By Kabir Helminski. White Cloud Press, 2017. 140 pages. $14.95/Paperback; $13.99/eBook.
Kabir Edmund Helminski is a well-known American writer on spirituality, and he brings to us the valuable point of view of someone who had reached adulthood before embracing Islam. He is co-director of the Sufi Threshold Society and a Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order (Kabir or “great” is a Sufi title). Having this perspective, he is able to see and articulate with excellent clarity not only what Islam has to offer the world but the complex relationship between Muslim and Western spiritual values. Resolving the seemingly endless current misunderstandings is the challenge of our time.
Before we can plumb the spiritual depths of Islam, especially in the form found in Sufism, it seems necessary to confront the shadow that is cast over any attempt to assess Islam’s potential to revitalize spirituality in the world: what is commonly called “Islamophobia.” This is a point that Helminski’s discussion does not reach until halfway through the book, but let us start with it. He begins the section “The Remedy for Islamophobia” by admitting to several familiar concerns, such as the treatment of women, the relationship with the secular world and with other faiths (a separate chapter offers an explanation of Sharia law), the use of force (how are “unbelievers” treated?), and others. “Westerners fear Islam because they confuse it with the political reaction known as Islamic Fundamentalism.” Muslims, he says, have failed to present Islam in its humane and universal dimension, and the task of recovering the spirituality Islam can offer to the world is the solution. It is, after all, “a complete way of life, a state of being.”
When we confront the reality of what makes this task so overwhelming, we must begin with the current active fault lines within Islam itself: “We are facing a struggle for the soul of contemporary Islam,” he says, and points out the ways the vital energy and creativity of Islam have been seriously compromised. He lists four main “pathologies”: a sense of victimization and self-preoccupation, formalism and sectarian identity, the closely related way the human-divine relationship has tended to be treated as a legal contract, and the puritanism that fuels extremism.
Islam can be the reconciler of all religions, and there are steps to recovering the spiritual energy that the true spirit of Islam has to offer to the world. “What Islam can offer” is resolved into 14 points, opening a world of thought that is too wide-ranging to summarize here. They include the fact that the divine has not disappeared from everyday Muslim life, nor has the tradition of tolerance (Helminski calls the current wave of fundamentalism primarily a political reaction).
Helminski proposes a “spirituality for our time.” There are six points, each point consisting of a Proposition (guiding principle of Islam), (current) Distortion, and Clarification. As a practical step, he proposes the creation of an Institute of Applied Spirituality to “apply the deepest wisdom of Islam to contemporary problems.” Muslims manifest this spirituality daily: the vast majority of them follow the principles in the Qur’an to be hospitable, generous, modest, tolerant, and understanding of the spiritual dimension of life. My own contacts with Muslims have always confirmed this.
For Helminski, the purest form of Islam is Sufism. He concedes that this current has regularly been misunderstood and marginalized not only in the West but within Islam itself. In his vision, this path taps into the creative energy of Islam and can create a new moral order. It can free a world that has lost its sense of the purpose of life and become enslaved to the godless idolatries of profit-driven global corporatism and greed; humanity’s primordial sense of the transcendent can be recovered.
The voice of Sufism, which has long flowed through the core of Islam, is heard in the thought of the popular poet Jalaluddin Rumi and others. It is a path of spiritual realization, placing the Divine at the center of our consciousness. It may sound familiar—and distinctly modern—in its focus on the education of our ego: transforming the “false self” of attachment to the idolatries of the world, and orienting us to a direct relationship with Divine Being—a mystical stance that will feel familiar to Friends. Holistic Islam is “a spirituality that…can heal a wounded humanity and contribute to the elevation of civilization and culture.”
It is Helminski’s habits of clear thinking and presenting in crisp outline form that enable him to present a daunting subject in so restricted a space. In a future edition of this valuable book, the reader would be considerably helped by the inclusion of an index.