Tag Archives: Sufism

The BJP in India: how religion and politics create a toxic mix.

The last two posts can be interpreted as an examination of the disadvantages of monotheism and the advantages of polytheism. However, in recent years Hinduism, a religion often thought to be polytheistic, has assumed some unpleasant characteristics on the back of the BJP’s rise to political power in India. What follows are quotes from an excellent “London Review of Books” article by Amit Chaudhuri (the article appeared in the 17.12.15 edition of the “Review”). On the basis of the quotes below, I am inclined to conclude that religion must be completely divorced from politics. Why? Because, when political parties shaped by religion secure political power, almost everyone suffers, even those who subscribe to the religion wielding the political power.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

India always had, and still has, a huge amount going for it… For me, in many ways, India is the most exciting and stimulating country to be in. But the BJP… seems to be bad for whatever it is that makes this country so attractive… For the first time since independence, India feels unlivable in, not just for minorities under assault but for large swathes of the population.

The BJP is a deeply polarising party… The BJP thrives (as does any right-wing group) on division. The BJP polarises not only Hindus and Muslims (and Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists); it also polarises Hindus.

Many of us have forgotten… what Hinduism meant even forty years ago. But even those of us who aren’t religious are often products of that amorphous older definition. Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally. This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a “proper” religion into a kind of legitimacy… But it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.

Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality and making it a “proper” religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. “Intolerance” is the Indian press’s term for the regime of threats and violence toward beef-eaters, writers, “foreigners”, “foreign” organisations (like Greenpeace) and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, “intolerance” is “the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings”. The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable and is tone deaf to figurative language…

(The BJP has been shaped by) the Renaissance and Enlightenment… (but) in a weirdly distorted form… (and) its secretive cultural-militant wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The BJP’s violence toward Islam emanates from ignorance, but so does its violence toward Hinduism. It has ignored or glossed over Hinduism’s, and India’s, many anti-Brahminical, anti-absolutist spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and the bhakti movement…

A central part of the (Bhagavad) Gita is its wariness of mere scriptural observance, as it lays out its scepticism of its precursor text, the Vedas… Perhaps the Gita should be made compulsory reading – not for the nation but for the BJP and its fringe groups…

(During his 2015 visit to the UK, Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi) made one direct reference to Islam: “Had Islam embraced Sufism, it would not have had to resort to the gun.” (In one of the chilling coincidences that now seem to make up our world, Muslim gunmen in Paris were shooting down people out for the night at around the same time Modi said these words.) It was a stunning statement: the BJP has been busily suppressing Hindu pluralism – the legacy of the bhakti movement – just as Wahhabi Islam has suppressed heterodox forms such as Sufism. You could call the BJP’s project a kind of Wahhabi Hinduism: it is intent on defining a single power centre, where before there was none, and one interpretation, where before there were many. It took a few decades of funding and support from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabi Islam to become the minatory force it is today, and something similar could plausibly be achieved with Hinduism. At the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, women were recently denied entry unless they were wearing that “ancient” Hindu apparel, the sari – a sign that the BJP’s influence might turn a secular form of dress into a religious one, like the hijab. The party has already appropriated the colour of renunciation, saffron, as a ubiquitous political signifier.

On 30th August (2015), the literary scholar M. M. Kalburgi was shot by two young men pretending to be students, after he had allegedly made offensive remarks about idol worship. Men like his killers are now in abundant supply in India. They manufacture abuse on social media against anyone faintly critical of Modi; they instruct those who disagree with them to migrate to Pakistan; they issue death threats; they kill.

Modi is a man who makes careful use of silence… Though he is identified with speechmaking, he’s silent on key issues. His silence is interpreted as a green light by those who commit violence in his name. When the soft-spoken, mumbling Prime Minister Manomohan Singh kept resolutely quite about his Congress government’s rampant corruption, Modi’s deputy, Amit Shah, mocked him for being a mauni baba – a holy man who’s taken a vow of silence. Yet Modi has been practising being a mauni baba in a much more invidious way.

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

(In the 19th century, intellectuals in India were working toward a position in which) Hindu iconography and mythology… would be the creative property of all – Hindus, Muslims, non-believers, atheists… and not just of (Hindu) devotees. It is the BJP’s intent that all this be removed from the secular domain…

I believe that the intimidation Indians face almost daily now, to do with free speech, can only be addressed in the long run by clarity about our constitutional guarantees. Perhaps the Indian constitution, unlike the American one, puts certain limits on free speech, but I can’t believe those limits necessitated the pulping last year of all the copies in India of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: an alternative history” and yet protect the hate speech of various BJP ministers or far right parties like the Shiv Sena and the Mahanirman Sena…

The erosion of free speech in India began long ago, under the Congress, with the banning of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, an action, extraordinarily, still unchallenged in court. That the BJP won’t lift this ban, despite the fact that it never loses a chance to undermine Muslims, is a sign of its own investment in the culture and ethos of prohibition. The erosion I’m talking about isn’t only to do with religion and literature: its primary aim is the suppression of political dissent…

You see this in West Bengal… which boasts… an exemplary tolerance of minorities, though it’s fiercely punitive toward any form of free speech that is considers oppositional… In 2007, the… government expelled the Bangladeshi writer, exile and critic of Islam Taslima Nasreen from Calcutta, where she lived, after she came under attack from orthodox Muslims.

Are state and central authorities in India actually constitutionally empowered to do what they are doing? If we don’t know the answer now, when will we?

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

28.6.15.

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

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

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

28.6.15.

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

30.6.15.

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

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

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

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

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

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

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

30. 6.15.

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

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

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

1.7.15.

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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

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

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

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Yavuzlar, Turkey

3.7.15.

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

4.7.15.

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

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

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

5.7.15.

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

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

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

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

6.7.15.

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

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

7.7.15.

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

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (women)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played varied and significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most religions? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men of course) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on that recognition. She is therefore the recipient of important theological information. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Marta of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore confirm that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely confirm that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? And if not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be challenged yesterday. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated 14 million people – yes, 14 million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?