Tag Archives: Nasir Mosque

“It’s not Islam that’s the problem; it’s Sunni Islam.” Discuss.

It is a very sobering time of the year. In France and many other nation states, thousands of people have gathered to remember the anniversary of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 innocent men, women and children last November (2015). In Iraq, Islamic State suicide bombers are slowing the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces into Mosul. Also in Iraq, a mass grave has been found near Mosul containing the bodies of about a hundred people, children included, murdered by the Islamic State. And in Baluchistan in Pakistan, a suicide bomber said to have links with the Islamic State has killed at least fifty people at a Sufi shrine. What do the perpetrators of these acts, criminal or otherwise, have in common? They were Sunni Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi Shia militia and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, backed by American airstrikes, have for about three weeks been moving in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where it is estimated that 1.5 million civilians remain, most, presumably, against their will. Yesterday we learned that Syrian Kurdish armed groups have started an assault on the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa with American, French and British air support.

Despite the involvement in recent years of some non-Muslim nation states in the wars that engulf Iraq and Syria, most of the death and destruction in both nation states are directly attributable to the failure of Sunni and Shia Muslims to live in peace with one another (although people such as Christians and Yazidis, who have nothing to do with the Sunni and Shia struggle for supremacy/survival, have themselves been targeted for expulsion, murder and/or genocide, more often than not by Sunni Muslims). Yemen is also a nation state where war, death and destruction are directly attributable to Sunni and Shia rivalry, and in Pakistan such rivalry leads to the loss of innocent life on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims the most frequent victims. Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high, but at present rarely result in deaths, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey (in Turkey, the Muslims most often considered Shia are the Alevis and the Bektashis). Sunni and Shia antipathy cannot be blamed for the conflicts/wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia or Sudan, or for the communal tensions that exist, and the bloody violence that occasionally erupts, in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali or Bangladesh, but in the nation states just listed Muslims are largely responsible for all the death and destruction (in these cases, Sunni rather than Shia Muslims are usually the guilty party, with their victims being Christians, Animists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and/or self-confessed atheists or humanists). This is not to say that wars, death and destruction are the responsibility of Muslims alone (note, for example, how non-Muslims such as Christians are destroying South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how Russia and Ukraine are at war over eastern Ukraine), or that Muslims are not sometimes the innocent victims of death and destruction deriving from non-Muslims (note, for example, the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmur), but globally Muslims are the cause of more wars, death and destruction than any other group of people that can be identified because of their religion or belief. However, I have yet to list the nation states where worries about Islamist extremism and radicalisation remain a real threat, or where Islamist groups with violent agendas remain in place and occasionally engage in acts of terrorism. Such nation states include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, France and the UK.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

I mention all this to give what follows a context: there are worrying signs that Indonesia and, even more obviously, Bangladesh are subject to changes that will lead inevitably to more hardline and intolerant attitudes toward minority groups. Indonesia, the nation state with the largest Muslim population on the planet, first. Note the following:

One, Archipelago Islam or Islam Nusantara, traditionally noted for its moderation, tolerance of diversity and protection of minority rights, has been under threat ever since the Bali bombings of 2002.

Two, a higher proportion of males and females, some of the latter from a very young age, wear overtly Muslim dress than they did in the past.

Three, once-popular transvestite beauty contests are now rarely if ever held.

Four, some Muslim groups apply pressure on the government to legislate about issues of morality that have in the past been matters of personal conscience.

Five, hardline Hizb-ut-Tahrir has had a presence in the country for some years and its influence is growing.

Six, polls suggest growing numbers of Muslims want a caliphate in Indonesia and the imposition of sharia.

Seven, the government is considering legislation to ban alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Eight, in recent years, members of religious minorities have suffered assault by their Muslim neighbours, and the government has backed the demolition of churches, mandirs and temples.

Last, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, is under attack from Muslims because he told voters they should not allow themselves to be fooled by the common interpretation of a qur’anic verse instructing them not to vote for non-Muslim leaders such as himself (Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is Christian). For being so “outspoken”, Purnama may face blasphemy charges.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

I will now spotlight Bangladesh.

One, Islamists have murdered, often openly in the streets of large urban centres, an educationalist who was assumed by his assailants to be secular/humanist even though he never said in public that he was, Hindus, Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community and openly secular/humanist bloggers.

Two, rather than the government protecting secularists/humanists and confirming their right to express their opinions, it has urged such people not to “attack” Islam or cause offence to conventionally pious Muslims, and to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.

Three, in July this year, twenty-two people, most of whom were non-Muslim foreigners, died when a bomb exploded in a bakery or cafe in a prosperous part of Dhaka.

Four, extremist groups said by group members themselves to have links with Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State have grown in number and popularity in recent years.

Five, Bangladesh is experiencing a process called Arabisation, which, among other things, has led to Persian-origin words and phrases being replaced by Arabic words and phrases, and women dressing in ways more resonant of the Arab Middle East than the Indian sub-continent.

Six, in recent decades, Bangladesh has witnessed the opening of a growing number of madrasas, or religious schools, funded by Saudi Arabia and, inevitably, the madrasas reflect the oppressive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last, in recent weeks, more than a hundred Hindu homes and seventeen mandirs have been looted and vandalised by groups of Muslim men, simply because of an unproven allegation that a Hindu youth shared a Facebook post that some said denigrated the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site in Makkah because it encloses the Ka’aba.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Bangladesh has in the past been celebrated as a Muslim-majority nation state in which respect for diversity and a live and let live attitude prevail. This is clearly no longer the case, just as it is no longer the case in Indonesia. But one is inevitably compelled to ask the following: If conditions are so dire for non-Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, how much worse are they for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, or in those parts of Nigeria, Syria or Iraq terrorised by groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State?

Turkey is sometimes held up as an example of how government by an Islamist party need not pose a threat to democracy or the individual or collective rights of members of minority groups, but I know from first-hand experience that the reality is not as many people wish to believe. Consider the following.

First, all Turkey’s Christian, Yazidi and Jewish communities are substantially smaller than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, discriminatory legislation, Muslim antipathy for non-Muslims, pogroms, massacres and genocide all playing their part in such declines in population.

Second, the AKP government’s determination to enhance the influence of orthodox Sunni Islam, an agenda supported by influential Naqshbandi Sufis who are probably the least Sufi-like Sufis on the planet, means that Alevi, Shia and most Sufi Muslims feel that, as in the past, the state no longer respects the rights of all Turkey’s citizens.

Third, because the AKP monopolises power in Ankara, billions of Turkish liras have been spent on the construction of Sunni mosques; Sunni Islam is taught in many/all the nation’s schools; non-Sunni manifestations of Islam and/or Alevism are excluded from the classroom; and only in recent years has some money been channelled to the Alevis so they can build themselves cemevis for social, cultural and/or religious purposes.

Fourth, the recent failed coup has been used by the government as an excuse to purge the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the school system and the universities of individuals whose loyalty toward the AKP and its Islamist programme is questionable, and to close down newspapers, publishing houses and TV and radio stations deemed unreliable allies of the existing regime.

Last, in recent years the AKP has sounded increasingly like a party that subscribes to Turkish nationalism, albeit not in the ludicrously triumphalist and murderous form subscribed to by some groups on the far right, but this has inevitably done much to alienate even further those small Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Arab communities that remain in the republic, and the twenty million Kurds who once again feel as if their rights and lives are under threat from the state because of the president’s misguided decision to resume the war against the PKK.

In other words, for millions of citizens of the Turkish Republic who are not Sunni Muslims, Naqshbandis and/or ethnic Turks, life stinks. And life stinks because the political scene is dominated by the Islamist AKP, which has scant regard for anyone who is not Turkish and/or in sympathy with increasingly inflexible and intolerant Sunni Islam.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool. The mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community

P.S. I recently attended a National Interfaith Week event at St. Nicholas Church of England Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where, in a welcome departure from convention, speakers from the Ahmadiyya rather than the Sunni Muslim community were given an opportunity to reflect on the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation. Formalities over, everyone chatted around a spread of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I learned that the two Ahmadiyya Muslims present were husband and wife, and that they had fled from the Punjab in Pakistan earlier in the year because of death threats directed toward them by their Sunni Muslim neighbours. The husband had taught for thirty years in a college near Lahore; and his wife had engaged in many charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged Pakistani citizens, no matter their religion or belief. The couple were still delighting in the fact that in the UK, as a general rule at least, people with different religions and beliefs, in this case Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and atheists, meet, mix and mingle as equals and as friends.

Because Ahmadiyya Muslims had been given the chance to represent the Muslim community at the event in the cathedral, no one attended from the region’s large Sunni community.

Advertisements

Muslim sectarian divisions inhibit purposeful interfaith dialogue.

The article below appeared in “The Guardian” newspaper on 18th April (2016). It is impossible to feel other than a mixture of sadness and shock (perhaps even contempt) because of the failure of the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland to send representatives to the launch of the anti-extremism campaign organised following the brutal and senseless murder of Asad Shah. Equally, it is impossible to draw any conclusion other than that many people associated with the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland have sympathy for the Muslim male who murdered Asad Shah and contempt for the anti-extremism campaign that the murder has triggered.

To more fully appreciate the implications of the content of the article below, please examine the posts on this blog entitled “Asad Shah is murdered for ‘disrespecting’ Islam”, “Islamist Extremism and its links with the Deobandis”, “Islamist Extremism” and “Challenging stereotypes of a warlike/extremist/intolerant Islam: the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Ahmadi Muslims in Scotland have launched an anti-extremism campaign following the death of the Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah, despite the failure of other prominent Muslims to attend the event.

Representatives of the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland were invited to attend the launch alongside other faith groups, but “The Guardian” understands that both sent their apologies at the last minute.

Shah, who lived in the multicultural Shawlands area of Glasgow, was fatally stabbed outside his newsagents on 24th March.

Shah was an Ahmadi, a member of a minority sect of Islam that faces persecution and violence in countries such as Pakistan and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims in the UK because it differs from their belief that Muhammad is the final prophet sent to guide humankind.

The man charged with Shah’s murder is also a Muslim and recently released a statement through his lawyer saying the killing was justified because Shah had “disrespected” Islam.

As part of the United Against Extremism campaign, posters sponsored by the Ahmadi community will be displayed on buses in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee for two weeks.

The event’s organiser, Ahmed Owusu-Konadu, said, “We are undertaking this campaign as part of our stand on the rejection of all forms of extremism and as a message of solidarity with all who have been its victims, including Asad Shah and others in Paris, Turkey, Brussels, Pakistan and Nigeria.”

Abdul Abid, president of the Ahmadiyya community in Scotland, admitted he was disappointed that other Muslim leaders had not attended the launch. Representatives of Glasgow’s Sikh and Jewish communities and the Church of Scotland’s interfaith group were all present, alongside local politicians, representatives of Police Scotland and Glasgow’s lord provost.

Independent of the murder investigation, Police Scotland is investigating alleged links between the head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque and a banned sectarian group in Pakistan. A recent BBC investigation claimed that Sabir Ali was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a militant political party that has accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, and was banned by the Home Office in 2001.

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

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

Following Shah’s death, Aamer Anwar, one of Scotland’s most outspoken Muslim reformers, helped to broker a unique event where representatives of Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi and Pakistani Christian communities shared a platform for the first time and vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder against extremism.

At the time Anwar said, “A very small minority of the community may think it’s OK to meddle in the cesspit of violent extremist politics in Pakistan, but we are united in saying that we do not want to import sectarian violence that has caused so much division and so much bloodshed to our community or to our streets.”

He has since received death threats himself, which are under investigation by the police.

Sorry: no prizes for knowing from whom death threats against Aamer Anwar derive.

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.

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

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

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

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

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

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

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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

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

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

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

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

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

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

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

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

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

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

28.6.15.

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

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

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

28.6.15.

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

30.6.15.

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

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

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

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

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

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

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

30. 6.15.

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

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

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

1.7.15.

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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

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

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

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Yavuzlar, Turkey

3.7.15.

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

4.7.15.

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

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

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

5.7.15.

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

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

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

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

6.7.15.

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

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

7.7.15.

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

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Religious people behaving badly (or in ways that have scant regard for current preoccupations).

… but considerably better by the end of the post!

One.

Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Myanmar, called a United Nations envoy a “bitch” and a “whore” when he spoke at a rally. A leading UN human rights’ envoy said such comments incited hatred and called on Myanmar’s leaders to condemn the monk’s “abhorrent” language.

Two.

They were among the most powerful women on the planet, but that has not spared them from being airbrushed out of a picture of world leaders at the 11th January 2015 Paris march against terror and in favour of freedom of expression. Angela Merkel (the German chancellor), Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the Danish prime minister), Anne Hidalgo (the mayor of Paris) and other politically influential women at the head of the march were removed from the picture so “The Announcer”, an Israeli newspaper, would not “offend” its devout Orthodox Jewish readers (hmmm: the limits of freedom of expression. Do we laugh or cry? Do we laugh or cry, given that almost everyone that Sunday was marching in support of freedom of expression?).

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people discover that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

Three.

A few days after jihadi militants murdered seventeen people in Paris and Boko Haram murdered about two thousand people in north-east Nigeria, a Muslim religious leader in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa. You would think that the fatwa would have been issued to condemn the murder of innocent people in Paris and north-east Nigeria, but, instead, the fatwa forbade Muslims from making “anti-Islamic” snowmen because, by making snowmen, Muslims ran the risk of engaging in acts indistinguishable from idolatry. Yes, it’s 2015. Yes, I am avoiding all substances that might distort my mind.

Amazingly, snow had fallen on the mountains of northern Saudi Arabia and a father had asked the religious leader if it was permitted to build a snowman for his children. The religious leader said in no uncertain terms that it was NOT permitted (religious leaders are very good at saying what you cannot do. Ask them what you can do and they have much less to say): “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play or fun.” To build a snowman is to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the Saudi kingdom’s strict interpretation of sharia in its Sunni guise.

Worryingly, one Muslim wrote on Twitter to support the religious leader: “Building snowmen is imitating the infidels (that’s me and many of you, of course, and, according to many Muslims, infidels deserve death. In fact, there are qur’anic verses that recommend death for people who might be defined as infidels). It (building snowmen) promotes lustiness and eroticism.”

Yes, the latter is true. Every time I’ve made a snowman I’ve wanted to have sex with it. This is one of my many vices.

Four.

In Saudi Arabia in 2014, Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a thousand lashes (for assisting Boko Haram during one of its murderous assaults on innocent people in Nigeria? For beheading hostages in the Islamic State?) for setting up a website that championed free speech and criticised leading clerics (fifty of the lashings were administered in mid-January 2015). According to the trial judge, Badawi had “insulted Islam”. In 2014, Badawi’s wife and children fled from Saudi Arabia when confronted with death threats and they now live as refugees in Canada.

My goodness: I’d “insult Islam” if Islam is capable of such brutal, inhumane and disproportionate reactions to an individual seeking merely to express his views (which, as his blog confirms, are very sound and sensible views in a liberal sort of way).

Aren’t you proud that our government in the UK calls Saudi Arabia a valued ally?

Five.

A French-born Muslim refused to take down a “Je suis Charlie” sign at his London café despite receiving death threats. Adel Defilaux told how a “raving Islamic fanatic” demanded he remove the sign, which is a show of support for the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists recently murdered in Paris.

Six.

Five people are killed and six churches attacked amid new protests against the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine… in Niger!!!!!

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

There are times when some religious people prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Seven.

More than eighty people, fifty of them children, are kidnapped by Boko Haram in cross-border raids in Cameroon.

Eight.

A young boy aged about ten is shown shooting dead two Russian “spies” in a new film posted by Islamic State militants.

Nine.

Jihadi attacks caused more than 5,000 deaths in December 2014. There were 664 terrorist acts in fourteen countries, with Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan the four countries worst affected (these four countries suffered 80% of the deaths).

Ten.

I’ll be honest: Pope Francis is a considerable improvement on the two popes who preceded him (perhaps especially because of a sincere desire to see the poorest and most marginalised in the world have lives characterised by comfort, dignity and the same opportunities as everyone else), but he made a mistake in relation to freedom of expression when he said, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” In so doing, Pope Francis came dangerously close to justifying the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists, sanctioning the persecution of other cartoonists who have “insulted” Islam or Muhammad, and supporting the fatwa issued many years ago against Salman Rushdie following publication of his magnificent novel “The Satanic Verses”.

This does not often happen, I assure you, but, for once, I found myself agreeing with David Cameron when he said, “In a free society there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian. If someone says something offensive about Jesus I might find that offensive, but I don’t have a right to… wreak my vengeance on them.”

And why does David Cameron not have a right to “wreak” his “vengeance on them”? For me, the following explains why. Because all religions are mere human constructs in exactly the same way that ideologies of a political nature are, we should treat religious beliefs with respect only when they deserve respect. When religious beliefs encourage people to behave in contemptible (or worse) ways, both the beliefs and the people are worthy of contempt. If religious beliefs offend us (by, for example, encouraging prejudice, stereotyping, racism or religious intolerance), or the actions of religious people incline us toward fear and loathing (because such people engage in torture, other acts of wanton brutality, the abuse of children, the sexual exploitation of women, murder, genocide or the persecution of the most vulnerable in society), we have every right to (at the very least) offend in return, perhaps precisely BECAUSE people are motivated by religious beliefs. And why do I say this? Because religion is so often privileged and protected, even in allegedly secular societies. It is therefore necessary to sometimes offend to, among other things, expose the lies, the misconceptions or the contradictions that people subscribe to (and lies, misconceptions and contradictions are far too frequently encountered in world views defined as religions).

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

Eleven.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presided over a brutal Islamist theocracy which denied girls and women many of the same opportunities as boys and men and persecuted Shia and Sufi Muslims. Moreover, the public practice of any religion other than Islam was unlawful. Conversion of a Muslim to another religion was considered apostasy (which, if sharia was interpreted rigidly, was punishable by death). Nothing substantive is expected to change with Abdullah’s death.

Yes: Saudi Arabia is a nation state very far removed from even the most elastic interpretation of inclusiveness. And the only so-called fundamental “British” value that Saudi Arabia would recognise is, unfortunately, the rule of law!

But now for some good news.

One.

Two male witches have tied the knot in the UK’s first pagan same-sex marriage. Tom Lanting and Iain Robertson, who have been together for twelve years, were married in a ceremony in the 16th century vaulted cellars of Marlin’s Wynd in Edinburgh.

Two.

And, to conclude, some wise words from Tahir Selby, the imam at Hartlepool’s Ahmadiyya mosque:

We have the wonderful right of free speech in our country, a right which I sometimes feel British people take for granted, but I believe in totally… So yes, we (Muslims) are offended by these images (in “Charlie Hebdo” and elsewhere). But what I want to stress is that ordinary, decent Muslims, true to their religion, would never react to that offence by hurting anybody… The Islamic way of reacting to offence is simply to approach the people causing it and explain, talk and discuss peacefully. This is what the vast majority of Muslims believe: the way of peace… The community I represent… believes very strongly in free speech and we are totally against any blasphemy laws… For us, the liberties and freedoms in this country are a great blessing, and I gave a sermon on 7th January stating that we cannot afford to lose these precious freedoms in this country, especially given what is happening in Pakistan (where blasphemy laws are often invoked to intimidate, persecute and sometimes execute members of minority faith groups, Ahmadiyya Muslims included).

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool, where Tahir Selby is the imam

Challenging stereotypes of a warlike/extremist/intolerant Islam: the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

The last post (“Please help me, I’m confused”) provoked some interesting and perceptive discussion via my email address in particular, so much so that I think it’s necessary to do a follow-up. The follow-up is a focus on the Ahmadiyya Muslims, partly because they are Muslims who defy all the more lurid stereotypes of Islam that are currently so common globally, and partly because some Sunni, Shia and Sufi Muslims asked if such a post could be uploaded to inform non-Muslims about the community. So here goes. Do note at the end of the post that the community has a presence in North-East England which all of us should do far more to celebrate and engage with.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a dynamic, fast growing international revival movement within Islam. Founded in 1889, it is said to have members in a hundred countries with a global membership running into the millions. Its current headquarters are in the United Kingdom (UK).

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the only Islamic organisation to believe that the long-awaited messiah has come in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) of Qadian (it is this belief in particular which marks out the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as highly distinctive within Islam and helps explain why the community has suffered so much persecution by mainstream Muslims, Sunni Muslims in particular). Ahmad claimed to be “the metaphorical second coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the divine guide”, whose advent was foretold, according to Ahmadiyya tradition, by Muhammad himself. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes that God/Allah sent Ahmad, like Jesus, to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace. Ahmad’s example has brought about, in the eyes of the community at least, an unprecedented era of Islamic revival. Ahmad sought to divest Islam of fanatical beliefs and practices by vigorously championing what he called “Islam’s true and essential teachings”. He also recognised the value of the teachings of “the great religious founders and saints” (as the following are known in Ahmadiyya circles) such as Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Guru Nanak, and explained how such teachings conform with the teachings of Islam in its purest/truest sense (a willingness to concede that some non-Muslim religious, etc. leaders/teachers/figures might have something worthwhile to say to humankind is another reason why the community has suffered persecution from mainstream Muslims).

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the leading Islamic organisation to unconditionally reject terrorism in any form. Over a century ago, Ahmad declared that an aggressive “jihad of the sword” has no place in Islam. Instead, he taught his followers to wage a bloodless, intellectual “jihad of the pen” to defend Islam. To this end, Ahmad wrote many books and thousands of letters, delivered hundreds of lectures and engaged in scores of public debates. His detailed but somewhat unconventional explanations of Islamic belief and practice (influenced in part by Shia Islam, but more particularly by Sufism) unsettled mainstream Muslim thinkers, and has led to the persecution of Ahmaddiya Muslims in many predominantly Muslim nation states ever since. As part of its effort to revive a caring and compassionate Islam, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continues to spread Ahmad’s teachings of moderation and restraint in the face of bitter opposition from groups within the Muslim world.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Similarly, the Ahmaddiya Muslim Community is one of only a few Islamic organisations to endorse a separation of mosque and state. Over a century ago, Ahmad taught his followers to protect the sanctity of both religion and government by becoming righteous souls as well as loyal citizens. He cautioned against irrational interpretations of qur’anic pronouncements and misapplications of Islamic law. He voiced concern about protecting the rights of all God’s/Allah’s creatures. Today, the community continues to endorse universal human rights and the protection of religious and other minorities. It champions the empowerment and education of women. Its members are among the most law-abiding, educated and engaged Muslims in the world.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the foremost Islamic organisation with a single central spiritual leader. Over a century ago, Ahmad reminded his followers of God’s/Allah’s promise to safeguard the message of Islam through “khalifat” (the spiritual institution of successorship to prophethood). The community believes that only spiritual successorship can uphold the true values of Islam and unite humanity. Five spiritual leaders have succeeded Ahmad since his death in 1908. The fifth and current spiritual head, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, resides in the UK. Under the leadership of its spiritual successors, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has built thousands of mosques, hundreds of schools and over thirty hospitals. It has translated the Qur’an into over seventy languages. It propagates what it calls “the true teachings of Islam” and a message of peace and tolerance through a twenty-four hour satellite television channel (MTA), the internet (alislam.org) and print (Islam International Publications). It has been at the forefront of worldwide disaster relief through an independent charitable organisation called Humanity First.

We are lucky in North-East England to have the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community formally constituted within our midst. Nasir Mosque is the first purpose-built mosque in Hartlepool. Located on Brougham Terrace, the mosque was built by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and inaugurated in 2005 by Mirza Masroor Ahmad himself. The mosque participates in several local community events and provides regular services for the wider community.

During the ceremony marking the official opening of the mosque, town dignitaries such as the Hartlepool MP, Iain Wright, and Hartlepool Borough Council’s chief executive, Paul Walker, were in attendance. As a gesture of solidarity with the non-Ahmadiyya community, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, the main organisation behind the project, donated about £20,000 to local charities and causes, including Hartlepool and District Hospice, Butterwick Children’s Hospice and Brougham Primary School.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool, United Kingdom