All things you would that others should do to you, do also to them:
for this is the law and the prophets.
That which is repellent to you, don’t do to your fellow man.
That is the whole Torah. The rest is detail.
—Rabbi Hillel the Elder
The breath-taking design, the lavish display of beauty, and the tremendous power manifest in nature are enough to convince the intellect of the existence of God. Since science entails the most profound concentration of the mind, many scientists throughout history have recognized that where there are laws of nature, there also must be a Law-giver. Here (or here) are some examples of Nobel prize-winning physicists who have declared their thoughts on God:
“The more I study science, the more I believe in God.”Max Planck:
“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God.”
“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books, but doesn’t know what it is.
That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a Universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”
“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a Spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a Spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”
“The deeper one penetrates into nature’s secrets, the greater becomes one’s respect for God.”
“As a physicist, that is, a man who had devoted his whole life to a wholly prosaic science, the exploration of matter, no one would surely suspect me of being a fantast. And so, having studied the atom, I am telling you that ... behind this force there is a conscious, intelligent Mind or Spirit. This is the very origin of all matter.”Werner Heisenberg:
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”(Note the similarity with the dictum of famed biologist Louis Pasteur: “A little science leads one away from God, a great deal of science leads one back to Him.”)
“Science is reticent too when it is a question of the great Unity – the One of Parmenides – of which we all somehow form part, to which we belong. The most popular name for it in our time is God – with a capital ‘G’.That answer is given by religion: “We have come from God, and we shall return to Him” (2:156).
Whence come I and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us. Science has no answer to it.”
Although the intellect can perceive the existence of God, it cannot fathom the motivation behind the existence of the universe. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is the most fundamental question of philosophy, and it can only find its answer in religion. No matter which religion and which holy book you turn to, the first requirement is ethics.
But why does ethics exist? Not just so that humans can get along well together.
The clue to this lies in the prophets and saints: because God is seeking a Friend for Himself. God is in search of Man. But not just any human: “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Unless you become pure and innocent like a child, you cannot become a saint, a Friend of God. And this can only come about by perfecting one’s ethics. That is why ethics is essential, while love is hidden: when ethics has matured, the love of God blossoms in one’s heart.
Spirituality and Meaning
While the intellect is enough to lead us from signs in the material world to a conception of God, it is to the world of meaning, namely the spiritual world, that we must look in order to find meaning. Further, God is the Meaning of the Universe, and hence the most profound meaning of them all. The Arabic word mânâ denotes meaning in one sense and Spirit in another. The French word l’esprit runs a close second.
After a while, the friend asked: “Where did you say you dropped your key?”
“On the roof of my house, while I was mending it.”
“Then why are we looking for it here?”
“It’s hard to climb up to the roof.”
Psychiatrist Victor Frankl once wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. There he argued that man cannot live without meaning. But if God is the meaning of the world, then this search becomes Man’s search for God.
In short, a world without spirituality is a world with all the flavor bleached out: tasteless, bland at best, and devoid of meaning. On the other hand, unbeknownst to us, there are—at this very moment—levels of meaning that can electrify.
Although people look for spirituality without religion in our day, traditionally it is the religions which have supplied humanity’s spiritual needs. And their trove of wisdom is preserved in their holy books.
Perhaps the greatest problem in our age is that few people read the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Koran. Even fewer heed their advice. As Master Kayhan said: “If the people of Moses were to adhere to the Torah, the people of Jesus to the Gospel and the people of Muhammad to the Quran, they would all come together and be brethren. Everything would be solved.” (TPM, p. 58.) Jews rely on the Talmud (collection of interpretations) and their Rabbis, Christians on their churches and priests, and Moslems on their religious leaders for the interpretation of their Books. Yet reading them is surely better than not having read them at all. Their very foundation, their absolute bedrock, is the Golden Rule—in a modern phrasing, “Treat others as you would like to be treated by them.”
Think also for othersThe meaning of the Four Books
Is this, if there is any.*
—Yunus Emre (Turkish Sufi poet)
The Torah comprises the first five books (also called Pentateuch) of the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible itself is called TaNaKh, short for Torah-Nevi’im-Ketuvim, or Teaching-Prophets-Writings. The Torah deals with the Beginning (Genesis) of humanity up to the death of Moses. The remainder (about a thousand pages of fine print) is a history of ancient Israel, also dealing with the prophets who succeeded Moses.
Modern scholars have concluded that both the Old and the New Testaments were divinely inspired, rather than being directly written by God and passed on to humanity. The Torah we know cannot be the Torah revealed to Moses, since it speaks of Moses’s death if for no other reason. Yet it must contain substantially what was revealed to Moses, because of the amount of detail, first and foremost among which are the Ten Commandments. Both the present-day Torah and the rest of the Old Testament appear to have been compiled over hundreds of years, roughly between the tenth and first centuries B.C.
The Torah outlines the 613 commandments (mitzvot), including the Ten Commandments, of Mosaic divine law (though this number has been disputed). The divine law of Moses is more stringent and exacting than Mohammedan divine law. These commandments are mostly based on Leviticus and Deuteronomy, though some come from other books of the Torah. They supercede the divine law revealed to Noah. Since it is less well-known, I include the seven rules of Noachide divine law as an item of interest:
- Do not deny God.
- Do not blaspheme God.
- Do not murder.
- Do not engage in incest, adultery, pederasty or bestiality, as well as homosexual relations.
- Do not steal.
- Do not eat of a live animal.
- Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to the law.
The second of the holy books is the Psalms of David (from an Islamic perspective: see the Koran, 17:55), which is the first book in Ketuvim. There are 150 Psalms in the Old Testament, nearly half of which are overtly attributed to David. The Psalms are songs—they used to be sung, and David himself is known to have played the lyre—primarily of thanksgiving, praise of God, lamentation, and wisdom. Some editions of the New Testament include the Psalms at the beginning, underlining their importance even in the absence of the rest of the Old Testament. (It has recently been suggested that each chapter of the Koran has a parallel relationship with the Psalm of the same number. And in a scholarly study (pp. 733-75), Angelika Neuwirth highlights some interesting parallels between Koranic verses and the Psalms.) Though there is no certainty that these are the Psalms revealed to David, there is also no reason to think that in terms of their subject-matter, they would be essentially much different.
The Gospel revealed to Jesus is lost to history. Perhaps it was never written down. We can hazard the guess that the Four Gospels, plus the Gospel of Thomas (sometimes called “the fifth gospel”), have preserved fragments of his Sayings (logia). These would be the closest we can come to the original Gospel. Any authentic Sayings of Jesus would doubtless be consonant with what was revealed to him, perhaps might even be that revelation itself.
There are 27 books in the New Testament, including the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and 14 letters (“epistles”) by Paul (although modern scholarship considers only 7 of the latter authentic). Thus, in terms of their number, the Pauline epistles constitute more than half the Christian Bible. The New Testament in its present form became canonized only gradually, with Athanasius being the final arbiter in 367 AD. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “synoptic” (same vision), since they attempt to give a chronologically ordered description of Jesus’s biography. Furthermore: “Scholars have noted that Matthew and Luke both based their accounts not only on Mark’s narrative but also on another text that has not survived, which they quoted almost verbatim. Scholars call this lost gospel ‘Q,’ from the German quelle (‘source’).” (Karen Armstrong, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate (2015), p. 6. See also here.)
Of the four gospels, John’s is the most mystically oriented. Paul’s epistles, however, are earlier than any of these, and his imprint on the development of Christian doctrine was profound. Unfortunately, negative as well as positive aspects were involved in this influence.
The main difference between the teachings of Moses and those of Jesus is the emphasis on esotericism in the latter. Moses was given the divine law, which dealt with exoteric matters—mainly rules of conduct, worship, and ritual. In Jesus, we find that spiritual and mystical matters come to the fore. However, rules of conduct cannot be dispensed with either, which is why the Christian Bible comprises both the Old and the New Testaments. Moreover, Jesus himself never repudiated but rather, upheld the divine law of Moses. According to the Koran: “And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him, and We gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, and confirming the Torah before it, as a guidance and an admonition to the godfearing” (5:46).
Another point of emphasis is love—of God and of all creatures. This was later continued by the Sufis. As the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre sang, “We have come for love;” “Let us love and be loved;” “our enemy is hate.”
Taking the New Testament as a whole, it can be seen that it is spiked with Sufism, though it would take the trained eye of a Sufi to discern which verses bear authentic esoteric meaning. It is remarkable how Christianity was later transformed into an entirely exoteric system. Evidently, the mystics (the People of the Inward) lost out to the pundits (the People of the Outward).
For example, kenosis (self-emptying, Phil. 2:7) is the same as akimcanna (self-naughting) in Buddhism and fanâ (extinction) in Sufism. The poet Blake correctly intuited this as the annihilation of selfhood, which means zeroing the individual self. Kenosis leads to enosis (unification or Unity), which has the same meaning as Tawhid in Islam. According to the Prophet of God, you have to “die before you die,” which indicates fanâ. You are then born again, and as Jesus said, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Unfortunately, kenosis has been radically misunderstood in conventional Christianity. As one knowledgeable authority has observed: “it is as he empties himself not of his Godhead, but of himself, of any desire to focus attention on himself, of any craving to be ‘on an equality with God’ [Phil. 2.6], that he reveals God.” (John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, 75.)
He answered, “Me.” The friend said, “Go away, now is not the right time...”
That poor miserable man left and traveled for a year... Then he went back to the house of his companion.
“Who is that at the door?” He answered, “Only you are at the door.”
The friend said, “Now, since you are me, O myself, come in, since there’s no room for two ‘me’s’ in the house.”
(Rumi, Mathnawi, I: 3056-63.)
Similarly, Saint Paul’s claim: “not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galat. 2:20) and his invitation to “clothe yourselves in Christ” (Rom. 13:14) are of interest to a Sufi. Elsewhere, St. Paul makes the meaning of this clearer: “clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Coloss. 3:12)—attributes that draw one closer to God. The existence of verses that can be taken to indicate authentic revelation side by side with others of a more dubious provenance, however, makes the New Testament a difficult proposition to tackle without the concepts and tools of Sufism.
Ever since the origin of Christianity, theologians and scholars have tried to make sense of Jesus’s conflicting statements. Jaroslav Pelikan, in speaking about the early (formative) period of Christianity, points out that the early Christian Fathers identified four kinds of Bible passages dealing with the status of Jesus: (1) adoption, (2) identity, (3) distinction, and (4) derivation. (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: 100-600 AD (1975), p. 175.) (3) and (4), in particular, directly contradict (2).
Generations of Bible scholars have wracked their brains trying to reconcile passages attributed to Jesus that seem to identify him with the Godhead, and those that seem to state exactly the opposite. But you see, both of these are readily comprehensible when viewed from the standpoint of Sufism, without any contradiction being involved.
The Sufi can, at different times, be in a state of closeness (qurb) or of distance (bu’d) to God, or in different terminology, in a state of communion (jam’) with or separation (farq) from God. Now this is exactly what we see in the New Testament. When Jesus says, on the one hand, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) and, on the other, “Why call ye me good? only God is good” (Mark 10:18) or “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), he is speaking exactly according to these Sufic categories. Even John 10:30 need not imply identity, since God and Jesus can be considered one in outlook and intent, for example.
A Sufi would think it wrong to talk about Jesus as God—that it strains credulity to say that the entire universe, with an estimated age of nearly 14 billion years, was created by a person living in Palestine two thousand years ago. Today, many Christians themselves would shrink from such a notion when it is stated explicitly in this way. A Sufi would think of it as a category error to equate the merely human with the divine. Rather, from the Sufic point of view, Jesus experienced God, he “tasted” (dhawq) God—as, indeed, many prophets, saints and mystics also have, before or since, though in differing degrees.
Lost in Translation
Many things are lost in translation. Thus, our Example 1:
The Lord’s Prayer states: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11, Luke 11:3). As psychologist Carl Gustav Jung has pointed out, however, the Greek says epiousion in place of “daily,” which was translated as “supersubstantial” in the Latin Vulgate. Clearly, “Give us each day our spiritual sustenance” is more meaningful than praying for material subsistence alone. As the great Sufi poet Rumi says in his Discourses: “For you there is other food, besides this food of sleep and eating. The Prophet said, ‘I pass the night in the presence of my Lord, He gives me to eat and drink.’ In this lower world you have forgotten that heavenly food, being occupied with this material sustenance.” (Discourse 4.)
Example 2: The only verse that can be cited in support of the Trinity occurs in the King James Version and translations based on it:
KJV: 1 John 5:7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.Now compare this with another widely accepted translation:
8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
New International Version: 1 John 5:7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are inThe NIV does not contain the trinitarian reference because it does not exist in manuscripts earlier than the end of the 15th century: it is a deliberate insertion and a forgery. (Perhaps this should be called “found in translation.”)
(While the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit also occur in Matthew 28:19, this verse does not say “these three are one.”)
Example 3: The meaning of Rom. 9:5 varies according to translation::
KJV: “Christ came, who is over all, God blessed forever.”Example 4: 2 Cor. 5:19.
RSV: “Christ came, who is over all. God is blessed forever.”
KJV: “God was in Christ, reconciling…”Sometimes, a Gospel may leave out a crucial part of a statement. “Where there are two or three gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). The Gospel of Thomas, however, states: “Where there are two or three, they are not without God, and where there is one alone, I say that I am with him. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there. Split the piece of wood, and I am there.” (Oxyrhyncus Papyrus, Saying 30.) The omnipresence of God is absent from the first account.
Holman Christian Standard Bible: “In Christ, God was reconciling…”
International Standard Version: “through the Messiah, God was reconciling…”
Is it a the or an a?
What a difference a single word, even a single letter, can make! The next two examples concern the definite article “the,” which is to or ho in Greek, sometimes written simply as ó. Its absence usually indicates “a” or “an.”
The first example is from a former Bishop of Woolwich (those old enough may recall the days when he was quite famous):
... popular preaching and teaching presents a supranaturalistic view of Christ which cannot be substantiated from the New Testament. It says simply that Jesus was God, in such a way that the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ are interchangeable. But nowhere in Biblical usage is this so. The New Testament... does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that.The Koran confirms that Jesus was the Word of God in three verses (3:39, 3:45 and 4:171). The great Sufi sage Ibn Arabi regarded all prophets as Words of God (here).
What it does say is defined as succinctly and accurately as it can be in the opening verse of St John’s Gospel. But we have to be equally careful about the translation. The Greek runs: kai theos en ho logos. The so-called Authorized Version has: ‘And the Word was God.’ This would indeed suggest the view that ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ were identical and interchangeable. But in Greek this would most naturally be represented by ‘God’ with the article [“the”], not theos but ho theos... It is impossible to represent it in a single English word, but the New English Bible, I believe, gets the sense pretty exactly with its rendering, ‘And what God was, the Word was.’ In other words... Jesus... was the complete expression, the Word, of God.
(John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963), pp. 70-71.)
An alternative translation for theos could be “a god” or “a divine being,” indicating that the Word was divine. There is no implication of identity in this case. Other possibilities discussed in the literature are theou (God’s, of God) and theios (divine). This is similar to replacing the Sufi statement hamâ ust (All is He) with hamâ az ust (All is from Him) to avoid inaccuracy when speaking in the realm of Multiplicity (kasrah).
Our second example comes from Alan Watts, who was once a priest. (This topic was first published in Watts, Beyond Theology (1964), p. 123n4. See also p. 100.)
As a beloved prophet of God, Jesus must mean this in the ancient Hebrew monotheistic, and therefore allegorical, sense of being a very obedient servant, and thus close to, God. This is but a different form of the biblical expression: “those who have walked with God.” (These are named as Adam, Enoch, Noah and Abraham, but Micah 6:8 wants it for us all. The Koran calls Noah and Abraham Arch-prophets (ulul’azm—“of a true constancy,” 46:35), together with Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.)Jesus answered them, “... I am a son of God” [John 10:36. The original Greek says “a son,” not “the son.”].... In this essential respect, the Gospel has been obscured and muffled almost from the beginnings...
“I am a son of God,” well there’s the whole thing in a nutshell. If you read the King James Bible… You will see in italics, in front of the words “son of God,” the “son of God.” Most people think the italics are for emphasis. They’re not. The italics indicate words interpolated by the translators. You will not find that in the Greek. In the Greek it says, a son of God [huios, not ho huios].The Koran has a verse that sheds light on this whole matter of the “sons of God”:
It seems to me here perfectly plain, that Jesus has got it in the back of his mind that this isn’t something peculiar to himself... But this has been perpetually repressed throughout the history of Western religion…
Incidentally, this verse draws attention to how the Koran, too, even if not mistranslated, can require additional comment. The word that is translated as “honored” in many translatons is mukramûn. Now this word also prominently has the sense of “gift.” God bestows on His prophets a gift, of which the rest of us are unaware. Noah says to his people: “my Lord... has given me a mercy from Himself, but it has been obscured from your sight” (11:28). Another—less well-known—prophet, Salih, says: “my Lord... has given me a mercy from Himself” (11:63). Prophets (and their successors the saints), therefore, are “gifted” individuals who are not ordinary people, though they may look like them.
To return to the Bible: the phrase “only begotten Son” occurs in John 3:16. Here, the term “only begotten” (monogene, monogenes), which also occurs in John 1:14 and 18, etc., refers to the Spirit-Child or the Child of the Heart in Sufism.
(You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free: there is no Trinity in the Bible.)
have made you all a single religious community, but He made you different in order to test you in what He has revealed to each of
you. So vie with each other in good works...” (5:48)
God is clearly stating that He does not want enmity between different religions, but wants us all to approach each other in the spirit of a contest in piety, to see who excels in good works. This verse and those like it have caused Moslems to accord great respect to People of the Book: mainly Jews and Christians, but as Moslems became acquainted with them, also Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists. Non-Moslems were honored as long as they could be associated with a Book—any Book. It was on this basis that the Ottoman Empire observed freedom of religion for non-Moslems, and for centuries allowed them to be judged by their own divine laws.
The Koran was revealed to Mohammed over a period of 23 years and is composed of 114 chapters (Suras). Some of these are quite short, especially those toward the end, while others are long. The 6,236 verses revealed by God that comprise the Koran were written down by scribes as they issued from the Prophet’s mouth. It is the only book we know that was dictated wholly by God. It was then collected and put into book form. Any two Korans extant will be identical (barring possible typos or copying errors, and the greatest care is taken to minimize these). Shorter than the New Testament at four-fifths its length, the Koran tidily summarizes the essential contents of all earlier books and adds new Revelation.
It is usually thought that the Koran focuses on eschatology (the doctrine of last things): resurrection and the afterlife, the Last Judgment, heaven and hell. And it is true that the Koran deals with these matters, too. But that is not all. The Prophet said: “Faith is a morality that will make you happy in this world.” (Tâbarânî, Mu’jam al-Awsat, 5005.) I don’t think even a philosopher like Bertrand Russell would have a problem with that definition. Nor would he find fault with what the Prophet told Ali, his cousin and the fourth caliph: “There is no poverty more terrible than ignorance, no blessing greater than the mind, no loneliness worse than arrogance.”
The Koran addresses not only those who desire Paradise, but also those who long for God: “if you desire God and His Messenger” (33:29), and speaks of “those who do not desire to meet Us” (10:7). The Prophet is the true and trusted guide on the journey to God: when people vow allegiance to follow His precepts, “God’s ( and the Prophet’s) hand is over their hands” (48:10). With the divine law, the Koran provides a more lenient form of Mosaic divine law. With its Clear (muhkam) verses, it supports the Torah in such injunctions as “do not kill.” And with its Allegorical (mutashabih) verses, it supports the spiritual approach of Jesus and his parables. Thus, the Koran combines the exoteric doctrine of the Torah with the esoteric teachings of the Gospel in a single book.
The spiritual aspect of the Koran is introduced early on when God commands the angels: “Prostrate to Adam” (2:34). This means that God has placed within the human being an essence that is higher than the angels. Humankind has been created “in the fairest stature” (95:4). But if humans obey their Base Selves instead of God, they are bound to sink to “the lowest of the low” (95:5).
The Koran is the conversation God has with us: “a Book We have sent down to you” (14:1). It translates the Book of the Universe, which is enigmatic and obscure, into terms comprehensible to humans. It reveals the inner truths that underlie the surface phenomena we observe, and suggests practical precepts by which we can order our lives. It is a guide to the spiritual worlds. It contains the books of all the prophets in summary form. It tells us of the Essence of God, His Names, Attributes, and Actions. It shows the path to the Universal Man or Perfect Human. It invites humanity to prosperity and happiness. It teaches us how to be showered by God’s blessings, and is itself a blessing in the form of a book.
In one of his recorded recitations, Master Kayhan read the following:
[The Koran] is a sacred map... It is the language of the Unseen World in the Manifest World. It was sent as a book by the Lord of this world... It is simultaneously a book of divine law, a book of prayer, a book of wisdom, a book of worship, a book of commandments and invitation, a book of invocation, and a book of meditation. Because the Koran has come from the Sublime Throne and the Greatest Name, and from the highest degree of each of God’s Names, it is God’s Word in His status as Lord of all the worlds. That is why it cannot be translated, for the Divine Word is illimitable.
The Koran is the pre-eternal speech of the Kingdom of the Exalted. Its purpose is experiencing eternal happiness. If you look within it, it is pure guidance, freely flowing. Its top is the jewels of faith; its bottom, the Knowledge of Certainty, evidence and proof. Its right is, empirically, conscience and a surrender from the heart. Its left, with the Eye of Certainty, is courtesy and the fascination of reason. Its fruit, with the Truth of Certainty, is the mercy of the Most Merciful.
In sum: we do not read our Holy Books, and even if we do, we do not understand them rightly. We need to approach them not only with reverence and a genuine desire to learn. But also, we should never forget about the Golden Rule. If you don’t know the right combination to a safe, you won’t be able to open it. We need to engage with these Books in the proper frame of mind. It is then that they will begin to reveal their secrets to us. Those secrets will be manifest to us when we actualize the Golden Rule in our lives.
See also: Max Gorman, Jesus the Sufi: The Lost Dimension of Christianity (Bath, UK: Crucible Publishers, 2007).
Just published: Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Editor-in-Chief), The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, HarperCollins (2015).
(Click on the link to read Nasr’s General Introduction.)