I was asked to speak at the Yakubu Gowon Centre enlightenment forum at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos in February 1993. Subject: In the Name of God. Emeka Obasi, one of the brightest journalists of his generation and a consultant to the Centre, had written that looking around, they believed I was highly qualified to address the subject they had chosen for the occasion. Question: Was I?
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, as I contemplated this subject-matter, I chanced on a prayer of Thomas Kempis, an Augustinean Monk (1380 – 1471) who was the reputed author of “Limitation of Christ”. He said,
“Grant me prudently to avoid the one who flatters me, and patiently to bear with the one who contradicts me; for it is a mark of great wisdom not to be moved by every wind of words, nor to give ear to the wicked flattery of the siren; for thus we shall go on securely in the course we have begun.”
In the treatment of this subject-matter, I would like to plead that no one should take offence for I do sincerely mean none to any one. Tolerance of my views should be proof enough that we in Nigeria shall go on securely in the course we have striven to begin.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to start from the well-known by recognizing that Nigeria is more than a mere geographical expression on a map; that Nigeria is the most thickly-populated country on the continent of Africa; that it has the largest concentration of human spirits wearing black bodies on Planet Earth today; that its more than 94 million – hectare land mass is one of the most endowed on Earth today.
I want to recognize that Nigeria is one of the few countries on Earth today that have been exposed, without interference as a matter of national policy, to ideas of mankind, past and present, either trapped in books written by intellectuals of the West or the East or mediated in Holy Books, the two most dominant being the Holy Bible and the Holy Quran.
It would not be out of place to also grant that in spite of the profound influence of the two great Religions of Christianity and Islam, the average Nigerian has had a thorough grounding in the traditions of his ancestors, and that this grounding in the traditions, in times of stress, predominates.
The fact of the Nigerian life therefore is that in at least 70 per cent of our 97,000 communities, we are fully alive to our traditions grounded in belief in traditional gods which include totems, and we also simultaneously embrace Christianity or Islam, the predominating one depending on time and place and circumstance.
The beauty of a situation such as ours is that we are ripe to take a quantum jump into a future of peace and harmony, reflective of the reality of true Godliness. And the danger in such a situation also is that we may take the jump into an abyss from which it would be difficult to emerge, without knowing that we had plunged into the depths.
It should be obvious therefore that reference to IN THE NAME OF GOD is not a reference in which all Nigerians consciously or unconsciously vibrate together on a particular wavelength that is objectively identifiable through, for want of a more practical word, intuitive sensing.
I want to plead that the implication of what I have just said is that it is not the priest or the Imam that mouths the words IN THE NAME OF GOD that necessarily opens up a way to the Heights, to Luminous Realms. I say in all seriousness and humility, and with a sense of responsibility, so profound that it is binding on me even hereafter, that that mouthing of the words IN THE NAME OF GOD may well throw open the gates to Hell where the mouthing lacks the ingredients of the invocation’s make-up. But let me not jump the gun.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Nigerians do not as a people, doubt the existence of God. Even in our traditional lore, we grade gods but recognize the ‘King’ of them all as ‘Supreme’, though in our narrow-mindedness and unforgivable loss of vision, we see the ‘Supreme King’ of the gods as an infinite multiplication of all the totems that would present a picture of immense age and immense size of a ‘father’ totem. This father totem is capable of doing anything, from the arbitrary granting of favours outside the law of sowing and reaping, to the destruction, for us, of those we say have wronged us.
The great Religions of the world agree that the God with a Capital G is the Almighty, All-knowing, All-Seeing. He is unknowable except through His Work. In the Koranic school at Auchi many years ago, we were told of 99 names by which the Creator of all the worlds was known. In other words, Allah was knowable only through a recognition of His Attributes. We were told that He was the only One and that there has never been and will never be any other.
I am not aware that any Christian has ever denied the existence of only one God. The teaching is that God manifests His Love through Christ and His Work through the Holy Spirit. The Way to the God-head therefore is Christ, LOVE.
The pre-eminent pre-occupation of scholars as to the doctrine of Trinity and Christ’s Divinity is in my view an unnecessary distraction, and cannot be the reason why anyone would accept or refuse or refute the great work of Christ in anchoring the Light on earth at a most critical time in the evolution of mankind. I do not doubt that scholars are scholars because of learning, because of what they have acquired with their brains. The brain produces the intellect, and so the intellectual. Knowing ones are unanimous in their teachings that the brain divides, dissects, analyses and disintegrates reality. The brain is incapable of true comprehension. Joy and Sorrow are true experiences and no one in this audience can boast that they have ever felt joy or sorrow in their brains. These feelings, these experiences register in our hearts and it is with our hearts that we touch the Heart of the Universe where we find love. People love with their hearts not with their brains.
The point I am making, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, is that there is a world of difference between scholarship and experiencing, between theory and practice, between telling stories about living and living life; between science and religion; between the material and the spiritual. It is my humble submission that Life is and should be experienced. And that an explanation of life is beyond the capacity of the intellect which is a product of the brain. What great truth lies in the revelation that “too much thought, too many cares, too much cerebral activity, have unbalanced man”.
The implication of what I have said about the material and the spiritual is that there has to be, and there actually already is, a division of labour in addressing the material and the spiritual, in investigating them. The field of operation of science is the material; the field of operation of religion is the spiritual. Scientists in whatever mundane area of study must learn, and do learn, the language of coarsest gross matter. In Nigeria we have some 250 such languages and if we must communicate to be understood in them, we have to learn them, otherwise we would be a nuisance to those who speak them and with whom we would like to communicate. The same is true of Spiritual language which is spoken with the heart, in pictures. Religious leaders owe us a duty to learn to communicate in that language. It is only when they have learned that language that they can attempt to interpret it to us. It is the language of the Bible and the language of the Quran.
The key to the language of the spiritual is LOVE. Not the lascivious expressions of a mentally deranged humanity that sees love in sexual orgies. But that LOVE which is so impersonal as to enable the sun to shine on all, in spite of their state and status.
It is said that as it is above, so it is below. If therefore we all accept that the Creator of all the worlds operates in perfection, being Perfect Himself, then our experiencing of imperfections below, of so much disgusting vermin down here in the veils of matter, must be our own making or must have been meant to school us in the destabilizing ways of imperfection so that we can grow in the direction of perfection.
The growth in the direction of perfection, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I submit, is the area, the arena, of religion, of Christianity and Islam. From that podium on High, they must speak to us of peace, of harmony, of happiness, of joy, of LOVE. The genuineness of their communication lies more in their way of life. Haven’t I humbly submitted that life is lived. Our religious leaders must live the lives of peaceful people who want peace, of loving people steeped in true love.
It is, in my view, religious intolerance for an Islamic scholar to tell me of the alleged failings of the Bible or for a Christian scholar to attempt to tutor me on the so-called lapses of the Quran. The little drama I had in my office a few days ago tells graphically the impact which interference of one faith in another may well have on the adherents. I was trying to address myself to this assignment when two young lawyers came to see me.
One of them, a lady, looked visibly shocked and taken aback when she saw a book on my desk. The title, “Jesus, a Prophet of Islam”, by Muhammad Ata ur-Rahim. The young lady said the reference to Jesus as a prophet was blasphemous, and as a prophet of Islam was inflammatory. I tried to tell her that there was Islam before Muhammed but she would not listen. She told me she was sure I had lost my sense of history and the author himself would never have had any sense of history. Islam, she tried to lecture me, was the religion introduced to the Arabs by Mohammed who lived some 600 years after Jesus Christ walked the Earth. If Mohammed was later in time than Jesus, anyone who claims that Jesus was a prophet of a religion later in time than Christianity was guilty of historical misdirection. Unknown to the young lady, the book under reference took 30 years to research and was written for the western world to come to a better appreciation of Islam.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, there was a second book among the pile I had on my table and I drew the young lady lawyer’s attention to it. The title, “Islam Revealed”, by Dr Anis Shorrosh. Dr Shorrosh is a Christian Arab, and in December 1985 had a public debate on the topic “Is Jesus God?” with Ahmed Deedat, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, in England’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. Dr Shorrosh himself is regarded as a world authority on the Quran just as Ahmed Deedat is regarded as a world authority on the Bible. The book was written in anticipation of a second debate between the two scholars on the topic. “The Quran or the Bible: which one is the Word of God?” The aim of Dr Shorrosh was to win a battle against Islam by showing, according to him, that “the Quran is based on the Hebrew-Christian Bible and contains contradictions and inaccuracies that form the basis for the Muslims’ beliefs.”
But the young lady lawyer who raved and ranted at the sight of the title of Muhammad Ata ur-Rahim’s “Jesus, A Prophet of Islam”, a book she did not even open, was enamoured by Shorrosh’s “Islam Revealed”. But listen to her, “What Shorrosh is saying is the truth about the Quran.” But she had neither read Shorrosh nor the Quran!
The truth of the matter, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, is that a Christian scholar writing on Islam does not win over any Muslim. He solidifies Christians in their faith, and does more. He makes them enemies of Muslims. The same is true of a Muslim scholar writing on the Bible or the Life of Jesus. He strengthens Muslims in the faith, and entrenches hatred of Christians in their hearts. How ennobling it would be, for example, if Nigerian newspapers restricted all religious discussions to Muslims speaking about Islam and Christians about the Bible and Christ.
And for the simple reason that discourses across borderlines of faith are gross-material acts of the intellect that knows no more than piece-work, and not the products of the heart, of love, they lead to more misunderstandings of one another’s beliefs and points of view and, so, to further intolerance.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the words IN THE NAME OF GOD should now be more than an angry note of exclamation, more than just an appeal to reason. The WORDS should register, when mouthed, at that level of recognition which man on earth today qualifies for, not at that level at which he wants to operate. And at this time in World Events (I am sorry I will neither define ‘world’ nor ‘events’ at this forum), man qualifies for recognitions at the level of the spiritual, which is more than a state of mind and more than a place, but which is our point of origin, from whence we came millennia ago and to which eventually we shall return, consciously or unconsciously. Ladies and Gentlemen, chaos is the inevitable reward for failure to grasp that which you are ripe for. So you now have the simple and seemingly naive answer to the problems of man on earth today, problems of whatever definition and of whatever dimension.
The picture in our minds when the words IN THE NAME OF GOD are mouthed should not then be of a god of yam or a god of smallpox or a god of a river. It should be the sensing of a powerful presence, of a witness to whatever we think in our minds, say with our mouths or do with our hands. It should be the presence of the Almighty, the Only One worthy of Worship, the One in Whose Name Creation came into being and in whose Name Creation is replenished and sustained; the Only Light, Life itself.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, please hold a picture in your mind as you let the words IN THE NAME OF GOD flow through you from head to toe. What do you see? Please keep it to yourself but let me give you a hint. If in that state when those Holy Words flow through your veins you feel apathy and unconcern; if you feel a sense of superiority over others; if there is any thought of anything you ever did, good or evil, being capable of being hidden from Him you accept is the Almighty and therefore All-Seeing; if there is any remote sensing of detachment when you mouth those words or allow them to course through your veins, then, sirs and madams, the god of your recognition is a man-made god, arbitrary in the extreme, a totem you can dictate to because it is of your own creation, a picture you threw out to the cosmos and which is reflecting powerfully back to you. A Demon in a false garb.
The God in the subject-matter, IN THE NAME OF GOD, is the God of the Christian and the God of the Muslim. IN THE NAME OF GOD is therefore an invocation of profound significance. This invocation does not permit of any reduction in that recognition which minimally attests to the Creative Will of the Almighty in action, and Its impeccable predictability. The prophecy is fulfilled therefore that the harvest is in the very act of sowing, that sowing and reaping are separated only by time and space and circumstance. Corn unfailingly bears corn in a few months; cocoa brings forth cocoa in a few years; and the sowing of seeds through our thoughts and words and physical deeds brings forth the corresponding harvest according to Law, In the Name of God.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the truth about sowing and reaping cannot be that all your sowings must wait for one day to be reaped, one day when the trumpets shall sound and all mankind will be woken from their graves and lined up to be judged at the same time and place. No. The truth that must call me to account, that must make me be keenly on the watch, that invokes perpetual alertness in me, is that sowing and reaping are continuous, that judgement is continuous. We are therefore being judged every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every year, at birth, at death, as individuals, as groups, as a people, as a race, as mankind; and each judgement is a maturing and reaping of seeds sown; the bumper harvest of a planting.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Nigeria is harvesting the seeds planted in the past by Nigerians themselves. That the taste of harvest is bitter is evidence only of the profound truth that we did not sow love in the past, or sow with love. And at the same time, Nigeria is sharing in the harvesting of the bitterness the world has sown in the past through wars and envy and distrust.
The unfortunate thing is that at every turn when we take decisions that willy nilly must bind us, we do so in the name of something, In the Name of God. It was in the Name of God that we angered Moses into breaking the Commandments he was given by God. In the Name of God, we destroyed the earthly body of Jesus Christ on a wooden cross in Jerusalem; and 60 years after the passing of Christ, only one of his twelve disciples was alive, but in exile. The others had died of cruel murder, inflicted In the Name of God.
In the Name of God, we stoned Muhammed in the streets of Mecca when he proclaimed the faith and had many of his followers slaughtered even as they called us from the seeming safety of the minaret.
In contemporary Nigerian experience, we are doing those things which would give the impression that we do not want to learn the lessons of history. In the Name of God, we rob the very people we claim are sovereign by subverting the ballot which enables them to pick their leaders. To the glare of klieg lights and the blare of music, we flaunt our material opulence even when we are aware of the injunction that in giving, we should hesitate to let the right hand know what the left hand has given and to whom. We build cathedrals and mosques as monuments and desecrate them with our depressing presences, our minds disgraceful custodians of hatred, distrust and envy. On Fridays and on Sundays, instead of teaching us to love and to improve our ways of life and accommodate other people in reflecting their own ways of life, we sermonize and pontificate on issues which are even less edifying than the speeches of politicians from the soap boxes.
If today, IN THE NAME OF GOD, I have not been a flattering siren to anyone, it is because, in good faith I was sure that the Yakubu Gowon Centre for the Promotion of National Unity is a Centre that reflects the humble nature of the great Nigerian after whom it is named, a man who, like a Roman citizen, Marcus Drusus who died in 109 BC, should have cause to say, “Will the Republic again find a citizen like me?” May this Centre help in producing Nigerians who love, whose hearts vibrate on the same wavelength as the Heart of the Universe and who, when they mouth the HOLY WORDS, IN THE NAME OF GOD, would fully appreciate the Luminous Heights from which they want to draw. And may their drawing be in love and to the benefit of themselves and to the benefit of Nigeria; of the world; of mankind.