War and Peace
The religious dimension
We live in disturbed times. Perhaps not really more disturbed than past
times but nevertheless in a shrinking world with ever expanding means of
destruction it is a time that conveys to our minds and hearts feelings of
increased anxiety and distress. People seek to attribute blame to this or
that group or ideology or doctrine so as to help counter feelings of
helplessness or perhaps an even deeper sense of guilt.
In ‘western’ influenced societies it is sometimes the case that ‘religion’ itself
stands accused of being inimically linked with destruction, and of being a
leading cause of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’.
Superficially it seems true that much violence has had a religious
component, now and through the centuries. However such a view does not
bear close scrutiny. The main proponents of such a view are of course
people who do not hold to religion but who see themselves either as
atheistic or as people who recognise a spiritual dimension without seeing
the need for organised religion.
With regard to the latter it is not too difficult to see the error in thinking, for
the association of religion with war and violence conceals and cloaks the
long running pursuit of personal and political power that has permeated
human society from time immemorial. Its existence in cultures of every
religious hue bears testimony to this.
The exceeding potency of religious feeling has long been seen as both a
great motivator and simultaneously a marvellous disguise by seekers of
power. A hundred expressions of religious truth merely require a single
‘slight of hand’, or ‘spin’ in the modern parlance, to become identified with a
particular political cause and thus to become the tool of the unscrupulous
potentate (elected or not) or fanatic leader.
Rudyard Kipling put it well when he said –
‘If, you can bear to see the truth you’ve uttered,
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools’….
There is a story in the Masnevi of Mevlana Rumi in which the unscrupulous
vizier of a king becomes, by trickery, accepted as a religious leader by a
people he wishes to destroy. He speaks the language of religion but so
subtly distorts it that in the end he ensures the people of religion destroy
However to blame religion itself for such a distortion entirely misses the
point. Indeed it is precisely the effect that the distorter of religion was
seeking. The fact is – as Shah Wali Ullah points out - that religion has a
specific and limited function; to ensure that the mass of people avoid the
worst perils for this life and the hereafter and that they live their life in such
a way as to ensure benefits in eternity.
To transcend the requirement for a moral and/or religious framework, as
the ‘unattached’ spiritualist wishes to do, first requires that such a person
is imbued completely by that religious framework, or at least by a moral
sense that is inherited from such a framework. Transcending the more
literal and dogmatic understanding may then be possible. It is even
possible to transcend even that grasp of the essentials to reach the
undiluted Reality. But few, very few indeed, can make such a journey - to
imagine one has done so is the utmost folly.
The other group – those who reject the spiritual dimension of life or what
they term as the ‘notion’ of the unseen or life beyond death – also make a
fundamental error the result of which can be catastrophic for individual and
To identify such a group with ‘science’ is as nonsensical as identifying
religion with political machination. Science seeks the truth, and though in
the popular imagination these days it is often identified with, and limited to,
the facts of the physical world (and even more erroneously with the
material products of research) the true spirit of science transcends that, as
true religion transcends transient political machination.
The assumption that this short life is all we have, and that death is the end
of all experience has many fallacies. The ‘nothing’ that is supposed to
follow death remains of course undefined – what exactly is ‘nothing’? We
can no more conceive it mentally than we can God. Even at an intellectual
and rational level there seems little justification in replacing an
‘inconceivable’ with another inconceivable. Ironically in the end it is a view
that can only be held on the basis of ‘belief’.
Shakespeare of course put it as well as any when he has Hamlet say:
‘What dreams may come when once we shuffle off this mortal coil, must
give us pause for thought’.
There are many who hold the view of the absence of a life beyond death,
who nevertheless strive unremittingly to sustain moral values, but we must
ask the simple question – why?
Consider the life of a person who lives an immoral life, who seeks to gain
gratification of every need and desire - one who has no restraining sense
of conscience. A gangster, a corrupt politician, or whatever he or she may
be, who abuses others for his or her own gain or transient pleasure. He or
she satisfies every aspect of lust and greed they can. Compare this with a
person who labours ceaselessly for the benefit of others – who sacrifices
him or her self to ease the plight of the oppressed or poor. The two die
coincidentally on the same day and suppose for a moment the hypothesis
of the unbeliever is correct and both merely cease to exist – then surely we
must ask which of them was the most intelligent? Consider well – is it not
tempting to think that the one who gained the most pleasure was in fact
more intelligent since the fate of both was exactly the same. And consider
well the effect of such an, often concealed, rationalisation on the standards
True, there may be those who see beyond this, and see that short term
hedonistic pleasure is inferior to a more sustained happiness which
requires one to follow certain rules – (but do they see this in relation to
power?). Nevertheless many people will not see this and though they may
learn to cover themselves with many an ingenious excuse, and will do their
best to avoid legal or social consequences - their underlying and often
unrecognised ‘way of life’, becomes based on the principle that if in the end
all is wiped out in death ‘they may as well be hanged for sheep as for a
lamb’. Survival becomes axiomatic and selfishness the rule.
Though it may not be thought out clearly by many individuals, the impact on
the collective psyche of such an underlying view has its consequences.
The resulting hedonistic culture, supported by an abundance of material
conveniences and reinforced by military might, creates a self destroying
society and nowadays a potentially self destroying world. In a sense it,
unintentionally perhaps, justifies the immoral gangster and heaps ridicule
on the one who seeks for the ‘Good’.
If one is to attribute ‘blame’ for a world riven by inequality, violence and
injustice, surely it is this trend of thinking that must answer rather than
Hazrat Ali put it another way in conversation with a non-believer. ‘Suppose’,
he said, ‘that I am wrong and that there is no life after death – what have I
lost? A few moments of pleasure and a certain amount of personal
inconvenience! But suppose that you are wrong and that there is an eternal
life beyond the grave, then you will be the loser – and what a loss you will
What gambler would take such odds – to gamble the rewards of eternity
against a few moments of power or pleasure? A fool’s bet if there ever was
Mevlana Rumi describes, in the Masnevi, an insect swimming in a pool of
urine who thinks that this is all there is and believes he is the master of his
destiny who knows everything. His asinine stupidity is evident to us, but not
There are those who become confused and either overtly ‘blame’ or deny
God, or who demand in their confusion or distress to know why God allows
such things as violence, destruction, injustice, poverty and greed and so
on. To respond to this we must move to different dimension.
The spiritual dimension
We have indicated above the role that the pursuit of power or pleasure has
in distorting religious values. However there can be no doubt that the
pursuit of ‘power’ or ‘pleasure’ has a deep root. That root is not by any
means negative. Some of the qualities of God are power and glory. The
error here lies in mistaking the pursuit of spiritual power and glory, the
seeking after God, with the pursuit of the phantoms of power and glory
found in this short life. Similarly the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure is really a
seeking after spiritual bliss, but when the pursuer identifies it with the
things of this phenomenal world he is really riding in the opposite direction.
All things that inspire man to action come from God, both ‘good and evil’,
and are thus essentially and substantially good, but it is man who, with his
limited capacity of free will, by associating these with the things of this
world that makes them bad. Even love, which when directed towards God
is the greatest spiritual good, when directed towards money, as Lord Jesus
says, ‘is the root of all evil’.
God grants man the possibility of bliss – but man associates this with
transient phenomena and suffers the negative consequences. It is for this
reason that the cardinal and unforgivable sin in Islam is to associate
anything – i.e. any transient phenomena, with God. Beware, O religious
leader who does not know himself and who really seeks transient power
and prestige. You may know your Qur’an or Talmud, Veda, or Bible,
backwards - but what will it avail you if you break this cardinal rule?
We spoke earlier about blame - In the Qur’an it says: 'God gave a burden
to man that even the mountains refused'. This was some limited power of
choice over actions. If a mountain falls on someone and kills that person we
do not blame the mountain, even if an animal kills someone we ascribe this
to his animal nature, but man has some power of choice and thus a man is
responsible for his actions if he has reached an age of discretion.
Putting political events in a spiritual context
We must trust that Almighty God has a plan for man – a plan that continues
essentially unaffected or even furthered by transient political, military, or
social events. For this reason this web site makes a point of not
commenting on current political events. They will pass and be replaced by
other seemingly urgent issues. However there is a verse in the holy Qur’an
that illuminates for us a process that may put political events in context. To
paraphrase - God says that ‘were We not to restrain one set of people by
means of another – there would be destruction of man’s aspiration to
We can observe throughout history that this has always been the case, we
do not even need to go back to the Egyptian, Greek or Roman empires. In
the twentieth century the rise of fascism was opposed but as soon as it
ended another political system, the communist powers, provided a
counterweight to capitalism. In the current apparently unipolar world it
cannot be a surprise that there would arise an opposition to a dominant
ideology. In this sense war it seems will always be with us in one form or
But let us ensure this is not misunderstood by any impressionable person.
We will be judged individually – if we murder or commit other sins – no
matter in the name of what ideology or religion, we will be answerable
personally. Saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ or ‘in the name of Jesus’ (or Yahweh, or
Buddha), does not make a crime any less a crime indeed quite the
contrary. We will not be able to hide behind this or that ideology or
interpretation of religion – a man returns to God alone, and naked - that is
to say every inclination of his heart becomes evident as if all the mountains
and rivers and forests and valleys of our thinking become flattened and we
stand revealed and exposed on a great flat plain.
If it seems inevitable that war will always be with us, peace (not merely the
cessation of war or violence - but the peace ‘that passes all
understanding’) - is a constant and hidden potential in man. Our duty is to
be ever in search of it, to imbibe it, to be absorbed by it, and to allow it to
heal the wounds of external and inner conflicts. This is the Peace that
purifies, and without its continuous presence the world would have
descended into a chaos that would make any current anxieties fade into
insignificance. God describes this inner peace in the passage in the holy
Qur’an regarding the ‘Night of Power’ God says: ‘What will explain to thee
what is the Night of Power…….it is Peace, until the rising of the dawn’.