Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh)
The Review of Religions, September 1996
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the Fourth Head of the Ahmadiyya Community, on various occasions, offered to people of different faiths and beliefs, the opportunity to raise any questions and issues that they may have. Presented below is an edited transcript of his response to a question relating to the issue of faith and reality which was raised in a meeting held on 12 May 1996, at the London Mosque. Transcribed and edited by Amtul-Hadi Ahmad.
Questioner: My question is about the nature of faith and the nature of reality. Many religions hold within their belief systems that the adherents should practice the presence of God. It occurs to me that faith by its very nature is faith in the unseen, faith in the unknown, and my difficulty in understanding this is how does one move from a position of faith to the practising reality of God? Where does faith end and where does reality begin?
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad: It’s a very interesting question and should be answered with reference to the questions that were raised during the Renaissance and how the British philosophers in particular handled those questions. But I should go back a little further. It was in fact in the 13th century that one British philosopher by the name of John Scotus [John Duns Scotus (1265-1308)] first raised this question, surprisingly, as he was a believer. To support his belief, he held that rationality and reason had an edge over faith, but he did not dismiss faith to the realm of the supernatural or of fantasy. What he said was quite logical. His position was that faith gets so deeply and profoundly entrenched in the human vision, the human mind and heart that people who have such faith can offer any sacrifice for it.
In the beginning faith must have some fine reason to support it. It must have something as the first generation of a religion does not derive the strength of their belief from mere fantasies. Their rationale, however, may not seem convincing when viewed from the remote distances of, for instance, the present time. The generations (at the beginning of a religion) believe in things which they have witnessed as having been fully supported by evidence which at the time was considered to be sufficient evidence. However, with time the aspect of evidence fades away but the element of faith continues. As faith continues through different ages, it is challenged from time to time by the new realities which appear and when the new realities challenge faith, one must examine with a cool head the pros and cons on both sides and if reason then rejects faith, faith should be rejected and reason should be adopted. Having studied the philosophy of European thought regarding religion, revelation, reason and rationality, I have come to the conclusion that the view of Scotus was in fact most wonderful and was based on sheer common sense.
So, this is how it stands. One should not believe in anything unless one has sound reason to believe in it. Without any sound reason for believing, belief is mere fantasy and it cannot stand the test of time. This is a very important factor which one must keep in view.
I now come to the later stages, to the age which comes to be distanced from the time of the beginning of a religion. What occurs is that now there is no role of logic, reason, or rationality in the faith of the common run of the people. They inherit faith and when human beings inherit faith, there are two types of people that emerge – those who incline towards the `right’ and those who incline towards the `left’. When those who are conscious of the fact that faith cannot contradict reality, do not find reconciliation between their faith and reality, they incline towards the `left’ and say that it is all hocus-pocus, or even if they don’t say it in so many words, their life in practice becomes uninfluenced by religion. Faith does not dictate terms to them any more.
Those who incline towards the `right’, however, are those who are largely incapable of addressing such questions in depth and as a result they continue to be carried along the flow, generation after generation. Faith continues with them, staunchly held but not soundly rooted because it has no connection with reason. But whenever personal choices appear between right and wrong, such people tend always to choose the `wrong’ because when faith which has no sound basis clashes with the personal interest of (such) people then the personal interest is always preferred. This leads to a continuous deterioration in morality of the people and a time comes when faith flies over the heads of people as it does not remain in touch with human actions. Any faith having reached this stage, on the whole, loses its power over people’s way of life. Then comes the role of the priest, in any religion not just in Christianity. Now, they make a compromise in this situation between two things. They say, `Alright, so long as you don’t change the name, as long as you remain in my territory, its OK, go ahead do as you please. We will shut our eyes to your way of life but don’t oppose the doctrine publicly and openly. If you do that then you will be punished’. That is the beginning, but this fear also gradually begins to fade out and then open challenges begin to appear and the Church withdraws further. The people still remain Christian, they don’t become Muslims or Hindus or anything for that matter. They `clergy’ then says, `If you don’t wish to remain with the Church, that’s OK but still you are a good Christian, Christianity is the spirit, its not a form. You should believe in the spirit of Christianity and try to be good to human beings, that’s all.’ So the dictates of religion begin to peter out, get dissolved and become rare things – just values which are not highly essential. It’s better if you can adopt those values without the personal sacrifice. However, there still exist some people who can hold those values and also offer sacrifices but it’s a very small number, a narrow stream of people which runs along. Such people are the custodians of faith, in fact.
In principle I agree with Scotus. It is my personal view also. If faith is removed from conviction at the root level it loses its rationale. Now, conviction is different, and faith is different. What I mean by conviction is faith which is soundly rooted in reason and rationality. This faith results in conviction.
So, faith initially is conviction, it is not just faith. Gradually, it is called `faith’ because it loses touch with realities and its begins to fly higher. But in religious literature of course you can call it (conviction) `faith’ and it is mentioned as faith but there the faith is always another name for conviction, in the beginning. Now, at the present time, because almost all the major religions have moved so far away from their source, I doubt if any religious doctrine can have any control over human actions unless it is extremely rigid and the objective is not religious and godly, but political. It has influence only over human affairs, as long as the object is a material, worldly object, for example, to have national pride in the name of a religious entity. There, it is not godliness at all which is at work, it is ego, national ego, racial ego and so on, which takes over and it is garbed in the cloak of religion and its good name. Religion loses its value and the clear sign of it is that when the religious leaders excite people to riot, bloodshed, murder or sabotage, they respond. But when they are called to good things, to take care of the poor and offer all sacrifices in the path of goodness, they keep quiet, they remain silent.
So, this is how I understand this relationship.
Questioner: It seems to me that the `Communicators’, these days, have great difficulty in trying to allow the people to understand where they are in relation to their personal experiences. I have noticed that currently the word being used on television and radio is `resonance’ and the question being asked is, `do you have resonance within you for belief’?
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad: What we need is a return to the moral behaviour of society, today as never before. We are at the verge of a precipice from where if we move forward and beyond, there’s no point of return. Your question can be turned in a different way and that is, can religion play any role, with faith and religion as the main instrument, to convince people to change their way of life to a moral behaviour and moral conduct so that society becomes more civilised, more cultured and human affairs are run not only by laws and legislation but also by inner convictions and where goodness is seen to be a value that should not be discarded at any time.
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad: Is that your question or is there something further you have in mind?
Questioner: The question being asked these days is more in relation to personal experiences of faith. There is a great difficulty in trying to understand people’s claims to have had experiences of God and faith. How should such claims be postulated and understood?
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad: The role of religion is over as far as the large scale mass convictions are concerned because they have lost that time. Now the religious leaders have turned to the last line of defence and they talk of religious experiences which are individual and do not have to be shared by others. Even if they don’t believe in those experiences, at least the person who goes through that experience will be influenced by that and will modify his or her life accordingly. So, nowadays there is so much talk of spiritual experiences.
I believe this is a very dangerous area which will not hold water for long. This is because experiences can be quoted from one side and countered from another and when experiences are only in relation to personal behaviour its OK. But very soon they are related and hooked on to the dogmas and beliefs and they say this dogma is supported by that experience. Now, when you come to that it is a very dangerous area simply because dogmas from Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Muslim Sufism, and so on, all suddenly erupt to contradict each other. Consequently, all the benefit will be lost. I believe that, provided this religious experience is not used as evidence of the dogmatic truth of the people who go through this religious experience, its fine, its good, for the person who experiences it and just spreads the word around that he has found some goodness out of this practice or belief and its good for others to try it.
This experience, in turn, is also of two types. It can be rational experience, or it can be irrational experience. Most often, unfortunately, it is irrational experience because rational experience is only that which is repeatable, like science. Under the same circumstances, it should repeat itself and demonstrate its truth everywhere in the world, provided one adopts the appropriate attitude. This is not so far witnessed, at least not by me, to have occurred anywhere in the world. The fraudulent people very quickly take over this area and they take over sometimes on a mass scale in Africa, for instance, the so-called spiritual healers and similarly in Syria and Egypt. There are many spiritual healers in the name of Islam, those who apparently work miracles, exploiting the ignorance of the people. So much confusion is, in fact, born out of this that it cannot be adopted as a safe instrument for rehabilitating faith sufficiently for it to command your actions.
[Addressing the questioner] Does that answer your question?
Questioner: Yes, it does. Thank you very much.