Humanity's Ledger

Humanity's Ledger
Man is constantly raising the question, with angst and in anguish: Why am I here? Judging from his actions it is clear why he is on this planet. It seems he is here to slaughter one another when he can and to destroy the beauty of the earth, its rivers, its forests, its vegetation and the very air he breathes.

Just months after the climate conference in Egypt, scientists, predictably, issued this warning: “Greenhouse gas emissions have reached an all-time high, threatening to push the world into ‘unprecedented’ levels of global heating […] The world is rapidly running out of ‘carbon budget’, the amount of carbon dioxide that can be poured into the atmosphere if we are to stay within the vital threshold of 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures, according to a study published in the journal Earth System Science Data on Thursday” (Fiona Harvey, “Global greenhouse gas emissions at all-time high, study finds,” The Guardian, 8 June 2023).

When he had arrived at a modern state of affairs and was in a position to feed and house most people, Man began a series of what he called “world wars,” which took at least 80 to 90 million lives. Awestruck at the destruction, Man said, “Never Again,” and then proceeded to repeat exactly the same mistakes. We are, at this very moment, once again, in a Cold War, a Cold War II between the US and China, and at a threshold which may well be the swan song of the human race in a final nuclear apocalypse.

We are, at this very moment, once again, in a Cold War, a Cold War II between the US and China, and at a threshold which may well be the swan song of the human race in a final nuclear apocalypse.

The influential ideas about Great Power Rivalry in our contemporary world derive from several key texts, perhaps the most influential are Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Mearsheimer, who has been studying great power rivalry, warns of the great dangers of the present US-China rivalry and the urgency to bring down the temperature. He pointed out that encounter with the Soviets ended in its collapse and disintegration. China was different both in its population and economic strength. His message was that the dangers are real and urgent.

Henry Kissinger, in a conversation about Cold War II with British historian Niall Ferguson, who had worked on Kissinger’s biography, pointed to the dangers inherent in the US-China confrontation and the real threat to world peace. A characteristic of Kissinger is his capacity to sum up a world crisis with a striking phrase. Describing the global situation, Kissinger commented that we were at the foothills of Cold War II. A year later, he said, “We have entered the mountain passes. Over the passes lies a dystopian world in crisis.” Harvard policy experts wrote about the “Thucydides Trap” into which the US as the incumbent power and China the emerging power were destined to fall. The great power rivalry created an awful premonition of a rerun of Sarajevo 1914, which sent a chill down the spine of those who understood the horrors of modern war.

Indeed, we already had a glimpse earlier of a dystopian world predicted in two of the most celebrated twentieth century novels about the future—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. The continued use and spread of fake news and wide-spread misinformation blurred the facts and acted to conceal the tipping point for several global crises. The almost lackadaisical response of our leaders and politicians suggested their eerily indifferent attitude to the perils we faced.

Or, the end may come with the utter destruction of nature, when the very air we breathe and the water we drink is so polluted it will have lethal consequences.

But it is the hubris in Man that will not allow him to change course. Which is the same problem with the development of AI and the warnings of the experts that it could well be the ultimate extinction level threat to Man when it develops sentience or becomes too powerful to control. That contingency may still be sometime away, but it is coming.

Of course, Man will not heed or listen. He knows all.
One of our great contemporary spiritual figures, Dr Rowan Williams, immediately wrote back when I sent him a draft of this article: “Do you know the old mediaeval conundrum, ‘If God is all-powerful, can He make a stone too heavy for Him to lift?’ One modern theologian quoted this and added, ‘He has: it’s called the human heart’”

The general condition of human existence and the state of the planet are beginning to create a global pall of gloom which hangs heavy on the planet. If evidence is needed of its dolorous effect on Homo Sapiens, then let us take the sample of possibly the sunniest and most upbeat group of demographics: young Australian men. Reports indicate that a significant percentage of them are opting to get vasectomies. The decision is based on concern about the state of the planet, deforestation, the condition of animal rights etc. The trend is significant enough to bring a smile to Greta Thunberg’s face and her mouth to form the words, “I told you so!” (Anushri Sood, “Vasectomies on the rise amongst young, childless men,” SBS News, 4 April 2022.).

Just as birds and animals instinctively know when there is natural disaster heading their way in the form of earthquakes, tornadoes or fire, these young Australian men are sensing seismic extinction-level threat. We have evidence that they are abandoning their primal biological urge, that of procreation. This downward trend provides us with the empirical sociological danger signs of a species in crisis. While conceding that not all Australians match the mighty image of virility presented by Chris Hemsworth in the movie Thor, this information should be sufficient to trigger the alarm bells. We need to ask, why is this happening and how deep is the malaise?

The corollary to these questions is to find answers to what can be done to alleviate or alter the threat felt by the young Australians, and other young males who are thinking like them. If this is indeed the “Age of Madness,” to borrow the phrase used by our lugubrious French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi, then our priority surely must be to endeavour to find its antidote. The answer lies clearly in creating a sense of faith and confidence in the human race and its destiny. And the answer must include people of faith and those who do not believe in traditional religions at all. Unless future fathers feel committed to the human race, they will increasingly lose confidence in the very idea of existence and therefore procreation.

We have arrived at a point of zugzwang as a world civilisation, that is, any move we make on the chessboard of life leads to defeat. There is no hope of locating utopia or discovering ataraxia or calmness and serenity. The desperation of the situation compels us to turn our gaze inwards and find a way out.

Yes, there were bright spots in the dark legacy of humanity: The lives of the central spiritual Abrahamic leaders, the sacrifice at Karbala, the sayings of Rumi and Ibn Arabi, the plays of Shakespeare and verses of Keats, Hafiz and Ghalib. The eastern giants—Lord Buddha, Lord Ram and Guru Nanakdevji, and, further east, Confucius and Lao Tzu.

Jesus commanded us to love one another, and Islam embraces the universe: God describes himself as the God of the universes. He is the Beneficent and the Merciful. His beloved Prophet, blessings upon him, is described in the Quran as a “mercy unto mankind.

Love is the way to the hearts of other people. Whatever merits AI has in crunching numbers assisting in economic schemes, etc., it cannot yet either love or suffer in love.

Karen Armstrong in a video that went viral talked of how she abandoned the Catholic Church and her plans to becoming a nun. She said she was disillusioned with religion itself. But then she fell under the spell of the great Muslim mystic master Sheikh Ibn Arabi. Armstrong quoted the following in which Ibn Arabi explains the nature of the Divine and why it is imperative to embrace the different paths that lead to the Beloved One:

“To not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipotent and omniscient, cannot he confined to any one creed, for he says in the Quran , wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His god is his own creature, and in praising it, he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the belief of others which he would not do if he were just, for his dislike is based on ignorance.”

Who can forget the magnificent movie The Ten Commandments made by Cecil Be De Mille with the shrewdly cast Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as the Pharoah? Moses standing up to Pharoah and arguing with God, speaking truth to power, and standing up for his people, is the Moses who creates awe in us. But the Moses that we love comes to us through a story in Maulana Rumi’s classic Masnavi, the six-volume epic poem and considered by Persians as the “Quran of the Persian language.”

Indeed, there are few stories as clearly illustrative of how God values each worshipper equally than that of Moses and the Shepherd. The story is popularly cited from Rumi. But I was assured by Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation that it is indeed a story from Judaic religious tradition.

In the story Moses, the great prophet, overhears a shepherd addressing God. The shepherd offers to wash God’s feet, to comb His hair, to clean His clothes and care for Him. It is his simple rural way of expressing love and devotion. Moses is outraged. How dare you address God as if He were a mere mortal? You have shown disrespect to God. The shepherd is heartbroken. But then God speaks to Moses in the same tones as he spoke to the shepherd. How dare you reprimand one who expresses his love for me in his own manner? Everyone expresses devotion in their own way, the shepherd in his way, Moses in his.

“Why did you interfere with me and mine, Moses?” asked the Almighty. “Who authorised you to separate the lover from the Beloved? Did I make you my prophet to bring humanity to me or to drive it away?”

Moses was shaken and fell to his knees. “I did not create this world for my profit,” said the Almighty sternly. “My creation is for the benefit of my creatures. I have no need of praise and worship; it is the worshipper who benefits, not I. Nor do I care about what form the worship takes. Try to understand me, Moses. It is the sincerity of the heart that alone interests me. Those bound by outward correctness are unlike those bound by their love for me. Those who love me know no religion but their Beloved.”

Moses is chastised and approaches the shepherd with remorse and apologizes.

The moral of the story is clear. Every worshipper is legitimately and truly on the correct path, although they need to be understood in their own context. But what unites them and cannot be disputed is the love they harbor in their hearts for God and His command to love one another. Religion, tribe, race, ethnicity, and nationality are therefore not distractions, rather they are like building blocks allowing us to know and love one another.

The theme of love connects Mahatma Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi (no relation) whose lives together span two centuries of Indian political thought. Recognizing the singular importance of the concept of love and its corollary nonviolence, Srimati Karuna, the director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, highlighted it in The Gandhi Message in June 2023, “The Power of Ahimsa.” “Love is the essence of life. It generates in us a continuous source of power which is indestructible, ever-productive and transforming. In our love, we awaken ourselves to the higher principles of life. Our ideal is to manifest this love in its perfection. It is the idea of the oneness of life—that you and I are one, that we are one with the stars and the planets; and that if I harm you or another, I harm myself.”

The concept and practice of love and nonviolence were rooted in Indian theology and history. The Mahatma used these concepts to first check and then drive the British empire out of India. Other world leaders would deploy it to stand up to tyranny in their own countries—from Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States to Mandela in South Africa.

Rahul Gandhi also used the concept of love at the National Press Club in Washington DC, in June 2023. Rahul framed it in a manner which reflected more Bollywood than perhaps the Mahatma would have preferred. “In a market of hatred,” Rahul intoned dramatically, “we need to open a shop of love.” He said he was referring to the hateful policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi which are creating division in society and encouraging violence. In contrast, Rahul stated, the philosophy and position of his Congress party was to promote national unity and harmony. For love, Rahul used the word mohabat, widely understood in South Asia by Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, Indians and Pakistanis.

For all their talk of love it is well to remind ourselves that both the Mahatma and Rahul Gandhi’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, lost their lives to violence generated by hatred. Rahul himself is the target of a ceaseless tsunami of spiteful messages threatening violence.

Extraordinary figures had emerged over Man’s history to show him the straight path. Exemplary figures. These inspiring men and women answered the question why we are here on this planet. But, of course, Man turned on these messengers of peace murdering or ignoring them and, worse, twisting their message to justify his violence and hatred.

I have simplified complex patterns of history and smoothened the hills and valleys of Man’s journey into a deterministic linear path. The future remains unknown. But if Man is to be judged on what he has done so far, we can almost predict his actions. Then when the final ledger is drawn, we can assess what is in the red column, appropriately the colour of blood, and note it outweighs the positive side.

Yes, there is the immense commitment and sacrifice of mothers, especially those who toiled in poverty and physical hardship; there is the struggle of those who set out to spread the message of love, compassion and justice that transcended Man’s predicament on earth. There is no doubt about those magnificent achievements such as the beauty of the Taj Mahal or the paintings of artists, the verses of the poets and the findings of the astronomers and scientists. But on balance, the case is tilted against Man. He has thus empirically answered the eternal question himself, Why am I here?

One of our great contemporary spiritual figures, Dr Rowan Williams, immediately wrote back when I sent him a draft of this article: “Do you know the old mediaeval conundrum, ‘If God is all-powerful, can He make a stone too heavy for Him to lift?’ One modern theologian quoted this and added, ‘He has: it’s called the human heart.’”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and his theologian colleague were echoing the beautiful verses of Bulleh Shah, the great mystic poet of rural Punjab:

"Break down the walls of the mosque and those of the temple, but do not hurt the human heart because God resides there."

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland