By Abdullah Hamidaddin
28 June 2015
I have a lot to thank Twitter for. The most recent cause of gratitude is Pope Francis’ encyclical: Laudato Si' (Care of our common home). Just a week ago I wasn't even aware of the word ‘encyclical’. I follow the Pope on Twitter and last week his account was tweeting on the environment, among other social issues. It is from there that I got to know of this document, and I read some of its history from online sources, in particular its emphasis beginning the late 19th century to respond and react to social problems brought about by modernity, technology and capitalism.
As a Muslim I have heard a lot about Islam being a religion for the afterlife but also for this life. And that every aspect of our lives has a religious dimension. This idea in itself could lead to different outcomes, but the prevailing one in the Muslim world was that we must implement Sharia law. The ubiquity of religion implies the full reach of religious laws.
So my initial sense to reading some parts of the encyclical was: ‘this feels at home, but a different kind of home.’ I am still trying to crystalize the full sense, but it was clear to me that this was not a call for applying religious laws. Here the Pope was discussing issues which concern us as human beings but adding a spiritual dimension to our approach to those issues. He was spiritualizing our quest for understanding and solutions to the major issues facing humanity.
The ideas in Laudato Si' are not new, nor unique to the Pope. But the spiritual charge that they were given is inspiring, at least to me. Even in the instances I disagreed with him, such as on birth control. I liked the approach, the way spirituality is embedded into my life, without any mention of legislation.
The Encyclical stirred much of controversy and debates and will continue to do so in countries and communities with a Catholic or Christian heritage. There were the conservatives who were not happy to see the Pope go green. There were secularists who worry – rightfully most of the time - whenever religion walks out of the temple. There were also the faithful who want the Pope to focus on what really matters, issues such as moral decay. And then there are people like me; non-Catholics who heard of this for the first time.
Now, caring for our world, belief in social justice, empathy with the poor and downtrodden, concerns over the consequences of technology... are not easy issues. They are complicated and deeply intertwined with power and interests. Moreover they are not matters waiting to be recognized and raised by a religious authority. Spiritualizing those issues can have a strong impact towards finding and implementing solutions.
Rational and Moral Logic
We are rational beings who can discuss the concerns of humanity from a cost benefit analysis aspect; but we are also moral beings who can discuss the plight of others and the obligation that those who are better off have towards the less privileged. A religious authority will not add to the rational or the moral discussion of our concerns as humans. But there is something more about us. We are also spiritual beings. At least many of us believe that. Here it is where a religious authority matters. It adds a spiritual dimension to the discussions on humans and humanity's wellbeing. While rational and moral logic is enough for many there are those who would benefit from having a spiritual dimension. When taking care for nature is connected to our faith in God is takes a different form and we respond to it with a different fervour.
The Pope in my view was speaking as a rationalist. Presenting conclusions he made based on his own rational thinking. He was also speaking as a moralist. Insisting on the obligations we have towards each other and towards the earth we live on. But he was also speaking as a religious authority insisting that the major issues of our life need to be part of our spiritual path. He was saying that opening our hearts to God is not merely about rituals but about empathy and care and preserving the blessings God be sowed upon us.
And I am not talking about spiritualizing the issues, but their conclusions. Belief in global warming should not be part of one’s faith because the Pope or other religious authority raised it. But concern for our earth should be a spiritual issue and it can only become that when endorsed by a religious authority with a long standing tradition and a legitimacy rooted deeply in history and practice.
As a Muslim I find his statement extremely comforting. It doesn't matter to me whether or not he shares my faith. Nor does it matter to me that I agree with the specifics of his conclusions or not. What matters to me is that the Pope created a new spiritual common ground between followers of all faiths. Previously God was the main common ground for those with a spiritual inclination; morality was another important common ground.
All of this might sound like a daydream to some. Violence and terror have been plaguing our lives to the point where some of us are now believing that it is our fate. Last Friday’s triple terror attacks can easily drive despair into our hearts; and we have had many bloody days.
For some of us, Bloody Friday is an affirmation of our tragic fate; a sign of the beginning of a long dark terror campaign and sectarian civil war. But there are many others who refuse to surrender to terror; who refuse a fatalistic attitude towards the future of humanity; who insist on holding on to hope no matter what and celebrate all efforts to bring people together in peace and empathy for one another. I believe the Pope's Encyclical is such an effort. It should be celebrated and embraced by people of all forms of belief or even nonbelief.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London.