Mona Siddiqui

Faith as Struggle

(A Review by Phillipa White)

Under the title ‘Faith as Struggle,’ Professor Siddiqui’s lecture was focused on exploring the personal, spiritual struggle of people of faith, particularly Muslims and Christians, as expressed in a variety of different texts. The aim was to elucidate the difference between philosophical and theological “struggle” – defined as the acts of hope amid uncertainty – and “suffering.” Struggle, on this model, is active desire, motivated by love, knowledge and pity, which energises and focuses the individual, leading to achievement. Suffering, on the other hand, is passive and demands alleviation. Professor Siddiqui’s contention is that whilst Islam and Christianity tend to focus more on the reality of suffering than on the struggle for happiness, it is the discussion over how to find meaning within suffering and by struggle that is crucial. This contention can provide a framework for people of faith to contend with the contemporary postmodern emphasis on the contested and personal nature of all meaning; a way forward lies in an emphasis on virtue and, in particular, wisdom.

Professor Siddiqui began by defining human struggle as giving meaning to human life; it is bound up with the freedom to choose between good and evil. Thus the fundamental discourse of struggle is of temptation and of doubt, prompted by suffering; but doubt and struggle are crucial to faith. In the prophetic tradition, prayer is the faithful (and virtuous) response to suffering and doubt is the response to unbelief. For Siddiqui, then, prayer and doubt are what characterise true struggle. Against the backdrop of modern Western society, which is defined by a sense of loss, decline and costly disenchantment, struggle is the search for meaning. It manifests itself within Islam as a search for a more authentic Islam, and in other religious contexts as a search for the renewal of the world.

Siddiqui then examined the genre of ‘letters to younger disciples’ as a means of exploring this notion of struggle as a search for meaning and renewal. First, she referred to C.S. Lewis’ argument that God cares about the quality of human life, our living as we were intended to be, and therefore that the purpose of God’s actions is radical reconciliation, the forgiveness and transformation of lost humanity. Then she discussed Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of the renewal of the world in terms of gender equality, of a renewed Adam and Eve (although this would lead to more conflict, especially between the longing for fulfilment in relationships and the longing for equality).
It is in discussing the problems of gender equality that the idea of the general struggle of modernity intersects with the struggle of the individual. In the Muslim world, there are distinct and very real struggles around the role of women: a fear of the feminine as a threat from within echoes a fear of globalisation as a threat from outside. This is a symptom of a more universal angst of the modern age.

While the idea of liberal democracy as an absolute good is unchallengeable (pace Francis Fukuyama), other ideologies intersect with and threaten this goal – including the ideologies of faith, in particular Islam. Fukuyama argues that as individuals humans are restless: “if we can’t struggle for a just cause, we will struggle for the sake of struggle.” This led Siddiqui to consider Al-Ghazali, the eleventh-century Muslim scholar, who underwent a spiritual crisis which led him to stop teaching and to discover the spiritual path of Sufism; described as a divine light delivering him from crisis. For al-Ghazali, happiness was reached through coming to know his own divine nature via the elimination of selfish desire.

Personal journeys were further explored through the genre of ‘writings from prison’, beginning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned 1943-5 by the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer argues that a lack of hope results in false humility; hope makes us greater. Siddiqui then compared Bonhoeffer’s example with Sayyid Qutb, priest, poet, activist and theorist of the social role of Islam, who was imprisoned in his native Egypt in the 1950s and 60s, and executed in 1966. For Qutb, the key struggle was of activism: religion was a reality, life, movement and action, and faith a positive and dynamic reality. Action without faith is of no value to God; truth and falsehood can’t coexist.

Faith as struggle is a personal challenge, a search for meaning and depth. In the modern age, without a meta-narrative of meaning, all meanings are contested; only virtues are constants. Chief among virtues are wisdom and reverence for human struggle. Wisdom, like the spiritual life, is difficult to study; but should be given a far greater emphasis in education. Education should be ethical and formational, building wise people who are able to deal with the everyday and live with hope, continuing to struggle in faith.

Phillipa White