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The free nature of Allah

Conversation with Shoaib Sultan


"Allah's free nature – conversation with Shoaib Sultan" is an excerpt from Alf van der Hagen's new book The meaning of life? Dialogues about faith (Verbum publishing house 2015). Here van der Hagen talks with the authors Vigdis Hjorth, Tom Egeland, Terje Nordby, Lars Petter Sveen, Anne Kristin Aasmundtveit and Henning Hagerup, the politicians Shoaib Sultan and Gerd-Liv Valla, the historian Hans Fredrik Dahl, the priest Elisabeth Thorsen, the record producer Erik Hillestad, the beggar Simona Vaduva, cantor Terje Kvam and lawyer Geir Lippestad. Alf van der Hagen is an author with an editorial background from Morgenbladet, Bokklubben, NRK and Vagant. The meaning of life? is his seventh conversation book.
"The Free Nature of Allah – Conversation with Shoaib Sultan" is an excerpt from Alf van der Hagen's new book The Meaning of Life? Dialogues about faith (Verbum publisher 2015).
Here van der Hagen talks with the authors Vigdis Hjorth, Tom Egeland, Terje Nordby, Lars Petter Sveen, Anne Kristin Aasmundtveit and Henning Hagerup, politicians Shoaib Sultan and Gerd-Liv Valla, historian Hans Fredrik Dahl, priest Elisabeth Thorsen, record producer Erik Hillestad, the beggar Simona Vaduva, Judge Terje Kvam and lawyer Geir Lippestad.

Of: Alf van der Hagen

Yes, I believe in God. But if I'm sure? I'm sure I believe. Faith is another type of knowledge. It's a belief, simply. But to me, doubt is a necessary part of faith. It's not that I just accept things. I accept that things are not always clear. That I don't understand everything.

Who is God?
I see God as a force in the world, inviting something good. And people with their free will have the opportunity to choose this good or not. One rabbi once wrote that religion is about how we treat each other, and that everything else is commentary.
When is religion first and foremost ethics for you?
To a very large extent. Religion should have a purpose, and the purpose must be to make us better people. Not in relation to God, for God does not need me to pray or eat or follow certain rules. It makes no difference to God, but it makes a difference to me. God gives me some guidelines that are good for me. Therefore, religion is also about reason.
Is your God also my God?
Basically, I believe that all different religions try to approach the same God, but from different angles. I can not say that you should choose the same as me. Everyone must find their way. Not all roads lead necessarily. But religious freedom is an absolute necessity, for the sake of religion! Forcing or threatening someone to believe completely destroys the faith. Coercion is an insult to all religions. As if God needs believers and we must bring them in at all costs? Such an attitude is really blasphemy.
What about mission? To convince others?
I myself have moved away from trying to convince anyone. It is more important to tell others about my faith so that they understand why I choose as I do. This is what religious dialogue is about for me. If someone wants to hear about it, and it helps someone on their way, it's great. But a conversion must be a process in the individual, and it must take place without anyone feeling pressured into it.
Why are you a Muslim?

Religion must have a purpose, and the purpose must be to make us better people.

Because I find a truth in Islam. As humans, we have many questions, and I find answers when I sit down and read the Qur'an. In my youth, I read everything I came across from religious literature from the great traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism. But I ended up with Islam.
What did you like best about the others?
In Buddhism, the spiritual aspect fascinated me, especially meditation. Muslims do not call it meditation, but I see the Muslim daily prayers as an important meditative exercise. The prayers are not for God, he does not need them. They are for man. To be able to reflect on one's own life, on one's own choices and challenges. What fascinates me about Christianity is the idea of ​​forgiveness, of God's love. It also says something about human fallibility. "It is human to make mistakes," we say. A simple sentence, but it says a lot about the relationship between man and God.

Do you have yourself had religious crises and afflictions?
Constantly. You see famines somewhere in the world and think: How in the world can God allow this? The answer I come to is that it is not He who allows this. We humans allow that.
But then is not God omnipotent?
For real freedom to take place, we must also have the freedom to do things that are completely wrong. And unfortunately we do that all the time. All too often we try to push our wrong choices onto God, or use God as a justification for all the evil that is happening.
Are you afraid of sinning against God?
No. What you need to worry about is sinning against others. In Islam there are two key concepts: Allah's right og the right to worship. The duty to God and the duty to fellow human beings. The duties you have towards other people are just as important as those you have towards God. The Qur'an states that God will forgive sins committed against him, but he cannot simply forgive sins committed against other people. If I sin against you, you will be able to forgive me, but God will not forgive me unless you do. There are people who must forgive people. And some Sufis, of whom I have begun to read more, say that it all begins with saying, "I forgive all who have done wrong to me." It's an attitude I as a young man did not fully grasp. Why in the world would I forgive someone who had done something wrong to me? But to use a very Christian term: "Who can throw the first stone?" Who is totally without sin, who has not done anything wrong to anyone? The only way the world can move forward is by saying: Well, I forgive those who have done something wrong to me, and I hope the others will do the same to me.
You mentioned the Sufis. Persian poets such as Sa'di and Rumi, or Attar in the book The assembly of the birds, leaves a strong impression that love is above a literal reading of the Qur'an. Is it also your summary of Sufism, that Love is greater than the Law?

Forcing or threatening someone to believe completely destroys the faith. Coercion is an insult to all religions. As if God needs believers and we must bring them in at all costs? Such an attitude is really blasphemy.

I have The assembly of the birds lying in front of the home. But for me there is no contradiction here. There are some believers who claim to be literal, while others simply interpret. But there is no one who is just literal. It's not possible. Everything is interpretation. The only way you can relate to a text is by interpreting it. Some choose to interpret it in one way, others in a completely different way. The Qur'an is written in Arabic, perhaps the most picturesque and poetic language in the world. One who formulates himself well in Arabic spends a long time getting to the point. You never approach anything directly. This is actually seen as something positive. Why then should one approach religious scriptures in a completely different way?
Have you yet made the Hajj, the great pilgrimage to Mecca?
No, I have so far only been on what is called the little pilgrimage, Umrah, ie a journey to Mecca outside the Hajj. I was there with my wife a few years ago.
What do you expect from Hajj when you go to fulfill your obligations as a Muslim?
Hajj is an experience that changes you, in one way or another. People who may not take religion that seriously in the first place can become very religious. But others actually end up with the opposite, and lose faith. I look forward to traveling, but I have major problems with the extreme materialism that characterizes today's Saudi Arabia. Huge luxury hotels are being built right next to sacred sites. I do not know how this will affect my Hajj, but I think the world is moving in a more and more materialistic direction, also on the religious front. And Saudi Arabia does or wrong in that area! Now I notice that it is the environmental party politician who is speaking. There are many Muslims also in Norway who are in the middle of a big class trip. The parents may have come as illiterates from a poor region in Pakistan, while the children have received higher education, got good jobs and are in the middle of a great material prosperity development. All right, people have to find their own way, I will not sit and say what is right and wrong. But I wish, also for Muslims, that material success was not what we are constantly trying to measure each other by.
You referred to God as a positive force in the world. Are there special places you have been to where you have felt that power?
I love being out in nature. My childhood from I was ten to eighteen years I spent in a place called Skogbygda, or Skaubygda, in Nes municipality in Akershus. It is located right up to the border to Hedmark. These are years that have left their mark on me. I really enjoy being out in nature.
How do you feel God's presence there?
I notice a calm. When life pushes, I like to walk in the woods and feel both the physical exertion and the atmosphere when you are completely alone and only hear the chirping of birds or a trickling stream. It's a good feeling.
But is there really any difference between what you experience in the forest and what a humanistic member of the Nature Conservation Association can experience in the same place?
The experiences can be much the same. But the starting point you have often affects what you manage to interpret out of them. One of the books that has influenced me the most in life is called The Road to Mecca. It was written in the 1950s by an Austrian Jew who ended up converting to Islam and took the name Muhammad Asad. A wonderful book. Among other things, he writes about these nights out in the desert, where you can suddenly understand what religion is. You understand why all three major world religions originate from the same place, for there is no other place you can feel as close to God as out in the desert at night. When you are alone there, you understand this. When I, for my part, am out in the woods or on the coast, preferably at a time when there are not too many other people there, then I feel something of the same.
I could also say the opposite: Under the starry sky, you understand how infinitely small you are. How absurdly cold and meaningless the universe is, how insignificant and short this life is before we die, and there is nothing more. An anxiety that grips. Have you known about it?
Yes, both how small human life is, and how big the universe is, there are emotions I recognize. But it fills me to a small degree with anxiety, on the contrary, it gives a very calm… When I was Secretary General of the Islamic Council of Norway, I got a strange question from a journalist:
"Will your faith go into crisis if you find out that there is life elsewhere in space?" "No, of course not," I replied. The Qur'an states that God created the universe and spread life through it. Then it sounds strange if all life should have ended up on this one little planet. I always remember an episode in Tommy and the tiger, where the two sit and look up at the sky and the infinite starry sky. Then it comes from Tommy: "I think the proof of intelligent life out there is that they have not contacted us."

Yes exactly. And it is environmental and climate policy that are the topics you are most passionate about?
I can feel the dizziness in the image of a person sitting high up in a tree and sawing off the branch it is sitting on. Climate change is not something to come; they are here already. But they affect others more than us. We still live in a denial: It is important that someone does something, somehow, but it must be someone other than us. By all means, India must not have the same standard of living as us, because then the branch will break. If there is one thing I am afraid of, it is the great conflicts that can arise in the world when resources decrease and the number of people increases. We need to take some action, we need politicians who dare to speak out against people. Not everyone can get more. We have to cut back on something. But unfortunately, there are few politicians who dare to say such unpopular things.
Do you belong to the reform camp among Norwegian Muslims?
It is often an artificial construction, this with moderate and non-moderate. But I read many reform thinkers; for example, Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani thinker from the 1960s who built up Islamic studies at the University of Chicago in the United States. And Khaled Abou El Fadl, who wrote the book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, he received an award from the University of Oslo a few years ago. His book claims that Islam has been hijacked by extremists and that it is a matter of taking back the religion. Or the American professor Kecia Ali, who is a feminist and a strong Muslim at the same time. She is currently writing a book about the Prophet's wives. I look forward to it. I like to read what such people write, but that does not mean that I agree with them in everything. Often they do not give me answers to what I am wondering, but they do give me several good questions to wonder about. I have come past the period where you need someone who gives answers. I do not need their answers, I need the good questions that I can sit and reflect on.


Alf van der Hagen is an author with an editorial background from Morgenbladet, Bokklubben, NRK and Vagant. The meaning of life? By Alf van der Hagen is his seventh conversation book.

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