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Buddhism and Logic

In the Buddhist tradition also, logic is subordinated to ‘revelation’: the Buddha’s teachings. Like Islam, Buddhism originally lacked a formal system of logic.

Islam borrowed Greek Aristotelian logic, creating Islamic philosophy whose famous exponents include Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Islamic philosophy was the conveyor of Arisotelian logic into Christendom via Thomas Aquinas. Buddhism, on the other hand, borrowed the Indian Nyaya logical system and, as with other religions, found the fusion of logic and faith challenging. 

In the 2nd century CE the protector Nagarjuna had restored the integrity of Buddha’s teaching by showing how all ‘dharmas’ are ultimately empty. ‘Dharmas’ are the categories of thought introduced by Buddha, but in the centuries after Buddha’s death they had been reified by the Abhidharmists.

Nagarjuna deconstructed the dharmas, showing that they were not ultimate realities, using the logical consequences of the Abhidharmists own arguments, but without establishing a formal logical system of his own. For this reason Nagarjuna’s Middle Way (Madhyamika) method was called ‘Prasangika’ meaning Consequentalist. 
One group of Nagarjuna’s followers including Bhaviviveka attempted to fuse the Nyaya logical system which had been brought into the Buddhist fold by Dignaga. Their method was known as Madhyamika-Svatantrika because it didn’t just use the consequences of other people’s arguments to prove the Middle Way, rather they sought to establish the Middle Way view through reasons proposed from their own side (‘Svatantrika’). 

Je Tsongkhapa in Tibet was the inheritor of all these systems because the monasteries he established taught logic, but his own realisation of the Middle Way followed a vision of Nagarjuna’s Prasangika follower Buddhapalita. 

Tsongkhapa’s Middle Way shows that the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena is not a thing in itself that can be established positively through reasoning, but we shouldn’t dispense with logic in our meditative enquiries.


The Ninety-Nine Names of God

Interior wall and dome ceiling of the Sheikh-Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran

Interior wall and dome ceiling of the Sheikh-Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran

The Muslim theologian Abdal Hakim Murad says “Sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine beauty and grace – and that’s preponderant – sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine rigour and wrath. And this is one of the big differences between our (Muslim) understanding and, say, the Christian understanding. The Christians say “God is love” and immediately they can’t explain the meningitis virus or whatever, and this is a major source of loss of faith amongst them.

“Now we say that Allah is indeed Rahman [intensely merciful] and Rahim [most compassionate] and He is Al-Wadood [the loving], and He has those beautiful attributes and they do predominate and at the end, when good and evil are finally differentiate, we will see that the Rahma [divine mercy] predominates over the divine wrath. Nonetheless we also believe that Allah is Al-Jabbar (The Overwhelming), Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger), The Judge (Al-Hakkam), and that’s one reason why Islamic theology hangs together so well when confronted by the paradoxes of evil and suffering in the world. We believe that the world is the endlessly subtle interaction of ninety-nine names that includes names of rigour as well as names of beauty.”

“. . . which also means that the perfected human being, the Adamic human being, sometimes (and predominantly) manifests mercy and forgiveness, but sometimes can manifest rigour as well, which is why the Prophet (saws) forgave the people of Mecca, but he also went to war against them. Because he is the true Khalifa, he has those names and he also has within himself something of the Rahma, and he has within himself something, also, of Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger).

“The true representative of Allah (swt) on earth is not just the woolly-minded, kind, benevolent saint who always turns the other cheek, but sometimes has to uphold Allah’s rule in the world through those names as well, and that’s part of the completeness of Sayyedina Muhammad (saws), that in him we can see manifested (so far as is possible for created mortal human beings) all of the names of Allah, not just the names of beauty and the names of mercy.”

Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

The role of conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path



I want to offer a perspective on conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path. I will mainly draw on Buddhist source material, but will also include some references to Sufi Islam. In his ‘Root Text on the Mahamudra’, the first Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsän, says

“The mind that is free from conceptualization
Is merely a level of conventional mind;
It is not the mind’s ultimate nature.
Therefore seek instruction from qualified Masters.”

The Panchen Lama’s point is that it is possible to overestimate the importance of eliminating conceptuality. The Panchen Lama was/is one of the most eminent Lamas of the Yellow Hat tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by Lama Tsonghapa, this tradition sees itself as the heir and protector of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ path of Buddhism introduced to Tibet from India by scholars and sages such as Kamalashila, Shantarakshita, and Atisha.

A crucial moment in the history of Tibetan Buddhism was the 8th century CE debate at the Council of Lhasa between Kamalashila and the Chinese Chan (Zen) monk Hashang. In this debate Hashang advanced the characteristic Zen position of ‘sudden enlightenment’, emphasising the elimination of conceptuality, whereas Kamalashila maintained the position of ‘gradual enlightenment’ which employs conceptuality as a tool until the advanced stages of the Bodhisattva path. By most accounts Kamalashila was deemed the winner and Hashang had to leave Tibet. Yellow Hat Lamas such as my own former teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso have sometimes seen it as their mission to protect Tibetan Buddhism from the return of Hashang’s view. So, in his book ‘Understanding the Mind’, Geshe Kelsang writes:

“Some people believe that all conceptual thoughts are bad and should be abandoned. This mistaken view was taught by the . . . Chinese monk Hashang, who misunderstood what Buddha taught in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and believed that the way to meditate on emptiness was simply to empty the mind of all conceptual thoughts. This view still has many adherents today, but if we hold this view we will have no opportunity to progress on the spiritual paths.”

The Yellow Hat reading of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras hinges on the word ‘subsequently’. The relevant section from the ‘Essence of Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra) is:

“whatever Son or Daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should look perfectly like this: +subsequently+ looking perfectly and correctly at the emptiness of inherent existence also of the five aggregates. Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.”

In his commentary ‘Heart of Wisdom’ Geshe Kelsang provides the following explanation: “Here the word ‘subsequently’ has great meaning. It indicates that the mind with which we should first understand emptiness is an inferential cognizer, the Tibetan expression for an inferential cognizer being rendered more literally as ‘subsequent realization’. An inferential cognizer is a type of valid mind, or valid cognizer — a valid cognizer being a mind that realizes its object non-deceptively. Such a mind will never deceive us with respect to the object it ascertains. There are two types of valid cognizer: inferential valid cognizers and direct valid cognizers. They are distinguished by the fact that an inferential valid cognizer relies upon a sign, or reason, to know its object, whereas a direct valid cognizer knows its object directly without the need to rely upon a reason.”

Inferential cognizers involve conceptuality because they depend upon reasoning and the intellect. In ‘Understanding the Mind’ Geshe Kelsang writes:

“When we first realize subtle objects such as impermanence [or emptiness] in dependence upon inferential cognizers, we attain an intellectual understanding of them, but we should not be satisfied with this. We need to deepen our experience of the object through meditation. In this way we will gradually attain a profound experience induced by meditation, and finally a yogic direct perceiver that realizes the object directly. Inferential cognizers are seeds of yogic direct perceivers. Until we attain an actual yogic direct perceiver realizing a particular object, we need to continue to meditate on the continuum of the inferential cognizer realizing that object.”

What Geshe-la and the Yellow Hats propose is a gradualist epistemology starting with valid conceptual inference leading to ‘yogic direct perceivers’ (equivalent to ma’arifa in Sufi Islam). The conceptuality involved in generating inferential cognizers is seen as an important pre-requisite for gnosis / enlightenment / ma’arifa.

The effectiveness of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ method hangs on whether conceptual reasoning really can generate inferential cognizers. In other words, can conceptual reasoning actually cause our minds to alight on profound objects of meditation and engage with them so as to bring about spiritual transformation? The short answer is: only if we are using conceptual reasoning to genuinely challenge our deeply-held misconceptions about how we and the world exist.

For example, when meditating on “form is empty” using conceptual reasoning, it is not enough merely to deconstruct the body in abstract using Nagarjuna’s method. Rather, it is vital that first we clearly identify the object of negation, which is the inherently existent body we grasp at (the image of our body that we normally relate to). Once we have identified this body we try to find it among its parts or as the collection of its parts. We consider whether our body is our arm. Or our leg. Or our fingers. Or our head. And we conclude that it is none of these. We then ask whether the body is the collection of all these parts. But how can a collection of non-bodies be a body? How can the quality of ‘bodiness’ ever arise from non-bodies?

It is at this point that our clearly-held sense of our own body starts to shake and crumble. We are like a person who knows definitely that they parked their car in front of their house and is shocked and amazed to find that it has gone! Our mind sees only an absence where the image of the body used to be, and this absence is shocking and meaningful — it means that the body we normally relate to does not exist.

Once, when Lama Tsongkhapa was teaching the meditation on the emptiness of the body he noticed his disciple Sherab Senge grabbing at himself. Tsongkhapa saw that Sherab Senge had developed an inferential cognizer of the emptiness of his body and had felt his body disappear so he instinctlively tried to grab onto it. Sherab Senge later became the teacher of the 1st Dalai Lama, Je Gendundrub.

When we have generated an inferential cognizer we do not continue with discursive, conceptual reasoning. Instead we remain in meditation on the transformative realisation of emptiness that we have generated. Eventually we become so familiar with this realisation that we no longer need conceptual reasoning to bring it to mind.

The next place I am going with this is to emphasize that reason only functions as a spiritually liberating force if combined with purification of the soul. This is a key message I took away from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s (AHM) teachings at the Al-Ghazali Retreat I recently attended.

Al-Ghazali’s ‘Ihya‘ is a manual for the purification of the soul, and AHM positioned Al-Ghazali as a psychologist engaged in muraqaba to the greatest extent, understanding himself and others. Al-Ghazali is famous for his refutation of Ibn Sina, who attempted to assert reason (in the form of Greek philosophy) over revelation (the Qur’an). But Al-Ghazali did not reject the role of reason per se, only its usurping of revealed truth. He recognised that reason is necessary to interpret revelation.

However, according to AHM “reason deployed by an unrefined ego is a disaster” (he cites the example of Iblis). The ‘Ihya’ is a manual on how to sort yourself out so you can reason correctly. Here AHM points out the necessary relationship between Sufism and Sunni Islam: only through the practices of Sufism can a Sunni scholar purify him/herself in order to arrive at a non-egotistical reading of the Qur’an. The intellect will not work properly unless the nafs is at peace. AHM suggests that Al-Ghazali’s own spiritual crisis of 1095 CE was caused by his fear that all his eminent philosophical works to that point had been contaminated by egotism. He finally took the plunge into Sufism that his brother Ahmad Ghazali recommended, and eventually emerged to write the ‘Ihya’.

The classical Greeks, Sufis and Buddhists wouldn’t recognise Western ‘philosophy’ today, because it plays with reason in isolation from any serious attempt to discipline or purify the soul. In Islam, Sufism is a prerequisite for Sunnah and Fiqh so, within Buddhism, meditation and moral discipline are prerequisites for philosophy. Meditation (Sutra), moral discipline (Vinaya) and philosophy (Abhidharma) are the ‘three baskets’ (Tripitaka) into which the Buddha’s teachings were organised at the 1st Buddhist Council c.400 BCE. Together they form the whole corpus of Buddhism and anyone who wishes to realise the profound philosophical truths (Abhidharma) taught by Buddha must not neglect the other two baskets.

I’ve talked about the role of conceptual reason in providing a launch pad for the mind to alight on hidden, virtuous objects of meditation such as emptiness, but although conceptual reasoning is necessary it is not sufficient. The blessing [baraka] of Allah swt is also required (unmediated or mediated by a spiritual guide). Geshe Kelsang writes: “It is said that all the virtuous minds of sentient beings are the result of the enlightened activities of the Buddhas. The two principal ways in which Buddhas help sentient beings are by giving teachings and by blessing their minds. Without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise. All sentient beings have at some time or another received Buddha’s blessings.” (UTM). Poetically, Shantideva says in his ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ (ch. 1)

“Just as on a dark and cloudy night
A flash of lightning for a moment illuminates all,
So for the worldly, through the power of Buddha’s blessings,
A virtuous intention occasionally and briefly occurs.”

Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) talks about the function of the nafs as maintaining the continuum with the primordial memory of the day of Alastu Bi-Rabbikum, yet we are normally veiled from this deep level of our self by its grosser levels (“we are veiled from ourself by ourself”). These grosser levels of self must die (fana) in order for us to return to our true self (baka). We cannot achieve this unveiling just through the force of our own reason or effort — we need the help of God and his friends the auliya. AHM says that the mere presence of a wali activates our self, by reminding us at a deep level what the self is supposed to be (it can be frightening or exciting to be confronted by our self).

So even though reason can take us a certain distance we need faith to reach our goal. AHM says that “reason cannot storm the gates of heaven”. The rules of logic are part of the created world — they could have been different — whereas Ruh transcends the world and is our bridge of access to what lies beyond. AHM says that the Ruh partakes of infinity and eternity, it is something of Allah swt within ourself yet beyond ourself. The heart is the locus of the Ruh, and it is the heart that experiences the revelation of the Divine who “sent it down into your heart” (Al-Baqara 2:97).

However, if we don’t use reason we are like the Bedouin who trusts God but fails to tie his camel. The correct way of practice is to do everything we can from our own side and pray continually to Allah swt for his blessings. God has endowed us with the precious possession of reason and it is our responsibility to use it: “God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive.” (An-Nisa 4:95).

Tell Me What I Want, What I Really Really Want

Sun and Moon

Knowing what we and others truly want is an important part of self-knowledge (1). The phrase ‘know thyself’ was carved into the temple at Delphi. However, the humanism of the modern and post-modern world has led to a novel quest for self-knowledge that places the human being at the centre, not God. “The post-modern definition of the human subject is frail and shifting” (2). The Enlightenment project has collapsed under its own weight – there is no ‘internal arbiter’ that can support its weight. It is no longer an intellectual project; it has degenerated into consumerism and commercialisation. How do we know what we want without an internal arbiter? Modernity encourages us to want a plethora of things. “What do I want?” can be difficult to answer. There is little consensus among people about what they want and what is good for society. How far can the human subject stretch and bend before it breaks? We are now so far away from the natural order. Technology is a method to avoid experiencing the world and nature. For example, central heating allows to avoid experiencing cold in winter.

Self-knowing itself is like a mirror looking at a mirror – there needs to be an ‘other’. God created Adam AND Eve because Adamic perfection requires the other. Mutual need is the basis for self-knowledge. Writ large, this becomes human society. Following on from this, we see that the Sunnah cannot be solitary, it must be in Jumu’ah. The key to self-knowledge is mercy to others, based on knowledge of who they are and their needs.

The community in Jumu’ah points to another sort of humanism, which originated on the day of Alast when the entire constellation of human souls was gathered in the presence of Allah. The collective, humanistic prototype of Alast is contrasted with the individual humanistic prototype of Adamic perfection. In congregational prayer the Imam represents Adamic man while the Jumu’ah represents the re-creation of the congregation of Alast, all facing the Qibla, hearts at one, all equal and in harmony. The Jumu’ah is the primal model for conflict resolution. The Madinah mosque reshaped the hearts of the nomadic Arabs. Their hearts engaged with one another through “the miracle of Jumu’ah”.

How do we know what is best for other human beings? Through the ability to empathise and engage in “basic human intersubjectivity”. Empathy must be accomplished through close observation of external behaviour because Allah has given us privacy of thoughts. The Auliya’s ability to deduce inner states from external signs is reliable. Should we accept the consensus of what people prefer or move to a universal standard? Muslims defer to what Allah swt has determined is best for others. Muslim Sharia is appropriate for end times, the ‘turba magna’ or time of great upheaval. Every generation is worse, though this cycle of spiritual entropy is not a constant degeneration, it is more like a spiral staircase. In this degenerate age we see human beings “entranced by matter”.

Islam has a primordial quality. As the ‘deen ul fitra’ it helps to reconnect people with fitra, with the natural world. It is “divine spiritual technology” for these unnatural times. The Qur’an is telling us to engage with nature at a deep level, to intuit the source of nature. Islam activates the recipient core of man. The Qur’an says “these are signs for people who know”. Faith is a natural condition, it is not about assent to propositions. The rituals of Islam serve to reconnect us with fitra and nature. For example, halal slaughter helps to reconnect us with animals, to reestablish our primordial relationship with animals. There has to be divine consent for slaughtering animals – a “momentous act”. True halal animal husbandry contrasts with modern inhumane methods of industrial farming. The Hajj reconnects us with the primordial landscape: circles, plains, wells. Salat reconnects us with the natural cycles of the sun and moon. The Muslim belief in Jinni is also a part of primordial humanity – but there is no need to engage with the Jinni.

(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, contention 3. set 17: “You will only discover what you truly wish for when you wish for what is best for other human beings”.

(2) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012, Alqueria de Rosales, Spain

Art and Creativity in Islam

Tile from the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.

Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.

Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.

(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012

(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2

Post-Modern Religion

Passage from modern to post-modern era according to Hiroki Azuma in "Génération Otaku - Les enfants de la postmodernité"

I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.

Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:

“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”

Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).

Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.

The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.

Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.

Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.

Spiritual Constrictions

Based on the Taoist notion of Yin-Yang, I would like to introduce the idea of a ‘Yin’ constriction. (Please bear with me if you are already familiar with the basic concepts). Yin and Yang represent the two different aspects of the cosmos (similar to Jamal and Jalal in Islam). Yin and Yang have many different characteristics, which are all essentially relative, so I am not talking in absolutes here. In relation to each other, Yin is passive and Yang is active, Yin is yielding and Yang is penetrating, Yin is unstructured and Yang is structured, and Yin is soft and Yang is hard. As the popular Yin-Yang symbol suggests, cosmic balance is achieved when Yin and Yang are in balance with each other, and neither predominates overall.

Energy does not flow well if there is an unhealthy predominance of either Yin or Yang. In other words, an excess of either Yin or Yang is a constriction. A Yin constriction would occur if something is +too+ soft, +too+ unstructured, +too+ yielding. In spirituality (as with furniture) we require a combination of structure and unstructure, form and space, hardness and softness – otherwise we will end up falling on the floor. In this context the hardness means fixed points. Archimedes said “give me a fixed point and I can move the world”. If nothing is fixed them we have nothing to lever against to move through space, and we become immobile. In my opinion the ‘fixed points’ (principles) of religion should not just be criticised and dismissed as “precepts and dogma”, as then we will lose the opportunity to lever off them and gain spiritual momentum. This does not mean these principles have to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker: obviously an intelligent process of interpretation and jurisprudence is necessary.

Individual spiritual practitioners need different combinations of Yang and Yin, hard and soft, structure and unstructure, form and formlessness. A ‘one size fits all approach’ is not appropriate. The practitioners of the Yin side are just as capable of being dogmatic with their insistence on stripping away form as the Yang practitioners with their insistence on erecting it. Individuals should be free to choose the right balance for them.

Pushing religion at people is counter-productive – but so is pulling it away from them. Following the Buddhist example, it is important to develop equanimity (the middle way between attachment and aversion) to all phenomena including religion. The attitude of equanimity towards religion means understanding what it is, without prejudice, and making a conscious decision about how to relate to it. Certain modern, ‘spiritual’ schools express aversion to religion by focusing exclusively on the dangers of attachment to religion, ignoring the benefits of religion when practised appropriately.

The Beautiful Irony

A valid comparison can be drawn between money addicts and heroin addicts. Neither group can be trusted, but it is not appropriate to hate either heroin or money addicts because they are both sick. Addicts shouldn’t be allowed to run our industries or invest our money but we shouldn’t hate them. They are not in control of their own behaviour – they are not themselves. Not being themselves, they are incapable of experiencing empathy and compassion. The beautiful irony is that the self is entirely unselfish when it is at its healthiest. Only the diseased self, full of fear and insecurity, grasps onto what it perceives as “mine” at the expense of other people.

Elite education can drive out co-operative instincts like empathy and compassion. However I don’t think this is inevitable, and I believe it is possible to learn techniques of intellectual and emotional self-defence to protect against this brutalising effect. These techniques are widely applicable because, as George Monbiot points out (1), in modern society we are besieged by advertisements trying to undermine our healthy, intrinsic self-worth. Through causing alienation, corporations seek to refocus our self-esteem around their superficial products and brands, and delude us into pointless competition against each other.

Fitra is the Islamic concept of the underlying purity of the self. Fitra means ‘pure primordial nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ and is an Arabic word appearing in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said that every child is born with perfect fitra (1). Subsequent human impurities are ‘adventitious’, i.e. they arise due to upbringing, circumstance etc. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion which perfectly expresses this pure primordial nature because fitra is naturally drawn to the One God, to Whom the Muslim monotheistic practice of tawhid is the best path.

In his essay ‘Fitra: An Islamic Model for Humans and the Environment’ (2) the Sufi scholar and leader Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti discusses the relationship between fitra and care for the environment. He argues that spiritually healthy people (whose fitra is being well expressed) will naturally care for the environment and other people. For example, they will naturally be contented and will not require large quantities of consumer goods. He therefore argues that the solution to the environmental crisis must have a spiritual element – namely the clearing away of obstructions to fitra. Non-spiritual solutions on their own will not suffice.

The concept of fitra is similar to the concept of ‘Buddha nature’, which is also described as our natural, primordial purity. Buddhists believe in the interdependence of all life, and say that our Buddha nature is best expressed when we break down the egotistical barriers that falsely separate us from others. Therefore they say that “compassion is our Buddha nature” because, without a false ego and a diseased sense of self, like the Buddha we will naturally empathise with the suffering of others and want to relieve it.


1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (

2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441. “No child is born except in al-fitra and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”

Understanding God’s Oneness

The key insight of monotheism is God’s Oneness and unique fitness to be worshipped. In Islam, the understanding of God’s Oneness or Unity is known as Tawhid. Statements of God’s Oneness typically emphasise transcendence – the fact that God cannot be compared to anything within creation. For example, Sura Al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Qur’an) says:

Say, He is God, the One,
God the Eternal,
He neither begets nor is begotten
And there is none like him.

From the point of view of Tawhid it is not advisable to represent God in ways that associate or mix him with created entities. Monotheists object to the visual depiction or representation of God because any picture or statue of God necessarily contradicts God’s Oneness, as many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue necessarily associates or mixes God with created entities such as human or animal forms, or even subtle objects like light. On the other hand, verbal descriptions (i.e. names such as ‘Merciful’. ‘Powerful’, ‘Just’, ‘Wrathful’ etc.) do not necessarily exclude other divine characteristics and therefore do not contradict God’s Oneness, nor do they necessarily associate God with created entities. In the Torah the commandment against idolatry (arabic: shirk) reads:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).

The key words here are ‘make’ and ‘form’, meaning that the commandment relates to pictures and statues, because words are not ‘made forms’, unless we really stretch this phrase. However, the dangers of idolatry do not entirely disappear simply by prohibiting the making of forms of God. When we use words to describe God’s qualities there is the danger that we may overemphasise some at the expense of others, to the point where we even fragment God in our own minds. Perhaps this disease can affect those who greatly overemphasise God’s Wrath because, as a hadith qudsi tells us, the inscription on God’s throne reads: “My Mercy precedes My Wrath”. To deny God’s Mercy is a serious misunderstanding, warped and partial.

Although many names for God are valid, it is preferable not to use names that might associate God with created things. Moreover, certain names belong to God and must be not be used for any other being or entity, for example “Possessing Supreme Power” or “The Lord Who Looks Down In Mercy”. It is not appropriate to use these names to describe or worship any other being. My own spiritual path has led me from a form of polytheistic worship in which I used to mistakenly associate other beings with those names, to a position (Islam) in which I now believe these names just apply to God. However, I believe that I received some blessings even in the earlier stage, because these names always belong to God and, even if we think we are worshipping other beings through these names, we are really worshipping God. Ascribing these names to other beings than God is a form of idolatry and is seriously not recommended, though God in His Mercy may choose to accept the prayers of someone who uses these names in ignorance. However, once this person realises that God is One, and that these names belong to God, he or she must certainly stop worshipping any other being through them.

Some Hindus and Buddhists practise a mystical form of monotheism because they realise that all the apparent manifestations of God are in fact illusions, and that there is only one God. Annemarie Schimmel describes mystical monotheism as

“the secondary monotheism in which, starting from polytheistic tendencies, at last theological speculation comes to understand that one single reality underlies all the varied manifestations which are called deities, and reaches the conclusion to explain the manifold gods and goddesses only as functions of the One Divine Being; this type of monotheism may also result from mystic experiences in which the seeker finds himself united with the profoundest depths of the Divine, and regards, thus, the deities only as emanations from the Most high indivisible Essence; or in prayer man chooses one out of the great number of gods and turns towards him in faith and trust as if only he be effective; or different deities become united for purposes of cult and rite or as a result of the political unification of two peoples with different objects of worship. But this kind of monotheism which is characteristic of the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc., is always deductive; it does not make a clear cut between the One and the many, and admits the existence of deities besides the Highest Being.” Gabriel’s Wing, p87

Schimmel contrasts this mystical, deductive monotheism with prophetic monotheism:

“It was prophetical experience in Israel (plus Christianity) and in Islam which realized the overwhelming uniqueness of God besides whom all those whom man might have adored until then were nothings and which cannot tolerate the worship of any other than that God who reveals Himself in the individual life and in history. Mystic monotheism may include all forms of reality because there is nothing existent but God and everything is a part of His life; but prophetic monotheism is always exclusive . . . . that is why the negation in the beginning of the Muslim creed la ilaha illa Allah—there is no god but God.”  (ibid)

The key characteristic of prophetic monotheism is that it negates deities: “there is no deity but the Deity”. Mystical monotheism proposes a unification of deities but does not negate deities, because they are still regarded as valid objects of worship. For this reason many adherents of prophetic monotheism believe that mystical monotheism is an inadequate understanding of the Deity, whose very existence negates deities.

Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities. One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, it not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a completely new entity which may be utterly different from both thesis and antithesis, but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it utterly negates both thesis and antithesis.

Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that there is no god but God. In a sense, God is the inevitable conclusion or ‘synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.

God is One in a similar way that the universe is one. The universe is the totality of all physical phenomena; God is the Totality, the Whole. God’s Wholeness is the source of all holiness and well-being. God is the Absolute in whom all opposites and contradictions are resolved. God is One because there is no other. God is One because no truth contradicts any other truth – they are all aspects of the Truth. By the same token, no goodness or virtue contradicts any other aspect of goodness or virtue, they are all aspects of the greatest Good. God is the Unity to whom the apparent multiplicity points. Sufis seek the signs of God within multiplicity: everything has a side facing toward God; everything points to the One God, and we delight in that recognition. God is Love.

The goal of Sufism is to know God in this life. All Muslims believe that we will meet God in our future life, especially on the Day of Judgement. However Sufis believe that it is possible to meet and know God in this life. My Sufi friend Abdullah advised me to “make friends with God before you die”. The Sufi saints (awliya) are the friends of God, who have achieved intimacy with God in this life.