An introduction to an existential anthropology

Oh poor Man! You are the attentive, absent Man. All inquiry is focused upon you and within you hide the facts. He who fails to look into himself seeks answers in vain. Thus said our Great Grandfather, the Prince of the Faithful, peace be upon him:

Your remedy is within you but you know it not        You are the cause of your illness, but you do not realize

You consider yourself a diminutive being        But within you resides the universe[1]

Along these lines, if any one amongst us has questioned himself and let his heart listen to his soul, true knowledge will have been revealed to him, which, I would say, will not have appeared in its brightest outfit, but in its ultimate nudity.

However, this unveiled emergence of knowledge is not without a price. It requires a dowry: impartiality and neutrality. So long as you retain the least speck of egoism, truth shall not reveal its face to you, nor shall you reach the ultimate certainty, which makes you Man’s mirror for all mankind, and enables you to understand all, unified with all, expressive of all. Thenceforth, the sole meaning of conflict within the wholeness shall be that of contrast among colors as the essence of a colorful mirror.

The strength of this discussion is that it migrates from research on Man to humanizing research. Man, accordingly, will be aware of the other, by being the other, caring for his suffering, nourishing his expectations, living his anguish, and sharing his defeats. The Man of wholeness is an Everyman whose belonging does not conceal his humanity, whose heritage does not recompense his reality, and whose egoism does not replace his objectiveness. Those are people we sorely need in order to correct the track of humanity and the humanity of the track.

Humanity and values

Mankind’s various cultures have agreed on the importance of values. The most respected individuals in the societies of mankind have always been those who seek to enhance and promote values: philosophers, prophets, wise men, and reformers, and those who followed them and were enlightened by their luminosity, and who strove and dedicated their lives in order to reinforce the values that elevate the individual and serve stability and progress in society. Those are the values that give the human character its luxuriant color. Thus when regarding the other as dissimilar in cultural heritage, one is forced to acknowledge that the other is no one else but I, imbued with other cultural concepts that – in fact – do not vary from one’s own concepts, particularly with respect to values that govern the behavior of the individual.

Honesty, justice, righteousness, goodness, relief, tolerance, faithfulness, love, mercy, giving, equity, freedom, respect, loyalty, decency … They are values that all cultures agree upon, and if they differ in prioritizing them, it is only due to the differences in the conditions in which cultures evolved, with each culture focusing on threatened or lost values to be protected or retrieved. the most needed values for protection or retrieval.It is within the value system that human behavior can be interpreted, since Man is Man whether in the East or in the West. What drives him here drives him there; what makes him happy or sad or causes him pain is the same. Therefore, the question should not be “Why does the Eastern Man behave this way, or why does the Western Man behave that way?” Rather it should be, “Why does Man behave this way in the East, and why does Man behave this way in the West?”[2]

East and West

The roads of Eastern Buddha and Western Zorba crossed at reality but harmed it not, and this but uncovered an almost complete harmony in dealing with issues of Man, as an individual and as a society. As for the feigned imitators of Buddha and Zorba, those are the ones who fight and contradict each other, and live in the devastating delusion of the clash of civilizations. If this delusion is fed and nourished as it is now, it will inflate, and one day will blow up, and then its shrapnel might bring us calamities and adversities. To reduce this damaging effect, we must all benefit from the stories and messages of history. The most prominent of those who promoted the principle of civilization selection was Alexander the Great, who attempted to impose and spread the model of his civilization. Despite all the power he had and despite the armies, the might, and the civilization, which are very unlikely to converge again in one Man’s hands, he failed in his impossible mission. If this clear example is not sufficient for those who call for a clash of civilizations clash, I do not expect them to stop inflaming the fire and conceiving evil, until humanity has repeatedly tasted bitterness and sorrow.

In my view, talking about the clash of civilizations reveals an obsession with talking about doomsday, which preoccupies engineers of the ‘end of universe’ in line with given conditions that are based on sheer imagination that, if we take what is going on in our Eastern region,  shall prove to be pure mirage. 

I wish those who are obsessed with talking about ends, such as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, had exerted their efforts to stud the beginnings instead. Beginnings are more intriguing, and they are a stronger power to put together human heritage. And what ends can there be, bearing in mind the eternal return in Hinduism and other philosophies that derive from it?

Here is a good question to address scholars who are haunted by ends: why shouldn’t all cultures collaborate, each party trying to reach perfection in accordance with its beliefs without hostilities? Collaboration to achieve the security and safety of human society is more constructive and advantageous than struggling to rule and dominate it. What Man needs from his human brother is far more consequential than what he could take or inherit from him if he could conquer him. Man’s value is nobler and much more precious than any other value, whether people want to admit or deny it.[3]

Freedom and religion

Freedom is a human value that teachings of all cultures have called for. The Holy Quran emphasizes Man’s freedom and highlights it in all human choices. Even the essential issue in religion – belief or disbelief – has been left for Man to decide: "The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve.” [18:29] The Holy Quran also stresses that people cannot be forced to accept Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” [1:256] The Quran also shows that human diversity and differences in belief were intended by the Creator: “And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ, except whom your Lord has given mercy, and for that He created them.”[11:118-119] This means that He created them in order to be different, as dissimilarity is a natural law and a sign of existence. It is a dissimilarity that gets united within those who know Allah, who in a state of absolute universal consciousness recognize the unity of the plenty. To express himself properly, such an individual would quote Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi in saying:

        The creatures have different beliefs in the Creator        And I hold all their beliefs as mine.

Anyway, Islam puts no limits on the freedom of Man. But it made Man responsible for the consequences of his decisions. It has, thus, given Man a motivation to consider what he is doing and to be aware of the consequences, which might confuse the individual and limit the space for choice, but, at the same time, will vastly benefit society as a whole. This is merely an application of the social rule that says, “Your freedom ends where another's begins.” If it weren’t for this, the bliss of freedom would be chaotic misery, and the freedom of individuals would have been an agony for others and a violation of their interests and choices.

It is essential now to draw the attention to the difference between freedom of conscience and freedom of expression: the first is something you have in your heart; it is a right that no one can take away. The latter, however, exceeds a personal position, and becomes exposed and public, thus converting an opinion from being a comprehended issue into a touchable issue, which affects others. But there is a line that neither individuals nor societies should cross because that would instigate humiliation or defamation.

Between positive, objective criticism, which is based on observation and study, and negative, subjective criticism, which is based on humiliation and defamation, discussion could emerge and opinions could vary. It is not easy to draw a clear line separating them, especially when we consider that this is a relative issue, differing from one culture to another, from one environment to another, from one circumstance to another. Because of this variation, the rule that says, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,”[4] will not work here and will not solve the problem. That is because what is accepted in one culture might be completely rejected in another.

But if it is agreed upon that the value of human beings is one of the most important values, it is both useful and valuable that one get acquainted with the culture of his  brother before addressing him, in order to know what might bother or harm him, so as to be able to convey one’s ideas without offense or harm.

Religion has always been a basic part of the structure of values that governs the attitudes of people and societies, and, consequently, a major component of identity. It is quite  understandable that insulting any religion’s symbols or rituals will never be accepted by its followers.

Insulting religious and cultural symbols has stirred people on more than one occasion. The Hindus have recently rejected the personification of the Avatars in the film which we have enjoyed watching, especially when the primitive machine conquers the new technical culture.  This may be because for them an Avatar is an abstract notion that summarizes the absolute in its yearning for ultimate salvation, where the up and down arrows meet within the format of the eschatological idea; they, therefore, disliked the idea that the Avatars had become a Hollywood idea governed by a director’s mood.

The Christian Church has also rejected the insulting of symbols of Christianity, from Voltaire, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Milton, to Colin Wilson and Nikos Kazantzakis[5], as well as Dan Brown’s novels, which have stirred a deep, violent theological argument.  

Similarly, Muslim clerics in the East refuse, in harmony with the above, to allow their religious symbols and rituals to be offended. Why, otherwise, would we look upon things with one eye open and one closed? Why wouldn’t we be phenomenologists, learning from Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, whose teachings match those of the Vedas, and the Upanishad, including the Kena Upanishad, whose motto is “Observe, watch, be silent, and contemplate. The teachings of the two philosophers also conform to the Gnostic Sufi notions: “He who keeps silent survives.” And “Sufism is to sit idle for a moment,” according to our Emir, Dara Shikoh.

At this level, a question may be interposed: “Why are reactions to criticism, whether positive or negative, in the Muslim Orient stronger and more violent than reactions in the Christian West?” Those who ask such a question may conclude that the West is more tolerant than the East. Consequently, they may further conclude, Christianity is more tolerant than Islam.  

Prior to answering this question, I should ask to beware of a methodologist mistake that can lead to a historic paradox, which projects history onto reality, ignoring the time that separates the two things. To avoid this, we need to compare the different reactions, putting the action and reaction in the same time frame, and not by ignoring that, judging reactions regardless of their settings. It should seem fairer, then, to compare the current reactions with the reactions in the Middle Ages in Europe, which will make us conclude that the Western medieval reactions were more violent and devastating than what we see now in the Orient.

Having made this clarification, I can now discuss the following issues:

First: The Orient has, probably, not become accustomed to the Western discourse and has kept the appearances of respect and reverence even in everyday conversation. If an Eastern Man abandons this courtesy, he would be considered an odd, ill-mannered person who breaks the rules of talking. For example, people in the Orient adhere to the habit of calling their parents as “father,” and “mother,” and they look down on children who call their parents with their names, considering it a violation of rules of respect. In contrast, people in the West do not see a problem in that. Neither of the two cultures can impose itself on the other.

This example shows us that Western people are more direct in their criticism and do not care for the addressee’s feelings. That’s why we see that most criticisms which have provoked people in the East have come from Westerners or from people who are influenced by Western culture. This disturbed the Eastern society more, as it is usually easier to accept criticism from close people rather than from strangers.

Second: Since the Industrial Revolution, the west has experienced a retreat in the role of the church and an increase in the role of secularists and liberals. The flexibility which the church shows now is, in fact, not a result of open-mindedness and acceptance of criticism, but rather giving in to reality and attempting to distance itself from a battle which it will most probably lose. It is obliged to do so and does not choose to do it.

Eastern society, on the other hand, still lives in the medieval era, even though it looks as if there were a harmonic conflict between the statesmen and the clerics.

Third: Eastern society is still suffering from the complex of defeat and regression in the face of brutal Western colonial, technological, marketing expansions. Therefore, it sees in criticism antagonism and retrieval of the image of defeat and an undeniable threat to its identity and existence. With such a feeling there is a greater need to understand oriental society and encourage it, rather than deepen the gap and fabricate battles with it, in ways that remind us of Don Quixote.

Fourth: Eastern society is suffering from frustration and emptiness. The frustrated and the idle look for a dynamic to compensate for their imagined idleness, and they might react violently to what they suffer from. Let us compare the reactions to the attempt to burn the Quran (which did not occur) with the reaction to actually burning it. The first were violent and threatened deadly consequences. But when copies of the Quran were really burned no one uttered a word of protest. The explanation is that in the first instance Muslim societies were idle and frustrated, so they rushed to prove their existence and to reconcile with their frustration; in the second instance, they were busy with their revolutions, so they did not move, although what they warned of was achieved.

Fifth: Maybe the most important factor is that the Gnostic spirituality has a great influence on Eastern people, regardless of their religion and being religious. A well spread saying goes, “Names leave their meaning on their carriers.” This is true for Eastern Man whose name – Eastern – reflects its meaning[6] on him, as the sun rises in his region and shines on this world. And how can one compare between the Sharq (East) and the Gharb (West)?[7] Or how can one compare the Ishraqi wisdom (the Wisdom of Illumination) to the Western alienation?[8]

Still, despite everything that can be said, it is imperative to be aware of the fact that the reactions of the Muslim populace (to insulting Islam – Translator) which have led to hundreds of casualties have never served the Muslim position; the vast majority of the victims of those protests and condemnations were from among the protesters themselves: a storm in a cup! It would have been better to leave the matter to the authorities that represent the individuals and are responsible for them, and whose duty is to defend them against any foreign aggression; such authorities should determine the way to deal with the circumstances, in order to maintain the image of the religion and the culture, in accordance with the states’ interests and their international relations and the diplomatic protocols. But the absence of the authorities in the East from the people’s concerns and needs and the lack of confidence of the peoples in their governments[9] may be an additional reason for the street disobedience and for encouraging the populace to be involved in useless matters.

Worse than this disinterest, however, is the speed with which some agencies used these occasions to settle old accounts that have no relationship with popular feelings or with venerating religious and cultural identity.

Does the West seek to understand the East?

And now, here is a question: does the West seek to understand the East? We must attribute to the West its role in attempting to get to know the East’s culture, an effort that was known as ‘orientalism,’ at a time when the Orient itself was distracted with concerns of living and the struggle for power. The West’s libraries preserved masterpieces of Eastern heritage in general and the Arabic heritage in particular. Many of those manuscripts would have been lost or definitively extinguished if it had not been for the efforts of those orientalists. In addition, a good number of orientalists have excelled and read deeply Eastern culture; what they gained for themselves have benefited others, and served Eastern culture in a way that its own sons had failed to do.

We are not here to judge intentions and discuss those who say that orientalists did what they did to serve colonialism and purposely distort Islam.

However, what we receive today as an image of the East in the West does not please anybody, especially the image of Eastern intellectuals drawn by Western theorists. The West views Eastern intellectuals as divided into two camps:

The first is those intellectuals who are gripped by Western culture. It is easy to communicate with this intellectual, but unfortunately he cannot represent the true image of eastern society; he cannot belong to his own history, not to mention his presence.

The second is a radical, anti-Western intellectual, who is difficult to communicate with, and is considered the pure image of the eastern society, especially the Islamic part of it.

In fact, the West will never be able to understand the Eastern society unless it communicates with liberal intellectuals with no alienation and with conservative intellectuals without rigidity: in brief, those who represent the golden center between the two camps – the extravagant and the restrained. This center is composed of the teachings of Socrates, the Buddha, Taoism, Christianity, and of course of the moderate school in Islamic culture.

Who is the Intellectual?

I have always asked this question in academic symposia and dialogue seminars, in an effort to draw a rough image that defines the intellectual from an objective point of view that will contribute to coloring the cultural scene between the Eastern and Western camps. To me, the intellectual is that individual who has benefited from all the cultural paths before him, and  who has interacted with his own knowledge, so that he could put together the pieces of the puzzle that are scattered among different cultures. Thus he will survey the cultural scene from atop a mountain, rather than the bottom of the valley, among the river’s leftovers and rubbish.

But I cannot leave this place without noting down a self-criticism regarding the religious intellectual. That intellectual who was looked up to as a pioneer in the Middle Ages for the vast knowledge he then had, has now been left below the lowest intellectual in a society, due to the grave retreat in performance of the educational religious institutes.

Muslims in the West

I do call upon the Muslims in the West to be integrated in to their new societies, based on the principle of citizenship without any discrimination between citizens and subjects, or first-class citizens and second-class citizens. The idea of integration seems dangerous to traditional religious thought, which claims to be concerned with maintaining Muslim identity. For me, identity is the envelope that hides egoism, while the character is the envelope that hides identity. And in my beliefs, it is enough that Muslims keep a plural memory; then there should be no problem in integrating with their societies.

Muslims in the West have no right to impose their private schemes on their societies, in their attempt to Islamize the universe, which is in fact many Muslims’ main concern based on what they learn from certain traditional clerics. I cannot understand how a Muslim would agree to live in a Western society, enjoying all the privileges of political refugees or of citizens, and then find himself ready to revolt against it in the name of religion, or, as a matter of fact, in the name of a deformed religious ideology.

As far as I am concerned, what is ultimately important is to maintain a pluralistic memory of all human cultures, which beautifully and brightly color the universal picture, or as one of our sheikhs put it: “the harmony of the universal symphony.”

Eventually, if I had to deliver an opinion about modernity and post-modernity, I would summarize it by expressing my anxiety at losing bits and parts of the universal comprehensive memory, which will drive coming generations to solve the riddles of that culture, lost or missed, in a few centuries, the way we solve hieroglyphic or cuneiform riddles.

Religion as a means of communication

Religion has been a lively interactive phenomenon in human society from the prehistoric era to the day when religion became the rationale for collective understanding of the public good and eternal spirit.

One of the most problematic issues that face researchers is defining terminology for the research undertaken. The chaos in terminology led people to misunderstandings and perplexity among the people of the eastern culture. The Islamic culture is probably one of those that lacks clear concepts that are based on a clear methodology. A concept can be easily lost among terms that lead to a theological argument that will be reflected in turning the concept into contradictory concepts.

If I were to borrow a definition of religion from one of our most respected sheikhs, I would say, “Religion is a spiritual experience for the being in its constrained form with the being in its absolute form.”[10] This dialectical relationship determines the position from the “I”, the “you,” and the “other.” Thus, religion becomes more open, and a more spacious place for meeting between the “I”, the “you,” and the “other,” which will reach unity in diversity.

The everlasting attempts made by advocates of ”Murderous Identities"[11] to fix the ego and egoism have pushed them to turn religion among ordinary believers from a spiritual experience and a societal structure into an extreme ideology that can only be fragmented into millions of pieces in spread circles that start from the center and end in the extremes, and the Holy Quran says, “It lets nothing remain and leaves nothing.” [74:28]

Sufism is a Gnostic essence

It is about time we return to Gnostic Sufism, represented by the great masters such as: al-Bastami, Hamdun alQassar, al-Hallaj, Ainul Qudat, Surawardi (known as the martyr), Hakim Sanai, Farid al-Attar, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Saadi Shirazi, Haez Shirazi, in addition to Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sabeen, al-Shushtari, al-Nusaimi, and others.

There is no room to set forth biographies of these grand masters, but it is imperative to restate the importance of returning to Gnostic Sufism, which is based on experiencing the other’s experience and absorbing it into the universal individual consciousness in a way that Ibn Arabi excellently summarized:

        Before this I used to deny my friend,
        For my heart could not accept his religion.
        Now my heart has adopted every shape of belief;
        It has become a pasture for the gazelles and an abbey for the monks.
        It is the temple of idols and also a Ka'bah for pilgrims
        And the tablets of the Torah and the book of Qur'an.
        I have drawn close to the religion of Love:
        Whenever their caravans leave I set off too – for Love has become my faith and my belief.


published first in Arabic, December 2011. Translated from the Arabic by Wael Sawah



[1] This homily of our grandfather the prince of the Faithful is in accordance with the statement of the Great Buddha in his will, “"Be a torch for your life."

[2] Ibn Maskawaih was a pioneer in explaining this idea, in a paper entitled, “Pain and Ecstasy” in comparison with Epicureanism and later philosophical schools.

[3] You should pay no attention to the ideas of Machiavelli or Hobbes: Man is a Devine vessel full of the wine of eternity and never is a wolf that is waiting to attack his human brother.

[4] It is a rule which both Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad have agreed upon, which proves the unique spring of both religions as well as the unity of goals of both teachings.

[5] Particularity in his books ‘Christ Recrucified’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, both of which have been excommunicated together with their author. This might be one reason why the writer was deprived from getting Nobel Prize.

[6] To understand this paragraph, readers need to know that the word East in Arabic, sharq, has the same root as rise, while the word west, gharb, has the same root as sunset. Also the word alienation, ghurba, shares the same root. – (Note from the translator.)

[7] See note 6.

[8] Both the ‘Wisdom of Illumination’ and ‘Western alienation’ are titles of two books by the Master of Illumination Shahāb ad-Dīn as-Suhrawardī (also known as Sohrevardi), who was unjustly killed by Saladin.

[9] We prefer to use authorities rather than regimes and states, knowing that the difference between these terms determines our choice.

[10] For a deeper view of this important research, see: Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Hilu, “Miraat al Mathnawi.” (The Mirror of the Dualist.”

[11] "Murderous Identities" is the title of a book by the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, that was translated to Arabic and created a shock among Arab intellectuals. – Translator.