Karen Armstrong is one of the most respected and admired theologians and religious philosophers and historians, in Pakistan and worldwide. In her little book, “A Letter to Pakistan” (Karachi, 2011), she discusses ‘twelve steps to a compassionate life’, which was also the title of one of her earlier books. She presents themes gives advices on the most important issues in the lives of each of us.

Karen Armstrong’s main message is always: Do to others what you want others to do to you, known as the ‘Golden rule’, which can be found in numerous Surahs in the Quran, in Hadiths, and in the other religions’ holy books. The basic philosophical and theological principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religions. It is indeed so simple and obvious. Yet, often we don’t follow it, although we know we should to the best of ourselves and fellow human beings.

In the Bible’s New Testament, in Mark 12:30-31, Jesus said: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment great than these.”

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic sister, bases her religious belief on the Bible, yet, she goes beyond one religion to include all, and certainly Islam and the other Abrahamic religions, about which she has written long and learned books on historical and theological issues, specific to the organized individual religions and universal to all.

When I today draw attention to Karen Armstrong, it is because I believe we can draw lessons from her teachings in our daily lives – and because she writes (mostly) in a language and form that we can all understand. As with all theology and philosophy, the preacher and teacher can only show us the way, but it is in our own reflection and search for knowledge and wisdom, alone and in conversation with others and with God, that we can find answers in our lives, communities and the world.

Recently, somebody described our modern society and time as ‘cappuccino society’, notably that most of what we are all about is just similar to that drink; diluted watery coffee and skimmed milk, and at the top, fluffy foam, even cream, with sugar and chocolate chips. It’s a fake drink in a fake world, where appearance and pretence is more important than reality; where we look more for own selfish satisfaction than concern for others. And, yes, there is a lot of truth in that description since we live in a time which is more affluent than ever, indeed in the West and in the upper classes in the South. Yet, we also allow greater differences between rich and poor; cream and foam for the few, at the expense of the many, who can only quench their thirst with a diluted watery drink with skimmed milk.

The ‘cappuccino society’ is indeed not what Karen Armstrong wants; it is against the teachings of all the holy books. It is also against common sense and the simple principle that ‘it is in giving that we receive’ or, said differently, ‘it is in sharing that we all feel happy’. As people in rural villages and in mountain towns in Pakistan know, ‘we cannot live well unless our neighbours also live well’. True, in most societies there are also some social and economic differences, but it should never be extreme. And we should remember, too, that it is not only the oppressed that suffer, but also the oppressors.

Some countries have done better than others in sharing and caring, notably the Northern European social-democratic societies, and in many ways also the socialist-oriented Eastern European societies. The government was given a greater role in redistribution of wealth in order for people to ‘contribute according to ability and receive according to need’.

In most developing countries, including in Pakistan, the government still plays a limited role in the welfare of people. Instead, it is the family, the extended family and the wider private networks that form the ‘safety net’ and provide care. This system has many advantages, yet, it doesn’t redistribute wealth on a larger scale between classes, groups and regions. Yet, maybe it keeps people’s direct concern for each other at a higher level than in the West where it is the government’s role to look after those who need help. At some time in life, in crises and certainly in old age, everyone needs help and care from others.

I have reflected on these aspects recently, and I have found many examples of the deeper compassion and empathy for others that Karen Armstrong describes, and as described in the holy books describe, in the Pakistan, not least among the less affluent and the underprivileged. It is always humbling to see and experience this. It also shows the limits to the Western welfare states service, for example, today in the new situation of migration and refugee crisis. Yet, I also want the welfare state to be expanded to include everyone in Pakistan, but in a mixed system of care, love and closeness that can only be given by family, friends and local community.

Can we learn compassionate thinking so that we can become more caring and considerate in any society and political system? And how can we implement compassionate thinking, not only in our private lives but also through the public and private systems in society?

Karen Armstrong would say that we should first learn to know ourselves and our God, and then at the same time care for others. Much of it is simply good manners and good behavior, and it is common sense and positive thinking. All of us know that it is better to greet others, friends and strangers, with interest and care rather than hostility and negative feelings; it matters to ourselves as much as it matters to others. Indeed, we should not inflict pain on others, not exploit others, and not deny basic rights to others.

Karen Armstrong says that we should make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our life and world. Transcending selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. It can bring the interdependent humanity together as we seek an enlightened and conscious path of peaceful and harmonious together-living. We don’t need to agree on all; we need to live in respect, care and compassion for each other, with religious and philosophical superstructures.

The everyday public and private actions follow from the above. There are many political and social things that can be improved in all societies, in the modern welfare states, and in countries where the regulations are still rudimentary. Pakistan has much to learn from the modern welfare states. Yet, everyday I am impressed by the kindness and care for others that ordinary Pakistanis, often poor people, show to me and to each other. Pakistan can become a model society on our way ahead, where we also learn as we walk the road. But we must work deliberately for I; it doesn’t come by itself. I hope, too, that the West, the often rich and selfish countries, but with many good people, too, will search their souls and re-discover compassion and care – and seek God’s help in it all. On this philosophical, moral and religious foundation, we can find better political solutions and build a better world for all – Inshah Allah.