G.M. Syed on the “Unity and Diversity of Religion”

By Manbir Singh Chowdhary

G.M. Syed was as an enigmatic leader who spent his entire life advocating the rights of peasants in a feudal society, and fighting the adverse effects of centralized power and authority in Pakistan. As a result, he became renowned as a champion of his native Sindh.

In 1971, disillusioned with national politics and the stronghold of Pakistan’s federal government over smaller provinces, Syed formed the ‘Jiye Sindh‘ movement that called for the recognition and right to self-determination of the Sindhi people.

Unafraid to speak out against the ethnically Punjabi-dominated government’s marginalization of his Sindhi brethren, he died in 1995 under house arrest, after a lifelong career in politics. Amnesty International declared him, “A Prisoner of Conscience”.

A 2002 editorial in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper claimed Syed was the longest serving political prisoner in recent history, beating Nelson Mandela by six months.

At a February 2001 gathering to commemorate G.M. Syed’s 97th birth anniversary, the Dawn reported various leaders of nationalist parties paying tribute to him as “a man of principle who never compromised with feudals and dictators for the sake of power.”

The article reflected the common sentiment of those who view Syed as a political icon: “The late Syed believed in the salvation of all oppressed people of Sindh who had been subjugated by feudals and forces of exploitation.”

Despite remaining firm in his convictions and standing up against political oppression, it was G.M. Syed’s views on religion and philosophy that truly formed the basis of his legacy to the world. A man of great learning, he was a staunch proponent of humanity and love – a man who respected and drew from the teachings of all faiths.

In the words of author and historian, Khadim Hussain Soomro, “History will remember him as an eminent ambassador of peace, goodwill, and tolerance.”

The following chapter entitled “Unity and Diversity of Religion” is taken from G.M. Syed’s “Religion and Reality” published by Saeen Publishers, 1996. [Copyright G.M. Syed Institute of Social Sciences, Sindh].

Unity and Diversity of Religion
G.M. Syed
© G.M. Syed Institute of Social Sciences

Men who believe in religion can be divided into two groups. One group believes in the diversity of religions and therefore, attaches great importance to religious differences. The other group regards these differences as superficial. However, at the same time, it tries to find out the unifying factors, which are common to all religions. One of these two groups has a positive approach, the other a negative one. Which of these groups fulfills the Divine Will and which acts contrary to it, which of them works for the betterment of mankind and which does not, are questions which will have to be discussed in some detail.

Theory of Variation

As should have been evident from the preceeding pages all religions have had their origin in superstition and dogma. Similarly, social and moral codes, prayers and observances went a long way to shape them. These beliefs and rituals were prevalent in the tribal societies of the past. It was but natural those different societies should adopt different ways to satisfy their inner urges. This way, innumerable major and minor religions came into being. A large number of them vanished with the passage of time because they were either not practicable or lacked the power to retain their hold. However, if the mushroom growth religions in the past are ignored we cannot lose sight of the major religions of the world, which are still surviving. At the same time, if the sects of these religions are taken into account, their number will run into hundreds. Therefore, inter and intra-religious differences cannot be ignored.

With regard to these distinctions, there appear to be two attitudes. One of them is that of integration or centralization. The other is that of disintegration or decentralization, or unity in religious diversity.

In politics, people give priority to their personal gains, others serve group interests. However, at the same time, there are men who work for society as a whole. Similarly, there are a large number of men in the field of religion, too, who don’t possess the power to look too far ahead, and content themselves with remaining confined to certain formalities of religion. However, there are very few who are dedicated to the services of humanity.

To the first group, belong the overwhelming majority of the believers, whose limited vision does not allow them to comprehend anything more than that all religions differ. Whereas, the other group of believers, though comparatively much smaller in number but far superior in intellect, finds that all religions are beads of the same rosary. In this way, the first group stands for religious diversity, while the second one advocates unity and accord. I shall not dwell at this stage on the second group, but throw light as to why and how religions sprang up. Since religious groups are formed voluntarily on the basis of certain beliefs, initials, social and ethical codes, each one of them is organized on the following lines:

(1) The founder of religion and his close companions are projected as supernatural beings. It is the duty of the followers to emulate the founding fathers.

(2) The teachings of the founder of each religion and his close associates are treated as works of transcendent intellect. Their teachings are regarded as eternal truth and the pillars of their faith.

(3) Religious and social codes as prescribed by the founder of each religion and his associates. They are regarded as the way to salvation.

(4) Each religious group becomes convinced that only its own faith is rightfully legitimate, and all other religions and sects are false and spurious.

Thus, we see that each religion adheres to its own set of beliefs and social conduct. It cannot also be denied that religious groups are without their own vested interests. In such a situation, it is natural for a variety of sects to emerge and to try to establish their own supremacy. As a big continent is divided into countries and a country is further divided into divisions and sub-divisions, sects and schisms are bound to exist so long as religions continue to exist. As the right of self determination is internationally recognized today, all religions are must enjoy their freedom with their set beliefs, modes of prayer and observances. People believing in any faith should be free to adhere to their values and religious mores according to their own light differences in faith and modes of prayer should not be the cause of conflict.

Peace is disturbed when a religious or sectarian group tries to impose its own ideas on others and, for justifying its own actions, uses force and violence. This subverts the real spirit of religion and religious groups become the means of exploitation. There are still some men who force others to conform to their beliefs. In their endeavor to spread their religion or sect, they employ violent methods, too. This, they call jihad. However, such a practice is absolutely against the teachings of Islam.

In the Qur’an, there is explicit mention that there is no compulsion in matter of religion. At another place, the same injunction is couched in different words: “For your, your own religion: for me, mine”. No one can deny that Islam has forcefully advocated religious tolerance and accommodation of other faiths. The famous saying of the Prophet of Islam, “Differences are great blessings for my followers” and specific Qur’anic injunctions are sufficient proofs in this regard.

If there be religious tolerance, the diversity of religion is very likely to lend grace to this world as the assortment of variegated flowers make a bouquet all the more beautiful. It is not only the beauty of the bouquet on which the eyes of the beholders feast but, at the same time, each beholder derives much pleasure from the fragrance of the flower of his choice. To my mind, all religions are like a bouquet wherein each religion is like a beautiful flower. A flower has its own identity; but in a bouquet, its identity gets merged with those of the other followers.

One who understands Islam, in its true perspective, does not regard even the most insignificant object in Creation as mean and contemptible. On the other hand, he tries to make the utmost use of everything. The true believer is one who believes man to be the vicegerent of God and His best creation. Further, he does not ignore the fundamental facts that:

(1) Religion is created for man and not man for religion.

(2) One should try to get the maximum advantage from all faiths, philosophies, precepts, ideas and sciences.

(3) No faith, precept or idea is eternal nor can be equally useful for all ages. Religious laws go together with the law of evolution. These laws can neither be unnecessarily stretched nor truncated. However, if any faith, philosophy or idea obstructs the progress and prosperity of mankind, it tends to become unnatural and is finally discarded.

Theory Concerning the Unity of Religions

As I have stated earlier, there have been men throughout history who have risen above petty prejudices and religious differences; they have whole-heartedly devoted themselves to the promotion of peace and progress of the human race. These great men have reflected over the mysteries of Nature, over man’s existence, over his past and future. They have also tried to understand the evolution of society and have also perceived unity in the diversity of religions.

Arcane Knowledge

It is an admitted fact that the talent and intellect of people have differed from age to age. Some are cultured, learned and men of insight; others are uncultured, ignorant and bigoted. People in the second category have always been in a large majority, while the first type of people have been very little in number. Not only in talent have these groups differed, but, this difference has been reflected in their beliefs, viewpoints and in all other walks of life.

One group made ephemeral and superficial things as the basis of religion; the other group found the fundamental principles of religion of supreme value. The one worked for the present, the other for the future.

Some of the teachings and preaching of the prophets are for the masses, and some are for the elite. This is so because some of the teachings meant for men of learning are beyond the comprehension of the common people. As intellect and power of comprehension differ from person to person, religious concepts, beliefs, duties and responsibilities are also different.

After some time, when religions and their sects acquire the shape of bodies with vested interests, it becomes expedient for their leaders or exponents to dominate all others. In an endeavor to perpetuate power, the rulers, religious leaders and capitalists of kindred faith help each other since their interests converge. They do not encourage anything which promotes the spirit of tolerance among the masses or which weakens superstition and prejudice. They keep on nurturing these evils because they consider them as a means for safeguarding their own interests.

Through these evils, they incite people against such men who are generally dedicated to the well being of the masses. This is the reason why the saints unlocked their innermost secrets to a select few and refrained from propagating them at the mass level. These saints can be divided into two groups:

(1) The Introvert Saints.

(2) The Extrovert Saints.

The Introvert Saints (Salik)

The saints in this group have expressed their thoughts through sings and symbols. According to the circumstances, they adopt a way of expression, which does not hurt the susceptibilities of the people, and yet, at the same time, the learned men see the light.

The introvert saints were fully aware of the menacing terror of the vested interests and vicious prejudices created by men in power. These vested interests were against the common good.

This becomes all the more virulent when, in the first place, society is dominated by men of low morality; secondly, the servile masses, being under their baneful influence, have no capacity for tolerance. In this state of affairs, the saints could not be altogether silent, but they could not freely express themselves, either. It is for this reason that they adopted this way to kill two birds with one stone.

At every step the introvert saints, were aware of the men with vested interests. Therefore, they selected signs and symbols for communicating with the elect. They succeeded in conveying their message and were safe from the mischief of the exploiters.

The Extrovert Saints (Majzoob)

These saints were guided more by passion than reason. They disseminated knowledge openly and fearlessly. They knew very well that their teachings would strike at the roots of superstitions and narrow-mindedness. As a result, the fury of exploiters would be let loose. In spite of these odds, the saints had confidence in the justness of their mission and in the innate love people had for justice. Although the masses have little analytical power, and it is time-consuming to sift truth out, the fact is that the masses are generally exploited because they are gullible and lack memory. However, they are essentially good-natured and have feeling hearts.

The extrovert saints felt that the masses would not immediately listen to them, but when the exploiting priests and rulers made them [extrovert saints] the target of their aggression, they [the masses] would really wake up. This was the reason that the extrovert saints openly preached their faith regardless of the consequences. With great fortitude, they not only suffered the atrocities of the exploiters, but also proved that punishment was no remedy. Advocating the cause of such valiant souls, Ghalib says:

O Judge! Useless is the charge of love;
Punishment further stokes the desire to sin in me.

Now the question arises as to what the introvert saints (teaching through signs), and the extrovert saints (by preaching openly) taught, [in the process] exposing and jeopardizing the vested interests of the professional priests and the ruling classes. In my opinion, the sum and substance of this kind of preaching was that: “The Creator is the Real Being and, except Him, there exists nothing. All other manifestations are His own Attributes.”

Apparently, this is a simple matter. But if we believe in it with all sincerity, everything appears to be a manifestation of the One and the same Being. The duality of the Creator and the created disappears. Religion, color, race, nation and motherland lose their identity and human beings become one. All arguments of hatred, prejudice and enmity become futile. Religious concepts of reward and punishment, Heaven and Hell, lose their importance. Since the paid priests and the rulers cannot thrive on the promotion of these beliefs, they regard such an education as being antagonistic to religion and faith.

Only the saints could get anywhere near Divine Knowledge. Among the Muslims, Hazrat Ali was the only one who knew the secrets of the Holy Prophet. The saying of the Prophet of Islam, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gateway” is a reflection of the same verity. In fact, this is the very principle of this creed. In it, the knowledge about realities or secrets is transferred from teacher to disciple. This kind of knowledge is gained through companionship and through Love.

Among the men of learning, the Vedantists, the pantheists and the mystics have shed ample light on this subject. Among the old philosophers, Plato and, in the present times, Spinoza and neo-Platonist philosophers have also discussed the issue at length. In the East, Swami Vivekanand and some other among the Hindus and Mohiuddin Ibne Arbi among the Muslims, have tried to prove it in a philosophical way. Further, Sarmad, Shah Enayat, Sachal Sarmast and a few others have been the preachers and torchbearers of this creed. In other religions too, such noble men have existed.

Readers are urged to bear in mind that lovers of truth, and their spiritual guides have always been opposed to religious bigotry because it breeds ill-feeling and hatred among men. However, the rulers and the monopolists of religion always defied these saints and their teachings. Therefore, they employed all means at their command to suppress the teachings of the saints.

Among the Muslims, Imam Ghazali and Mujaddid Alif Thani have presented philosophical arguments in the favor of the establishment of the religious state. Among the Hindus, the scholars of Arya Samaj have laid stress on “Aryan culture”. Similarly in the Christian world, there were movements as “Renaissance” and “Reformation”. In this book, I shall keep myself confined to the origin and development of the concepts of Wahdat-ul-Wajud and Wahdat-ul-Shahood. Other religious movement can be understood in their light.

Wahdat-ul-Wajud

The profounder of this concept, among the Muslims, was Sheik Mohiuddin bin Ali Ibne Arbi. He is known by the title of Sheik-ul-Akbar. Ibne Arbi was born in southern Spain in A.H. 565 corresponding to A.D. 1164 in the city of Meritha. It is said that he was a descendant of Hatim Tai. In A.H. 586, he became a disciple of Shaikh Abu Bakar bin Khazab in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. In those times, Sultan Mohammed was the Governor of eastern Spain. After finishing his early education, Ibne Arbi went to Sayut where he gained further education at Cordova. Then he went to Fez in Morocco. Therefrom, he migrated to Alexandria in Egypt, and finally, he settled in Damascus in Syria. He died there in A.H. 638 (A.D. 1240). He was buried in Jabai Qasian in the cemetery of Qazi Mohiuddin.

In Islamic mysticism, he expounded the precept of Wahdat-ul-Wajud in a philosophical manner. Afterwards, this concept spread all over the Muslim countries. However, it would not be right to say that it did not exist before him. The Muslim mystics believe that it was taught to Imam Ali by the Prophet and, from him, it kept moving from generation to generation. Mansoor, Hallaj, Shams Tabrez and Khawaja Fariduddin Attar openly preached it. However, Ibne Arbi first made philosophical exposition. His famous book, entitled Fasusul Hukum is a work of immense value and is worth reading.

The theory of Wahdat-ul-Wajud is also called the theory of “All is He” which means, “The only existence is the Absolute or All-existent”. This ‘Absolute-existence’ is God. Nothing exists but Him. The universe is a manifestation or a shadow or His light. This world has no existence beyond Him; the slogan of the advocates of this theory is “There is no existence except Allah”.

As inseparable the reflection of man’s face in the mirror, his shadow on earth, the echo of his voice; similarly, His attributes are not different from Him and they are the reflections of the Real Being.

As regards the effect of this theory on conventional religion and politics, a discussion on the subject will not be uninteresting. Since, according to this theory, the reality of everything is One, instead of hatred and discord; its believers find a universal bondage of love and amity. They expose the secret of unity, which is hidden in diversity. This theory cuts at the roots of religious bigotry that divides men and creates many differences among them. It also leaves no room for exploitation in the name of religion. Thus, it criticizes the rulers, the exploiters, and the monopolists of religion and all those who suck the blood of the people in the name of their faith.

Such classes, when they see that their interests are at stake, get secretly united and employ all means in order to stifle the voice of truth-lovers. It is an irony that religious monopolists have always obstructed the teachings of the truthful. It is also a fact that whenever a professional religious group tried to exploit the religious sentiments to the extreme, thus spreading bigotry and narrow-mindedness, the believers of Wahdat-ul-Wajud also assumed an equally serious stance. As the poet [Mian Mohammad Baksh] says:

Pull down a temple or demolish a mosque,
But don’t break the heart, for in the heart lives God.

Abdul Hamid Adam expresses the same feeling thus:

Pleased I am to see a deserted mosque,
Like mine, the House of God, too, is in a shambles.

The Mansoor of Sindh, Hazrat Sachal Sarmast, pained at the bigotry of the so-called ‘religious’ men, said:

Until the pulpit, the mosque, the minaret are destroyed,
Truth shall not dawn on you, Sachal.

Wahdat-ul-Shahood

Another name of this concept is “Everything is from Him.” According to it, all existing things are the creation of God. The Absolute is God. He is above all creation and is Holy and High. This world of attributes cannot be associated with Him. [Wahdat-ul-Shahood] states spirit and matter are two separate things.

First of all, this theory [Wahdat-ul-Shahood] finds expression in virtue and vice, atonement and sin, reward and punishment. Then it advances further; adding intensity to the collective belief of faith and infidelity, it influences social and political life. Religious institutions consider it their duty to liberate people from “infidelity” and set them “on the path of truth”. In order to bring people to their fold, the monopolists of religion first use preaching, and subsequently, force. To them, unity is [belief in] sheer superstition and innumerable manifestations as the “Absolute Reality”. On this basis, they accept the distinctions of high and low.

So far as it is a question of organizational set-up among like-minded individuals and groups, it is useful. However, the fact is that beliefs never remain confined to their authors. Later, these beliefs create social disturbance and discord. History is a witness that, after a stage, the adherents of a concept take to extremism. This idea or kindred ideas lead to sects and schisms within a religious order, or a race, that create violence. Blind following of a sect has sometimes brought to surface the fascists who have disturbed world harmony. The growth of this concept [fascism] in religion has been extremely detrimental to the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, democracy and broad mindedness. Fascism has, in fact, given birth to many divisions such as high and low among the individuals, superiority and inferiority, and complexes among the races.

So far as I think, both concepts [in the above two paragraphs on Wahdat-ul-Shahood] have retarded human progress.

People interested in Wahdat-ul-Wajud should also read, in addition to their own literature, works on Yoga, the Bhagvad Gita, addresses by Swami Vivekanand and of Swami Ram Tirath, the writings of Plato, Spinoza, the neo-Platonists, etc.

Rational or Scientific Method

In the chapter devoted to the ‘History of Religion’. It has been discussed how religions originated and how their customs, rituals and laws evolved with the passage of time. Through research on these evolutionary stages, scientists have tried to prove that beliefs and codes, born of hope and fear, have developed gradually. This development will continue in future, too. Like chemistry and biology, the scientists also treat religion as a field of learning related to social and intellectual evolution. Despite being divided into different beliefs and codes of conduct, religions have a fundamental unity and are ever developing. As the theories and generalizations in other branches of learning were rejected or accepted after trials and experiments, similarly there has been acceptance and rejection of religious beliefs also and this will continue. The social codes or set of beliefs are not eternal in any religion. It is the law of evolution that forces everything to change.

According to the mystics, Islam is also natural, progressive and evolutionary in its laws. It has opened new vistas according to the exigencies of times. Its fundamental principles are world peace, unity and progress of mankind. That is why the title of the Prophet of Islam is “Blessing for the worlds” and the God of Muslims is “Preserver of the worlds” whose mercy and blessings are for the whole world. The Qur’an says:

Those who have believed meaning thereby that those who have become Muslims, and those who have followed Judaism, Christianity and other religions and have believed in God and the Hereafter and have done good deeds, will be rewarded by God and they will get salvation.

In spite of this clear Qur’anic enunciation. The assumption that only some or special sects or followers of only one religion have the right of salvation [and followers among them being usurpers, adulterers, tyrants, corrupt and unscrupulous men] is not only wishful thinking but also against all norms of natural justice as well.

According to the Muslim mystics and scientists, true religion, ever since its beginning, has been the same and shall remain the same. It’s various expositions and forms are only surface-deep. In a garden, just as various flowers add to its beauty, so do variegated beliefs add to the luster of religion. The option should be given to the individual which particular flower to choose. Nobody should be allowed to monopolize the orchard i.e. religion. Nor should any one object to the choice of a flower by anyone. The whole orchard is the common property of all mankind. No one can be deprived of the right to its use.

A question arises as to how these conflicting ideas in unity and diversity of religions can be got rid of. We see that by now, two attempts have been made in this connection. One is positive, the other negative. As regards the positive attempts some men have thought that the best points of all religions be put together. However, many men have endeavored to force upon the world their own beliefs or sectarian prejudices.

Both of these attempts have, historically speaking, failed. The attempts made by Guru Nanak, Kabir, the Muslim mystics, Raja Ram Mohan Rai have led to the formation of more religious groups. On the other hand, the great religions of the world that include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, in spite of converting millions of people and gaining the status of international faiths, could not unite the human race, nor could they root out prejudices and differences. It is vain to think that, in future, all the people of the world will come into the fold of a single religion. The means by which religions spread are power, preaching and birth rate. In the world of today, there is no religion, which either wields so much power or has such an appeal so as to attract the whole human race. The expansion of a religion largely depends upon the birth rate of its followers. However, it too has its limit. A religion can be reckoned a force when all its followers adopt a composite economic and political system and they rally round a single personality.

However, for the major religions of the world, it has neither been possible, nor can it be possible in future.

In these conditions, there remains only one way of promoting peace, progress and welfare of mankind coexistence. Institutionalized religions should give up vested interests. Religion should be regarded as the personal right of an individual. Narrow-mindedness and bigotry should be shunned, and there should be a broadband co-operation in the larger interest of peace and prosperity.

To sum up:

If you want communion (with God) be at peace with the high and low. Let the Muslims call Him Allah and the Brahmins Ram.

– = – = – = – = –

Courtesy: SikhSpectrum.com – issue No.19, February 2005

 http://www.sikhspectrum.com/022005/gmsyed.htm

By using this service you agree not to post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable. Although IAOJ does not monitor comments posted to this site (and has no obligation to), it reserves the right to delete, edit, or move any material that it deems to be in violation of this rule.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s