Haughty scribes

While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

— Luke 20:45-47, New International Version

The cost of progress

This Muslim nation’s rapid economic development comes at a price — to its environment and natural beauty — a stark reality now hitting home.

Sadly the government — which in earlier times shared roots with the environmentalist movement — is now too much in thrall of big business and the construction industry to anymore take the side of the people, who cherish the land and traditional livelihoods.

The nation will continue to grow ever more powerful and prosper economically. New transport networks will be established, tunnels piercing through vast mountains, huge bridges spanning ravines. It will ultimately benefit the nation as new hospitals, schools, social housing and jobs follow in their wake.

But this modern obsession with progress is yet to appreciate the value of its areas of outstanding natural beauty. These great reserves of wild beauty are the sacrificial lamb on the alter of economic development — and the scars are already there to prove it.

The proudly confident ruling class — celebrating the resurgence of a semi-imagined glorious past — are too quick to forget their roots as rebellious champions of the people. Too proud to recall those maxims we are called to live by.

“And the servants of the Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility…”

A difficult struggle lies ahead.

Data mining sacred texts

Social Media timelines are awash with the results of a textual analysis of the Old Testament, New Testament and Qur’an, which in a very cursory way seems to suggest that the Qur’an is a more peaceful text than the Bible. Unfortunately it is one of those feel-good stories, easily shared, which falls apart on closer inspection.

Firstly because the Bible and the Qur’an are very different texts. What would happen if we were to compare biblical oral histories with those of Muslim tradition? Or the Acts of the Apostles to the accounts of early Muslim communities? The New Testament is made up of accounts of the life of Jesus, pseudo histories and letters of encouragement: though of course it informs the life of the Christian believer, it is of a completely different genre to the Qur’an. The Old Testament is an even more diverse body of literature, containing histories, poetry, canticles, mythology and law, spanning two thousand years.

More pertinently, however, the analysis was undertaken not on original sources in their native languages, but on English translations / interpretations. For the Bible, the New International Version was selected. For the Qur’an, Muhammad Ali’s Ahmadiyya rendering was used. Clearly data-mining any interpretation or translation of a text other than the original is going to severely skew the results.

It’s true that mining the original texts in Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic would present its own set of problems. Even in their Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek forms, biblical texts have long histories spanning centuries of oral transmission, the written record and subsequent editing and refinement.

It doesn’t stop there. The nature of language itself is an issue for all traditions. The meanings of words are not independent of religious authority, which itself is not independent of the political establishment; naturally the definitions of words are very often politicised. Even so, a word-for-word analysis of earlier texts would at least avoid some of the layers of interpretational, doctrinal and linguistic bias introduced by the translator.

Textual analysis of this kind no doubt has its place, but it is too limited to be used on its own, other than to generate the kinds of headlines helpful to a small technology company seeking to stand out from the crowd.

A real analysis of sacred texts demands years of very patient work — much more than most of us are willing to pledge — taking in the meanings of surrounding words, grammar, ellipsis, philosophy, practice, historical context, later political developments and so on. On the road to understanding there are no shortcuts: it is a lifetime’s work.

Killing the message

I wish we could move beyond these pathetic polarised debates lacking all nuance. Every time an unpopular politician seizes upon an issue in pursuit of their own political agenda it kills all discussion of the real issues effecting us.

Watch the backlash against the government’s latest initiative. Watch how the politics of identity and belonging will silence all of those working on the ground at the grassroots level, who have been trying for years to make themselves heard.

Women’s groups that have been working tirelessly for years to address domestic violence, discrimination, poverty, forced marriages and a whole range of other social ills will now witness the full force of the counter-narrative, which seeks to pretend that none of these issues exist.

We seem to be incapable of rejecting an agenda which seeks to otherise the Muslim community, whilst simultaneously working to address very real issues that cut across all communities. In short, by engaging in combative bi-partisan politics, we fail those most in need of support and advocacy.

Censoring iSocs

Many university Islamic Societies unfortunately have a long history of stifling dissent, whether for sectarian or political reasons. Far from providing space to challenge ideas and explore a broad spectrum of ideas, many Islamic Societies only permit a narrow single narrative to be promulgated, coloured by the biases of the dominant group.

Just like any other entity, our advocacy groups need to be challenged, critiqued and scrutinised. That would be much healthier than the current state of play where they are given a free pass to say whatever they like and their word is taken as gospel. So free speech yes, but in an environment in which individuals are empowered to speak freely too

Don’t look back in anger

Why do we make our lives so difficult for ourselves and others? It happens all the time: we adopt the most hardline positions in matters of religion, which we enforce on others as the only true way, impossible though they are to live up to.

How many times must we see it play out before us? Repeatedly we have witnessed those who once focussed zealously on the minutiae of fiqh later turn their back on religion altogether. In their eyes the rest of us were like faithless heathens, who could be lambasted for apparently doing our wudu incorrectly or for taking a photograph or for falling short in some other way. Every time we encountered one another, something new would be wrong with our practice, or our beliefs, or the way we dressed.

But where are these righteous ones now? In the end they decided they could no longer believe in the uncompromising path they had invented for themselves and, instead of looking back on all of those other ways they had so fiercely rejected, they threw out the whole, turning on it with derision and mockery.

Never did they ask themselves, “Is my understanding at fault?” Never did they wonder if those they had been taught to reject as faithless innovators had something they were missing. Never did they think to question what constituted orthodoxy, or to probe the force of politics and violence on their understanding of religion. Never did they allow themselves to question the assumptions that formed their worldview. Instead, both in faith and faithlessness, only absolutes would do: the absolutes of the past would be replaced by the new absolutes of the present. Never is there doubt, neither in belief nor disbelief.

Who dares look outside the self-imposed boundaries which confine us? Who dares ask those unsettling questions which bubble away deep within? Who will allow themselves to open that box which nobody dares open, to prise off the lid and look inside? Who will acknowledge the minuscule proportions of their knowledge with humility and reject the absolutism of the arrogant self?

Though individual truths and signs may abound, absolute truth is not found on YouTube or in the forums of the proselytes and rejectors. The one who rejects might lead toward a truer reality than the one who appears to believe. You might reject an absolute which has no basis and find yourself the true believer; you might insist on an absolute which has no basis and find yourself a disbeliever unbeknownst.

Why rush to judgement, replacing one set of absolutes with another? Why not hold back in shy humility and simply confess, “I do not know” or “I am not sure”? Why jump from dissatisfaction with your inherited worldview to rejection of every tradition you dared not contemplate or consider? Why, when you have rejected all, must you still insist that only the orthodoxy you rejected could possibly represent the whole, that only its scholars may be representative of its reality, that those ideas alone are significant? Why be like those ravaging absolutists intent on destroying the great libraries of Timbuktu, who would incinerate every inkling of a different reading of faith?

Pause for a moment, take stock. Let your questions be your guide. This road is long and wide. Take it slowly. Interrogate yourself and tradition. Be prepared to travel far; to walk that lonely road in search of answers. The crowded avenues of the online forum may briefly appear comforting and true to the traveller in search of certainty, but at best they offer but partial respite — but fragments of possibility. Why insist on such a narrow reading of history and religion, whether as a believer or disbeliever? Why narrow your horizons and restrict your view? Why make things so difficult on yourself, when everything else has always been made so easy?

Cult of celebrity

Spare us the hysterical eulogies of the cult of celebrity. Men are capable of both greatness and unspeakable evil. An idol who touched the lives of millions has departed. Only the bravest dare speak of his crimes. The same establishment which pretended not to know about the last superstar unmasked still looks the other way. Nobody really cares about the insignificant ones abused by those with money, fame and power in the era of Free Love. To care would be to challenge the orthodoxy of the enlightenment elite. No, speak not of demons, unless they be foreign and dark and alien. The cult of celebrity demands that only a single narrative be told.

Permission to grieve

I hate that we fly into a rage only when we are told to do so… that the whirlwind of sympathy and condemnation only occurs when the critical mass of sentiment drives us to take a stance… until then we must look the other way, or pretend not to notice horrific evil and our own double standards.

So Saudi Arabia and its allies may kill thousands of civilians indiscriminately in Yemen, but it is none of our business: no need to take a stance. They may kill hundreds in a single night, or destroy a hospital, or a block of flats… but we will not seethe and ache, and post news item after news item to our social media pages, and demand reprieve for some of the poorest people on earth.

There will be no wall to wall coverage of these victims of this aggressor. At least not until we are instructed to sit up and take note: when that happens, then we will bang our drums and wail out loud: then we will become enraged. But until then, let’s pretend not to have noticed. Let’s look the other way.

We await the next political crisis, media storm or social media frenzy with baited breath.