Mormonism documentary

June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Christianity, is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, religious experiences)

I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.

The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:

“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”

“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”

It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.

Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.

The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?

Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.

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Belief is not a choice

April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm (gender issues, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences)

I was sorting through our possessions and I came across a few photos that reminded me, in a very immediate, emotional way, of wanting to be a Muslim. Here is one of them; one which doesn’t identify the people. It is of one of my husband’s lifelong friends, with his Scottish convert wife and their newborn first child in a pushchair.

I don’t know if I can even explain what it makes me feel. It just looks like a family I would want to be in.

It’s probably partly the traditional gender roles that her dress implies. The idea of being protected and provided for, materially and/or in other ways. Also, it seems to invoke a mental picture of a secure family based on moral commitment and not selfish whim; maybe it is also a feeling of a shared spirituality and a common purpose. Much the same feeling that drew me to Christianity. It feels healthy and wholesome. Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband. All of this is totally subjective, of course, and may not reflect reality, but I so rarely write about how I feel or even remember the subjective emotional factors that led me into my journey, and it hit me when I looked at the photos.

Sometimes you have conflicting wants. I wanted religiosity but I also wanted freedom of thought. I wanted peace of mind but I didn’t want simplistic answers. I wanted belonging but I also wanted personal integrity and an honest search for truth. In the end I had to realise that – at least for me – these wants are not compatible, and by the time you realise that, there is no longer any honest choice to be made. I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences, but even if it isn’t, it couldn’t have been any other way. You can’t choose to believe something you don’t believe.

I turn on the TV and I see a 13-year-old girl in A&E (or the ER) with severe alcohol poisoning, constantly throwing up. And for a moment, I wonder if I could happily raise Muslim children after all. But then I think of how I couldn’t even perform the pillars without cognitive dissonance over rules that didn’t make sense, how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.

You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.

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Being married to a Muslim

April 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Islam, personal)

“Blessed are those who yearn for deepening more than escape; who can renounce smugness and be shaken in conscience; who are not afraid to grow in spirit.” (From chapter 8 by John A. Buehrens in “A Chosen Faith”)

His Islam is all tied up with his culture and his identity. It is part of his happy picture of what has made him who he is. What I have lately been inclined to see as literally false and dangerous, he sees as metaphorical, enriching and comfortingly solid.

Maybe I need to start listening to what he is really saying through his language which he calls “Islam”. It is not at all the same thing that I heard when I read the Quran.

But to be perfectly honest, I am tired of being the only one able to do any listening.

And I resent the rigidity in his religio-cultural system. I resent the fact that he could hope I would change, yet couldn’t consider changing himself. I know it’s not his fault, it’s the nature of his religio-culture, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

I resent the fact that our kids would not be allowed to receive Christmas presents and would have to eat halal. I resent the fact that the happy mixed-marriage picture of taking a little from this and a little from that just never applies when Islam is involved. I resent the fact that so many of us have to put ourselves through painful wrestling to accept the rigid religion of our Muslim men.

And if we don’t have kids, I might end up resenting that too.

But if this means separating out our entwined lives, saying goodbye to half of myself, severing the connection to someone who has become family… if this is the upshot of this situation, this resentment… then I need to at least look for an alternative to resentment, before I can walk that difficult path.

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Struggling towards the light: a backwards glance

February 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I always find it interesting to look back over my shoulder every now and then. If we don’t understand or remember how we got to where we are, how can we learn anything?

A few years back I was not really very happy. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that me and work are never going to get along like a house on fire and I am never going to afford a good standard of living (relative to my society’s norms). I felt like a victim and I thought faith was the answer.

I had crashed out of my religious idealism some years before with angry disappointment, and felt unable to surrender to God. The guilt kept me frozen in all this negativity, unable to progress.

It seems I still viewed faith and surrender as a state I needed to get back to. I saw that as still being the ideal. Similarly I saw a career and material success as something that I needed. I was far away from both, but I couldn’t really question either of them. Pressure!

Where did Islam come in? I do remember as early as 2005 I was defending Islam on message boards. So clearly I had warmed up to it a lot even then. It was only a flirtation though – I wasn’t really prepared to let myself question my prior beliefs just yet.

I think it was through blogs that I started to learn more about Islam, and I must have been a lot closer to it by 2008. I went to the mosque exhibition, and a photo of a young woman bundled up in a white garment praying with her husband really touched me. It seemed to portray the wholesome, positive, spiritual life I wanted. I tried fasting Ramadan that year and made it through not even one day, and to make matters worse, watched “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” that evening and was so horrified I didn’t want to fast any more. I continued learning through blogs, though, and we went to my husband’s home country over Christmas-New Year, during which I was more bothered by seeing certain aspects of Islam than I had ever been before. I guess that shows that I was wanting to convert but finding it hard to deal with certain things.

By a year ago, I had already learnt enough to be very discouraged. I had forgotten that. It’s funny to realise how my journey into Islam was more like going round in circles. Obviously I wasn’t going to let it go without investigating it more fully, and that last lap round the track was done through this blog over 2009.

So what was it that was drawing me in? I guess it was just that I saw faith as a state I needed to get back to. More particularly, the rules in Islam attracted me because I was a wounded soul looking for a system that would protect me. It seemed it would give me the dignity I had not had before when self-sacrifice was my ideal. Also, the cleaner theology appealed to me.

I started this blog with the intention of making a concerted effort to sort out my spiritual life and work out the truth as best I could. The beauty of it is, I have worked through a lot of the stuff I was stuck on for years. I have come to terms with my loss of certainty. I have stopped burying my head in the sand and started being honest with myself. I have opened the curtain and let the light of day shine into my life, banishing all those fears that thrive in darkness. For that alone, this process has been immensely worthwhile.

And so if you ever wonder why I am intent on questioning religion to the point that I risk destroying it, know this: religion has wreaked a lot of havoc in my life. I am much better off where I am today. The truth really has set me free. In the past, when I wrote questioning posts, I got comments that said things like “I hope you find what you need in your life”. The irony is that questioning and doubting were exactly what I needed. Some people may still look at me as needing enlightenment… and I may look right back at them the same way.

Faith did not cure my victim mentality in the end; time did. Humans are naturally resilient and if you are prepared to ask searching questions, a lot of ills do sort themselves out.

The need for faith as well as the need for material success – the two things I thought I needed before I started out on this journey – are now up for question. Am I doing myself a disservice by thinking that I need to believe in God, or that the world is good, or that there is a purpose to life? Am I just clinging to faith like a mother’s apron-strings? What am I still looking for?

I think my searching and reading is now motivated purely by interest. I certainly haven’t arrived at any particular belief, so there is plenty I could think about. I am startled, though, by how frantic it is. I want to learn more and more, I want to read the holy books of all religions, I want to immerse myself in their wisdom… it’s like the whole world has opened up and I can’t wait to see all of it!

I think, as well, that a year of intense learning and trying to come to a belief has formed a habit. I think I will try to ease off the pace a little bit. 😉

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Radicalism and restricted loyalty

February 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, moral issues, society)

This week there was a TV programme about young British Muslims being radicalised… and a programme about a young white guy being radicalised into the BNP (an extreme, racist political party). The similarity between the two was striking. The pattern seems to be that they are looking for a place to belong, and people welcome them into that radical club and make them feel that sense of validation and belonging that they need.

I think I can understand radicalisation; after all, it is sort of what happened to me as an undergrad. I was seduced by an all-encompassing world view, a belief system that really gave me something to live for. For whatever reason, a lot of the younger generation need that in a way that their parents didn’t.

What I understood from the programme about radical Islam is that a lot of the parents of these young guys, who immigrated to Britain and brought a moderate Islam with them, don’t recognise that their offspring are believing quite differently from themselves. They are shocked when someone in their community is charged with supporting terrorism, and when it’s proved that he didn’t do anything, they are all “we knew you weren’t a terrorist, you were always a good lad, you have been badly treated by the police” – not realising that he supports terrorism even if he was never going to do anything. They seem to have their heads in the sand about it. This is worrying.

Militant Islam and the BNP are both finding support because of grievances that people have. People are finding meaning in these ideologies that is drawing them in. The BNP ideology is not based on any religious world view, so we can safely say that it is not religion that is the underlying cause in either case.

But being religious doesn’t help. The notion of the ummah encourages people to get worked up about Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world and to demonise the non-Muslims that are perceived to be to blame. It creates “The Other”. And when that Other is your neighbour, who might be politically liberal and strongly supporting your right to practice your religion in this country, and yet you have no loyalty to that neighbour because they are not part of your ummah… I find that very offensive. It’s the epitome of tribalism and it stinks.

When you can’t even wish your Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas, because it amounts to congratulating the kuffar on their festivals of shirk, then I don’t think you deserve the automatic right to build minarets in the country, or the automatic right to wear your niqab in the street. Pluralism is a game we all have to play with the same commitment to goodwill.

In such a globalised world, I feel we need to move beyond tribalistic or racialistic notions of loyalty. We need to begin to see everyone as our neighbour, our brother, our sister. It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s going down otherwise, isn’t it? I think we need to criticise when wrong is being done. We need to stand up against bullies in the world who are oppressing people. Respect doesn’t mean infinite tolerance. But we need to stop demonising each other and start to try and understand – see beyond our superficial prejudices which are only reinforced and deepened by our radical ideologies. We need to sympathise with the pain inside the radical Muslim and the BNP supporter.

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No God But God – Reza Aslan

February 13, 2010 at 11:31 am (God, Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.

The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.

“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)

It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.

Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.

This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.

“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)

Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.

There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.

Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:

“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)

Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!

Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:

“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)

That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.

I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.

“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)

Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!

There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.

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Forbidding oneself from lawful things

February 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Islam, moral issues, why I didn't convert to Islam)

As promised, I start off with a…


Surah 66 “At-Tahrim” (1) O PROPHET! Why dost thou, out of a desire to please [one or another of] thy wives, impose [on thyself] a prohibition of something that God has made lawful to thee? But God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace: (2) God has already enjoined upon you [O believers] the breaking and expiation of [such of] your oaths [as may run counter to what is right and just]: for, God is your Lord Supreme, and He alone is all-knowing, truly wise.

I don’t believe swearing off honey would be a serious enough thing to warrant these verses.

Moreover, I think the criticism is a red herring, deflecting attention from the real wrongdoing here, which by some accounts had everything to do with sexual passions and nothing to do with honey. It is actually very clever – have a verse criticise you for something extremely minor, and people might overlook the bigger wrong. And how do I know it was a wrongdoing (aside from my own personal opinion about it)? – a person only swears off something (or someone) if they feel guilty about it.

And just what is so wrong with forbidding yourself something that is lawful? Does that mean we can’t go on diets, or give up coffee?

Or was the pleasing of one’s wife (by imposing restrictions on oneself) the thing that is being criticised here? So men who are inclined to think twice about taking a second wife for the sake of keeping the first wife happy, for example, should snap out of that and just take what’s lawful to them?


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Rules and authority (after hadiths poll)

January 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm (Islam)

I felt I should say something following the poll I made a few posts ago on hadiths, and why they add to the Quran’s instructions. Thank you to everyone who answered, it was very interesting to survey people’s opinions. The poll is open indefinitely, so if you haven’t already answered, feel free to!

The most popular answer at this point is that God was considered to be revealing things to Muhammad besides what is in the Quran. This is not really a surprise, since mainstream Islam and shariah law is based on this premise. But all around the blogosphere, I see people saying that the Quran is the word of God and hadiths are the word of man and the two cannot be compared. I have said this myself.

I just thought it was interesting that so many of us seem to naturally assume that the Quran would have more weight, when in fact this is not really the mainstream position, and it seems likely that it was not the original belief of the early Muslims either – they probably accepted divine commands from the mouth of Muhammad. The idea of divine scripture being central to everything, like a “life manual”, is basically the Protestant attitude to the Bible, and I wonder if this has pervaded our consciousness in western culture and caused us to see the Quran this way.

Of course there are more issues about authenticity when it comes to hadiths, as compared to the Quran. And the Quran was certainly treated differently than the sayings of Muhammad. But how was it viewed by the early Muslims? Was it used the same way Protestants use the Bible – as a life manual; or was it a much more mystical entity, recited in prayer and revered as a part of the mystery of God? Where did actually they take their authority from on matters of ritual, law, behaviour…? These are questions I think need to be asked rather than taking the liberty of making assumptions.

Unless, of course, history doesn’t matter and we divorce ourselves completely from the origins of our religions, choosing to let our religion be whatever it has evolved to become over the centuries (which may well be an improvement). Nothing wrong with that AT ALL as long as we are clear we are not following a “universal” religion in its original form.

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Hadiths – a poll

January 9, 2010 at 3:13 pm (Islam)

I hope this works! I’m trying to create a poll to get people’s opinions on why some hadiths specify rules that are not in the Quran.

For some examples of what I mean:

– hadiths say that women can’t participate in certain religious duties during menstrual periods, which is not in the Quran;

– hadiths give a slightly different wudu procedure than that in the Quran, including modifying the washing of the feet into merely wiping over socks;

– hadiths specify the prayer ritual, and Muhammad is reported to have stated various things which make the prayer invalid;

– hadiths describe various criminal punishments that are not in the Quran, as well as many other legal injunctions.

I think this should be really interesting. Please vote!!

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Al-Ghazzali and religious angst

January 4, 2010 at 8:45 pm (Islam)

This is for LK, Ellen, and anyone else who’s ever felt this way!

From “A History of God”, chapter 6.

Al-Ghazzali … had a restless temperament that made him struggle with truth like a terrier, worrying problems to the bitter death and refusing to be content with an easy, conventional answer. As he tells us,

I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss. I have scrutinised the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this I have done that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation.

He was searching for the kind of indubitable certainty that a philosopher like Saadia felt, but he became increasingly disillusioned. No matter how exhaustive his research, absolute certainty eluded him. His contemporaries sought God in several ways, according to their personal and temperamental needs: in Kalam, through an Imam, in Falsafah and in Sufi mysticism. Al-Ghazzali seems to have studied each of these disciplines in his attempt to understand ‘what all things really are in themselves’. The disciples of all four of the main versions of Islam that he researched claimed total conviction but, al-Ghazzali asked, how could this claim be verified objectively? …

The strain of his quest caused al-Ghazzali such personal distress that he had a breakdown. He found himself unable to swallow or to eat and felt overwhelmed by a weight of doom and despair. Finally in about 1094 he found that he could not speak or give his lectures…

He fell into a clinical depression. The doctors rightly diagnosed a deep-rooted conflict and told him that until he was delivered from his hidden anxiety, he would never recover. Fearing that he was in danger of hellfire if he did not recover his faith al-Ghazzali resigned his prestigious academic post and went off to join the Sufis.

There he found what he was looking for. Without abandoning his reason – he always distrusted the most extravagant forms of Sufism – al-Ghazzali discovered that the mystical disciplines yielded a direct but intuitive sense of something that could be called ‘God’.

Now, I’m not saying we should all go off and join the Sufis! I included that last part just to show there was a happy ending. I just found it amusing to read this description of the famous scholar al-Ghazzali. It made me laugh at myself a little bit. It is also quite validating in a way. Plus, at least I didn’t get such a huge dose of religious angst as him! It could be worse! 😀

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