May 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm (gender issues, is religion good or bad for you?, moral issues, society)

A gay couple in Malawi were arrested after holding an engagement ceremony, and now sentenced to 14 years in prison. It strikes me that the couple must have known this could happen to them, and it is very brave to live out your values in this way without fearing what people will do. Reminds me of the Sudanese lady who insisted on wearing trousers not fearing the punishment. I have a lot of admiration for that.

Handing down sentence in the commercial capital, Blantyre, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa told the pair: “I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”

Interesting to note that “the laws under which the pair were convicted were introduced during British colonial rule.”

Obviously Britain has come a long way in tolerance since then, but it is not only modern, developed, western countries that are open-minded and rational about these things – I read this beautiful post this week, mentioning a remote and traditional part of Mexico that is very accepting of transsexuals. According to the article linked to in the post, “Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”

Is it just me or is there a correlation between Abrahamic religions and intolerance?

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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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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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Jesus’s life

February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am (Christianity, God, moral issues)

I have finished “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders, and it was very interesting and enlightening. In this post I will share what I’ve learnt about Jesus’ life and mission, saving the part about how he died for another post.

Jesus started out under John the Baptist, before embarking on his own ministry. He called 12 disciples, close followers; the number 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, and he said that they would judge the 12 tribes when the kingdom of God came. His main message was that the kingdom of God was coming very soon (i.e. within his own generation), and this was a common theme of the day. It seems to have referred to a dramatic intervention by God to establish a kingdom on earth ruled by God himself (the eschatological stuff), and also, referred to heaven. He taught about what the kingdom would be like. He had many followers and supporters but he expected only a few to give up everything and join him in his highly insecure existence. Even after his death, his followers continued to expect the kingdom, and gradually adjusted their expectations when it was not forthcoming.

He performed miracles, mainly healings and exorcisms, which earned him local fame. His ethics were perfectionistic, but his main emphasis was not on presenting rules but on showing mercy and compassion. He was not a social or political reformer – he believed the kingdom was coming soon and that God himself would establish it, so there was nothing people could do to bring it about.

Jesus saw himself as representing God – it is unclear whether he took on any titles like Messiah or Son of God, and it is unclear what “Son of Man” meant, which is how he sometimes described himself. It is unclear whether the Son of Man who he predicted to descend on a cloud when the kingdom came also referred to Jesus himself, but it might have. He seems to have thought of himself as “king” in some sense; he was fully aware when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem that he was making this identification of himself (because it fulfilled scriptural prophecy). It’s worth pointing out that “Son of God” did not imply “more than human” or “divine” where it was used in the Jewish tradition; that and the virgin birth story came with the influence of Greek culture. To the Jews it always meant a person who had a close relationship with God.

Here is some more info under various headings – sorry it’s so long! If you’re pushed for time, “Ethical teaching” and “Sinners” are the most interesting parts, so skip to them. 🙂


Jesus’ miracles were mainly healings and driving out demons. He was not the only healer or exorcist, and it was not taken as a sign that Jesus was more than human, but it meant he was viewed by some as a holy man and his fame arose from it. He saw the miracles as symbolic of the kingdom being at hand.

Some of the miracle stories are probably exaggerated or even made up. The biggest example is the exorcism where demons go into swine which then jump into the sea. Mark sets this story in Gerasa and Matthew sets it in Gadara, neither of which are on the sea.  “The apocryphal gospels of later centuries sometimes depict Jesus as performing equally fantastic and grotesque miracles, some of which are even crueller than the destruction of swine, such as killing his childhood playmates and then restoring them to life, or turning them into goats. That is, sometimes Christian authors wished so strongly to present Jesus as a being able to employ supernatural power that they depicted him as being no better than a god of Greek mythology in a bad mood. For the most part, the canonical gospels are free of this tendency. Here, however, Jesus’ spiritual power over demons is so emphasized that it has resulted in an unattractive story.”

Also, the dramatic incident of feeding the multitudes seems to provoke no response from the crowds in the gospel stories, in contrast with other gospel stories where his fame spreads due to a single exorcism. You would think such dramatic miracles would result in mega-fame but this doesn’t pan out through the stories. Perhaps the feeding of the multitudes didn’t really happen. “…it could be reasoned that historically there was little response because there were few major miracles, while in the gospels there are great miracles but inexplicably little response. Possibly Jesus’ actual miracles were relatively minor and excited the public only temporarily. This is a speculative, though I think reasonable solution.”

Gentiles (non-Jews)

“All of the authors of the gospels favoured the mission to Gentiles, and they would have included all the pro-Gentile material that they could. … What is striking is that the evangelists had so few passages that pointed towards success in winning Gentiles to faith. They could cite only a few stories about Jesus’ contacts with Gentiles, and even these do not depict him as being especially warm towards them. … We must suspect that the most favourable statements about Gentiles … are Matthew’s creation. Consequently, we cannot be absolutely sure what Jesus’ own view about Gentiles was. On general grounds, I am inclined to think that he expected at least some Gentiles to turn to the God of Israel and to participate in the coming kingdom. The general grounds are these: a good number of Jews expected this to happen; Jesus was a kind and generous man. That is, the alternative to thinking that Jesus looked forward to the conversion of Gentiles would be that he expected them all to be destroyed. This is unlikely.”

Ethical teaching

Jesus had an idealistic moral perfectionism: turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and so on. His prohibition of divorce is the most well-attested pericope. Paul modified it to permit divorce with a non-believer; Matthew has Jesus give an exception – divorce is permissible following adultery. “We can hardly think that the early Christians invented the prohibition: they found it very difficult and had to modify it.” I got the impression that while he was an ethical or moral perfectionist, this didn’t extend to ritual perfectionism, like it maybe did with the Pharisees and Essenes who were super-strict in that way – although he did follow the ritual laws.

But although he expressed these high ethical ideals: (1) He didn’t teach very much about inner thoughts – Matthew has two instances of this here and here, but that is all; most of what he taught is more about actions than inner thoughts. (2) He emphasised “compassion towards human frailty”. (3) He was not a puritan – he “came eating and drinking”. (4) He made friends with sinners (see below).

This passage shows that to Jesus, real perfection is mercy – being like God who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Attitude to Jewish law

Sanders proposes that Jesus does not ever oppose or “abrogate” the law, but requires a stricter code of practice (ethical perfectionism as discussed above). Even with divorce – Moses’ command to give a divorce certificate becomes unnecessary but is not declared “wrong”. In regard to this one, the law does not actually command hatred of enemies and this was not generally taught in Judaism, so that is not a law being abrogated. “Eye for eye” sets a limit for retaliation, and non-retaliation is not forbidden by law. In regard to Jesus supposedly declaring all foods clean in Mark, Matthew does not have this – and according to Sanders, what Jesus meant was that not only what goes in (food) defiles a person, but also what comes out (wrong talk).

Sanders justifies this theory by explaining that there would be more of a sense of opposition to Jesus in the gospel stories if he really advocated abandoning the law. “Had he gone around Galilee, teaching people that it was alright to work on the sabbath and to eat pork, there would have been an enormous outcry. A man who claimed to speak for God, but who taught that significant parts of God’s law were not valid? Horrendous! Nowadays, non-Jewish readers may not see how terrible this would have been.” Sanders explains that Mark is retrojecting this into Jesus’ story from the point of view of 2nd-generation Christianity, where the law has been abandoned. “Mark calmly tosses in the sentence, ‘He declared all foods clean.’ Paul’s letters crackle with the rage and hostility that his position on circumcision and food laws occasioned. Paul experienced the debate about the law firsthand. Mark (a second-generation Christian) did not, since it was largely over, nor did Jesus, since it had not yet arisen.”

Apparently it is highly unlikely that small-scale legal disputes would have caused some groups to plot to kill him as it states in Mark 3:6. In particular, no group would have considered that healing to be a transgression of the sabbath law. “In Jesus’ day and age… people did not kill one another over the sorts of issues that figure in Mark 2.1 – 3.6. The level of disagreement and argument falls well inside the parameters of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” I didn’t entirely understand why the authors made it look like people were plotting to kill him over these petty legal disagreements, but I think he is saying that it was written from the point of view of the later legal disputes in early Christianity.


His association with sinners – blatant law-breakers – did actually offend people. And Sanders makes the point that he must not have been trying to reform the sinners, because that wouldn’t have offended anyone. “If Jesus had managed to persuade other customs officers to do what Zaccheus did, he would have been a local hero. But it seems that he was criticized. How can we understand this?”

Repentence as a theme in Jesus’ teaching is really only prominent in Luke and Acts (which are written by the same author). Matthew and Mark have surprisingly little about Jesus teaching repentance. John the Baptist certainly preached repentance, but it seems not to have been at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching.

“Jesus, I think, was a good deal more radical than John. Jesus thought that John’s call to repent should have been effective, but in fact it was only partially successful. His own style was in any case different; he did not repeat the Baptist’s tactics. On the contrary, he ate and drank with the wicked and told them that God especially loved them, and that the kingdom was at hand. Did he hope that they would change their ways? Probably he did. But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus’ was, ‘God loves you.'”

I found that particularly interesting, and really quite moving. In fact it was my favourite part of the whole book. The parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep is one of the best examples to illustrate the point: God, the shepherd, goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it home. He does not wait around for the lost sheep to return. The emphasis is on God reaching out in love and mercy, not on the sinner repenting.

“In a world that believed in God and judgement, some people nevertheless lived as if there were no God. They must have had some anxiety about this in the dark watches in the night. The message that God loves them anyway might transform their lives.”

How does this square up with the moral perfectionism? I guess maybe Jesus understood these sinners, understood why they were that way… didn’t judge them, supported them as society’s underdog, and even saw good in them. I imagine he lived in a very colourful world – not black and white.

I think there is a huge difference between on one hand, having idealistic morals but being realistic in dealing with real people (sinners); and on the other hand, having realistic morals that allow you to feel (dishonestly) that fulfilment of your obligations is within your grasp. It’s a completely different kind of realism. And I love Jesus’ realism. I love the fact that there is honesty about what real true goodness is and is not, while at the same time, people who fall short of it are not doomed but are loved despite their failings. It’s a truly astonishing balance.

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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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Polygamy, prophets and moral norms

January 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm (gender issues, moral issues, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I am pretty open-minded and I try not to write off other lifestyles as bad just because I am not culturally conditioned to accept them.

I think polygamy is one of those things that can work for some people. An example of a happy polygamous family is Megan’s. She chose to join a polygamous family. The first wife and the husband decided together to go poly, and they all live in one big house. The “sister-wives” – at this point there are 4 of them – all love and support each other. It actually sounds pretty nice. There clearly must be something in it for these women who’ve chosen to live like that.

But I think there is nothing worse than a man going behind his wife’s back to take another wife, or point blank going against her wishes… and saying to everyone “it’s legal/permissible so I feel no guilt”.

Now, in the history of religions, the norms were different and men wouldn’t have thought there was an obligation to consult their wives about a decision like that. In fact I’m not sure the concept of “consent” even really existed. Sometimes girls were married off young, so young it was not possible for them to give genuine consent. And as for war captives, let’s not even go there.

So would all the prophets of the past have consulted their existing wives before adding a new one? I don’t think it would have been possible for them to think that way. Does that make them bad? I think they have to be judged according to the standard of their time. They weren’t perfect, they were human and it is unreasonable to expect that they could have measured up to our more progressed standards (although in other aspects of life I suspect our standards have slipped since their time). This only poses a problem when we think they were an example for all mankind and that they knew all there was to know about morality. Then we have to either accept their norms as our norms, or find a way of attributing our moral norms to them even though history tells another story.

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The unbelievers are the enemy

December 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm (Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I don’t know what I think about fighting to establish justice or eradicate oppression. I think that it could be OK to overthrow an evil dictator, but maybe only if it’s what the people of the country want. If they don’t want it, then I feel uncomfortable about the whole concept of establishing anything good through force.

I think the early Muslims did some good in uniting tribal Arabia under tawheed, and in later spreading what was at that time probably the most equitable, just civilisation that had existed, across a third of the world. But I think that in doing that, at some point they must have voided the Quranic injunction not to commit aggression. Perhaps the instructions can legitimately change over time and with circumstances; as I have said before, the Quran does not have to be viewed as a universal life manual. Maybe at some point it became appropriate to conquer. What do you think?

I think the reason I feel uncomfortable boils down to the stark categorisation of people into believers and unbelievers. I think professed belief is an inadequate and overly simplistic way of judging and defining people. It is just one more way of dividing humans and breeding prejudice and de-humanisation of the “other”. I find it hard to imagine that God views us that way.

I was actually quite impressed that Muhammad signed the treaty of Hudaybiyya and didn’t charge into Mecca, and then eventually conquered it without much bloodshed, along with mass conversion to Islam and amnesty granted. I thought this demonstrated wisdom, as per Tariq Ramadan “The Messenger”. They had held back from fighting the unbelievers, and in doing so, turned many of them into believers – which is better.

But then I read the Quran verses about the Hudaybiyya incident and I changed my mind. God apparently said that if it weren’t for the presence of believers in Mecca, He would have had the Muslims fight their way in. It sounds like it was God’s concern for the plight of believers that caused the restraint, rather than God’s desire to cause more hearts to believe and His foreknowledge that this would happen. If there hadn’t been believers in Mecca He would have had the Meccans killed at the hands of the Muslims rather than give them that chance to come to faith. This upset me quite a lot.

48:25 [It was not for your enemies sake that He stayed your hands from them: for] it was they who were bent on denying the truth, and who debarred you from the Inviolable House of Worship and prevented your offering from reaching its destina­tion. And had it not been for the believing men and believing women [in Mecca], whom you might have unwittingly trampled underfoot, and on whose account you might have become guilty, without knowing it, of a grievous wrong: [had it not been for this, you would have been allowed to fight your way into the city: but you were forbidden to fight] so that [in time] God might admit to His grace whomever He wills. Had they [who deserve Our mercy and they whom We have condemned] been clearly discernible [to you], We would indeed have imposed grievous suffering [at your hands] on such of them as were bent on denying the truth.

Maybe it’s my Christian background, but I like to think God sees the potential in every person and isn’t quick to write them off.

When I see people posting scholarly articles banning Muslims from congratulating the kuffar on their festivals, and other things like that that are extremely separatist and have an undercurrent of hatred, I get upset and tie myself in knots trying to convince myself this attitude is not authentically Islamic. And maybe it isn’t. This is a weird period of time that we’re in. However, as much as I’ve tried, I can’t find much support for being loving and merciful towards unbelievers in the Quran. Polite, yes, and respectful; but all your most loving qualities seem to be for the believers only. Perhaps I am missing something here?

48:29 MUHAMMAD is God’s Apostle; and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding towards all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy towards one another...

5:54 …God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him – humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth…

58:14 ART THOU NOT aware of those who would be friends with people whom God has condemned? They are neither of you [O believers] nor of those [who utterly reject the truth]: and so they swear to a falsehood the while they know [it to be false]. God has readied for them suffering severe [in the life to come]…

58:22 Thou canst not find people who [truly] believe in God and the Last Day and [at the same time] love anyone who contends against God and His Apostle – even though they be their fathers, or their sons, or their brothers, or [others of] their kindred…

A related question is why belief is so important in the first place. I’ve always understood the Quran to be saying that wrong beliefs are the basis of all badness. In other words, the pagans were wicked and unjust precisely because they didn’t have correct beliefs about God.  But there are many people who have wrong beliefs according to the Quran and yet are very good people.

Any thoughts?

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Giving thanks

October 25, 2009 at 11:35 am (moral issues, personal, religious practices)

I sometimes think my attraction to religion is an attraction to an alternative me that I want to be. A me that gets up at the crack of dawn to pray, is calmly spiritual, devotedly faithful, peacefully mature. The real me has always fallen far away from that. The real me is stricken with worry, lurching from one crisis of faith to another, getting overwhelmed and losing all resolve. I am kidding myself if I think that I’m going to arrive at faith, make a commitment, and then it’ll be plain sailing. (Bear with me, there’s a positive coming 😉 )

This week for example, I don’t even know what’s happened, but after making strides with establishing a prayer routine, and even stepping out in hijab last weekend, it somehow became a real struggle. It might have something to do with other big stresses this week. I lost confidence, I lost patience. I guess I have been back at where I was when I stopped going to church – feeling like a victim and wondering why God doesn’t care. Astaghfirullah!

I need to drop any expectations of a quick fix. I am not going to get a personality transplant by starting to pray. I am not going to instantly have a deep knowledge of God. These things take practice. I really should stop thinking in black and white, stop pressuring myself, stop hating what I am. Otherwise I will be right back to resenting all religious obligations.

This is exactly applicable to other aspects of my life too. I resent work obligations, for example. I am just someone who worries about getting it right, and secretly strives and agonises, to the point of exhaustion and loss of hope and loss of care.




I know how I want to be, what the right way to be is. But perhaps I can only move towards it by first accepting what I am now.

The best idea I had yesterday was to begin by “counting my blessings” as the saying goes. It just dawned on me that by being negative and unhappy and always wanting things to change, I am being really ungrateful for the good things in my life, of which there are many. How sad would it be to get everything I wanted and then realise that I still didn’t know how to appreciate it. Life is short, too short to wait to enjoy it. Giving thanks might be the best way to connect with God and foster humility. Rather than trying to force myself to not care about the things of this life, I will work on mentally connecting them with their Source.

Just a small step to take, but small steps are probably all I can manage. I am interested to see where it may take me.

Likewise, there would seem to be many positive things about me in my work that I am completely sabotaging by being so negative. I have enslaved myself to “perfection”, disrespecting the natural characteristics God has made me with because of my fear of man’s judgment. I will try and start to remind myself of my strengths and attribute everything to God.

Any advice is appreciated… and don’t mince your words… sometimes I need a verbal slap 😉

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“How to Read the Bible”

August 16, 2009 at 10:53 pm (Christianity, God, moral issues, morality)

I have finished reading “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has given me lots of scholarly insights that I didn’t know, as well as some of the author’s own interesting thoughts. His writing style is very readable – it’s as formal as it needs to be, with the freshness of well-placed informalities lifting the tone. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Bible – it’s very short and easy to read. And don’t be put off by him questioning the existence of God quite early on – it’s not written with an atheist agenda. 🙂

There are 5 “topics” that have come out of it for me and I think I’ll squeeze them all into one post:

  1. Idolatry
  2. Suffering in God’s cause
  3. Writing theology into history
  4. Morality in religion
  5. Psychology of Paul

1. Idolatry

“Jerusalem… became God’s greatest rival [for the affection of the Jews].” This brings back memories. Loving God’s gifts more than God himself is a danger that I was taught to be concerned about. In my church, worship just meant adoration, and so anyone or anything that we had a strong liking for became a potential idol. I put away a Lauryn Hill CD for the 40 days of Lent, for this reason. It seems like there could be other definitions of worship, though. I would love to hear yours, readers (if I still have any!)

The book describes Jesus as preaching a strict monotheism, which is a defining feature of Judaism and Islam (and arguably Christianity too). In Islam it is known as tawheed. I am interested in what violates it – to Christians, the Trinity (a 3-persons-in-1 view of God) does not, but to Muslims, it does. I think there is a difference between saying that Jesus was a human incarnation of God, and saying that there is more than one God. Even polytheism can bear some resemblance to monotheism when, like in Hinduism, there is one ultimate overarching reality known as God above all lesser deities. But all of these are categorically wrong from the points of view of Judaism and Islam, where God is utterly transcendent and nothing may be compared to him. I suppose what it boils down to in Islam and Judaism is that the worship of created things – nature, people, blessings, heaven, human creations – instead of the Creator offends God greatly. But again, it begs the question of what worship actually is.

2. Suffering in God’s cause

The book discusses the problem suffering poses to all faiths, which is beyond the scope of this post. I just wanted to note that it occurred to me lately that one of the huge obstacles to my submission to God, namely, fear that it will require me to suffer in some way beyond what I can deal with, makes a lot of sense in the face of a belief that even God’s own perfect son had to die for the sins of the world. Muslims say that God does not test us beyond what we can bear, but I don’t think I dare believe that. I know my own weakness too well.

3. Writing theology into history

The book discusses the aim or thesis of each of the gospel writers, and how this influenced their story-telling at the expense of historical accuracy in some cases. Christian theology as we know it today didn’t emerge until Paul converted, and it was then worked into the gospel stories retrospectively when they came to be written down. This sounds very dishonest, but I don’t get the impression from this book or from Idris Tawfiq the other day that it was intentional. It makes me wonder how easy it is to be faithful to history when we have a well-developed retrospective understanding of it. What might this say about hadiths for example?

4. Morality in religion

The link between God and goodness happened around the 8th century BCE. It was not always obvious that God cared about ethics. Previously people just made animal sacrifices to win the favour of God. But eventually an ethic of compassion emerged, which Holloway says Jesus later emphasised as the “universal human ethic”. In other words, our selfish side is bad and our altruistic side is good.

“Though he probably wasn’t a Marxist, God was certainly a socialist who wanted more mutuality and less competition in society.”

I think this is worth some more thought. Another post maybe.

The message of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Holloway says, is not some naive platitude but a subversive reversal of the existing brutal order of things. Jesus congratulates and values the destitute, the utterly powerless, those outside the “system”, and proclaims that they are innocent precisely because they are not implicated in a system of power which victimises people. They can turn the other cheek and so on because they have no need to react as those who have something to protect. That is still a hugely subversive message today, and something of an antidote to the Darwinian capitalistic mindset that has pervaded our societies.

In regard to religious moral codes and law, Jesus has a “general but not unconditional acceptance” of the temple cult. He is not a letter-of-the-law type. He is criticised for his relaxed approach to observing the Sabbath, for example. Holloway clearly approves:

“It is true that we need moral and religious systems to protect us from the chaos of our passions; but if we give them transcendent and unchanging authority they become a greater danger to us than the unfettered passions they are supposed to curb. An unalterable code can close us against ordinary pity for our fellows, and cause us to treat them not as humans, but as abstractions, as things.”

5. Psychology of Paul

A complex psychology lay behind Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. What interested me was the idea that, as a zealous Jew with a strong and tortured sense of his own weakness and failure to live perfectly by the religious law that he so revered, he projected his self-hatred onto those who didn’t even try to live up to the letter of the law – i.e. the followers of Jesus. I can actually see something of myself in that. Paul could not be moderate about anything, and was clearly a perfectionist, which are tendencies I can relate to. I can also relate to the frustrated sense of failure and weakness, and so I can understand the projection of that self-loathing onto others who have similar failings or even worse, yet don’t seem to care.

Of course Paul then converted, and arrived at a solution for his angst in the idea that Jesus had fulfilled the law for him, something he could not do for himself. In taking Christianity outside of Judaism, Paul divorced the ritual from the moral, leaving the ritual behind, so that the “law” for Christians consists of moral exhortations only. This goes some way towards explaining why Christians regard themselves as “not under law” but at the same time make huge efforts to live up to a moral standard.

This 5-posts-in-1 has become pretty long, so I’ll stop there! I may repost this on my other blog at some point, so for anyone that reads that, apologies in advance for cross-posting.

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