a community of lovers
Author: Kabir Helminski
Publisher: White Cloud Press
From one perspective, Holistic Islam is a love letter to the spiritual path of Sufism that has nourished its author for many decades. From another, it is an assessment of the ailing condition of the wider Islamic world and a proposal as to how that world might be brought back to health. It’s insightful, modest, frank, and humane. Kabir Helminski, a shaikh in the lineage of Rumi, does not pretend to have all the answers, but he does provide a starting point from which spiritual and progressive Muslims can draw a tremendous amount of inspiration.
The author recognises that the word Islam implies holistic in and of itself, observing, “If it were not for the extremely unholistic manifestations currently claiming to be Islam, the idea of holistic Islam would not be needed.” The title of the book is therefore an attempt to reconnect Muslims to the inclusive, open-hearted spirit of true Islam, for sadly “what began as a radical interfaith movement at the time of the Prophet has become more and more a self-enclosed community, seeking to define itself in opposition to the prevailing culture, rather than encouraging the recognition of common values.” Difficult words, perhaps, for some Muslims to hear, but surely many more will take heart from them.
The author proposes that Sufism must be the guiding force in the regeneration of Islam. He shares a powerful exchange he had with a friend that encapsulates the essence of what they believe Sufism can offer:
I once asked a friend the question: “Why do you need Sufism? Isn’t Islam enough for you?” I was trying to elicit some fresh insight by asking a fundamental and challenging question. He pondered the question for a while, then thoughtfully replied. “I was born as a Muslim, but after encountering the Sufis I realized I was seeing Islam really lived for the first time. I was in an environment of such love and mercy and I had something to learn from it.”
Many Muslims may feel like shouting for joy reading these lines, knowing that the sign of a lived Islam is not a preponderance of long beards and hijabs, but the felt experience of being held in a community of love. Though those looking for an in-depth study of what Sufism is would be better directed to the author’s other books, Living Presence and The Knowing Heart, here they will encounter a compelling summary. The author recognises that Sufism can be abused by “false teachers who appropriate the language of the mystics and prey on the gullible.” He even recognises that Sufism itself, as it practised today, is often in need of updating, that it needs to be “purified as much as possible from the ‘relative’ aspects of the historical Sufism, and from the secondary cultural aspects in which it has been embedded”. Nevertheless, the author states: “For Muslims, Sufism can restore the Mercy and Beauty that lie at the heart of Islam.”
It is the resuscitation of the wider Islamic world that is the main focus of this book however, and the author identifies a number of areas where a rigid and legalistic approach to the faith has caused the true Islamic spirit to wither. The chapter entitled “What is Shariah Really About?” does a great job of clarifying an area characterised by ignorance and dogmatism. The author writes, “In the Western mind shariah is generally equated with punishments assumed to be draconian: whip-lashings, stonings, and so forth.” The author then notes that many Muslims are equally mistaken, believing shariah to be “the essence of Islam”. Both groups may therefore be surprised (and hopefully relieved) by the author’s assertion that shariah as it is understood today is not even a Quranic concept, but a group of legal rulings (fiqh) put together by scholars some two centuries after Muhammad, and mostly borrowed from Jewish and Roman sources. This is essential reading for all Muslims, and can help us re-evaluate our understanding of what Islam was, is, and can be. The author puts it quite starkly: “…a legalistic understanding transformed Islam from a religion of faith and love into a religion of fear and judgement,” but he lets us know that it is within our power to reclaim a more enlightened understanding of shariah as a flexible “broad path” towards God.
In the same chapter, the author suggests that this reclamation will need to include a revaluation of the hadith literature. He contends that we have reason to be skeptical of the validity of some of the hadith that scholars have labelled sound, and he advocates as follows: “A safe approach to the hadith would be to accept and appreciate those hadith that are inspiring to our hearts and elevating to our moral standards, while being cautious about those few hadiths that add legal precedents not in the Qur’an.” Many Muslims will appreciate the championing of the individual’s own spiritual insight and capacity for critical thinking implied in this approach.
A chapter entitled “The Dialogue of Civilizations and the Globalization of Spirit” maps out what the principles of Islam have to offer the modern world. This makes uplifting reading, ranging from “how Islam can help solve the ecological crisis”, to a vision of an “Institute of Applied Spirituality” that can help counter “the worldliness of global consumerism”. In a chapter entitled “Some Things You Wanted to Know About Islam but Didn’t Know How to Ask”, the author presents the Islamic concept of shura (consultation) as something which might actually inspire and elevate our modern democracies. The same chapter also tackles the issue of female leadership within Islam. This is simply a “no-brainer” for the author, and he defends the inspirational example set by the likes of Amina Wadud. Another chapter, “Islam & Eros”, argues that the Quran offers a healthy basis on which sexual relationships of mutual respect and tenderness can develop between men and woman, whilst also expressing sympathy for the LGBT community and the belief that homosexuality is not forbidden by the Quran.
In arguing that the Quran can provide a model for behaviour in the modern world, the author suggests that some of the prescriptions offered in the Quran were predicated on the level of cultural development in tribal Arabia fourteen centuries ago. In his view, the Quran sometimes offered to this community a series of gradual steps towards greater equality, but in modern times we should aspire to something more advanced if we wish to truly follow the spirit of the Quran.
Many Muslims will find the views expressed here very progressive; some may experience them as un-Islamic, others as new and unsettling, whilst still others may find in them an exhilarating affirmation of what their hearts have always told them. On the issues of gender and sexuality, some progressive Muslims may wish that the book had pushed the boundaries even further, but they will certainly find something to take from the author’s nuanced perspective.
In summary, this is an important book for Muslims, especially, to read. It manages to engage with many more issues relevant to how we live our Islam today than can be highlighted in this review, and to each of these the author brings considerable insight and humanity. If this book can reach into the mainstream Muslim readership, it has the potential to be a catalyst for real and beneficial change.
~ Daniel Thomas Dyer