Tag Archives: Hadith

The Qur’an: the uncorrupted word of God/Allah (three)?

To conclude the discussion about whether the Qur’an can be regarded as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah, here is a very long article first published in 1999 that examines in even more detail what is explored in “The New York Times” article in the previous post. Sections in bold are the ones that I think are the most enlightening/important.

“The Atlantic”, January 1999. Toby Lester.

IN 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen, labourers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realise it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewellery. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents – damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the labourers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away – and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Ismail al-Akwa, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realised the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organise and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave” – in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries, or Islam’s first two centuries – they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of the fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless and unchanging word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran – in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments – is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts – a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and – as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate – can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

THE first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and koranic paleography based at Saarland University in Saarbrucken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organise and oversee the restoration project, recognised the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests – versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

Since the early 1980s, more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date, just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and von Bothmer have published only a few tantalisingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realised the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon von Bothmer, Puin and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinise the texts and to publish their findings freely – a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sanaa fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context – and Muslim sensibilities – cannot be ignored. “To historicise the Koran would in effect delegitimise the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally – though obviously not always in reality – Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon:

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it… every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and, in fact, as the “Encyclopaedia of Islam” (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam – as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in “The Origins of the Koran” (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues. In 1996, the koranic scholar Gunter Luling wrote in “The Journal of Higher Criticism” about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal “Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam” published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem detailing seventh and eighth century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Koran was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy of the University of Michigan has proposed in the “Journal of the American Oriental Society” a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran” – changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copy editing God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s, she wrote and collaborated on several books – most notoriously, with Michael Cook, “Hagarism: The making of the Islamic world” (1977) – that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among her controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“there is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia… Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalisation of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“no seventh century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra”); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“there is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do… reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

“Hagarism: The making of the Islamic world” came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources”). Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions – such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam” (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other – except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Not everyone agrees with that assessment – especially since Western koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam (indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases). The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled “Ateist” ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In “Islam and Russia” (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarised much of this work and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorised that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina;” that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society;” and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades, Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and… only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures.” Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book “Christ” (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the “Muslim World Book Review”, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage:

The Orientalist enterprise of qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality – its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering fantasy and its sectarian fanaticism – joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers – a long-established publisher of such major works as “The Encyclopedia of Islam” and “The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition” – to commission the first-ever “Encyclopedia of the Qur’an”. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The “Encyclopedia of the Qur’an” will be a truly collaborative enterprise carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views – thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran.

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition. “The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain and analyse it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.”

For expressing views like this in print – in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging word of God – Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content – for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous – is much less important than its complex, regenerative and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket… a talisman… or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but, in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment, he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion… No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical “Children of Gabalawi” (1959), a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter – the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty and smoulders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’aba – a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century, pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’aba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Such was the background against which the first instalments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the angel Gabriel – the very same angel said to have announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorised them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet. This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar). In Medina Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytising, consolidating political power and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that, when Muhammad died in 632, the koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; the revelations were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorisation.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs – an unlikely coalition of merchants, desert nomads and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad – were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph Uthman (644 to 656) – the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad – and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their scripture.” Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorised or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centres of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources – compiled in written form mostly from the mid-eighth to the mid-tenth century – that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organising principle is neither chronological nor thematic – for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgement. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus – born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah – works miracles, has disciples and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets – Hud, Salih, Shuayb, Luqman and others – whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “a Koran in Arabic for people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers – even highly educated speakers of Arabic – to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (this is typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; and divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran – unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Mamun (813 to 833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mutazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mutazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of ijaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran (as a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases). The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated word of God has remained constant.

Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims – and Orientalists – will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible – if it can’t even be understood in Arabic – then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not – as even speakers of Arabic will tell you – there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in “Slaves on Horses”:

 The biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallisation, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallisation, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins – particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries – to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth or tenth century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in “Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry” (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam:

 If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries (Islamic calendar/Christian calendar) understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyse the Yemeni fragments. Crone says that she and Cook “did not say much about the Koran in ‘Hagarism: the making of the Islamic world’ that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works, “Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation” (1977) and “The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History” (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism – form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism and much more – to the koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in “Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation”, the canonisation of the Koran – and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it – involved the attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muslim evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims, understandably, have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Qur’an from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history – the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who, in his “Twenty-three Years: a study of the prophetic career of Mohammed” (1985), repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth century father of Egyptian modernism, Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth century Mutazilis. The ideas of the Mutazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mutazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mutazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam – both Muslims and non-Muslims – in the Mutazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his “The Concept of the Text” (1990) – the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt – has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in “Lectures du Coran” (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course – the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas (centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilisation opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them). Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinised, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings – Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilisation, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran – which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century.

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The Qur’an: the uncorrupted word of God/Allah (one)?

The last month (March 2016) has not been a good time for people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe that Islam is a force for good in the world. Islamist/jihadist extremists have murdered over thirty people in Brussels; the Taliban in Pakistan (or a group that has broken away from the Taliban) has claimed responsibility for murdering over seventy people in Lahore, many of whom were Christian women and children who had gathered in a park to celebrate Easter; the civil war continues in Syria with most deaths and destruction of buildings, etc. the direct responsibility of Muslims supporting or opposing the Assad regime; Islamic State militants have been driven from Palmyra (where, in the ancient city, they destroyed two temples, some arches and a few unusual tombs, and where, in the museum, they trashed hundreds of important artefacts of great age including unique examples of elaborately carved stone), but not before they rounded up many local people whom they forced to relocate to territory still under their control; and Asad Shah, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, has been stabbed to death by a fellow Muslim, in all likelihood because he posted on social media a message that in part read, “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation” (during the attack, Shah may have been stamped on the head by his killer). Moreover, protests have taken place in Pakistan following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who shot and killed the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011 because Taseer advocated reform of Pakistan’s contemptible blasphemy laws (Qadri is regarded by Pakistan’s “conservative Muslims” as someone who rightfully “defended the honour of Islam”); and female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and forced marriage are more likely to occur in Muslim communities than any other communities globally.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Many of the crimes, practices and/or dispositions of mind above are directly or indirectly attributable to passages contained in the Qur’an, a book which mainstream Muslims are encouraged to regard as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah that humankind must conform with at all times and in all circumstances (Muslims must conform with its content because, for Sunni Muslims at least, the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah). Because of this, it is right to subject to scrutiny the claim that the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah. As you can imagine, the claim has inspired debate among Muslims and non-Muslims for a long time, despite the risks involved when subjecting to scrutiny such a fundamental tenet of mainstream (Sunni?) Islam (many Muslims and non-Muslims who have questioned whether the Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God/Allah have suffered everything from vilification on social media to murder at the hands of extremists), but, perhaps for the first time ever, the slow accumulation of reliable evidence allows everyone, no matter their background, to approach the question in a more informed and dispassionate manner.

In the first of three posts about the matter, I present what might be called the official/ mainstream view in relation to the question. Below, in an article easily accessed on the internet (I have made a few cosmetic amendments to enhance clarity of expression, etc.), Dr. Mohammad Shafi explains how the Qur’an was revealed and compiled. As the article unfolds, I urge everyone to consider whether it is possible for mere humans, the prophet Muhammad included, to have conveyed to others precisely what God/Allah is alleged to have said to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-two or twenty-three years. Put another way, given the large number of people involved in agreeing the content of the Qur’an that Muslims use today, and given the length of time between the first revelation and when the world of official/mainstream (Sunni?) Islam alleges authenticated copies of the Qur’an were issued to the rapidly growing Muslim community, how is it possible for the Qur’an to be the uncorrupted word of God/Allah?

A word of advice: every so often in the article you will find brackets. Within some of the brackets are my insertions where a comment/reflection/warning about what Dr. Shafi writes cannot go unacknowledged. Respect for objectivity/critical detachment necessitates such interventions.

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

The Qur’an – how it was revealed and compiled. Dr. Mohammad Shafi.

“Qur’an” means “reading” or “recitation”. However, the word has specifically come to mean the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is the foundational book of Muslims and, in fact, of the Arabic language (!?!). Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the complete and authentic record of the original revelations, claimed by the Prophet to be the literal word of God, and was organised in its current form by the direct instructions of the Prophet himself (below, there are indications that the latter is not the case). They believe that no one has the authority to alter the Qur’an since every word in the Qur’an is the literal word of God.

Over the ages the Qur’an has been translated into dozens of languages, but only the Arabic text is considered the authentic Qur’an. There is complete agreement on a single text of this Arabic Qur’an by Muslims of all schools of law, of all theological and philosophical leanings, and of all ethnicities and nationalities (?!? Such “complete agreement” among Muslims does NOT exist). Notwithstanding a few detractors, the majority of non-Muslim scholars also agree that the current Qur’an is a faithful record of what the Prophet claimed to be the revelations to him from God, as they existed at the time of the Prophet’s death (?!? This claim, if it was ever reliable, is no longer sustainable, as later posts devoted to the matter will confirm).

The Qur’an is also memorised by hundreds of thousands of people and read by Muslims on all occasions; it is, perhaps, read by more people on a constant basis than any other book in human history. The Qur’an, therefore, continues to be a book as well as a recitation. The two traditions reinforce each other and assure the protection of the integrity of the Qur’an and the failure of all attempts at altering or corrupting it.

The Qur’an is organised in 114 chapters called Surahs which contain 6,237 Ayahs (verses or signs) of various lengths. More than three-fourths (86 out of 114) of the Surahs were revealed during the thirteen years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah; the remaining 28 were revealed during the entire ten years of his life in Madinah. The Surahs are foundational divisions. For the convenience of reading the book in a month, it is divided into 30 equal parts (each called a Juz), and, for reading it in a week, it is divided into 7 equal parts (each called a Manzil). It is said that the Makkah Surahs primary deal with the basics of the belief system and the Madinah Surahs are about the practice of faith. This, at best, is an oversimplification.

This may be a good place to dispel some common misconceptions about the arrangement of the Qur’an. It is often said that the order of the Qur’an is roughly in decreasing order of the size of the Surahs (except the first). It is true that most of the longest Surahs are at the beginning and most of the shortest are at the end. The longest Surah is the second one and has 286 Ayahs, and the shortest (103, 108 and 110) are toward the end and have 3 Ayahs each. But, beyond this general observation, one can easily demonstrate a lack of order by size of the Surahs. After the 5th Surah, the order by size breaks down. For example, the 6th Surah (with 165 Ayahs) is shorter, and not longer, than the 7th (with 206 Ayahs); the 8th (with 75 Ayahs) is shorter than the 9th (with 149 Ayahs); and the 15th (with 99 Ayahs) is shorter than the 16th (with 148 Ayahs). The reverse can be shown at the end of the Book. Surah 95 (with 8 Ayahs) is shorter, not longer, than Surah 96 (with 19 Ayahs) and Surah 103 (with 3 Ayahs) is shorter than Surah 104 (with 9 Ayahs).

It is also often stated that the Surahs are arranged in a reverse chronological order of the revelation. If this were true, Surah 9 would be Surah 1 or 2, and all the beginning Surahs would be from Madinah and all those at the end would be from Makkah. But this is not the case. Seven of the first 20 Surahs are from the Makkah period and three of the last 20 Surahs (98, 99 and 110) are from the Madinah period.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

In contrast with the above-mentioned speculations, Muslims believe that the arrangement of the Qur’an was determined by the Prophet himself, under guidance from God. They see in this arrangement a coherence that is suitable for all people and for all times to come.

The Qur’an deals with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history and spiritual lessons learned from observation of nature, from life and from history. It deals with major themes which are often illustrated with bits of relevant stories of previous prophets and of bygone cultures, kingdoms and empires. All of these themes are interwoven throughout the Qur’an, although, naturally, some Surahs deal more with matters of faith and others with matters related to living a good life. There is emphasis on regular prescribed prayers, on constant supplications, on deep self-evaluation, on regular fasting, on pilgrimage to the holy sites related to the origins of the worship of one God, on specific rules related to equity in inheritance (?!?), on constant charity, and on social justice for all irrespective of social status (?!?). Specifics and details of much of these are left to the Prophet to develop and demonstrate by practice. Beyond that, the Qur’an does not dwell much on matters of ritual per se or on laws and procedures.

The emphasis of the Qur’an can be seen from the names it uses for itself. Some of these names are: Al-Huda (The Guidance), Al-Dhikr (The Reminder), Al-Furqan (The Criterion – for judging right from wrong), Al-Shifa (The Healing), Al-Mau’iza (The Admonition), Al-Rahmah (The Mercy), Al-Nur (The Light), Al-Haqq (The Truth) and Al-Burhaan (The Clear Argument). It does not call itself a book of law of science or of procedural prescriptions. Only about 500 to 600 Ayahs are related to rules and regulations and less than 100 of these can be directly implemented through legislation. One needs the extensive Hadith literature and elaborate legal processes to derive legal rules and get them to a level where implementation issues can be discussed.

The first revelation came to Mohammad when he was forty years old and was on one of his customary retreats in the cave of Hira in the hills outside Makkah. It was one of the odd nights during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. According to the reports recorded in the authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, an angelic presence appeared before the perplexed Mohammad and said to him, “Iqra (which can mean “read” or “recite”).” Mohammad replied that he could not recite or did not know what to recite. After the instructions to read or recite were repeated two more times, Mohammad reported that the angelic presence held him and squeezed him so tightly that he felt that his breath was leaving his body. The angelic presence then instructed him to recite with him the words that are now recorded as the first 5 Ayahs of the 96th Surah, Al-Qalam, (The Pen):

Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created (and continues to create); created humankind from a clot of congealed blood. Read and your Lord is The Most Generous; who taught by the pen; taught humankind what it did not know.

These are the first words of the revelation that take Mohammad from an unassuming but generous and trusted member of his city to become Mohammad the Messenger of God, Al-Rasool Allah. A man with no worldly ambitions, and unknown for eloquence and speech, becomes the most eloquent and persistent critic of his society. He becomes a passionate advocate for reform based on the worship of one God and insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female (!?! It is ironic that Muhammad should be seen as “a persistent critic of his society” and “a passionate advocate for reform… insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female” because, today, Islam is often used by Muslims to stifle criticism and to ensure that slaves, the poor and women are denied dignity, equality and justice).

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

The experience of this first revelation shakes Mohammad and stuns him. He hurries to his wife Khadijah and asks her to cover him with a blanket. When he recovers his composure, he relates to her the story of his experience. He is concerned that he may be hallucinating or losing his mind. She assures him that he is a very balanced person and that his experience must have some supernatural explanation. She suggests that they go to visit one her old relatives known for knowledge of previous scriptures. Her relative, Waraqa ibn Naufal, tells Mohammad that his experience resembles that of Moses and the other prophets. He suggests that Mohammad has been chosen as a messenger by God. He warns Mohammad that the people will oppose him as they opposed the prophets before him.

An interval of several months passes after the above revelation. The Prophet is wrapped up in a blanket, feeling despondent and afraid of having been removed by God from his mission. This is when the revelation of Ayahs 1 through 7 of the 74th Surah, Al-Moddaththir (The One Wrapped), occurs:

O you wrapped up (in your cloak), arise and deliver the warning. And proclaim the glory of your Lord. And purify and cleanse your garments. And shun all idolatry and filth. And do no favours, expecting gain in return. And for the sake of your Lord, be patient and constant.

Further revelations come over the remaining thirteen years of the Prophet’s life in Makkah and ten years in Madinah. By the time of his death, the revelations comprised of 114 Surahs. The last of these is Al-Taubah, now numbered the 9th. But the last words of the revelation are said to be in the third Ayah of Surah 5, Al-Ma’idah:

Today I have completed for you your religion, fulfilled upon you My favours, and approved for you Al-Islam as your religion.

The revelations were recorded contemporaneously by one of the scribes appointed by the Prophet for this purpose. After every revelation, the Prophet would come out to the public (unless he was already outside) and recite to the people the new verses. He would also instruct one of the scribes to write it down. According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, he would tell them where the new revelation was to be positioned in relation to previous revelations. The scribes would write on whatever material was available at the moment. Thus the writing medium ranged from a stone, the leaf of a palm tree, the shoulder bone of a camel, the membrane on the inside of a deerskin, a parchment or a papyrus. These writings were stored in a corner of the Prophet’s room and later, perhaps, in a separate room or office near the Prophet’s room.

It should be mentioned that while Al-Qur’an means “the recitation”, it also calls itself “The Book”. The root word for book, k-t-b, occurs in the Qur’an more than 300 times. The word and concept of Surah is also in the Qur’an, and so is the word Ayah.

The Makkans, being a merchant society, had a large pool of those who could read and write. There were as many as eleven scribes during the early part of the Madinah period also. The most prominent of these was an elderly gentleman, named Ubayy ibn Ka’b. The Prophet was then introduced to an energetic teenager named Zayd ibn Thabit. Zayd was eager to learn and was placed directly under the Prophet’s supervision. After he had accomplished his initial assignments in record time, the Prophet made him in charge of the qur’anic record. Zayd became the principal scribe, organiser and keeper of the record.

Hundreds of people memorised the Qur’an and many wrote down what they had learned. But keeping up with the new revelations and the changing arrangement of the Ayahs in the Surahs was not possible except for a few. To keep up, hundreds of people (no doubt all male) regularly reviewed the Qur’an they knew. Many did this under the Prophet’s own guidance. Others did it under the supervision of teachers designated by the Prophet. Those from remote areas, who had visited only once or occasionally, may not have kept up. Some, who wrote what they had learned, may not have inserted the new revelations in the manner prescribed by the Prophet (an interesting and enlightening paragraph).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Prophet was meticulous about the integrity of the Qur’an. He constantly recited, in public, the Surahs as they were arranged at the time. It is reported that angel Gabriel reviewed the entire Qur’an with the Prophet once a year during the month of Ramadan. This review was done twice during the last year of the Prophet’s life. And Zayd maintained the records faithfully, kept them properly indexed and made sure they were complete according to the Prophet’s instructions (is there reliable evidence to support this very important claim?).

At the time of the Prophet’s death, Zayd had a complete record of all the revelations except the last two Ayahs of Surah 9, the Al-Taubah. The Prophet used to indicate the completion of a Surah by instructing that the sentence, “(I begin) In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” be written at its beginning. This wording at the beginning of each Surah became both a separator from other Surahs and an indication that the Surah was now complete. This formulation is missing from the 9th Surah, indicating that no one wanted to add anything to the Qur’an that the Prophet had himself not ordered, even if it seemed logical to do so.

After the Prophet’s death, the community chose Abu Bakr as its temporal chief, the Khalifah of the Messenger, the Caliph. About a year later, a large number of those known as authoritative memorisers were killed in a battle (this “fact” is an important one). According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, Umar ibn al-Khattab (who became the second Caliph) was alarmed by this and concerned that the next generation may not have enough teachers of the Qur’an. He therefore approached Abu Bakr and suggested that a formal compilation of the Qur’an be prepared on materials that would be convenient to store, maintain and use as a reference. According to the Hadith literature, Abu Bakr was reluctant to do something the Prophet himself had not undertaken. After a few days, however, he “became inclined” to the idea and asked Zayd to undertake the task. Zayd said he also hesitated, but, after contemplation, “became inclined” and agreed to undertake the work. A committee was formed to do the job. The committee compiled a collection by checking and double-checking each Ayah of the existing record of the Qur’an with the memories of each member of the committee as well as of other prominent experts (did this process lead to amendments to the existing “record of the Qur’an”? Sadly, we are not told. It is highly likely that it did, of course). This copy was housed with Hafsa, one of the Prophet’s wives (Hafsa was a daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab).

By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Muslim population had spread over vast areas outside the core Arab regions and many people of other cultures were entering Islam. About fifteen years after the first compilation, therefore, it was suggested that authenticated copies of the Qur’an be made available to major population centres in those areas. Zayd again was instructed to undertake the task. He again formed a committee. Instead of just making copies of the existing text, it was decided to seek corroboration of each Ayah in the earlier compilation with at least two other written records in the private copies in the possession of known reputable individuals (did this task lead to further amendments to the qur’anic text? It is highly likely that it did, of course). It is reported that this comparison was successful for all Ayahs except one. For this Ayah, only one comparison could be found. But it was in the hands of a person who was considered so reliable by the Prophet himself that his lone testimony was accepted by the Prophet in a case requiring two witnesses. It is reported that seven copies of the collection were prepared and authenticated. One of these copies was given to the Caliph himself. One became the reference copy for the people of Madinah, one was sent to Makkah, one was sent to Kufah and one was sent to Damascus (where the other copies went is not revealed/known).

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

We should mention that the committee, while doing its work, confirmed the general observation that all private copies were incomplete, some were out of sequence, some were in tribal dialects other than the standard Quraish dialect and many had marginal notes inserted by the owners (which suggests that many compromises had to be made when deciding on the content of the officially endorsed Qur’an. In many respects, therefore, the content of the officially endorsed text must have been very different to how Muhammad intended it to be). The committee members expressed concern that as time passes the context of these deficiencies will be lost. These partial copies may get into public circulation after the death of the owners of these records and become a source of schisms and create confusion. They therefore recommended that all such copies be destroyed. The Caliph issued orders to this effect, but did not put in place any mechanisms for enforcing the orders. There is sufficient evidence that some people kept their copies and some were used by mischief-makers to create controversies that did not succeed (this would seem to confirm that alternative versions of the Qur’an survived production and circulation of the officially endorsed copy of the text. This is something that will be examined in more detail in a future post devoted to the origins of the Qur’an).

The authentic copies of the Qur’an are known as the Uthmani text. This text, however, did not have the short vowels that are even today left out of Arabic text used by those who know the language. In the absence of the short vowels, however, those not well versed in the language can make serious mistakes. These vowels were, therefore, inserted about sixty years later under instructions of the governor of Kufa, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (in other words, the Qur’an was amended yet again, on this occasion to clarify the vowels that should be used to render the text more accessible/less ambiguous).

A footnote regarding required qualifications for interpreting the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, being considered the literal word of God (by Sunni Muslims, at least), is taken very seriously by Muslims. It is not enough to just study the Arabic language to interpret the Qur’an. Muslims have agreed (?!?) over the centuries that one must be well-versed in the following before one is considered qualified to offer a credible opinion. You must have:

Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraish at the time of the Prophet).
Mastery of the entire book (“The Qur’an explains the Qur’an”).
A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature (the Prophet’s interpretation is binding and those around him understood it better than the later generations).
A deep knowledge of the life of the
Prophet and of the first community (no interpretation is valid that ignores the original context).
A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the early Muslim scholars and of the traditions of the early Muslim communities.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

P.S. Above is a lengthy article explaining in very precise detail what Muslims are encouraged to believe about how the Qur’an came into existence. The content of the article can be interpreted as the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim understanding of how (and why) we possess the Qur’an today. It goes without saying: even with all the “evidence” above, anyone assessing it objectively is forced to conclude the following. First, whatever one may believe about the angel Gabriel’s role in transmitting the revelations from God/Allah to Muhammad, the Qur’an as it currently exists is the product of many interventions by Muslims (all of whom were male?) over an extended period of time. Second, such Muslims relied on texts deriving from many sources to work out (guess?) what were and were not genuine/accurate revelations deriving from God/Allah. Third, such Muslims relied on texts of the Qur’an that often differed one from the other, and on evidence from Muhammad’s close companions and, later, people who had never met him, to work out (guess?) the order that the prophet wanted the revelations arranged. Fourth, common sense therefore dictates that, in situations such as the ones just identified in which human error is so easy to imagine, it is impossible to conclude that the Qur’an as it currently exists is, in every respect, precisely how Muhammad intended it to be just before he died. Last, given the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim explanation for how the Qur’an came into existence, common sense also dictates that there are therefore no convincing reasons to believe that the Qur’an is the perfect and uncorrupted word of God/Allah.

P.P.S. I apologise for repeating some ideas immediately above, but what follows is of considerable importance. Given how Muslims (Sunni Muslims, at least) insist the Qur’an came into existence, one has to ask, “How is it possible to sustain the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God devoid of additions, amendments or deletions undertaken by humankind?” Also, just as the official/mainstream Muslim view of how the Qur’an came into being confirms how unlikely it is that copies of the Qur’an which exist today are exactly as Muhammad intended them to be at the time he died (how can they possibly be inerrant, therefore?), Dr. Shafi’s footnote above suggests that almost no one today has the knowledge, understanding and/or skills to engage with the Qur’an and fully understand it. Put another way, almost no one today is in a position to interpret the Qur’an accurately. Perhaps for this reason above all others, the Qur’an should therefore be regarded simply as a book of literature offering us interesting insights into how society functioned in the Arabian Peninsula just over 1,400 years ago. Perhaps even better, especially given the harm it does when people interpret it badly, the Qur’an should be ignored altogether, other than by scholars and/or those who can engage with scripture with the unbiased, critical detachment it necessarily requires.

Of course, at no time soon will the Qur’an be regarded in the ways recommended above; it will continue to be used and abused by Muslims to shape their understanding of what it means to be devout and to determine what it means to lead a distinctively Muslim lifestyle. This therefore means that much work must be undertaken by Muslims to separate from within the Qur’an those aspects of the text that are morally admirable and those aspects of the text that encourage morally repellent behaviour. In reality, of course, a lot of this work has already been completed by Muslims around the world (one need look no further than the work of some “liberal/modernist” Sunni and Shia scholars and many Sufi, Ahmadiyya and Alevi Muslims), but a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims appear reluctant to engage constructively with the enlightening and enlightened ideas that derive from such people within the global umma.

P.P.P.S. It has now been revealed that Asad Shah was an Ahmadiyya Muslim. His murder therefore has a sectarian dimension to it.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Islam and the consumption of alcohol.

In a rare instance of the dictatorial and brutally oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia manifesting some compassion and common sense, a British grandfather called Karl Andree (no relation, I promise) has been released from prison without having to suffer 350 lashes for making wine in a nation state where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. That thousands of Saudi Muslims (the great majority of whom are male) consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) when living or holidaying outside Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether, of course, but that they do consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) suggests hypocrisy, at the very least.

The case of Karl Andree inevitably raises the question, “What does the Qur’an actually say about alcohol consumption?” Mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims insist that the Qur’an forbids the consumption of alcohol, and this assumption about the Qur’an underscores the punitive line that many nation states with Muslim majorities take in relation to the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating drinks. It will surprise no one that what the Qur’an says is far more interesting and sophisticated than this, thereby confirming once again that Muslims have a very shaky grasp of what the Qur’an actually says.

Below is one of the best analyses of the (most) relevant qur’anic verses that I have found in recent times. I have slightly edited it, but only in the most cosmetic manner to ensure it is accessible to a literate audience, or to emphasise a point that the original fails to do.

Spain.

Spain.

Does Islam really define alcohol as haram, or forbidden? Let us examine the evidence in the Qur’an and keep the Hadith out of the equation (this is sensible, given that the content of the Qur’an always takes precedent over the content of the Hadith).

Things identified as haram (forbidden or prohibited) in the Qur’an usually begin with the expression “forbidden for/unto you”. Sometimes the Qur’an warns that those who ignore such injunctions will suffer in hell or hellfire. Consequently, in relation to the injunction not to consume pig meat, the Quran says, “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine flesh (5:3),” and in relation to the injunction not to murder the Qur’an says, “Whosoever slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell (or hellfire) forever (4:93).” I assume the phrase “a believer of set purpose” refers to Muslims alone.

There are five qur’anic verses (I have found a sixth and refer to it later) that deal directly or indirectly with alcohol. Selected in the order in which they appear in the Qur’an, the first verse probably contains the most interesting ideas, but it will be addressed at the end of the commentary.

The second verse (4:43) advises Muslims not to engage in prayer when they are under the influence of alcohol. The verse says, “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” The expression “forbidden for/unto you” is not found anywhere in or near the verse; nor is the threat of hell or hellfire. You are told merely to avoid prayer when intoxicated because, when intoxicated, you may not know what you are saying. 

Lithuania.

Lithuania.

The third verse (5:90) defines alcohol as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and indicates to the believer that, to succeed in life, it is advisable to stay away from it. The verse says, “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it (? them?) aside in order that you may succeed.”

Again, the verse does not say that alcohol is forbidden or that those who consume it will endure hell or hellfire. More to the point, the advice to “leave it aside” is provided to ensure nothing more ambitious than success in this life. In other words, the Qur’an suggests that a thing such as career success will be impaired or impeded because of the consumption of “strong drink (I interpret “strong drink” to mean wines or spirits)”. This, of course, is something most people would agree with (scripture so often deals with the obvious and fails to tell us anything we did not already know). But the verse can hardly be quoted as evidence that alcohol is haram, that it is forbidden, that it will lead to hell or hellfire, or that it should never be consumed (I sense here a warning that regular and excessive consumption of “strong drink” will impair or impede success, but the occasional glass of whisky or rum will do little or no harm). Moreover, what of weak drink, or drink with low alcohol content such as most beers? Consumption of such drink would appear to be acceptable, if the verse is interpreted simply as it is written.  

The fourth verse (5:93) relates to food and drink in general and assures believers that they should not to be too concerned about what they consume provided they do “good works”. The verse says, “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed in the past. So be mindful of your duty and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.” Yet again, the suggestion that alcohol is forbidden, or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, does not exist. More to the point, those who do “good works” can consume whatever they wish (carrion, blood and pig meat excepted, I would imagine) without being regarded as sinful.

Romania.

Romania.

Because the fifth verse (16:67) says that alcohol provides “good nourishment” or “wholesome drink”, it is difficult to interpret alcohol in any way other than being beneficial. Yusuf Ali translates the verse as, “And from the fruit of the palm and the grapes, you get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the verse as, “And of the fruits of the date palm and grapes, whence you derive strong drink and good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.” I suspect that this verse must have been a major inspiration for Omar Khayyam’s eternally popular “Rubaiyat”.  

Now we come to the verse (2:219) that we skipped at the beginning. Here, Allah speaks to Muhammad and says, “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for humankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” In this verse the Qur’an acknowledges (the very obvious point) that alcohol has detrimental as well as beneficial characteristics, but that the detrimental outweigh the beneficial, which is something that most people would immediately agree with. Nonetheless, yet again there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it.            

There have been occasions when Muslims have translated the above to read, “In both is great sin and usefulness for humankind”, but “abuse” and “usefulness” are intended as opposites and “sin” is not a word that comes to mind as the opposite to “usefulness”. Pickthall falls into this trap when he renders this part of the verse as, “In both is great sin and utility for men; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness.”  

Conclusion? Although the Qur’an recognises that alcohol in general, and “strong drink” in particular, can have detrimental effects on those who consume it, there is nothing that conclusively says it is haram or that it will result in those who consume it suffering forever in hell or hellfire. Moreover, if people have consumed alcohol in the past but engage in “good works”, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as sinful. We also have the problem that weak drink with low alcohol content such as most beers does not seem to cause as much anxiety as “strong drink” with high alcohol content. Such ambiguity may help to explain why so many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (and probably a majority of other Muslims) consume alcohol at home and abroad. But such scriptural ambiguity makes it utterly ridiculous that a nation state such as Saudi Arabia should co-opt the Qur’an as justification for outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Because the Qur’an is as confused as most people today about the consumption of alcohol, decisions about the legal framework as it applies to alcohol should be shaped by scientific and medical knowledge alone, and not by the ambiguous and contradictory ramblings ascribed to a god called Allah.

Spain.

Spain.

Prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have more to do with traditions that have emerged within Islam than injunctions deriving from the Qur’an, and more to do with people who acquire leadership roles in Muslim societies misleading Muslims less well-educated than they are about the content of the Qur’an. However, given that every Muslim is urged to engage regularly with the content of the Qur’an, one is compelled to ask, Why have millions of ordinary Muslims not questioned the traditions that have grown up around the issue of alcohol consumption? And why do millions of ordinary Muslims not celebrate more enthusiastically one of the world’s most famous pieces of literature, Omar Khayyam”s “Rubaiyat”, which, among other things, explores the pleasures associated with responsible consumption of alcohol?

P.S. There is one additional qur’anic verse that relates to the matter. 5:91 says, “Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from worship. Will you then have done?” As always, there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, and, as always, the problem seems to lie with “strong drink” alone. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that many Muslims have extreme levels of “enmity and hatred”, not least for fellow Muslims, even without “strong drink” or “games of chance” contributing to both. Note how Muslims engaged in war with fellow Muslims has caused the death of 200,000 Syrians, the displacement from their homes of millions of other Syrians, and the destruction of substantial areas of almost every major and many minor Syrian population centre. Muslim “enmity and hatred” for fellow Muslims in Syria has destroyed vast swathes of what was once perhaps the Middle East’s most interesting and beautiful nation state. As for the uncounted millions who have been murdered past and present because of the ludicrous division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, one can only ask, How is it that Muslims can allege that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of peace? A substantial body of evidence past and present suggests that Islam is more akin to a religion of war and conflict, and, without question, a religion that discriminates against and persecutes people who differ from the Muslim group that dominates power. In other words, it is a religion inspired more by the lesser than the greater jihad.

Poland.

Poland.

But I stray from the main thrust of the post, which is to establish why Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Clearly, the prohibition is not predicated on the content of the Qur’an. Instead, the prohibition is predicated on particular Hadith (statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his closest companions, but statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his companions long after their death, which makes them of doubtful reliability) and, more specifically, particular Sunnah (practices attributed to Muhammad, again, invariably long after his death, said to have found favour among his closest companions). The Hadith and the Sunnah are therefore at best attempts by mere human beings who lived long ago to give expression to what they believed Allah required of them. But we are constantly told by Muslims that everything Allah requires of humankind is to be found in the Qur’an. We are also told by informed Muslims that the Hadith and the Sunnah can never be more than mere interpretations of what Allah wants. Such interpretations can never usurp the primacy of the Qur’an itself.

In Islam, the prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is at best nothing more than a tradition associated with Muhammad and his closest companions. Allah does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol can be harmful, of that there is no question, but under certain circumstances the Qur’an indicates that its consumption is acceptable and beneficial.

My thanks to some of the many Muslims who have written about this matter in an informed and informative manner. I have found their discussions invaluable while completing the post.

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 in so far as such Muslims believe that Sikhs worship a book rather than God. Idolatry 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?

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  who have no religion (perhaps two billion people?) 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

Jesus and the dyophysite and miaphysite churches (and the massacre of students at Garissa University College in Kenya).

It is the time of year when Christians around the world reflect on the life, the teaching, the execution and what they believe to be the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on what is now Easter Day, which in 2015 was the 5th April for Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the 12th April for the great majority of other Christians such as Orthodox Christians). For some such Christians it is also a time to reflect on whether Jesus, when alive at least, was wholly divine, wholly human or divine and human, and, if the latter, how the divine and the human existed within Jesus’ person. It may even be the case that some Christians reflect on what fraction or percentage of Jesus was divine and what fraction or percentage was human.

It always surprises me how little even educated Christians know about one of the most important fault-lines that exists in Christianity, the fault-line between the “dyophysite” and what we used to call the “monophysite” churches. In the interests of knowledge and understanding, forgive me for lifting most of what follows from another website of mine, “In Search of Unusual Destinations”.

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

The monastery featured in the photo above belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as having one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

A brief word (my thanks to DelCogliano for most of what follows) about the attractive sutore (the plural of suturo) d’madbho, or sanctuary veils. Suturo d’madbho is a type of artwork encountered everywhere in Tur Abdin in south-east Turkey, the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Every Tur Abdin church has at least one suturo that separates the altar from the congregation at certain times during the liturgy. The suturo is attached to a curtain rod so that it can be easily drawn back and forth when necessary. Most churches also have several other sutore hanging on a bare wall or covering an alcove or doorway. Sutore are examples of a Turkish craft skill particularly popular in Anatolia called basmacilik, which literally means “stamping”. The art of basmacilik involves taking wooden moulds carved into various figures and shapes, pressing them into paint, and then stamping the cloth with them. An alternative way of achieving the same outcome is to draw the outlines of the figures and the shapes on the cloth and then paint them by hand.

Most sutore are approximately two metres square. Each suturo has one or two large images in the centre of the cloth, typically of Mary, the last supper, the crucifixion or the resurrection. Almost without exception, in small circles at each of the four corners, are images of the four evangelists together with their symbols: John with an eagle, Matthew with a man, Mark with a lion and Luke with an ox. Other images include seraphim or angels. Figures on the sutore are usually surrounded by decorative floral arrangements or elaborate scrollwork. While some sutore are subdued in tone because of the use of shades of brown, many are bright and vibrant because they employ deep reds, blues, yellows and greens. Although most sutore in Tur Abdin are not very old, they appear to be based on designs from an earlier age.

It is very sad that the importance of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the history of early Christianity generally, and Christian monasticism in particular, is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

P.S. I have read in recent times that some academics believe that Christianity is the religion currently suffering the most persecution globally, sometimes by people who are characterised as aggressive or militant secularists, but more frequently by people subscribing to religions other than Christianity itself. While I strongly suspect that people who follow, for example, Yazidism, Sikhism and/or Paganism will question that Christianity is the religion suffering the most persecution, a growing body of evidence confirms that it is increasingly dangerous to be Christian in many parts of the world (e.g. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, parts of Nigeria and even India). Add to this that persecution and massacre in the past have rendered some nation states, or parts of nation states, effectively Christian-free (e.g. most of the Arabian peninsula, large parts of North Africa, the sub-Saharan region and large parts of central Asia) and you realise why such concerns are expressed. Recent events in Kenya, where gunmen who were members of or in sympathy with Al-Shabaab (the brutal and bestial Somali Islamist group) murdered at least 150 people at Garissa University College, add to the evidence that to be Christian is to invite hatred of the most extreme nature imaginable (it is now clear that the great majority of the people murdered at Garissa University College were Christian and that the gunmen separated Christians from others so that non-Christians, most of whom were Muslim, could live).

I ask Muslims once again, whether friends of mine or not, to explain how it is that people who are quite clearly “inspired” by the Islamic faith can act in ways which suggest that fear, hatred, contempt for life, hostility toward diversity and disregard for individual and communal rights lie at the heart of their mindset. No longer will it do to allege that such people are not “good” or “true” Muslims; they justify their actions with quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith, and they dress and act in ways that are stereotypically Muslim. Moreover, there appear to be a worryingly large number of Muslims who engage in such acts, or support such acts from the safe distance of their homes in stable lands that are not predominantly Muslim.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Obviously, Christians all round the globe have condemned this latest atrocity by Muslim militants, but why have similar condemnations not derived from the Muslim world itself? And why is it that thoughtful, reflective, caring Muslims with commitments to interfaith dialogue, community cohesion and human rights (and millions of such Muslims exist) have not provided us with a narrative based on Islamic scripture which undermines the Islamist scriptural narrative of hatred for and the murder of the despised other, a narrative which also embraces the persecution of women, whether Muslim or otherwise, the destruction of anything deemed unIslamic and an alarming distrust of the benefits of education and free enquiry? Non-Muslims could quite easily generate such a narrative, but, if such a narrative derived from non-Muslims, it would be ignored with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders by the Islamists themselves. Such a narrative must be generated from within Islam itself if it is to have an impact on extremist Muslims, many of whom are alarmingly young. Sadly for all of humankind, burn, burn appeals to such Muslims far more than build, build.

Why is it that so many Muslims have a complete disregard for one of the most fundamental principles that most people sign up to, even though they often fall short of living up to it: do to others as I expect others to do to me? This principle, one that is inspired by notions of equality, justice, fairness, mutual respect and the celebration of diversity, makes perfect sense, but in sharia, the Islamic legal code, it is very rarely, if ever, given expression. Note how Muslims and non-Muslims must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Note how Muslim males and females must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. And note how people of the book (people who have access to scripture said to derive from God) must be accorded more rights and opportunities than people who lack access to God-given scripture. Sharia is predicted on checks and balances designed to ensure that Muslim males enjoy rights and opportunities denied to everyone else. Discrimination of the most overt kind permeates sharia, so much so that one is reminded of the worst excesses of the medieval feudal system or the caste system in Hinduism. Moreover, in some interpretations of sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. Yet verse 256 of sura 2 in the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” How can anyone make sense of this? No wonder sane and sensible people within the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in ethnically or culturally diverse nation states which seek to treat all their citizens equally, fairly and with dignity. In fact, some sane and sensible people in the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in predominantly or overwhelmingly Muslim nation states if such nation states seek to provide all their citizens with universal human rights and the benefits, material or otherwise, currently enjoyed by developed nation states in the so-called West.

A letter to “The Times” newspaper about the sexual grooming of children and young women.

Sir,

For many years political correctness has led to the identity of the community most obviously involved in the sexual grooming of children and young women in the UK being described as Asian rather than Muslim. We are consequently encouraged to hear the prime minister’s assertion that “a warped sense of political correctness” will not stifle attempts to fight these crimes – which he now classes as a “national threat”.

The Sikh and Hindu communities have for decades been at the receiving end of predatory grooming by members of the Muslim community and have for some time campaigned in the UK for it to be recognised that this is so, as recent high profile sexual grooming cases involving Muslim gangs confirm. The emerging evidence clearly highlights that most of the gangs originate from within the Pakistani Muslim community and that their victims are almost always of a white, Sikh or Hindu background.

We urge the prime minister to tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities, and we urge him to urgently engage with the leaders of the Muslim community to find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Network of Sikh Organisations (UK).

Anil Bhanot, the Hindu Council (UK).

Ashish Joshi, the Sikh Media Monitoring Group (UK).

Mohan Singh, the Khalsa Sikh Awareness Society (UK).

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Sadly, there is considerable evidence to confirm that the thrust of the letter is accurate in all or most of what it says (thus, a good Sikh friend of mine in Newcastle provides shelter, food and education in safe houses around the city to the Sikh and Hindu victims of Pakistani Muslim gangs who operate in Leeds and Bradford). But is this an appropriate task for the prime minister to engage with? This is a problem that must be addressed by the men of a very particular religion and ethnicity.  And such men must begin by asking whether a statistically significant number of Pakistani Muslim males engage in such sexual grooming because of how they perceive and engage with females within their own community. Next, and perhaps most troubling of all, they must ask whether such sexual grooming is an inevitable outcome of a religion that exaggerates the differences between male and female, that accords to girls and women far fewer rights and opportunities than it grants to boys and men, and that sees girls and women as both threats to male well-being and legitimate targets for sexual exploitation.

Anyway: the letter above provoked from a friend of mine, someone very knowledgable about the world of Islam, the following reflection, a reflection which demands from individuals within the Muslim community to confirm that gender inequality and the sexual exploitation of girls and women are not inevitable facets of a religion which, at times during the medieval period in particular, had much of which it could be proud:

I support just about everything in the letter to “The Times” except the idea that the prime minister should “tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities”. The prime minister could use his considerable influence to ensure Muslim leaders “find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally”, but this is a problem that is most apparent among Pakistani Muslim men (note the evidence from Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle, for example) and, perhaps, Muslim men more generally (Muslim males of non-Pakistani origin have also been charged with sexual grooming of girls and young women, but in numbers far smaller than those from within the Pakistani community). It is time that the Pakistani and/or Muslim community took full responsibility for a problem that is self-evidently of its own making. The Pakistani and/or Muslim community needs to get its own house in order and should not – does not – require anyone outside the community, least of all the prime minister, to steer it toward doing what is no more than the right thing.

My worry is that the root of the problem lies with scripture itself and not “merely” the culture associated with Pakistani Muslim men. There are simply so many statements in the Qur’an and the Hadith that point to the inferiority of girls and women; that state how girls and women should be denied the rights and opportunities granted to boys and men (e.g. in relation to dress, education, employment, marriage and inheritance); and that conclusively stack the cards against girls and women being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Moreover, look at how, in the Muslim world generally, the honour of the family is fundamentally shaped by the behaviour of female relatives (in particular, such honour is shaped by how female relatives behave in the company of males who are not relatives), but men can commit the most dreadful crimes against humanity without bringing obvious shame on themselves or their family (they can also drink, take drugs and engage in sexual practices forbidden to women, presumably because boys will be boys!).

The challenge for Muslim leaders, whether Pakistani or otherwise, is that they need to find within their scripture theological justification for treating males and females equally, for providing males and females with the same rights and opportunities, and for according to girls and women precisely the same respect and dignity that should be accorded to boys and men. My Muslim friends frequently tell me that justice, equity, equality and respect for human rights lie at the heart of the Islamic faith. If this is so, I urge Muslim leaders to get to work to confirm it, in the first instance in relation to gender alone (then, perhaps, a theology of equality can be elaborated in relation to sexuality, disability, non-Muslims with or without a faith commitment, etc.). The victims of misogynistic Muslim male attitudes and behaviour need to be confronted with that theology of gender equality as soon as possible.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Wow: I hear what is said and agree with much of the content. But can such a theology of gender equality be extracted from scripture? I believe it exists, but only if Muslim leaders ignore the much more compelling/detailed/problematic theology of gender inequality. Here is a tip for those honourable Muslim leaders, Pakistani or otherwise, who are determined to get their own house in order. Rely less on scripture to identify a theology of gender equality and examine Muslim history and tradition instead (in particular, examine how some Shia and Sufi groups have given expression to gender equality in the past and continue to do so today). But, for perhaps an even more obvious source for a theology of gender equality, engage with the many brilliant Muslim feminists (most of whom remain alive, thankfully, despite repeated death threats from males hostile to gender equality) who have done all the groundwork for the Muslim leaders already. Yes: confirm a commitment to gender equality simply by taking seriously what Muslim women really want and act upon their demands. As the meerkat says, “Simples.”

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

P.S. Even before this post was published, a Muslim friend who kindly examined the draft pointed out, “And do not forget ijtihad, which allows for individual interpretation of scripture where scripture is not wholly explicit or unambiguous about what should be the case. Also, you are correct. While Islamic scripture appears to provide people with a theology of gender inequality, a very careful selection of statements from the Qur’an and the Hadith allows for a theology of gender equality. I am confident that Muslims will rise to the challenge this post provides for them to express such a theology of gender equality.”

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Please help me, I’m confused. My Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion of peace, but…

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford, United Kingdom

This is the first post deriving from someone other than myself. I have been asked by the author to withhold his name (the author is male), which I am more than willing to do (we live in dangerous times). Although I do not agree with everything the post contains, it is well argued and draws convincingly on evidence that currently exists, so to exclude it from the blog would be most unfair (if for no other reason than in the interests of responsible free speech, as outlined in the blog’s “About” page). Moreover, because the post derives from someone who is NOT Muslim but keen to ensure that a positive image of Islam is generated at a time when negative images are widespread, publication is of even greater merit. So here goes.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

It is a very difficult time for many of my Muslim friends, all of whom are peace-loving people who have extended the hand of companionship to a non-Muslim of doubtful moral integrity. My Muslim friends hear almost every day about people describing themselves as Muslims who engage in warfare in many parts of the globe, often against co-religionists of a sect or a schism that is different to their own. Such warfare is often accompanied by the brutal persecution of non-Muslims, threats of genocide against so-called “infidels” or “unbelievers”, the beheading of journalists or aid workers assisting innocent people caught in the crossfire, the exploitation of non-Muslim girls and women as sex slaves, and the denial of rights and opportunities to Muslim girls and women, even to Muslim girls and women who belong to the same sect or schism as that of the (overwhelmingly male) armed combatants.

Understandably, my friends say that the warlike stereotypes of Islam that have emerged in the non-Muslim world in the last decade or so do not represent “true” Islam and that Islam is really a “peaceful” religion. They tell me that the very name “Islam” means “peace” and that no “true” or “real” Muslim would engage in the sort of warfare or brutal actions outlined above. I know for a fact that none of my Muslim friends would engage in such warfare or actions, but evidence from around the world confirms that such warfare and actions are deemed right, or morally acceptable, by many Muslims. Moreover, such Muslims find it easy to justify such warfare and actions by a selective reading of the Qur’an and/or a selective reading of the Hadith.

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Before progressing further, let’s get a couple of things straight so we can engage in a dispassionate but informed manner with the content of the post. First, strictly speaking, the Arabic name “Islam” means “submission”, and all Muslims I know, no matter the sect or schism to which they belong, agree that submission relates to the will of God/Allah alone. The name “Islam” derives from the term “aslama”, which means “to surrender” or “to resign oneself”. To submit, surrender or resign oneself to anything other than the will of God/Allah is to engage in a forbidden practice, in something Muslims define as haram. The Arabic word for “peace” is “salaam”, which, although etymologically related to “Islam” and “aslama”, is nonetheless different from both. Some of my Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion which, in its essence, requires that people submit to the will of God/Allah AND promote peace, but, strictly speaking, to say that Islam equates with peace is misleading.

Second, if Islam IS a religion of peace, why are the Qur’an and the Hadith replete with references to war, conflict and information about the lesser jihad (“jihad” means “struggle” or “striving”. The lesser jihad is the struggle or striving against real or imagined external enemies, which often leads to conflict or war and, in some instances at least, to the defeat of those described as enemies of Islam), and why is it that, even in official histories about the emergence of Islam under Muhammad and the first four caliphs (successors) who followed him, war and conflict were almost constant? And why is it that war and conflict included the great battle at Kerbala/Karbala in Iraq (680 CE/61 AH), a battle which in many respects cemented the often fratricidal division between Sunni and Shia Muslims which persists to this day?

Third, reflect on the depressing information below extracted from a diary entry of mine from 2014:

It is 4th August and commemorations are taking places in many European locations, Belgium in particular, to mark the start of world war one a hundred years ago. The commemorations are very dignified as former enemies remember the dead of all nations in an enviably even-handed manner, a manner confirming that now, in most parts of Europe at least, war between what are now friendly nations is almost inconceivable. I confess: I am moved by a lot of what I see.

But world war one was meant to be the war which ended all war because the death and destruction, most of it of little or no strategic value in the long-term, would remind those tempted to engage in conflict to say, “Never again.” However, the last hundred years have seen far too many wars and conflicts to list, the second world war included, and, today, war and conflict afflict sixty-four nation states/territories (for more information about this, see the informative website entitled “Wars in the World”) including Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmur, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Columbia and Mexico.

One of the most worrying aspects of the list of places where war and conflict are currently taking place is that, in over half the places listed, people who allege that they are Muslims are on at least one of the competing sides and sometimes on both (indeed, in some cases people who say that they are Muslims represent three, four or even five competing groups in the same war or conflict. This is most obvious in Syria and Iraq).

What are we to conclude from the above? First, that war and conflict remain at least as common as a hundred years ago (and, of course, that war and conflict are potentially far more costly in terms of human life and environmental destruction due to advances in armaments technology). Second, Muslims are engaged in a disproportionate number of wars and conflicts world-wide, suggesting that, as in the distant past, religion can still operate in such as way as to be a divisive and destructive force in society at large.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Now: I would be the first to say that, in some instances, Muslims have good reason to engage in war and conflict, particularly where they are the unquestioned victims of injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution. But in many of the places where Muslims are engaged in war and conflict they are fighting against co-religionists alone, and they are often inspired by a desire to eradicate such co-religionists because they belong to a Muslim sect or schism they define as heretical. Moreover, whether fighting against co-religionists or not, they too often seek to create conditions in which injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution exist for others, which necessarily compromises what just cause may have provoked war or conflict in the first place.

I am therefore a very confused person. My friends believe Islam is a peaceful religion, I have always been told it’s a peaceful religion and I have travelled to some predominantly Muslim nation states where peace DOES prevail. As a general rule, things are excellent in those peaceful Muslim nation states, especially if you are Muslim rather than non-Muslim, male rather than female, heterosexual rather than gay or lesbian, or able-bodied rather than disabled (sadly, if you are non-Muslim, female, gay, lesbian or disabled in predominantly Muslim nation states, you are accorded rights and opportunities that are fewer and less comprehensive than those that exist for Muslims, males, heterosexuals or the able-bodied. Also, in some Muslim nation states, homosexuality is punishable by death).

I have read the Qur’an and the Hadith extensively (albeit in translation) and know that verses in the former and statements in the latter are supportive of peace, but there are far more verses in the Qur’an and statements in the Hadith that address war and conflict. What I need is a well-informed Muslim scholar (or a non-Muslim scholar who is well-informed about Muslim scripture, tradition and history) to explain how such a discrepancy can exist between my friends’ perception of Islam as a peaceful religion and how things look in reality.

Annual "Discover Islam Exhibition", University of Newcastle

Annual “Discover Islam” Exhibition, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

I have recently been advised by a friend engaged in interfaith dialogue in North-East England that people at one of the region’s mosques have gone to great trouble to find posters which seek to challenge the perception that Islam is a warlike religion (people at the mosque hope that non-Muslim houses of worship will display the posters to combat such perceptions of Islam). One problem with the posters is that they rely on misconceptions or simplifications about Islamic scripture and the history of Islam. For this reason, the posters are little more than a well-intentioned gesture awash with platitudes that do not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, any young Muslim who, for whatever reason, is increasingly disillusioned with life in Britain and susceptible to the Islamist/Salafist/jihadist propaganda that circulates in such quantity on the internet, is likely to look upon such posters as just so much hot air generated by Muslims willing to collaborate with the Crusader West in its efforts to undermine Islamic influence globally.

Don’t get me wrong: the posters could be of some value, but only if the people who put them together address some of the matters I raise above (“Islam” means “submission” and not “peace”. Where are quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith to confound the notion that Islamic scripture is top-heavy with references to war, conflict, persecution of non-Muslims and death for “infidels” and apostates? Why is it that Muslims, and not, e.g., Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, are disproportionately engaged in war and conflict around the globe, and, in many instances, engaged in war and conflict with their confessional brothers and sisters?).

Is the problem simply this, that many manifestations of mainstream Sunni Islam have been hijacked by the bad guys? I know dozens of wonderful Sunni Muslims in the UK and elsewhere and none of them are bad guys. And why do we hear so little from Shia Muslims? Sure, there are bad guys among Shia Muslims (in fact, there are bad guys in every group subscribing to religion or a secular belief system), but, as a rule, I have found that Shia Muslims are more pragmatic than Sunni Muslims because Sunni Muslims are urged to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith literally (Shia Muslims are encouraged to believe that scripture contains hidden meanings that are at least as important as its explicit meanings). In fact, literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith is a requirement of Sunni Islam.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that scripture IS taken literally by too many Muslims. And yet it is well established among Muslims that the qur’anic revelations which derive from Muhammad’s time in Makkah have a very different tone and quality to the far more detailed and legalistic revelations which derive from his time spent in Medina. Moreover, later revelations can replace those of earlier derivation, perhaps if the earlier revelations are not fit for purpose or prone to ambiguous interpretation (this is known by the Arabic name of “naskh”, which is usually translated to mean “abrogation”).

Of course there are many millions of Muslims who ARE peace-loving, but we hear their voices far too rarely. Such Muslims include most members of the many Sufi groups and the Ahmadiyya. But guess what? Sufi and Ahmaddiya Muslims are condemned as heretics by many Sunni Muslims and some Shia Muslims. Yes: the Muslims most likely to commit to peace are persecuted by fellow Muslims. Should we laugh or cry?

Come on: help my friends persuade the non-Muslim world that Islam is a peace-loving religion. I’m not anticipating that a case can be made that “true” Muslims are indistinguishable from pacifists such as the Jains, the Mennonites, the Amish or the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers (in common with most people on the planet, Muslims included, I believe that situations exist in which war and conflict are necessary evils, but only under the strictest of conditions), but surely we can present a persuasive case that will confound the messages emanating from that vocal minority of extremist/very violent Muslims who seem to glory in death, destruction and/or the persecution of those more vulnerable than they. However, any such case must begin by utilising Islamic scripture itself because it’s Islamic scripture which inspires groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban to persist with their outrageous crimes against humanity.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy