Karen Armstrong is a renowned British scholar and author of a number of books on comparative religions, including Buddha, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, A History of God and Islam: A Short History, to name a few. She is also the architect of Character of Compassion, a message she wishes to spread all over the world.
Dawn caught up with her in Islamabad to discuss her latest project.
Q: Do you aim to redefine the meaning of compassion?
A: No, I am historian. I write about the past and how it impacts the present. But compassion has been an essential part of religious traditions ever since. If you dig into history, all religions insisted that compassion is the test of true spirituality.
“Do not impose on others what you yourself not desire,” wrote Confucius, an ancient but influential Chinese philosopher, teacher and a political figure known for his popular aphorisms and for his models of social interaction, born in 551 BC.
In that day and age too, societies were dealing with crises and violence like today but there was a general feeling that unless people learn to treat other people as they wish to be treated themselves, human beings cannot survive, they will simply destroy one another.
I give you another quote of a Chinese philosopher who came much after Confucius, who said: “If a king considered another king’s state of its own, he will never go for a war.”
I think presently the world is in a bad state, we have a lot of irresponsible rulers all over the world with fingers on the nuclear button and this is why Character of Compassion must be adopted.
Q: Is implementation an uphill task?
A: Yes, that’s what we are discovering. But Pakistan is up in the front here and what Pakistan has done is for others to follow. The business community has taken the first step in implementation of Character for Compassion instead of other sectors of the society or the government.
Businessmen are more practical, plus they are not afraid to risk things. They have the courage to try something out of the box, they involve people, and this is what they are good at. Another sector which I would love to see taking the step forward is of educationists.
Compassion should be included in the syllabus and compassionate teaching inserted in the curriculum just like English language. In Karachi, I met a doctor who has adopted the Character of Compassion, because medicine and compassion are hand and glove; a doctor takes vows to serve humanity when he steps into the world of medicine.
Q: How does this accompany your work on religion?
A: Compassion is part of a great endeavour. I find unity in it. What is fascinating about writing on different religions is that they have a deep level of similarities with one another but each does it in a rather unique manner.
The Golden Rule is the key. The Quran is simply a private and practical compassion. One does not know what will happen to oneself on the Day of Judgment, but you may be saved because you gave a poor man a drink of water. That little kind act which never meant a big deal to you may save you in the after world.
Similarly other religions too have their own interpretations but in their own way. Compassion is the common thread in all these religions. Writing books on the history of God, the history of Jerusalem or the history of fundamentalism, the material kept bringing me back to compassion.
This is something we recognise when we see it, we know it’s humane, it’s in us, when you look at the world around, this will hold it together.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2018