(First published 2011)
Karen Armstrong attended the Karachi Literature Festival 2011 and spoke on themes of religious harmony and inter-faith dialogue. Her speeches were largely based on her latest book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life“. She took the opportunity to write a compressed version of her book with particular reference to Pakistan. Being a den of terrorists and their large support among the religiously demented people, Pakistan’s socio-cultural mess was the obvious choice for the special attention.
Reading the book, or rather booklet, I was reminded of something a Muslim guy said while listening to a non-Muslim about how peaceful Islam was. “We Muslims love to be told that our religion is one of peace.”
Her efforts are well meant and she raises some very important aspects of our religion which Muslim societies have either forgotten or stopped believing that they make up the core of their religion. It is about the ethics of being human and about compassion. She takes the reader through 12 steps to lead compassionate lives; of how we should look at ourselves and the world and try to form a response which is in line with Islam as well as our humanity. The purpose is to improve things through self reflection and action rather than condemning the other and resorting to acts of violence.
She makes an interesting point about Jahiliyah, the primal condition of mankind. She argues that jahiliyah is very much alive today in every society in the world. She says she see jahilyah in her native Britain, recognises it and makes an effort to engage with jaahils to change their attitude. There is also jahiliyah in Muslim world and that we Muslims should also make an effort to correct it at home. Her point is that we should start correcting ourselves at home before we can point fingers to others.
Some of the twelve steps to compassionate life is learning about ‘compassion’, ‘looking at your own world’, ‘compassion for yourself’, ’empathy’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘action’; it ends at ‘recognition’ and ‘understanding your enemies’ so you don’t hate them for hate’s sake but for the sake of justice. I don’t like the term she uses because it sounds characteristically Christian and is open to misunderstanding, i.e. ‘loving your enemies.’
In short, it is an attempt by a renowned scholar of religions to make Muslims practice the core of their religion instead of succumbing to the view of religion as a demarcater of difference and as a political tool to wrap up all grievances in. My book rating 3/5