Holistic Education and the Challenge of Interfaith Cooperation

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

I.  Introduction

The flameout of the power-oriented elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in much of the Muslim world in 2012-2013 representing Syed Qutb’s clash of civilizations left only limited options for the future.  The most challenging but potentially the most powerful option over the long run may be the revival of the enlightened elements originating in the education-oriented founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al Banna, and represented in the relatively successful movement led by the former philosophy professor, Shaykh Rachid al Ghannouchi, in Tunisia.

Shaykh Rachid’s life-long teaching has been that the genuine freedom of faith-based democracy can come only from holistic education about the interdependence, balance, and harmony of the transcendent and the immanent.

During the Year 2014 the historical significance of the teachings and actions of the new Roman Catholic Pope, Francis, became evident as he addressed the signs of civilizational disintegration by offering hope that with divine intercession the persons and communities of the world can bring out the best of the past in the present to build a better future precisely by invoking the transcendent source of harmony in the world today.

Three of Pope Francis’s pastoral teachings summarize his contributions to this cause:

Awakening Hope

Today, in view of the dark clouds in so many places, we must look for the light of hope in order to give hope.  Only by protecting all of creation and every man and woman with tenderness and love can we disperse the clouds to see the light and bring the warmth of hope.

The Unquenched Thirst

Above all we must keep alive the thirst for the absolute in order to prevent the one-dimensional view of mankind to dominate which limits the meaning of man to what he produces and consumes.  This is one of the greatest dangers in the world today.

A Heartfelt Vision

We know how much force and violence have been caused in recent history by the effort to remove God and the sacred from our view, and we sense how important it is in our communities to demonstrate the primordial openness to the transcendent that lies in the human heart.

II.  The Challenge of Interfaith Cooperation

Two thousand years ago, the great Roman philosopher and orator, Cicero, advised, “Before you discuss anything whatsoever, first define your terms”. 

In interfaith cooperation it is important to address and define ultimate reality and ultimate purpose.  In classical Buddhism, for example, the ultimate in both reality and purpose is harmony.  In Christianity the ultimate reality is both truth and love and the ultimate purpose is true human freedom to become what one was created to be.  In classical Islam the ultimate reality is truth and the ultimate purpose is knowledge and its application through love in the pursuit of transcendent justice.  The product of all three faiths is harmony, known in Islam as tawhid; love, known in Islam as hubb; and justice, known in Islam as ‘adl.

Perhaps the most primordial of the three religions is Buddhism as a three-step process.  I learned this a third of a century ago in 1982, when I was invited to establish a monastery for traditional Native American religions in a community of prospective monasteries for the world religions funded by a Canadian billionaire in the mountains of Colorado.  My paternal grandmother’s younger brother was one of the last formally trained imams in the Ani Waya or Wolf Clan of the Cherokees. 

The founder of this village of monasteries asked me to entertain two Buddhist monks who had just arrived from Nepal but had to wait five minutes for a car to take them into the little nearby town of Baca to get supplies. 

Not knowing how to entertain Buddhist monks, I asked them, “Can you explain to me the essentials of Buddhism in five minutes?”  They laughed and said, “We don’t need five minutes to explain anything so simple.  The first step in a search for ultimate reality is known as Hinayana Buddhism, which teaches that one must separate oneself from addiction to the material world.  Once one has done this the next step is known as Mahayana Buddhism, also sometimes known as Theravada Buddhism, in which one becomes aware of nirvana, which may be defined as “nothing” or “no-thing”, namely, as the transcendent basis of reality, which some people call “God”.  Once one has done this, we have Tantrayana or Tibetan Buddhism, in which one’s greatest desire is to bring compassionate justice to every person and everything in the world”.

In immediate response, I exclaimed, “It is not generally known that I am a follower of classical Islamic thought, but I want you to know that you have just summarized everything essential to know about Islam in less than one minute”.

Although in Christianity the ultimate reality is love, the greatest Father of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, borrowed from his acknowledged mentor, Ibn Sina or Avicenna, a clear distinction between ultimate truth as an ontological principle, rather than merely as a premise or presupposition, and the search for knowledge as an epistemological process. 

These three paths, the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic, exist in all the world religions.  The challenge of interfaith cooperation is to bring together the best of all civilizations and religions through holistic education in order to apply their collective wisdom in pursuing peace, prosperity, and freedom through compassionate justice. 

The challenge in the modern world of civilizational dissolution is to rehabilitate the best of the past in the present in order to build a better future, so that religion in the sense of transcendent awareness, love, and knowledge will become not a cause of conflict but the principal cure.

III.  Institutional Paradigm Management

A challenge central to all Muslim countries is to absorb the best that Western science and technology can provide, which is essential for economic survival at least over the short run of a few decades, but within an Islamic framework, which is essential for the survival of civilization.

The challenge to all the Islamic universities in the world is how to define what is Islamic.  The major issue is whether the ontology of truth and the epistemology of translating it into moral guidance should be based on a consensus among the world religions or on the Qur’anic and Islamic perspectives of tawhid and ‘adl. 

This is similar to the old issue of the Mu’tazila versus the ‘Ashari.  In his monumental book, entitled Islamic Theories of Natural Law, originally his doctoral thesis, Akhtar Emon demonstrates that in practice their theoretical and politically motivated clash over the role of reason a thousand years ago produced the same end result, namely, global moral guidance through normative jurisprudence as established by the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.

Interfaith cooperation, however, should not originate in a collective consensus, because this could result in a new eclectic religion and deny the Qur’anic emphasis on the legitimacy of every world religion.  Accordingly, Muslims should prioritize their responsibilities by first developing an explicitly Qur’anic framework of ontological essence and epistemological process and then seek to develop consensus among the world religions and civilizations on the application of truth through justice, otherwise known as the axiology of the maqasid al shari’ah.

The first principle of institutional paradigm management therefore is to locate the centers of Islamic guidance for interfaith cooperation in institutions designed to represent Islam.

IV.  The Search for Truth and Freedom: A Christian Approach

Basic to all religions is the reality of absolute truth as reflected in three sources: 1) divine revelation, which Muslims call haqq al yaqin, 2) the physical laws of the universe, including human beings, which Muslims call ‘ain al yaqin; and 3) the use of human reason to understand the first two sources, known in Islam as ‘ilm al yaqin.  In classical Christian thought these are the sources and essence of natural law in the search for truth and freedom.

Natural law, known in Islam as the sunnat Allah, has been developed without interruption for more than a thousand years in Roman Catholic scholasticism, but it began to flourish in addressing the problems of everyday life only in the 19th century when the growing secularization of culture replaced the very concept of truth with a relativism that denied any ultimate reality other than amoral or immoral human power.  This denial of any source of legitimacy other than human fiat, whether by a king, an oligarchy, or one-man-one-vote democracy, denied human freedom and subjected both persons and communities to the wages of eternal slavery.

The literature on natural law, which fills entire shelves in my personal library, normally invokes natural law as a means to seek ultimate reality and purpose, but increasingly in the modern era it has been used to deny the existence of any such thing.  In Western thought the single most enlightening presentation on the subject, which addresses both the constructive and deconstructive approaches, is the encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, entitled Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth: To All the Bishops of the Catholic Church Regarding Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching, published only a decade ago in 1993.

This 154-page encyclical, which portrays the essence of every world religion, develops in detail what Pope Francis has encapsuled in a few sentences.

In his introduction to this encyclical, Pope John Paul II addresses the ontological problem posed by modernistic thought by its insistence on

“detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth”.

He exposes the fallacies of utilitarianism[1], relativism[2], and the combination of empiricism, pragmatism, and positivism[3], as well as the sum of the so-called behavioral sciences[4], all of which can and have led to totalitarianism.  He warns,

“A decline or obscuring of the moral sense comes about … as a result of an eclipse of fundamental principles and ethical values themselves.  Today’s widespread tendencies toward subjectivism, utilitarianism, and relativism appear not merely as pragmatic attitudes or patterns of behavior, but rather as approaches having a basis in theory and claiming full cultural and social legitimacy”.[5]

In this regard he warns against

“the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible.  Indeed, ‘If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.  And history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism’ (Encyclical Centisimus Annus, 1991)”.[6]

He explains,

“The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by Him.  Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. ‘Totalitarianism arises out of the denial of truth in the objective sense.  If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations among people.  Their self-interest as a class, group, or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another.  If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard to the rights of others. … Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no-one may violate (Encyclical Centisimus Annus, 1991)’.  Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom – which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will – is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and social-political sphere … not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of concrete behavior and concrete acts”.[7]

The major message of this encyclical is the dependence of freedom on truth, based on the scripture of John 14:6, referring to the statement of Jesus valid for all world religions, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”.[8]

In Chapter One of his encyclical, somewhat in the vein of the Muslim Mu’tazillites of old, he writes,

“Only God can answer the question about the good, because He is the Good.  But God has already given an answer to the question: He did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law that is inscribed in his heart (Romans 2:15), the ‘natural law’.”[9]

Pope John Paul II adds a quote from Saint Thomas Aquinas that this natural law is

“nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.  God gave this light and this law to man at creation”. 

In addressing the challenge of “moral theology”, which he defines as

“a science that accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason”,

Pope John Paul II adds, more in the vein of the Muslim ‘Asharites and Salafis,

“but man’s freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, for it is called to accept the moral law given by God.  In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law.  God Who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love proposes this good to man in the Commandments”.

Otherwise, he writes,

“Some present cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics that center upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law.  These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil.  Human freedom would thus be able to ‘create values’ and would enjoy primacy over truth to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.  Freedom, would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy that would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty”.

He explains,

“The autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values and moral norms. … By forbidding man to ‘eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’, God makes it clear that man does not originally possess such ‘knowledge’ as something properly his own, but only participates in it by the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation, which manifest to him the requirements and the promptings of eternal wisdom.  Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation.  Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, Who is present in all (Ephesians 4:6).  But one must likewise acknowledge the majesty of the God of the universe and revere the holiness of the law of God, Who is infinitely transcendent: deus semper maior (Saint Augustine)”.

In Chapter Two of his encyclical, Pope John Paul II addresses the role of moral conscience in maintaining awareness of absolute truth and expressing it in action.

“The judgment of conscience”,

he says,

 “is a practical judgment … . …  Whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case”.

The key to the Christian teaching on peace, prosperity, and freedom through truth, as represented in Chapter Three of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, is divine grace, known in Islam as baraka.

He explains,

“Freedom is rooted in the truth about man, and is ultimately directed toward communion.  Reason and experience [however] not only confirm the weakness of human freedom, they also confirm its tragic aspects.  Man comes to realize that his freedom is in some mysterious way inclined to betray this openness to the True and the Good, and that all too often he actually prefers to choose finite, limited, and ephemeral goods.  What is more, within his errors and negative decisions, man glimpses the source of a deep rebellion, which leads him to reject the Truth and the Good in order to set himself up as an absolute principle unto himself. … .” 

“Maintaining harmony between freedom and truth”,

he adds,

 “occasionally demands uncommon sacrifices, and must be won at a high price: it can even involve martyrdom, but as universal and daily experience demonstrates, man is tempted to break that harmony: ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want’ (Romans 7:15, 19)”.

The desire to be like God without dependence on Divine Providence and divine grace (Genesis 3:5), writes John Paul II,

“was the first temptation, and it is echoed in all the other temptations to which man is inclined to yield. …”. 

 The most threatening error of man, he says, is to copy the Pharisee, who

“represents a self-satisfied conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.  All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one’s own limits and of one’s own sin.  In our day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests, and even in the very idea of a norm.  Accepting, on the other hand, the ‘disproportion’ between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it”.

Pope John Paul II concludes his emphasis on grace as part of the message of Pope Francis with the exhortation,

“Man always has before him the spiritual horizon of hope, thanks to the help of divine grace and with the cooperation of human freedom”. 

The good news, especially in the Christian approach to the trials and tribulations of the 21st century, is Pope John Paul II’s reference to the Second Vatican Council, quoting Gaudium et Spes:

“In the depth of his conscience man detects a law that he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience.  Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that’.  For man has in his heart a law written by God.  To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (Romans 2:14-16)”.

V.  The Search for Truth and Justice: An Islamic Approach

 The single best source for the classical Islamic perspective on holistic education through ultimate truth as an ontological principle and its translation into justice as an epistemological process is Professor Muna Abul-Fadl’s essay, “Toward Global Cultural Renewal: Modernity and the Episteme of Transcendence”, which summarized all her work.  This was first published in July, 1987, by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in its American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and was delivered as the Faruqi Memorial Lecture at the 16th Annual Conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists at the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Plainfield, Indiana.

The IIIT was conceived in 1977 in Switzerland when the Muslim community in Geneva was led by Sa’id Ramadan, the son-in-law of Hassan al Banna, and when the grandson, Tariq Ramadan was still a boy.  Its purpose was to serve as the intellectual center or “brain” of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood, representing the moderate or enlightened trend in the Egyptian Ikhwan introduced by its founder, Hassan al Banna in the 1920s, in contrast to the confrontational, radicalized, and power-oriented trend introduced in the 1950s by Syed Qutb and reintroduced in 2010, who can be credited with inventing the paradigm known as the “clash of civilizations”.

Dr. Muna had been a professor of political science at Al Azhar.  During the 1980s and 1990s, she was director of the IIIT’s Western Civilization project based in Herndon, Virginia, which was designed to bring out the best of Western civilization together with the best of Islam in order to address the roots of the global crisis in all civilizations.  She found the roots in “the loss of meaning and direction” resulting from a universal dissolution of higher education into a “deep ontological/epistemological morass”.

The purpose of Professor Muna’s scholarship was to expand the substance and methodology of the IIIT’s original mission, presented in 1981 in its first major publication, Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan, which as the IIIT’s Director of Publications I edited in 1986 for reissuance in 1989.  This mission was to

“recover the vitality of the Muslim community or umma worldwide by recovering the vitality of its heritage”.

She introduced a more heuristic style designed to recover the transcendent heritage of all the world’s civilizations and nations by applying the Islamic mode of knowing or epistemology through an Islamization of thought designed to address the universal crises in them all.

Professor Muna Abul-Fadl addressed the “prophecies of doom and gloom” that first became fashionable through Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Her purpose, however, was to bring out the wisdom of those who offered solutions in the “vocation” of holistic education.

Notable in her work of recovery were such students of the ontological transcendent as Rene Guenon in his The Reign of Quantity, published in 1947, and Hossein Nasr in his Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, 1975, as well as such pioneers of thought as Malik Bennabi, Ali Shari’ati, Parvez Manzoor, and Charles le Gai Eaton.

Many of Muna’s sources derived their insights from what she called the sapiential perspective of Frithjof Schuon’s shelf of books, including his Spiritual Perspective and Human Facts, in which he boldly writes,

“All civilizations have decayed; only they have decayed in different ways; the fault of the East in decay is that it no longer thinks; the West in decay thinks too much and it thinks wrongly. … The East is sleeping over truths; the West lives in errors”. 

This is precisely what Pope John Paul II detailed in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth and what Pope Francis is trying to address in action today.

This sapiential perspective is the source of the complete freedom that results when one’s only desire is to seek one’s identity in the person one was created to be and then to become what one already is.  This freedom is found in all world religions, but perhaps especially in Islam, Buddhism, and traditionally in both Eastern and Western Christianity, as well as in the works of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is recognized as the greatest Torah scholar since Maimonides eight hundred years ago.

The Islamic paradigm of thought that can integrate the cognitive, affective, and symbolic values derived from Islamic tradition is known in Qur’anic language as tawhid.  This comes from the Arabic word wahda, which means oneness.  It refers as a nodal nexus both to the ontological Oneness of the Absolute, namely, Allah or God, and to the integral coherence in the diversity of creation that points epistemologically to its transcendent origin.

Dr. Muna borrows Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s definition of “tradition” as

“that which binds to the Origin through a message, revelation, or manifestation that comes from the Ultimate Reality”.

She quotes Huston Smith’s critique of militantly secular modernism in his claim that

“an epistemology that aims relentlessly at control rules out the possibility of transcendence in principle”. 

She borrows Malik Bennabi’s metaphor of a “cultural proletariat” to describe the Muslims who “consume” the Western culture of modernism and become slaves to what S.Parvez Manzoor calls

“a civilization of countless means that knows naught of any single cause”.

 The result, says Dr. Muna is that

“truth remains as evasive as ever, not on account of its absence, but because it lies outside and beyond the closed circuit in which the quest proceeds”. 

“During the spread of Islam around the world”,

says Dr. Muna,

“Islam served as a catalyst for renewing culture and civilization … because everywhere it acted upon the moral and spiritual foundations of society and thereby provided the setting and the congenial framework for achievement and self-development, … self-betterment, and excellence in the Other”.

In other words, say Dr. Muna, using the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, who invented the term “paradigm” in 1970,

“Islam served as a rationalizing influence upon the epistemological matrix within which the so-called ‘structure of scientific revolutions’ evolves”. 

More specifically one might say that the paradigm of tawhid and its translation into normative guidelines through the sources of the Sunnat Allah or what Christians call natural law define the purpose and meaning of holistic education and provide the framework for achievement through interfaith cooperation in building what Dr. Muna calls

“a thriving civilization combining enlightenment, openness, and dynamism together with meaning and direction”.

Professor Muna Abul-Fadl’s final message in her advocacy of global cultural renewal through the episteme of transcendence is her insistence that an intellectual superstructure must be institutionalized through what she calls “vocational scholarship”.  She defines this as

“a scholarship that is animated by purpose, anchored in a vision, and oriented toward the realization of an ideal”.

VI.  Conclusion

The two missing elements in much of education theory and practice today are the strategy of tawhid and the tactics of formative human development.

The Islamic strategy of tawhid is unique among religions, because it embodies, emphasizes, and details ethical and jurisprudential imperatives, as developed in my article, “Compassionate Justice: The Missing Dimension”, published in the 2012 edition of the Muslim500 and in my follow-up article, “Flameout of the Muslim Brotherhood: Options for the Future”, published in the edition of 2013-2014.

The tactics of formative education have been developed during the past fifteen years by a whole shelf of books.  The best was published in the Year 2014 by Robert S. Thompson, Jr., under the title Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education, Oxford, 205 pages.

In order to empower students to act globally and constructively to engage difference Dean Thompson synthesizes current scholarship regarding the nature and development of three core capacities deemed essential: a “personal epistemology” that reflects a sophisticated understanding of knowledge, beliefs, and ways of thinking; empathy and the capacity to understand the mental states of others; and an integrated identity that includes values, commitments, and a sense of agency for civic and social responsibility.

— by Dr. Robert D. Crane

University Professor, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies,

Shaykh Hamad University, Qatar Foundation,

Doha, Qatar