Archive | July 2010

A very, very short introduction to Islam

This used to be one of my most popular posts, but since changing the URL and design of this site, it hasn’t really had any traffic at all. Perhaps by adding this brief note, and “updating” the post, Google will realise it still exists… 

In a post of this nature it is only natural that I am going to have to be very general… to those of you who may know very little about Islam, I hope this will be very informative… to those of you who have read some books, or maybe studied various aspects in more depth, I hope that my deeper penetration of more contemporary issues might shed some light on areas you are unfamiliar with, or provoke some discussion. I’d also heartily recommend checking out the links at the bottom of the page, which I have been updating as and when I remember.

This is neither going to be an attack or defence of Islam. There are plenty of these around, all of which have their merits and setbacks. Whilst it is of course impossible for me to present all sides of every argument, and whilst I have no doubt I will end up being ludicrously biased in numerous respects, I aim to present as balanced a picture as possible. The overriding thrust of this presentation shall be that there is no such thing as a monolithic Islam – just as there will be countless “Christian” stances on abortion/homosexuality/terrorism etc., or various “Christian” interpretations of the nature of God’s revelation, or on the specifics of the Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper… so to with almost every point we consider in relation to Islam.

There are many contemporary and historical issues which I could have written about, and shall potentially write about in future, including Apostasy, Democracy, Homosexuality, Finance, Sufism and Women’s Rights, but time and space mean that things inevitably have to be left out. If there is anything that particularly raises any questions, please do post a comment and I shall try and answer as rigorously as I can.

First of all, a few basic facts to start us off:

23.1% of the world’s population are Muslim
Of these, 10-13% are Shia, 87-90% are Sunni
20% of the world’s Muslims live in countries where they are the minority…

Two thirds live in the following 10 countries (in order) :

Indonesia c. 203 million 88.2%
Pakistan c. 174 million 96.3%
India c. 161 million 13.4%
Bangladesh 145 million 89.6%
Egypt 78 million 94.6%
Nigeria 78 million 50.4%
Iran 74 million 99.4%
Turkey 74 million 98%
Algeria 34 million 98%
Morocco 32 million 99%

In the UK there are c. 1.6 million (2.7%) and the USA c. 2.5 million (0.8%). See this informative article in the Guardian for my sources, and more statistics.

What is Islam?

““Islam” in Arabic is a verbal noun, meaning self-surrender to God as revealed through the message and life of his Prophet, Muhammad. In its primary meaning […] the word Muslim refers to one who so surrenders him- or herself.” (Malise Ruthven)

“Islam is a comprehensive system which deals with all spheres of live. It is a state and a homeland (or a government and a nation). It is morality and power (or mercy and justice). It is culture and a law (or knowledge and jurisprudence). It is material and wealth (or gain and prosperity). It is an endeavour and a call (or an army and a cause). And finally, it is true belief and worship.” (al-Banna, 1978 cited in Abdulkader Ismail Tayob, 2007)

Just as Christians and Jews can identify with their parents’ faith without practicing the faith themselves, so too it is entirely possible to have non-practicing Muslims.

However, this does not mean that Islam is in some way “racially” inherited. It is true that the Arab peoples are often associated with Islam and that in reality, “many non-Arab Muslims […assume that] an Arab is […] a Muslim by definition” (Azam Tamimi), however the key point here is the very existence of non-Arab Muslims. “The Arabs as a people, both in terms of race and ethnic category, predate Islam” (ibid), and there is nothing contradictory in the designation of Arab Christians or Arab Jews.

Where did Islam originate?

The Arabian Peninsula

  • Comprises modern day Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is about 4/5ths of the peninsula and it is approximately 2.2million square kilometres. UK is just over 200,000 square kilometres…
  • Its predominant feature is its aridity.
  • The bulk of Arabia is desert relieved only by scattered oases.
  • Much of Arabia was fit only for pastoralism, and a nomadic pastoralism at that

According to Michael Cook, at the time of Muhammad (c.6th/7th):

  • The Arabs had never posed a serious military threat, and were unlikely to do so
  • Escalating conflict between Rome and Persia was likely to lead to a tightening of their grip on anything of worth in Arabia
  • It was only a matter of time before Arabia became Christian…


Born c. 570CE at Mecca/Makka… site of the Ka’ba

The Ka’ba at Mecca

  • Some suggest this was the site of fertility cults or something similar
  • Muslims hold that the Ka’ba was built by Abraham at the place of sacrifice

His tribe, the Quraysh, were very influential…

  • They were the guardians of the sanctuary (The Ka’ba)
  • Mecca was on a major trade route and this meant that there was a steady flow of pilgrims.

He was orphaned at 6

  • … brought up by his grandfather, and then his uncle Abu Talib.
  • Went to work for a wealthy merchant woman named Khadija when he was a young man, and they eventually married.
  • Tradition holds that Muhammad married at least nine other women, but remained faithful to Khadija who bore him seven children (including three sons who died in infancy).

At about age 40 (in 610CE) Muhammad started regular retreats in a cave near Mt Hira, near Mecca, where after a period of meditation, he received his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel.

“Recite, in the name of your Lord, who created.
He created man from an embryo.
Recite, and your Lord, Most Exalted.
Teaches by means of the pen.
He teaches man what he never knew.” [Q96:1-5]


Khadija accepted his message immediately, as did his uncle’s son Ali,

  • eventually it spread beyond the confines of his family and Mecca and was proclaimed openly.
  • the new religion professed by Muhammad happily coexisted with the current pagan religions, until Muhammad denounced the pagan deities to the outrage of the Meccan authorities

Growing hostilities meant that Muhammad had to send some of his new followers to neighbouring Ethiopia, where they were protected by the Christian ruler

  • those remaining in Mecca were subjected to a boycott aimed at excluding them from commercial life…
  • then Abu Talib (uncle) and Khadija died in the same year.
  • Deprived of his protection and confidant, Muhammad and his followers made the Hijra, or emigration (275 miles north ), to Yathrib, following an invitation from a delegation seeking Muhammad’s assistance as mediator between three feuding Jewish tribes.
  • Yathrib was eventually renamed Medina (the City of the Prophet), and the Islamic calendar (which is lunar) officially begins here, at 622CE, making this year 1432AH.

I won’t go into any of the events that happened in Medina, as that would take all day… but suffice to say there were raids on caravans, battles with armies from Mecca, disagreements with the current inhabitants, mutual influence between the Jews and Muslims, amongst other things…

Eventually, after a few more or less successful attempts at negotiation, Muhammad led a band of followers back to Mecca in 630 (the Umra, or lesser pilgrimage),

  • takes the city against little show of resistance,
  • circumambulating (ritually walking around) the Ka’ba
  • destroying the 360 idols therein sparing only the two icons of Jesus and Mary.
  • Within the following two years, before his death, the Muslim Umma (community) became the dominant force in the Arabian peninsula.
  • Muhammad performed the “Pilgrimage of Farewell” (which became the Hajj we know today) then he dies unexpectedly in the arms of his “favourite” wife, Aisha, then aged 18.

Early expansion

Early expansion of the Islamic Empire

Of course, early expansion must not be equated with mass conversion, which only happened much later…

Just before his death, Muhammad had planned to send an expedition into Roman territory in Palestine… this set in motion the events that led to rapid expansion of the Islamic empire…

“Within a century of the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Muslims governed throughout the Middle East and North Africa as far west as the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal). In the east there were Muslim outposts in the Indus valley (northwest India) and expeditions reached as far as the great wall of China.” (David Waines)

What was quite a shock to me, was that Spain was ruled by an Islamic power from 711-1492.

The Split into Sunni and Shi’i

The 4 rightly guided caliphs:

  • Abu Bakr (r. 632-634)
  • Umar (634-644)
  • Uthman (644-656)
  • Ali (656-661)

Following Muhammad’s death, his close companion (and father of Aisha), Abu Bakr, is elected as his successor and designated “Caliph”. The claims of Ali – Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law – are ignored on this, and two subsequent occasions. Supporters of Ali were called his Partisans (Shi’a)… when he succeeded to the Caliphate he was not successful in maintaining control and he was eventually assassinated. The Shi’is then dispute the Sunni Caliphate as it continued, following Ali’s line and designating them Imams.

“In the sacred history of Shi’ism, each Imam in turn is secretly murdered – usually by poisoning. Eventually the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al Muntazar – the Awaited One – disappears altogether. He will return at the end of time as the Messiah (al-Mahdi) to bring peace, justice and unity to a world torn by corruption, division and strife.” (Malise Ruthven)

On a side-note, there is quite an amusingly bad film entitled “Khartoum” set in Sudan, late c.19th starring Charlton Heston, as General Gordon, and a boot polished up Lawrence Olivier as the Sudanese Mahdi.

The Poster for “Khartoum”

The Shi’ism discussed thus far is the majority Twelver or Imami Shi’ism

There also others known as Isma’ilis, or Seveners, who claim allegiance to Isma’il, the eldest son of Imam Jaf’ar, who Twelvers believe to have predeceased his father.

And there are also many other smaller groups

Key Beliefs and Practices

The Qur’an

Generally accepted that Muhammad began to collect the Qur’an together before his death but it was not completed until 20 or so years later under Uthman.

114 independent units of varying lengths called suras

Each sura begins with the formula “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”

After the first sura they are arranged in roughly descending order of length

Generally taken that everything which refers to the communities and generations of the past, or establishing the credentials of the Prophet, was revealed at Mecca. Duties and norms of behaviour from Medina…

Qur’an as inimitable:

“If men and genies banded together to produce the likes of this Qur’an, they would not produce its like, not though they backed one another.” (Q17:88)

That it is in Arabic is seen of great importance:

A section of the Qur’an in Arabic

“Some religions, like Buddhism, take to scriptural translation like ducks to water. The Buddha, we are told, ‘can express everything he wishes in any language whatever’, and not only that, he ‘speaks them all at once’. But such linguistic indifference was not a feature of Islam. The Qur’an was destined to remain as it had been revealed.” (Michael Cook)

“We have sent it down in an Arabic Qur’an; haply you will understand” (Q12:2)

“Non-Arabic isn’t Arabic, so it’s not Qur’an.” (Ibn Hazm, d. 1064)

At the time written Arabic was largely used as an aid to memory, with no system of vowel signs or diacritical marks…. In the 10th century a system of 7 canonical readings was established with one of these becoming prevalent throughout the whole Islamic world, the Egyptian Standard Edition, issued under the authority of the King of Egypt in 1923/4.

And now for some highly generalised practical implications of the sanctity of the Qur’anic codex:

Reading the Qur’an in a Mosque

  • See how the Qur’an is usually sat on a chair when being read in the mosque.
  • in a state of ritual impurity a Muslim should not touch the Qur’an.
  • Unbelievers, accordingly, should never touch the Qur’an according to the majority view.
  • Thus Muslim warriors were prohibited from taking copies of the book on raids into non-Muslim territory; these copies might fall into the hands of the unbelievers, and thus be defiled.
  • However, one eighth-century scholar is said to have allowed the ritually impure to touch the margins of a copy of the Qur’an,
  • Another early Muslim had no qualms about sending his non-Muslim slave to fetch a Qur’an which was enclosed in its protective wrapping
  • Coins also provided a worry… as did the scribbling of children learning to write with passages of the Qur’an

Generally taken that the Fatiha (“The Opening”) contains, in a condensed form, all the fundamental principles laid down in the Qur’an:

In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
Amen. (Q1:1-7)

Identifying what the Qur’an is talking about is difficult without information on context. According to Michael Cook, without tradition we would probably be able to infer that the protagonist was Muhammad, in western Arabia, and that there was a problem with this revelation being accepted by his contemporaries. No indication that the sanctuary is in Mecca, that Muhammad came from there, or that he established himself in Yathrib… These indications come from traditions… the “Hadith”.


Hadith are much more important than the tiny mention they shall get here…

  • Isnads are the name given to the chain of transmission assigned to a Hadith. Essentially they run something like Person D heard from Person C who heard from Person B who heard from Person A who was a companion of the Prophet. The more trustworthy these individuals are deemed to be, amongst other considerations, determines how “sound” the Hadith is deemed to be.
  • Hadith can be on any number of things…
  • You’ll see plenty of examples in the following sections

“Six collections came to acquire canonical status with two of these – the sahihain or “two sound ones” of al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim [ibn al-hajjaj] (d. 875) – considered as second in importance only to the Qur’an” (Malise Ruthven)

The Five Pillars

Shahada (Declaration of Faith)

  • The minimum requirement for being designated a Muslim: “There is no God but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
  • To this Shi’is add: “Ali is the friend of God”

Salat (Prayer/Worship)

  • Involves ritual prostration… actions as important as mental activity
  • 5x a day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening
  • However this does not meant that they happen at these times, but at intervening periods between each… i.e. the noon salat happens from when the sun has reached its zenith until it is halfway down
  • Ritual Purity important… minor and major ablutions. Some legal authorities say one ablution at the start of the day works for all 5…
  • Facing the direction of Mecca (for the first year it was Jerusalem)
  • Men in front of women
  • Public prayer on a Friday at the Mosque usually with a sermon from the Imam. However Friday is not considered a “holy” day… it seems it was just the market day in Medina at the time of the Prophet…

Zakat (Compulsory Charity)

  • In Q2:219 , in response to the question “How much do we pay?” the Qur’an simply states “The surplus!” i.e. what you do not need…
  • Intended for the poor and needy
  • Used to be collected and distributed by the government but now it is generally left up to individual discretion

Sawm (Fasting during Ramadan)

  • Ramadan is the 9th Month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar
  • Only during daylight hours
  • Includes eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity
  • Begins at dawn and ends at sunset
  • The breaking of the fast meal encouraged as a great source of joy and celebration and there are frequent family and community get togethers
  • It became customary for Muslims to try and read the Qur’an during Ramadan, with many editions being printed divided into 30 equal sections…

Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca)

Devotees attending the Hajj

  • It would be very possible to have an entire book  just on the Hajj
  • Required on every adult Muslim at least once in his or her life
  • Malise Ruthven “In the past Muslims from far-flung regions would spend the best part of a lifetime on the journey, working their way across Africa or Asia to reach the Holy City. In their return they enjoyed the honoured status of Hajji – one who had made the pilgrimage.”
  • Nowadays transport has made the whole thing much easier, and the Saudi authorities have to put limits on the numbers who can attend…
  • Involves :
    • The Tawaf – circumambulation of the Ka’ba
    • The Sa’I – Sevenfold running between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa (incidentally this is now down through an airconditioned gallery)
    • The Standing the in the plain of Arafat
    • The ‘Onrush’ through the narrow defile of Muzdalifa
    • The ‘Stoning’ of the three pillars representing the devil
    • The sacrifice of an animal at Mina (which is now done in hygienic abattoirs with pilgrims obtaining sheep certificates, and the meat being frozen for feeding the poor).

Key Doctrinal Differences between Islam and Christianity

Many similarities:

  • Adam remains the common ancestor of humanity and is expelled from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit
  • Noah is the builder of the ark whose occupants survive when God destroys the human race
  • Abraham still nearly sacrifices his son to God
  • Moses confronts Pharaoh, leads the exodus from Egypt, encounters God on Sinai and receives scripture…
  • Revelation
  • Authoritative Text
  • Centrality of Community

Unity of God

“Tawhid” – making one, unicity…

Islamic perception of Christian tritheism…

“Say not “Three”, refrain; better is it for you. God is only One God” (Q4:171)

“They are unbelievers who say “God is the Third of Three.” No God is there but One God.” (Q5:76)

However, by this time the doctrine of the Trinity hadn’t been fully established, and there are well known difficulties to formulating certain Greek concepts in Arabic.

Jesus’ Crucifixion and Divinity

Jesus seen as Messiah, born of a virgin, carried out a ministry throughout Israel, performed miracles, was rejected by the Jews and raised up to heaven by God.

“And when the son of Mary is cited as an example, behold, thy people turn away from it and say, ‘What, are our gods better, or he?’ They cite not him to thee save to dispute; nay but they are a people contentious. He is only a servant we blessed, and We made him to be an example to the Children of Israel.” (Q43:57-59)

Here the Qur’an is explaining Jesus to the polytheists of Mecca… firstly he is a human servant, not divine… and secondly he is more important than they can imagine.

A Prophet of such high standing suffering such a humiliating death is incomprehensible…

  • Q4:156-8: “yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them […] and they slew him not of a certainty – no indeed; God raised him up to him.”
  • The traditional interpretation is that someone else died on the Cross (perhaps Judas)…
  • A more modern interpretation is that the Qur’anic account denies the Jews responsibility for Jesus’ death.

No original sin/atonement

“The most significant theological difference in terms of the historical development of Islam is the treatment of the Fall. Satan is punished for his refusal to bow down before Adam; and though Adam sins, as in the biblical story, by eating of the forbidden fruit, he repents and is soon restored to favour as God’s deputy or vice-regent, the first prophet in the line of prophets that culminates in Muhammad. There is no doctrine of original sin here, no idea of vicarious atonement. Where there is no original sin, there is no redeemer…” (Malise Ruthven)

Those whose good deeds outweigh bad will go to Paradise and vice versa…

  • possibly down to different emphases: belief versus practice? orthodoxy versus orthopraxy?
  • But this strikes me as much too simplistic

Some verses seem to suggest that once God has sent his guidance it is up to humans to decide how to respond:

“Say: The truth is from your Lord; so let whosoever will believe, and whosoever will disbelieve.” (Q18:29)

But others indicate that the choice is God’s:

“As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them, they do not believe. God has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes a covering, and there awaits them a mighty chastisement.” (Q2:6-7)

Of course this is all very general, and there will be many more differences that I could have noted… but I hope this has given you a flavour of the nuances of the relationships between these two great religions…

Contemporary Issues

Shari’a Law and Fatwas

This is going to seem very much like I am supporting Shari’a Law… that is not my intention. However, there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes, mostly because of the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia… and I would like to dispel some of these.

“The term Shari’a applies to much more than law in the strictly legal sense. It includes details of ritual, as well as a whole range of customs and manners, although local customary laws are also recognised. Shari’a means literally ‘the way to a watering place’: the Qur’anic use of the term suggestively combines the notions of a vital means of sustenance in this world and access to the divine realm of the world to come. The law is there both for the purpose of upholding the good of society and for helping human beings attain salvation. Interpretations of the law may vary in accordance with time and place, but the Shari’a itself is considered to be a timeless manifestation of the will of God, subject neither to history nor circumstance.” (Malise Ruthven)

Thus, Knut Vikor can write:

  • “There is no such thing as a, that is one Islamic law”
  • Younger modern Muslim scholars: Shari’a “is a name for the divine will as only God knows it, an abstract divine law only perceived by Him.”

In theory Shari’a comes from the Qur’an, but there are 6200 verses in the Qur’an – only 350-500 legally relevant, and only approx. 30 specify crime/punishment.

Fiqh (jurisprudence)

  • = science of formulating the law (Vikor)
  • = thinking about the law
  • Faqiha (to understand)
  • Faqih (jurist/theologian) Fuqaha (plural)
  • “What we find in the fiqh texts is the jurists’ approximation to the divine law” (Rudolph Peters)
  • Its four roots, in order of precedence, are:
    • the Qur’an,
    • the traditions of the prophet
    • consensus
    • and analogical reasoning

As if matters weren’t complicated enough, there are numerous Legal Schools (Madhabs) such as the  Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’I and Maliki schools amongst the Sunnis, named after eponymous founders.

A rough map of Madhab locations

  • Shafi’I’s domininant in lower Egypt, Syria, southern India, Indonesia and Malaysia
  • Hanafis in Turkey, northern India, Pakistan, central Asia and China
  • Malikis in Saharan Africa, upper Egypt and North Africa
  • Hanbalis in Saudi Arabia

Malikis rely more on the Sunna… Hanafis on analogy resulting in a generally more lenient stance

What is a Fatwa?

  • “Legal Decision”/”Verdict”
  • Al-Shatibi: “A reply to a legal question given by a legal expert in the form of words, action or approval.”
  • Only statements  of principle and in theory a fatwa has no validity beyond the moment it was expressed (Vikor)

An example: wine or whisky? from Burhan al Din al-Marghinani (d. 1197), Al-Hidaya, trans. Charles Hamiltion. A Hanafi faqih… Hanafi position generally that beer, whisky and vodka are permitted although all forms of grape alcohol are forbidden…

“The first of these [forbidden beverages] is khamr [wine] meaning, according to Abu Hanifa, the juice of the grape fermented… Others maintain that khamr is applicable to whatever is of an inebriating quality, because it is mentioned in the traditions that “Whatever inebriates is khamr” and in another tradition “Khamr is produced from two plants, namely the vine and the date palm…” Khamr is in itself unlawful whether it be used… even in so small a quantity as not to be sufficient to intoxicate; yet the same law does not apply to things of an inebriating quality, for a little of them, if not sufficient to intoxicate, is not forbidden… Whoever maintains khamr to be lawful is an infidel (and exposed to the penalty for apostasy) for he rejects incontestable proof.

“… Whoever drinks khamr incurs punishment even if he is not intoxicated, for it is said in the Traditions “Let him who drinks khamr be whipped, and if he drinks it again, let him be punished again in the same manner.”

“Liquor produced by means of honey, wheat, barley or millet is lawful, according to Abu Hanifa and Abu Yusuf (his most distinguished disciple) although it be not boiled, provided it be not drunk in a wanton manner. The argument they adduce is the Hadith “Khamr is the product of these two trees” (meaning the vine and the date palm)… It has likewise been disputed whether a person who gets drunk with any of these liquors is to be punished.”

Shari’a Law in the UK?

Rowan Williams, “Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective”, Public Lecture, 6 February 2008. You’ll have heard the BBC on this…

Cites Tariq Ramadan: “It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to [Shari’a] for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word.”

For Williams, “Law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour.”

However, secular lawyers must be aware of what to treat as real and serious and what is grounded in nuisance and ignorance

And he is quite clear that “No supplementary jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”

He attacks our Western notion of Legal Universalism as a bad thing:

  • Secular law should not seek to dissolve religion, custom and habit
  • But should “monitor such affiliations to prevent the creation of mutually isolated communities in which human liberties are seen in incompatible ways and individual persons are subjected to restraints or injustices for which there is no public redress.”

“Clearly the refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.”

How this would be implemented or enforced is another issue… however, Williams illustrates the complexities of the issues involved in implementing an “Islamic” Law in a non-Islamic context… it is not a simple of matter of letting people get on with it… and neither is it acceptable for “us” to demand that human beings conform to “our” understanding of what is immutable law…

(Tariq Ramadan) Shari’a teaches that Islam rests on the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the state of the world/society.

“To apply Shari’a for Muslim citizens or residents in the West means explicitly to respect the legal and constitutional framework of the country of which they are citizens.”

Of course there are extremists… and in many ways these are the people who make a fuss about implementing Shari’a… but these voices should not drown out more moderate voices.

If you are interested in further discussion on the nature of Shari’a, please see my other post “Shari’a Law: Where does it come from?“.

Violence and Jihad

What is Jihad?

  • Rudolph Peters: Jihad = to strive, to exert oneself, to struggle
  • Bukhari: Greater Jihad is “for the servant of God to fight his passions.”
  • Jihad is a collective obligation. Indeed if there is an army, others are not permitted to participate! Q9:122 – “It is not for the believers to go forth totally”
  • Notions of Jihad were developed within the context of the expansion of a single Islamic state…
  • There is no valid Jihad in Twelver Shi’ism since the occultation of 873…
  • Peters: Jihad functions to motivate to war, to enhance a ruler’s legitimacy and to define the rules for the relationship with unbelieving enemies during war…
  • Therefore it is clearly difficult to apply the notions of Jihad to the modern day…

Elements in support of aggression:

Q4:95 – “[Those of the believers who stay at home while suffering from no injury are not equal to] those who fight in the cause of God with their possessions and nafs (soul/person).”

Q8:39 – “Fight them until there is no [discord] and the religion is God’s entirely.”

Q9:5 [Sword Verse] – “Then when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

Q9:29 – “Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and his Messenger has forbidden… until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled.”

Malik (founder of Maliki school):

  • According to the Prophet, the best person is “a man who takes the reign of his horse to do jihad in the way of Allah.”
  • Malik: “Being killed in the way of Allah has no like”

However, it is just as easy to find anti-aggressive elements:

Q2:190 – “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but transgress/aggress not.”

  • What is fighting in the way of God?

Q9:12 – “But if they break their oaths after their covenant/treaty and thrust at your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief.”

  • treaties being mentioned is significant
  • only fighting the leaders…
  • Peters: “It is not clear whether the Qur’an allows Muslims to fight the unbelievers only as a defence against aggression or under all circumstances.”

Q8:61 [Peace Verse] – “And if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it”

The Hadith, although not as important as the Qur’an, has plenty of material.

  • Invite your enemies to embrace Islam, pay the jizya or fight…
  • “Do not desire an encounter with the enemy, but when you do encounter them be firm.”
  • Prophet “forbade the killing of women and children”

How does this all relate to contemporary terrorism?

Context: Of course there are many motivations, but the biggest thing I think to remember is that:

“Throughout [the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth century] European colonialists managed to occupy or directly influence almost the entire Islamic world. Of the three great medieval Muslim empires, the Ottoman and Moghul were totally dismembered; only Iran emerged relatively intact but subject nevertheless to pressure from both Britain and Russia. Muslim inhabited territories in sub-Saharan Africa and in modern day Malaysia and Indonesia also fell under European control.” (David Waines)

Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1898) was able to declare that since the British did not interfere with the practising of Islam, jihad against them was not allowed. However, Muhammed Abduh and Rashid Rida, though sincerely believing that Jihad is only allowed in response to aggression,  defined the colonial activities as acts of aggression…

Osama Bin Laden’s “Declaration of War Against the Americans” (1998):

  • Makes extreme use of the “Sword Verse”
  • And the Hadith: “I have been sent with the sword between my hands to ensure that no one but God is worshipped.”
  • He believes that killing Americans is an individual duty in accordance with “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together” and “fight them until there is no more tumult and oppression”

Darul Uloom Deoband’s Fatwa Against Terrorism (2008) [Very influential India-based group of scholars]:

  • Focuses on Q5:56 – “Do not spread discord on earth.”
  • The believe that the Qur’an clearly states that the killing of one innocent is equivalent to the massacre of all human kind (plus the reverse situation…)
  • And that a basic principle of Islam not to cooperate with those spreading sin and oppression.

And in 2001, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a very influential Qatar based legal scholar, along with some others issued a fatwa against terrorism, and on the  right of Muslims to fight in US Army, in response to a question from a Muslim Captain in the US Army in the aftermath of 9/11.

  • Re. terrorism: Q5:33-4 – “The recompense of those who wage war against God and his Messenger or do mischief on earth is only that they shall be killed…” (This can clearly be used to support the opposing side).
  • And, regarding fighting in the US Army… Q64:!6 – “And keep your duty to God as much as you can”
  • Muslim soldiers should only request to serve on the back lines if this does not call loyalty into question.
  • The assumption that neither the lives nor faith of Muslims in the USA is threatened.
  • “Aman [safe conduct] requires that Muslims residing in a non-Muslim land not knowingly commit acts detrimental to the host country…; and that Muslims should always fulfil the terms of their contracts with non-Muslims.”
  • Choosing the lesser of two harms “regarded by Muslim jurisprudents as one of the secondary rules of Islamic legal theory.”
  • Interpretive authority of fatwa lies in their use of Bukhari: “Acts are judged according to the intentions behind them.”

And of course there is the opposing position:

  • Al-Shu’aybi: “Any Muslim who takes the side of the unbelievers in their war against Muslims is himself an apostate and unbeliever.”
  • But despite criticism of the fatwa, no criticism has been levelled at al-Qaradawi et al.

Also, the BBC recently (2 March, 2010) reported on a 600 page fatwa by the influential Pakistani Jurist Tahir ul-Qadri against terrorism and suicide bombing.

“They [terrorists] can’t claim that their suicide bombings are martyrdom operations and that they become the heroes of the Muslim Umma. No, they become heroes of hellfire, and they are leading towards hellfire,” he said.
“There is no place for any martyrdom and their act is never, ever to be considered jihad.”

As I alluded to before, there is no obligation on any Muslim to accept any fatwa… they are just legal opinions. Fatwas can be issued in favour of terrorism, of war, or demanding the death of Salman Rushdie… just as they can be issued opposing terrorism, extolling the virtues of the West, and advising on mundane personal issues…

A VERY illuminating article was published on January 28 2010 entitled Europol Report: All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 99.6% that Aren’t is something I would recommend that everyone take the time to read. It demonstrates that the right-wing propaganda regarding “All terrorists being Muslims” is vastly different from the evidence that we have to date, both in the European Union, and the USA.

I hope that in this issue, as in all others, I have demonstrated that the true picture is much more nuanced and multifaceted than the media would have you believe. As in all religions, and indeed all worldviews, there will always be extremes… I think it is the duty of people like you and I to ensure that these extremes are not the only voices that are heard. I hope this whirlwind post will have helped in some way with this goal, and has given you some food for thought…

I know there will have been many generalisations here, and that I have maybe said some things that some people may find offensive or inaccurate. Please do let me know and we can get some discussion on the go!

Other worthwhile articles (last updated 12/05/2011 – I should do this more often):

Explaining Islam to the Public by Edward E. Curtis IV

Burkas, Bin Bags and Bans by “fandabidozi”

Understanding the Muslim world by Mark LeVine

And a surprisingly informative article from Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam by Jacopo della Querci.

Today I have mostly been learning about… “Fuck”

I was reading the wonderful and intentionally provocatively titled article “Fuck” by Christopher M. Fairman (published in March 2006 in the Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series No. 59/Centre for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies Working Paper Series No. 39 and available for free online here) and thought I should share some of my favourite parts of it with you.

Some of this will be direct quotations, some will be my own paraphrases, some will be my own additions… and there is not going to be any coherent narrative, but I thought a lot of people out there might share my affection for the word “fuck” and its variants, and appreciate learning something new about it and hearing some amusing legal stories from this serious scholarly article. Many thanks to Edwina Smith for passing it in my direction.

Here we go…. 15 things you wanted to know about fuck:

1. Previous studies on the word “fuck” have included Leo Stone’s On the Principal Obscene Word of the English Language (1954) and Allen Walker Read’s An Obscenity Symbol (1934), “fifteen pages and eighty-two footnotes penned without once printing the word fuck anywhere in the article”.

2. In 2002, a man called Timothy Boomer was canoeing on the Rifle River in Michigan. He fell overboard and let out a few fucks. A nearby Sheriff gave him a ticket citing an 1897 statute – “Any person who shall use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”. Boomer was then convicted and sentenced to a $75 fine and 4 days community service.

3. “Fuck is a taboo word. According to psycholinguists, its taboo status is likely due to our deep, subconscious feelings about sex. The taboo is so strong that it compels many to engage in self-censorship. However, refraining from the use of fuck only reinforces the taboo. In the process, silence empowers small segments of the population to manipulate our rights under the guise of reflecting the greater community. Taboo is then institutionalised through law, yet at the same time is in tension with other identifiable legal rights. Understanding this relationship between law and taboo ultimately yields fuck jurisprudence. However, all the attempts to curtail the use of fuck through law are doomed to fail. Fundamentally, fuck persists because it is taboo, not in spite of it.”

4. One potential first occurrence of fuck is in a Scottish poem by William Dunbar:

“Yit be his feiris he wald haif fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane”

William Dunbar, Ane Brash of Wowing (1503)

5. “During the last Egyptian dynasties, legal documents were sealed with the phrase, “As for him who shall disregard it, may he be fucked by a donkey.” The hieroglyphic for the phrase – two large erect penises – makes the message clear.”

6. Fuck did not appear in any widely-read English dictionary from 1795 to 1965.

7. Jesse Sheidlower’s dictionary “The F-Word” is now in its second edition and spans 272 pages, devoted entirely to the word fuck and its variants. These range from absofuckinglutely – “an adverb meaning absolutely” – to zipless fuck – “a noun meaning an act of intercourse without an emotional connection”. My personal favourite uses of fuck would have to be clusterfuck and skullfuck… although I shan’t attempt definitions.

8. An interesting article entitled “Bush’s Obscene Tirades Rattle White House Aides” (August 25, 2005)

9. Someone was thrown off a flight for wearing this t-shirt:

Meet the Fuckers

Check out the full story in the NY times here.

10. “Thais speakers in an English environment do not use certain Thai words because they sound like taboo English words, such as the Thai words fâg (sheath), fág (to hatch) and phrig (chili pepper). Similarly , Thai speakers avoid using English words, such as yet, that sound similar to taboo Thai words, such as jéd, a taboo Thai word for sexual intercourse.”

11. “Word taboo is irrational. it is one thing to ban certain acts; as a society we are probably better off. But to proscribe naming those same acts makes no sense. Yet that is precisely what we do. In the case of fuck, the taboo is also unhealthy. Emerging from an unhealthy attitude about sex, fuck is an example of what Read calls a “word fetish”. The extreme emotional response to the word only serves to perpetuate negative attitudes toward sex.”

12. Dooling: a person “with four lifetimes and a burning desire to find out whether he may scream ‘Fuck!’ in a crowded theatre will come away in confusion if he looks for his answer in the opinions of the Supreme Court.”

13. “By far the most important victory for breaking the word taboo comes in Cohen v. California – the “Fuck the Draft” case – where the Court comes to terms with this four-letter word. In protest of the Vietnam War and the draft, Paul Cohen wore a jacket bearing the phrase “Fuck the Draft” while in the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Cohen didn’t threaten to or engage in violence or make any loud or unusual noises. All he did was walk through the corridor of a public building wearing a jacket. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to thirty days in jail for violating a California statute prohibiting malicious and willful disruption of the peace by offensive conduct.”

14. Statistically, men swear more than women… according to some research amongst Midwest college students men are 40% more likely to use fuck, and 60% more likely to use motherfucker.

15. “Even when fuck-based, gender specific insults are found, such as “fucking fat bitch,” if the alleged harasser also refers to men with fuck-based, gender-specific insults, such as the “fucking new guy”, the complained-of language does not establish a sex harassment claim. The use of foul language in front of both men and women is not discrimination based on sex. However, comments such as “fucking bitch”, “dumb fucking broads” and “fucking cunts” were-gender specific. Judge Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit wrote in Steiner v. Showboat Operating Company, “[i]t is one thing to call a woman ‘worthless’, and another to call her a ‘worthless broad’.””

And there you have it… who knew fuck could be such a fascinating word?

The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats

This blog post is largely based upon the final chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, which was entitled “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism”. If anything needs further clarification, it is likely that it was discussed in earlier chapters, however I have attempted to augment this post (the final and, I think, most interesting chapter) with extra discussion from the previous chapters.

The subject matter for my dissertation was the writings of a particularly modern form of atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. Whether this label is justified or not is another issue, and I prefer to refer to “contemporary atheism” throughout this post, taking the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as representative of a particularly recent form Anglophone atheism. This is based both upon external observations such as Google searches, and the numerous critiques of contemporary atheism which group these authors together, as well as internal observations and displays of mutual support.

I discerned that there was a three-fold criticism of religion running throughout the writings of these four authors. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. I also discerned a loosely four-fold positive agenda running throughout their writings: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; an ambivalent, but largely negative stance on the continued existence of religion; and an emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature. This criticism and agenda was analysed in relation to a question raised by Tina Beattie – are the New Atheists promoting a New Enlightenment – and I concluded that their  criticism does indeed follow the pattern established by Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity

Thus, in the previous chapters of my dissertation, I demonstrated that there is an agenda at work within the contemporary trend of Anglophone atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. However, the question remains as to why this agenda is so general, and why these atheists seemingly avoid explicitly articulating it. These authors give the impression that they speak for a large, readily mobilised, organised group of atheists. According to Dawkins, this “non-believing choir” is “a lot bigger than many people think” and includes (citing Bertrand Russell) “the immense majority of intellectually eminent men” (2007b:18,123). Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (2006) incessantly utilise the word “we” throughout their work, creating the sense of a large, global community that is rallying to their cause (cf. Hitchens, 2008:283). The large number of public conversations, lectures and conferences at which these authors have spread their message makes it unsurprising that Dawkins should conclude: “you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side” (2007f). If the milieu is as active as these rhetorical observations suggest, this makes the central question of this post all the more pertinent. Discussion on this issue occurs along five key themes – criticism of the Enlightenment, internal disharmony, atheist individuality, potential target audiences, and societal sympathy – before concluding that contemporary atheism rhetorically constitutes the very audience it seeks.

I previously demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic position is greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Thus the degree to which these atheists make their agenda explicit is influenced by common perception of the Enlightenment. This perception is, however, far from complimentary, since the Enlightenment has been variously blamed for the inability of modern man to form “non-utilitarian ties to other human beings“ (Outram, 2005:112), for supporting despotism (Gay, 1964:274), and was casually castigated in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition” (ibid:263). Whilst these attacks are “misleading” and “fallacious” (Berlin, 1979:29 cf. Gay, 1964:262), it is unsurprising that they would discourage explicit calls to return to Enlightenment values. It is also significant that the Enlightenment philosophes themselves “never developed a coherent political program” (Gay, 1964:119); if contemporary atheism models itself on these pioneers, it is perhaps naive to expect a fully articulated agenda.

Secondly, There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12)  – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism. In addition to tensions surrounding the continuing existence of religion, these atheists are far from united “in their attitudes to war” (Beattie, 2007:75), and The Four Horsemen dialogue indicates that there are distinct and sometimes opposing opinions on the finer points of their overall thrust. Dennett identifies “slightly different but defensible strategies”, in their writings, however all are seen as “necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached” (Baggini, 2010:61; Dennett, 2008c:24). Given these differences, it is natural to be cautious regarding articulating agendas if the intention is to present a united front, rather than risk initiating eponymous forms of atheism, or losing the audience’s interest through the impression of discord and competition.

Thirdly, there is the “problem” of atheist individuality and its effects on how contemporary atheists might feasibly articulate courses of action. Atheists are typically categorised as “a small, hard to identify, and disorganised category of persons” (Edgell, 2006:211-212) who “do not tend, even nominally, to join specifically atheistic organisations” (Bullivant, 2008:364). In an interesting play on Grace Davie’s “believing without belonging” thesis (1994), a norm of “disbelieving without belonging” is discerned (Bullivant, 2008:365). This is humorously explained by A.J.  Jacobs, who states: “an atheist club fe[els] oxymoronic, like an apathy parade” (2009:96). A more scholarly explanation is that individuals lacking strong social bonds and dependants, are by inference less likely to tend towards ‘groupishness’ and “more free to espouse atheism” (Bainbridge, 2005:7). Dawkins himself acknowledges that organising atheists is like “herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority” (2007b:27). Despite these assertions, Gary Wolf speaks of “scores” of atheist groups, populated by members who, having “no church to buoy them, cling to one another” (2006).  It is true that there are many atheistic organisations (e.g. The British Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International), but even within these groups the scholarly perception is that “values tend to be wholly relativistic and goals are rarely stipulated at all” (Demerath and Thiessen, 1966:684). Significantly, Colin Campbell posited the idea that it is a sociological assumption that atheism is an individual phenomenon (1971:39). This assumption is rooted in perceiving atheistic organisations as “pale shadows of effective social forces when compared with traditional religious bodies” (ibid:42) which is an unfair and biased comparison. That being the case, it is cogent that Bullivant and Bainbridge are aware of Campbell raising this issue, yet continue to demarcate an individualistic atheism. This emphasis on the individual bears remarkable resemblance to Steve Bruce’s critique of the “precariousness of diffuse beliefs” within the New Age movement (2002:90-103). As a consequence of the New Age’s “individualistic epistemology” it does not instil “obedience to a central authority”, it “elicits only slight commitment and little agreement about detail”, is vulnerable to dilution and trivialisation, and thus has “little social impact […]even on its own adherents” (ibid:90-91). Through contemporary atheism’s focus on the individual, it may provide the perfect example of the precariousness of diffuse unbelief.

This precariousness could affect contemporary atheism’s ability to make explicit calls to group action in two key ways. Firstly, individualism may be at work within the writings of the authors themselves, thereby affecting their ability to articulate plans for group action. Their evident awareness of the individualism of their fellows – both as a closed group of four, and across the globe – may also lessen the desire to make such explicit calls. And secondly, since grouping together appears problematic for atheists, this explains why the internal conversation is dominated by the size and organisation of the “movement”, rather than on what this movement should “do” – perhaps the cats must be rhetorically herded before they “can make a lot of noise” (Dawkins, 2007b:27).

Discussion now turns to the issue of who the target audience of contemporary atheism is, and how this affects the articulation of an agenda. As alluded to previously, Dennett sees each author’s book as targeting a slightly different audience (Baggini, 2010:61). Dennett’s own intention was not to “give [his readers] an excuse to throw [Breaking the Spell] across the room” (ibid). This intention, combined with frequent appeals to the “religious person”, the “reasonable adherents” and “the moderates” (Dennett, 2007:301,298,291) indicate that his book is aimed towards getting religious moderates on side – an intention similarly evinced throughout Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Conversely, there are many aspects to Dawkins (2007b), Hitchens (2008) and Harris (2006) which would cause these moderate believers to throw the book across the room and not return to retrieve it (Dennett in Baggini, 2010:62). These books work well as a “shot across the bows”, and also provide ammunition for avowed ‘positive’ atheists (ibid). However, it is also clear that these books are designed to fuel a “positive” atheistic fire in those for whom it already “negatively” burns (see Martin, 2007b:1). This is the “non-believing choir”, the wavering unbelievers who “desperately need[…] encouragement to come out” (Dawkins, 2007b:18 cf. Wolf, 2006). All three of these groups are targeted through the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these four authors, and the “encouragement” they provide (Dawkins, 2007b:18,23).

Each of these target groups present problems for articulating a positive agenda. Firstly, if the target audience is moderate religious believers, the major battle is getting them onside before attempting to rally them into action. However, Wolf suggests that these atheists are naive because they simply focus on right belief and don’t “propose any realistic solutions to the problems religions can cause” (2006). This lack of credible solutions is combined with a critique of fundamentalist, non-moderate religion, which fails to scan in the face of the fact that there have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows, and no crosses to greet these atheists (Wolf, 2006). Secondly, if their audience is wavering non-believers, these can typically be divided into two groups. There are the “thoroughly secularised”, the “negative atheists”, who find religion so irrelevant that they are not even conscious of having rejected it (Campbell, 1971:39 cf. Martin, 2007b:1; Bruce, 2002). And there are those who “are believers of some sort, and many are quite conventional” (Hout and Fischer, 2002:175). Whether accepting the “believing without belonging” or the “disbelieving without belonging” thesis, the best measures to convince this non-committal group to accept a “positive” atheistic identity are unlikely to begin with the enunciation of an agenda. Finally, if the target audience is committed, positive atheists, the simple fact remains that there are relatively few atheists of this type in the world (Davie, 1994:69 cf. figures in Weller, 2008:51; Zuckerman, 2007:49; Edgell, 2006:214). In light of the available figures, and the protestations to the contrary supplied by the authors (see p.34), it seems plausible that they are aware that their audience of ‘die-hard’ positive atheists is much smaller than they would care to admit (cf. McGrath and McGrath, 2007:63), and therefore that the audience most receptive to an active articulated agenda is not, in fact, their main target audience. In addition, an awareness that this audience may share ambivalent feelings towards Christianity would understandably present a barrier to fully articulated decisive action.

This discussion has identified three potential target audiences who, for various reasons, are unlikely to be receptive to the explicit articulation of an agenda. However, after an initial lag period following the “consciousness raising” phase, it is possible that more publications from these authors will follow, tackling solutions to the problems enumerated previously. With the forthcoming publication of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (October 2010), it may not be long before this can be assessed.

Finally, in many respects, the world that contemporary atheism would like to create is reflective of a similar desire throughout society. This observation contradicts Demerath and Thiessen’s assertion that “irreligion has […no] set of values which are in any way consistent with the normative mainstream” (1966:675) and Colin Campbell’s observations about irreligion’s relationship to protest, reform, hostility and propaganda (1971:40). However, the contemporary atheistic promotion of awe and respect for nature, of life affirming values and fully democratised knowledge, and the criticism of actions that cause suffering, or limit individual freedom and intellectual inquiry, seem to strike a chord with the current atmosphere in the UK and USA.

As with the notion of “diffuse unbelief”, scholarship on New Age provides a useful comparison. Steve Bruce acknowledges the notable contemporary popularity and proliferation of New Age publications and ideas, and although denying that this proliferation demonstrates any significant number of “enthusiastic adherents” (2002:80), it does indicate that typical New Age concerns address the concerns of a significant portion of the population. Some themes particularly resonant with contemporary atheism are a relativism that “allows a thoroughly democratic attitude to knowledge” (ibid:86), an emphasis on individual authority (ibid:83), and a more holistic concern for the environment (ibid:85; Partridge, 2007:234-5). Whilst there are many dissimilarities between the New Age ‘movement’ and contemporary atheism, most notably concerning rationality (ibid; Bruce, 2002:84), the significant point is that the noted commonalities are “particularly well suited to the dominant ideas and assumptions of their society” (ibid:87). If contemporary atheists are aware that many of their concerns are “diffused” throughout society, this explains why these are not made more explicit in their texts – the purpose of the text becomes convincing the audience, through “consciousness raising”, that religion opposes this worldview, and not extolling the virtues of this worldview itself. A fascinating question raised for future research is to what extent these concerns are “emblematic of religion in our culture” (ibid:82)? If the concerns of contemporary atheists reflect the internal debate within religious bodies, this could lead to very interesting conclusions about the commonalities between human religiosity and irreligiosity. However, it is likely that contemporary atheism would explain these commonalities as the church following society, rather than suggesting there was a more mutual relationship between the two (cf. Fergusson, 2009:127).

This discussion has demonstrated that there are many conceivable and justifiable reasons why contemporary atheists have failed, thus far, to make more than a minimal statement regarding their programme for rectifying the religiously fuelled ills identified in their books. Their target audiences are not ideal targets for explicit agendas, either because they have inherent negative perceptions of contemporary atheism, or because of the diffusion of the broader, more positive goals of contemporary atheism throughout society. In addition, the inherent individuality of atheists necessitates a process of gathering together, or “consciousness raising”, into a more defined ‘movement’ before explicit programmes of action can be articulated.

I am well aware that many of the issues involved here are far more complex than I have had space to testify to. I am also aware that there are many key terms here that I have not delineated properly, either because they were clarified at other points in my dissertation, or because I am working with established conventions within Religious Studies, or because I have simply missed something. I am more than willing to enter into discussion on this fascinating issue, and to receive any advice or direction anyone may have on this matter.


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Beauty in The Arabian Nights

I was looking through my Facebook notes a few weeks ago and discovered some poetic lines from Richard Burton’s (d. 1890) translation of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights/The Thousand and One Nights, and I simply had to share them with the world. If you are interested in reading them in context, the full text of “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” can be found here, and a full version of this translation of The Arabian Nights is available here.

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.

How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

From “The Second Kalandar’s Tale” in The Arabian Nights, translated by Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890)

These lines are so evocative and beautiful that I didn’t want to lose them once I had completed my honours course on “The Body in Islam”. However, whilst they are beautiful in themselves, they are even more striking in context, and I would encourage all of you to read the short (10 pages or so) tale in its entirety by following the link above.

For the benefit of those who don’t have time or the inclination to do this, I shall attempt to place these lines into context as quickly as possible…

An exiled prince discovers a mysterious door under a tree which, upon opening, leads him into a sumptuously decorated underground cave filled with food, drink, jewels, silk and all manner of luxuries. Here he meets the most beautiful maiden he has ever seen (described with similar poetic prowess to my chosen excerpts above). She tells him that she has never seen a man before, and is being kept prisoner in this luxurious cage by an ifrit (a kind of demon), who visits her every tenth day in the form of a Persian, and has his wicked way with her.

Whilst this is unpleasant news to the prince, she invites him to stay with her and keep her company for the next 9 days and then leave before the ifrit comes back. So he stays, they eat, drink, make love and have a great time for a few days, but of course, being a bloke, the prince gets drunk and jealous. He isn’t satisfied with seeing her only for 9 days out of 10, and runs to the wall and strikes an emblem which summons the ifrit to the cave, believing he will be able to defeat him in battle.

As the ifrit begins to appear, the prince realises what he has done and flees in terror, leaving some of his personal possessions in the cave. The maiden tries to placate the ifrit, telling him that she fell against the emblem accidentally, but he notices the prince’s possessions, tortures her cruelly, and tracks the prince down, dragging him back to the cave.

Then comes the poetry. The ifrit presents the prince to the woman, who denies ever having seen him, and tells her he will spare her life if she strikes the prince dead with a sword. Agreeing, she goes to do so, when the “mute tongue of the prince’s case” says:

“Mine eyes were dragonmans for my tongue betied,
And told full clear the love I fain would hide.
When last we met and tears in torrents railed,
For tongue struck dumb by glances testified.
She signed with eye glance while her lips were mute,
I signed with fingers and she kenned th’implied.
Our eyebrows did all duty ‘twixt us twain,
And we being speechless, Love spake loud and plain.”

The maiden refuses to kill the prince, who is then presented with the same ultimatum, and similarly agrees to kill the maiden. However, the mute tongue of their case “wrote in [their] hearts these lines”:

“How many a lover with his eyebrows speaketh
To his beloved, as his passion pleadeth.
With flashing eyne his passion he inspireth
And well she seeth what his pleading needeth.
How sweet the look when each on other gazeth,
And with what swiftness and how sure it speedeth,
And this with eyebrows all his passion writeth,
And that with eyeballs all his passion readeth.”

For each refusing to kill the other, and for refusing to even acknowledge their indiscretions, the ifrit kills the maiden, and turns the prince into an ape.

Whilst the tale itself continues both after and prior to this brief summary, I just wanted to attempt to convey the gravity of the situation in which these beautiful verses are revealed. Presented with a situation where to acknowledge their love would mean certain death for both lovers, and given an opportunity to save themselves at the expense of the other, the lovers communicate their passion to each other with the only means available to them… their eyes, their eyebrows, their fingers.

Whilst these verses appear in a particularly gruesome tale, and are immediately followed by bizarre and gruesome punishments, they strike me as being perfectly fitting to any modern story of forbidden love. That a piece of literature from outside our modern “Western” context, and from a collection originating some time between the 9th and 14th centuries, could be so powerful, touching and relevant in the 21st century, is just one of the beauties which the study of literature, history, religion and more can bring to light. There must be thousands of similarly amazing discoveries waiting out there… and I find that truly stimulating!

Or maybe I’m just being overly sentimental…