Reason and passion revisited

August 14, 2009 at 11:33 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, religious experiences)

I am attending a few talks at a mosque, which are held in the main prayer hall while men come and go to offer prayers in the other side of the hall, their audible invocations occasionally echoing across the high-ceilinged room. It’s a remarkably inviting atmosphere.

The one I’ve been particularly waiting for, about Jesus, was delivered by British Catholic-priest-turned-Muslim, Idris Tawfiq. What an opportunity!

I found him to be a skilled speaker and a warm, likeable person. He started by stressing that he had no axe to grind about the Church, but intended merely to reflect on his own journey towards Muslim belief. He went on to describe Islam as being not a religion founded by a historical figure called Muhammad, but a natural state of submission to God which has found expression in a variety of ways over the ages. This is one of my favourite things about Islam – so beautiful. In fact if I was sure that was all Islam was, I would embrace it right now. Later, in response to a question about the status of faiths outside the Abrahamic traditions, he was more generous than I’ve heard many people of the Abrahamic faiths be. He said that while belief in more than one God is wrong, he feels that God does speak to people and any goodness in their traditions has to be from God.

Regarding Jesus, he discussed how the Biblical account of what transpired in Eden differs from the Quranic account in that God did not forgive Adam and Eve, and so people have been trying to atone for their sins ever since. This culminated in the belief in a superhuman act of salvation. That was interesting but I’m not sure the difference is so stark, in practice. He then delved into the history of Christianity and of gospel-writing, which he dealt with very diplomatically and generously, but ultimately concluded that the belief in the divinity of Jesus arose out of an exaggerated love for him by his followers and not out of the teachings of Jesus himself. This mirrors what I happened to read last night in “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway (which someone lent me and so far, is a great read, a sort of review of Biblical scholarship).

This sort of continues my prior questioning on how relevant history is. I was veering towards the notion that we can discern truth and falsehood without recourse to history. But history is also convincing. One of the slightly aggressive Christian questioners in the audience (there were a few) asserted that faith and the Holy Spirit are what verify Christian belief. This reliance on feeling cannot be argued with, which is precisely what the speaker said in response. But clearly, feeling leads different people to different conclusions. So perhaps history and reason has to constrain feeling, to some extent. Truth may be found in the tension between reason and passion.

My enchantment with the idea of a primordial belief and way of being is a result of my reason and my feeling. And what is primordial to me from my early memory is a belief in God and a belief that God and goodness are linked. A belief that praying to God makes you a better person. That is all I have to hold onto. Whether I choose to express it in terms of redemption through faith, or in terms of returning to the Source, almost doesn’t make any difference.

Lately I have been wondering whether I should primarily regard this intrinsic belief as my religion, rather than focusing my efforts on picking a religion from a range of pre-set options. Perhaps I should even identify myself as Muslim on the basis that true Islam (in the generic sense) describes what I believe in pretty well, and practical Islam (the religion) along with other faiths are an attempt to realise true Islam. There is no need to choose between Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because elements have been preserved from all revelations and it is all good. Reason and feeling together show us what is good in amongst what is artificial or distorted by history.

Does this mean I am actually starting to trust myself?? 😀



  1. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Wow, the speaker sounds amazing! And his story is so interesting. A nice break from Muslims who go on and on about the infidel Jews & Christians and how they need to be taught a lesson or whatever.

    The events program looked amazing – I wish I could be there right now!!

    And yay on the trusting yourself bit 😀

    • Sarah said,

      I know, it’s fantastic. I am so lucky to have the chance to indulge my interest in religion in a real life setting for a change (as opposed to the web, and books). To meet and hear from real people in the flesh on these subjects has been almost surreal.

  2. Candice said,

    What you described at the end is pretty much how I feel about Islam. I ended up deciding to convert and consider myself Muslim after figuring out that I want to be a submitter to God, not that I wanted to be like every other person who calls himself Muslim or because I share every one of their beliefs.

    I also agree with the speaker that people who aren’t Muslim and who aren’t part of the Abrahamic religions either are not doomed to Hell and that they are following God in every good thing they do. I think anyone could go to Heaven, no matter what religion they consider themselves…

    • Sarah said,

      Candice: that way of understanding Islam as something simple and universal is so beautiful and appealing.
      It seems though that every religion requires you to belong to it in order to go to heaven… even Islam, in saying that shirk is an unforgiveable sin. Maybe I need to look into that more, maybe it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. After all if a mushrik repents and embraces Islam then surely they are forgiven.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Achelois said,

    “He went on to describe Islam as being not a religion founded by a historical figure called Muhammad, but a natural state of submission to God which has found expression in a variety of ways over the ages.”

    Ah, well, hmm 🙂 You know I disagree with this. Jews were submitters to one God before Muslims and so were Christians and if one reads the Quran one realises that even Pagans had submitted to The God but in association with other gods – if someone asked them who brings down the rain, they would say Allah. They realised there was a higher God and they invoked Him and prayed to Him and called Him Allah.

    Islam was religious movement. It was created. Why would there be a need of a new religion if submission is a natural state of a human being? And Islam went through a lot of phases, episodes and name changes before it was established as Islam. Early Muslim did not call themselves submitters nor did they call their movement Islam. Saying otherwise doesn’t make it true. I feel bad that Muslims themselves do not give credit to Muhammad for starting something so unique and influential – there is always a story that takes the focus away from the founder of the religion.

    Muhammad started the religion of Islam. Muslims pray salah because he prayed like that. They do Hajj because he did it like that. They fast because he fasted. There is no need for al alternate story. He should be given full credit for all of it.

    End of speech 😀

    • Wrestling said,

      Yes, Karen Armstrong blew that theory out of the water for me. There is no such thing as a primordial belief or a natural monotheism. The history of religious thought is a big bowl of spaghetti.

      Natural submission is a nicer and more elegant story than Muhammad’s though, which is obviously why I loved it.

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