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Human Struggle

University of Aberdeen

This series of five lectures are structured so as to explore the theme of human struggle, suffering and hope in a comparative and interdisciplinary manner that analyses the writings of both Christian and western scholars alongside those of Muslim writers. This distinctive way of working has marked the style and approach to constructive theology in Professor Siddiqui’s most recent publications, opening up unique insights that afford the important work of contemporary comparative theology greater depth and import.

Struggle is often construed as jihad by Muslims and non-Muslims alike: spiritual and personal striving in the way of God, the internal struggle, the greater struggle, the journey of the self, an idea much reduced in contemporary discourse to denote a species of war erroneously called 'holy war'.

In these lectures the word struggle is used in its broadest philosophical and theological sense where it is often aligned to suffering.  Exploration of these two words suggests a distinct difference between struggle and suffering: struggle concerns hope in the midst of all kinds of moral, societal and personal uncertainties, whereas suffering identifies a certain despair and anguish, a lostness of the human condition. Struggle is part of a learning process and as such it is both expected and honoured. We witness one another’s struggles and find mutual respect in the process, aware that the end of struggle is a sense of personal achievement. Suffering, by contrast, seems simply to befall us as something to be endured without edification or aim.

Very often, of course, struggle and suffering overlap. People generally―and those who believe in a higher reality in particular―are not concerned with avoiding suffering and struggle but rather with the question of how we live well with these two realities. For Viktor Frankl, this was the cardinal theme of existentialism: 'to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in this suffering'. These lectures aim to suggest, further, that living with suffering is a consequence of living with desires, i.e., living with and in the distance between what we have and what we want.

The overarching purpose of these lectures is to open up new literary, theological and philosophical ways of thinking about the theme of struggle through close consideration of the lives and works of significant figures drawn from the history of Christian and Islamic thought. We will consider how such figures dealt with personal struggle and conscience amidst the political and social realities of their times. In view are the diverse perspectives these traditions afford upon the question of human spiritual struggle and the various challenges such experiences raise for religious faith. We are drawn to ask: Do our experiences of struggle and suffering, doubt and inward striving finally tell of spiritual ambition or spiritual emptiness, or both? 

Lecture 1: Theological and philosophical views of human struggle

Beginning with human desire as the basis for human struggle. In the famous words of William Irvine, it is desire which animates life, 'Banish desire from the world and you get a world of frozen beings who have no reason to live and no reason to die.' Desire is an essentially personal aspect of human life. It is desire which energises us, focuses keeps us moving and creates want and ambition in us.

Struggle and suffering in Islam and Christianity (theological as well as philosophical literature).The absence of a salvation motif and the presence of falah or success in Islam points to an emphasis on struggle and righteousness rather than suffering and hope. The Qur’an is however full of the stories of prophetic struggle, eg Job and Joseph, Abraham. What are the Qur’anic and biblical themes around human struggle in which one could argue that prophecy is not only election but a struggle. 

Lecture 2: God, Discipleship and experience

The writings of Rainer Maria Rilke-Letters to a Young Poet and other works compared with the classical Muslim scholar al-Ghazali-Letters to a disciple. Ghazali was a jurist of the Shafi`i school but he was also a philosopher, a theologian, and a Sufi of Sunni Islam. He is widely seen to be a renewer a mujaddid in line with the well known prophetic tradition that such a figure would arise every hundred years. In 1095, he grew frustrated with scholastic philosophy suffering a kind of spiritual crisis and gave up his teaching and left the city. Under the influence of Sufi, mystical literature and practice Ghazali saw his life in a different way; the virtuous life demanded higher standards of ethical living which for him weren't compatible with being in the service of sultans, viziers, and caliphs. For Ghazali virtuous acts predispose the soul to receive God's grace, a thinking located in the Qur'anic verse, 'The mercy of God is near to those who do good.' In his autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverer from Error), written late in his life he states that it was his habit from an early age, to search for the true reality of things. Going through a period of doubting his senses and reason itself as means to certain knowledge, he went through a stage of deep scepticism when he confesses to being a Muslim only verbally. In 1095 he left his material possessions and also left Baghdad to travel to Damascus as a wandering Muslim religieux. He gave himself up as he says to 'seclusion and retreat, spiritual exertion and struggle' in his attempts to purify his soul.

Rilke (1875- 1926) was born in Prague and is considered one of the most important poets and writers combining philosophical, literary and poetical genres. He was reading literature from an early age and was writing poetry from the 1890s. His father was a military man and rather ferocious who despaired of him never having a proper job and 5 miserable years at a military academy he left for Prague university and travelled quite extensively. Rilke wrote about solitude and the experiences of life in all his works but he also wrote on God and theological matters. His most famous work is Letters to a Young Poet. He was only 26 when he wrote these 10 letters to a young poet when Franz Xaver Kappus first wrote to him in 1902. They were written over six years. This young poet who died in 1966 has been largely forgotten by history.

These are 10 letters (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter) and can easily claim to be amongst some of his best writing. Ghazali’s letter to a disciple – ayyuha al–walad is (from his magnum opus, Ihya’) considered to be one of his final works – both differ in style and but what they share in common is reflections of the private, the inner life, - according to the preamble he is addressing a disciple who has asked for, expressed in a few pages what he needs for the rest of his life. Are the preamble, the questions in ayyuha al walad all Ghazali’s own work or were they added on – its difficult to know. It's most likely that the disciple didn’t exist and that Ghazali was in fact writing to himself – a mirror image of a young man whom Tobias Mayer says was a preacher 'steeped in learning, prone to vanity and possibly on course for spiritual disaster.'

Both these men speak of God Rilke also in his famous prose work Stories of God. Rilke was not an orthodox Christian, in fact he writes against Christianity at times but he is considered a profoundly religious man. His gospel is the gospel of God immanent. God is in things from the humblest to the greatest, in the mind of a poet, in the fibres of a leaf, in the grains of desert sands. The restlessness, uneasiness and dreaminess of his early poetry gave way to his grappling with God, an obsession with God’s presence in the world and our grappling with him. In the poem Autumn, he concludes that the falling and fallen world will never be abandoned by God because God cannot let go:

Despite different times and backgrounds, there are similarities in what they say on the subject of what it is to be human and strive for the right way. What themes did these writers cover as a way of instructing their younger companion, where is God in their teachings?

Lecture 3: Purifying Religion

The lives and writings of Ibn Taymiyya and Martin Luther speak of their struggle with 'purifying' their faith and encouraging their coreligionists to abide by the true faith. Both are controversial figures for different reasons and both dealt with personal as well as religious struggle.

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) was a Muslim theologian and jurist and one of the most significant proponents of the Hanbali school of Islamic law. Most of his personal struggle was that he lived during the troubled times of the Mongol invasions a people against whom he encouraged war/ jihad despite the fact that the Mongols had converted to Sunni Islam. He considered them to be using man made laws rather than sharia and accused them of living in a state of pre Islamic pagan ignorance.

Ibn Taymiyah was imprisoned several times for conflicting with opinions of the theologians of his day. He was accused of literalism and anthropomorphism for claiming that God should be described as he was literally described in the Qur'an and in the hadith. Muslims should believe this because the early companions of the Prophet had accepted this. Within the space of two years (1305-1306) four separate religious council hearings were held to assess the correctness of his creed. He was also imprisoned for condemning certain Sufi practices which he considered innovations ie bid`a to the `true’ Islam. Sufis could not be intercessionists and visiting the shrine of the saints was a grave innovation; he called such people 'unbelievers.' He was imprisoned for this view but saw his imprisonment as a blessing as it gave him the time to write and wrote three other books. As part of his aim to 'purify' Islam, he wrote polemical works against Christianity (eg al-Jawab al-Sahih) and accused the Muslims of being unaware of how much they were borrowing from Christianity. When he died, it is said he attracted one of the largest funeral prayers and his legacy remains monumental for various reasons. Sadakat Qadri writes, that he 'spent a lifetime objecting to tomb veneration, only to cast a more powerful posthumous spell than any of his Sufi contemporaries.'

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German professor of theology and a priest and a major figure in the Protestant Reformation. He is known for his rejection of several teachings of the late medieval church including the Roman Catholic view of indulgences as a way of reducing punishment for sins (Ninety Five Theses). Luther argued that eternal life and salvation is a gift of God’s grace rather than to be earned by good deeds. Part of his own spiritual struggle lay in fear of sin and death and his gradual turning to God’s love and repentance. He argued that reason could not lead one to God and only revelation taught the truth of God. Like Ibn Taymiyya, Luther wrote polemical works against Judaism and Islam. For him Islam was both a curse and a divine punishment on Christians for their own sins. The Ottoman Empire reached the height of its military power in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) and this advance was especially disturbing to people in Germany. A Turkish presence in neighbouring Hungary was simply too close for comfort. By the time of Martin Luther’s rise to prominence, European leaders were accustomed to thinking of Muslims as their main military enemies. Turks, wars and the Ottoman empire shaped the political background to Luther’s time. However as Robert Smith writes, 'Luther moved beyond constructions of the Turk as a mere military threat to a consideration of Islam itself.' Luther was amazed at Muslim belief in the 'shameful' things in the Qur’an, but he had an ambiguous attitude towards Islam. Luther demonstrates some knowledge, even appreciation of certain Muslim cultural practices but it is Muslim doctrine which Luther critiques. The Muslim rejection of the Incarnation, the salvific role of Christ and the particular insistence on divine unity, were all problematic for Luther. Islam negated what Luther thought God had done for the salvation of humanity.

Lecture 4: Struggle and the community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Syed Qutb. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He is considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century not just for his writings such as The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison which have become classics, but for his resistance to Nazism and their persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer’s struggle was not just his own conscience in the face of the Nazi regime but the compulsory military service which he would have had to do and on which point, the Confessional Church had not taken any definite attitude. For him, Christianity was about hope and the greater the hope, the greater the person. Bonhoeffer wrote a widely on how sin destroys humanity which is restored in Christ 'existing as the congregation'. He wrote extensively on community and 'new persons arising' within the church as an empirical entity rather than identifying the Church with the Kingdom of God. Bonhoeffer was less concerned about Christ entering history and more about the church as collective person. In 1945 Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging. He has become the paradigm of the theologian-martyr.

The Egyptian Syed Qutb (1906-1966) is also known as martyr by his proponents. He was a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He was an author and educator as well as a political activist. In 1966 he too was executed by hanging having being convicted of plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

A prolific writer, he is best known for his views on the social and political role of Islam. His magnum opus is the 30 vols In the shade of the Qur’an as well as Milestones. Qutb criticised the Muslim world for lapsing into jahiliyya practices but also criticised America for its violence, sexual freedoms and materialism. In the west, he is a controversial figure, for some, a key figure as the inspiration for Islamist ideologies and movements.

Both were jailed and executed for their political views and while in prison, they both wrote about their faith in different ways. Qutb argued that religion is not a mere theory, but also a programme, a reality and a movement for life. For him, any action that is not inspired by faith has no value in the eyes of the Lord. According to Qutb, that fight is not a temporary phase but rather an eternal state, because 'truth and falsehood cannot co-exist on this Earth.'

Lecture 5: Contemporary voices on struggle and lostness

Scholars, social and cultural theorists and reflections on the fragmentation of contemporary western societies and religiosity. This includes the works of Charles Taylor, Christopher Lasch, Zygmunt Bauman. Muslim scholars on the struggle for the soul of Islam where Islam seems to have lost its way philosophically and culturally e.g. Khaled abou el Fadl and Muhammad Arkoun. There seems to be an increased concern that the religious imagination is failing to give the answers to our deepest needs and human flourishing. Yet, nothing can adequately replace religious faith and our restlessness. What are the constants in our lives when the emphasis on the individual over the collective leads to disenchantment with the world?

Videos of Professor Siddiqui's lectures are available here.


  • University of Aberdeen