Compassion is not pity, religious historian asserts
Armstrong highlights principle of religions
The Quran is nothing but a call for compassion, Karen Armstrong says.
In a "dangerously polarised" world, it is necessary for people to be drawn together by a principle that is common to all religions and traditions, and that principle is compassion, Karen Armstrong, a leading religious historian, said.
Speaking to an audience of approximately 400 students, academics and journalists at the American University of Sharjah, Armstrong highlighted the need to find commonalities between religions for a harmonious world.
Among the attendees was His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, who takes a personal interest in such matters.
Religion, like art, said Armstrong, "is difficult to do well", adding that compassion was essential in most religions, but was lost due to misinterpretation and deviance.
"However, not all religions are the same. All have extraordinary differences," she pointed out.
Similarly, the compassion that she says is so essential to the world's major faiths is often mistaken as pity. "Compassion is not pity, it is a disciplined attempt to put ourselves in the place of the other," she said.
Armed with the sayings of prophets and founders of major faiths as well as citations from holy books, she explained how elements of compassion were found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as Buddhism, Confucianism and the traditions of ancient Greece.
The ancient Greek play The Persians, a tragedy by Aeschylus, she said, was a perfect example of compassion. Thought to be the oldest surviving play, it portrays the point of view of the Persians, then enemies of the Greeks, who had brutally plundered Athens in the battle of Salamis.
"This allowed the Greeks to weep together for the Persians," she said. "When I go to New York, I ask, ‘Would you be able to do this with [those who committed] the atrocities [of 9/11]?'".
"All the [founders of faiths and prophets] lived in violent times… The Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) brought a message of compassion when there was tribal warfare and spiritual malaise in Makkah," she said.
"The Quran is nothing but a call for compassion," she added. "People in the West believe that Islam is an essentially violent religion. My jihad, my struggle, is to tell people that that is not the case".
Contrary to popular perception that religion is the cause of all wars and violence, she said it was in fact greed and hunger for power that led to violence in the name of religion. Armstrong also spoke about her Charter for Compassion initiative, saying she was delighted to know that Dr Shaikh Sultan was the first Arab leader to have signed it.
The Charter of Compassion can be signed at: http://www.charterforcompassion.org