By Asghar Ali Engineer
If we start with the atheistic premise there is no way one can prove God’s existence. And if you start with a theistic premise, any proof becomes redundant. Thus God cannot be understood in rational categories but only in value categories
I was brought up in the orthodox Bohra Muslim family of a priest. Belief in God was not merely a cultural but a theological phenomenon for me. It was a great sin even to think that there was no God. I, like others brought up in an orthodox Islamic milieu, took God’s existence for granted and believed that God was only one.
In my school days I read Urdu poetry avidly, which was full of Sufi thought. According to the Sufi doctrine, real existence is only of God; we are all His manifestations. God is like an ocean and the human being a mere drop, which ultimately merges with the ocean. These were my ideas of God too. Trained in Islamic theology, philosophy and Hadith, I was strongly grounded in God-culture.
When I came of age, I read Western philosophy avidly, including the writings of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. My orthodox orientation underwent a change and I became greatly influenced by rationalism. I was particularly attracted to Spinoza; my first Urdu article was on him. I was also influenced by the writings of Russell and his eminent colleague, Professor A.N. Whitehead.
Yet, rationalism hardly shook my belief in God. Kant’s statement that if there was no God we would have to create one for moral imperatives, still reverberates in my mind. Whitehead’s conception of God as the ultimate value also influenced my thinking greatly. Thus God for me has always been the ultimate Truth and the ultimate Justice. God in the Qur’an is called Adil, Rahim, Muhsin and Hakim, that is, Just, Merciful, Benevolent and Wise. For me, these values form the cornerstone of a meaningful life.
I feel strongly committed to these values and struggle to achieve them to the best of my capacity. If one wants to lead a meaningful, and not a fearful life, one should not only believe in these values but struggle for them. I have been fighting against the priesthood in my own community and have constantly suffered at the hands of Bohra priests; but belief in God and belief in these values have always given me the strength to carry on my struggle. I feel it is belief in God as the ultimate embodiment of these values that liberates one from all fears and enables one to struggle unceasingly for these values.
I never argue in favor of God in rational terms but always in value terms. As various philosophers including Kant, Spinoza and Bertrand Russell have pointed out, God’s existence cannot be proved rationally. Let us not forget that reason is often a tool of a priori premise. If we start with the atheistic premise there is no way one can prove God’s existence. And if you start with a theistic premise, any proof becomes redundant. Thus God cannot be understood in rational categories but only in value categories.
For me God is Love, above all. For the Sufis, God is the Beloved (ma’shuq) and one should make all sacrifices to realize the virtues of one’s beloved. One must experience God as Love and one must love His entire creation. If one approaches God as Love, all walls of separation are demolished. God as love plays a very important role in Sufi Islam. Muhyiuddin Ibn Arabi, the founder of the Wahdat al-Wujud school of Sufism maintained that since God is Love, his heart, wherein God resides, is the center of Love and therefore a mosque, a synagogue and a church. Theologians, as opposed to Sufis, conceive God as punisher, rather than beloved. Hence anyone who does not conform to the theologian’s God will be punished, and thrown into hell.
There is an interesting anecdote concerning the famed lady Sufi saint Rabi’a Basari. She was seen carrying a bucket of water in one hand and a burning candle in the other. When asked why, she said: ‘I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water so that people will cease to worship God for fear of hell or for temptation of heaven. One must love God as God is Love.’ Thus I experience God as love, as truth, as compassion and as a benefactor. I do not fear Him, I love Him; therefore I love the entire universe which is His creation.
The author is an eminent religious reformer and supporter of civil liberties. He is the Founder Chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and Vice President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
—photographs by Martin Louis
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