Knowing by oneself,
knowing with the other

Some reflections on the theme of "conscience"
in modern Egyptian Islam
and in Christian-Muslim dialogue


Oddbjørn Leirvik,

Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo


In the article on "conscience" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Michel Despland writes:

On the interreligious scene today, it is to be wished that dialogue and encounter shall proceed from conscience. And the notion of conscience may well be – or become – part of the account that each will give to the other of his or her own humanity. Such meeting of consciences cannot occur without the labor of consciousness: each trying to communicate over a period of time what he is aware of.[1]

Could "conscience" have any role to fulfil in a dialogue between religions? The notion of conscience is moulded in Christian tradition and European philosophy – beginning with the Greek syneídêsis and the Latin conscientia. Attempts have been made to identify a notion of conscience in other traditions as well. In James Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics from 1911, one will find articles on "conscience" in Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek-Roman, Jewish and Islamic religion. Such an approach, however, presupposes that some conceptual essence in the notion of conscience – like internalisation of morality or personal responsibility – is distilled in advance. Both in ancient Egyptian religion, in Jewish tradition and in Islam, the metaphor of the "heart" expresses the inner centre of man – capable of moral judgements and self-evaluation as well as of personal communication with God, and in need of purification.

However, the Greek-Roman, and later Christian notion of conscience, involves something more than moral and religious internalisation. What appears to be specific for the notion of conscience, is rather the tension between the turn inwards (towards the Self) and the orientation outwards (towards the Others) – between knowing by oneself and knowing with Others. The prefixes syn-, con- and sam- (in Norwegian samvit) might indicate that etymologically, conscience is knowing with someone. It might be Oneself, but just as well the Other. And maybe the two cannot be separated.[2]

Some perspectives on the notion of conscience in European/Christian tradition

If one sets out to examine the rhetorical function of conscience-centred discourses in Christian tradition and in European philosophy, it becomes clear that conscience most often refers to intimate knowing by oneself, and with God as the transcendent other. The human other is not that visibly present. Having "a good conscience" for doing something, often implies an element of distancing from the others. One withdraws into oneself, in order to ascertain that one can stand for something from oneself, and if necessary, in contradiction to what the community might stand for. As expressed by the old Stoic Cicero: "there is no audience for virtue of higher authority than the approval of conscience".[3]

At the roots of the Christian tradition, however, Paul maintains the tension between knowing by oneself and knowing with others. When unfolding the notion of conscience in 1. Corinthians (ch. 8 and 10), he faces two groups in the Christian community. The one party know with themselves – from their gnôsis – that they may eat meat consecrated to the idols (in connection with Roman temple cult) with a good conscience. The others – those with a "weak conscience" – do not think they can do so, and get their conscience "polluted" when eating meat consecrated to idols. In this conflict, Paul argues that the gnôsis of the strong ones should give way to what could be known together in the community. What the strong (and rich?) know with themselves, must yield to that what Christians in Corinth may know together – in a practice of solidarity. In the influential (in terms of the history of ideas) passage in Romans (2.14-16), knowing together even transcends the Christian community. The conscience of the heathens testify to knowledge shared by Jews, Christians, Greeks and Romans, namely that the divine law is written in the heart of every human being.

In Early Modernity, parallel with the new emphasis on the moral autonomy of the individual, the inward direction of conscience acquires fresh importance. In Religion innerhalb der bloßen Vernunft (1793), Kant characterises "das Gewissen" as "die sich selbst richtende moralische Urteilskraft".[4] In Metaphysik der Sitten (1797), he writes that conscience is one of the moral faculties ("moralische Beschaffenheiten") that must be taken for granted in every human being, if the notion of moral obligation shall make any sense at all. Fichte gives Kant's rational-autonomous conscience a Romantic bend, and speaks of conscience as "das unmittelbare Bewußtsein unseres reinen ursrprunglichen Ich".[5] Hegel, on the other hand, returns to conscience its social character. He regards Kant's formal and individualised understanding of conscience as insufficient, and emphasises that conscience is first of all knowing with others:

Das Gewissen hat die reine Pflicht oder das abstrakte Ansich nicht aufgegeben, sondern sie ist das wesentliche Moment, als Allgemeinheit sich zu andern zu verhalten. Es ist das gemeinschaftliche Element des Selbstbewusstsein ... das Moment des Anerkanntwerdens von den anderen.[6]

With Feuerbach, the orientation of conscience towards others becomes a critical insight: "Das Gewissen is das alter ego, das Andere Ich im Ich".[7] Feuerbach sees conscience basically as "bad conscience", expressing the wounded other: "Mein Gewissen ist nichts anderes, als mein an die Stelle des verletzten Du sich setzendes Ich".[8] Feuerbach unambiguously returns conscience to its etymological origin, as an expression of something known with others:

Gewissen ist Mitwissen. So sehr ist das Bild der Anderen in mein Selbstbewusstsein, mein Selbstbild eingewoben, dass selbst der Ausdruck des Allereigensten und Allerinnerlichsten, das Gewissen, ein Ausdruck des Socialismus, der Gemeinschaftlichkeit ist.[9]

In French Enlightenment and Romanticism, partly in English Enlightenment philosophy as well, the basic tension between conscience as self-consciousness and conscience as shared knowledge can easily be traced. In French, there is no parallel to the English distinction between "consciousness" and "conscience". The French "conscience" often has a strong inward orientation, towards moral self-consciousness. Nevertheless, it is in French Enlightenment and Romanticism one can find the strongest expressions of conscience as a social and political right. In his Commentaire Philosophique ou Traité de la Tolérance Universelle (1686), Pierre Bayle contends that conscience is the voice of God in every human being, and correspondingly, that going against conscience is equal to disobeying the law of God. Hence he can also speak of the rights of conscience ("les Droits de la Conscience") as something directly related to God himself.[10] With Rousseau, the notion of conscience figures prominently in that part of Émile (1762) which is called "The Creed of a Savoyard Priest". Here, conscience is referred to as "an innate principle of justice and virtue", as "divine instinct", "sure guide" and "infallible judge of good and evil". According to Rousseau and his Savoyard priest, it is to conscience everyone owes "the excellence of man's nature and the morality of his acts".[11]

Rousseau's notion of conscience is often referred to as the classical modern expression of individual "authenticity". It should be noted, however, that authenticity with Rousseau is not solipsistic, but inextricably linked to the idea of a binding social contract into which humans freely enter (cf. Du Contrat Social, published in the same year as Émile). In his book The Ethics of Authenticity[12], Charles Taylor characterises the idea of authenticity as a child of the Romantic period, which was utterly critical of a disengaged rationality that neglected the bonds of community.[13] The idea of authenticity gives birth to a new vision of community. Nevertheless, its origin lies in the notion of an inner voice:

Morality has, in a sense, a voice within. ... This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, where we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths.[14]

Conscience in Islam?

Is the discourse of conscience a specifically Western/Christian discourse, then, or can parallel ideas of conscience be traced in other traditions – making an intercultural or interreligious dialogue on conscience meaningful (cf. Despland)?

Classical Islam lacks a proper word for conscience. In modern standard Arabic, damîr has become the central word for conscience. From old, damîr stands for "the inner, hidden". In classical Sufî psychology (like with al-Hallâj, d. 922, and with Ibn ‘Arabi, d. 1240), damîr signifies "the inner conscious"; different from sirr, "the inner unconscious". In classical Arabic grammar, damîr is the name of the personal pronoun. Only from the latter part of the 19th century, the word can be found in the sense of "moral self-consciousness" or "conscience". New Arabic Bible translations from 1860 onwards seem to have influenced the process, by translating syneídêsis as damîr instead of niyya ("intention"), which had prevailed in Bible translations from the 9th century until then. At the beginning of the 20th century, damîr is found in this sense also in Arabic translations and Egyptian reception of European philosophy, as can be seen from a book on Rousseau from 1923 of the well-known literate Muhammad Husayn Haykal.

In the following, I will present three Egyptian authors from this century who have all put the notion of damîr at the centre of their works on religion, philosophy and ethics. They may also have prepared the ground for a possible Muslim-Christian dialogue on conscience. The authors are ‘Abbâs Mahmûd al- ‘Aqqâd (1889-1964), Muhammad Kâmil Husayn (1901-1977) and Khâlid Muhammad Khâlid (1920-1996). All of them are regarded as outstanding men of letters in their generation. They are prolific writers covering a wide field of topics, most of them dealt with in an essayist and popularised manner. The works of al-‘Aqqâd and Khâlid are widely read in Arabic, whereas Husayn (through translations into English by Kenneth Cragg) is better known internationally.

Common for them all is that they wrote books on Christ in the 50s. These books have rightly been regarded as landmarks in Muslim-Christian dialogue. Different from prevailing tendencies in Muslim apologetics, they base their reflections on Christ on the Christian sources, relying for the most part on the Biblical gospels. They also highlight the universal features in the message of Christ, making it relevant and challenging for a Muslim reader. They are, as both Western and Coptic Christians have seen it, dialogical in their approach to Christ, not merely apologetic. A second uniting feature between these authors is their strong focus on the notion of conscience (damîr) – both in their books on Christ and Christian tradition, and in their exposition of the Islamic faith and philosophical heritage.

By the interrelation of the themes mentioned, Christ appears a forerunner of conscience-based religion and ethics. But their philosophy of conscience turns out to be quite central also to their vision of Islam, their general anthropological outlook, and their view on the relation between individual and community in modernity. From one side, their conscience-based ethics may be seen as just another version of an internalised ethics, bent towards virtue ethics and ideals of personal formation. As such, their ethics of conscience may be said render to the individual more ethical autonomy than what has been the rule in Islamic ethics. On the other side, their ethics of conscience is also an ethics with obvious political implications – with obvious anti-authoritarian features, social radicalism (especially in Khâlid) and elements of a philosophy of non-violence (in Khâlid and Husayn).

As for the context of their writings, all the authors are well within the tradition of reformist Islam, and their works are heavily marked by modern Islam's departure from rigorous traditionalism. But at mid-century, reformist Islam or "modern Islam" in Egypt is not at all a uniform phenomenon. The tension between liberal Islam, Islamic socialism and Islamism as competing programs of modernisation in Egypt is part of their immediate context. Their writings also reflect an Egyptian context marked by a distinct "dia-practice" [15] between Muslims and Christians, namely their co-operation in the modern Egyptian nation building, and joint efforts from Muslim and Christians to establish social justice.

Damir in al-‘Aqqâd: a key term in apologetics as well as dialogue

In a book from 1961, on "Thinking – an Islamic duty" (Al-tafkîr – farîda islâmiyya), ‘Abbâs Mahmûd al-‘ Aqqâd maintains that Islam is the only religion that fully authorises a free and independent relation between the creatures and their Creator, so that humans may approach God by means of their conscience – their damîr.[16] Already in his book from 1947 on "The Qur’ânic philosophy" (Al-falsafa al-qur’âniyya), he claims that the philosophy of the Qur’ân contains the only doctrine that can really vitalise conscience, and disperse the clouds that otherwise stand in the light of reason.[17]

Much of what al-‘Aqqâd writes on conscience, is flavoured by an outspoken apologetic interest. But also in his books on Christ and Christian tradition, the notion of conscience is strikingly central. His biography of Christ from 1953 ("The Genius of Christ") appeared in the wake of corresponding biographies on Muhammad and Islamic heroes, most of them under the heading 'Abqariyyat, "the genius".

In a book from 1947 on the development of the notion of God ("Allâh"), al-‘Aqqâd presents Christianity as the first religion to base the service of God on human conscience.[18] In his Christ-biography from 1953, al-‘Aqqâd focuses on the universalism, the law of love and the pre-eminence of conscience in Christ's message. When summarising Christ message in one expression, he speaks of "the law of love and conscience" (shari‘at al-hubb aw/wa-sharî‘at al-damîr).[19]

Another central motive in al-‘Aqqâd is the Sufî-based distinction between the outer and the inner. The law of love and conscience is contrasted by what al-‘Aqqâd terms "the law of outward forms and appearances" (sharî‘at al-ashkâl wa-l-zawâhir). Conscience is the warrant that actions are based on right intentions (niyyât) and ideals. The important thing is the reform of souls, and the change of motives and incentives (islâh al-nafsi, taghyîr al-bawâ’ith).[20]

One sometimes gets the expression that al-‘Aqqâd should primarily be read in the Romantic tradition of equalising religion with innermost emotion – cf. expressions like "in the secrets of conscience"[21] an "the innermost thoughts of his conscience"[22], and his frequent paralleling of "conscience" with "soul" and "heart".[23] Still, it is obvious that his use of damîr is related to some kind of social vision. "Freedom of conscience" is a central term for al-‘Aqqâd. Although he gives it a peculiar Romantic or Mystical flavour in expressions like "the freedom of conscience is the secret of all secrets in the life of man"[24], the concept of freedom of conscience has – of course – obvious ethical and political implications.

The project of Christ – apparently identical with that of al-‘Aqqâd – is aimed at refinement of the human character (tahdhîb al-âdâb al-insâniyya). Al-‘Aqqâd's virtue ethics approach to moral questions rests upon a long tradition of philosophical ethics in Islam.[25] According to al-‘Aqqâd, it is only through character formation that the conscience of the individual, and the conscience of the community (damîr al-umma), can be safeguarded. As al-‘Aqqâd sees it, such formation can only happen through a reform of consciences (bi-islâh al-damâ’ir). He has far less confidence in reform or reinterpretation of outward laws and regulations. His focal point is ethics (akhlâq) and the formation of a moral character.

Al-‘Aqqâd's interest in Christ is apparently not restricted to a historical presentation of Christ as a law reformer in Judaism, neither to a sympathetic exposition of basic Christian tenets. There are many indications that his writings about Christ should also be read as a critique of rigorous attitudes and outwardness in parts of contemporary Islam – cf. his employment of traditional Islamic offices like fuqahâ’[26], ‘ulamâ’ and huffâz[27] when denoting the adversaries of Christ.

Damir in Kâmil Husayn: at the heart of a universal, human drama

Kâmil Husayn is known in the West for two books translated by Kenneth Cragg. His most famous book is Qarya zâlima from 1954 (in English: City of Wrong), that was awarded with the Egyptian State Prize of Literature in 1957, and has attracted much attention in the international dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Kenneth Cragg has also translated a meditative work on philosophy (or psychology) of religion from 1968, entitled Al-wâdi al-muqaddas (in English: The Hallowed Valley).[28]

In The Hallowed Valley, Husayn speaks of the voice of conscience as the very voice of God, with rather strong Sûfî connotations:

The hallowed valley is the place on earth, the point in time, the state of mind, where you reach upward beyond the form of external things, beyond your own nature and the necessities of life, and even beyond the bounds of your intellect ... In the hallowed valley you hear the voice of conscience, clear and plain, enjoining upon you unconfusedly the obligations of the good, and leading you undeviatingly towards the truth – conscience as the very voice of God.[29]

As a prerequisite of abiding in the hallowed valley, Husayn speaks of the necessity of to fight against evil of all kinds, and its seductive power. This can only be done through exercise of "the hidden and passive virtues of resistance".[30] Correspondingly, in an appendix to his novel of conscience, he emphasises that the main function of conscience is that of curbing and warning (râdi‘an wa-nadhîran):

Although it is possible to be positively guided by conscience, the main power for conscience being inhibitive and prohibitive, it is mainly a guide to us in avoiding wrong.[31]

Husayn relates his concept of damîr to general insights derived from psychology and the natural sciences. But he unfolds it in a literary fiction, in a drama of conscience based on the events of Good Friday as recorded in the New Testament Gospels. The book presents itself as a moral philosophical dramatisation of the events of Good Friday, which is indeed a controversial issue to approach for Muslim author. Instead of directly challenging the classical Islamic claim that Christ was in fact not crucified, Husayn enters the drama of crucifixion from the perspective of the intentions of those involved. As the Qur’ân confirms, the adversaries of Christ intended to crucify him (although, according to a conventional Muslim interpretation, their plans were thwarted). The intention of Husayn is to expose the universal importance of the drama of Good Friday, the central themes of which is the crucifixion of human conscience:

When they resolved to crucify him it was a decision to crucify the human conscience and extinguish its light. They considered that reason and religion alike laid upon them obligations that transcended the dictates of conscience.[32]

In his book, Husayn dramatises the inner conflicts that can be traced or surmised among Jewish leaders and the representatives of the Roman occupation force. Out of different motives, they all denied their voice within, when they resolved to have Christ crucified. Husayn also unfolds the moral drama of the disciples. For the disciples, being true to conscience was a question of being faithful towards the obligation of non-violence, as expressed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

According to Husayn, the drama of Good Friday has a universal relevance. In Husayn – as in al-‘Aqqâd – conscience is clearly interrelated with personal virtue. Even more than al-‘Aqqâd, he stresses that religion (anchored in conscience) can only influence society indirectly. In Husayn, there is also more emphasis on the right of resistance than in al-‘Aqqâd's more romantically flavoured project of renewal. It is all about the will and ability of the individual to obey his inner voice, and on this foundation, to venture non-violent resistance to the religious and political collective when necessary.

What would have been the contemporary impetus for making the crucifixion of conscience his crucial theme? According to Harold Vogelaar, City of Wrong should first of all be read in the light of the shattering experience of World War II, as "an emotional, literary reaction to that catastrophic event", movingly depicting "the utter failure of traditional religion to prevent it".[33] Kenneth Cragg, on the other hand[34], focuses on the fact that Husayn relates his concept of conscience to central teachings of the Qur’ân, and to a contemporary context which is just as much Muslim as Christian. In City of Wrong, he names the head of lawyers among the Jews – the one responsible for issuing religious fatwas – a muftî. He alludes to controversial issues related to the interpretation of sharî‘a; like imposing lashes for drunkenness[35] and the question of death penalty for adultery or alleged blasphemy/apostasy.[36] Likewise, he displays the ambiguity of the concept ijmâ‘ (consensus of the religio-political community) when it comes to the question of the individual being true to conscience.[37] He frequently alludes to Qur’ânic expressions (like the concept of zulm – "wrong, iniquity" – underlying the title of the book). Sometimes his allusions are made in astonishing ways, displaying a profound will of self-criticism as to how Qur’ânic concepts may be misused for suppression in the name of religion or society.[38]

Damir in Khâlid Muhammad Khâlid:
conscience unites the history of religions, but is best safeguarded by Islam

In a contextual perspective, the personal development of Khâlid Muhammad Khâlid is of special interest, particularly with regard to the tension between liberal Islam and Islamism. In his book Min hunâ nabda’ (in English: From here we start) from 1950, he advocated the separation of religion and state, vehemently attacking the political ambitions of the Islamic "priesthood" (traditional ‘ulamâ’ as well as secretly organised Muslims Brothers). During the 50s, Khâlid produced a whole series of books propounding democratic values combined with a vision of Islamic socialism, and simultaneously, a commitment to Christian-Muslim dialogue. From the 60s, however, he turns more and more to the Islamic heritage, publishing several books on Muhammad and the men around him. At the end of the 70s, he seemed to have "converted" to a moderate Islamism. In contrast to his positions from the 50s, he now emphasises the Islamic foundation of the state. His book from 1981 on "The State in Islam" (Al-dawla fî-l-islâm) sets out with a critical reassessment of the secularist ideas he had been voicing in the 50s. Nevertheless, the book testifies to the fact that also in the latter part of his authorship, he strongly maintains his advocacy of the democratic rights of freedom – as a "good Islamic democrat".

In this way, Khâlid embodies a general trend among several Egyptian intellectuals: From a social democratic commitment in the 50s, he becomes an advocate of "Islamic democracy" in the 70s and 80s. In a parallel development, he also moves from a general discourse of values (like social justice and democracy) towards a more specifically Islamic discourse – which deals with Islamic authenticity more than the authentic human being in general.

Khâlid's best known contribution to inter-religious dialogue would be his book from 1958 entitled "Together on the road – Muhammad and Christ" (Ma‘an ‘alâ-l-tariq – Muhammad wa-l-Masîh).[39] In this books, he searches for what might be termed common ethical values between Christ and Muhammad. Both Christ and Muhammad are presented at human beings with an honest conscience (mustaqîm /istiqâmat al-damîr). Although they are merely humans, both of them embody very special "energies" (tâqât), and their spiritual nobility is linked with a shared commitment for "ordinary people" (al-rajul al-‘âdî). Both defend the fundamental human rights of subsistence, as well as the right to freedom of conscience. Christ liberated human conscience from its captivity of outwards laws and oppressing regulations. The same did Muhammad: By preaching social responsibility and challenging suppressive power, by spiritually subverting all institutions of religious mediation and defending the integrity of the individual person, he set human conscience free.

As Khâlid sees it, this prophetic mission rooted in the inner authority of Muhammad's conscience. On the first page of his book on the human qualities of Muhammad (Insâniyyât Muhammad, from 1960), Khâlid claims that

If Muhammad had not been a messenger of God he would surely have been a human being on the same level as a messenger of God! And if he had not received the command from his Lord: 'Oh messenger, proclaim what is revealed to you' he would surely have received it from his very nature (min dhât nafsihi): 'Oh human being, proclaim what is at work in your conscience.'[40]

Khâlid is utterly critical of all religiosity marked by blind compliance with tradition, and of a religious ethics based on formalistic rules "devoid of spirit". As brothers in prophethood, Christ and Muhammad both focus on the inner meaning of the laws, and both of them are anchoring religion as well as ethics in human conscience.

In Khâlid, the notion of conscience apparently refers to something more than morality and ethics. In "Together on the road", he defines conscience as "the human being in its true existence" (al-insân fî wujûdihi al-haqîqî).[41] By this repeated expression, he seems to link his ethics of conscience to the more general question of human authenticity: it is all about – as he puts it – opening up for the energies and potentials of the human being. Concretely, this can be expressed both through resistance to everything than binds conscience, and in creative, constructive work for a world of freedom. His aim is always the agreement between out outward conduct and our hidden inner (bayna zâhirinâ wa-bâtininâ) – a classical Sufî distinction that Khâlid links up with, but also transcends.

Five years after his book on Muhammad and Christ, Khâlid publishes a book that is entirely dedicated to the theme of human conscience – "on its journey towards its destiny" (Ma‘a l-damîr al-insânî fî masîrihi wa-masîrihi). In this book, he presents the history of religion and philosophy from the perspective of "development of human conscience". He traces human conscience, on its journey from old Egypt via Chinese religion, the Old Testament scriptures, Christ, Muhammad and the Islamic revelation, all the way up to Mahatma Gandhi as the most prominent spokesman of conscience in our time. Khâlid highlights the interaction between conscience and reflective reason (‘aql), but also underlines that conscience cannot dispense of divine guidance through the prophets.

His reading of the history of philosophy reveals (among other things) interest in Rousseau's coupling of a Romantic ethics of authenticity with the idea of a social contract based on the common will. By his endorsement of wide-ranging human rights of freedom, Khâlid draws a demarcation line against authoritarian version of the idea of a social contract. Among the rights of freedom, the right of "enlightened doubt" (al-shakk al-mustanîr) appears to be the most central of them all.[42] Khâlid presents the right of doubt as an integral part of the legacy of European philosophy, but also endeavours to link the idea of doubt as a positive human faculty to words of Muhammad.

As for the relation between individual and society, Khâlid claims that Muhammad's ethics of conscience is more political than that of Christ. Whereas Christ persistently focused on intention (niyya), Muhammad recognised the need to reinforce intentions with social laws. Intentions must be implanted "in the depths of human nature and in the nature of society likewise".[43] Christ focused on individual conduct, and according to Khâlid, he gave no directions for the social order (nizâm) that can never be dispensed of if human rights shall be effectively safeguarded.

These formulations from the early 60s could perhaps be taken as an indication of Khâlid's later attraction to a moderate Islamism. In his book "The State in Islam" (1981), he maintains his advocacy of democracy and freedom rights, but unfolds his commitment within a purely Islamic discourse, and with no references to conscience or shared ethical values between Muslims and Christians. Has he moved from calling on the authentic human being, towards the proclamation of a specifically Islamic authenticity?

Conscience in the dialogue between religions:
knowing by oneself and with others

The turn to the other

In the formation of an integral human personality, self-consciousness and "knowing with others" must clearly be regarded as two sides of the same coin.[44] Also in a communal perspective, knowing by oneself (one's own religious community) is always interrelated with knowing together with (or against) distinctive others. Those who belong to a different religious community, might either be regarded as adversaries, as companions on the road, as members of an extended spiritual family, or simply neighbours with whom you will have to cope in one way or another. How can the interrelation of self-consciousness and other-directedness be conceived of in a dialogue between religions? Perhaps even more important: How can the twin experiences on the communal level, of a possibly shared commitment and the still ineradicable pain of difference, be conceptualised and lived with?

In recent philosophies of dialogue, "the turn towards the Other" has emerged as a central topic among prominent representatives of the Abrahamic family. Much of the inspiration has come from the Jewish philosophers Martin Buber ("I and Thou") and Emmanuel Lévinas, who bases his ethics of proximity on the notion of "the Other's face".[45]

The recognition of the constitutive role of "the Other" in the formation of a religious self-consciousness is a most central theme with thinkers like Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy on the Christian side[46], and with Muslim writers like Hasan Askari (India) and Farid Esack (South Africa).[47]

The background of the new discourse on the inviolability of the Other is dramatic: the entire philosophy of Lévinas may be read as a reflection on the extinction of the Other in holocaust – resulting in an entirely ethical philosophy centred around the human face's silent call for respected difference. For Lévinas, the Other can never be simply more of the same, from the point of view of the Self. The Other is essentially difference. The encounter with the Other's face subverts subjectivity, as subjectivity has been conceived of in idealist or existentialist philosophy: It places the subject in the accusative, "by substituting me for the Other as a hostage".[48]

Similarly, when David Tracy reflects upon the "the Divine Other of Liberation" as "the Hidden God", he focuses on the disturbing difference of the marginalised Other:

Rather history will now be seen as the focus of God's self-disclosure in the survival, struggle, conflict of oppressed and forgotten people, living and dead: in otherness, difference, marginality.[49]

Others (like Ricoeur) treat the question of selfhood and otherness in a more general perspective, investigating the conditions of moral character formation. Traumas as well as ordinary everyday experience give impetus to reflections on the how we define self and other, sameness and difference – at the personal as well as at the communal level.

Selfhood and otherness in conscience:
Ricoeur, Heidegger and Lévinas

Is the notion of conscience capable of containing selfhood as well as otherness, analogical likeness as well as radical difference? Paul Ricoeur concludes his reflections on Oneself as Another with a discussion of the notion of conscience.[50] He is critical of purely existentialist notions of conscience, that tend to blur the constitutive role of others in the formation of human conscience. The same point is repeatedly made by Charles Taylor in the exposure of his "ethics of authenticity", when he underlines the fundamentally dialogical character of human life, and the "inescapable horizons" of significant others in any search for human authenticity.[51]

As for Ricoeur, he takes Martin Heidegger's notion of conscience to task. Heidegger's philosophy may be read as a search for "eigentliches Selbstsein" – a human existence that is truly authentic. In this search, conscience ("Gewissen") has a role to fulfil: "An authentic potentiality-for-Being is attested by conscience".[52] Heidegger sees conscience essentially as a call to the individual from the depths of human existence ("Dasein"); a call to realise "its ownmost potentiality for Being-its-Self".[53] For Heidegger, inauthentic being is loosing one's Self in the multitude of "they" ("das Man"). Although becoming authentic includes the possibility of seeing others with new eyes, as individual beings with potentials for authentic existence, the other has no constitutive role to play in the formation of conscience . According to Heidegger, listening to conscience implies an element of radical distancing from others: too much identification with others leads to the danger of loosing oneself.

Against Heidegger, Ricoeur recalls the insight of Hegel "that conscience is the voice of the Other in the sense of others ...".[54] Ricoeur agrees with the contention forcefully put forward by Lévinas, that the call of Other is constitutive of the formation of self-consciousness and conscience.[55] But he is discontent with Lévinas' insistence on the pure externality of the Other. Ricoeur looks for a notion of the Self and the Other that integrates Selfhood and Otherness. By use of the notion of conscience, Ricoeur sets out to reconcile Selfhood and Otherness in one final move.

To these alternatives – either Heidegger's strange(r)ness or Lévinas' externality – I shall stubbornly oppose the original and originary character of what appears to me to constitute the third modality of otherness, namely being enjoined as the structure of selfhood ... if the injunction coming from the other is not part and parcel of self-attestation, it loses its character of injunction ... If one eliminates this dimension of auto-affection, one ultimately renders the metacategory of conscience superfluous; the category of the other suffices.[56]

Existentialism and visions of community:
Muslim perspectives on sameness and otherness

In the perspective of Ricoeur, self-affection implies the ability of being touched and obliged by others, and results in a sensitive conscience. With our Egyptian authors, both being touched and being obliged appears to be central for their notion of conscience. In al-‘Aqqâd, the affective notion of love (hubb) and the moral notion of divine injunction (taklîf) both appear to be firmly within the conceptual field of conscience (damîr).[57]

What about the question of our Egyptian authors and the possible shortcomings of an existentialist notion of conscience? Should their notion of conscience be regarded as predominantly existentialist, in the sense of individual self-injunction and personal authenticity? Or is it rather sociable, in the sense of recognising and welcoming others as integral to the constitution of authentic selfhood? A consecutive question is just as crucial: if conscience is recognised as sociable, how should the others included in conscience be conceived of? Only as more of the same, like me and my community? Or as others with a potentially painful difference? Could it be that an existentialist quest for individual authenticity, coupled with a predominantly idealist and univeralist interpretation of Islam, obscures differences that will anyhow return with a revenge at some stage or other?

Khâlid comes close to existentialist notions of conscience when defining damîr as "the human being in its true existence", and he combines his quest for authenticity with a universalist reading of Islamic fundamentals. Al-‘Aqqâd addresses existentialism in his book "Thinking – an Islamic duty".[58] He apparently admires existentialism (which he calls madhâhib al-wujûdiyya, without specifying his references) for its emphasis on the irreducible responsibility of the individual, and its stress on the unlimited authority of conscience. Nevertheless, he is wary of what he sees as its potential anti-social consequences. He seems to equate modern Western existentialism with the monasticism of ancient times:

In old times, the man with a vigilant conscience (al-damîr al-yaqzân) used to become tired with his society, and emigrated from it to the hermitage of religion. In present times, in the West, likewise tired with his societies, man clings to the ideologies of existentialism to which the individual resorts whenever the yoke of social convention (‘urf) becomes unbearable for him. He is released of his shackles – sometimes to licentiousness, and sometimes [taking resort in] the privacy of his emotional perception (al-wijdân).[59]

According to al-‘Aqqâd, Islam does offer a hermitage to which the conscience of the individual may resort – in the depth of his soul. But al-‘Aqqâd is emphatic that Islam does not allow any seclusion of conscience from its communal duties: "individual consciences must not separate their work from participation in social life".[60]

However, in the constitution of the moral Self, man clearly sits in the hermitage of his soul, being enjoined only by God. Coming out of his hermitage, he seeks another kind of religious community, beyond that of blind adherence to traditions. In al-‘Aqqâd, this is clearly conceived of as a reformed society imbued with the essential (and universally valid) Islamic values. For all his interest in Christ and Christian tradition, one may ask whether Christians at any point are allowed to play the role as distinctive or even disturbing others, or whether Christ (with his appeal to individual consciences) is only brought to the front as an ally in al-‘Aqqâd's project of establishing Islamic values in the depth of human conscience. Is Christ ever allowed to be distinctively "Christian", or is he only seen as "more of the same" in al-‘Aqqâd's reformed vision of Islam?

In Husayn, the encounter with the traditions of the Other is apparently a more shattering experience. The Christian gospels reveal the depths of human folly, and man's ineradicable tendency to crucify his conscience. The drama of Good Friday leave Christians and Muslims alike naked and bare.

In Khâlid, like in al-‘Aqqâd, the discourse of conscience strikes a more optimistic note. The phenomenon of human conscience as seen by Khâlid clearly points to experiences and values shared by Christians and Muslims. He recognises Christian tradition as a religious resource in its own right, just as much capable of inspiring Muslims as the contemporary witness of love and non-violent resistance to evil offered by Gandhi. Like Husayn, he may use the symbolism of the crucifixion of Christ to express the repeated crucifixion of love and peace in this world. He may even speak of the return of Christ as the final victory of peace, love, truth, goodness and beauty.[61] But his outlook is unitary: he wants to present Christians and Muslims (and other people guided by conscience) as brothers "together on the road". His meditations on "Muhammad and Christ – together on the road" could probably be read as a celebration of a shared practice between Muslims in Christians in modernity: their co-operation in the struggle for national independence and social justice in modern Egypt. He does not really address the wounded experiences in Christian-Muslim coexistence. When differences are addressed, also Khâlid turns out to be apologetic on behalf of his own Islamic faith – of which he can hardly be blamed. But to what extent does his outlook allow for differences with a permanent challenge?

Two Muslim voices with a difference

Similar to Khâlid, the South African Muslim Farid Esack (1997) reflects theologically on the shared experience between Christians and Muslims in confronting apartheid. But he adds two important dimensions: first, the recognition that confronting apartheid not only united Muslims and Christians. Muslims and Christians were also divided, within their own camps – between those who benefited from apartheid or silently complied with it (like the majority of white Christians, and many "coloured" Muslims), and those who decided to fight it. Secondly, and even more important: Esack realises that the experience that the real dividing lines did not coincide with those of the religious communities, but rather cut painfully across them, necessitates a critical reassessment of the Qur’ânic notion of the Other. What was true of some Jewish and Christian groups then (on the Arabic peninsula of the 7th century), in a historical conflict with specific social and political characteristics, is not necessarily true in a different context. Instead, one should look for the deeper content of the Qur’ânic message, which calls for faithful confrontation of any injustice and oppression. According to Esack, faith (imân) and islâm in the Qur’ânic sense, can never be entrenched within the confines of a specific religious community carrying its name. It cuts deeper.[62]

It might be argued that only when the encounter with the Other is recognised as a painful experience that shatters one's own identity, otherness can make a real difference in the (re)formation of the religious Self. With the Indian-British Shi‘ite Muslim Hassan Askari, pain is clearly a part of "the dialogical relationship between Christianity and Islam".[63] Askari displays considerable optimism on behalf of what he sees as a divinely intended dialogical relationship between the two religions, and he even speaks of Christ as a common sign for Christians and Muslims. Nevertheless, he concludes his meditations with the recognition that if differences are taken seriously, true dialogue will always be painful:

The discovery of the other, of our own being, is both soothing and painful, more the latter. The other is pain, a sting, a bite, but a pain in our very being, of it. It is right in the middle of this pain that a Divine sign is known.[64]

Knowing together is vulnerable experience

Knowing with others is a vulnerable experience. What has been positively known and lived as shared values and commitments, cannot easily be maintained in a changed context. In Egypt, the 50s and early 60s were still marked by the shared Egyptian identity felt by Muslims and Christians alike. From then, the event have taken a different turn. Muslim as well as Christian revivalism has shifted the emphasis from knowing together towards knowing by oneself – as Christians and Muslims, without being inspired or disturbed by foreign voices.[65] In Arabic, the modern term for authenticity – asâla – is not oriented towards any shared humanness, but rather towards the specific features of the Arab-Islamic heritage.[66]

Those who still endeavour to know something obliging together with others, and who are ready to share the pain of the distinctive other, are on the defensive in many places, not only in Egypt. Because of this rather disturbing fact, the voices who testify to a close past of more inclusive discourses, are worthy of listening to.

In late modernity, however, particularism and distinctive identities seem to have come to stay, and there might be no return to the universalistic discourses of the typically modern projects of reform. If dialogue shall be able to carry the weight of difference, knowing together must imply the readiness to live well with potentially painful otherness at close hand.

Only a conscience capable of containing pain and respecting difference, can furnish Christians and Muslims with a hope of becoming oneself as another – without violating either of the two.

What about conscience and "the reproaching soul"?

In Christian discourses of human conscience, the capability of self-reproach (and its emotional equivalent: remorse) is much focused upon – cf. Paul's classical formulation in Romans 2.15:

Their conscience is called as witness, and their own thoughts argue the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day that God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus.

Also with Paul's contemporary Jewish-Stoic philosopher Philo, who influenced later Christian developments as well, conscience is defined by its reproaching (elenchos) function:

there are some who ... proved to be guilty of highly reprehensible conduct, convicted, if not by any other judge, at any rate by their conscience.[67]

Commenting on Romans 2, Martin Luther radicalises this judging aspect of conscience, and makes it the foundation of his speech of a conscience truly liberated by grace:

For conscience is not the power to do works, but to judge them. The proper work of conscience (as Paul says in Romans 2), is to accuse or excuse, to make guilty or guiltless, uncertain or certain. Its purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God's sight. Christ has freed this conscience from works through the gospel and teaches this conscience not to trust in works, but to rely on his mercy.[68]

As we have noted, also Kant focused on the judging aspect of conscience, defining Gewissen primarily as man's inner court in which the actions of man are either acquitted or convicted. In Protestant theology as well as in Idealist philosophy, the reproaching function of conscience might appear as a solitary affair of each and one individual – surveyed by God according to classical positions, expressing human autonomy according to modern reinterpretations. In his critique of theology as well as of Idealist philosophy, Feuerbach returns to judging conscience its inescapable social dimensions. As we have seen, he insists that the phenomenon of "good" or "bad" conscience gives no sense without the recognition of "oneself as another": bad conscience is essentially the internalised pain of the wounded Other.

In Christian tradition, the judging function of conscience is conceptually linked with the exercise of self-reproach and the emotion of remorse. Among our Egyptian authors, the reproaching function of conscience is apparently not at the centre of their interest when employing the term damîr. Their deliberations on conscience do not reflect common usage in the modern Arabic (Standard and Egyptian colloquial) lexicon like tabkît al-damîr ("remorse") or ta’nîb al-damîr ("pangs of conscience"). When Khâlid defines conscience as "the human being in his true existence", he makes it clear that his definition of conscience is different from definitions that see in conscience primarily "the spiritual function which makes the human being regret the evil he has committed".[69]

As for al-‘Aqqâd, he touches upon the faculty of self-reproach when exposing the Qur’ânic psychology of the soul in his book "The human being in Islam" (Al-insân fî-l-Qur’ân, 1961). He cites notions of the soul that can be found in the Qur’ân, and especially the triadic image of the soul to which Sufism has paid so much attention: the soul that commands evil, the soul that reproaches itself, and the soul that has eventually achieved peace and confidence.[70] Al-‘Aqqâd does in fact relate the image of the self-reproaching soul (an-nafs al-lawwâma, Qur’ân 75.2) to the power of conscience. But only in passing, and his main point is that conscience reflects the human condition of being enjoined and accountable.[71]

In general, it might be argued that both in Khâlid and al-‘Aqqâd, conscience is primarily conceived of in terms of its creative potentials – as the seat of human responsibility; as the anchoring ground of moral judgements; as the faculty of formulating new moral insights in the light of divine revelation; and as the warrant of human authenticity. Their discourse of conscience aims at freeing humans from the shackles of tradition and releasing human potentials.

In Husayn, there is clearly more negativity and pain in his discourse of conscience. Conscience is not only subject to suppression by external tyrants, but often enough liable to crucifixion and extinction by its own bearer. Also Husayn, however, finds the typical Christian sense of self-reproach a little obsessive, as shown by his ironic remark in the annexes to his novel of conscience: "The best Christian in his or her most sublime moments is a sad person".[72]

In a dialogical perspective, the question arises whether conscience can only be the anchor of some shared ideals positively known together by Christians and Muslims, or whether it may also integrate negativity and pain. Is it possible that a Christian-Muslim discourse of conscience might even integrate a sense of remorse – resulting from the recognition that the integrity and anxiety of the Other has been neglected?



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[1] Despland 1987, p. 51.

[2] Cf. Ricoeur 1992: Oneself as Another.

[3] "Nullum theatrum virtuti conscientia maius est"; Tusculan Disputations II, 26.64.

[4] Kant: Werke, band 7, p. 860.

[5] fichte: System der Sittenlehre (1798), 1963, p. 170.

[6] Hegel: Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), cited from Sämtliche Werke band 5, p. 450.

[7] Feuerbach: Theogonie (1851-57), cited from Sämliche Werke, band IX, p. 135.

[8] Feuerbach: Der Eudämonismus, cited from Sämtliche Werke, band X, p. 279f.

[9] Feuerbach: Theogonie, cited from Sämtliche Werke, band IX, p. 282.

[10] Bayle 1948, p. 138. Cf. Theologische Realenzyclopädie, band 13 (1984), p. 203.

[11] Cited from Rousseau 1974, p. 252 and 254.

[12] Taylor 1991. Cf. the references to Rousseau in Taylor 1989.

[13] Taylor 1991, p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 26. Cf. Allesandro Ferrara 1993.

[15] As for the notion of "dia-practice", see Rasmussen 1997.

[16] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1961], p. 111.

[17] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1947], p. 167.

[18] al-‘Aqqâd 1994 [1947], p. 109.

[18] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1953], p. 101, 102, 105, 106, 107.

[20] Ibid., p. 95.

[21] Ibid., p. 122: fî sarâ’ir al-damîr.

[22] Ibid., p. 159: fî tawiyat damîrihi.

[23] Nafs (ibid,. p. 78), sudûr (p. 98), qalb (p. 106).

[24] al-damîr hiyya sirr al-asrâr, ibid. p. 171.

[25] Cf. the classical book of Miskawayh (d. 1030) Tahdhîb al-akhlâq ("Refinement of the character").

[26] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1953], p. 142.

[27] ibid., p. 113-114.

[28] al-wâdi al-muqaddas is a qur’ânic metaphor for the place where Moses encountered the burning bush, cf. Qur’ân 20.10-16.

[29] Husain 1977, p. 12.

[30] Husain 1977, p. 89.

[31] Hussein 1994, p. 231.

[32] Hussein 1994, p. 21f.

[33] Vogelaar 1995, p. 414.

[34] In his Introduction to City of Wrong (Hussein 1994).

[35] Ibid., p. 150.

[36] Ibid., p. 107 and 125.

[37] Ibid., p. 186 and 227.

[38] See ibid., p. 226f., and Kenneth Cragg's "Introduction", p. 17-19.

[39] Khâlid n.d. [1958].

[40] Khâlid 1994, p. 9 (my translation).

[41] Khâlid n.d. [1958], p. 96, 98 and 99.

[42] Khâlid 1971, p. 170-172.

[43] Ibid., p. 123, cf. pp. 135 and 137.

[44] Cf. Ricoeur 1992.

[45] Lévinas 1991 (Totality and Infinity, especially the chapter "Ethics and the face").

[46] Ricoeur 1992, and Tracy 1990 and 1996.

[47] Askari 1972 and Esack 1997.

[48] Lévinas 1981, p. 111.

[49] Tracy 1996, p. 14.

[50] Ricoeur 1992, p. 341-356.

[51] Cf. Taylor 1991, pp. 31-42.

[52] Ibid., p. 277.

[53] Heidegger 1973, p. 314.

[54] Ricoeur 1992, p. 353.

[55] Cf. Lévinas 1981 (Otherwise than Being), that may be read as a critique of Heidegger's notion of selfhood and being.

[56] Ibid., p. 354f.

[57] For the interrelation of conscience and love, see especially al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1953]. For conscience and taklif, see al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1961b].

[58] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1961], pp. 119-120 and 138-139.

Ibid., pp. 119-120 (my translation).

[60] Ibid., p. 130.

[61] Khâlid n.d. [1958], pp. 187-189.

[62] See the chapters "Redefining Self and Other", and "The Qur’ân and the Other" (in Esack 1997).

[63] Askari 1972.

[64] Ibid., p. 486.

[65] For Coptic developments, see van Doors-Harder and Kari Vogt (eds.) 1997.

[66] Jf. al-Azmeh 1993.

[67] On the virtues 206 (cited from Loeb Classical Library).

[68] De votis monasticis, WA 8,60630-39. Cited from Luther's works vol. 44, p. 298.

[69] Khâlid n.d. [1958], p. 96.

[70] al-nafs la-ammâra bi-s-sû’ (Qur’ân 12.53), al-nafs al-lawwâma (Qur’ân 75.2) and al-nafs al-mutma’inna (Qur’ân 89.27).

[71] al-‘Aqqâd n.d. [1961 b], p. 30.

[72] Hussein 1994, p. 233.