Tag Archives: Guru Granth Sahib

Concluding reflections on whether God exists, etc.

As you can imagine, discussions about God/gods (and whether it or they exist) have continued since the last post was uploaded, but, as is so often the case when the topic is discussed, very little has been said that is either novel or convincing. However, the two contributions below offer some worthwhile reflection, although, as with the last post devoted to the subject, I am not in agreement with everything written. The first contribution derives from someone who engaged with the debate from quite early on and the second contribution derives from a historian with an unusually perceptive understanding of things to do with religion and belief.

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Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Morning, S. I hope the confusion about atheists and agnostics has been resolved!!!!

Below, I offer comment on your most recent email. You have certainly posed some important questions about what God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is, and what powers/influence God, etc. has (if any). 

S: the quote from the Guru Granth Sahib (“God created Nature and pervades it”) interests/concerns me. If by “Nature” the Guru Granth Sahib means the universe and everything within it, there is no problem with the idea that God created it in so far as the idea is found in most expressions of religion (God the creator of everything, etc.). But if God also “pervades it” (“Nature”. In other words, God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe. By the way: based on the content of the Guru Granth Sahib and chats with Sikhs, this is exactly how I understand the Sikh “vision” of God – God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe), is God passive or active? Deists insist God created the universe, then became indifferent to its future development/evolution. As a general rule, theists subscribe to the idea that God, having created the universe, remains active as it develops/evolves, or as time unfolds. 

One quote in the email (“He/God remains in a stable state and observes Nature with delight”) suggests that God is passive (not only is God “stable”, but God merely “observes Nature with delight”) – which, combined with the idea that humankind has free will, may explain all the problems that confront planet Earth when the problems are the result of human action/inaction (climate change, environmental degradation, famine, crime, religious intolerance, persecution, racism, war, genocide, etc.). But I imagine that Sikhs are encouraged to believe that God is somehow active as the universe develops/evolves, or that God is somehow active as time unfolds (e.g. as when you said to me some time ago that God saved you when you were a younger man in two life-threatening situations) – and, if this is so, God must therefore take responsibility not only for the good things that happen but also for the bad (the idea that God is present in every sentient and insentient thing reinforces the idea that God, if active at all, is at least partly responsible for everything that happens, whether good or bad). Add to this that you make the case for God being responsible for all the “natural laws” that explain so much about existence, then logic dictates that God must ALSO assume responsibility for the natural disasters that befall our planet (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity, meteors that wipe out hundreds of animal species, etc.) in so far as such things are a direct result of the “natural laws” God is said to have created.

I quite like how you say at one point that the natural phenomena function on their own “without much interference from the Creator”. This implies God remains active as time unfolds, but that God restricts the degree to which God interferes/shapes things. You therefore clearly agree with the idea of a God still active in how time unfolds, but assign to God a role far inferior to that assigned to God in, say, the Abrahamic religions. Fair enough. If God exists at all, we may be dealing with a God who has powers that God choses not to fully exercise (the existence of human free will may be an aspect of God not exercising God’s powers to the full).

In the email I hear a case being made NOT for a fully passive nor fully active God as time unfolds, but a case for a God who acts only occasionally/sometimes/in certain circumstances. If this is the reality, it may explain why bad as well as good things happen all the time – but it also means that we cannot possibly know with any degree of certainty when a good or a bad outcome is due to God’s intervention. 

Many (most?) people agree that God is either all-powerful and therefore responsible for everything that happens in the universe, whether good or bad, or God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe (perhaps/probably because God does not exist). If the latter (God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe), we can no longer turn to God as an explanation for what happens. Instead, explanations for what happens might be that humankind exercises free will either responsibly or irresponsibly; natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activity are the result of immutable laws of nature; and sentient creatures and insentient things behave in only particular/certain ways, and they behave in only particular/certain ways, not because of God (or, for humans at least, not because of ethical standards subscribed to for intuitive or intellectual reasons), but because of physics, chemistry and/or human and animal DNA. However, the idea suggested in your email, that God has limited powers/God chooses to exercise God’s powers in a limited way, may offer a compromise position that to some extent is supported by the evidence (there is no rhyme nor reason for many of the things that happen in the universe because there is no rhyme nor reason about whether God will be active or passive. Nor is there any rhyme or reason about whether God will act ethically or unethically on those occasions God is – or appears to be – active).

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ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I agree completely with the suggestion that “humans have to assume responsibility for their own actions, actions which might lead to wars, which cause destruction and the loss of human life. To put it bluntly, humans are responsible for persecution, bombs and wars”, because I believe 100% that we have free will and can exercise free will either wisely or unwisely. But this nonetheless throws up a problem with what we have discussed above, the Sikh idea that God exists within everything in the universe and must therefore be present in every human being. If God is present in every human being and, as many people allege, God is capable only of good things, why does God not stop humans doing bad things? Yes, the free will argument might explain bad actions, but this must therefore mean that God lacks the power/influence so often claimed for God. Perhaps God lacks the power/influence for the reason suggested above: God limits the extent to which God interferes. But such an understanding of God leaves wide open the opportunity for people to assert that God therefore acts in inconsistent/arbitrary ways which at times have amoral or immoral consequences. Or, to put it another way, God sometimes acts with mercy and sometimes without mercy. There is no question that thousands of people who say they are inspired by the concept of God act in ways utterly devoid of mercy and/or in ways that most people deem ethically abhorrent (e.g. Muslims belonging to a vast number of extremist groups/organisations, Boko Haram and ISIS included). Some such people even believe that the murder of vast numbers of innocent people is “willed” by God and/or that God derives “pleasure” from such carnage. Of course, God is not responsible for such crimes against humanity. But God is invoked to justify them. 

Holding those to account for crimes against humanity is only right and proper, of course, because we cannot blame God for such crimes (but we can blame some/many human interpretations of God for inspiring the crimes). More problematic is the matter of natural disasters such as meteors, floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity. With the exception of some floods, none of these are the responsibility of humans. Therefore, “responsibility” must lie elsewhere. Scientists, mathematicians and atheists are among those who argue that such things can be explained by the laws of nature, many of which (most of which?) have already been discovered (scientists, etc. would also insist that the laws of nature are not a product of God but an integral and inevitable part of physics). The Guru Granth Sahib seems also to say that natural disasters are a product of “natural laws”, but that such laws were devised by God. Therefore, if God devised the laws that make natural disasters at some point inevitable, God must be responsible for them. Natural disasters affect the innocent at least as much as the guilty and often strike without rhyme or reason. Consequently, God has created a universe in which unpredictability, injustice, unfairness and a lack of mercy are as likely to prevail as predictability, justice, fairness and mercy. There are therefore limits to the extent to which God can be deemed ethically responsible/the source of all that is good/unquestionably worthwhile.

People of faith have a tendency to ascribe every good outcome to God and every bad outcome to some other factor. As I’ve tried to indicate above, this is a wholly unreasonable/illogical position to assume, unless God is somehow far less the influence/power that most religious people allege. It makes much more sense to ascribe all good and all bad things to God, or none of the good and none of the bad things to God – but the idea above, that God interferes as little as possible/infrequently in God’s creation, offers a sort of half-way house between the two positions just summarised. However, the half-way house opens the way for people to question the merits of such a God, a God who will inevitably appear inconsistent/arbitrary/amoral/immoral.

You are aware that we have been scrabbling round the edges of one of theology’s most hot topics, that of theodicy (the issue of evil in light of the existence of God. If God is good and just/forgiving/compassionate, how do evil and misery exist?). Perhaps history’s most famous statement on the problem of evil comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing. Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

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Jesus in Malaga, Spain

To conclude these reflections about God and what God is like, if God exists at all, I share some wisdom deriving from Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is the author of “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, one of the most interesting history books I have read in recent years. He says things below that make more sense than many theologians and religious studies scholars addressing the same matters:

As far as we know, only homo sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of homo sapiens language…

Most scholars agree that animist beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from “anima”, “soul” or “spirit“ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans… In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels… (For animists, gods) are not universal gods… (that are) all-powerful (and) run the world as they wish… (they) are local beings…

Theism (from “theos”, “god” in Greek) is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods… (Each theistic group) viewed the others’ beliefs as weird and heretical…

Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype…

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks…

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace every defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus known as Sadhus or Sannyasis devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment…

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers…

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”…

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion…         

With time, some followers of polytheistic gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheistic insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war…

Judaism, for example, argued that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel…

(Judaism is an example) of “local monotheism”…, (Christianity and Islam are examples of monotheist religions that have an impact) throughout the world…

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Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked… Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.  

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualist ones. Dualist religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous problem of evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. “Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world… What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the problem of evil.

For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the problem of evil it is unnerved by the problem of order…

So, monotheism explains order but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

Sikhism: is it monotheistic or monistic?

In relation to Sikhism and its teaching about God/the Supreme Being/Ultimate Reality, etc., the content of Frank’s email touches on a matter of profound and central importance: is Sikhism monotheistic or is it monistic? We can say with certainty it is neither polytheistic nor dualistic, but is it really monotheistic? I used to think it was, then I read around the subject some more and listened to informed Sikhs, and now I incline toward the view that the religion may actually be monistic.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

In monotheism there is the idea, in most understandings of the term at least, that God, etc. exists somewhere out there, far away, an entity separate from its creation (if God created at all, that is). But the concept of monism implies God is not only close to all and every thing all the time, but is an integral part of all and every thing that exists. Think of it like this, if you wish: a bit of God exists in all things, sentient or otherwise. This is an idea that cannot readily be accommodated in monotheism because, if a bit of God is in every thing, this would, if nothing else, compromise the concept of God’s indivisibility, so central to most interpretations of monotheism – although some allege that the Christian concept of the trinity compromises that sense of indivisibility, despite Christians insisting they are monotheistic. Moreover, as a general rule monotheists have the rather cute idea that God is only ever good, but, if a bit of God existed in something or someone manifestly bad/evil/immoral/unethical, people might therefore assume that at least bits of God are other than good.

To explain the idea a little differently, in monism everything is God/a part of God and God is never absent from a single thing that exists within the universe, sentient or otherwise. When Hindus greet each other with the word “Namaste” – often translated into English as “May that in me which is God greet that of you which is God” – the idea of monism is made accessible/explicit in everyday speech.

Mind you: I am only a waster and a non-Sikh, so am ill-equipped to speak about these matters with authority. Moreover, some translations into English of the Mool Mantra imply that there are many parallels between the Sikh concept of God and the concept of God subscribed to by monotheistic Jews and Muslims, and such translations also have parallels with how Christians conceive of God the father, a third of the trinity. But the Mool Mantra is not the only attempt in Sikh scripture/literature to engage with the concept of the divine, is it?

Now: if some of what I say is correct about Sikhism (no matter what term we apply to the Sikh belief about God), we may have identified yet more reasons why Sikhs will be “distrusted” by Muslims.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

P.S. Quotes from the Guru Granth Sahib sent to me by Sikhs are sometimes supportive of monism and sometimes supportive of monotheism. Some even imply monism and monotheism at the same time! Does this exercise simply confirm that scripture can never be other than ambiguous and inconclusive? Perhaps someone will soon provide us with a definitive interpretation of God/the Supreme Being/Ultimate Reality in Sikhism. For the moment I continue to incline toward monism.

A Muslim, a Sikh and an atheist engage in an email discussion about Islam in the contemporary world.

28.6.15.

The Muslim. As I  write, the news bulletins are still preoccupied with the beheading of a man in south-east France, the murder of almost forty tourists in Sousse in Tunisia, and the suicide bomber who murdered almost thirty Shia Muslims during midday prayers in Kuwait, all of which happened on 26th June. It is now known that the individuals who have committed these dreadful crimes are Sunni Muslims in sympathy with, or members of, the Islamic State. In Kenya on the same day, Al-Shabaab murdered “dozens of African Union troops at a base in Somalia”. Al-Shabaab is not affiliated to the Islamic State in any known way, but is a brutally oppressive and violent Sunni Muslim group already responsible for many crimes against humanity involving even greater casualties than those at the African Union base. Meanwhile, unknown are the number of deaths on 26th June that are the responsibility of Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other overwhelmingly Muslim nation states (also unknown are the number of deaths that are the responsibility of mainstream Shia Muslims in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states, but the figure will be much smaller), but I think we can assume that Sunni Muslims murdered at least three to four hundred people that day alone.

26th June 2015 was just over a week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during which, if sharia is complied with properly, all war and conflict should cease so Muslims can engage peacefully with the fast and their routine religious obligations. But what has the Islamic State demanded of its militants and sympathisers? That death and destruction be directed against Shia Muslims and all those associated in any way with nation states that are part of the US-led alliance trying to defeat the tyrannical regime. Because Sunni Muslims are among those seeking to defeat the Islamic State in the US-led alliance, Islamic State militants are also trying to kill Sunni Muslims.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

28.6.15.

The Sikh. Evidence from security agencies around the globe suggests that French nationals make up the largest group of Europeans who have gone to fight for/support the Islamic State (the figure may be as high as 1,200), Tunisians make up the largest group of North Africans (the figure would appear to exceed 2,000), and significant numbers have also gone from Germany, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Most such supporters of the Islamic State are young males, a small number of whom are converts to Islam. Refugees fleeing the Islamic State confirm that the regime operates in such a way as to penalise and persecute girls, women, Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, non-Muslims such as Christians and Yazidis, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those devoid of a faith commitment. Sunni Muslims not sufficiently orthodox in how they give expression to their commitment to Islam are also subject to persecution. In other words, the Islamic State is organised in such a way as to meet the needs and aspirations of only a totally unrepresentative Sunni Muslim male segment of the total population.

30.6.15.

The Muslim. In the eyes of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (I say this in recognition/acknowledgement of the fact that most Ahmaddiya, Alevi, Sufi and Bektashi Muslims do not/would not subscribe to what follows), Sikhs are doubly damned (as a result, your situation as Sikhs is even more hopeless than that of people of the book such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. You are as suspect in mainstream Muslims eyes as Hindus – who are thought of as idolatrous polytheists – and Yazidis – who are described as pagan devil-worshippers). In the Islamic scheme of things, not only are Sikhs NOT people of the book, despite the centrality of the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) within the faith, the human gurus are described in Muslim literature as “false prophets or messengers” (of God). The human gurus are “false prophets or messengers” because, in mainstream Sunni and Shia literature, Muhammad is identified as the “seal of the prophets/messengers”, which means that no prophets/messengers have emerged, or will or can emerge, after Muhammad (this, of course, also puts at great risk people such as the Mormons, Bahais and Ahmadiyya Muslims whose messengers/prophets came to public notice in the 19th and 20th centuries, long after Muhammad’s death). Muhammad is defined as the last/final prophet/messenger, and, additionally, as the only one whose “perfect” message from God remains uncorrupted by human additions, deletions or amendments.

I have also heard some mainstream Muslims allege that Sikhs are guilty of idolatry (which is punishable by death, according to some verses of the Qur’an, and, in the eyes of many Muslims, the worst crime of all. It is utterly ludicrous that idolatry should be regarded by anyone as the worst crime of all, but there you go. Worse than killing an innocent person such as a child? Worse than denying to girls and women the same opportunities granted to boys and men? Worse than trying to wipe out a whole people? Worse than destroying vast areas of a nation state such as Syria, killing about 200,000 people and displacing from their homes millions more?) in so far as such Muslims believe Sikhs worship a book rather than God.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

You can tell from what I write above that half the problem with Muslims of a mainstream variety is that they know little or nothing about the expressions of religion (Sikhism, Hinduism, Yazidism, etc.) they so enthusiastically condemn, and no amount of education seems to impact beneficially on the misconceptions that those with authority, religious or otherwise, perpetuate.

By the way: to be people of the book, the scripture of the faith group must have originally come directly from God. Even if we accept that the whole of the GGS is/could be divinely inspired, not even Sikhs, as a general rule, suggest that it derives directly from God. The GGS has been assembled from diverse sources and contains within it the wisdom, etc. of many people, Sikh as well as non-Sikh. It is the factual knowledge we have of the GGS’s derivation that precludes it from being God-given in the same way Muslims believe (quite incorrectly, of course) that, e.g., the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Qur’an are God-given.

It is very sad to see so many young Muslims, male and female, expressing publicly their “delight” that ISIS militants/sympathisers are spilling innocent blood, Muslim and non-Muslim, so readily and so frequently. I hate to say this, but there is something fundamentally “wrong” with a religion, my religion, that can so easily inspire its followers to kill and destroy on the scale we are currently witnessing. And the root of the problem, the root of what is “ wrong” with the religion, in my opinion at least?  The scripture itself and the myths/fabrications which sustain the notion that it is God-given and “perfect”.

I wrote recently to David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, with the following proposal about challenging Islamist extremism (I would propose a similar requirement of all extremists, whether they are religious or political): require leaders within the Muslim community to confirm that the Qur’an and the Hadith are fully in accord with fundamental “British” values such as democracy, individual liberty, the rule of secular law, freedom of speech/expression and equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their age, ability/disability, ethnicity, gender, religion, belief, sexuality, marital status, etc., etc. I suggested that this be done knowing that most leaders within the Muslim community will find the task impossible to fulfil. Why? Because the scripture is NOT in sympathy with such values. In fact, in countless respects the scripture is fundamentally at odds with such values.

30. 6.15.

The atheist. I have some concerns about the “British” values we are being urged to take more seriously than ever before (our first-past-the-post electoral system disenfranchises millions of people who cast their vote; individual liberty must, in some respects, be limited to protect society from excesses that would be detrimental to the well-being of some or all of the nation’s citizens; we should respect the rule of law only to the extent that the law is not an ass; etc.), but they provide a starting-point for living in a civilised society in which everyone can expect to be respected and treated with dignity and justice. If, at the very least, followers of Islam cannot sign up to such values, despite the shortcomings and/or reservations we may have about some of them, the religion is not one that deserves our unqualified respect. Moreover, if it cannot sign up to such values it is confirming that, at its heart, it is an intolerant religion, and I am therefore quite glad that Cameron recently said, as many of us have said for many years, that we must be intolerant of intolerance.

I live in the hope that Muslim leaders begin very soon to critically evaluate their own faith and face some home truths about how it is predicated on myths, misconceptions and fabrications that modern scholarship has shown to be completely unfounded. We used to speak/write about so-called “modernist” Muslims who combined the fundamentals of Islam with the truths revealed by modern scholarship, and such Muslims were, as a general rule, excellent people with whom to spend time. If a minority community, “modernist” Muslims wanted to integrate with the dominant ethnic/faith group and contribute constructively to society. They valued democracy, individual liberty and freedom of expression, and girls and women were encouraged to partake fully in the opportunities that civilised societies provide for all their citizens. Such Muslims are encountered much more rarely today, and not least among the younger generation. So sad.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

1.7.15.

The Muslim. You (the Sikh) ask whether Muslims can critically evaluate their religion. If you lack time to read all that follows, nip straight to the P.S. – but you will miss some good stuff!

Let me put it this way. There were many occasions, especially during the medieval period, when Muslims in many parts of the predominantly Islamic world were encouraged to look critically at ALL aspects of knowledge and understanding that prevailed at the time, which helps explain why/how parts of the Muslim world were at the forefront of scientific, medical, technical, etc. discovery, invention and innovation. That climate of critical awareness also led to the emergence within Islam of many manifestations of the faith that regarded the ever-hardening attitude to orthodoxy among Sunni Muslims with increasing concern – hence the proliferation of Sufi groups all over the place from at least as early as the 11th or 12th century. This said, the 13th century seems to be the time when such “unorthodox” Muslim groups emerged with greatest frequency, two of the best-known being the Bektashis and the Mevlevis (the latter are known as the Whirling Dervishes in most of the West). Some of the “unorthodox” Muslim groups moved so far from what Sunni Muslims deemed acceptable that persecution inevitably followed (because of using music, dance, song, chanting/mantras, hashish and/or alcohol and bread in ritual practices; because of “compromising” fundamental beliefs about monotheism by seeming to have a trinity of Allah, Muhammad and Ali, all of whom appeared to be worshipped; and/or because of co-opting beliefs or practices from other religions if other religions were deemed to have worthwhile beliefs or practices. In relation to the latter, Twelver Shias spoke/speak about the hidden imam who will return at some point in the future like the Jewish and Christian messiah, and Bektashis used/use bread and wine for ritual purposes in imitation of how Christians use bread and wine in the eucharist).

Furthermore, and perhaps this is the real clincher, since all scripture is at best difficult to comprehend and often downright ambiguous or contradictory or incomplete in terms of what it has to tell humankind about, e.g., what God is like, what humans should do to “win” God’s approval, what is ethical/moral, etc., Muslims from very early on were encouraged to engage in one of the following to sort out “confusions/new situations”: ijma, qiyas or ijtihad.

Ijma occurs when learned persons within the Muslim community, invariably male and collectively known as the ulema, apply their understanding of the law contained in the Qur’an and the Hadith to the confusion/new situation that has arisen. Basically, they hammer out a response through debate leading to consensus. “Ijma” means “consensus”.

Analogical reasoning – qiyas – is another response to confusing/new situations. Once again it is the ulema that undertakes the reasoning. Drawing on their intimate knowledge of the law, but adding to the equation precedents drawn from similar particular applications of the law, they are able to expose what Allah would have said about the confusion/new situation had He had the chance.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Ijtihad, however, is the really interesting approach to such matters and more obviously answers your question (although you can see that even the above must lead to some critical evaluation of the faith). In the case of ijtihad, ordinary people/believers have the chance to express their own opinions about questions of ethics and law. It is true to say that totally free interpretation is not admissible in so far as solutions to new problems, etc. must be consistent with “divine law”, but, given that four schools of jurisprudence exist in Sunni Islam alone, Shia Islam has its own system of jurisprudence and every Sufi group has its past figures similar to the human gurus in Sikhism who have helped shape what is deemed ethical/moral, you begin to realise that a lot of latitude exists in relation to what can be defined as “divine law”!!!! Furthermore, the very ambiguity of what the Qur’an says means you have to be pretty dim-witted not to find at least one verse that will support your train of thought, no matter how wacky that train of thought might be.

Sorry: you are probably asleep by now, but seemingly simple questions rarely have simple/short answers. I hope this helps. And I am available to help Muslims sort out the mess in which they currently find themselves, but fear that most will either execute me immediately or allege, incorrectly, that room for manoeuvre about beliefs, etc. does not exist. Islam, as is the case with all religions, has very few beliefs that are really of critical importance/fundamental to their character/identity, but it has lots of traditions. As we know, traditions are founded on human interpretations/understandings of what might be deemed right or proper (by God, by the exercise of logical thought, by what some might define as insight or divine inspiration, etc.) and are therefore merely provisional. As a consequence, traditions are susceptible to change or rejection. Islam, as is the case with Roman Catholicism, is burdened with lots of ludicrous traditions that have no or only very limited support in scripture, which is why critical evaluation of both the scripture and the traditions is urgently required.

P.S. The short answer to your question? Muslims are not encouraged to critically examine their faith by those who, especially in Sunni Islam, project themselves as the spiritual authority figures (but they ARE allowed to engage in such critical examination, as the well-established concept of ijtihad confirms). However, because Sunni Islam should be bereft of such authority figures (in Sunni Islam, one’s relationship with Allah should be a direct one devoid of intermediaries. This applies as much to interpretation of scripture as to how religious rituals such as prayer are conducted), these arbiters of right and wrong should be stripped of their power to dictate to others. In short, they should not exist. But they do exist and, as I hope the above makes clear, they are telling those gullible enough to listen to them porkies of a very substantial size! I quite like these few last sentences!

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Yavuzlar, Turkey

3.7.15.

The atheist. A small point of clarification: think of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the Abrahamic religions (because for all three religions Abraham is of considerable importance). The Abrahamic religions are three of the religions accepted by Muslims as people of the book religions. But Zoroastrianism is also a people of the book religion although it is neither a Semitic nor an Abrahamic faith. It is unashamedly Persian and, additionally, very much distinct from the Abrahamic religions in not thinking Abraham important, in not utilising a Semitic language (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic) for its scripture or in its liturgy, and for being dualistic rather than monotheistic. There is at least one other religion thought by most Muslims to be a people of the book religion, that of the Sabians, but no one can say with certainty what religion Sabianism was/is! This said, many people living under Muslim rule in the past said to those with authority that they were Sabians in the hope that they might therefore suffer less discrimination, but rarely to good effect other than for a very short time.

4.7.15.

The Muslim. It is interesting that the verse you quote in the Qur’an says that all people of faith “need have no fear nor sorrow”, but the end of the quote reveals that it is only those people of faith who believe in God AND the day of judgement that “need have no fear nor sorrow” – which, if my knowledge of the “Indian” religions is reliable, precludes Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and, indeed, many other non-Indian expressions of religion that do not require belief in one God (e.g. Shintoism), or do not subscribe to the idea of a day of judgement (which is very much an idea confined largely to the Abrahamic faiths). Also, a careful reading of the verse (which is translated in the email differently to the version I have in my translation of the Qur’an) would seem to suggest that those millions of people (perhaps 2 billion people?) who have no (religious) faith HAVE reason to fear and feel sorrow!

A little confusion prevails about the term “seal” as it applies to Muhammad. A seal closes a letter once and for all. When used in relation to Muhammad, the term tells us that Muhammad brings to an end the line of prophets/messengers that Muslims believe begins with Adam. Any religion founded following Muhammad’s death must therefore be a “false” religion (and, as history reveals all too frequently, “false” religions are liable to persecution by Muslims, persecution that is sometimes of a genocidal character).

As for 9:5 in the Qur’an: it would be wonderful if this were the only verse that suggests what it does about “idolators”. Even Muslims have assembled long lists of qur’anic verses about idolators/non-believers/unbelievers/people of the book, etc. in which death is deemed suitable punishment for failing to recognise that Islam is the only “true” religion. Muslims have also produced lengthy lists of qur’anic verses sanctioning differential treatment for girls and women vis-a-vis boys and men, and many pious Muslims invoke such verses to justify segregation of the sexes and the denial of rights and opportunities for females up to and including education and access to healthcare. Some qur’anic verses are also used to justify brutal punishments for women who are believed to have engaged in what Islam defines as sexually inappropriate behaviour. Thus, women who are believed to have committed adultery can be stoned to death (but men who commit adultery are “merely” lashed, but not to a degree that will necessarily lead to death).

5.7.15.

The atheist. I am privileged to know Ahmaddiya, Alevi, Sufi and Bektashi Muslims who defy all the worst excesses of some manifestations of Islam, but it is interesting to note that all the groups I have just mentioned are themselves the victims of persecution by mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, often for the very reason that they reach out to non-Muslims as equals and admire/utilise aspects of religions other than Islam.

Yes, the first verse of sura 9 sounds so encouraging, but, as a good Sunni friend of mine, a wonderfully liberal and pious Muslim of unlimited charitable intent toward everyone, says, “Sadly, the number of verses in scripture condemning unbelievers and conflicting with the idea that there is no compulsion in religion far outnumber those that offer unbelievers protection and do not require commitment to Islam alone. Do not forget: apostasy is in many cases punishable by death. Some Muslims believe apostasy is always punishable by death.”

We do listen (and patiently) to pious Muslims, but pious Muslims of the mainstream variety too often speak only in terms of platitudes that rarely engage with substantive matters of concern to Muslims and non-Muslims alike: the prevalence of Islamist terrorism in so many nation states; the targeting of innocent people, children included, by suicide bombers; segregation of the sexes; gender inequality; female genital mutilation; forced marriage; the enslavement of girls and women for male sexual gratification; the radicalisation of growing numbers of young Sunni Muslims; threats of genocide against particular faith groups such as the Yazidis; disproportionately high Muslim engagement in domestic violence and child sexual exploitation; why so many Muslim-dominated nation states are afflicted with sectarian violence so extreme that millions of Muslims have been displaced from their homes; and why well over half of the seventy or so wars/conflicts currently taking place are taking place in predominantly Muslim nation states (where Muslims are invariably at war with fellow Muslims), or involve Muslims fighting on at least one side. Put more simply, why do so many Muslims glorify in death, destruction, persecution and the victimisation of those who differ from themselves, and why do so many pious Muslims fail to address these matters in a substantive way?

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

6.7.15.

The Sikh. Moderate Muslims have been playing a very dangerous game in which their silence is as dangerous as the extremism of radicalised youth joining the Islamic State.

Of course, those few brave and principled Muslims of liberal/moderate/modernist/integrationist inclination who have spoken about the need for the Muslim community to subject both itself and its scripture to critical evaluation live in fear of being murdered by the extremists. What is really required is a mass movement among such sensible Muslims that involves peaceful demonstrations to confirm that the extremists do not speak or act in their name. The extremists need to see that thousands – no, millions – of ordinary Muslims abhor what the extremists stand for. But can such rallies/demonstrations/peaceful expressions of abhorrence be organised? Given the sectarian differences that prevail in Islam past and present, probably not at this time. Also, such liberal, etc. Muslims know that among them are many illiberal, etc. Muslims who might/will seek revenge on those who “collaborate” with the “infidels”.

7.7.15.

The Muslim. It is insane that, at the beginning of the 21st century of the common era, ordinary and well-intentioned people must live in fear of death merely because of what they believe, say or do. Education, travel, the celebration of multiethnic societies, national and international law and UN conventions were meant to make killing people because of their religion or belief a thing of the past. Although we must acknowledge that the vast majority of people globally are sane enough not to kill for reasons of religion or belief, I still feel compelled to ask the following. Why is such killing so popular in one religion above all others?

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

A Sikh engages in critical evaluation to enhance the well-being of his religion outside its homeland.

Here, from a Sikh in Canada, are some reflections on ways the Sikh religion can be enhanced in the contemporary era. Note how patriarchal attitudes have, to some degree, eroded women’s opportunities within the religion, and how young Sikhs appear to lack a commitment to the faith that older Sikhs seem have (note in these two instances similarities with other religions).

As a general rule, in the West we don’t have school systems allowing students to study Sikhism to a high level. If someone wants to learn about Sikhism in depth, he/she has to go to India. In the West, therefore, we don’t have places such as universities or training colleges for young Sikhs to learn about the religion, to receive training in the religion, and/or to become leaders in the religion. Also, we don’t have any female kathavachaks (people who can deliver religious lectures). During the third guru’s time there were about fifty female parcharaks (teachers). Even though our population is now so much larger, do we even have that many female parcharaks? We have gone backwards, not forwards, since Guru Amar Das’s time. As time and technology progress we don’t see Sikhism progressing. We don’t see young Sikhs proud to say that the gurdwara is their beacon of light.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

We need to look again at our gurdwaras. For example, some Sikhs have started asking the sangat (the holy congregation) not to bow or donate during the lecture. They ask the sangat to wait until the end of the lecture to bow and donate. This is so as not to distract anyone and to bring more focus to the lecture. When you go to a lecture hall you are not allowed to come to the front if you are late. You sit at the back so no one is distracted by your entrance. This is how it works in an institution of learning. But are gurdwaras institutions of learning? Perhaps they should be more like institutions of learning.

Businesspeople evaluate their businesses to ensure they are a success. Gurdwaras usually don’t have a system to check if they have been successful. So, when Sikh children have been coming to the gurdwara for a while but don’t know anything about Sikhism, this reflects badly on the way the gurdwara is run. Schools take children, give them a learning plan, challenge them and test their knowledge and understanding. Schools with better teachers where the children learn more are the parents’ most desired schools.

A Sikh friend of mine tells the story of how he had been coming to the gurdwara for years before he knew anything substantive about Sikhism, but no one ever checked with him to see what he knew. All he knew was that he should give a donation, take kara parshad (food sanctified by prayer and distributed to everyone to emphasise equality) and then go home. If someone had asked him what he knew about Sikhism in those early days he would have said, “Nothing.” The thing to do with someone who knows nothing is not to have them sit and nod their head about something they don’t understand. That someone needs a class or a course to fill his/her knowledge gap. A gurdwara’s responsibility to the sangat is like a teacher’s responsibility to his/her students.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

A problem with the gurdwara is that the “teachers” aren’t in a position to teach. The person who knows about the gurbani (the content of the Guru Granth Sahib) best is the granthi (a knowledgeable Sikh who performs the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib), but the granthi is not in charge of the gurdwara. This situation is like having a businessperson running a school when schools should be run by educators, not businesspeople. As a general rule, in Christianity the religious experts – the priests, ministers, bishops, archbishops, etc. – are in charge of their houses of worship. Gurdwaras are typically run by a committee of “lay” Sikhs with limited knowledge about the religion. There is no test or apprenticeship that establishes whether someone deserves to be on a gurdwara committee. No one checks their knowledge and/or commitment to Sikhism. The committee members are chosen in elections, but the elections are not always representative of the sangat because of vote-stacking strategies. One of my Jewish friends attends a synagogue that has an interesting system for deciding who should have authority roles alongside the rabbi. Every member of the community has an electronic ID card which they swipe whenever they come to the synagogue. At the time when decisions are reached about who will have authority alongside the rabbi, the votes of those who have participated most in the life of the synagogue carry more “weight”. This is a good example of people who participate the most within a community having more power/influence/authority.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara committees are usually populated by successful businesspeople (invariably males) and not gianis (people with spiritual knowledge), granthis or parcharaks. This system has a negative impact on the the way Sikhism is taught and transmitted to the next generation. For example, the committee might want to expand existing buildings, hire more employees and/or have more akhand paaths (uninterrupted, continuous readings of the Guru Granth Sahib from the beginning to the end) for which they can charge the sangat. This might make sense to an ambitious businessperson, but not to an educator or a religious expert. While these things are, in some respects, very good, focusing on them might be misguided. During paid-for akhand paaths , the average Sikh cannot understand what is said and is therefore not learning from them. Most of the young people aren’t engaged in the all-Punjabi katha (explanations, reflections) and can therefore be found playing on their phones instead. Most Sikhs don’t know what they are doing when they undertake the lavan (wedding ceremony) or what it signifies. Consequently, most people aren’t helped by having a big gurdwara in which more akhand paaths take place. Such things might seem impressive to a businessperson who can then boast about them. However, what about the spirit of the sangat? What about young people’s understanding  about the gurbani?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Many older Sikhs point out that the average Sikh today can’t tell you what the Mool Mantra (the opening section of the Guru Granth Sahib, which describes/summarises the nature/character of God) means or explain the fundamentals of the religion. Consequently, the Sikh community is not using the gurdwara as a learning institution. Moreover, there are usually no resources at a gurdwara for people who want to learn about the religion. There is rarely a library or a bookshop to get books if you want to read more.

What is needed most is engaging katha in English to get the younger people inspired by Sikhism. This is the recommendation of a grassroots parcharak.

We need a dramatic shift in focus. We should focus more on educating and inspiring the young. We should invest in libraries and learning resources, train kathavachaks and start educational programmes. Gurdwara committees have a big responsibility to make this happen because, at the present time, they have the most power.