Tag Archive | Islam

The Good, the Bad, and the Non-Religion

Another one of my videos, built off a couple of conference papers, in which I present and analyze the problematic rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion in the academic study of ‘non-/religion’… and why this matters. I also couldn’t resist getting some Bad Religion in there…

The conference in October was ‘Research in Religion’ in Edinburgh, 20 October 2018, https://researchinreligion2018.wordpress.com/

The original conference in Bonn was “Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion” from 7-11 June 2017, https://www.fiw.uni-bonn.de/religionsforschung/forschungsprojekte/konferenz-hijacked 

The abstract from October reads as follows:

The Good, The Bad, and the Non-Religion: The Public Rhetoric of Good/Bad ‘Religion’ in Academic ‘Non-/Religious’ Studies

The first decades of the twenty-first century have seen a rise in what Aaron Hughes has dubbed the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’ in public discourse about religion, whereby ‘good religion’ which is ‘egalitarian, progressive, pluralistic, democratic, and so on’ is constructed as ‘the real or authentic version’ and set against its dichotomous opposite, ‘bad religion’ (2015, xiv–xv). This dubious rhetoric – particularly popularized in the political sphere by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – constructs ‘good religion’ as something that ‘conforms to, and does not challenge, liberal secular principles. Good religion stays out of “politics.” Bad religion takes a critical stand against liberal categories and is, therefore, fanatical.’ (Fitzgerald 2015, 206) Deciding what counts as ‘good’/bad’ (or ‘moderate’/’radical’) is a question of power and, in current UK discourse, involves a reification of tolerance as a ‘British value’ in official and media discourse (cf. UK Government’s Prevent strategy), a fantasized Islamic world of pure intolerance’ (Brown 2015, 161).

The same decades have seen a marked rise in the number of individuals choosing to not identify as religious across the globe, a related rise in academic studies of what it might mean to be other than religious, and a burgeoning body of substantive studies mapping and theorizing the beliefs, practices, identifications, values and social contexts of ‘non-religious’ populations. In this paper, I place this area of research into conversation with a body of work which critiques much of the academic study of ‘religion’ for perpetuating the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’, and I demonstrate that in many cases, the rhetoric is the same in studies of ‘non-religion’, despite the added ‘non-‘. Thus, the academic study of non-religion also ‘inadvertently maintains a host of Christian assumptions that reflect the all too Christian heritage of the term “religion”’ (Hughes 2015, 120).

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The Changing Nature of Religion

Grace Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, particularly in the UK and Europe following her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October.

In this interview (with me… yes, you heard it, me), Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.

Listen to the podcast

 

Two Excellent Resources

Just a quick post to alert you to two excellent resources I have discovered today.

One is the new documentary series from the BBC, entitled The Life of Muhammad. The first episode was just aired this week and it seems to balance informed but accessible scholarship with a respectful but not deferential tone. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who is interested… and indeed those who are not. I just wish everyone could see this sort of programme. Viewers in the UK can click the link and watch it on BBC iPlayer, where it is available until August 1 2011 (duration 60 mins).

The other resource is a website that I have stumbled across and will have to check out in much greater detail over the coming weeks. It is patheos.com, which describes itself as:

the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information or resources about religion. Patheos brings together the public, academia, and the faith leaders in a single environment, and is the place where people turn on a regular basis for insight into questions, issues, and discussions. Patheos is unlike any other online religious and spiritual site and is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems, as well as participate in productive, moderated discussions on some of today’s most talked about and debated topics.

Whilst I haven’t had much of a chance to look around it, and whilst always being slightly irked at seeing religion being treated as distinct entities and institutions to which a specified number of adherents belong etc (the good old ‘world religions’ paradigm raises its head once more), there seem to be a huge number of resources here, with vast amounts information on certainly all the major religions in the world… and resources for teachers, students, academics, religious leaders, interested laypeople and more…

I hope both of these ‘tips’ prove useful :)

Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

A Mason’s Hand: A Fictional Pakistani’s experience of Saudi Arabia

I finally read this short story from granta.com on my journey into work this morning. If you have 15 minutes spare I would heartily recommend it.

New Voices: A Mason’s Hand

In our New Voices series we publish the work of emerging fiction writers exclusively on the website. Our latest New Voice is Pakistani writer Ali Akbar Natiq, whose story ‘A Mason’s Hand’ impressed us with its melancholic tone and black humour. It has been translated from Urdu by novelist Mohammed Hanif. Read other stories in our New Voices series here.

~

Photo © Mait-Jüriado

A Mason’s Hand

Haji sahib, these kids are beyond me. I can’t teach them any more. Please make some other arrangement,’ he said, throwing his hands in the air.

‘Why do I need another arrangement when I have you?’ Haji Altaf sounded apologetic. ‘I have tried every good tutor in the city but nobody has lasted even a month. I thought you were from a good family and needed a job. You are the only one who can teach these rascals. You can go and look for another job but while you are looking, please keep teaching them.’

‘Haji sahib, that’s all very well. But your grandsons don’t respect me, they don’t listen to a single thing I tell them. I am wasting their time as well as my own. I do hard manual labour all day – I just don’t have the energy to do this too.’ Asghar started to walk out of the door but stopped and turned. ‘Haji sahib, if you really have any sympathy for me, see if you can get me a proper job.’

‘Okay,’ Haji said. ‘But I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life building minarets for mosques.’

‘Then what shall I do?’ he asked.

‘Why don’t you go to my sons in Saudi?’ Haji Altaf patted his shoulder. ‘God will create some opportunity for you there.’

Asghar put his palm on the wall to check if it was wet. If the wall was even a little dry it would be difficult to plaster. He decided it wasn’t ready yet. He asked a labourer to splash some more water on the wall and went to his father who was fixing decorative tiles on an already plastered section of the wall. Tiling was easier than plastering, so this is how they divided their work. Asghar did the hard labour himself and let his father do the lighter work. They had worked together for fifteen years. Asghar observed that his father’s hand trembled slightly as he fixed the tile. He looked at the old man’s white beard closely, the little specks of cement stuck to it. His cheek bones stuck out.

He had an overpowering feeling that his father had grown too old for this kind of work. He was an expert mason and had worked on many of the new mosques in the city. Everything that Asghar knew, he had learned working alongside his father.

He remained silent for a while, then abruptly related his conversation with Haji Altaf to his father.

His father put his trowel and bucket aside after hearing him out. ‘You should do what you think is good for you. But let me tell you one thing. There is nothing but humiliation in those Arab places. You know that I was in Kuwait for three years. My lot didn’t change; I couldn’t put down this trowel and hammer even for a day. As for Haji Altaf and his sons : those traders and jewellers will get themselves skinned but won’t spare a single paisa. They’ll never help you out.’

Asghar listened to his father’s advice patiently – but he had already made up his mind.

After arriving at Jeddah airport, Asghar rushed to the immigration queue. There were five counters but no staff. He found himself in the queue at one of the counters. Soon there were hundreds of people in every queue. Then came another large group of people with shaved heads, long beards and rosaries; they all wore ihrams. They gave off a terrible odour. Asghar thought that if he had to wait with them for a long time he would throw up. Reluctantly he spoke. ‘Baba ji, you should get in the queue. I was here before you.’

‘Don’t worry son,’ the man in the ihram replied. We know that we have to wait for our turn to get our passports stamped. We are here on a pilgrimage, we’ll never do anything unjust.’

But as soon as the immigration staff arrived the pilgrims surged forward, shoving everyone aside. In the ensuing pandemonium, Asghar found himself at the end of the queue. After being pushed around for more than an hour he reached the immigration counter, where shurtas pounced on him and snatched his passport. He wondered what was going on. ‘Be warned Haji, fifty riyals,’ one shurta said.

‘But I don’t have that kind of money,’ Asghar said in his broken Arabic.

‘Then you head straight for Mecca. You have got a visa for umrah. You’ll get your passport back in Mecca. You are not allowed to enter any other city,’ the shurta told him.

Asghar started to think about his situation. He wasn’t wearing an ihram. He didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel. Of course he wanted to perform the umrah but first he had to meet up with Haji Altaf’s sons in Jeddah. He had informed them of his arrival over the phone and they had reassured him that they would receive him at the airport. But here he was in a situation that he hadn’t anticipated. He had only one hundred riyals. After mulling over the situation for a while he approached the shurta again. ‘Can’t you reduce that a bit?’

‘Fifty riyals or straight to Mecca,’ the shurta said cruelly.

Feeling hopeless, Asghar put fifty riyals on the shurta’s palm and left the immigration hall quickly. Taxi drivers mobbed him as he came out but he didn’t pay them any attention. He was sure that Haji Altaf’s sons would be waiting outside. He came out of the airport and looked everywhere but there was no sign of them. He went into a telephone booth and called them and found they hadn’t left for the airport. They gave him their address and told him to take a taxi.

His bag slung on his shoulder, he stood reclining against the trunk of a date tree. A taxi driver looked him over and approached him. ‘Sir, are you from Pakistan?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Where do you need to go?’

‘Bani Malik,’ Asghar handed him the address. The taxi driver glanced at it, returned him the piece of paper and opened the cab door for him.

Gingerly, he approached the taxi. ‘How much would it cost?’

‘Brother, forty riyals only, since you’re from our own Pakistan.’

‘Forty riyals is too much.’ He backed away.

Asghar took his bag, walked away from the taxi stand and wondered what would happen if he walked up to the road leading to the city and tried to get a lift. He could save some money that way. He walked on the roadside for a while and left the airport behind. There were clusters of date palms on both sides of the road. He put his bag next to one of the trees and entered the moonlit orchard. In the last hours of the night, the moonlight filtering through the date trees in the desert transported him into a world of wonder. Ripe dates were strewn on the sand. He picked one up and ate it. The fruit was sweeter than anything he had ever eaten. He picked up more dates and ate them. The fronds of the date palms rustled in the wind and cast a magic spell on him. Whenever he saw the headlights of an approaching car, he would come out and wave but the cars whizzed past him. This would have bothered him, had he not been feasting on the dates. For about one hour he roamed around in the orchard. He picked quite a few dates and put them in his bag. Then he heard the azan for morning prayers. As soon as he heard it he came back on the road and started walking towards the airport. He was bored with eating dates and wanted to reach the city as soon as possible. He had concluded that nobody was going to offer him a lift here because of the simple reason that he had left his Pakistan behind. He came back to the taxi stand.

After arriving at the house of Haji Altaf’s son, Haji Nasir, he slept. He woke around the time of Asr prayers. The air conditioner had chilled the room and he felt very cold. This was the first time he had slept in a room like this and Asghar felt that his whole body had stiffened. He came out of the room and a gust of hot wind scorched his face. He had never felt winds this hot. He made his ablutions, returned to the room and offered his Asr prayers. He promised himself that he would never be late for any of his five prayers, and that as soon as he found a job he would call his family.

He started to enjoy the idea that the next day he would see with his own eyes all the places that he had read about in history books and sacred texts. He was lost in these thoughts, as he roamed Jeddah’s street with Haji Nasir. He was surprised to see thousands of Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis in the streets. Some seemed prosperous, but there were beggars too. They reached a square where they saw gangs of Indian boys loitering around. When he asked about them, Haji Nasir said that the boys who were standing in that square sold blue movies to Arabs. Some sold themselves as well, he added.

As soon as the azan for evening prayers went up that night, humans of a thousand varieties reached in their pockets for their prayer caps and rushed towards the mosques. Asghar found himself joining them.

That night he was restless and couldn’t sleep in anticipation of his pilgrimage to the haram in the morning. He thought about all those multi-millionaires who are so forsaken that despite all their wealth they never get to see the aram. He was still lost in these thoughts when the morning arrived. He got up quickly, took a bath and put on his ihram. Haji Nasir had lent him three hundred riyals and his own ihram for the umrah. For ten riyals he took a taxi that he shared with three other men. As soon as he sat down in the taxi he asked the taxi driver impatiently. ‘Brother, how far do you think is the haram?’

‘We should get there in an hour,’ the driver replied.

‘What would you say is the total area of the haram?’ Asghar asked him.

‘How should I know, my friend?’ the driver said, bitterly.

After the driver’s rude response, Asghar sat quietly in his seat, leaned back on the headrest and watched the desert and barren mountains on both sides of the road. They sped past the occasional hut, and every so often a dust devil rose from the sand and headed for the sky. He wondered if the Holy Prophet had walked the same route. Although the taxi drove fast, Asghar found the journey slow; time seemed to have stopped. He distracted himself by thinking about the tribulations of fourteen hundred years ago; Prophet Muhammed’s invitation to Islam, Abu Talib’s support, the exile, the battles of Badar, Uhad and Khandaq. He was lost in these thoughts when the taxi driver startled him. ‘This is where you get off brother. Here is your haram.’ Asghar picked up his bag and jumped out of the taxi. Right in front of him was the haram’s east door, which pulled him towards it with its terrifying splendour.

Asghar let himself get pulled in. People of various races, black and white, walked around in an easy companionship. Thousands of pigeons roamed and fluttered in the compound, feeling no fear. It was eleven in the morning and despite the sun he felt no heat. He entered the haram, offered his prayers and started performing the umrah rituals. Staying close to the wall of the Kaaba, he completed seven circles around it all the while reciting, ‘O Allah, I am here.’ Although there was a sea of people, during every circle he managed to kiss the Black Stone. Then he did his walk between Safa and Marwah. On the Safa Mountain he could see groups of women, looking like fairies in their white ihrams, but he didn’t want such distractions on a day like this. He sought out and studied every place that he had read about in history books. He held the sacred black cloth that covers the Kaaba and prayed for a very long time. After spending his whole day in the haram, he came out just before nightfall.

After performing the umrah, there were other places Asghar wanted to visit but he felt too tired and postponed the visit to the following day. In an open field, he placed his bag under his head and went to sleep. He was right next to Abu Qubais Mountain, where the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib once lived. Many pilgrims who couldn’t afford to stay in the hotels were sleeping here. Oblivious to his surroundings, Asghar slept a deep sleep and was finally woken up at the time of Fajr prayers, when a shurta kicked him.

Asghar offered his Fajr prayers and went out into the streets of Mecca. All the streets and roads were paved and very clean. Wandering around, he asked for directions and reached the Station of Hajoun where the graves of the Prophet’s family members and Bani Hashim were. He visited a number of other holy places by noon and returned to the haram for his Zuhr prayers. This became his daily routine. He would wander around in the valley of Mecca in the morning and return to the haram before the afternoon.

It was his eighth day in Mecca, and despite being very careful with his money Asghar had spent one hundred and forty riyals. He decided that he should immediately go to Medina and, after his pilgrimage, find himself a job.

He had just got on a bus after paying forty riyals for a ticket when a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old black boy accompanied by two little girls boarded the bus. They were probably his younger sisters. There was a strange and attractive innocence in their features. The girls occupied one seat; the boy looked around and then sat next to Asghar. As soon as the bus started its journey, the boy broke the silence.

‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Ali Asghar.’

‘My name is Abdullah,’ said the boy. Then he took out banknotes from various countries and started showing them to Asghar. He told him that he had friends from every country: America, Europe, Africa, Iraq, Syria, India, Iran; everywhere.

‘Don’t you have a Pakistani friend?’ asked Asghar.

‘No. No. All Pakistanis are bastards. Thieves all of them.’ He was suddenly very angry. ‘I do not have a single friend from Pakistan.’

All colour drained from Asghar’s cheeks and he turned to look out of the window. After a few moments’ silence, the boy spoke again. ‘You are from Iran?’

‘No. I am from Pakistan,’ Asghar said in a cold voice.

It was his fifth day in Medina. He had visited the Prophet’s Mosque, Uhad, Khandaq – all the places he knew about. Day and night he would roam the open bazaars and clean streets of Medina and then head for the date orchards surrounding the city. Here he would watch the sunset from a lush green valley of date trees to the west of Medina. The sun would put little red and golden robes on the floating clouds before disappearing behind the mountains. Every day he would stand in front of the Prophet’s mausoleum and say his benedictions. He was surprised at the Iranian rascals who carried their shoes in their bags, desecrating the Holy mosque.

That day Asghar wanted to see the entire Medina, as he wasn’t sure when he might be able to visit again. After visiting the Prophet’s Mosque and all the other holy places he went to the west of Medina where he spotted a plaza under construction. If he got mason’s work on this site then not only would he be able to continue to live in Medina, he would be a permanent pilgrim and could earn a living as well. He went in, found the supervisor and introduced himself.

‘What can you do?’ The supervisor observed him closely.

‘I can do all kinds of masonry work,’ Asghar said with confidence.

‘You are here on an umrah visa, right?’ The supervisor asked him.

‘Yes, I have an umrah visa but if you give me a job here, slowly I’ll be able to work my way towards a work permit as well.’

‘Okay. Let’s see if you can raise this wall by one foot.’ The supervisor pointed to a wall that was being built.

Asghar stepped forward, picked up the tools and, like an expert builder, started on the wall. Within no time he had raised it by a foot and a half. The supervisor seemed pleasantly surprised. After evening prayers he gave Asghar food and told him that he himself used to be a mason, but that his employer, Iqbal sahib, had been impressed by him and appointed him supervisor. ‘Tomorrow is Friday. Come over the day after tomorrow – I’ll talk to him and then give you work.’

‘Who is Iqbal sahib?’ Asghar asked.

‘He is an engineer, he is from Lahore. He is looking after a number of construction projects here.’

‘Why don’t you just give me some work now?’ Asghar said impatiently.

‘Brother, this is a dangerous place. You see all these shurtas roaming around? They check us three times a day to make sure that nobody is working without a permit. Engineer sahib will first talk to someone. Only then will you get a job.’

After Isha prayers, he returned to the compound of the mosque – delighted that, because of the blessings of the Prophet’s mausoleum, he was soon to get a job.

Asghar now had fifty riyals left and he thought that if he got a job within the next two or three days, he wouldn’t go back to Jeddah. He’d stay here in Medina, and every morning, every evening bow his head at the Prophet’s mausoleum. The very idea made him ecstatic; he took off his shoes and went inside the mosque. He sat next to the mausoleum for a long time. When the mosque administration expelled all the pilgrims from the compound at ten that night, he also came out and started looking for his shoes. But despite desperate efforts, he couldn’t find them.

He went barefoot for the rest of the evening. At night-time he put his bag under his head and slept next to the wall of a plaza. He woke up with the call for the morning prayers, rubbed his eyes and saw a boy sitting next to him. Both went to the mosque, and after offering their prayers they began talking.

‘Where are you from?’ The boy asked.

‘I have come from Okara,’ said Asghar.

‘Found work yet?’

‘Not yet, but someone has promised. Where are you from?’

‘I’m from a little town called Raja Jang near Raiwind. Name is Naveed. I have lived here for two years. These days I have no work and I have run out of money as well. I saw you sleeping last night and I thought you were a Pakistani. Maybe we can get to know each other and do something together. What can you do?’

‘Tiling, plastering, painting, mirror work, I can do all types of masonry work,’ said Asghar.

‘On the other side of Uhad mountain there is a settlement and I have a Bengali friend who lives there,’ said Naveed. ‘He also works as a mason. If you want to find work, I can take you to him. I am also thinking of working with him. And the real advantage is, there is not a single shurta in that place.’

They arrived in the Uhad town before ten in the morning. After paying for breakfast and a taxi, Asghar was left with fifteen riyals. The Bengali wasn’t home so they had to wait till the evening. Asghar thought that he should get himself a cheap pair of shoes so that he wouldn’t have to put up with the shame of walking around barefoot. They both visited the little bazaar in the town but they couldn’t find a pair that was less than twenty-five riyals. The gravelly earth burned like hot brass and it was impossible to step on it. As the sun rose, heat crept up to his head. Burning pebbles pierced the soles of his feet. Finally they sat down under the shade of a date palm. In the afternoon he gave Naveed five riyals and asked him to get some food from a restaurant. He was in no condition to walk there himself. Naveed brought food, they ate and then lay down till the evening.

*

Your daily wage will be fifty riyals.’ The Bengali spat out betel juice and said, ‘I won’t charge you anything for food and accommodation. If your work is not up to the mark, there will be a deduction from your wages. On your day off you’ll have to pay for your own meals. If you accept my conditions you are in, otherwise do what you will. But just remember one thing, I am taking a big risk by offering you this work.’

Asghar inspected the room while the Bengali spoke. A mat, bedding and some filthy utensils were strewn all over the place. He felt very unsettled. Everything in the room, including the Bengali man, was so filthy and smelled so foul that Asghar was nauseated. Whenever the Bengali opened his mouth to speak, his stained teeth frightened Asghar. Instead of listening to the man’s conditions, he wondered how he could bear to spend even one night in that place.

Early in the morning he woke Naveed and they left without informing anyone. They didn’t have enough money for a taxi fare so they decided that they would take a short cut by climbing the mountain and coming down on the other side. That way they would reach the Uhad plain; the Prophet’s Mosque was only three kilometres from there. But by the time were halfway up they had realized it wasn’t as easy as they had imagined. The rays of sun were slowly heating the dry rocks and just putting a foot on the ground was torture. And the mountain seemed endless. As soon as they climbed over one rock, they confronted another. By now Asghar had blisters on his feet which grew inflamed and painful. With great difficulty they reached the summit at two in the afternoon and realized that descending on the other side was much harder than climbing it. The field of hot, pointy stones that he saw ahead scared him. They were surrounded by small bushes but there was no shade. Thirst and hunger had completely drained him. ‘I can’t walk any more,’ he told Naveed and collapsed in a small cave, surrounded by tiny acacia bushes. He had been lying down for a long time when a wave of pain travelled up from his feet, which were now swollen. He could hear the call for evening prayers in the distance; he could also clearly see the minarets of the Prophet’s Mosque. They had slept for four hours but only felt more tired from hunger and thirst. The moon rose in the east and they started their journey again. The rocks had cooled down a bit and he liked it when the wind caressed him softly amid the silence of the mountains. Although the blisters in his feet had burst, and his soles were bleeding, they wanted to continue their journey in the moonlight. At about eleven o’clock they lay down again. Asghar’s feet bled so much that when he stepped on a stone, it was stained crimson. The pain was now stabbing with such intensity that Asghar fainted.

When he came to and wiped his face with his hand he realized that he was covered in dew. He looked around but Naveed was nowhere to be seen. He looked everywhere, then called out for him but there was no response. As the sun was beginning to come up again, Asghar decided to make a move. But as soon as he reached for his bag, he was shocked to find out that it wasn’t there. His passport and other papers were also in the bag. Involuntarily his hand reached into his pocket. It was empty too. Naveed was gone with his bag and his last five riyals.

He invoked Allah’s name and started to walk. After stumbling forward for three hours, he came down the mountain. He was dying of thirst. He desperately looked around for water and saw an iron drum next to a goat barn. There were stacks of dry hay in the barn and the goats were busy munching.

He put his hand in the drum and started drinking the same water that goats had drunk earlier.

The water was so hot that it pierced his throat and burned his stomach.

Somehow Asghar managed to start his walk towards the Uhad plain. He tried to harness all his energies and go as fast as he could. When he approached the plain he saw a ten- or twelve-year-old boy outside a house. Asghar fell in the shadow of the wall and signalled the boy for some water. He felt alive after drinking some cold water but before he could ask the boy for something to eat, he went in and shut the door. Starving and weak, Asghar walked on his injured feet and arrived in the Hamza mosque where he splashed cold water on his face. Then he reclined against the wall and started to stroke his feet. He was overwhelmed with hunger, but he had never before begged for food, or anything else. He wanted to get hold of something to eat but the very idea of going out in the sun again frightened him. His feet were still swollen and bleeding. He had not yet made up his mind when the call for Asr prayer began and people started to come in.

He got up, stumbling, and came and stood at the mosque door. He saw an Arab in a very fine dress arrive, take off his shoes at the entrance and go in. The shoes were made of soft leather. As soon as the Arab entered the mosque, Asghar slipped into them and turned to go. The guard standing by the mosque door grabbed him and started to shout ‘Sariq, sariq!’ People came rushing at him as if a roadshow had just started. He was slapped and kicked. The Arab caught him by the scruff of his neck and two people tied his hands at the back. They kept asking him questions in Arabic but he couldn’t reply. In fact, in his weakness, he could hardly hear a thing.

‘My lord, right in front of my eyes this wretched man stole this gentleman’s shoes. Both these gentlemen witnesses and many others saw the crime with their own eyes,’ the mosque guard said in his statement in front of the court. After the guard, other witnesses testified. ‘But the accused must get a chance to defend himself,’the cadi ordered, looking towards the interpreter.

The interpreter repeated this to Asghar three times but Asghar stood mute, with his eyes shut. His ears were ringing. He didn’t even understand why he had been brought to the court.

Because of his shabby appearance and refusal to utter a single word, the cadi was convinced that the accused was a hardened criminal and professional thief. Keeping in mind the demands of justice as well as the injunctions of Sharia law, the cadi delivered his verdict. It was heard and hailed by everyone present except the accused.

After the call for morning prayers, when they brought him out of the lock-up to chop off his hand, Asghar had forgotten that he was an expert mason. He couldn’t even remember his old father’s face. ■

Tomorrow we will publish an interview with Ali Akbar Natiq about this story and how he came to write it. Read other New Voices stories and interviews here.

***

 

 

Pastor Terry Jones, John Hick, and ‘Religion of the Devil’

Last week, it was reported in the UK that the world’s favourite pastor, Terry Jones, was denied access to the UK, where he was due to address “England is Ours” because, according to the Home Office, “Coming to the UK is a privilege not a right and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good.”

So what has Mr Jones had to say? A choice selection from an interview at the above link, and on Radio 4 (Around 1hr 20mins in. Should still be available for another couple of days) would be these:

Interviewer:  “Are you an extremist?”

TJ: “Definitely not. We are very convinced about our views, when it comes to our Christian views or when it comes to our political views, or our views on Islam. We have always tried to make it very clear that we are not against Muslims… we are not against their rights… we have always spoke out against the radical element of Islam.”

And:

TJ: “We are not against the Muslims or the Muslim community… we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion… our concern is… the radical element of Islam. […] If you are talking to the Pastor, then of course I believe that the Bible and Christianity are the only way, that means that Islam and all other religions are wrong and of the devil. That is normal Christian doctrine. […] If you are talking to me as an American… we welcome Muslims into this country, they are protected under our constitution…”

And

TJ:  “From a religious aspect, from a Christian aspect, we would consider [Islam] a religion of the devil… so would the Anglican Church… they may not say that…”

Interviewer: “They certainly don’t say that…”

“Well, that’s because none has the real guts to stand up and say what they really believe, because of persecution… because of being called a hate preacher.”

What a delightful man, eh? Well… whilst I don’t agree with this guy on many, many things… I am going to focus now on his belief that it is normal Christian practice to consider other religions, and Islam in particular, as ‘of the devil’.

I am going to take John Hick as my exemplar here… not because he is by any means an exemplar of mainstream Christian thought – although he is a very highly regarded theologian and philosopher of religion, with degrees from Edinburgh and Oxford, and is currently an emeritus professor of both Birmingham University UK and the Claremont Graduate University, California. He is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham UK, and a Vice-President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion and of the World Congress of Faiths. See http://www.johnhick.org.uk/jsite/ for more info. He has also spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of religious pluralism… And I would suggest, from my personal experiences, and my conversations with many moderate Christians, that this is a fair representation of the way in which many come to terms with the reality of religious pluralism.

Here, I am referring to the 1988 reissue of Hick’s God and the Universe of Faiths.

Hick begins his discussion by posing an age old problem – “if I had been born in India, I would probably be a Hindu…” (p. 100). There are two standard solutions to this problem: If each religion is true subjectively for its adherents, but not objectively, then we render religion an illusion (this would pretty much be where I stand on this matter), and if one religion is simply true and the others false (in totality or varying degrees) how can this be reconciled with the view of a loving Creator God who wishes continual and universal relationship with his creation?

Hick continues, stating: “it is not appropriate to speak of a religion as being true or false, any more than it is to speak of a civilisation as being true or false” and proceeds to identify what he considers to be the ‘essence’ (that is, that which is most important) of Christianity as “the way of life and salvation which has its origin in the Christ-event (p. 119).” Here, he is using the term “Christ-event” to “refer to the complex of happenings constituting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the persisting community which was created by its response to him (p. 111).”  There then follows a discussion of how the community’s actions and beliefs were ever changing and developing, even during the short period during which the gospels were written, which leads Hick to his conclusion that even though the Christ-event is the single most important thing in Christianity, Christianity “cannot be defined in terms of adherence to any doctrinal standard, for its doctrines are historically and culturally conditioned (p.119).” So far so good…

Hick then sets out what I believe to be his central thesis. Accepting his definition of ‘the essence of Christianity’, “do we regard the Christian way as the only way, so that salvation is not to be found outside it; or do we regard the other great religions of mankind as other ways of life and salvation (p. 120)?” After discussing the traditional Christian position (to answer the former in the affirmative), Hick points to the moral contradiction of a loving God who allows only a small minority of mankind to achieve salvation (p. 122). Hick likens the wavering position of the church, to the controversies surrounding the old Ptolemaic image of the universe. Before abandoning the view that the earth was at the centre of the solar system, astronomers tried valiantly to keep adding extra epicycles to the scheme, until it became increasingly artificial and burdensome to try and maintain this position (p. 125). Likewise, the Church continues to add extra epicycles to its theology to explain the problem of other religions, when it should face up to the reality and “shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the centre to the realisation that it is God who is at the centre, and that all the religions of mankind, including [Christianity], serve and revolve around him (p. 131).”

To me, everything up to this point seems to be good philosophical reasoning, but to the person of faith, this discussion does raise the question “Why should I bother? If every faith in the world will get me to the same place, why should I stick with mine, and what reason do I have to choose another?” The majority of the rest of the book is spent trying to answer these concerns. Hick does this by suggesting, in the words of Irenaeus that “There is but one and the same God who, from the beginning to the end and by various dispensations comes to the rescue of mankind (p. 175).” In other words Mohammed, Gotama Buddha, Moses, Nanak and Jesus of Nazareth all reveal the nature of “God” in their specific geographical, historical, and cultural contexts, and encourage a moral life which is can be in some way considered to be core to all religions. Thus a Christian should stick to being a Christian, even though other religions may be equally right, because this is a way of life which has worked for the past two millennia in the West, and which has grown with and shaped the entire Western existence as it is known today.

This would be my crude summary of Hick’s take on religious pluralism. Personally, I find his final attempts to redeem the practice of individual faiths both belittles his impressive Copernican idea, and the concept of faith. If someone is to make a voluntary decision to place their faith in the “God” revealed through a certain religion, this decision cannot (in my opinion) be an arbitrary choice, but requires some sort of reasoning based on their opinion of the truth or falsehood of that religion’s core beliefs. This is why I always look sceptically upon interfaith work, because I simply don’t know what it can achieve. Don’t get me wrong… I think it is vitally important that people talk to each other, and that religious communities should work together to break down barriers… but I also believe that they should be open about the fact that they fundamentally disagree, and relate to each other simply as human beings, rather than as ‘religious’ human beings. Whatever your take on it, I hope I have demonstrated that it is not ‘normal’ Christian practice to consider other religions ‘of the devil’. Individual believers will react differently to other faiths… and so will the religious leaders and institutions. However, this is one issue particularly where Jones does not speak for the Christian mainstream.

I will end on a positive note, however. For all his ridiculousness, Jones does make one very sensible statement in these interviews:

“The idea isn’t to cause trouble or kick up a stink. These things do need addressing and people do need to speak about them. We shouldn’t be frightened about them.”

Whilst I don’t agree with his methods of ‘addressing’ people’s fear of extremist Islam, I sincerely believe that things are much better out in the open, and that people need to talk about things. I would much rather people engaged in critical dialogue, than stored up unjustified prejudice inside…

Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety

Baroness Warsi

Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.

The report continued:

Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]

[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.

[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”

In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.

“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.

“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.

“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”

Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.

“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.

“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””

It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.

Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.

I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.

This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.

I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’

On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.

But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.

Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?

Feel free to send in suggestions :P

Religious And Irreligious Hyperbolism: Pushing the Boundaries of Social Acceptability?

How many of you have, on occasion, been simply baffled at the extreme views of leading figures of religion (and, significantly, nonreligion) across the globe?

What is it that makes evangelists like Pat Robertson think it is okay to come out with statements like this?

“If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to. ”
Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998, see here.

What is it which inspires Richard Dawkins to overstate his case with such hyperbolic statements as this (which Dawkins himself acknowledges as one of the most oft-quoted examples of a somewhat intentional hyperbolism):

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us who are school from infancy in his ways can become desensitised to their horror.” (Dawkins 2007, 51)

How can Osama Bin Laden feel justified in coming out with the following statement, with which the majority of Muslims would wholly disagree?

“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

Osama Bin Laden (February 23, 1998). See here.

Now, clearly I am not equating these statements in any way, shape or form. Some of the views expressed above have the capacity to cause offense, some to cause people to lose their faith or their self esteem, and others which can have very drastic consequences for the lives of others. However, these statements (and countless millions more to which I don’t have quick and easy access) are all united in their distinct hyperbolism. They vastly overstate their position, and seemingly alienate not only those of opposing viewpoints, but also those within their own ‘community’ who hold more moderate views.

Why on earth do people do this? A potential answer, which I had never really thought about, jumped out at me from the pages of an article I was reading recently. Referring to the extreme positions taken by a number of high profile atheists (my area of expertise), Samuel Bagg and David Voas write:

“It doesn’t mean that every one of their followers will then become atheistic, just that the extreme position must be publicly taken in order to legitimise the moderate ones. In a process that Voas has earlier termed “diffusion”, the traits of a few visible figures may be copied by many others, and even if the original character and meaning of the trait is lost in the process, the copies will stand on their own. For example, cultural diffusion occurs when celebrities stop wearing fur because it represents cruelty to animals, and people on the high street stop wearing it because it is now unfashionable.” (Bagg and Voas 2010, 105)

This makes an awful lot of sense. Although I am not sure how conscious this would be on the part of leaders taking extreme standpoints, you can certainly see how pushing the boundaries of acceptable dialogue to greater and greater extremes allows more moderate positions to fill up the space in between. With every documentary that Dawkins makes for Channel 4, the message of contemporary atheism gets a little bit more socially acceptable. People may not buy into any of it, but they start to realise that smart people are out there saying very extreme things about religion, therefore it is okay to hold much diluted versions of those positions.

It also says a lot about the power of celebrity endorsement. Think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the Church of Scientology, or of Madonna and her Kabbalah. These are minority religious positions or movements which receive major attention and endorsement from individuals who are very publicly visible. Although many of us would like to think that we were not influenced by celebrity endorsements, I wonder how effective this sort of thing is?

A very tangible example that I can think of is the emergence of Darwinian evolution as a sort of meta-narrative for the contemporary atheistic cause. At a recent workshop I attended, Matt Sheard (Birbeck College, University of London), whose work focuses on Working Class Atheists in Britain (1900-1980) suggested that only two of his 70+ sources made any reference to Darwin in their personal atheistic ‘testimony’. Whilst I don’t have any statistics or references to provide, I think that most would agree with my subjective impression that Darwin is a BIG deal in contemporary atheism. One highly plausible suggestion that we discussed on the day was that Dawkins et al have done a remarkably good job in bringing Darwinism to the masses, and through constantly talking and writing about it have diffused this enthusiasm throughout contemporary atheism, and wider society at large. Whether a positive or negative, atheism lacks the overarching narratives which are bought into upon religious conversion or a religious upbringing… this focus on Darwinism, to some extent brought about by the leading figures of the contemporary atheistic cause, could be providing a very valuable function for the movement at large.

Personally this is something that I can totally relate to. I am going to say something potentially controversial – “I do not care about Darwin”. I just don’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t accept evolutionary theory. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a very important scientific advance which has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways over the past 150 years. However, I am not a scientist. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to hear about it. There are plenty of other things which I find much more interesting. However, the simple fact that I know what I know about evolutionary theory, that I consciously weigh the evidence and make a decision, and that I know that it is significant is for the most part down to the diffusion of that message throughout the contemporary atheistic milieu.

So… the next time you hear a celebrity or a religious or world leader making extreme statements and find yourself confused as to why anyone would expound such views, take a moment to think: “What does the presence of that position in the public domain do to the boundaries of socially acceptable positions?” Attitudes can change for better and for worse. It just may be that some of these extremely articulated positions aren’t as ill-conceived or naive or insensitive as might first appear. They may be part of a shrewd and well-thought out publicity campaign. And even if this is not the conscious purpose which they serve, with time they can shift the cultural barometer in their favour.

References:

Bagg, Samuel, and David Voas. 2010. The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 91-111. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

The Importance of Language: How a couple of marks on a page can make the difference between virgins and grapes

“The Qur’an”, a one-off television programme produced by Channel 4 in 2008 (UK) opened with:

“In 2001 a German study caused such outrage that all mention of it was banned in some Islamic counties, the author published under pseudonym and will only speak if his identity can remain concealed.” This is referring to the work by Christoph Luxenberg “The Syro-Aramaic reading of the Koran” (English, 2007).

His basic premise is that over a fifth of the Koran contains unintelligible words or words which don’t make real sense. This, he believes, can be reduced, with a knowledge of Syriac (Syro-Aramaic), to around 5%. Syriac was the dominant language of Christian liturgy by 3rd century, and by time of Muhammad, Syriac was the major written and cultural language of the whole region, whereas written Arabic was in its infancy. There are pre Islamic inscriptions in Arabic but the first real book in the language is Koran.

The issue is not the tracing of other languages in the Koran, as Muslim scholars have always done this e.g. in the 10th Century al-Tabari identified Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Persian, Abyssinian and Syriac. The difference is that Luxenberg is claiming new meanings never before suggested.

His method involves loosely:

Starting from those passages that are unclear to the Western commentators, first check if there is a plausible explanation in Tabarī that the Western commentators overlooked. If not, then check if there are any records of a meaning unknown to Tabarī and his earlier sources. If this turns up nothing, check if the Arabic expression has a homonymous root in Syriac with a different meaning which fits the context. If these steps do not avail, then see if changing one or more diacritical marks results in an Arabic expression that makes more sense. If not, then change the diacritical point(s) and then check if there is a homonymous Syriac root with a plausible meaning.

An example of how he uses this process is the Koranic verse from Gabriel to Mary after giving birth to Jesus: “Be not sad, your Lord has placed a little river beneath you.” Which Luxenberg renders:  “Be not sad, your lord has made your delivery legitimate.” This illustrates a big criticism of Luxenberg, which is that he seems to be coming from a very Christian-Centric viewpoint.

In his book he describes how by an interesting process the Koranic Verse “and We have paired them with dark-, wide-eyed (maidens) [wa-zawwağnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn]…” becomes “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes) [wa-rawwahnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn].”

 

My pathetic attempt to illustrate the point in question. On the left is the traditionally accepted version, and on the right is Luxenberg's

In the first section, he “proves” that Arabic scholars have misread zawwağnāhum by placing two erroneous unnecessary dialectical markings… with these removed it now reads rawwahnāhum – “we will let them rest” as opposed to “to marry.” He believes this mistake was made because the second (“correct”) reading does not fit with their erroneous reading of the next preposition “bi.”

Looking at “bi” in Syriac, Luxenberg notes 22 different functions of this preposition and chooses number 20 “between, under” as being the correct one (although he does not tell us why) rendering the sentence “We will let them rest under ḥūr ‘īn” or roughly “We will make them comfortable under ḥūr ‘īn.”

“ḥūr” according to Luxenberg has been correctly understood as meaning white, and comes before a feminine word. The problem is with ‘īn, which has always been seen by Arabic scholars as meaning “eye.” There is never any mention of virgins, this has just been inferred. Luxenberg argues against this firstly because white eyed was never a term used to describe beauty (this was always dark-eyed) but to actually describe someone who was blind. Through some complicated reasoning, and looking at various Syriac Christian sources, and other uses of fruit and particularly grapes in paradise imagery and earthly gardens in the Koran he reaches his conclusion that the verse should be: “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes).”

Luxenberg believes this gives a more reasonable rendition of the verse because Christian-Oriental notions of paradise finding their expression in the Koran – “helps the Koran to achieve its original inner coherence.” It also fits with all the other imagery of the gardens of paradise, especially as the grapevine “is an essential component of the earthly garden.” (p. 257)

For example, this picture comes from a 5th century Egyptian monastery, where we see archangels receiving souls in paradise, grape in one hand, cradling departed souls who are refreshed with grapes. Grapes are also a very prominent motif in the vestments of the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

In Luxenberg’s words:

“It was not, say, that the prophet had misunderstood Christian illustrations of Paradise, but rather that the later Islamic exegesis had misinterpreted the Koranic paraphrase of Christian Syriac hymns containing analogous descriptions of Paradise under the influence of Persian conceptions of the mythological virgins of Paradise.” (249)

He also (p. 250) cites Koran 4:82 “Were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture [the OT & NT]) many differences (inconsistencies).”  Therefore, according to Luxenberg, it makes little sense for there to be these wide eyed virgins… but “The Koran is right. For the Koran is not to blame if, out of ignorance, people have read it so falsely and projected onto it their subjective, and all too earthly daydreams.” The grape motif fits much better with the Christian notion of paradise and Luxenberg believes that this makes it much more likely.

Whilst there are the obvious extreme reactions to writing of this nature, and a very obvious Christian bias in his writing, it has received a more positive reaction from some Muslims. Dr Taj Hargey (Muslim Educational Centre, Oxford) says that Luxenberg’s work doesn’t undermine anyy of the tenets, teachings or principles of Islam. It provides interesting questions for thinking, 21st century Muslims who should look at what he is providing and not just condemn. Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University) acknowledges that it really doesn’t matter if Luxenberg is right or not as the Koranic descriptions should be taken as symbolic – we have to go beyond the images – they are just a description of what is going to be beautiful beyond our imagination.

Whilst many academics have been critical of Luxenberg, a number of academics have stated that Luxenberg’s work is valid, if only because it has focused attention on various deficiencies in contemporary Koranic studies.

I trust that it is fairly obvious that whilst I support the spirit of Luxenberg’s enterprise, I have insufficient knowledge to evaluate his conclusions (especially regarding the virgins versus the grapes). I would be somewhat sceptical regarding his methodology, and believe that traditional interpretations have to be taken in to account. There must be a reason that things have become traditional in the first place.

P.S. I began this post using “Qur’an” to designate this particular book, and then proceeded to utilise “Koran”. This is because Luxenberg himself uses “Koran” throughout his book, although I would personally prefer to use “Qur’an”. Either are acceptable academically, yet Qur’an is generally deemed to be somewhat closer to the Arabic.

 

Shari’a Law: Where does it come from?

“Islamic” Law… “Shari’a Law”… where does it come from? Not in a geographical sense… but in the simple sense of “where do the majority of Muslims turn to for clarification of the law”? Is it to the Qur’an? Is it to Allah himself? Is it to trained legal specialists? This question is unlikely to produce a definitive answer given that “Islamic law has been alternatively described as a divine law and as a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:3). Its ambivalent nature is further demonstrated by Joseph Schacht who unflinchingly refers to Islamic law as both an “extreme case of a jurists’ law” (1964:209) and as “typical of a ‘sacred law’” (ibid:211). It is evident, whatever the answer, that this question depends upon the definition of some key terms… “Islamic”, “divine” and “jurists.’” If you want a quick 101 on “Shari’a”, please see the relevant section in my earlier post “A very, very short introduction to Islam“.

Before beginning discussion, it is necessary to understand what is meant by Islamic law. Does this law apply to Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, or to non-Muslims living in Muslim countries?  Schacht attempts to answer these questions by indicating that “Islamic law does not claim universal validity.” Rather, “it is binding for the Muslim to its full extent in the territory of the Islamic state, to a slightly lesser extent in enemy territory, and for the non-Muslim only to a limited extent in Islamic territory” (ibid:199). However, one need only look at the media to see that non-Muslim citizens of some Islamic states live very much under “Islamic” law, and that many Muslims living in non-Muslim countries wish to have autonomy to implement their own law. This is largely to do with the recent politicisation of Islamic law “[in conjunction with] modernist legislation on the part of contemporary Islamic governments” (ibid:3). Thus, a compromise is necessary, and for my purposes, “Islamic law” shall refer to law directly related to Muslim religious beliefs and not to the laws implemented by political ‘Islamic’ states, regardless of the incorporation of ‘religious’ law into their codes.

There are two key points that should be made about “Islamic law”. Firstly, Islamic and “Western” law are two quite different things. In fact, “classical Arabic [has] no precise equivalent for the English word “law” in the ordinary, everyday sense” (Weiss, 1998:17). Whilst admitting that his “superficial” summary expresses the difference “in a wholly inadequate way”, Anderson plainly defines “Western law, as we know it, [as] essentially secular, whereas Islamic law is essentially religious” (1959:2). Western law is strongly influenced by Christianity, which “existed for three centuries within a polity that was very much not of its own making” meaning that “Roman law would become the foundational law of the Christian world” (Weiss, 1998:4). In contrast, “Muslims did not appropriate an empire but rather created one,” intending “to bring to the world a new polity and law, replacing all outmoded polities and laws” (ibid:5). However, the distinction is not simply one of sacred versus secular, as “the two other representatives of a ‘sacred law’ which are historically and geographically nearest to [Islamic Law], Jewish law and Canon law, are [also] sensibly different” (Schacht, 1964:1-2).

It is common nowadays to equate “Shari’a law” with “Islamic law,” however, “since the Shari’a includes norms beyond those which constitute law in the strict sense, it is incorrect to equate Shari’a and law simpliciter” (Weiss, 1998:5). Shari’a “is an all-embracing body of religious duties [which] comprises on an equal footing ordinances regarding cult and ritual, as well as political and (in the narrow sense) legal rules” (Schacht, 1950:v). Therefore, “Islamic law” may be characterised as “those rules of the Shari’a that the temporal authority and its judicial representatives are likely to apply and enforce” (Weiss, 1998:21). These important distinctions from the Western conception of law must be recognised in the context of this post.

A second point is, simply, that “there is no such thing as a, that is one, Islamic law” (Vikor, 2005:1). Not only are there geographical variations, accounting “for much of the divergences between the ancient schools of law” (Schacht, 1964:3), but there is another form of Islamic law, siyasa justice, which was/is administered by “the political authorities on the basis of custom, of equity and fairness” (ibid:55) in parallel with the religious courts. This post only focuses on the Shari’a inspired Islamic law which “both does and does not exist, through the many, different, and often conflicting views and individual rules that Muslim scholars have developed.” (Vikor, 2005:1).

Nazreen Kazi’s typical affirmation of Islamic law as a “preordained system of Allah’s commands” (1960:6) is unfortunately not as simple as it first appears. Weiss believes that “it is a presupposition of Muslim juristic thought that the law of God has not been given to human beings in the form of a ready-made code” (1998:22). God’s commands can only be accessed through His revelation which is commonly located in four sources – the Qur’an, the Sunna [traditions], “analogical extensions of rules already established” and the acceptance of an umma [community] wide consensus (Vikor, 2005:31). If the Qur’an is accepted as genuine revelation then a Qur’an based law is clearly a ‘divine law.’ However, “the Qur’an [only] contains some [350 to] 500 verses with legal content” (Hallaq, 1997:3 cf. Vikor, 2005:33) and thus does not provide Muslims “with an all-encompassing or developed system of law” (Hallaq, 1997:5), meaning that other sources are necessary to provide a legal framework. The Sunna of the Prophet are more problematic because of their human transmission. Hadith specialists were required to “evaluate the presumed hadith stories according to [external] criteria” (Vikor, 2005:39), and even among the “canonical” accounts there is the problem of context, which requires recorded laws/decisions to be analogised to fit with contemporary circumstances. This concept of analogical extension played a major part in the early development of Islamic law (Coulson, 1969:4) however, over time “the field of individual decision was continuously narrowed down” (Schacht, 1964:70), resulting in a “retrospective singling out of certain masters of the past as uniquely authoritative” (Weiss, 1998:10). This gradual compilation of legal opinion, resulted in the emergence of “an entire educational institution […] whose primary function was to train scholars in all the disciplines entailed in legal study” (ibid:15). And the concept of consensus is dependent upon the accepted definition of the umma meaning that “’society in some form – all Muslims, or the scholars, or most of them – through their agreement establish that specific legal rules are part of God’s law” (Vikor, 2005:76).

This all-to-brief summary of the four main sources of law raises some interesting points. It is important to realise that a fundamental of Muslim faith is that “law is the divinely ordained system of God’s commands” (Coulson, 1969:1), and that there is universal “refusal to accord to human reason any role in the creation of the law” (Weiss, 1998:38 cf. ibid:37; Schacht, 1964:70). However, there has been a recent resurgence of the belief that “the human reason provides a link between the divine mind and the human mind” meaning that jurists can evaluate, using reason, any legal judgements extrapolated from the texts and reject, on the basis of interpretive error, those judgements that cause conflict (Weiss, 1998:37). And, the concept of consensus means that all schools of law are “deemed to translate into individual legal rules the will of Allah […]; their alternative interpretations are all equally valid, their methods of reasoning equally legitimate; in short, they are equally orthodox” (Schacht, 1964:67). These observations clearly indicate that, at least in the eyes of Muslims, it is correct to consider Islamic law as a divine law. However, “divine authority [has] little value if it [is] not channelled through human instruments” (Weiss, 1998:10 cf. Coulson, 1969:1-2).

Quite apart from accusations that jurists have “invented” Islamic law, there are three main arguments to support referring to it as a jurists’ law. Firstly, the texts of revelation contain “few precisely worded rules of law,” and even if they did “it is the business of the jurists […,] not of prophets, to provide such statements” (ibid:22). Secondly, in opposition to the concept of a “politicians’ law,” Islamic law is very much a jurists’ law. Because the root of Islamic law is enshrined in texts enjoying “canonical status”, the jurists, “far from being beholden to [political regimes, are] in a position to make the regime answerable to them” (Schacht, 1964:16). Islamic Law “was expressed in textbooks as the doctrine of the jurists, not in law reports containing the decisions of the judiciary” (Coulson, 1969:9). And finally, Schacht importantly notes the incorporation of various pre-Islamic elements into Islamic law, such as “the ancient Arab concept of sunna”, the Roman “concept of the opinio prudentzum” and various Stoic influences (1964:17,20). This acknowledgement doesn’t directly support conceiving Islamic law as a jurists’ law, however it does pose a common objection to the ‘divine law’ appellation (which can admittedly be refuted by emphasising God’s omnipotence/omniscience).

This has been a brief discussion of a very complex subject, and unfortunately many aspects of the history of Islamic law, including a discussion of the main schools could not be included. However, it should be sufficient to demonstrate that it isn’t possible to provide a definitive answer to the question of Islamic law’s divine/juristic character. On the one hand, it is evident that its formation occurred “neither under the impetus of the needs of practice, nor under that of juridical technique, but under that of religious and ethical ideas” (ibid: 209). Yet the law is not implemented directly by Allah, but by jurists who have been left the task of interpreting and adapting His revelation to specific circumstances. Schacht importantly notes that “Islamic law is conscious of its character as a religious ideal” (ibid:199), and in this light, with jurists striving after this ideal, “Islamic law is both a divine law and a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:19). Coulson provides a suitable conclusion to this discussion which, although brief and full of generalisations, “is perhaps sufficient to show that in the fully fashioned fabric of the law the threads of divine revelation and human reason are so closely interwoven as to be almost inseparable” (ibid).


Bibliography:

  • Anderson, J.N.D., 1959. Islamic Law in the Modern World, London: Stevens & Sons.
  • Coulson, Noel J., 1969. Conflicts and Tensions in Islamic Jurisprudence, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Hallaq, Wael B., 1997. A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul-al-Fiqh, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kazi, Nazreen, 1960(?). “Sources of Islamic Law of ‘Fiqh’” in Some salient features of the Islamic law and constitution: this constitution safeguards the interest of Muslims and non-Muslims, Karachi: Pakistan Institute of Arts and Design.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1950. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1964. An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vikor, Knut S., 2005. Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law, London: Hurst & Company.
  • Weiss, Bernard G., 1998. The Spirit of Islamic Law, Athens/London: The University of Georgia Press.