Tag Archives: Enlightenment

Asad Shah is murdered for “disrespecting” Islam.

Below is the statement released by Tanveer Ahmed of Toller in Bradford, explaining why he murdered Asad Shah in Glasgow on 24th March 2016 (I have left the punctuation, etc. errors as they appear in the original). In effect, the statement says that Asad Shah was murdered for “disrespecting” Islam:

This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions. Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr. Shah claimed to be a prophet.

When 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that: “I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.” It is mentioned in the Qur’an that there is no doubt in this book no one has the right to disrespect the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and no one has the right to disrespect the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him.

If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world.

I wish to make it clear that the incident was nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs even although I am a follower of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. I also love and respect Jesus Christ.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

As we now know, Asad Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. His “crime”, other than being a member of the Ahmadiyya community? Just before Easter, he offered Easter greetings “to my beloved Christian nation”. But what follows appears to be the more significant “crime”: the Ahmadiyya community faces persecution (most recently in Pakistan and Indonesia) and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims because its members do not subscribe to the orthodox Muslim belief that Muhammad is the last in a long line of prophets (orthodox Islam teaches that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”).

By the way: I have not found anything said or written by Asad Shah to suggest that he “claimed to be a prophet”.

The thrust of this post is as follows: Tanveer Ahmed is not only a person whose actions are terrible, inexplicable and contemptible; he is someone who appears to possess very little reliable knowledge about Muhammad, the birth of Islam or early Islamic history. His knowledge of Muhammad, the birth of Islam and early Islamic history is predicated on wishful thinking conceived long after the events the wishful thinking purports to describe and/or explain. Many other Muslims – perhaps a majority of Muslims – suffer under the burden of similar wishful thinking, but, to their credit, do not murder others because of it.

The idea that Muhammad is the final prophet is based only on words attributed to him and contained in books of scripture assembled long after he died (the Qur’an and the Hadith). Despite the idea having such unreliable foundations, it necessarily calls into question (from an orthodox Muslim perspective) the legitimacy of every expression of religion dating from after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE (e.g. Sikhism, Mormonism and dozens of manifestations of Christianity and Islam predicated on the teachings of inspirational figures all too easily confused for prophets). I therefore wonder if Tanveer Ahmed also wants to kill all the world’s Sikhs, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name but a “few” people who, for perfectly sound reasons similar to those Tanveer Ahmed no doubt attributes to the Ahmadis, cannot subscribe to the idea that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”. But more to the point, around the globe how many Tanveer Ahmeds are there in mainstream Muslim communities (and in mainstream Sunni communities in particular)? And what are leaders in mainstream Muslim communities (and in Sunni communities in particular?) doing to provide reliable and convincing evidence that Islam need not be a religion in which such prejudice, ignorance and unthinking conformity to aspects of religious faith encourage the Tanveer Ahmeds of the world to engage in the murder of innocent people?

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

In relation to the latter, leaders in mainstream Muslim communities are very reluctant to provide such evidence – but, to some degree, they cannot be blamed for this. Why? Because anyone within mainstream Muslim communities seeking to offer alternatives to the oppressive and/or violent narratives that lead directly to the persecution/expulsion/murder/genocide of non-Muslims and so-called “heretical” Muslims are immediately threatened with violent retaliation, death included (the names applied to such oppressive and/or violent narratives are many and include Islamist, Salafist, jihadist, Wahhabi and militant Deobandi. The proliferation of such names reflects how pervasive the narratives are within the Muslim umma and how widely they are endorsed). Moreover, as the murder of Asad Shah, the murder of other Ahmadis, the murder in the last two years of a large number of Yazidis and the level of support in Pakistan and elsewhere for Mumtaz Qadri confirm (Mumtaz Qadri was recently executed in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Thousands – millions? – of Sunni Muslims want Mumtaz Qadri recognised as a “martyr in the cause of Islam”), large numbers of mainstream Muslims (millions, without question) condone the spilling of innocent blood if they believe that Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah are being in any way “disrespected” (the vast majority of Muslims accuse the Yazidis of worshipping the devil. Although it is utter nonsense to suggest that the Yazidis worship the devil, the accusation is enough to qualify as “disrespecting” Allah and/or Islam). This is exceedingly worrying, not least because violent Muslim reaction inspired by anything thought to be “disrespecting” Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah stifles legitimate debate about the merits of Islam, the life of Muhammad and/or whether Allah exists or not (and, even if we assume that Allah exists, the fear of violent Muslim reaction stifles legitimate debate about what sort of god Allah appears to be).

Extremist Islam will never be defeated by military might alone. Nor will it be defeated by non-Muslims such as myself flagging the many ways in which Islam is predicated on myths that are no longer sustainable about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history given the state of contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim scholarly knowledge and understanding. Extremist Islam will be defeated only when the vast majority of Muslims openly acknowledge that Islam is predicated on such unsustainable myths. Only then will Muslims in sufficient number be in a position to critically evaluate their foundational tenets of faith, their scripture and their early history in the same beneficial way in which the vast majority of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs, to name but the most obvious people of faith around the globe, evaluate theirs, with respect for the evidence deriving from detached, objective and unbiased scholarly knowledge and understanding.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that it has been alleged, primarily by Muslims themselves, that Muslims who incline toward extremism, violent or otherwise, are poorly educated about their religion and/or that they do not understand that Islam is a religion of peace which respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness. If this is so, I urge Muslims with the necessary power and the resources to embark on a systematic global programme of education designed to ensure that all Muslims acquire the detached, objective and unbiased knowledge and understanding about Islam that is long overdue. Such an education will necessarily require critical engagement with the unsustainable myths about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history, myths that provide justification for the extremism that has blighted contemporary Islam for far too long. In the process, the vast majority of Muslims will then have the opportunity, just as the Ahmadi, the Alevi and most Sufi Muslims already do, to critically evaluate their scripture and early history in a detached, objective and unbiased manner. Such critical evaluation will allow the vast majority of Muslims to align themselves with passages in the Qur’an and the Hadith that are morally commendable (and/or that are relevant to the world as it currently exists) and to dissociate themselves from passages that are morally unacceptable (and/or that are irrelevant to the world as it currently exists). In other words, the vast majority of Muslims will be in a position to build an Islamic world view predicted on all that is best about Muslim scripture rather than have to accept uncritically the passages that anyone of sound mind must regard as intolerable, especially in the contemporary era when, correctly, due emphasis is paid to concepts such as equality, inclusion, mutual respect for diversity of opinion and treating others as you would expect others to treat you.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

There is no doubt that the study of Muslim scripture and early Islamic history allow people to conclude that Islam can be a religion of peace that respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness, but such a reading has to be highly selective (but don’t forget: the extremists engage in a highly selective reading of scripture and early Islamic history to justify the conditions in which girls, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, non-Muslims and Muslim “heretics” suffer disadvantage, discrimination, persecution, enslavement and/or murder, the latter sometimes on a genocidal scale). Moreover, morally uplifting and life-affirming manifestations of Islam are today most likely to be encountered (as in the past) among groups such as the Ahmadis, the Alevis and many Sufi groups; sadly, mainstream Sunni and Shia groups are (as in the past) far less likely to give expression to peace, compassion, forgiveness and mutual respect for people who subscribe to religions and beliefs that differ from theirs, perhaps especially in terms of their actions as opposed to their words. If Muslims receive an education about their religion rather than mere indoctrination, the latter being so often the case at present, the admirable manifestations of the faith most evident today among the Ahmadis, the Alevis and most Sufi Muslims will also be evident among a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, thereby rendering extremism, violent or otherwise, far less common a phenomenon.

In other words, it is through such a process of education that Islam can experience the sort of transformation that it missed out on when religions such as Judaism and Christianity were confronted with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment presented Jews and Christians with many challenges to their most cherished beliefs, but it did not lead to the demise of either religion; the Enlightenment merely convinced Jews and Christians that they had to adapt their beliefs (and, to some extent, their practices) to contemporary knowledge and understanding predicated on developments in science, philosophy, medicine, politics, the arts and changes in social structures brought about by, among other things, the mechanisation of agriculture and accelerating industrialisation. In other words, Judaism and Christianity had to adapt to modern realities, realities which included people who agitated in growing numbers for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own circumstances. Mainstream Islam, whether Sunni or Shia, also needs to adapt to modern realities. In so doing, it must respond constructively and sympathetically to the wishes of ordinary Muslims for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own destiny, whether individually or collectively.

But where would this leave the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Muslim extremists, violent or otherwise, most of whom subscribe to the idea that a perfect society existed when Muhammad led the slowly growing Muslim community in what is now Saudi Arabia (for many extremists, the desire to recreate the embryonic Muslim society led by Muhammad provides their motivation)? It would leave the extremists far more isolated and powerless within the umma than is presently the case, not least because their idea that there was once a perfect Muslim society ruled by Muhammad will be exposed as untrue. The idea will be exposed as untrue because the detached, objective and unbiased education about Islam will confirm that such a golden age is wholly fictitious, something confirmed by careful study of the content of the Qur’an itself, no less.

By the way, can you imagine the extremists sacrificing all the “goodies” that contemporary life provides, the sacrifice of such “goodies” being a necessary pre-requisite if that mythical golden age is to be created on our fragile and overcrowded planet? Muslim extremists seem to have an insatiable appetite for deadly modern weapons, the internet, easily accessible pornography, expensive mobile phones, violent interactive video games and carbonated drinks full of sugar, to list only a few things not available when Muhammad was alive. Muslim extremists are inspired by a golden age that never existed, but, if they ever created that golden age, they would hate it almost as much as everyone else on the planet.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

P.S. I am not suggesting that the only thing required to solve the problem of Islamic extremism is that all Muslims acquire an education about Islam. For example, Western nation states must conduct their foreign policies with more understanding for legitimate Muslim concerns; more must be done to alleviate Muslim disadvantage and discrimination when Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim nation states suffer higher levels of unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice than other groups in society; Muslim leaders and gatekeepers must do more to respect, value and empower Muslim girls, women, young adult males, gays, lesbians and people with disabilities; and the world of Islam must minimise rather than exaggerate the sectarian divisions that exist within the umma, such sectarian divisions having at the present time far more deadly consequences than in any other religion on the planet.

This said, it is inaccurate/fictitious knowledge that Muslims have about Islam and its early history which allow extremist narratives to prosper. Furthermore, I would argue that, if all Muslims understood their religion with greater respect for the facts as currently understood, immense benefits would result in relation to the issues just listed. Muslims would realise that the West often intervenes in Muslim nation states at the request of Muslims to improve conditions for Muslims. Problems with unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice would reduce when most non-Muslims realise that Islam is an enlightened religion, and that the vast majority of Muslims subscribe to respect, tolerance, equality and inclusion for everyone, no matter their background or circumstances. The empowerment of marginalised Muslims within their own communities would grant Muslims a louder and more unified voice when negotiating for their rights. And the reduction and eventual eradication of sectarian tensions within the umma would make war in predominantly Muslim nation states (and murders such as that of Asad Shah anywhere) far less likely to occur.

Am I therefore suggesting that if Muslims acquire an education about Islam many of the problems Muslims currently face can be resolved, whether such problems are self-inflicted or imposed from without? Yes, most definitely. And a growing number of Muslims globally are openly expressing the need for such an education sooner rather than later.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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After this, no more Sex and Christianity. You can have too much of a good thing!

The third and final part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

People began a fundamental questioning of the churches three centuries ago when the Enlightenment began. The Enlightenment began the process by which sex changed from being a sin tolerated only in marriage to being a recreational pleasure and lifestyle choice. Over time, gay people were transformed from being sinners to accepted members of society. Women, once dismissed by the churches as morally weak, sexually predatory and unfit for leadership, gradually found themselves accepted as ordained priests and other religious leadership figures. But for most of the last three hundred years, the churches fought against these radical changes.

The churches began to lose control of sex in the West in the 18th century as the rational power of science and learning challenged superstition, mindless obedience and religious teaching on many different matters, not least sex. But already by the year 1700, London, in common with many other large cities, was awash with prostitutes, brothels and meeting places for heterosexual and gay sex. There were drag queens and a Baptist minister who officiated at same-sex marriages, although no one but he recognised such marriages as legal at the time. The permissive times appear to have dated from at least the 1690s.

The Church of England sought to hold back what it saw as a tide of debauchery but it could do very little, not least because Christianity in England and most other European countries no longer had one voice. Dissenting Protestants existed in England and elsewhere, thereby compromising the power and authority of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The result? Churches could no longer monopolise power over people’s minds. People suddenly had new freedoms about who to be and how to live.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

A new manifestation of Christianity at the time was the Evangelical Revival, which soon morphed into Methodism. The Evangelical Revival broke with Christian tradition when it empowered women to assume leadership roles. Methodism in particular was inspired by a desire to promote social justice, and it was not long before Sarah Crosby benefitted from such justice by becoming the denomination’s first female preacher. She was most active as a preacher during the 1760s and 1770s. Other women followed Crosby into the role of preacher and also opened schools and spread the Christian message. Women were suddenly seen to have high moral seriousness, which was in marked contrast with how they were seen not long after the foundation of Christianity until the 18th century. Methodist women even engaged in missionary activities in North America and the British colonies. But after Wesley died, Methodists began to react against the idea of women assuming leadership roles. In fact, the same thing happened in other Protestant churches. Just as early Christianity had done, the new manifestations of the faith first granted real power to women before denying them it, alleging that they were inadequate to the role. As ever within the faith, men reasserted their primacy and power.

The French Revolution was the next substantive knock to religious authority in so far as it dented the power of the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in France but, long-term, elsewhere. The revolution stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its wealth and power in France, where it was thought to be steeped in superstition and corruption and to have many priests with an unhealthy appetite for sexual abandon. France became the world’s first secular state, but at great human and material cost. Marriage became a purely civil contract, divorce was possible by mutual consent and homosexuality was decriminalised, all of which were direct attacks on Roman Catholic teaching on sex. The reforms had a long-term impact in other European empires and nation states, but, when Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, he signed an agreement with the Vatican which gave the Roman Catholic Church the chance to temporarily revive its fortunes. Ironically, however, the revival of the Roman Catholic Church was largely conducted by women.

By the early 19th century, and for the first time ever, nuns outnumbered monks and priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Nuns engaged in teaching, the provision of healthcare and meeting the needs of the poorest in society. A sort of Roman Catholic feminism emerged, and the main inspiration behind such feminism was the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus himself. But, in time, admiration for Mary led to reinforcement of the idea that her conception had been immaculate (free from the sin of sexual encounter), thereby making her unique among all human beings. The idea of the immaculate conception had been around since the second century, but now the idea caught on as never before. Mary was the uniquely sinless woman and women were therefore confronted with an ideal of womanhood they could never live up to, even if they never engaged in sexual activity of any kind. In 1854 the immaculate conception became an article of faith revealed by God and this heralded a new attack on sex because everyone but Mary was tainted by the sexual act itself.

During the 19th century some Victorians divided sexual acts into two categories, normal and perverse, and others experimented with photography, which soon led to a rapid increase in the availability of pornography. Prostitution remained common, not least in the United Kingdom, where Josephine Butler, an evangelical Christian married to an Anglican clergyman, championed the cause of women caught up in the sex industry. Josephine Butler complained that women who engaged in prostitution were criminalised, but men who exploited women to satisfy their sexual appetites were allowed to go free. She was eventually successful in repealing the Contagious Diseases acts both in Britain and elsewhere from 1869 to 1886 because such legislation harmed and unfairly imprisoned young women who were suspected of being prostitutes. But Butler did this without the support of the Church of England.

From the 16th to the 19th century, all marriages but those among Jews and Quakers were legal/valid only if the ceremony had been conducted by an Anglican priest. But in the early 19th century all the churches other than the Church of England clamoured for the Anglican monopoly to be broken. The monopoly did eventually end, but legislation also required that all marriages were subject to civil registration. This meant that marriages could now take place in local registry offices. This was the beginning of civil marriage as we know it today, the separation of marriage from religion. Gradually civil marriage was reintroduced throughout Europe, even in predominantly Roman Catholic countries where secular governments used civil marriage as a way to challenge Church power and authority.

The Roman Catholic Church had always maintained an absolute ban on divorce, but, in contrast, Protestant churches had allowed divorce in certain circumstances, except in England. in 1857 the British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, an act permitting civil divorce on the grounds of infidelity. Divorce was now beyond the control of the Church of England. The act also allowed for the remarriage of divorcees, which was in direct opposition to Christian teaching at the time. In fact, the Church of England remained officially opposed to divorcees remarrying until 2002.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

In the latter half of the 19th century, as European powers established colonies in ever more remote parts of the globe, Christians encountered people whose beliefs about marriage were very different from their own. This was perhaps most apparent in parts of Africa where polygamy was widespread. Even though Abraham, Solomon and many other Old Testament characters are said to have engaged in polygamous relationships, Christians were committed to monogamy as supported by Jesus. To Christians, polygamy was illegal and immoral, despite the many polygamous Old Testament characters not criticised for such relationships. But there had always been Christians on the margins of the faith who had sympathised with polygamy, and the early 19th century saw the emergence in the USA of what came to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose leaders said that God had solemnly instructed them to adopt polygamy. Even today, 20,000 Mormons are said to be in polygamous marriages in the USA alone. As for Christians who encountered polygamous marriages in the colonies where they worked, at first they tried to impose monogamy, but, where African and other communities resisted practices alien to their heritage, the missionaries gradually came to tolerate polygamy provided conversion to Christianity was assured. To this day among many Christians living in Africa polygamy persists.

By the beginning of the 20th century science had transformed artificial contraception. With condoms and diaphragms more readily available, sexual intercourse could be separated from having children, which brought a more liberal attitude to sex. At the time, however, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches totally condemned artificial contraception. Attitudes began to change in the 1930s when Anglican bishops came to accept the merits of artificial contraception if, for example, it was necessary to limit family size or a couple were unsuited for parenthood. Anglican bishops finally agreed that people should decide for themselves whether they would use artificial contraception or not. The matter had become one of individual conscience.

From as early as the 2nd century, Christians had limited sex exclusively to having children, but now Anglicans were saying that sex could be indulged in for other reasons, not least pleasure. This was a very important break with the past. But in the 1930s the Roman Catholic Church would not allow Roman Catholics to use any form of artificial birth control.

The idea that sex could be enjoyed for its own sake had as big an impact among homosexuals as it did among heterosexuals, but, following the second world war, homosexual acts remained criminal offences. In 1954 no fewer than 1,069 men were imprisoned for homosexual acts. However, as discussion, albeit ill-informed, about homosexuality increased, it became apparent that some well-known members of the establishment were gay. This realisation helped to popularise the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality. Even more remarkably, leading clergy in the Church of England supported the campaign. Most such clergy felt that homosexuality was sinful, but their commitments to compassion and justice led them to argue in favour of decriminalisation. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised, by which time a majority of Anglican clergy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK and a majority of Methodists had expressed sympathy for the change of law.

It was also in 1967 that abortion was legalised in the UK. Although some Protestants came out in favour of legalising abortion, the Roman Catholic Church could not do so, but 1967 confirmed that core Enlightenment values such as freedom, equality and rationality were having an impact in specific Christian environments.

By the late 1960s it appeared to many as if the “permissive society” had taken a firm hold in many parts of the developed world, so much so that growing numbers of children were being born out of wedlock. Such “permissiveness” led to a conservative backlash in many expressions of religious faith, perhaps especially from heterosexual men who saw in the empowerment of women and homosexuals threats to their power, dignity and usefulness. But the tide of change could not be resisted indefinitely and, in 1994, the Church of England ordained its first women priests (the Church now has women bishops). However, reaching an accommodation with homosexuality has proved more of a challenge, so much so that, while the Church of England will ordain openly gay priests, such priests must not engage in sexual acts with other men. Conservatives in all or most churches seem to believe that, if ground is given in relation to homosexuality, all aspects of biblical authority will be brought into question. But research suggests a slim majority of Anglicans now support same-sex marriage and therefore have no problem with openly gay priests engaging in sex with other men. It is merely a matter of time, surely, before the Church leadership reflects the opinion of a majority of those they serve.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

At least Protestants have been relatively open and honest in their discussions about homosexuality, women and marriage. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has denied such discussion to unfold within its ranks and has merely restated traditional Church teaching: no to homosexuality, no to women priests, yes to celibate priests, no to divorce, no to abortion, and no to artificial contraception, the latter even after the problem of HIV/Aids in the 1980s. Such reluctance to engage with the real world in an informed and compassionate way that might enhance the rights and opportunities of millions of people currently denied such rights and opportunities has done a lot to erode the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church, despite Vatican II suggesting that meaningful reform of the Church is possible, but even more damaging to the Church have been the revelations from many nation states around the globe that Roman Catholic priests have engaged in the sexual abuse of hundreds of thousands of children. Other churches have had problems with child sexual abuse, but not on the scale in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, no other church has sought so systematically to cover up such abuse, protect its priests from criminal prosecution and to save the Church from scandal at the expense of its victims. The status that priests have within the Church because of their sacramental responsibilities and commitment to celibacy encourage in some priests a belief that they are somehow superior to members of the laity and exempt from the rules of everyday society. They are not superior to members of the laity and no one is above the rules of everyday society. Moreover, priests are meant to serve their congregations, not preside over them.

Every so often Pope Francis says something that encourages one to believe that the Roman Catholic Church might one day embark along the road that some Protestant churches have traveled along, but, to date, nothing substantive has been done to suggest that attitudes within the Church in relation to a host of matters sexual will shift significantly short- or medium-term. But what can be said with confidence is that the Roman Catholic laity are almost as likely as the laity in many Protestant churches to do what they think is right and proper in relation to sexual matters, even if this means doing things that are at complete odds with Church teaching. The great majority of people in the West have been liberated from what Christianity has required of its followers in relation to sex for almost 2,000 years.