Religions — but don’t pick the ugly one.
is sometimes claimed by Muslims that Islam is Christianity’s sister
religion, and that Islam, coming later on the scene, updates and replaces
it. It is logical that
Christians should become Muslims, their argument runs.
Both are religions of peace, and the teachings of Jesus are
incorporated in the Qur’an. Jesus
is a great man in the Qur’an. He is highly regarded.
is this true? Let us look at
to start off with, Jesus himself didn’t start a new religion.
He was a teacher. He
taught in the language and custom of his hearers; that is to say, a
contemporary Jewish context. At
a personal level his teaching was practical, simple, and, even now,
modern. Examine yourself;
suspend judgment; don’t put others into categories; act peacefully —
these are examples. With
regard to the community his teaching must have been revolutionary.
God is not a kind of summit-stone on a pyramid of religious Law; he
is to be found within ourselves. Our
approach to God is not material, and therefore should not be applied to
the material world. A
religious state is not a possible state of affairs.
seems to sense the danger of abstract nouns, and often tries to avoid
them, turning a question back on the questioner.
When he is asked: ‘Are you the Son of God?’ he replies:
‘That’s what you say.’ He is aware of the danger of assigning a
quality by invoking a name. If
you say the word ‘God’ to me, he infers, you are making an
abstraction. The word
‘Father’ is a word we can understand:
I am the Son of Man. This
distrust of abstract nouns is very clear.
It seems to be the guiding principle behind his choice of the
parable form. Jesus doesn’t like revealing ‘Truth’. He likes telling stories which illuminate the living of a
was also a mystic. He
reveals this side of himself when
he is speaking to a group of people close to him and who know the way in
which he thinks. It is quite
clear that he regards all things as being interconnected.
When he considers nature, he speaks of it almost in terms of a
consciousness looking at itself. Everything
is itself, but is also, in some deep way, part of a great totality. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ It is the same
teaching contained in the Hindu Upanishads.
Literality is only one way of expressing something.
teachings of Jesus were, ironically, turned into a state religion which,
for most of its history, ignored those very teachings. Indeed, private
reading of them was forbidden to the ordinary layman.
The Church became the very thing against which Jesus had warned: a
pyramid of religious doctrine with an invented Christ as the summit-stone.
It behaved with great barbarity.
the western world has become more secular, Christianity has been able to
adapt. Its inner core — the
teachings of Jesus, independent of time and place — is a part of the
world wisdom literature. There
is even speculation that the teaching ascribed to ‘Jesus’ is in fact
the teaching of no one man, but a compilation of the words of many.
That doesn’t matter. (It
was similarly held that one of the great books of China, the Tao Te Ching,
was written by an old sage, Lao Tzu, at the request of the Gatekeeper, as
he left the kingdom. This is
a lovely fable of its origins within an allegory of death.
The book is almost certainly a compilation.
That doesn’t matter either.)
are fortunate today, at least in the West.
We have the freedom to read the wisdom of the present and the past
wherever we may find it. We
don’t need to be shackled to a belief system in order to satisfy the
commands of a jealous god. We
don’t need to interpret the world under the yoke of the past. We don’t
really understand yet how free we are.
let us look at the Qur’an, the text of Islam.
Surely we find the same metaphysical depth in this as we find in
the Gospels, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching.
that we did. When we look at
the Qur’an we are looking at a text which is, we are told, divine not in
inspiration but in every single literal word.
It is as God spoke it, via an angel, into Muhammad’s ear.
Its Truth is here and now. Marmaduke
Pickthall, enthralled by its poetry, made an
translation in 1930. He said
that the beauty and poetry of the original could not be translated. Other translators attempted the same task.
Actually, the translations differ only in minor respects.
Islam was, from the very start, an attempt to found a religion on the
evolving text of the Qur’an. And
so it has been since. The
newcomer to the Qur’an, not knowing what to expect, can approach the
text with the following options: a) believing that it is what it says it
is, that is, the direct Word of God: b) suspending disbelief to allow any
evidence of its divinity to emerge: c) believing that it is what it says
it is not; that is, the writing of a man.
was very interested in Islam. I
thought to myself, this is a world apart from materialism and nationalism.
Accordingly, I began to read the Qur’an. I took the second approach; that of suspending disbelief to
let any evidence of a divine authorship appear.
When I had finished I was thoroughly convinced that it was a
humanly written book. What
convinced me? Enough has been
said on other pages of its advocacy of violence and its contradiction.
No; what convinced me that it was not of divine origin was that it
changes as the condition of the prophet changes. The divine statement follows the fortunes of the man to whom
it is given, as a cart follows the horse.
This, to me, was the deathblow to any notion of a divine
inspiration, let alone a divine authorship.
begins to read critically once one is sure that it is a human text. One begins to see the strategy of its construction very
clearly: the past is roped in to confirm the divine authorship.
Prophets (including Jesus) are drawn in to support the Final
Prophet’s claim. The pre-muslim
biblical past becomes (retrospectively) muslim.
And then there are those mysterious verses, now expunged but
well-documented long before Rushdie’s novel, which allowed an approach
to Allah via local gods. This
is regarded as the ultimate anathema in Islam. (Presumably they were
written when Mohammad was in a weak position, their purpose being to
propitiate. When he was
stronger, and the local gods extirpated, these verses could be written
question comes to mind: this is; why does this text wish to appear to be
the divine word? I don’t
know the answer to that; perhaps it can be read in the history of Islam.
history of Islam is one of rapid imperial expansion, a so-called ‘golden
age’ in which the wealth of conquered cultures was digested, and then a
slow stagnation which continues to this day.
Qur’an teaches that it is itself a complete guide to life — religious
and secular — under servitude to God; it also teaches the manner in
which this servitude should be conducted.
From this has grown an immense literature which is part commentary
and part jurisprudence; it allows judgments on what is lawful and what is
unlawful, on what is Islamic and what is unIslamic.
An outsider finds this body of religious/legal knowledge rather
eerie; it has the semblance of a complete and integrated structure, but at
its heart it is empty. Paradoxically,
in that emptiness within the vortex of commentary, one can find instances
of true piety.
have seen that Christianity, as a religion, is an accretion upon (and
against) the teachings of Jesus. These
stand when the religion fails. Secularization,
contrary to superficial expectation, actually allows the humanity of the
teachings of Jesus to be perceived more clearly.
What of Islam?
is different: it began as a religion.
Religion is its all. (The
very word religion means to bind back, or to bind again.) If
one removed the religion from it, very little would be left.
It has no real metaphysical depth beyond its religious context. History may be a guide.
When the slowly-crumbling Ottoman Empire drew to its end, Kamal
Attaturk abolished the Caliphate and founded a civil state. What this example means for the future remains to be seen.
teachings of Jesus belong not to Christianity alone but to the world
corpus of philosophical literature, free of the need for belief and common
is a religion and, keeping truth with itself, would find itself incapable
of being anything other than a religion.
It is founded on the very mind-set of belief.
Its name, Islam, means, literally, subjection: to be thrown under.
It describes the ideal state, which exists between a believer and
God. The idea that it is
derived from the word ‘peace’ is untrue. Converts to it seek its
certainty and its way of life. Apostates
from it seek freedom from it. Islam
is only distantly related to Christianity.
It does not fulfil or supersede it.
That is an untruth put about to win converts.
we should look at the age in which we are.
In the West, we have remarkable freedom.
This is relatively new. Fifty
years ago, in the United States, a man convicted of homosexuality could be
forced to undergo brain surgery. In
the 1930’s, in Great Britain, a (working class) woman could be sent to a
mental hospital for life for having an illegitimate child.
The power of the Church was broken in Ireland only recently, and
even now women seeking abortion after rape have to travel abroad. So freedom is a new thing.
We have to learn to live with it.
In the absence of an external system of discipline — which is a
major part of any religion — the art of self-discipline has to be
learnt. This may take
realities have to be lived, and, where there is no hope of heaven and no
fear of hell, different aspirations have to be sought; different fears
have to be understood.
“I must live by my
own system or be enslaved by that of another man.” —William Blake