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The Three-Step Path to Islamic Reality
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

A principal concern that many people have about the nature, purpose, and policies of organizational or institutionalized Islam is that the organizers may focus on controlling the world on behalf of justice, and then end up pursuing their own power.  Indeed, justice is a framework for social life in Islamic thought, but controlling the world on behalf of justice or anything else is not.  The only thing we can control is our individual selves in order to liberate ourselves from selfishness and thereby to commit ourselves to selfless pursuit of peace and prosperity through justice.

The second principal doubt that many Muslims have about organizing for action is that the result may degenerate into a tribal gathering and expose Muslims individually to attacks by those, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who seek to control the world.  Indeed, organizing Islamically is designed to create and strengthen an umma or community based on group awareness and loyalty, but only in an outward looking sense of respect for others, not in an inward looking sense of collective self-worship.  Its purpose is constructive pluralism to teach others and learn from them because we each have so much to offer.

The term asabiya was used by Ibn Khaldun in both of these senses.  His study of the dynamics of civilization suggested that collective self-worship or tribalism causes the fall of civilizations, whereas respect for the sacredness of community derived from the sacredness of every person in it, and equally of everyone outside it, is the most powerful force in the birthing of universal culture and of every civilization built upon it.

The Islamic mission of group action is to bond personal spirituality or loving awe of Allah, known as taqwa, with group action to change the prevailing paradigm of thought in society and its institutional expressions that may serve as barriers to justice.  Caught in unjust institutions that concentrate both economic ownership of material wealth and the political power that stems always from such concentrated ownership, individual persons may have good intentions, and they may advocate and provide charity, but they are powerless to promote justice. 

In order to promote justice, persons concerned about it must organize institutionally and must focus on institutional change.  Those who rely on themselves, rather than on Allah, seek not productive evolution within the thought and institutions of society but destructive revolution, which can create the exact opposite of the justice they allegedly pursue. 

This sense of group responsibility for social action must be promoted through cooperative movements and organizations designed and created to promote what might be termed social morality, as distinct from personal morality.  Personal morality is the responsibility of every person, of the nuclear family, and of every house of worship, but social morality is the responsibility of the larger community and of its voluntary organizations created to explore the teachings on justice in the world religions and to perfect existing institutions in pursuit of a more just society.

This insight on how to bond personal with social morality was first made clear to me twenty-five years ago at a gathering of experts from all the world religions sponsored by the Aspen Institute at Baca, Colorado.  The organizer was in the process of completing a unique community of zawiyas or “monasteries” from each of the world religions.  I was a hidden Muslim at the time, so I represented the teachings of Native American religions as I had inherited them from my great uncle, Joseph Franklin Bever, who was one of the last formally trained imams in the Cherokee religion.  The organizer took me aside and said that two Tibetan monks had just arrived to inaugurate a Tantrayana monastery as part of the small town that was well on the way to completion.  She asked me to talk to them for five minutes or so. 

Not knowing what I should say to Tibetan monks, I asked them to explain to me in five minutes all that there is to know about Buddhism.  They laughed and said that one minute would be more than enough.

They said that Buddhism follows a path of three steps.  The first is Hinayana Buddhism, which teaches that one should separate oneself from attachments to the material world.  I was familiar with this as a former Franciscan monk, which we called the via negativa or apophatic way.  The second step, these Buddhist monks told me, is Mahayana Buddhism, which teaches that, once one has escaped bondage to the illusory in life, one should seek union with the ultimate, known as nirvana or “nothing,” in the sense of “no thing,” that is, the reality that is beyond illusion.  I was familiar with this both from the Catholic teachings of the via positiva or cataphatic theology and from a Shi’a ‘arif whom I had met when I lived in Bahrain five years earlier. 

The third step, according to these Buddhist monks, was Tantrayana Buddhism, which raises one to the level where one is uncontrollably committed to join with others in bringing mercy and justice to every person and to the entire world.

In response, I laughed, and said, “I understand you because I am a hidden Muslim, and I can tell you that in your three-step approach to reality you have explained everything there is to know about Islam in less than one minute.”

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