Ahmad Rafique Akhtar - Researching God
After having been a university professor for many years, Dr Rafique Akthar has retired from his post, dedicating himself to giving lectures and offering advice to all who seek for it. He has a particular following among the middle and upper class circles of Pakistan, which is why some of his ‘students’ (as he calls them) are important politicians and bureaucrats.
One day, I found myself in a room on the roof of his house, surrounded by about ten of his students. I was interested to hear what such a ‘modern Muslim guru’ had to say on God, religion, life and society. What follows is a small part of the long talk we had that day. If the answers of Dr. Akthar sometimes don’t seem to answer the questions, that’s simply because this was how the conversation went. In fact, it felt somewhat more like a monologue than a dialogue.
‘God should be the top priority of our intellectual curiosity.’ When I read your texts or look at some of your lectures, it quickly becomes clear that this statement is your main message.
Religion has been changing, from Adam to Mohammed, but one purpose was unique and the same all the time: looking for God. Today, however, if you look at the situation all over the world, it seems that God is only being worshipped as a name or a symbol. The top philosophers and scientists of the modern times, they have only passed opinions on God. They haven’t really looked for him. Scientists spend all their life looking for a solution to one specific problem or focusing on a tiny aspect of reality. Even on minor bacteria they can spend twenty or thirty years of research. But what about God, who created all of it? If we are really serious about knowing why reality was created, we have to devote our lifetime priority to the ultimate reason, which is God.
You often equate the search for God with scientific research. In the West however, people generally make a distinction between ‘the heart’ and ‘the intellect’ and God increasingly becomes a topic of the heart. How do you look at this distinction?
This is a major mistake. Often people think that many aspects of creation are accidental. We think humankind was created by accident, we think art was created by accident, and so on. But once you really start understanding more of the cosmos, you see that there in fact are no ‘accidents’ and that there are very calculated systems around us. It is all based on very solid and definite principles. So it is not the job of the heart. The heart is not intelligible so it is only hearsay that God would be known to the heart. God comes to us in the very quality He has awarded to mankind: our intellect. That is why the mind comes to rest when it believes in God. If it doesn’t, it keeps on telling us that there is something wrong. The heart will just be nostalgic. Blindly nostalgic. You cannot interpret the sadness of the heart. You’re eating, you’re drinking, you’re loving and your physical instincts are being satisfied, but still you feel nostalgic. What is the causes this feeling? It is like someone who’s standing in the desert and who has everything with him, but doesn’t know the direction he has to go in. The truth of the desert lies in the fact that you need a way to the oasis. So the truth of mankind is that you need to figure out why humans were awarded this very special quality that makes it superior to all other creations: intellectual curiosity.
Mysticism exactly means the growth of the intellect. First solving one problem and then going further. I call it a process of ‘outgrowth’. From one state to the other, from one mind to the other, from physical to metaphysical, from psychological to parapsychological and finally you’re only interested to know the blatant Truth. So eventually you have to solve the core question: is God just a proposition or does He really exist? It’s not all science when we talk of God, but we should be more scientific about Him.
Allah has given us everything. Also the words and the means to study. How would scientists feel if He all of the sudden took those capacities away? Science is just a gift. Allah says in the Qur’an: “We have given you the sciences and ultimate blessings, but you don’t miss and remember me much.” Scientists have too little remembrance of God.
How can we bring such a remembrance into practice? How do you make God your intellectual priority in daily reality? Do you, for example, also imply a remembrance in the form of dhikr, the type of prayer and meditation during which certain names or aspects of God are repeated?
This dome of thought… (Dr. Akhtar points towards the brain.) It has almost eight million cells in it. It records everything: memories, thoughts, etc. But when we think of God, there are no memories. There is no connectivity like when you press your mobile and get an answer. So many people have come up with stupid ideas like ‘God is a fictional creation of people in order to cope with their own insecurity’. Or let’s not call these ideas stupid, because often they were proposed by very intelligent people… But they should not act hypocritical. None of them has really searched for God. It’s not because different cultures created idols of various Gods that this means He’s not there. Naturally, if a man is of lower intellect, he would create a God of mud or stone. Such people sensed that there is something ultimate beyond all reach and they wanted to bring it closer. But later on they made a mistake to allot the powers of God to the stone itself.
In my young years I wasn’t interested in deeper things. I always thought I would waste my life for women, money, culture, reputation, honor and so on. But all these concepts all of the sudden seemed very mundane and stupid to me. So I said to myself: “Let me decide first. If there is a God I am not free. If there is no God, then I rule and I can do anything. I can stand on the road and see an animal in a sexual relation with its own daughter or I can see it murder another animal. If I know these things happen in the animal world and if I think of how I have to survive myself, I could think that I can do it all as well. For if there is no God, to whom would I be answerable?
There is no human society that has ever built moral laws out of itself. We have destroyed all moral laws. If there is no religion, there will be no moral rule because the mind will go secular and amoral. I don’t say our minds will become immoral, but they will become ‘amoral’. They will have no sense of morality and they will think they can do whatever they feel like. But if I’m not free, then I’m responsible to answer back.
All of this is your view of the individual. Would you also think there is a way of focusing society as a whole more on God?
Everybody is interested in God. Everybody is interested in themselves as well. Why doesn’t an atheist believe in God? Some top scientists claim there is no God because they succeeded in creating life. But with what? They used some animal cells that were already there. But who created those animals? They weren’t created by the scientists. So what a fake claim it would be to say that they created life.
We don’t know whether the rules already lie within the universe, or whether what we think becomes a rule. The major enigma of this life is whether it comes from within us or not. I feel very humbled when I think of the fact that I’m created just like everything else was created. Our egocentrism gets hurt when we think of the fact that we are created. We feel smaller if we think about it. That’s good because it takes away our narcissism. Narcissism is the biggest enemy of the human intellect. We tend to feel that we’re better than others for some reason. But how come we think that way? What are the chances that in the 1.80 billion galaxies that surround us, nobody is any better than us?
We are tiny. But most people don’t reflect on their tininess. They still hope that one day we will be able to live forever. We know that the earth will eventually be destroyed, but they still hope that we’ll find another planet somewhere. Basically they’re just waiting for the doom. Eventually it will all be destroyed. Noah’s ark is recorded in all the cultures. And that fear is still there within us. We are afraid that today or tomorrow we will see the total destruction. Yet we shouldn’t be afraid to die. We pass through, but we will live again.
The prophet said that the best thing is to die with a good feeling for God and for that He gave us a prayer: “Oh God, give me providence and stability until I die.” I’m not romantic about my faith. Most of the religious people claim a lot of things. But their mental caliber is low.
Do you see mysticism – or the process of ‘outgrowth’ as you called it – as a way of heightening that mental caliber? And if so, do you think the path of mysticism can be followed by everyone?
Mysticism is the highest accomplishment in religion but the way it is presented these days is almost a hundred percent wrong. Today religion is called spiritualism. They speak of Yoga, Shamanism, and so on, yet these are not religious practices. No mystic is looking for clairvoyance, telepathy or telekinesis. Anybody who looks for power is not a mystic. We look for God not for mystic powers.
For God we have to be weak. I have to say goodbye to my strong willful emotions. I have to say goodbye to my greed, my sense of power, and so on. That is why being a mystic is being absolutely normal. A mystic behaves normal and acts normal. And anyone who says he’s a mystic but makes a claim about himself is a liar. Some people might say: “I can convey messages through the mind.” Maybe he can, who knows, but if he claims it, he’s not a mystic. They only claim such things to make you think higher of them. So I often say it is very uncommon to be common and very common to be uncommon. I don’t think anyone is superior to me but I also don’t think anyone is inferior to me. Self-sympathy is the biggest enemy of knowledge in the way of God. Why should I sympathize with myself? Because of being a philosopher or a teacher I would be better than others? Of course I’m not. I just thank God He has enabled me to love him and move closer to Him. And I thank God He accepted me as one of His.