Tag Archives: mosque

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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Islamist Extremism.

Whether we like to admit it or not, at present Islamist extremism is the biggest extremist threat globally. Consequently, please bear in mind the following.

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, appear drawn to extremist/Islamist/Salafist/ jihadist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female  – and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some Shia extremist groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them  – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the case of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. What he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the many quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians. It will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad such as the murder of opponents, or when they distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad that civilised people today think are questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that the extremists want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of speech. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the faith is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance.

Aman (in Arabic, etc. the name means “security”), a North-East England-based organisation, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values identified above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values.

Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. God or gods) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them, even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people (e.g., witness the requirements said to derive from Allah that shape the treatment of women, or those that relate to how non-Muslims must necessarily be discriminated against if they live in Muslim lands where sharia prevails). Anyone committed to, say, equality for all or just treatment for all people before the law will necessarily wish to amend these requirements to enhance human rights for groups suffering disadvantage and/or discrimination. However, if you subscribe to the idea that anything said to derive from Allah cannot be changed, you are condemning certain people to disadvantage, discrimination, injustice and a lot worse, potentially for all time. In this respect, therefore, Islam is antithetical to democracy. Democracy is NOT an ideal political system, perhaps especially as it manifests itself today in the UK, but it is superior to any political system predicated on laws and/or conventions based on religious principles.

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we are discussing here (and I paraphrase): “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it” (the same idea has been attributed to many wise people including Vaclav Havel – “Seek the company of those who search for truth, but run from those who find it ” – and Andre Gide – “Love those who seek the truth, but doubt those who find it”). Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not.

Moreover, did you hear the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam? In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

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

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

Homosexuality in Pakistan.

Not so long ago, BBC3 broadcast a documentary about a gay UK citizen of Pakistani origin who wanted to find out for himself what life is like for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Pakistan. His findings were extremely depressing and suggest that any nation state which predicates some or all of its legal code on religious understandings of what is lawful and unlawful will have a very detrimental effect on groups who do not conform with heterosexual expectations.

Here, in summary, are his findings.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Pakistan is a nation state where the vast majority of the population – about 95% – allege that they have a faith commitment, and, of those who subscribe to a faith, the religion the vast majority adhere to – about 90% of the country’s population – is Islam (very few Hindus, Sikhs or Christians remain in Pakistan, and those who subscribe to other religions are even smaller in number or non-existent).

Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan and, when people were surveyed about matters to do with sexuality in 2013, only 2% of the population said that homosexuality was acceptable.

Because gay men can be stoned to death, great secrecy surrounds where parties for gay men take place, usually in night clubs or other venues that are used only once so that it is difficult for the authorities to predict where the next party will be held. When such parties take place, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people join in with gays.

One gay Pakistani is heard to say, “No one speaks up for us.”

Broadly speaking, Muslim leaders in Pakistan see homosexuality as a disease. An imam interviewed by the UK gay of Pakistani origin admits that “fanatics” exist who will murder homosexuals. The imam added, “If you are homosexual and value your life, it is best that you leave Pakistan.”

Because homosexuality is regarded as a disease, imams recommend “medicine” that will “cure” gays of their affection for fellow males (the UK gay of Pakistani origin took a course of “medicine” recommended by an imam, but it did not “cure” him of his homosexuality).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

It is not unusual for young males, irrespective of their sexuality, to be kidnapped, beaten and raped by Pakistani men, none of whom consider themselves gay. Associated with this widespread problem of extreme sexual abuse (some of it being child sexual abuse), millions of straight men have sex with other straight men (their own age or younger) because, in the strictly segregated conditions that prevail in Pakistani public life, women are not “available” for sex. Additionally, male on male sex is a widespread phenomenon partly because female prostitutes are too expensive for Pakistani labourers and semi-skilled employees. Pakistani males won’t concede that any of the above qualifies as homosexual activity, but…

One of the most shocking parts of the documentary involved the story of a boy, aged fifteen, who was found with his gay lover of more mature age. The boy was sodomised by a mob with sticks and his life saved only due to the intervention of a brave bystander.

Doctors sympathetic to the plight of Pakistan’s LGBT community fear to be identified.

Oddly, convictions for homosexuality are rare in Pakistan, even though activities that most people would deem to be homosexual take place with remarkable regularity: “Provided the illegality is hidden, it takes place.”

At one point during the documentary, a devout Muslim male is heard saying, “God does not love those who have names like Jews or Christians.” Another is heard saying, “God does not love Christians or Jews. He loves Muslims.”

It is reported that perhaps a million transgender women live in Pakistan. A gay couple who wanted to marry are told to leave Pakistan because their presence could “provoke a violent backlash”.

Islam is hostile toward homosexuality because it is alleged that Allah is against it. Consequently, fatwas are issued in Pakistan condemning homosexuality and those who engage in homosexual activities.

Every day of their lives in Pakistan, gays live in fear of rape or death by physical assault.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

An article dating from 2013 from the “BBC News Magazine” reveals the following:

Pakistan is not the kind of place that most people would associate with gay liberation. However, some say the country is a great place to be gay, so much so that the port city of Karachi is described as “a gay man’s paradise”.

Underground parties, group sex at shrines and “marriages of convenience” to members of the opposite sex are just some of the surprises that gay Pakistan has to offer. Under its veneer of strict social conformity, the country is bustling with same-sex activity…

Invitation-only parties are a rare opportunity for gay men to be open about their sexuality. Pakistani society is fiercely patriarchal. Pakistanis are expected to marry a member of the opposite sex and the vast majority do.

“The result is a culture of dishonesty and double lives,” says researcher Qasim Iqbal. “Gay men make every effort to stop any investment in a same-sex relationship because they know that one day they will have to get married to a woman,” he says. “After getting married they will treat their wives well, but they will continue to have sex with other men.”

Sex between men occurs in some very public places including, surprisingly, Karachi’s busiest shrine. Families go to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine to honour the holy man buried there and to ask for Allah’s blessings, but it is also Karachi’s biggest cruising ground…

Most Pakistanis view homosexuality as sinful. The vast majority of mullahs or imams interpret the qur’anic story of Lot as a clear indication that Allah condemns homosexual men. Some scholars go even further and recommend sharia-based punishment for “men who have sex with men”.

“In Pakistan, men are discouraged from having girlfriends so their first sexual experiences will often be with male friends or cousins. This is often seen as a part of growing up and it can be overlooked by families – it’s the idea that boys will be boys,” Iqbal says. “Sex between men will be overlooked as long as no one feels that tradition or religion are being challenged. At the end of it all, everyone gets married to a member of the opposite sex and nothing is spoken about.”

Technically, homosexual acts are illegal in Pakistan. The British introduced laws criminalising what is described as sex “against the order of nature” during the colonial era. Sharia-based laws dating from the 1980s lay down punishments for same-sex sexual activity. In practice, though, these laws are rarely enforced, and the issue tends to be dealt with inside the family.

“There was an instance where two boys were caught having sex in a field,” says Iqbal. “The family tried to bribe the police with money because they didn’t want the story going public. When the police wouldn’t back down, the family asked for one detail to be changed – they wanted their son to be presented as the active sexual partner. For them, their son being passive would be even more shameful.”

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

The above may put too “positive” a gloss on the situation in Pakistan, although it exposes in a very convincing manner how double standards lead to a situation characterised by hypocrisy and sexual repression that must involve in some way the vast majority of Pakistani citizens (it would also be interesting to establish the extent to which this ludicrous attitude toward homosexuality is associated with terrible crimes against humanity such as forced marriage and honour-based violence). Let these three pieces of evidence stand as a corrective to some of the content in the “BBC News Magazine” article:

A Kahuta-based Pakistani mullah or imam stated on 31st December 2007 that every homosexual person should be killed. He favoured beheading or stoning as the most suitable punishment.

Several incidents of pederasty by mullahs or imams toward young boys at religious schools (madrasahs) have been reported. It is difficult for the victims to get justice in these situations because the public does not want to believe that a mullah or imam could engage in pederasty. Moreover, the victims, young boys who are forced to be the receptive partner in anal intercourse, are often perceived as being gay and are thus subject to social hostility and even legal sanctions.

In 2005, a man named Liaquat Ali, aged forty-two, from the Khyber region bordering Afghanistan, married a fellow tribesman, Markeen, aged sixteen, with the usual pomp and ceremony associated with tribal weddings. Upon hearing of the man’s religious infidelity, a tribal council told the pair to leave the area or face death.

Reflections on the latest Islamist attacks on Paris, November 2015.

Most of Thursday and part of Friday morning prior to the latest Islamist attacks in Paris (13th November 2015), attacks which left 130 completely innocent people dead, I was in Molenbeek in Brussels. As the tragic events unfolded in Paris, I was in Lille. Most of the people of Lille were in an understandably sombre and reflective mood. Goodness knows how a majority of Parisians felt.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Whether we like it or not, Islamist extremism is the greatest single threat posed to people’s security nationally and internationally (as recent events in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia and over Sinai confirm, to name but a few places where such extremism has manifested itself in recent weeks). This said, the following needs to be kept in mind:

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, are drawn to extremist/jihadist/Islamist/Salafist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female (and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some extremist Shia groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the plight of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq).

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. I suspect that what he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the hundreds of illiberal quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians; and it will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions attributed to Muhammad, in all likelihood incorrectly, that involved the murder of opponents or actions civilised people today regard as highly questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that these people (Muslim extremists) want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of expression. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the religion is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance. Nor is it without importance that the words derive from a Sunni Muslim.

Aman, an organisation based in North-East England, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values listed above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values. Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. a god) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis. But Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people.

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we have discussed so far (and I paraphrase): “I love any person who seeks the truth, but live in fear of any person who thinks they have found it.” Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not. Moreover, have you heard the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam?  In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and it is required now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

The Qur’an contains over a hundred verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule. Some of the verses are quite graphic, with commands to chop off limbs and heads and kill non-believers, etc. wherever they hide. Muslims who do not join the fight are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join in the massacres.

Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses of violence, many verses of violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, meaning that they are not confined to the historical context that originally inspired them. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectations of Allah.

The context of some of the violent passages is more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages should be complied with or ignored.

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or tolerance and respect for diversity to abrogate or even balance out the many that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed. Muhammad’s own martial legacy  and that of his companions, along with the stress on obedience and the use of force and violence found in the Qur’an, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.

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

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

Based on the content of the Channel 4 documentary called “ISIS: the British Women Supporters Unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE Muslims, of course, but Muslims that moderate or mainstream Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is not at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islam requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of their confessional group.

Thus, in the Channel 4 documentary a British Muslim woman, who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/Palestinians, but she ignores (and no one listening to her corrects her) that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (as for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria, where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 200,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have lost their lives at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killings. Some acts of revenge have claimed victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “Crusader armies” of the West that invade Muslim lands, although Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes with arms to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or Western intervention is right and proper to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of their Muslim neighbours (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from genocide by Sunni Muslims). Moreover, the “Crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, but Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe as children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what it was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group in each nation state. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of debate, discussion, informed argument, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

If you have the time, some books and research that must be read!

I have just finished “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman, one of those excellent books confirming that much of the content of Jewish scripture is highly unreliable as history (see also “Testament: the Bible and History” by John Romer, which comes to the same conclusion, but extends the net to include Christian scripture). Finkelstein and Silberman draw on recent archaeological research in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to confirm that many of the most famous stories in the Bible – the wanderings of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David and Solomon’s empire – reflect the world of later authors rather than actual historical facts. The authors of the scripture took legend and oral history and moulded both to suit contemporary needs, thereby distorting what had happened in the past or, more alarmingly, inventing a past that never existed. The same scriptural authors also suggested that monotheism was a belief subscribed to by a majority of Jews for centuries earlier than was almost certainly the case. It now looks as if monotheism within the Jewish faith was “victorious” only in the last decades of the 8th century BCE and the first decades of the 7th century BCE.

Inevitably, knowing the above makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish or, indeed, Christian scripture. Scholarship, although not quite so thorough as that directed toward the Bible, also makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an, but too few Muslims are aware of such scholarship, with tragic consequences for millions of people, Muslim or otherwise, in many parts of the world.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Another book well worth reading is “Heretic: why islam needs a reformation now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But before summarising aspects of the book itself, I will explain a little about the author’s life. My thanks for some of what follows to Andrew Anthony who wrote an article about “Heretic” in “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born author and human rights campaigner. When living in tribal, patriarchal and oppressively religious Somalia, she suffered female genital mutilation before being singled out for an arranged marriage she did not want. She sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she quickly turned her back on Islam and became one of its most articulate and vehement critics. She had to have twenty-four hour police protection even before Theo Van Gogh, the film director and her artistic collaborator, was murdered in Amsterdam by a jihadist who promised to kill Hirsi Ali as well. Partly to live a more normal life, Hirsi Ali eventually left for the USA, but even in the States life has not always been easy. She is alternately accused of being a self-hating Islamophobe and an apologist for Western imperialism, accusations which mean she remains unpopular in progressive American circles. Her views about the violence and misogyny she sees as inherent in Islamic culture have led to some people denouncing her as an “enlightenment fundamentalist”. With a touch of wry humour, Hirsi Ali notes in “Heretic” that an honorary degree she was to receive from Brandeis University was withdrawn following a petition by faculty and students accusing her of “hate speech”. The campaign, she writes, saw “an authority on Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory siding with the openly homophobic Islamists”.

Now for the book itself. Hirsi Ali seeks to find common ground with the majority of Muslims who give expression to a religion characterised by being peaceful and spiritual rather than political. But a “reformation” is needed because the idea can no longer be sustained that the terrorism and extreme violence encountered in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Kenya have no religious justification in Islamic texts. She writes, “We delude ourselves that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm.” Hirsi Ali lists dozens of statements in the Qur’an that encourage devout Muslims to engage in violence against different groups of people, and she argues that, for as long as Muslims subscribe to the idea that the Qur’an is the literal word of God/Allah, jihadists and other extremists will justify their actions theologically. She says that “religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform”.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

But how likely is it that religious doctrines will be reformed? For example, her own book confirms that a majority of Pakistanis are in favour of the death penalty for apostasy and sharia law is gaining ground in many nation states with Muslim majorities. She sees some grounds for optimism in the protests that ushered in the Arab Spring, but, in many nation states where such protests took place, dictators or Islamists have seized power since. She also believes that Muslims in the West have a vital role to play in an Islamic reformation, but many young Muslims in the West are being radicalised and the voices of those who might sympathise with such a reformation are reluctant to speak out for fear of attracting death threats.

Although there are other ways that the umma, or global Muslim community, might be sub-divided, one aspect of the book I found quite helpful is how Hirsi Ali writes about Makkah Muslims (the large majority of Muslims who represent the more tolerant face of the religion as expressed during Muhammad’s time in Makkah), Medina Muslims (the jihadists and other extremists inspired by the more punitive revelations in the Qur’an that Muhammad is said to have received during his time in Medina) and Modifying Muslims (the reformers and dissidents who actively challenge religious dogma). She argues that Medina Muslims and Modifying Muslims are struggling to win the hearts and minds of the mass of largely passive Makkah Muslims.

While confident that Modifying Muslims will eventually prevail, she is unable to generate any convincing evidence that this will happen any time soon. And this is primarily so because, as she points out on more than one occasion, Islam is inherently resistant to reinterpretation. It is inherently resistant to reinterpretation because of the belief that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of God’s/Allah’s word and therefore cannot be subjected to the sort of critical evaluation that scripture in other religions has experienced.

As indicated earlier, for some of the above I am grateful to Andrew Anthony for an article that appeared in the “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015. Anthony concludes his article with the following insight, one with which I have a lot of sympathy:

It’s an unpleasant paradox that Islam’s best hope of reform might lie in its worst incarnation. In making a visible horror show of their crimes, groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Shabaab have laid down a challenge to mainstream Islam for the soul of the religion. Simply denying that the groups are part of the faith is no longer a viable option.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

While writing this post, I came across some outstanding research on the internet about attitudes in the Islamic world published in 2012 and 2013 by the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center findings relate to what Hirsi Ali has to say in her book in so far as they provide some reasons for optimism that reformation might be possible, but also many reasons to suppose that such a reformation, if it happens at all, will be a long time coming. The research document is entitled “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. Type this title into your search engine along with Pew Research Center and the document will be listed, no problem. Muslim attitudes in relation to issues such as sharia, apostasy, women’s rights, relations among Muslims and interfaith relations are subjected to perceptive analysis. You will come away from the research encouraged as well as discouraged.

To confirm just how far off we may be in relation to Islam benefiting from a reformation, consider the following information about apostasy found in “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. The taking of the life of those who abandon Islam is most widely supported in Egypt and Jordan where 86% and 82% of Muslims support the death penalty, but the figures are not much lower in Afghanistan (79%) or Pakistan (76%). These statistics alone beg the question, Just how many Muslims worldwide are susceptible to the jihadist agenda if so many Muslims in just four nation states support the death penalty for apostasy? And to return to the theme touched on at the start of the post, how can millions of Muslims still believe that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of Allah’s word? Knowing only the official story of how the holy book came into human hands must inspire many doubts that the book is the final and perfect rendition of God’s/Allah’s word, but add to the doubts the ones that modern scholarship necessarily inspires and you end up with a book no more reliably God-given than the Torah or the Bible.

For those who value inclusion and seek to challenge religious, etc. stereotypes…

… the following is welcome news from South Africa (the BBC first ran the story in September 2014):

A Muslim academic has opened a gay-friendly mosque in South Africa, despite receiving death threats and fierce criticism from groups in the local Muslim community. Women will also be allowed to lead prayers at Taj Hargey’s Open Mosque in Cape Town.

“We are opening the mosque for open-minded people, not closed-minded people,” Mr. Hargey told the BBC.

He says the mosque will help counter growing Islamic radicalism. Mr. Hargey, based at the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in the UK, told the BBC’s Newsday programme that it was time for a “religious revolution”. “In South Africa twenty years ago, there was a peaceful revolution changing from apartheid to democracy and we need to have a similar development in the area of religion,” he said.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mr. Hargey, who was born in Cape Town, said the mosque would welcome people from all genders, religions and sexual orientations. “As well as leading prayers, women will be allowed to pray in the same room as men,” he said. He contrasted this to the current Islamic practice which sees “women at the back of the street, back of the hall, out of sight, out of mind.”

However, members of Cape Town’s large Muslim community have taken to social media to criticise the new mosque, with some calling him a “heretic” or “non-believer”. One group tried to block the opening of the mosque. South Africa’s umbrella body for Islamic groups, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), says it is investigating the new mosque and has noted concerns raised in the community.

In his sermon, Mr. Hargey condemned the increasing hatred in the world between Muslims and Christians and blamed it on “warped theology”, reports AFP news agency. When asked about his qualifications as a religious leader, he said, “I have a PhD in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, unlike my opponents who went to some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.” He told the BBC that he wanted to revive “the original mosque of the Prophet Muhammad where there were no barriers. This idea of female invisibility is an innovation that came after Muhammad. Unfortunately it has become entrenched,” he said.

It’s a pity about the ill-considered reference to “some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia”, but we know what Mr. Hargey is getting at. I would suggest that similar “educational” facilities exist in parts of the Bible Belt in the USA, for example. “Going cheap: certificates to confirm you are a pastor in some weird and wacky Christian ‘church’ following a one-month distance learning course. Assessment by multiple choice questions is available on request.” Charlatans exist in the world of religion and belief? Perish the thought!!!!

I have done some research about Taj Hargey on the internet and he is a somewhat controversial figure with a colourful track record to date. However, given that some of the most vehement criticism leveled against him derives from extremist groups which seek to impose on others their oppressive brand of religious belief and practice, I would suggest that Taj Hargey is well-meaning in his efforts to open such a mosque. It’s more inclusive than exclusive, so has to be welcomed. As it is, Taj Hargey enjoys quite a lot of support for his plans from Muslims, both male and female, so this in itself is interesting.

For those who can make use of the information, the following websites seek to meet the needs and aspirations of the millions of gay or lesbian Muslims:

www.imaan.org.uk/

www.lgbtmuslimretreat.com/

www.safraproject.org/co.htm

http://www.thekissgroup.co.uk/

www.qwoc.org

Some of the websites above lead to yet more websites sympathetic to the plight and predicament of gay or lesbian Muslims. No doubt all religious groups can direct me (and others) to websites generated within THEIR faith tradition that also seek to meet the needs and aspirations of gay or lesbian believers. For example, I’ve recently been examining websites for gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints people.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

What follows is also worth examining. It is not often that excellent news derives from the Roman Catholic Church about matters to do with gay rights, but this appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper:

An Irish Catholic priest received a standing ovation from his congregation when he revealed he was gay and then declared his support for same-sex marriage from the pulpit. Father Martin Dolan, who has been a priest at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Francis Street, Dublin, for fifteen years, made the unexpected comments during mass.

The priest, who was unavailable for comment and is reported to be on holiday, urged his congregation to back same-sex marriage in the forthcoming Irish referendum. Parishioners are understood to have applauded when Dolan announced “I’m gay myself” last Saturday.

Speaking to “The Irish Sun”, community youth worker Liz O’Connor said, “We are all very proud of Father Martin. Because he has admitted that he is gay, it doesn’t change the person that he was before.”

Gay equality groups in Ireland, including Marriage Equality Ireland and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, have praised the priest’s decision to come out in front of worshippers.

A referendum on legalising gay marriage in Ireland will be held on a date to be fixed in May. An opinion poll in “The Irish Times” last month found that 71% of the Republic’s electorate would vote yes to allow gay marriages in the country. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has fought against gay marriage in the Republic, however, warning it would be a “grave injustice”.

How odd to characterise gay marriage as a “grave injustice”. Surely it’s a “grave injustice” that marriage cannot be undertaken by everyone who wishes to marry.

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Last, and for good measure, here’s something which challenges our perceptions of older people. Thanks to Sohan Singh for forwarding this information to me (Sohan: I hope my small amendments to the text have not misrepresented what has been discovered):

Ageing does not have to bring poor health and frailty, according to scientists who have discovered that the most active people in their seventies are as fit as people in their fifties. Researchers working at King’s Cross Station, London, approached cyclists aged between 55 and 79 and tested physical functions associated with ageing such as aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, skeletal mass, breathing ability and muscle density. The researchers were hoping to learn whether physiological markers could determine age, but found it was hard to tell who of the participants were older based only on the data collected.

“If you didn’t know the age of the older people, the data relating to many of the functions would point to a person much younger in age,” said Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Science at King’s College.

By exercising you do what your body wants it to do and are allowing it to age as nature intended. It is not ageing itself which brings about poor bodily function and frailty, but the fact that people stop exercising and are no longer active.

The 84 men and women who participated in the study, published in “The Journal of Physiology”, had to be able to cycle 100 kms in less than 6.5 hours if aged 55, and 60 kms in less than 5.5 hours if aged 79.

Hmmm: no wonder Sohan says they were “superfit cyclists”!

It looks as if a long and healthy life IS predicated on more exercise! I’m a couch potato no longer, I promise!

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