A Ramadan Musing: When Philosophy Meets Religion – Essay


Humanity cannot live by bread, pasta, or rice alone – it needs transcultural philosophy as a foundation of morality.

The philosophical dimension of religion can be more powerful than its institutional and ritual. It should be through the philosophy of religion that one can explore the essence of the dialogue between what Hassidic philosopher Martin Buber calls, the “Thou and the I”, the Ultimate Self and the Ultimate Reality, or between Man and Creator. This is what is meant by the transcultural nature of mystical discourse. Those familiar with Buber’s philosophy will agree that the idea of the dialogical “I-Thou” contains a profound statement of Man’s ontological vocation, a transcultural-philosophical view can best be an avenue that can appeal to educational philosophers intending to explore universality in mystical thoughts.

For societies struggling to understand the potential of interfaith dialogue, this idea can be a good starting point for a powerful discourse.


Let me illustrate some of the salient mystical ideas that correspond to Buber’s ‘relational philosophy’; namely those from the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic traditions. The transcultural dimension of I-Thou relation in the variety of religious experiences points out to the Ultimate Reality and the illumination to self of which when this stage of enlightenment is achieved the “goodness” in Man is drawn out, Humanity reaches its moral epitome and the I-it world is imbued with the presence and vision of Thou-ness.

In Christianity, it is the Jesus of Love and the love of Jesus, which runs through the idea of the setting of the precondition of the I’s “meeting” with Thou. Humanity yearns for self-illumination and for the discovery of the inner beauty of self-government. St Francis Assisi’s parable of the seeker of God and poor man of a church (the Master of his own kingdom) illustrates this point:

“The Master asked… : Whence are you come? From God Where did you find God?’ When I forsook all creatures When have you left God? In pure hearts and in the sea of goodwill. The Master asked: What sort of man are you? I am a king. Where is your kingdom? My soul is my kingdom, so I can so rule my senses inwards and outward, that all the desires and powers of my soul are in subjection, and this kingdom is greater than a kingdom on earth. What has brought you to this perfection? My silence, my high thoughts, and my union with God. For I could rest in anything less than God. Now I have found and in God have eternal rest and peace.” (Underhill, pp 209-210)

In Buddhism, the Self acknowledges the Thou-ness of his/her existence through meditation and the following of the noble path in order for one to attain Nibbana. The I-it world can only reach salvation and prepare the meeting of the Thou through the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of suffering (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1967) which among them calls upon Man to:

“know suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering; … to renounce the world and to do no hurt or harm; … to abstain from lies and slander, from reviling, and from tattle; … to abstain from taking life, from stealing, and from lechery; … (p 277)”

It is when these are taken to be a part of one’s commitment to self-purification that the I-it world may be elevated to a higher level of consciousness. In the Hindu cultural philosophy, the I-Thou meeting can be preconditioned by Man’s submission to the Law of Manu, a code of conduct written as metrical sutras of dealing with the religious, legal, customary, and political aspects of the Hindu philosophy .

The purpose of life as conceived by the Hindus is to arrive at the fullest realisation of his/her existence through dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (enjoyment) and moksha (spiritual freedom) (Radhakrishnan & Moore, p 172)

Man is to live anthromophically with Nature in a world wherein beings and non-beings have their significance in the cosmic and metaphysical order of creation. It is when the world is looked upon as an “It” – to be dominated – and peoples to be utilized that this order is violated and Mother Earth is raped and the cycle of destruction begins. In the Taoist tradition, the character of Lao Tze, controversial to many a Confucionist of his philosophy of Nature, is an epitome of the “Thou-ness” in thought.

In Lao Tze, Nature is not to be tampered with at all, illustrative in his symbolic metaphor of the uncarved stone that creativity of Man would carve into representations. If there should be a great grandfather of eco-philosophy, Lao Tze would be one. In one of the most foundational dialogues in the Taoist philosophical thoughts, in which Kung Fu Tze (Confucius) is said to visit Lao Tze to consult him in matters of propriety: Lao Tzu said:

“Those of whom you talked about are dead and their bones are decayed. Only their words have remained. When the time is proper, the superior man rides in a carriage, but when it is not, he covers himself up and staggers away. I have heard that a good merchant stores away his treasures as if his store were empty and that a superior man with eminent virtues appears as if he were stupid. Get rid of your air of pride and many desires, your insinuating manners and lustful wishes. None of these is good for you. That is all I have to tell you. (translation, Chan, 196, p 36) 

The essence of the passage and of Taoist philosophy is to live a life of humility through the subjugation of the Ego. It is this essence of naturalism in philosophical thought which has brought Lao Tze’s mysticism comparable to Buber’s “Thou-ness” in which nature is seen as one amongst the many beings in the world of the Thou. The Tao The Ching (The Way) is to be followed in order for Thou to meet the I in the Taoist tradition.

The Islamic conception of mysticism must begin with the mentioning of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as one of the world’s greatest mystics whose entire life was spent preaching the Thou-ness of living. Allah (God) is to be made present in the heart, mind and soul of the believers so that the I-it world may become one in submission to the will of the Supreme Being. Peace for oneself, society, nations, and the world order can be attained by adhering to the true spirit and meaning of the Quran.

The mystical aspect of Islam nonetheless involves one taking the path to self-purification best illustrated by those “seeking God” through Sufism, among the paths. The writings and narrated experiences of poet mystics such as Qadir Jailani, Rabiyattul Adawiyah Fariduddin Attar, Jalaluddin Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Al Ghazalli and of one widely recognized in the west, Idries Shah, illustrate the Thou-ness of the tradition. In the Malay world we find such work in the poet-mystics of the early Malay kingdom such as Hamzah Fansuri.

The popular profound sayings of the Islamic mystics “know thyself and you will know God”, and “God is closer to you than your jugular vein” has remarkable similarity with the Hassidic belief of the closeness of God to those who seeks to meet Him through his Grace. It is to be noted that Moses (PBUH) and Jesus (PBUH) are revered to be two of the major prophets of Islam and the monotheism in these two are but a continuation of the God’s message brought also by Muhammad (PBUH) as the last prophet in the lineage of those beginning with Adam.

Thus, the mysticism inherent in the religions I have scantily mentioned points out the transcultural-philosophical paradigm inalienable to Buber’s idea of I and Thou.

It is my view thus that the inherent philosophical aspects of those religious traditions point out to the need for their believers to work towards peace from within the self so that this boundary can then be extended to others, to beings and non-beings, and ultimately to the planet and cosmos in which then, we will realize that all there is the Thou of whom which we are to provide rendezvous.

It is when the self is “immersed and lost” in the finiteness of the Thou that humanity can take its true character and that the ego is subjugated from its need to manifest all forms of behavior and acts anathema to the Thou-ness of the I.

“Politics and madness”

Politics is said to be the art and science of constitutionalizing and unconstitutionalizing of power relations. It has been a predominant influence of the ego of Man and has crafted an iron curtain to veil the apolitical and beauty of the Inner self. Through the politics of demagoguery, Man has created psychological, cultural, social, economic, political, and global structures which mirror the triumphs of the ego over the primordially pure and peaceful self.

This may perhaps explain the manifestations of mania that have historically colored our activities as human beings: The two World Wars, the war on terrorism, the illegitimate invasion of Iraq, slavery, the Holocaust, the nuclear arms race, environmental degradations, and destruction, and a range of other madness and disorders in the history of human civilizations. The “I” seeks power, seizes it, and uses it to shackle the I-it primary word so that an I-Thou relation is no longer possible.

The power sought is then used to subjugate others and threaten Nature. The manifestations above point to the meaning of power in the realpolitik-al sense as opposed to the mystical. But a pertinent question that correlates with the Buberian and transcultural-philosophical view of power is this: How can the Self be made to realize its infinite power within?

How do we evolve – from “man” to metaphysical beings? How do we evolve – as the Malays would say – from “manusia” to “insan” to “insanul Kamil”? — so that the larger Inner world harmonizes with the smaller one Outside? 


Buber, M (1958). I and Thou. New York: Collier Books.

Chan, W-T. (1963). Translation – The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao the Ching). New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co.

Radhakrishna, S & Moore, C.A.E. (Eds) (1967). A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Underhill, E (1955). Mysticism. New York: Meridian.

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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