely want to make a contribution to world peace, into analyzing their views on humanity and their own contribution towards a better future.

 

"Do not do to others what you would not have done to you," she quotes the adage and makes us feel small by illustrating how we heedlessly go about our own lives, disregarding this simple maxim every moment.

 

It was her attempt to explain the 'uneasy relationship that has existed between Judaism, Christianity and Islam - the three religions of Abraham,' that she established what she calls her 'triple vision' considering all three points of view and attempting to explain their positions in history.
Her book, 'The Holy War: the Crusades and their impact on today's world' was the result of that 'triple vision,' and which succeeded in removing many Western myths against Islam, bringing out the brutality of Pope Urban's political ambitions.

 

And in that same vein her talks on theology and understanding of religions which are a regular part of her life's work urge her listeners to understand the weaknesses and accept the success of different cultures.

 

She herself has lived through highly diverse experiences in life from being a nun in a British convent nearly 40 years ago to being the rebellious ex-Catholic/Atheist with outspoken views on religion to being an exponent of Islamic values. She wrote 'Islam, a short history,' so that the west may understand the beauty of that magnificent religion for which she was given the title of a bridge builder promoting the three faiths, by the Islamic Centre of Southern California.

 

Peace is what she works for and it is a noble ambition. Instead of trying to search for 'ecstacis' (ecstasy) in outward elements like dance, music, drugs and relationships, she says we should search for the divine within ourselves and come to terms with the self which should result in compassion for all. And that, according to her, is why Islam has stressed so much on compassion for all beings, including your enemy. Compassion should include understanding of the other.

 

"All wars of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) were reluctant wars, as he was the greatest proponent of peace," she states. The peaceful proceedings at the time of Fateh Makkah and the signing of Sulah-i-Hudaibia, "on atrociously unjust terms," are proof that "compassion" was paramount for the Prophet as he defeated the "violence of jahilia," when he signed the peace accord at Hudaibia. What remains unsaid is that how much of this example has the Ummah followed in the modern day? And though religion should be about altruism in the argumentative culture of ours we would rather be 'religiously correct' than compassionate.

 

The invitation to Ms Armstrong was in connection with the Special Lecture Series of the Aga Khan University working on the initiative of 'Alliance of religions and inter-faith dialogue'. They have previously invited other eminent speakers such as Noam Chomsky on this platform. Ms Armstrong's talk on this forum is sure to give her audience much more than just an evening's activity as it opened up a number of issues, which require deep and honest soul-searching for all citizens of the world.

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