Why We Desperately Need an Integral Islam

Amir Ahmad Nasr
June 7th, 2013
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The following piece is heavily adapted from Amir’s new book, My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul.

The Child of a Fragmented World Gone Slightly Mad

It was sometime around early 2009, and to most of my friends, I was a cheerful happy guy, but what they didn’t know is that deep inside, I had never felt more mentally and emotionally tormented.

In just two short years, growing up religiously dogmatic in childhood up to the late 90’s had given way to a new reality in which my relationship with Islam was in shambles.

Blogging and the open vastness of the Internet had a lot to do with it.

From war-torn Sudan to oil-rich Qatar, I had experienced living in traditional, religious, and conservative societies that honored their tribal roots and heritage.

We enjoyed the fruits of modernity–cars, communication technology, and medical drugs–but most of us didn’t necessarily embody it as a worldview. In many ways, our tribal, traditional and modern identities were in tension and lacking in harmony and reconciliation, let alone deep coherent integration.

It got a lot worse when my family moved to Malaysia in 1997 and I got enrolled into a British international school with a liberal and Westernized environment. I was almost 11 years old.

For my parents, the move had its challenges for sure. For my siblings and I, the cultural and linguistic ordeals we confronted were on a whole other level.

All of a sudden modernity and post-modernity came crashing on us, and challenged our identities and worldview in ways that we were not prepared for.

They challenged a worldview I had inherited but never really critically conceptualized on my own. A worldview that wasn’t truly mine throughout a short unexamined life that hadn’t gotten thoroughly examined until much later.

The result should have been obviously predicable: distress, confusion, and anxiety. Then puberty hit, and boy oh boy was that fun. I am of course being sarcastic.

So I did what I could do: repress, ignore and continue as if nothing worthy of resolution was really going on.

That is until I accidentally stumbled upon the liberal Arab blogosphere in early 2006. Continuing to sweep doubt under the rug seized to be an option. Heck, the rug disappeared, and now I had to confront the persistent question marks head on.

Identity, Cyberspace and the Integral Worldview

By 2008, my worldview had turned upside down, and my obsessive online quest and thirst for the answers that mattered took its psychological and mental toll on me. Indeed, I was in shambles and had never felt more confused or internally tormented.

Online debates. Classical liberalism. Immanuel Kant. Ibn Rushd. The New Atheists...

... I drank and drank from new bottomless cups of knowledge and became hooked. The Internet became my sanctuary, the virtual desert I escaped into to find truth in.

Soon, I didn't know who I was anymore. Through rationally deconstructing and tearing down the bulk of my now crumbled Islam, I unknowingly tore apart my own identity as an Arab, as a Sudanese, as a Muslim. And now my love, my Islam was gone. Divorced, discarded, and buried away. Leaving me with a painful and unexpected inner void I needed to fill.

By early 2009, I thankfully had a conversation that planted a seed which eventually grew to meaningfully fill that void, hence positively changing my life forever. For that, I will always be grateful to my friend Sam Rosen.

“Unless science can be shown to be compatible with certain deep features common to all of the world’s major wisdom traditions, the long-sought-after reconciliation will remain as elusive as ever,” wrote the American philosopher of consciousness Ken Wilber in his thin but elegant book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

Sam, whom I had gotten to know over Twitter, recommended it to me after a Skype conversation in which I had shared with him my peculiar views on religion. I had hesitated, having encountered Wilber’s writings before and found them dense and full of obscure lingo, but Sam assured me that The Marriage of Sense and Soul was one of his more accessible and introductory works.

We talked at length about it as well as about religious dogmatism, and also discussed Noam Chomsky and the impact of US foreign policy. Back then, this was just a passionate conversation. But by April 15th, 2013, with the Boston Marathon bombings, our concerns for the issues had transpired into reality. I was freaked out by the news and immediately thought about Sam and others I knew who lived in Boston. Sam had barely escaped injury. He wrote about the experience, and so did I, although my piece focused on the power of the Internet and the trouble with fragmented and severely discontented identities.

But I digress.

Wilber, I found out, was the most prominent voice in a newly emerging philosophical movement known as integral theory. Thousands of miles away from Malaysia, in places like Boulder, Colorado, and the Bay Area in the United States, a new way of looking at the world was starting to take shape and gathering a small but growing tribe of advocates.

Broadly speaking, when we look at religion through an integral lens, we realize there are two different dimensions of religious experience.

Firstly, we have religion in its exoteric or “outer” dimension, which mainly consists of the rituals, beliefs, and codified dogmas and doctrines of a particular religion. And secondly, we’ve got the esoteric or “inner” aspect of religious experience—by definition one “hidden” from sight, and hence not adequately discussed. Both the exoteric and esoteric aspects are intertwined together with varying combinations in different religious communities and wisdom traditions.

The exoteric form is the standard form of religion for the majority of the faithful. It’s a kind of religion that’s predominantly centered on certain beliefs and doctrines, and dedication to an exclusivist sectarian God. On the other hand, the esoteric form of religion, the less standard form, is mainly centered on systematic practices such as meditation, fasting, and prayer that can be deeply transformative and enriching, holding great potential to heal us and change us for the better. Best of all, we can directly experience the gifts of this second type of religion for ourselves, instead of accepting it merely based on faith or because we’ve been slyly forced to.

Every religious tradition offers within it variations of the two aforementioned exoteric and esoteric approaches to religious experience, but to various extents depending on interpretation and practice. Fact is, at their esoteric mystical core, the world’s major religious traditions aren’t that different after all. It is the exoteric components that too often create and promote the troubling exclusivist sectarian truth claims.

Evolving Towards an Integral Islam

The simple and crucial distinction between the “exoteric” and “esoteric” aspects of religions alone was a huge revelation to me.

I had always intuited the differences, but now, I saw it all with crystal clarity. What I learned next though was even more revelatory and intriguing.

It was the notion that there are different stages of evolutionary development in worldviews, through which cultures around the world have passed or are currently passing. A very simplified model of these various worldviews goes from tribal to traditional to modern to postmodern and now, slowly, to integral

Hinduism and the three Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—for instance, emerged in traditional and tribal societies, long before the rise of modernity, which first emerged in Europe starting in the form of the Enlightenment, thanks partially to seeds passed on from the Islamic civilization.

To a great extent, the Enlightenment project emerged as a response to the domination of the Church. And then of course, more recently, postmodernism emerged in certain parts of the developed world, largely as a response and rejection of modernity’s strong emphasis on objectivity in discerning truth. Emphasizing the important roles of interpretation and contextualization, for better or worse, postmodernism injected into various cultures the notions and consequences of relativism. In its more extreme forms, it claims that truth is merely relative and all perspectives have equal validity and value.

I shared Wilber’s apparent dislike of postmodernism’s relativism, and appreciated his passionate desire to assert the validity of objective truth. But more importantly, what really struck a chord with me was his articulation of the stages of cultural development—how no stage is inherently better than others, how each can have a healthy or problematic expression, and also how each has its pros and cons.

I appreciated how integral theory is an attempt to integrate the best of each of these worldviews, including modernity’s almighty science, and the core mystical truths of the world’s religious traditions.

It includes each worldview and transcends them, one by one, all the way up to integral, a perspective from which you can see, feel, and appreciate the best of everything that’s come before in our amazing journey of cultural evolution.

All of which brings me to the title of this piece: “Why We Desperately Need an Integral Islam” in interpretation and practice, because we do.

Rather than rejecting modernity and asserting “puritan” impulses, or cranking out literature focused on merely reconciling Islam with modernity, we need a much more robust Integral Islam that meets the increasingly complex needs of today.

During my life, in matters of religion, I realized I had spiraled upward from a tribal “warrior consciousness” and a traditional worldview, to a very modernist, rational perspective, to a somewhat postmodern view, and by then was reaching for a more integrated place that I intuited but struggled to see clearly or to articulate until a few years ago.

In other words, a more integral view. And what a wonderful place it is to be.


Praise for My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul

My Isl@m is an important and significant book, especially at this time in our history. Amir shows both the downside and, as important, the beautiful upside of Islam as a religion, particularly when it is viewed through an Integral lens, which is how religion in general will need to be viewed if it is to survive into the future as a positive force. This is the right message, at the right time, from the right person.” – Ken Wilber

“My Isl@m is a beautiful story about love, heartbreak, and redemption. Read it, and be inspired.” – Salman Ahmad, Sufi rockstar, author of Rock & Roll Jihad

“My Isl@m is a love letter to freedom of speech. As Nasr wrestles with oppression, mental and physical, personal and political, his story consistently turns on his ability to find new information, often from surprising sources, and eventually from his own ability to speak as well as listen.” – Clay Shirky, best-selling author of Cognitive Surplus

“As a former Christian fundamentalist, I deeply resonate with Amir’s faith journey. Regardless of your religious background, if you’re struggling with belief or if you’re curious about how the digital revolution is impacting religious thought and empowering a new generation of young activists, this book is a must!” – Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution

Purchase My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul

More details here: http://www.myislambook.com/

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