An attempt by a British Muslim to wriggle out of what the Koran says
Followed by a mocking comment from a reader:
Some words are so loaded with emotion and historic content that it becomes almost impossible to use them in an objective way for initiating a debate or public discussion. These words trigger off gut reactions that not only drown sensible discussion but subsume all other voices. "Sharia", what is known as Islamic law, is such a word. In many western minds, it conjures up images of brutality and women's oppression. In certain Muslim quarters, it throws up visions of a Divine utopia. The two images clash and result is a great deal of heat but no enlightenment.
This is what I think happened with Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture, Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective. Rowan Williams was trying to raise the important issue of religious conscience in a secular state and exploring how it can play a positive role in public space. I think the Archbishop made a basic mistake by focussing on sharia, with all its multiple internal and external problems - he could have illustrated his notion of "interactive pluralism" quite easily with other examples.
By using sharia as the basis of his lecture, he allowed the demons of western perception of Islam out of the bottle and ended up being thoroughly demonised himself. My own reading is that the import of Archbishop's lecture lies elsewhere: with the debate within the Anglican church about gay clergy, female bishops, and the issues of human fertilisation and embryology. He used sharia as a distraction and thus failed to promote a proper public debate on issues that rally mattered to him and his church. As such, the reaction to the Archbishop's comments have little to do with what he said. They have largely been, with few exceptions, about attacking Muslims, creating a full-scale Islamophobic moral panic: just look at the headlines.
I will have something to say about the relationship between sharia and the Qur'an in a future blog. But here I would like to point out that the Qur'an itself often produces similar reactions in certain individuals and communities. Just as sharia conjures up ready-made images, so the Qur'an produces automatic gut reactions. This is not surprising as the Qur'an, like any text, is not totally self-explanatory and any understanding of the text and its meaning depends on the intellectual, religious and cultural horizon of the reader.
A number of correspondents have rebuked me for not expressing doubts constantly, for not throwing scorn at certain verses, for not berating some of the teachings of the Qur'an. In other words, I have not conjured up their favourite stereotypes, caricatures and latent images of the Qur'an. Peitha, for example, excuses me of not having any doubts about what I am reading - this despite endless discussion about doubt on this blog. Apparently, I am not "a genuine individual tussling with the real problems of the Koran". A "genuine individual", I suspect, will be one who satisfies all the prejudices of such critics. Sorry to disappoint you Peitha but I am not in the business of flaming your prejudices. But I am in the business of explaining - primarily to myself, what the Qur'an could and should mean to Muslims today. I do not have perpetual doubt - if I did it will lead to total paralysis.
But I am in the business of finding new ways to read the Qur'an. And Richard Kimber provides us with one new way: intertextuality. Intertexuality has its origins in literary and critical theory, and hermeneutics, and Kimber uses it skilfully to tease out additional meaning of 2:21-29. I, of course, brought out what I thought was significance; Kimber adds an additional layer. I could describes Kimber's explanation of how the Qur'an combines "defensiveness and defiance" and moves "seamlessly from denouncing nit-picking critics to the more serious offence of those who break God's covenant" as a discovery and a step forward in my spiritual journey. So there!
There is a problem with intertextuality that I think we need to be aware of: In critical theory, the text is regarded as a complete whole, a pure text to be viewed as itself, as Jacques Derrida tells us. Historical context, which is crucial in the interpretations of the Qur'an, thus becomes irrelevant. Now, Kimber, as is evident from his explanation of 2:21-29, does not take this course - but I do think we ought to be aware of the danger. However, the point that as a dense literary text - with different linguistic levels containing pure information as well as literary language - the Qur'an should be analysed with the tools of literary studies (hermeneutics, literary criticism, semantics, linguistics and linguistic science) is well made; and my thanks to Richard for that. In the end, all interpretations of the Qur'an are individual, relative, and time bound. They are limited by shortcomings of the reader. Mine included.
Comment on the above:
There can be few Muslims who dispute that (1) the Qur'an is the word of Allah; (2) Allah is all-knowing and all-powerful.
Given that Allah is all-knowing and all-powerful, we would expect him not to have any communication handicap. The one book that is the flawless word of Allah should be the most easily understood of all books.
And yet just about all "moderate Muslims" such as Ziauddin Sardar seemingly would have us believe that this all-knowing all-powerful Allah does indeed have a communication handicap. That to the extent that huge numbers of people have grossly misunderstood his clearly peaceful message and incorrectly engaged in wanton violent jihad as a result. And that only by some extraordinary interpretative process can I and others see in the Qur'an the tolerant peaceful message that Allah is telling us.
Please, Allah, given that you are so all-knowing and all-powerful, why don't you cut out the complex problematic process of Messenger and ancient Arabic and and just tell us all directly in our own languages??? Or could it be that all this scholarship(??) about interpretation is no more than the mother of all whitewashes???
And could it be that the Qu'ran was in reality the words of a very human author, the military leader whose military activities are repeatedly mentioned therein. That's very much what it looks like to me and many others. The Qur'an is unmistakeably nothing other than the authentic words of that famous man, with Allah nowhere on the scene. You couldn't fake it if you tried.
The West's Long Tradition of Exalting Non-Western Cultures
Sometimes to understand one's own era you have to immerse yourself in another. I pick up my copy of Paul Edmonds' Peacocks and Pagodas as an example. This - though you've probably never heard of it - seems the best-regarded book ever written on the people and society of Burma. You may know it as Myanmar. What could be more esoteric, and yet profoundly revealing, about much broader issues?
My copy is a first edition from 1924 and in its long life and travels it once belonged to T.N. Jayavelu, Antiquarian Bookseller of Choolai, Madras, India. But now it resides on a low rickety table in Tel Aviv, at the top of the pile of books I am reading. My text for today's sermon comes from the first three pages only. We are nowadays used to the notion - or at least used to having it pounded into us - that Westerners were historically racist and imperialist, only recently having become enlightened in the age of "political correctness."
And, to paraphrase the Rudyard Kipling poem (and well-known song) about the road to Mandalay, it suddenly dawns on you like thunder that the contemporary conventional wisdom about how people in the West thought about the rest of the world just isn't true.
In fact, precisely because most of the West has long been characterized by freedom of speech, democracy, and Enlightenment values, there has always been debate about any shortcomings of our own societies or countries, along with a willingness to recognize the values of others. For example, anti-slavery views were powerful in the pre-1861 north (even more proportionally so in England, which fought against slavery elsewhere), while there was tremendous sympathy for those now called Native Americans. One is welcome to cheer on the "good guys" of past history but not to pretend that American or Western history is a succession of bad guys.
Indeed, there has always been a strong strain in Western civilization - certainly stronger than anywhere else - which wanted to understand and did appreciate other cultures. Thus, Edmonds, writing at the height of the British Empire, states at the outset: The Englishman believes that wealth is better than happiness, or at least synonymous with it. The [Burmese] knows that happiness is better than wealth.
His starting point, then, is that the Burmese are superior. If the European claims that the Burmese are "lazy and shiftless," Edmonds responds that their "reasonable thriftlessness" is a virtue because they give charity, build religious buildings, or pay for festivals. "In consequence there is in Burma no such growing gulf between rich and poor, with all its resultant misery and discontent, as there is in England and America."
Nowadays, when no remark is safe from being distorted, a silly (probably academic) critic would see this as patronizing the Burmese. Yet there is a long Western tradition - Jean-Jacques Rousseau was just one of many belonging to it; Rudyard Kipling, too - of viewing other civilizations as superior to the West. Or, at least, the West could learn some valuable lessons from them. This easily ascertainable fact has been buried in the age of Edward Said, who has persuaded people that everything is on the other side.
But there is also a problem in Edmonds' analysis. For if people do not put a high priority on achieving wealth (with the well-known negative fallout from that world view), they are unlikely to achieve higher living standards, better technology, and other things that also produce a lot of blessings. Accepting the validity and indigenous nature of non-Western societies also means understanding that their lack of wealth and progress are due to those very characteristics and not to the ravages of Western imperialism. Which brings us to page three, where Edmonds writes, after noting the rise of a Burmese nationalist movement:
Whether the Burmese are capable of governing the country themselves with a parliament chosen by popular vote is a very doubtful question. Educated Burmese with whom I have talked say that they can. The English residents, almost to a man, say that they cannot.
Nowadays, one would instantly characterize this as a bigoted imperialistic statement. Yet to examine Burma over the last half-century would bear out the fact that the English residents were right. Even if there is no theoretical justification for their belief, in practice that is precisely what happened. Of course, George Orwell, in his book on Burma, showed the British could be beastly there, though the fact that most of the nationalist movement in World War Two became agents of Japanese imperialism - which treated their people worse - doesn't make them any better. But, again, this was a long time ago.
Thus, there are few countries where Western intervention or even involvement has been less pronounced than in Burma during the last half-century. Consequently, it should be very hard - though no doubt there are many willing to try among believers in the rather silly ideology that dominates so much of Western intellectual life and too much of academic discourse - to pin this one on the West. The local dictatorship is pretty corrupt, at times brutal, and has wacky economic theories along with a system that seems - like many Third World counterparts - based on Western leftist and communist doctrines.
More than twenty years ago, when I wrote an analysis of Third World dictatorships in terms of their internal evolution - Modern Dictators - a reviewer disallowed all my points (naturally without explaining them to the readership) by explaining that all the dictatorships were due to the West, so why bother analyzing them?
Even if Western influence is responsible for the specific person in power, of course, the reason for the system as a whole should be quite another matter. People, with some exceptions, are largely responsible for the course of their own histories; local political cultures are mainly the source for their own governmental systems.
At the same time, while the West may suffer from ignorance, its thinking and acting sectors certainly spend a lot of time trying to do better. What Edmonds says on page three of his book is the refrain of thousands of university classes, books, lectures, and documentaries. Indeed, if this huge volume of empathetic and explanatory work had any effect, its complaint could hardly be true:
The average Englishman or American is slow to realize that an outlook different from his own is even possible; to bring him to see life through Oriental eyes, though ever so dimply, is an achievement which fully justifies a certain amount of exaggeration.
Certainly, two hundred years of effort at trying to raise this average must have had some effect, given the fact that much of Western academia, journalism, and literature have been engaged in a continuous effort in that direction for a heck of a long time.
Provincialism and arrogance can be found in every country, society, and civilization. One might merely note the U.S. senator of a half-century ago who voiced the hope that China might rise up and up to reach the heights of his native Kansas City. Of course, in saying this, the very narrow-minded, jingoistic politician was also expressing the rather non-racist belief that the Chinese were equal human beings and capable of achieving anything.
Western civilization isn't so bad. It keeps trying to understand others and give them a fair shake, which is more than can be said for many of the others.
Sharia in Malaysia
I wonder whether the Archbishop of Canterbury has heard of Lina Joy? Since Rowan Williams made his extraordinary intervention I have been in correspondence with Malaysians with direct experience of living under a parallel system of state and Sharia.
There have been numerous disputes concerning the correct courts to be used in different cases. One of the most famous controversies concerns Lina Joy. Actually that's only her name now, her Christian name. Her birth name is Azlina Jailani, and she was born a Muslim. In 1981 Lina Joy became a Christian and she is trying to have herself declared as such on her identity card, her MyKad. One reason is that she wishes to marry her Christian boyfriend and it is illegal for her to do this while she remains classified as a Muslim. However her attempts to have her conversion recognised have failed. The civil courts, and finally the highest court - the Federal court - have ruled that she can't decide on her religion for herself. She has to to be given approval by the Islamic courts. Which, of course, is not forthcoming. As the decision was announced last May, outside the federal courts a crowd chanted Allahu Akhbar.
This is not the only type of case, by any means, where the joint jurisdiction poses fundamental problems of human rights. Another type concerns what is known as body snatching. The conversion of non-Muslims near death without the knowledge of their families has caused fierce rows. One reason, according to my correspondents, is that conversion changes the destination of any inheritance with Islamic courts deciding and inherited assets flowing only to Muslim relatives or the community.
Divorce battles raise similar questions. Conversion by the father in the run-up to a divorce gives him crucial advantages - he gets custody, turns the children into Muslims and prevents his wife using the civil courts. Running a dual court system produces extraordinary practical difficulties and the opportunity for human rights abuses. Just ask the campaigners in Malaysia.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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